[Mr Martin Caton in the Chair]
A few colleagues are here this afternoon, Mr Caton, but our all-party parliamentary group for vaccine damaged people has more than 120 members, so I suspect that some of them will be dropping in and out as the afternoon progresses.
I am delighted to have secured today’s debate and I am pleased that we have been joined by the families of vaccine-damaged people, some of whom have seen their children grow from having been vaccine-damaged in infancy to men and women who are now in their 40s and 50s. However, when I say I am delighted to have secured the debate, after attempting to do so regularly since early January, the fact is that the all-party group, of which I am the chairman, really wanted at some point to meet the Minister, so that she could hear what the families go through on a daily basis with their—it is a bit difficult to say “children”, because, as I said, some of those children are now in their 40s and 50s. However, I want to share some of those experiences and difficulties, and I know that colleagues in the Chamber today will want to do likewise.
The all-party group supports families in their view that the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 is now out-of-date and should be reformed. Let me be absolutely clear: from the very first meeting that I attended in the ’90s of the then all-party parliamentary group for vaccine-damaged children, the families have been resolute in their support for the Government’s vaccination programme, and they firmly believe in the concept of herd immunisation.
The Pearson commission was a major inquiry into civil damages in the 1970s. It recommended that the Government should accept liability to pay full compensation for vaccine injury on the basis that vaccine injury is the very occasional price that society pays for the benefit of defeating disease through national vaccination programmes.
At that time, vaccines were not such a major part of the public health programme as they are today. During the intervening years, vaccines have greatly grown in importance and use. It was always intended to be a temporary measure—a £10,000 payment on account pending the outcome of the Loveday case. Now the award is £120,000, but that is not adequate compensation for someone who is seriously and profoundly disabled.
It is not adequate to say that consumers should sue as an alternative. No civil claim has ever succeeded for vaccine injury in this jurisdiction. That is not because people in the UK are different from elsewhere in the world; it reflects the fact that our legal system is not claimant-friendly. The situation has got much worse since legal aid has been abolished. It is now impossible to take on a multinational pharmaceutical corporation, as the costs of a claim are so high that no one could possibly afford it. Court fees have just been increased by some 600%, so it costs £10,000 just to issue a claim, which has not helped the situation.
It is in the interests of society that the rate of uptake of vaccines is kept high to achieve that herd immunity. That needs an effective safety net, so that consumers are assured that in the event of a serious disablement, they will be looked after. The system needs to be reformed to be more consumer-friendly, so that on close calls on causation, consumers or patients are given the benefit of any doubt, as we see in the USA. In the last four years, no awards of any compensation have been made for vaccine injury, despite hundreds of applications. The system is not working.
I use this opportunity to apologise to you, Mr Caton, and to my hon. Friend, because I have to leave soon to be at Downing street at 3 o’clock to present a petition with people with learning disabilities about things, such as Winterbourne View home, that ought not to be happening. I apologise that I have to leave, but I congratulate my hon. Friend on his wonderful work, and the all-party group. Above all, I congratulate the vaccine victim support group and the indomitable Olivia Price on the fantastic fight that they have conducted over many years. I hope that they get the success and the response that my hon. Friend and this debate invites.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. Those of us who know him realise that he is a champion for those less fortunate in society, and especially for the disabled. I recognise that he has a family member who was vaccine damaged as a child.
Why is the coverage of the scheme so patchy here in the UK? Adults are almost all excluded—why should that be? All seasonal flu vaccines and all hepatitis vaccines are excluded—why? That is not an effective safety net.
Recently, more than 70 people suffered narcolepsy as a result of the swine flu vaccine. That is a very serious condition, but the Department for Work and Pensions has refused to accept that it amounts to a 60% disability and has appealed against a tribunal finding that it is a severe disability. The Department should fight consumers less and support them more.
Awards of compensation for vaccine injury should be available—that is compensation measured by the amount of loss actually suffered, not an arbitrary amount. Reform could be a win-win, in that we could promote social justice and ensure an increase in the rate of vaccination that will benefit society as a whole.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and give my apologies because I, too, will have to leave before the end of the debate. Does he agree that some of the reluctance to reform the current procedures and the Act is similar to some of the reluctance that was there when we tried to uprate it in the first place? These things are complex and there are all sorts of aspects to them, but the first thing to do, surely, is sit down, work through where the problems are and work out what needs to be done. From my point of view, the important thing is that the Minister should meet the families to look at what is going on in practice and what can be done about it.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Today, we are looking at—it is in the debate’s long title—reform of this legislation. As will become clear as I progress through my contribution, we really need to reach a decision on whether this is about reform or about ripping it up, throwing it in the bin and starting again, because we have moved on significantly since 1979.
As I was saying, reform could be a win-win, in that we could promote social justice and ensure an increase in the rate of vaccination that would benefit society. I believe that vaccine manufacturers are strongly in favour of such a change and are willing to contribute to a fund—and, I hope, to discussions.
It is unconscionable to relegate so many people who are disabled to a battle over causation, and for justice, and it undermines rates of uptake of vaccines not to have an effective system. The numbers of those seriously injured are low, so the total cost of full compensation would be affordable and would be self-financed through the increase in vaccination and the reduction in the burden of disease in society.
Towards the end of last year, I met two parents down here in London. They related to me the stories of their daughters, who had both had a reaction to the human papilloma virus vaccine. We dedicated the last meeting of the all-party group, on 14 January, to hearing from some young women who were able to attend, but mainly from the parents of several young women who had had a severe reaction to the HPV vaccine. I think that it is safe to say that the majority of those cases centred on those young women now finding themselves profoundly affected by what can only be described as symptoms similar to those of ME—myalgic encephalomyelitis—or chronic fatigue syndrome. All those girls had been fit and healthy, were doing well academically and had the social life that we would expect any teenager to have.
To emphasise just how serious the consequences are, I point out that Steve Hinks’s daughter, to whom my hon. Friend may be referring, is often asleep for 23 hours a day. That is how serious the consequences are.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is exactly right. It was absolutely astounding to hear the heartbreaking stories at our last meeting and to think that a young woman who had been fit and healthy now suddenly finds herself asleep for most of the day and has to be awakened on an ongoing basis to be fed. That is no quality of life at all. Something is seriously wrong. The worlds of these young women have been turned upside down. For some of them, to spend a few hours at school in a week is a major challenge. That issue could probably merit an Adjournment debate on its own. I am aware that the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) held a short debate on the topic back in May 2009. It is worth pointing out that there are serious concerns about the manner in which an individual’s allergic reaction to a vaccine is recorded—it might be better put as “not recorded” in many cases. Where there is an allergic reaction, it is only right that it is properly recorded, so that we can not only determine what is happening to the individual but get a broader perspective.
