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Victims of Contaminated Blood: Support

Volume 603: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2015

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister responsible for public health to make a statement on Government plans to reform the support for victims of contaminated blood.

I recognise that I committed in earlier debates to consulting on proposals to reform the current payment schemes before the end of the year. Despite our best efforts to meet that commitment, we are unfortunately not ready to publish the consultation before the recess. However, I confirm today that it will be published in January.

The delay will, I know, be disappointing for many who were anticipating the consultation before the end of the year. I apologise for the delay, in particular to Members of the House who have been campaigning tirelessly for a resolution on behalf of their constituents and to those who are directly affected, who continue to wait patiently for our proposals.

In the Westminster Hall debate in September, I explained that any consultation would happen within the context of the spending review and that payments for the reformed scheme would come from the Department of Health budget. The House will know that the outcome of the spending review was communicated to us only a few weeks ago.

The infected blood tragedy and reform of the payment schemes remain a priority for us. We are assessing what can be allocated above and beyond the additional £25 million to which we have already committed. That, of course, is in addition to the existing baseline spend on the payment schemes, which will remain.

Over my two years as public health Minister, I have heard regularly from those affected by this tragedy. Every week, I read a large number of letters, both to me and to the Prime Minister, from campaign groups, individuals and their families, all of whom have been affected by the tragedy in different ways. While considering our proposals for consultation, I want to ensure that all those views are reflected and that I do not miss the thoughts of those with the quieter voices.

We are currently working towards publication of the consultation, and, as part of that, we arranged an independently facilitated event with representatives of some of the leading campaign groups. The report from that event is available through those groups.

I have worked to keep Members of the House updated—you know how seriously I take my duties in that regard, Mr Speaker—and last month I invited members of the all-party group on haemophilia and contaminated blood to a meeting to discuss this issue. I told colleagues that my intention was to consult as soon as possible, but I said that that could be in January, given the timing of the comprehensive spending review.

As discussed with the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood, I am also interested in the opportunities offered by the advent of simpler and more effective treatments that are able to cure some people of hepatitis C, and which present a welcome new opportunity to make some people well. I assure the House that that work continues to establish a way forward, and a consultation will be published in January. At that time I will seek to make an oral statement.

In conclusion, because my priority is to get this issue right, I have taken the decision to take a little more time and publish the consultation in January.

Mr Speaker, your decision to grant this urgent question is recognition of the long campaign for justice for this group of people, and it is appreciated by everyone who has been involved. I am, however, disappointed that I have had to ask for an urgent question. On three occasions, Ministers promised a statement before Christmas, and they should not have been forced to come to the Chamber for the second time this year. When the Minister speaks about a consultation in January, I assume that she means January 2016. I would like clarification on that, because dates always seem to slip, and such action from the Government fuels distrust and resentment among people who have been let down for too long.

I have four questions for the Minister. First, she proposes a consultation that will run for 12 weeks and that she will need to assess before launching a new scheme. Will she explain how that is feasible before the start of the next financial year? Secondly, she claimed that it will be the first full public consultation, but the APPG ran a full consultation—with the same consultees—earlier this year. Can she assure me that she has considered the APPG report and all the evidence presented in it? Thirdly, as she said, the Government delayed making a statement until after the comprehensive spending review, in order to determine the total “financial envelope” available. I understand that the Department of Health currently pays out about £14 million a year, with a total future financial commitment of £455 million. Will the Minister tell the House how much more is now available following the comprehensive spending review?

Fourthly, lump-sum payments were a key issue raised in response to the APPG inquiry, but it now appears that those are off the agenda. That is a major disappointment because lump-sum payments would allow those affected to make real choices about their own lives—something they have been denied for far too long. Will the Minister support a separate request to the Treasury to use funds equivalent to the £230 million raised from the sale of Plasma Resources UK to fund lump-sum payments to those who have been affected?

I thank the hon. Lady for her response. Of course I understand the disappointment that we are not able to consult before the end of the year, but I informed her and her colleagues who came to the meeting on, I think, 5 November, that it was unlikely that we would be able to do so. That was recorded in the note made at the meeting, and published through the all-party group. I have tried to keep colleagues informed, and only last night I spoke to a number of campaigners about this issue, including the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), and informed them personally about the delay. I would, of course, have informed the hon. Lady today or tomorrow, along with the other Members who attended that meeting. I have done my best to keep people informed.

