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Contaminated Blood Inquiry

Volume 635: debated on Monday 29 January 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on progress establishing the inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal.

The contaminated blood scandal of the ’70s and ’80s was an appalling tragedy that should never have happened. The victims and their families have endured so much pain and hardship and deserve answers as to how this could have happened. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for bringing this issue to the House today. I am also grateful for her leadership and for the leadership of right hon. and hon. Members across the House on the all-party group on haemophilia and contaminated blood, which has done such consistent and constructive work on the issue. As she will know, I myself have been part of that group and have worked for my constituents, as I know all right hon. and hon. Members in the House have done.

As the House will know, following the Prime Minister’s announcement last July of an inquiry into these terrible events, the Department of Health launched a consultation on what the form and scope of that inquiry should be. I would like to thank all those who contributed to that process. We understand how difficult and painful describing these events must have been. The responses to that consultation were carefully considered by Cabinet Office officials and we listened to victims’ concerns. As a result, we confirmed that the inquiry would be statutory and established under the Inquiries Act 2005, and we moved sponsorship for it from the Department of Health to the Cabinet Office.

Before Christmas, we went further and announced that the inquiry would be chaired by a judge. We have asked the Lord Chief Justice to provide us with a nomination, and we hope to announce the name of that judge very soon. Once the appointment has been announced, the Cabinet Office will have early discussions with the chair about setting up the inquiry and will encourage them to quickly hold further consultations with the affected communities over the inquiry’s terms of reference.

I would like to add my personal commitment, and that of all my Government colleagues, to seeing this happen. This is a vital issue. We are all fighting on the same side to ensure justice for the victims of this terrible tragedy and scandal.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting me the urgent question. I also thank the Minister for her response and, of course, welcome her to her new post. I know that one of her constituents was affected by this scandal and that she understands what the issue is about.

Six and a half months have passed since the announcement of the inquiry. The previous Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), set out his intention to appoint a chair before Christmas. That did not happen. We were then promised a statement in the new year, but, after nearly a month, there has been no further progress. It took precious months, and an intervention from the former Bishop of Liverpool—and chair of the Hillsborough inquiry —to persuade the Government to move the inquiry from the implicated Department of Health. That was achieved by working with all those affected in a unifying way and it concerns me that the same approach has not been adopted in recent consultative meetings with the Cabinet Office.

Not only have we seen a change of Minister, but we understand from press reports that the senior civil servant responsible for the inquiry is due to leave the Cabinet Office. I therefore have three questions for the Minister. First, will she publish a clear timetable setting out when she intends to appoint a chair and agree the terms of reference and specifying the date on which those conducting the inquiry will meet? Secondly, will she commit herself to a “families first” inquiry, with evidence taken in regional hubs across the United Kingdom and with a public-facing inquiry secretariat working with all those affected? It is essential for the inquiry chair to adopt that approach and to be able to work alongside a panel of experts. Finally, will the Minister confirm that the terms of reference will be set independently by the chair, following a consultation with all those affected, and that they will cover the aftermath of the scandal rather than just the run-up to it?

This is a treatment disaster of huge proportions, in which the Government are implicated. It has already taken the lives of 2,400 people and has blighted the lives of many more. For those who have died in the last six months, justice delayed is justice denied. The lack of progress is causing huge distress and upset to the families affected. The Minister must take immediate steps to secure for this community the truth and the justice that they have been denied for far too long.

I have seen a copy of the letter that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) sent you this morning about the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I have therefore come prepared with responses to the points made in that letter. I hope to be able to deal with them now.

Let me begin by reiterating that we intend to make a further statement about the chair very shortly. I take the hon. Lady’s point that there should be no further delay. The Government are committed to getting this right and to getting it done as quickly as possible, for all the reasons that she has already given.

The hon. Lady suggested that this could have been done more quickly. It was important for the consultation launched by the Department of Health to be allowed to reach its conclusion, so that all who wished to contribute had a chance to do so. As soon as that was complete, an early decision was made to transfer the sponsorship to the Cabinet Office, in line with the strong feeling of respondents. I think it important that we listened and acted accordingly.