In October 2011, a proposal paper was produced by the vaccine victim support group—an unincorporated association with more than 300 members—and the all-party group for vaccine damaged people. They came together and were looking for reform of the Vaccine Damage Payments Act, which established in the UK a statutory no-fault system of a single lump sum payment from public funds for cases of proven serious permanent disablement resulting from vaccination. Most developed countries have established such systems. The scheme in this country is administered by the Department for Work and Pensions, with appeals being resolved within Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. We are now 36 years on, and the system has continued, with relatively minor changes only.
The vaccine victim support group and the all-party group contend that reform of the system is highly desirable to deal with anomalies that now exist in the system, to reflect the changing landscape of today, to reassure the public about the safety and efficacy of vaccination, to reduce litigation and to promote and extend the uptake of vaccination to promote health and the elimination of disease. Both groups support the UK national vaccination programme and recognise that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks. Vaccines have significantly contributed to the elimination of disease, the increase in life expectancy and the improvement in public health.
Reform of the UK system of statutory vaccine injury compensation has the prospect of achieving important tangible benefits for the UK that mean that it would be irresponsible not to explore and effect reform through consultation with all relevant stakeholders, which include the pharmaceutical industry, the Department of Health immunisation team, the DWP and, via support groups, affected individuals.
The Act was brought into being by Parliament to put on a statutory footing a system of ex gratia awards of compensation for vaccine injury that had developed during the 1970s, largely as a result of whole-cell whooping cough and smallpox vaccine injury. The Department of Health had made a number of ex gratia awards to individuals who had suffered serious permanent disability as a result of catastrophic brain injury that they had suffered as infants shortly after DPT—diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus—vaccination.
The Government had commissioned Professor David Miller to conduct the national childhood encephalopathy study—NCES—a large-scale epidemiological study of incidents of brain injury and onset of seizure disorders following DPT vaccination. The study, published in May 1981, found a significant association between DPT vaccination and severe neurological injury and death.
The statutory scheme initially required an 80% and permanent level of disability to have been suffered, but later that threshold was reduced to 60%. Awards were initially £10,000. That was increased, in various changes, to £20,000, then £30,000 and then £40,000. The level of payment was largely based on the understanding that that was interim compensation pending the outcome of the litigation against the Wellcome Foundation.
In 1986, the United States enacted the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act. That established a system of compensation in the US court of federal claims. Until four years ago, that had awarded compensatory damages in 2,806 cases, of which 1,266 involved the DPT vaccine, use of which ceased in 1996. That involved an outlay at that time of $2.2 billion. The fund to administer the scheme is established from a small tax on each dose of vaccine. That has proved relatively successful in the United States, and our all-party group has wondered for a long time why we do not in the UK, for every vaccine that is given, put into a fund a couple of pence. That is all it would take to deal with this issue. However, that has been rejected not only by this Government, but by the Labour Government in the 13 years for which they were in office. I think that we need to reconsider where we are.
In 1988, the court in Loveday v. Renton and the Wellcome Foundation dismissed the claimants’ claims. The judge found that the claimants had failed to establish causation to the required standard of proof. That was based on his findings of flaws in the data analysis of the NCES. Professor Miller and his NCES team subsequently published a follow-up study, in November 1993, which addressed the judge’s criticisms of the original study. The conclusions of the follow-up study were essentially the same as those originally: on rare occasions, the vaccine can cause severe neurological injury. Then in 2000 the Government decided that the initial awards should be “topped up” to the real-terms equivalent of £100,000.
It had been suggested that anyone deemed to be vaccine damaged was carrying the SCN1A gene. That has been disproved by testing victims: they have all proved negative.
In 2010, the Legal Services Commission agreed in principle to fund a further review of the prospects of success of the surviving DPT claimants. Further litigation is therefore pending in that respect against the manufacturers and/or the Department of Health. The award now made for a successful application for vaccine damage payment is a single lump sum of £120,000. However, the majority of applicants—approximately 750 —have received only £78,000, because they received an initial payment of some £10,000. The payment is invariably made into a personal injury special needs trust, so that it is excluded, by statutory provision, from any assessment for means-tested benefits. That is done to ensure that it is received in addition to means-tested benefits such as incapacity benefit and disability living allowance, including components for care and mobility.
According to information supplied by the vaccine damage payments unit in 2011, a total of 931 awards had been made under the 1979 Act, of which 570 were related to the DPT vaccine. There were 89 applications to the unit in 2010 and 71 in 2011. One award was made in 2010, and no awards were made in 2011. So far, 3,983 applications have been rejected on medical grounds and 814 have been rejected for non-medical reasons—because the application was made either out of time or out of the scope of the scheme. The operation of the system has settled down, and after a flurry of historic awards in the early years, very few awards are now being made. The unit at one point consisted of two part-time members of staff. An appeal against the decision to refuse an award is made to the social security lower-tier tribunal, which is part of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service.
The fact that surprisingly few awards are being made probably reflects the withdrawal of the DPT wholesale vaccine, the improvement in vaccine technology and the increased levels of safety and efficacy of vaccination. During the past few years, more vaccines, such as HPV and meningitis C, have been added to the national programme. It is likely that further vaccines—for example, varicella, H1N1, swine flu and hepatitis A and B—will be added in coming years. Many new types of vaccines are likely to become available in future years, because they are being developed to combat many sources of disease, such as malaria, candida, chlamydia, E. coli, genital herpes, hepatitis E, strep, rheumatoid arthritis, various cancers and numerous others.
There have been episodes of public concern about adverse reaction to vaccinations such as DPT in the 1970s, MMR in the late 1990s and early 2000s and, more recently, the HPV vaccine. Those episodes of concern have led to litigation, media sensationalism and public anxiety, and they have significantly reduced uptake of the vaccination, which has reduced the level of herd immunity on occasions and increased the incidence of outbreak of pandemic disease among unvaccinated populations. Those episodes of public concern caused anxiety and confusion to the public and resulted in considerable legal defence costs for pharmaceutical corporations and considerable cost to the UK legal aid purse. Litigation resolved few of the disputes, because hardly any cases reached trial. The public health programme was damaged by falling levels of vaccine uptake, and diseases in some cases were resurgent.