I understand the hon. Lady’s point about the consultation. I will consider the issue she raises, but I have always been clear that the transition to a new scheme must be done in a way that does not compromise the safety of payments to people in schemes—again, we discussed that at the meeting in early November. I therefore see no problem with consulting and then moving towards a transition, because that transition will be a gradual process anyway for some people. I want to ensure a safe transfer from the current scheme to any reformed scheme, and I do not see a real problem in that regard.

This will be the first full consultation by the Government, and the hon. Lady is right to say that the all-party group—and others, including my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)—garnered many views. All views, including those put to the all-party group in its very good report, can be reiterated as part of the response to the consultation.

I made a statement on the issue of money in my response to the urgent question. I understand the point the hon. Lady makes on lump sum payments, but it would not be appropriate for me to comment at this time. I can talk about that more when I make an oral statement at the time we launch the consultation. She reiterated in her questions the principle of individual choice and treating people as individuals. Many Members have stressed to me the importance of that principle. We will very much recognise it in what we bring forward in the new year.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), with whom I co-chaired the all-party group on haemophilia and contaminated blood in the previous Parliament, on securing the urgent question. May I, too, press the Minister to please use the valuable data in the all-party group’s report? It has real testimony from the victims on how the trusts and funds—whether the Macfarlane Trust, the Skipton Fund, the Eileen Trust or the Caxton Fund—just are not delivering the day-to-day support the victims need. Will she come back to the House as soon as possible in January and not on the last day, so we do not have to secure another urgent question?

My hon. Friend, who has campaigned long and hard on this issue, is right to reiterate the importance of the views given in that report. I confirm that they have already informed our thinking about how we go forward, as indeed have the views of many colleagues on all sides of the House expressed over many months and years. I can assure him that the report will be considered. I have previously committed, and I reiterate the commitment today, to conducting a root and branch reform of the current schemes.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I pay tribute to all the Members of this House who have been a strong voice for the victims of contaminated blood, but in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) who has been tireless in her pursuit of answers.

This scandal saw thousands of people die and thousands of families destroyed through the negligence of public bodies. Over the years, the response of Governments of all colours just has not been good enough. It is a real shame that we are here yet again wondering why action has not been taken. I do not think anyone doubts the sincerity of the commitment that the Prime Minister made back in April, but does the Minister understand the disappointment that people have felt in recent months as promises to publish arrangements and to make statements have been broken repeatedly? Does she accept that that has only raised false hope among a community that already feels very betrayed?

Given the further delay that the Minister has announced today, what guarantees do we have that the January consultation date will be met? What redress—other than an urgent question through you, Mr Speaker—will there be if it is not? A consultation is fine, but will she say when any new scheme will be implemented? It is important that any new arrangements are properly scrutinised, so will she commit to a debate in Government time to allow that to happen? Finally, does the public health Minister appreciate that the longer this goes on, the longer we leave in place a system that is not working and leaves victims without adequate support?

No amount of money can ever fully make up for what happened, but we owe those still living with the consequences the dignity of a full, final, fair and lasting settlement. This injustice has gone on for far too long. The time for action is now.

As I have already said, I of course regret the delay. This is a very complex area. I appreciate the tone with which the shadow public health Minister responded, because, as he said, Governments of all colours have not turned to this issue. We have turned to the issue and we are addressing it in a great deal of detail. It is a complex area. There is a very diverse range of affected groups impacted by this tragedy and we must get the consultation on reform right for all of them. I have been clear, in my response to the urgent question, that we have been considering the funding issue. We are, of course, aware of potential litigation in relation to the scheme as it stands. I cannot comment further on that, but the House will appreciate that that adds a level of complexity to dealing with this matter.

I am always extremely happy to come to the House to explain. The scheduling of debates in Government time is not a matter for me, but it goes without saying not only that I would be delighted to debate the matter but that I am happy to talk to colleagues, including shadow Front-Bench colleagues, privately or otherwise, about this matter. That commitment remains.

I echo the spirit of these exchanges; we need to do this job fast and well. May I highlight the tragic circumstances of some of those affected, including a constituent of mine who has sadly got more ill as we have been debating the fine details of the scheme? There is no more time to lose.

That point is well made and very much on my mind. When I can say more about the shape of our proposed reformed scheme, I hope my hon. Friend will see that we have tried to respond to her concerns and those of many other right. hon. and hon. Members.

The Penrose inquiry was held in Scotland—there has not been a UK inquiry—and, in response, the Prime Minister made his statement about the £25 million transitional payment. These people are awaiting a final settlement and compensation for what the NHS did to them, but their suffering goes on. We were told that the transitional payment would be made this financial year to help people get to that settlement. The consultation is on the final arrangement, but we need some action now and people need access to the new hep C drugs. The Scottish Government have written about support for fuel payments, but we need the transitional money now. It should not be kicked into the long grass.