Following the written ministerial statements made by the Cabinet Office in November, the Prime Minister made a further statement before Christmas confirming that the inquiry would be judge-led, which reflects the gravity and complexity of the issues to be considered. Again, we listened to the respondents who had asked for it to be judge-led and agreed. We now understand the importance—the absolute, imperative importance—of getting the inquiry under way as soon as possible, and as I have said, we will make a further statement as soon as possible as well.

The hon. Lady asked about regional hubs and asked whether the inquiry would put families first. The Government will ensure that the inquiry has the resources that it needs to complete its work. It will, of course, also be independent of the Government, which was another theme that featured in her questions. I am therefore not in a position to answer every single one of her questions. It would be for an independent chair to answer all the questions she has asked: for example, her question about the fine detail of the terms of reference. However, given the sensitivity of the issues under consideration, the chair will no doubt be focused on ensuring that all those affected have every opportunity to participate in the inquiry process.

As the hon. Lady mentioned, the former First Secretary of State held a number of meetings with representatives from the affected communities. The Government will of course be more than happy to continue that engagement if it is necessary and, moreover, I am confident that the chair of the inquiry will take that up and want to hear views and testimony from all those affected across the UK.

The hon. Lady asked explicitly about the terms of reference. I expect that the chair will want to consult the affected community on those terms. Once the chair has done so and has made a recommendation to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, there will of course be a further statement to this House setting out what the scope of the inquiry will be.

I reiterate that I want to ensure that those affected get the answers they deserve as quickly as possible and that they receive what many have been asking for. This is a judge-led inquiry that will be independent and, I hope, effective in getting answers.

My hon. Friend the Minister is new in post and has a phenomenal reputation in her previous Departments for getting things done. Will she now take a personal grip on this issue and give it the kick-start it needs?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for some, I think, undeserved compliments, but he is absolutely correct that I do personally wish to see this done. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North has mentioned, like many other Members, I have constituents affected by this. I think this is a national disgrace and I want to see it put right. I do therefore bring the personal passion that has been asked of me to this and I have pressed my officials to move on this as quickly as we possibly can.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for raising this important issue and echo the concerns that she and others colleagues in this House have raised.

The victims of this appalling tragedy have been waiting decades for answers and for justice, and it is unacceptable that they are now having to wait even longer as the Government miss their own deadlines. That is simply not good enough. It has been over six and a half months since the Government first committed to an inquiry into this tragedy. Can the Minister today finally commit to a clear timetable for action, including for the appointment of a chair and setting the terms of reference, because “as soon as possible” is not going to be good enough for the families and victims who are listening to this statement, who have seen the issue kicked into the long grass for too long? Can the Minister also explain why the Government have failed to do so to date?

It is vital that families are put first and that the Government avoid the failings that have plagued the ongoing inquiries into child abuse and Grenfell, with the resulting loss of confidence in both. Will the Minister outline what lessons have been learned from these inquiries and how she intends to ensure that the voices of families and victims are heard throughout the inquiry process?

I believe I have already answered those questions in answer to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North, but I reiterate that the Government expect to be able to announce the name of the judge leading this inquiry as soon as possible—very shortly indeed. Mr Speaker, you have already heard me refer to my personal interest in seeing this happen and the same goes for every member of this Government. This is too important an issue to play party politics with, which I am sure the hon. Lady on the Labour Front Bench was not doing. None the less, let me reiterate that I, too, want to see this done for the sake of victims and for the sake of those who have asked that this should be a judge-led inquiry. That means getting it right and taking the necessary time to do this properly—not more time than is necessary, but the right amount of time that is needed. I want there to be confidence that the inquiry will get to the root of the answers.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to set up a full inquiry and allocate a judge. There were 800 responses to the recent consultation, so can the Minister assure me that those people will all get an individual response and that families and victims will always be at the heart of this because they have waited for far too long for answers?

I thank my hon. Friend for her impassioned and thoughtful contribution. I would prefer to answer her question about individual responses once the Government have had a chance to discuss the matter with the chair of the inquiry. It is important that that person, once appointed, should be able to properly engage with victims and with those who have responded to the consultation, and indeed to do a small amount of further consultation, including on the terms of reference. That much was made clear in the Prime Minister’s written ministerial statement to the House. I will return to my hon. Friend with a specific answer to her question, but I do expect the chair, once appointed, to take a close interest in properly answering those who have taken the time and effort to respond to the consultation, including those who are quite ill. As I said earlier, we are grateful to them for taking the time to do that, and I certainly want to see them well treated and respected in this process.

