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Contaminated Blood

Volume 627: debated on Thursday 20 July 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the responsibility for establishing an inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal.

I begin by adding my personal apology to those who have previously spoken in this House about the tragedy of contaminated blood, and by reiterating that the Government recognise the terrible impact contaminated blood has had on many thousands of lives.

The Government recognise that previous inquiries into the events that led to thousands of people being infected with HIV and/or hepatitis C through NHS-supplied blood or blood products did not go far enough. That is why, on Tuesday 11 July 2017, the Prime Minister committed to establishing a further inquiry so that the causes of this tragedy can be fully understood.

Once established, we want the inquiry to be fully independent. Before it is established, however, there is a need to define its scope and format so that terms of reference may be set by the relevant Secretary of State. Given the tragedy’s impact on so many lives, it is vital that we get this right and that we get it right from the start. I am aware of the concerns that have been raised this week by those affected, by campaign groups and by Members of this House. Indeed, I spoke to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on Tuesday about this very issue.

I reassure the House that the Government have as yet made no final decisions on the scope and format of an inquiry, or on its leadership. I have newly taken on this policy area, and I am keen to make sure that all those affected are given an opportunity to give us their thoughts and opinions. I understand it is normal practice for public inquiries to be sponsored by the relevant Department. However, we are keen to listen to the concerns that have been raised and ensure that they are addressed, which is why we are in discussions with the Cabinet Office and colleagues across Government to ensure that this inquiry does its job, and does it well, under appropriate leadership.

That is why an early consultative meeting was scheduled for today, hosted at the Cabinet Office, and the Secretary of State and Ministers hope to understand further the important views of those affected on the shape and establishment of an inquiry. This is the first of several meetings that the Government would like to offer over the coming weeks. I strongly encourage anyone affected to give us their views. Our door is open to anyone who wants to discuss the inquiry or raise any concerns they may have.

It is important to note that, whatever arrangements are agreed for this independent inquiry, safeguards will be put in place to ensure independence—for instance, by ensuring that the secretary to the inquiry has never worked at the Department of Health or any of its agencies. I reiterate that we are absolutely committed to a thorough and transparent inquiry, and we want to establish the best format and remit. That is why we want to hear as many opinions as possible, and we will work with those affected and Members of this House to do so.

Order. I am grateful to the Minister for the clarity of what she has just said. I should emphasise that this is not an occasion for a general debate on the contaminated blood scandal. We have had that on many occasions, and I have also granted urgent questions previously to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on this matter. The issue is very specifically the locus, the responsibility and possibly, at a stretch, the scope. If Members can tailor their questions accordingly, it would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.

Although I welcome last week’s announcement of an inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal, the vast majority of people affected by this scandal, their families, campaign groups and legal representatives, plus many cross-party parliamentarians, are, like me, dismayed to see the Department of Health leading on the establishment of this inquiry. The Department of Health, an implicated party at the heart of so much that has gone wrong over the past 45 years, must have no role in how this inquiry is established—in my view, it is akin to asking South Yorkshire police to lead an inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster. I regret that the Government have not been able to understand that putting the Department of Health in charge at this time immediately undermines their excellent decision to call a public inquiry last week. In consequence, contaminated blood campaigners boycotted a meeting organised by the Department of Health at 10 am today in protest. Another Department must surely now take over the responsibility for consulting on the remit of this inquiry.

I am pleased that the Government acknowledge the overwhelming and unanimous opposition to the Department of Health consulting on the inquiry, including from more than 250 campaigners and 10 campaign groups, the Haemophilia Society, and the law firms Collins Law and Leigh Day, which together represent 716 claimants. Nevertheless, the Minister needs to address two questions urgently. Why, on Tuesday 18 July, did the Department of Health call a meeting for 10 am today, with just two days’ notice, in central London, and at a time that is most difficult, inconvenient and expensive for people affected to attend? When I spoke to the Minister, she told me that the Government plan to update the House by September and get the inquiry up and running as soon as possible. That had not been made clear to campaigners or MPs, and I wondered why.

I still believe that the case is even more pressing for another Department to take over the work of establishing this inquiry now. That Department must then have a true and meaningful consultation with everyone affected, so that they can be fully involved and have confidence in this public inquiry.