This certainly has not been kicked into the long grass. As I have told the House, it is my intention to consult in January. I have said before, but it is worth repeating, that although we are working to establish a fair resolution, liability has not been established in the majority of cases, so it is not appropriate to talk about compensation payments, particularly on the scale that some campaigners and colleagues envisage. I have been open about that for many months. The hon. Lady is right to make the point about treatments, and all those things will be considered. I can confirm to the House that, although the £25 million was allocated to be spent in this financial year, it will be carried forward. The money that the Prime Minister announced in March was to support the transition of the scheme, which we envisaged beginning next spring, following the consultation. The money will support that, and it will be carried forward.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on securing the urgent question. I speak today on behalf of a constituent, a Mr Steve Dymond, who has hepatitis C as a result of contaminated blood products. Although he is in remission, a normal life for him is impossible. I know that new drugs and treatments are available. Will the Minister assure me that those advanced new treatments will be available to all sufferers without restrictions? I hope that, despite this delay, the closure we need will be delivered very shortly. This is a big subject in my part of Kent. It is trailed massively in the Kent on Sunday, which covers it regularly. We need closure and those affected need certainty in their lives. Can the Minister assure me of that?

I have corresponded directly with Mr Dymond’s partner, so I know the level of suffering he endures. On the new treatments, the drug landscape on hepatitis C infection, which is very different from even a couple of years ago, is uppermost in my mind as I consider how to reform the scheme and support those who suffer.

This announcement comes after the shambles of a meeting at the Department last month, when hon. Members from both sides of the House arrived for a stated time, only to be told, after waiting, that the meeting was over. We then received an apology from an official promising further information that was never supplied. Does the hon. Lady understand what being a Minister entails? It means being in charge and only making promises that can be kept. This has been a travesty, but it would not matter so much were it not for the sick people, including those in my constituency, who are living lives of hell and were looking to the Government, after the promises were made, for some kind of alleviation during their lifetimes. They have not got it.

I slightly regret the right hon. Gentleman’s tone, and I am totally mystified by his point about the meeting. A meeting was organised with the all-party group and his colleague the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North. I think the meeting might have been moved once, at the request of the all-party group, but the details and arrangements for the meeting with me were circulated by that group, and six right. hon. and hon. Members attended the meeting. I am sorry if there was some confusion, but I do not think it was on the part of me or my officials. A number of colleagues came to the meeting. We had a very useful discussion and I have sought to update others since.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that we need to move towards a conclusion, but it is also a matter of record that he was, at times, a member of the last Labour Government, who, for 13 years, did not move forward on this matter.

The Minister will be aware of my frustration in dealing, on behalf of a constituent, with the Macfarlane Trust, which she knows, from the weight of evidence in the consultation, is not fit for purpose. Will she confirm that any full and final settlement will not be administered by that trust?

I am well aware of the shortcomings of some of the schemes identified by colleagues and those affected by this tragedy, and I have obviously read the details from the all-party group and other Members’ communications. I have confirmed before that reducing the number of schemes will be part of the consultation on reforming the schemes, so my hon. Friend’s point is well made. For the record, though, I should add that I had a meeting recently with the staff of the schemes—the people who man the phones and deal on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis with sufferers—and I am clear that they, as distinct from the people who head up the trusts, are working hard to offer a service to people in difficult circumstances.

Is this not one of those situations where there is an absolute moral obligation on the Government to act and end the uncertainty and delay? Is the Minister reassured that the spending review gives her the ability to bring a lasting and fair settlement, and will she do everything she can to ensure it is in place by the start of the next financial year?

I am happy to assure my former colleague in the Department that the Secretary of State and my departmental colleagues take this matter extremely seriously. It is a matter on which we are seeking to move forward. It will be for those who respond to the consultation on the reformed scheme to give their views, but we are seeking to move towards a reformed scheme that responds to the criticisms of the existing schemes and offers sustainability for people who have suffered for so long. I hope I can satisfy the right hon. Gentleman in that regard, although I will be able to say more in the new year, when we publish the scheme details.

One of my constituents, Sue Wathen, is trying to access the Harvoni drug, but it is proving incredibly difficult, because she has not developed cirrhosis. She does, however, have an underlying medical condition that is being exacerbated by the contaminated blood. Much is being reported about greater access from February. Is that the case and will Mrs Wathen be able to access the treatment she so desperately needs? I would love a yes or no answer, because it is incredibly frustrating.