I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for asking this urgent question and I pay tribute to her work in continually pressing for justice for the victims and families affected by this tragic scandal. As others have pointed out, campaigners were told that the chair of the inquiry would be in place before Christmas, yet we are still waiting. When will this actually happen? Can we define “shortly”? After finally doing the right thing and taking the inquiry away from the Department of Health, will the Government now ensure that the inquiry looks into all matters, including documents, patient records and things that were altered and hidden? Will they also ensure that anything hidden behind public interest barriers will be opened up, so that light can be shed fully on this whole matter? Lastly, will the inquiry have broad enough terms of reference to allow those in Scotland to give evidence as well?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making those points on behalf of his party. I mentioned earlier that I expect the chair to be able to take evidence all the way around the UK, so I hope that that answers his last question. I also said earlier that the Government will of course ensure that the inquiry has the resources it requires. I will come back to him on the specific list of types of information that he just mentioned. Finally, to be absolutely clear, I am saying to the House today that we expect to be able to announce the name of the judge shortly. I am not able to give it greater definition than that, but I know that that will answer his first question, which others might also put. We expect to be able to announce that name shortly.

The Cabinet Office taking responsibility for this inquiry is a good thing. Will it also mean that the Department of Health can really be investigated fairly and rigorously?

Can the Minister reassure families such as the Smiths, who lost their son aged just seven and who have fought tirelessly for justice and answers for decades, that the Government truly mean it when they say that there will be no further delay and that the public inquiry will get it right this time? These families have been through so much and we just cannot let them down again.

The hon. Lady speaks for many of us in our roles as constituency MPs. We all feel for those families and we can all relate their experience to other tragedies that we know of in our constituencies. I would very much like the word to go out to the Smith family and others who might be listening that, yes, we mean every word of what we are saying here today and that we all wish to see this inquiry completed with no further delay, as effectively as possible, so that they can get the answers they deserve and perhaps be able to move on from there.

I thank the Minister for reaffirming in the House today her commitment to, and personal interest in, this issue. I also represent a constituent who has been suffering for decades, and I am sure that she will welcome the fact that this is a priority. Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is also a priority for the Government as a whole, including her senior Cabinet colleagues, because I am sure that that message would be very welcome?

I most certainly can provide that reassurance to the House. Hon. Members will know from the fact that it was the Prime Minister herself who laid the written ministerial statement that the passion for resolving this issue and being able to move an inquiry forward goes right to the top of the Government, as should absolutely be the case. We are all agreed that this is a tragedy that should never have happened, and we are determined to see it put right.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for her tenacity in following up this issue. I do not doubt for a minute the Minister’s commitment to wanting to see the situation resolved, but she has been sent here today, after the matter had been kicked into the long grass, to tell us that the Government are deliberating what lawnmower to use. The Department of Health’s interference in the terms of reference was wholly unwelcome, and if the inquiry is to be independent, the judge leading it must set the parameters regarding what happened prior to the incidents and how people were treated afterwards. The judge must set their own terms of reference.

Indeed, and that was why I was unable to answer the question of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), who asked me to provide the terms of reference to the House or to provide a timetable for when I would do so. The hon. Gentleman is exactly right that it will be for an independent judge to do all those things, and rightly so.

I dispute the hon. Gentleman’s analogy about cutting grass—in fact, I think it makes light of the situation. The fact is that we have listened and responded to the concerns of those who thought that the Department of Health was not the correct body to run things. We have listened and responded to those who have said that they would like a judge to lead the inquiry. We are doing the right things in response to what victims have asked for, and while it will take a little time to put all that in place, I hope that the correct answers will be delivered.

The Inquiries Act 2005, under which this inquiry will be established, imposes legal obligations on the Government to consult with the devolved Governments. The Minister has recent experience in Northern Ireland, so how will that happen there while there are no Ministers? It is all very well to consult civil servants, but there is a legal obligation to consult Ministers, so I would be grateful if she clarified the situation.