In 2003, uptake of the MMR vaccine fell to only 82%, largely as a result of Wakefield’s discredited autism theory. Even by the end of the MMR litigation, uptake had not fully recovered. In contrast, the United States achieves 98% vaccination uptake, possibly because all claims have to be brought in the federal courts under the vaccine programme rather than against a manufacturer. That shows that a proper safety net can boost the numbers of people who take part in a herd immunisation programme. Other countries have avoided the problem by enabling disputes over vaccine injury to be efficiently and proportionately resolved within a statutory compensation scheme, where individual cases can be thoroughly investigated and adjudicated. The lack of a fully comprehensive system for determining vaccine injury applications in the UK has contributed to the problems we face, so all stakeholders have an interest in reform.
The UK’s vaccine injury compensation scheme, as established in the 1979 Act, contains a number of serious anomalies. Not all vaccines are covered. Vaccines for swine flu, smallpox, hepatitis A and B, and yellow fever are not covered. A separate scheme for smallpox vaccine compensation had to be set up by the Department of Health for workers to encourage front-line health workers to participate in vaccination. The vaccine programme is no longer just for children, as it was initially. Many people in their professional careers need to be vaccinated, otherwise they cannot work.
The influenza vaccine is not covered. The safety net has holes in it, and the vaccine victim support group and the all-party group submit that the gaps should be addressed. We believe that everyone who is resident in the UK and is vaccinated should be able to have recourse to the compensation scheme in the event of a serious adverse effect. The current scheme is aimed mainly at compensating children, although adults are also, on rare occasions, covered. The coverage is therefore patchy and not comprehensive. Given the very small numbers involved, the scheme could easily cover children and all adults.
Children who die before the age of two are not covered. That exception is difficult to justify, because losing a child at 18 months is as tragic and devastating as losing a child six months later, at the age of two. That exception should be abolished. The 60% injury threshold is a real issue. An arbitrary distinction is made in the scheme for injuries that are still significant, but that amount to 59% or lower. The refusal of any compensation for someone with a 59% permanent disability cannot objectively be justified, bearing in mind the very small number of awards that are made. To qualify for criminal injury compensation, the minimum threshold value of injury is £1,000, and a similar level should apply in vaccine injury cases.
The current compensation award of £120,000, rather than compensatory damages, creates anomalies. A child with catastrophic injury resulting from clinical negligence in the administration of a vaccine—in other words, in breach of contra-indication—may receive £3 million. A child with a similar injury resulting from an adverse reaction to a vaccine would receive only one twenty-fifth of that compensation. That means that the burden of caring for the disabled person falls largely on their families. The current vaccine injury award amounts to the cost of care for a seriously disabled person for less than one year. That cannot properly be described as compensation; it is only a token.
I welcome the attention that the hon. Gentleman has brought to this matter, as he has on previous occasions. The root of the problem is the distinction between compensation for negligence, which rightly exists to ensure that a negligent organisation pays a penalty, and the provision of the help that people who have suffered vaccine damage ought to get, even if there is no possibility of proving negligence. The hon. Gentleman has identified that that is a no-fault system. We really need to have such a system, which meets the genuine need of those who have faced such consequences without their having to prove negligence.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The point is the balance of probability, as I indicated earlier in relation to the United States. I know that we do not always like to compare our health service with that in the United States, but theirs is definitely based on the balance of probability. We need to be much more realistic and consider what that could mean for us in relation to vaccination and a vaccination programme. The level of award cannot be justified. Instead, the system should provide common-law damages. The numbers of awards made are such that that would place little burden on the public purse. Similarly, the scheme should also meet reasonable legal costs, so that clients do not have to enter damages-based contingency agreements to fund appeals.
There should be provision in the scheme for some flexibility on the date by which an application has to be made. The current scheme allows no extension of the time limit, even when the applicant does not have knowledge of the scheme or that they have a claim. Earlier today, the families made it abundantly clear to me that if a child suddenly becomes vaccine-damaged, the trauma that runs through the household and the family is such that they probably cannot think straight about what the future holds. It is about recognising the extremely difficult and traumatic time that families are going through. There should not be time bars that mean people get the response, “I’m very sorry, but you’re out of time for any kind of claim.” That just is not the way we should be operating in the 21st century.
The current scheme does not contain any table of injury where causation may, in certain circumstances, be presumed. The absence of such a table leaves open to doubt—and litigation—the question of causation, which makes the system more difficult to administer. The table under the US scheme recognises, for example, that if someone has a severe allergic reaction within four hours of receiving the tetanus vaccine, it is presumed that the tetanus vaccine caused the injury if no other cause is found. That goes back to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and my response—that the absolute probability is that the tetanus vaccine was the cause. The table in the US is periodically revised after independent expert review, such as the reports published by the Institute of Medicine on the causality of injury by vaccines in 1991, 1994 and 2011.
The UK system of vaccine injury compensation has now existed for 36 years. It was created as an interim solution, but it has become a permanent one. There are many anomalies in coverage, and it does not fulfil the safety net function that would promote confidence in the uptake of vaccines. Fortunately, cases of serious permanent disablement and death caused by vaccines are extremely rare. The cost of extending the scheme to give comprehensive coverage and provide compensatory damages would be extremely low. If one award of medium severity is made in an average year, for example, the cost might be in the order of, say, £500,000. There would be some initial additional expenditure in paying a further top-up, in line with the level of compensatory damages, for the 931 cases that received a £100,000 top-up payment in 2000. However, that would mean no further ongoing litigation in respect of historical cases. The current award of £100,000 is difficult to justify in cases involving catastrophic injury and a lifetime of care and loss of earnings.
Vaccines have become safer, but the number of vaccines has grown and is likely to continue growing. The vast majority of adverse effects are mild and/or temporary, and only on extremely rare occasions are they serious and permanent. However, it is likely that there will always be a small number of casualties, and a no-fault safety net of compensatory damages will relieve the unfair burden of care and support from victims’ families and redistribute the cost across society. Crucially, it would avoid the need for litigation, promote confidence in the national vaccination programme and increase vaccine uptake, thereby reducing the incidence and cost of disease.