I would never give a yes or no answer to the individual health problems of a constituent I do not know, and I am not a clinician, but if my hon. Friend would like to write to me, I will certainly make sure I give an individualised response. Ultimately, however, the right clinical route for any one individual would come at the suggestion of their consultant hepatologist. Towards the end of November, NICE published new guidelines on three more drug treatments, so the drug landscape for hepatitis C is changing rapidly, but I am happy to ensure that hon. Members are kept fully informed. As I said in a previous debate, if people are concerned that their constituents are not aware of what is out there or do not feel they are getting the support they need to access treatment in line with the NICE guidance, we can offer advice to Members on how to make sure that happens. However, I am well aware of the general point he makes.

Will the Minister clarify whether individuals affected by this terrible scandal will receive individualised letters? How will they know that this consultation is opening next month?

My officials have been giving considerable thought to how to do that. A number of people are members of the existing schemes, so we have a means to communicate with them, but it is clear from experience of following up previous inquiries’ recommendations—for example, the one recommendation of the Penrose inquiry—that we make exhaustive efforts to inform everybody. In particular, we will want to inform people who have had a lump sum payment but are not members of the current scheme. We will make exhaustive efforts to inform people by every means possible. Members of Parliament can of course be of great assistance in that regard.

Going back to the issue of medication, my constituents want to know the answer to this question: available drugs that have not yet been approved by NICE but that can be prescribed are not being prescribed locally on financial grounds. Is that not wholly unacceptable?

The NHS is looking at its response to the most recent NICE guideline—it was very recent, on 25 November, from memory. The NHS has commissioning arrangements in place for previous treatments that met NICE guidelines. It would be useful if my hon. Friend contacted me separately about the particular situation in which his constituents find themselves, and we might be able to provide some helpful support.

I thank the Minister for her response to the urgent question. Brian Carberry from County Down contracted hepatitis C from contaminated blood in July this year. Compensation is always important, but the really important issue for those affected is that it is not enough when a problem is health related. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Health Minister, Simon Hamilton, to tackle this issue?

My officials are working closely with their opposite numbers in all the devolved Administrations. As we move towards publication of the consultation, I will look to communicate directly with my opposite numbers in the devolved Administrations and pick up all these points.

I know from her statement that the Minister will appreciate the frustration that my constituents, some of whom have been waiting for an outcome for some decades, will feel at another delay. Given her comments on the carrying over of transitional funding, will she give me a clear idea of when she expects the new system to be in place?

We aim to consult, and we want to make sure that the final shape of the reformed scheme is informed by that consultation. As I have said, we look to start transitioning to a reformed scheme in the spring. At this stage, however, it is a little difficult to be more precise. We are working hard to ensure that aspects of the transition are being planned and thought about, and this will be informed by the final outcome of the consultation.

The Minister wrote to me on 6 November and stated:

“The shape and structure of a new scheme will be decided following the consultation process that will begin by the end of this year as previously committed”—

as it had been committed in an Adjournment debate on 9 September. I am deeply disappointed today that neither that scheme nor that consultation is in place. My constituent, Brian Carberry from Downpatrick in South Down, whom my Adjournment debate was about, has told me in the last few weeks that he now has a form of cancer, with four tumours identified, as a result of the connection with contaminated blood. Will the Minister give me and the House an undertaking today that a full and final settlement will be in place before the end of this financial year.

I have already made my comments about the timing of the consultation, and I cannot add to what I said in response to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who put the urgent question. I have often spoken to the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) about this and I responded to her Adjournment debate. I think that the language she uses is applicable to circumstances before this exchange. I have already explained the issue of compensation and the principles that we shall try to apply to the reformed scheme. I cannot really add to the comments I made in my response to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North.

Let me challenge the Minister on the phrase “quieter voices”, which I have heard her use several times. It seems to be a code for addressing the important but less costly issues of treatment and reform of the current scheme rather than a full and final settlement to what Lord Winston rightly called the

“worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS”.

We have a moral duty here, so simply saying “the Chancellor will not give me the money” will not wash.

Again, I have said here today and previously in Westminster Hall what I believe the position to be with compensation. I accept that the hon. Gentleman has a different view and we had an exchange when he contributed to the discussion in November. I think it would be wrong to dismiss the idea of listening to quieter voices, which I have had the opportunity to do over the last couple of years, and as a result it has become clear that a number of people want a number of different things from a reformed scheme. It will not be possible to do everything that everyone wants. We are going to try to respond as best we can with a scheme that is sustainable, fair to all and responds to many of the points made here today.