As I mentioned, no firm view has been taken as to which Department will run the inquiry, but as the Minister with responsibility for this area the House would consider it amiss if I were not having meetings and discussions with those affected about the inquiry’s remit. When the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), made the statement to the House about the inquiry, we made it clear that we wanted to progress as soon as possible. The Secretary of State called this meeting because we want to hear directly from the victims about what they want from the inquiry. We are very much in listening mode. A decision has not yet been taken as to which Department will run the inquiry but ultimately, as a Minister, I am accountable to Parliament for what happens in the Department of Health in those areas for which I have responsibility, and I want to be leading from the front, having those discussions.

I thank the Minister for saying that no decision has yet been taken about which Department will run the inquiry. Does she agree that perception is as important as reality in this matter, and therefore will she gain from this occasion a mindfulness of the weight placed by hon. Members, on both sides of the House, on the idea that the inquiry perhaps would be perceived to be more objective if some other Department took the lead?

I say to my right hon. Friend, and I have repeated this in other discussions as well, that the Cabinet Office is very closely involved in this, and this opportunity has given me the time to make that clear to the House. The Government are listening; we want to consult as widely as possible. No decision has yet been taken, but the Cabinet Office is closely involved in all the consultation we are currently having.

It is disappointing that we are here again today, so soon after last week’s announcement. A week ago, this House united in agreement to finally facilitate justice for those tragically affected by this scandal. Yet, as we have heard, in recent days Ministers have reneged on last week’s promises and run roughshod over the affected community.

The Minister of State may shake his head, but that is how the community feel; we have spoken to them. There are three key questions that the Under-Secretary before us this morning must answer, and I hope she will be more forthcoming with much-needed answers than she was to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson).

Understandably, the community have deeply held suspicions when it comes to the Department of Health, so why are Ministers ignoring these concerns and the demands to facilitate an inquiry through another Department, such as the Ministry of Justice? This concern has been well documented in the letter to the Prime Minister by my hon. Friend, the Haemophilia Society, the 10 campaign groups and the law firms Collins Law and Leigh Day. Why does the Minister think the Government can so easily disregard all these people?

Events over the past few days have shown that last week’s promise to consult, engage and listen to the community was simply warm words. The audacious move to hold a roundtable meeting this morning with so little notice to potential attendees from throughout the UK has hindered many from being involved in the process of setting up the inquiry. Will Ministers explain why the meeting was held at such short notice? Who did they plan to invite so that the meeting was properly consultative? In the end, who was scheduled to attend following the mass boycott by many of those invited, who felt that the offer of a meeting was a slap in the face?

It is important that the inquiry is held sooner rather than later, but not at the risk of jeopardising justice. Will the Minister publicly outline, now, the timetable for the inquiry? Do the Government intend to initiate the inquiry in September? If so, why has that not been made public? Why is it that we must bring Ministers to the House again to make this clear? Does that not go against everything we were promised last week? The Minister must remember the promises made just last week and ensure that consultation is central to the whole process; otherwise, the Government will fail this community, who must have the justice they so rightly deserve.

It is in taking forward the consultation that we are delivering on the commitments made last week. We made it clear then that we wanted to get the inquiry going as soon as possible because, frankly, these people have waited long enough for answers. We have not ignored the concerns expressed by many about the role of the Department of Health in the inquiry. I repeat: no decision has yet been made and the Cabinet Office is closely involved in taking the matter forward.

As for the complaints about the short notice of the meeting organised by the Secretary of State this week, it is because we want to hear directly from the people affected as soon as possible that such a meeting was arranged before the House rises for recess. This is just the start. We want there to be good, effective dialogue because, as the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and the rest of the House will appreciate, it is important that we all inspire confidence in this process. Given the cross-party support we had when the inquiry was announced, it is disappointing that we are now getting bogged down in the process.

Like others in the Chamber, I welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement last week of a public inquiry. I am encouraged by what the Minister is telling us this morning. One of my constituents who was affected has raised the issue of which Department should take the lead in the inquiry. Will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm what role victims, families and campaigners will play? How can they best engage with her and the Department at this stage?

We obviously want to hear from as many of the affected people as possible, and we will reflect on their representations. If they want to be very clear and blunt about the role of the Department of Health, we need to hear those representations so that we can make the best decision about who takes forward the inquiry.

I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for asking this urgent question and pay tribute to her for continuously pushing on this important subject to ensure that we get justice for those so tragically affected. The inquiry must get the right answers, and it must command the confidence of those affected. Will the Minister confirm when a decision will be made as to which Department will lead on the establishment of the inquiry? Does she think it is right for the Department of Health to lead it? Will she confirm that the inquiry will include the families and victims, so that it is sensitive to what they want to know? Will the Government ensure that the inquiry will have to look at all matters, including documents, patient records and things that were altered and hidden, and that the things hidden behind public interest barriers will be opened up, so that light can be shed on this matter, as was the case with Hillsborough?