I hope the Minister will consider the points that she hears today. The timing of this debate might be wrong, but I have attempted to raise the profile of this issue over the past 12 months. In the dying days of this Parliament, perhaps the timing could not be better because, with both the Minister and my hon. Friend the shadow Minister in attendance, the next Government might want to consider this issue more closely. The electorate deserve a better deal than they have had previously.
There should have been significant publicity for this debate, and the families tried to encourage such publicity. They came close to getting support from the BBC, but the plug was apparently pulled at the last minute. The families are becoming increasingly suspicious that people do not want to discuss this issue, but it is an issue from which we cannot run away. The families lead their lives as best they can under extremely difficult circumstances. There is no escape for them. On a daily basis, life can be troublesome to say the least, and I suspect that life can often be very trying indeed. They have fought for decades, and they deserve some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, if that is possible. I gave an indication of this earlier, but is it reform of the legislation that we need or is it now time, 36 years after the original legislation was introduced, that we as parliamentarians sat down with the families and the pharmaceutical companies and asked, “Is there a better way of doing this?”? I honestly believe that we require not reform but a whole new concept of where we are going.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) and I attended a meeting a few years ago when our good former colleague Ian Stewart was chair of the all-party group. We asked for a meeting with the pharmaceutical companies, which brought their legal teams with them. Those who know my right hon. Friend will recognise him as a placid and tolerant individual, but he walked out of that meeting, which he had not previously done in his entire political career. He was so disgusted with what the legal representatives of the pharmaceutical companies were saying that they tried his patience and he immediately left the room. He and, I hope, everyone in this room recognises the challenge that the families are going through. There is a better way of doing it, and I hope that today’s debate can be a starting point for us all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) on securing this debate and on the moving way in which he opened it.
I am here to speak briefly on behalf of constituents. Their daughter was born healthy in 1972, but they noticed a sudden change after she received the whooping cough vaccination. Unfortunately, their daughter had suffered brain damage. They tell me that she was examined by several doctors, including doctors at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool. They have lived with the damage done by the vaccine ever since. They have looked after their daughter for 42 years at considerable cost, both physically and mentally, and they are members of the vaccine victim support group, which is fighting for compensation for all those who have suffered severe adverse reactions after being vaccinated under the Government vaccination programme.
My constituents tell me that, as they are now ageing, they are desperately anxious to provide for the future of their daughter. It must certainly be true that parents now in their 60s and 70s with children in their 40s and 50s will feel the same way. My constituents have sacrificed everything over the past 42 years to ensure that their daughter is loved and cared for by her family, rather than by the state. To date, the family have received only what were purely initial and top-up vaccine damage payments—certainly not compensatory payments—to cover four decades of care. As my hon. Friend said, even the £120,000 top rate of payment under the current scheme would really only pay for one year of care, and my constituents have not even received payments at that level.
My constituents feel that all responsible Governments should have a vaccination programme, but they feel that Governments then have a moral responsibility to care for those whose lives are damaged by vaccination. They referred me to the paper, “Reform of the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979”, that was presented to Ministers in October 2011. They point to the recommendation in that paper that any vaccine recommended by Government should be covered by the Act. My hon. Friend detailed a number of vaccinations that were left out of the Act, and they should not be. More modern vaccines, such as the HPV vaccine that was referred to, should be included. Importantly, to avoid expensive litigation, the scheme should cover proper compensatory levels.
We can only imagine the pain endured by my constituents’ having a daughter, the first child of four children, suffering after vaccine damage. My constituents are now in their 60s and very worried about the future of their daughter. They are finding it more and more difficult to give her the time and care that she needs 24 hours a day. Their son tells me that seeing his parents struggle with a 42-year-old daughter, severely disabled as a result of vaccine damage, but not having received adequate compensation, is a total injustice.
My constituents tell me, and I imagine we would all agree, that my hon. Friend has fought tirelessly for their cause, and I thank him for that work. It was only recently that I got to know of the case of my constituents and their daughter through the work of the all-party group, which they recommended I join, and I was happy to do so. I have spoken only briefly, but what I have said on their behalf speaks for the reason why the victims of vaccine damage should get proper compensation and not rely on expensive litigation, which, as my hon. Friend has said, is not feasible.
Four decades of care is a great deal to give—avoiding the care having to fall on the state—but the family members, the unpaid carers of victims of vaccine damage, should be supported. All carers should be properly supported with compensatory payments, and I hope that this debate today has raised the issue so that it will go forward into a future Parliament and that real action will be taken.
I thank the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) for setting the scene. He spoke passionately and told us why we need to do better. He said, “Is there a better way to do this?” and I wrote down, “I think there is.” This debate will perhaps give us a chance to have an idea of how we can do better. He and the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) illustrated where the system falls down and how we can improve it. I would like to do something along those lines as well.
It is of utmost importance for us to reflect upon this issue once more, as the quality of innocent individuals’ lives are at stake. We vaccinate to prevent illness, to protect the most vulnerable in our societies and to protect those we care about, whether they are our family, children or constituents. It is very unfortunate when good intentions do not result in their intended outcome, which is to protect and not harm. Unfortunately, harm is what can occur. The contributions so far have shown that harm has taken place. We need to learn how best to deal with that and how Government could respond in a more generous manner.
Although such tragedies are thankfully rare, it is a reality for the few who are affected and we must take responsibility for dealing with the outcomes of vaccination damage. We must take account of individuals who have become severely disabled when they may otherwise have led a healthy life without the burdens of their condition, because of a vaccination that was believed to be medically safe. We must think of their well-being. We must also take account of those who, through their work, found it necessary to have vaccinations, resulting in effects that they had not foreseen.
It is a difficult thought to come to terms with. Affected individuals could not have imagined that these vaccinations would lead to their living with debilitating conditions. We must do our best to aid those families and individuals to deal with the burden as best they can in the circumstances and with the everyday realities that they have to face. We must investigate why, out of 1,483 claims made between 1 January 2000 and 31 December 2010 to the vaccine damage payments unit, only 26 have resulted in an award. Why is that? Something must be wrong with the system. Either it is too complex, or the delays are too long, or the questions that are asked are difficult to answer. The system needs to be looked at.