I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for tabling the urgent question. Only this Friday a constituent raised a number of issues about this very topic at my surgery and she will be most disappointed at this further delay. If the Minister has not done so already, will she take up the issue of continuing assessments by the Department for Work and Pensions? My constituent feels it is extremely strenuous that she has to continue to prove her case to qualify for benefits. She also found—she cannot be unique in the country—that the NHS treatment she received was not the most sensitive, and she would like to see some guidance issued for healthcare professionals.

I thank the hon. Lady for those comments and I will reflect on them. The DWP matters are outside the remit of the Department of Health, but I will take on board the general issues she raises and refer them to colleagues. As I have said, we continue to work with the devolved Administrations on NHS matters; if her constituent is being treated in Scotland, it is a devolved matter for the Scottish NHS.

I appreciate the contrite tone of this question, but this is so very disappointing. My affected constituent simply wants to be able to buy a home and provide security to his family, but that is not available to him at present. Can I tell my constituent that next year a new scheme will be in place and that he will be eligible to receive support from it?

It is clearly my intention to have a reformed scheme in place next year. I do not know the circumstances of his constituent, so I cannot make that individual commitment. I have said that we want to move to a reformed scheme next year. I understand the frustration of Opposition Members, but, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) acknowledged, Governments of all shades and descriptions have not stood up to tackle this issue. We are going to try to do something; it will not satisfy everyone, but I hope we will be able to come forward with a scheme that will respond to many people’s concerns.

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for raising this question. The Minister will recall a meeting I attended on 5 November, in which two main issues were discussed. The first was the setting up of a contingency fund, rather than having to rely on the spending review every year. Will the Minister confirm that she has written to the Treasury about that? Secondly, will the consultation consider the issue of family members who have lost loved ones as a result of contaminated blood?

I covered the issue of funding in my response. The hon. Gentleman attended the meeting, at which a number of matters were discussed. I do not think I can add much to what I have already said. This is a priority for the Department of Health, and we are seeking to identify the amount of money, on top of the transitional £25 million and the baseline spend on the current scheme, that we can use to support the reformed scheme.

Six thousand infected, 2,000 dead, a 30-year struggle—this delay is just one part of the continuing nightmare that victims face. Can the Minister tell my constituents Fred Bates and Peter Mossman when the nightmare will come to an end?

I cannot right the wrongs of 30 years; I can only try to do what I can in the circumstances, and with the money that we will allocate. We will present plans for a reformed scheme, and I invite the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to respond to them. In developing those plans, I must look to the future, and ask what we can do to support people with a reformed scheme. In particular, I must ask how we can respond to some of the ways in which the circumstances in which we address this terrible, difficult tragedy have changed, and ensure that our response reflects those new circumstances.

The Minister may recall that when the all-party group met her in early November we warned her that any slippage would be greeted as slipperiness by people who had suffered delays for too long. Does she appreciate that people will worry about the possibility that the extra time has been taken to ensure that the consultation is more controlled and options are sealed off? Will she also address the underlying question that people want to ask? Why, if liability could be admitted by the Irish health service on the basis that the risk was known, can liability not be admitted by the NHS, and why cannot compensation be forthcoming?

Payments made by the Republic of Ireland are a matter for the Republic, and they were made in response to circumstances in Ireland relating to the use of blood products. We have covered that before, in debates.

Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration—I spoke to him informally last night to alert him to the fact that there was some delay—but I reiterate that it is better for us to produce a scheme into which we have had a chance to put more effort and a little more detail than, for the sake of a few weeks, to rush out something that would not give people any real sense of what was being consulted on. Although the delay is frustrating, as I have acknowledged a number of times, I think that it will give rise to a better and more meaningful consultation.

The victims are clearly identified, and a final settlement is well overdue. Weeks ago, in the Chamber, I asked the Government whether they would provide additional support for victims during the coming winter. It may be mild here, but it is not mild everywhere, and many of them are suffering from fuel poverty. It is Christmas. Given the ever-stretching time that it is taking to resolve this matter, will the Minister commit herself to providing the additional support? The Scottish Government have already asked her to do so, but will she make that commitment now?

The matter has been raised with me by Shona Robison, the Scottish Health Secretary, and I intend to respond to her in the next few days. The Northern Ireland and Wales Administrations are still considering the matter, and have not fed anything back to me about Shona Robison’s proposals. I did raise them with the Members who attended the all-party parliamentary group meeting in early November, but there was relatively limited interest at that time.