To be clear, the Department of Health is the sponsoring Department for the inquiry, which will be entirely independent. It is yet to be determined who will oversee it. Clearly, having made the statement and expressed our intention to hold an inquiry, we need to consult to make sure that that inquiry reflects on and answers the hon. Gentleman’s questions. Central to that will be the need for it to be seen to be transparent, open and fully independent. Once it is established, the inquiry will be entirely removed from the Department of Health. That should be enough to inspire confidence, provided we get the consultation right so that we get the remit right.

Two of my constituents who were affected by this terrible tragedy have already contacted me with concerns about the Department of Health’s involvement in the inquiry. This is a unique situation, especially with respect to the time it has taken to bring forward the inquiry, and credit should go to the Government for announcing it. Nevertheless, it is incredibly important that justice is seen to be done, so will the Minister consult members of the all-party group on haemophilia and contaminated blood with regard to who she determines are the right people to oversee the scope of the inquiry?

I am keen to hear from all Members of the House and members of the public on how they feel the inquiry should be taken forward. That is the spirit in which we are embarking on this consultation.

I welcome the Government’s decision to hold this inquiry in response to the campaign led by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). I know that the Health Minister is acting in good faith, but over many years Department of Health officials have advised there is no need for the inquiry and no problem at the heart of the issue. Will she recognise that because of that it would have much greater credibility for many of those who have campaigned on this issue if the sponsoring Department were another Department—be it the Ministry of Justice or the Cabinet Office—if all the staff did not come from the Health Department, and if one of the other Departments could be involved in the consultation, the establishment and the remit. This is no criticism of her—I know she takes this very seriously—but I advise her to hand this one over to another Department and let them run with it instead.

I understand the right hon. Lady’s point and I repeat that the Cabinet Office is closely involved with this at this stage. I think she would consider it most remiss of me were I not to take a close interest as this consultation is taken forward. I cannot say this enough: it is essential that the way in which the inquiry is established inspires confidence in the people affected, and that is what we are trying to achieve through the consultation. As I say, we want to hear from them and we are completely open-minded as to which Department takes responsibility. For now, I want to have those conversations because I want to understand their concerns with what has happened with the Department of Health. As a Minister, I need to give that challenge.

The letter from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) started by expressing gratitude to the Government for the progress made so far. That would have been welcome decades ago, but it is right to acknowledge it now. The letter included three practical points that it put perhaps slightly better than the shadow Minister. The machinery of government cannot work overnight normally and the questions and answers today will help the Government and the Prime Minister decide whether the right solution is, as has been suggested, having another Department or the Cabinet Office take on the consultation with the Department of Health helping as far as it can. The one point for the Department of Health now is whether it can guarantee the third point in the hon. Lady’s letter, which is that no records will be destroyed and that they will all be available to the inquiry.

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that commitment. Let me reiterate that we have made many documents available in public, all published, and I can give him every assurance that nothing will be destroyed. Having now taken the decision to hold an inquiry, we must get it right. I am happy to hear from hon. Members at any time if they have any specific concerns about whether they think evidence is being withheld, so that I can satisfy myself that that is not the case.

This is not a matter of challenging the Minister’s personal integrity; that is not in doubt. What is in doubt is the wisdom of the decision to have a Department that is majorly implicated in the concerns about what happened in the past involved at any point in the consultation and in taking the inquiry forward. I hope that before we go into recess an urgent statement can be rushed out advising that the Cabinet Office or the Ministry of Justice will now lead, not only on the outline of the inquiry but on the consultation. Then we can have trust from those who have been involved.

It is quite without precedent at this stage—so shortly after announcing an inquiry—for such a decision to be made. It is normal practice for the sponsoring Department to embark on the consultation, and I repeat that the Cabinet Office is closely involved from the perspective of propriety and ethics and the Department of Health is not working alone.

I warmly welcome the fact that the inquiry is now happening, and that the Government made the decision to undertake it, given the decades that have gone past since this issue first came up and the scandal occurred. Will the Minister reassure the victims that, in terms of any judicial involvement, which is almost certain in this case, the identity of the judge concerned will be selected by the Lord Chief Justice, and not by any Government Department?