We need to reform the Vaccine Damage Payments Act. It is too outdated to deal with the financial and practical realities of living with the adverse effects of a vaccination, and too outdated to recognise that there is a spectrum of difficulties that those affected face, not only those above the 60% threshold. That is also an issue. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway talked about the 60% threshold, which almost debars people. I always feel that we as parliamentarians are here to help those who need help. We must do it in a good way and make it simple and easy for them to find help. Today’s debate gives us a chance to try to chart a way forward that is easier for individuals to deal with.
The Vaccine Damage Payments Act provides an opportunity to apply for a one-off £120,000 lump sum to meet the burdens of coping with a disability. Whether this is to assist the person who has become disabled as a result of a vaccination, or the family who cares for the person, there are costs to be met. These are costs that individuals and their families would not have foreseen, caused by the adverse reaction to a vaccination that requires them to be met. To be eligible for such a scheme, the individual must be over two years old and must apply within six years of vaccination, or up until their 21st birthday, whichever is the later. This means that if the adverse reaction results in death, but the victim is less than two years old, nothing can be awarded to the parents. That discrepancy must be addressed. Furthermore, it leaves carers to pay independently for the care that is needed until the claimant is eligible at the age of two. The rules simply do not deal with the emotional realities of such situations.
We cannot always mark a family’s problems solely on physical issues. There is the emotional trauma that the family and their relations go through as well. What is even more striking is that not all those affected by vaccination damage are recognised in the current legislation as requiring financial assistance. The requirement that a person has to be 60% disabled to be eligible for a single amount of £120,000 is a very hard and fast rule, and cuts out others who are vulnerable and need compensation to deal with the difficulties that disability brings. To be 60% disabled, or above, has a profound impact on a person’s life, reinforcing that we must change how we deal with payments to those affected. It seems too absolute to have a 60% cut-off when we come to a situation in which a victim may fall below this figure, yet be affected in their life. They can be greatly affected, but, because of the eligibility criteria, not entitled to any assistance.
A range of degrees of disablement can affect an individual’s life and irreparably alter it. For that reason, reform needs to look at assisting all those who have been affected in different ways through vaccination damage, and as a result deviate from the standard fixed sum given on a sliding scale. I hope that the Minister’s response will give an idea of how those suffering as a result of the vaccine can be given better financial assistance.
As has been pointed out on a number of occasions, including in the work of the all-party group, the provisions to deal with adult cases are poor. It would be appropriate for the 1979 Act to be applied more comprehensively to adult cases. The requirement that vaccination must occur before a victim’s 18th birthday, apart from in the exceptions outlined in the Act, means that the scheme’s adult application is far from lucid. There are workers whose jobs mean they must be vaccinated to deal with the dangers of their workplace. Hepatitis B is one such vaccination, but it is not included in the Act. Is it proposed that it should be included? It is important to consider that question.
The workers most affected are doctors, nurses and social workers, but members of other similar professions that revolve around a duty of care are in a similar situation. Those people, in aspiring to fulfil the requirements of their job, have availed themselves of vaccines and that has resulted in their being left without livelihood or career, and with a quality of life that is not as it was before.
The question of access to life-saving or life-changing drugs has also been on my mind, and other hon. Members have touched on it. There was an example in the debate pack of a family who had to leave England for the States to qualify for drugs, which they got free there. I presume that that was because they would also be part of a testing scheme. The drugs greatly improved the child’s life. They moved to California to qualify for drugs that they could not get here, because they cost too much. The Minister and I have previously talked about drugs for cancer sufferers, and so on. I suppose more is possible with a large budget, but I think that something must be done about improving the availability of drugs.
The legislation often makes adult payouts subject to the industrial injuries schemes, with the result that the compensation often cannot come close to what is required to meet the financial challenges of the affected person. We must remember that it is not financial considerations that are at stake, but rather recompense for loss of a career and personal independence, and a reduction in quality of life. I am inclined to argue that those victims should be equally able to obtain the £120,000 payout through the Government’s vaccine damage payment scheme. There is a clear need for hepatitis B to be covered by the legislation.
Although I have spoken of the £120,000 figure and argued for it to be extended to a wider range of cases, that is not to say that the sum is adequate; it is almost speculative in relation to the life expectancy of individuals eligible to meet the requirements of the scheme. That is wrong. We should be doing all we can to extend and make easier the lives of those affected, by giving higher levels of financial support. The fact is that the costs of caring for someone with a disability are high, and in the case of a child the sum offered will not span a lifetime’s care, so families can be left to struggle when money becomes stretched and the pressure is on. Adult cases also involve personal livelihood if the disability becomes debilitating. Inadequate and unrealistic payouts or failure to be compensated at all can make financial considerations an added concern in an already stressful and emotive situation.
Is there a better way? I suggest there is, and I urge the Minister to review the matter.
I apologise for not being here for the start of the debate; I meant no disrespect to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown), who has been a tireless campaigner on the issue. I will take only a brief amount of the House’s time, partly because I must again be rude and leave the debate before the end—it is that stage of the parliamentary process.
I want to express my gratitude and that of my constituent. The hon. Gentleman spent two hours going in great detail through the difficulties suffered by her daughter, a 24-year-old girl, as a result of the HPV vaccine Cervarix. The anti-NMDA receptor antibody effect on her is massive. My constituent’s daughter will require financial support for life—disability benefits and a range of other support to get her through her difficulties. Those difficulties result from a reaction to a vaccine that has been an enormous success in this country in protecting young women from a viral condition, but which, in certain circumstances, has the effect I have mentioned. There is more evidence not just in this country but abroad, and there is emerging research.
I hope that the Minister will recognise the circumstances, and recognise also that more needs to be done, including looking at research from abroad. We should understand the difficulties of the individual concerned, who must go to endless meetings that require explanation of a complex medical condition not understood by people in the benefits world—and why should it be? It requires someone with a detailed understanding of a narrow field of clinical work to understand it. It is a question of constantly having to explain it again to someone new, and recognising that the situation will last a lifetime.
Perhaps a miracle cure or a way to reverse the condition will be found, but we cannot say. At the moment we need the Government to recognise—through the benefits delivery networks, as well as in terms of the Minister’s responsibilities—that there are people who acted for the right reasons and who need support. They need support in their battle to get their condition recognised and understood. There is a growing experience across developed economies, where the right measures are taken to protect young people from disease, of people being affected in the wrong way in certain circumstances. I hope that in future the system will permit greater protection for people such as my constituents. I applaud the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway for calling the debate.
I will not detain the House for long. I want briefly to raise the case of my constituent Stacey Jones, who suffered life-altering changes to her health following the administration of the HPV vaccine six or seven years ago. For Stacey it has meant seizures and mood swings—severe continuing problems that require treatment to this day. I pay tribute to her brave mother, Julie Jones, who has fought to have her daughter’s condition recognised. She brought it to my attention and that of Ministers and the local medical profession, and she has tried to put the plight of young women such as Stacey on the agenda.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) for his work in obtaining the debate, and more broadly on the issue. Although the subject is compensation, I want to put a broader question to the Minister. Does she agree that it cannot be right for young women and their families, such as Stacey and her mother, to be regarded simply as collateral damage for the vaccine programme? That is how the families feel. In a sense, that is a question for my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) as well as for the Minister, because there is an election coming and I am not sure whether the Minister or my hon. Friend will occupy the Government Front Bench in a couple of months. I hope that they both agree that it cannot be right for young women such as Stacey to be regarded as collateral damage of a vaccine programme. If so, how do we change the view of such families, who feel that the Department of Health simply brushes aside their concerns, does not acknowledge them and does not take them seriously?
The health problems that those young women are suffering from are real, but they feel that they are being ignored. I ask the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, to address in their summing-up speeches the question of not just compensation, but the attitude shown to such families, who feel that they are being ignored, so that their plight is taken more seriously whether or not they are entitled to compensation under the law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) for securing this important debate and for his work as chair of the all-party group for vaccine damaged people. His tireless campaigning on behalf of his constituents, and others who have been affected by vaccine damage, is commendable.
I also thank all hon. Members and right hon. and hon. Friends for their contributions throughout the debate, which are testament to the strong feelings about this issue on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) talked about the challenges experienced by her constituents. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a large contribution and I was specifically interested in hearing what he said about the emotional trauma experienced by families. The hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) both talked about their constituents’ experiences of the HPV vaccine.
Vaccinations are crucial to our NHS as a way of preventing disease and the spread of infection. The research and discoveries made every day by the scientific community lead us closer to disease prevention that could not have been imagined when the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 was passed. The improvements in vaccine uptake in recent years have resulted in a greater proportion of children being vaccinated now than ever before.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway made clear the purpose of today’s debate is not to question the importance of the national vaccination programme to the health of our population; instead, it is to bring to the House’s attention those occasions on which vaccinations have gone wrong, with deeply distressing and life-changing consequences, and the challenges surrounding the support system in place for those people who are sadly affected.
I recently attended a meeting of the all-party group in Parliament and at another meeting I met a group of parents and their daughters who had been affected by the HPV vaccination. The stories I heard in both meetings highlighted that, in the event of such tragedies, it is vital that people who suffer from vaccine injury can expect to receive support to ease the burden on them and their families. They certainly should not have to battle to get what they are entitled to.
At those meetings, the deep sense of injustice felt by many of the families who live every day with the burden of disability caused by vaccine damage was clear. In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East, I should say that I hope that the parents and people affected believe that I was at that meeting to listen to them. I very much appreciate that they feel that they are not being listened to, on top of the challenges that they have faced over many years.
As we heard, the vaccine damage payments scheme was established under the Vaccine Damage Payments Act in 1979 to provide tax-free lump sum payments to people severely disabled as a result of vaccination against specific diseases. Despite the gradual expansion of support under numerous Governments and some important reforms made in 2000 following a review of the scheme, the system has many challenges today. We have heard many compelling reasons for reform.
Since the scheme was first introduced, the number of payments made has fallen dramatically. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway said, since 2010-11 no vaccine damage payments have been made at all. That may be down to vaccines and vaccine safety, but it is troubling that, despite hundreds of applications from people whose disability was sufficient for them to be considered to have a strong enough case, not one payment has been made. I hope that the Minister will explain why such a gulf exists between applications for support and actual payments made. I hope she will share her view on why the number of payments has gone down to zero in recent years.
I understand that there is a robust qualification process and that, to qualify for compensation, a person must be assessed to be 60% permanently disabled for life. In considering cases, it is right that medical advisers have regard to whether informed medical opinion suggests that there may be a causal link between the claimed adverse event and vaccination. I appreciate that the line must be drawn somewhere, but will the Minister share with us whether any flexibility is built into the system to allow a person assessed as being very close to the 60% qualification point—perhaps they are 59% permanently disabled—to receive support under the scheme? Surely a person suffering such a level of disability has a substantial need, which the scheme is intended to accommodate. It seems unjust that, by just missing out on the threshold, they would receive no payment at all under the scheme, so it is left to the family to shoulder that burden.
Has the Minister considered the case for reforming the minimum level of disability required for a person to qualify? We have heard today that, even when a person does qualify as having a serious disability, the Government have fought against such decisions. Take the case of people who suffer from narcolepsy as a result of the swine flu vaccine, which we have heard about today. Despite a causal link with the vaccine having been established and a tribunal having concluded that that should be considered a “serious disability,” the Department for Work and Pensions appealed against the decision. Will the Minister share with us why the DWP would go against such a decision? Will she clarify how her Government reach a decision on whether to appeal against a tribunal decision?
As we have heard in the debate, there are many other anomalies in the coverage provided by the Act. I note the recent additions this year of the rotavirus and influenza vaccinations to the list of specified diseases to which the Act applies. Despite that, it does not provide a comprehensive safety net. Will the Minister explain the review process that takes place before a vaccine is included on that list? Why are some vaccines, such as pandemic influenza and hepatitis A and B vaccines, excluded? The current scheme focuses largely on the childhood immunisation programme, but it covers people over the age of 18 for certain diseases. We have heard the word “patchy” used today, which is a fair assessment.
I was concerned to learn that 814 applications had been rejected on non-medical grounds because they were made either out of time or outside the scheme’s scope. The scheme allows for no extension to the time limit, even when the applicant did not have knowledge of the scheme or did not know that they might qualify for a claim. To refuse someone the support they need on the grounds that they have not made the deadline seems inflexible. Does the Minister have plans to build more flexibility into the rules about the time frames in which applications need to be made?