Will the Secretary of State assure us that, in the responsibility of this inquiry, there are real powers, which will enable the inquiry to ensure that it has proper access to all the witnesses and documents necessary? That will be vital to developing a just settlement for all those affected and their families. Can we also have an assurance that a fair financial system will be in place to support them, because this could take some time?

We are really looking to settle that question in this consultation. One decision that needs to be taken is exactly what shape the inquiry should take. Clearly, we would normally do this through a statutory inquiry, which would have the powers to which the hon. Lady referred, but equally, Members of the House have made representations that we should have a Hillsborough-style inquiry, which, by definition, would be more fleet of foot. One reason why we are pushing forward with this consultation is to get exactly that feedback, so that we put together an inquiry that inspires confidence among those who have been campaigning for this for so long.

Far from being negative, the Government should be applauded for their very swift action—recently, not in the past. They are listening and have already committed extra compensation, sorted out the complex system that we had before, and announced an inquiry. Can the Minister give an assurance, particularly to my constituents, that the right Department will be chosen, because we do have to give them confidence that we will not all be here again discussing this? We have the chance to sort it out now.

The purpose of the consultation is to allow people to make their points about which Department should be chosen to oversee the inquiry, and then we will respond accordingly. All I can say is: please encourage people to participate in this consultation.

If the consultation with interest groups unanimously says that the inquiry should be held by another Department, will the Minister respect that view?

We need to understand exactly what the concerns are and we will only achieve that through dialogue. I can reiterate that we are here to listen to those concerns. Now that we have decided to go ahead with the inquiry, I want to make sure that we get it right.

May I put on record how pleased I am, for my constituents and their families, about the commitment to hold this inquiry? I thank the Minister for listening to me on this yesterday. Does she agree that it is only by listening to those most affected that we can finally get the answers that the victims and their families are seeking?

We can only gain from having dialogue. It is in that spirit that we want to have as many conversations with those people affected as possible. It is disappointing that this morning’s meeting was not attended, but I hope that, in the future, we will have some meaningful dialogue.

May I ask the Minister to reflect on the fact that it is not reasonable to ask campaign groups from Scotland to attend a meeting at two days’ notice? May I also point out that there is a distinct legal system in Scotland? Has there been any thought about that or any discussions with Scottish campaign groups and/or the Scottish Government?

As I have said, that was the first of what I hope will be many conversations. Arrangements were made for the campaign groups in Scotland to dial into the meeting, so that they could participate. I have already started discussions with the Scottish Government about how this inquiry will play out and affect the position in Scotland. I am pleased to say that we are having those discussions in a spirit of healthy co-operation. In particular, we are looking at how we can make use of what has already been gone through with the Penrose inquiry. We will continue to have dialogue, and we are very sensitive to those issues.

At the weekend, I saw my constituent, Sue Wathen, whose case I raised in the debate last week. She was delighted with the Government’s commitment. The one issue that she particularly wants to see considered is that of access to appropriate treatments for victims. For most victims, that is the most important issue. Will my hon. Friend feed that back?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is exactly the sort of thing we need to hear from this consultation when we are setting the scope, and clearly access to treatment is very important. I encourage him to ask his constituent to write in and make those points.

I think there is a consensus across the House, because everyone has made the point very clearly that they do not have confidence in the Department of Health running the inquiry. I expect an announcement from the Minister soon. If the Cabinet Office is appointed, it does have a track record of taking rather a long time with inquiries, so quite often that is used to kick things into the long grass. Can she assure us that it will be a speedy but thorough inquiry?

The speed at which the inquiry reports will be determined by the chairman, because it will be independent—that is the point. At the moment the Department of Health is leading on conversations, but the inquiry will be independent; it will not be run by the Department of Health.

Health is a devolved matter, so can the Minister give the House a commitment that there will be maximum co-operation with all the devolved institutions across the UK?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that commitment. I have already discussed this with the Welsh Minister. It is a UK-wide inquiry and health is a devolved matter, so obviously we will need to work closely to ensure that we all respond to what the inquiry finds.

I thank the Minister for her statement and commend the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for her tenacity on this issue. Although only last December the Northern Ireland Health Minister allocated funding for contaminated blood victims to put us on a par with compensation paid on the UK mainland, it is essential that any UK investigation includes the Northern Ireland victims—I am speaking on their behalf—so that it is not done on an England-and-Wales-only basis. Can she confirm that that will be the case?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are very sensitive to the facts as they apply to Northern Ireland, and we will by all means ensure that the requisite dialogue takes place so that we can deal with it sensitively.