There are other anomalies. In the event that a child under two dies from an adverse reaction to a vaccine, their family are not eligible to receive any payment under the scheme. The logic for that is unclear. Why should the family of a child who dies after their second birthday be more deserving of compensation than one whose child died a day before? I would welcome clarification from the Minister on whether she plans to review that.
In a written answer to me at the end of last year, the Minister said that the Government had
“no plans to make changes”
to the 1979 Act. Has she reconsidered that position since then? If not, does she have any plans to review that decision?
The debate has raised issues that need to be tackled if we are to ensure that we have a comprehensive support system for vaccine damaged people and to promote confidence in the uptake of vaccines. The support scheme put in place by the 1979 Act was of its time and intended to be an interim solution. However, it has become—albeit with some changes over the years—a permanent one.
People need to be assured that, in the unlikely event that something goes wrong, they will be looked after. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway made a powerful case for reform, which I hope the Minister will take away and give her full consideration. I look forward to her response.
I congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. In particular, I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) on securing the time to discuss an issue that is never easy to discuss. Other Members have alluded to the fact that when I, as a Health Minister, have looked at schemes about population-level health, sometimes there are discussions about the impact on individuals within that population and those discussions are very difficult to have.
I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the tone in which he has conducted this debate and indeed on the way that he has represented families and individuals over some years because, as I say, sometimes these are difficult issues to discuss. He has chaired the all-party group in a constructive way and I am sure that that has been appreciated by successive Ministers.
Also, the hon. Gentleman has said it before in this House, but I was very pleased that today he reiterated his support and that of the all-party group for a public vaccination programme. We are lucky to have a comprehensive and world-class national immunisation programme. I note that the vast majority of people who have concerns about the issue that we are discussing today do not disagree with the need for vaccination programmes of that nature.
Such programmes are a vital way of protecting individuals and the community as a whole from serious diseases. Vaccination is recognised by the World Health Organisation as the most effective public health intervention after the provision of clean drinking water. It has led to the eradication or major reductions in infectious diseases that used to be a serious threat to public health. British parents no longer see their children being crippled by polio, because that disease has been eliminated from the UK and, thankfully, from most of the world. Before measles vaccines were introduced, there were as many as 750,000 cases of measles in England and Wales in epidemic years, and about one in every 1,000 children infected would die.
Vaccinations are now safer than they have ever been, notwithstanding—obviously—the concerns that have been expressed during this debate. However, I recognise that on the very rare occasions when vaccinations can cause severe disability, that places both the person themselves and their families under enormous strain. Right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about that most movingly during the afternoon.
Of course, that is one of the main reasons why the vaccine damage payment scheme was introduced. As others have said, it was intended to help ease the present and future burdens of those individuals who are severely disabled as a result of vaccine damage.
I am sure it has been said before, but it is worth clarifying for the House that the VDPS payment is not compensation and it does not prejudice the right of the disabled person to pursue a claim against the manufacturer of the vaccine, although I of course acknowledge the obstacles that many people face in doing that. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway, who led the debate, spelled them out. However, such payments would of course be taken into account if compensation was awarded.
The scheme, introduced in 1979, provides a tax-free, lump sum payment—as others have said, it is now up to £120,000—for those who are severely disabled as a result of a vaccination against those diseases listed in the 1979 Act and those that have been specified since 1979 by statutory instrument. It acknowledges that people who are severely disabled early in life have less opportunity to earn and save, and the degree of disablement is assessed on the same basis as for the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme.
The disability threshold is set at 60%. I understand, of course, that there are those who argue that the level of disability should be assessed on a sliding scale. However, such a sliding scale of disability and payments would run counter to the scheme’s principle of providing a straightforward single payment for those who the Secretary of State for Health is satisfied are severely disabled as a result of vaccination.
To qualify for the scheme, a person must have become severely disabled as a result of vaccination. As I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), acknowledged, that causative link is needed for the scheme to be workable, but it does make for some difficult cases and some difficult conversations. I understand that, but that causative link helps us to target public funds properly for people who suffer disablement as a consequence of vaccination.
As with all civil matters, the standard of proof for causation is “on the balance of probabilities”. So, based on the available evidence, does the medical adviser consider that vaccination caused the disability? Notwithstanding the suggestions made to change, improve or even replace the scheme, there would always need to be an assessment of causation and it would always be the case that for some people who had suffered a disability, it would be viewed that the cause was not vaccination. There would always be instances that did not meet that criterion.
The scheme does not require the medical adviser to be certain or sure but only to consider that it is more likely than not that vaccination caused disability. These independent medical advisers are well placed and experienced enough to make that judgment, which is not made by politicians but by people who are carefully trained. For example, doctors who assess claims must be approved to carry out assessments by the chief medical adviser to the Department for Work and Pensions, and that approval is only granted when they have demonstrated full competence. Also, those doctors are subject to strict 100% quality audits until approval is achieved. I say that to make the point that there is a considerable degree of both medical expertise and independence involved in those assessments. I can also confirm that mental health, which I think was mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), is taken into account in those assessments of individuals.
The payment scheme is not intended to address all the financial implications of disablement for those affected by vaccines, which we have heard about this afternoon, and, as I have said, there is nothing to prevent people from bringing claims, although I understand that that process is difficult, as has been outlined.
The scheme is only one part of the wide range of support and help available to severely disabled people in the UK. For example, as many hon. Members will be aware, disability living allowance provides an important non-contributory, non-means-tested and tax-free cash contribution towards the disability-related extra costs of severely disabled children.
The VDPS covers immunisation provided in the routine childhood vaccination programme against specified diseases. It also temporarily covered vaccination against pandemic swine flu during the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and 2010. Hon. Members have raised applications to the scheme from individuals who developed narcolepsy and cataplexy following immunisation that used the swine flu pandemic vaccine, pandemrix. I will take this opportunity to emphasise that we appreciate how distressing narcolepsy and cataplexy are, and we understand the concerns of those who have been affected, and the concerns of their families. The DWP administers the VDPS and takes professional medical advice on the degree of disability involved, and obviously the Department of Health is responsible for policy in this area.
Swine flu vaccines were developed specifically for use in a flu pandemic, when the number of lives that could be lost and the number of people who could suffer serious illness would have been enormous. In the circumstances, it was considered by Ministers at the time that it was suitable to extend the VDPS temporarily, but in the circumstances that currently prevail it is inappropriate for me to comment on individual cases; I hope the House understands that.
The Government are advised on all immunisation matters by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which is a statutory and independent body. The JCVI is also a departmental expert committee, constituted for the purpose of advising the Secretary of State for Health, and it keeps all immunisation matters under review, providing advice and recommendations to Ministers on all current and potential programmes, and advising the UK health Departments on national immunisation policy, including the safety and efficacy of a programme.
The Department of Health ensures that all its information on vaccination is clear that vaccines may have side effects, which thankfully are usually minor. However, the fact that a vaccine has been licensed shows that the benefits have been assessed as outweighing any known possible side effects. Nevertheless, as with any medicine or health care product, unfortunately a vaccine may cause side effects in some people. We have heard the stories of some of those who have been affected in that way.
Vaccine safety is of paramount importance and, as with all medicines and health care products, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the Government’s independent expert advisory Commission on Human Medicines keep the safety of all vaccines under close and continual review. In response to the concerns that were raised by Members during the time that I have been the Minister with responsibility for public health, I have sought the advice of the MHRA, and had discussions with it, to raise some of the issues that Members have put to me, and to understand in some detail that process of continual review. I was satisfied that it is very robust and based on a continual review of the available evidence, both in this country and internationally.
The UK’s childhood immunisation schedule has been recommended by experts after consideration of a wide range of evidence, which, as I have said, includes evidence about safety reactions. That evidence is both national and international. The vaccines have undergone rigorous testing with large numbers of people before they are licensed, and their safety is continuously monitored to discover and assess any rare side effects. Vaccines are among the safest medicines available and as such, and as I have said before, side effects are rare. I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman thinks that reactions are not being captured properly. Again, I asked the MHRA about that. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the yellow card scheme, but perhaps he wants to give me more detail after the debate about reactions not being captured.
On that point, it became abundantly clear, when I met the two ladies whom I mentioned in respect of their daughters and the HPV vaccine, that one of those mothers faced a major challenge in pursuing the local health authority to get the card recording exactly what had happened. There appeared to be some reluctance, although I am not sure what was underpinning all that. Some people have faced a challenge getting it properly recorded.
I am sure it would help the MHRA if the hon. Gentleman sent it details of that example. However, it sounds a little bit more as if there was a problem with a local clinician recording adverse reaction than with the scheme itself. I note what he says.
The UK’s programme has been a considerable success. I know that, in the context of such a debate, it seems hard to assert that, but I think that all hon. Members would acknowledge that generally speaking this country is seen as having a successful immunisation programme. Regarding MMR, which has been mentioned, coverage in England for children reaching their second birthday rose to 92.7% in 2013-14, compared with 92.3% in 2012-13. That is the sixth consecutive year that a rise in MMR coverage has been reported, and coverage is at its highest level since the vaccine was first introduced in 1988.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s concern that the current level of award may limit the take-up of vaccines, but I am hesitant to accept that as evidence, given the improved take-up of the MMR vaccine during a period when the VDPS has not changed. I am hesitant to accept what he says, but if there is peer-reviewed evidence of the link between the level of the scheme and the take-up of particular vaccines, I suggest he submits that to the Department.
Hon. Members will know that, since 1 May 2014, the VDPS has been the joint responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health. As set out in the 1979 Act, the Department of Health is responsible for policy, for example, changes to the list of infectious diseases covered by the Act in line with changes to the immunisation programme. The shadow Minister mentioned diseases added to the scheme. As has been said, the Department for Work and Pensions remains responsible for assessing the claims.
Hon. Members have put on the record the number of claims and awards made. I note concerns about awards made in recent years, but again it is perhaps not entirely right to assume that that is, in some sense, because the criteria have been changed, or anything like that. I have outlined the independent expertise of the medical assessors, and said that vaccines have got safer. Again, the causative link needs to be proved. However, I note the hon. Gentleman’s concern, and that of other hon. Members, about the lack of recent awards.
The vaccine damage payment scheme has always covered diseases vaccinated against as part of the childhood immunisation programme. That approach underlines successive Governments’ intention that the scheme should help children who are rarely, but regrettably, severely disabled. As I said, changes to and recommendations about that programme are made by the JCVI.
In 2002, the scheme was reviewed and changes were made. The threshold of disability was reduced from 80% to 60% and, as we have said, the payment increased to £120,000.
I appreciate what the Minister is saying. Will she give hon. Members in the Chamber her personal thoughts on the balance of probability?
My sense is that the scheme, which aims to provide proportionate help, has got the balance about right, but I have heard the concerns expressed today. It is worth noting that successive Governments have considered this matter and chosen not to alter the scheme. That consideration would have involved looking at it in some detail. Equally, I note gently that the shadow Minister, analysed the situation and asked many questions, but made no commitments, although she aspires to sit in my place in just a few weeks.
The House will note that many successive Governments of different parties have looked at the scheme and have, I think, drawn the same conclusion, which is that the balance is about right. That is not to say that the hon. Gentleman’s concerns are not listened to: far from it. I have listened to his concerns and will take those away and reflect on them.
There are no current plans to make any changes to the time limits. Again, the hon. Gentleman made his case about that, as did other hon. Members.
I hear what the Minister is saying, but this may be the last chance to comment. I talked about a case where the payments are not in any way compensatory. Previous Governments lifted the level of payment substantially up to £120,000. Can she not give any hope to parents in their 60s who are struggling with care? Care is expensive, and increasingly so under her Government. What can she say to give some hope to parents in that situation, of whom, as we have heard, there are very many, including my constituents?
The challenge is that a number of aspects of the scheme, which has existed under successive Governments, make some individual cases particularly hard. The hon. Lady has touched on some reasons for that in her contribution.
The Government have no plans to change how the scheme is run, as one might expect in the last week before the House rises before the general election, and there are no plans to review it, as I have said. However, we are about to have a new Parliament. I am sure that the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway and other hon. Members may wish to return to this subject. The work of the all-party group will continue. The hon. Gentleman has indicated that he wants to raise the reform of the Act in the new Parliament. The shadow Minister has made some points, but no commitments. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway may therefore wish to use the next few weeks lobbying within his own party, if he cannot speak in Parliament, making his case forcefully to his colleague.
I note the concerns expressed today. I am not in a position to say that the scheme will be reviewed. As is the way of these things, all these matters will now be for a new Government to consider. However, the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway put his points thoughtfully, as ever, and they have been thoughtfully taken on board and will be considered.