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that important point. He will have heard me say that the inquiry and the judge who leads it will, of course, want to engage with victims from all over the UK, but it might be simplest if I write to him with the specific legal answer that he seeks regarding how that would be properly carried out in respect of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for asking this urgent question and to you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. Despite losing their son many years ago, my constituents Maureen and Les Dodd were only able to come and see me thanks to the intervention of Mr Andy Burnham, the former Member for Leigh. They said that their son, Graeme Jonathan Dodd, was

“courageous, witty, funny and inspirational”.

I know that the Minister will be thinking of all those who have lost someone. Has she read Bishop James Jones’s report into the experience of the Hillsborough families? There are many lessons to be learned, so will she ensure that a copy is distributed to all the officials who work on the forthcoming inquiry?

I have not yet had a chance to read that report, but I am happy to look at it and to share it with officials.

There are nearly 300 sufferers of the scandal in Wales. Given that health is a devolved matter, will the Minister commit to ensuring not only that there is a voice for Welsh families, but that full consideration is given to the aftermath of the inquiry and the implications for health services in Wales?

I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady raises that point because, along with the comments of colleagues from Scotland and Northern Ireland, it allows us to begin to get the full picture of what is required across the devolved nations. I do not think that I can speak for the judge in saying how he or she will constitute the inquiry or select those who will conduct the inquiry alongside him or her, so I am unable to answer the question whether there will be a Welsh voice. However, I reiterate that I certainly expect the judge to be able to listen to Welsh victims, and I say that with no hesitation whatsoever, because it is absolutely the right thing to do. As I have said to other colleagues, if it would be helpful, I will be happy to get back to the hon. Lady should there be more detailed questions about the relationship with the devolved nations.

Like the Minister, I have constituents who are affected by this terrible situation. I welcome the letter I received today from the Prime Minister confirming, as the Minister has today, that the families will be consulted on the terms of reference before they are set.

A constituent, whom I had not met before but who had written to me, stopped me in the street back in the autumn and tellingly said, “We have been victims once. We don’t want to be victims again because of prevarication or other circumstances.” Will the Minister take that on board and, particularly thinking of my constituent in Blackpool, will she take on board the need, as some have suggested, for regional hubs so that people who either are not able to come to London—or, frankly, are not capable of coming to London—will have a proper opportunity to have their voice heard?

I very much sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I am glad his constituent has been able to have his voice echoed in the Chamber today.

The hon. Gentleman makes his point for many of us. We can all think of constituents who are too ill to travel and have been too ill for too long. It has taken too much time to put this right over the many years since the 1970s and ’80s. It is a good thing that it is now being put right and that there will be a judge-led inquiry. I will ensure that the judge who is appointed hears that reflection from the hon. Gentleman’s constituent.

For the benefit of the House, I reiterate what was in the Prime Minister’s written ministerial statement:

“We can assure…everyone who contributed that the findings will be passed to the proposed chair to help inform the discussions regarding the draft terms of reference, on which we expect there will be further consultation.”—[Official Report, 21 December 2017; Vol. 633, c. 63WS.]

I reassure the House that there will be that further level of involvement, which is appropriate and important.

Is the Minister aware that this is a matter that affects the whole House? I would not think there is an MP whose constituents have not been affected one way or another. Is she also aware that this goes back to the mid-1970s—as far back as Callaghan’s Government and perhaps even Wilson’s—and that what is effectively a cover-up has been carried on under all Governments since? This is an all-party issue.

To this Government’s credit, we finally have an inquiry that I believe we first called for during the very first Backbench Business Committee debate—you were in the Chair, Mr Speaker. Coming now to the present, having taken this initiative, it is vital that the Minister now sees to it that the inquiry is genuinely independent and that there is no withholding of documents, because the prevailing attitude that we have come up against is of the retention of sensitive documents by both the Department of Health and the NHS itself. No public indemnity certificate or anything of that kind should be used to prevent us from getting at the truth of what happened.

I remember that first Backbench Business debate on the matter well, including, if memory serves me correctly, a Government Whip rather impertinently rebuking me for the non-selection of a Government amendment. I do not think he quite realised at the time that we were into new territory. The clue is in the title: Backbench Business. There was no requirement to select a Government amendment, especially a wrecking one.

I, too, remember speaking on behalf of my constituents in a Backbench Business Committee debate, as many of us have done.

I thank the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) for his contribution, and for his recognition that this is a cross-party affair. It has been because of the length of time—decades—it has taken to get to today. I particularly welcome his recognition that the Government are now acting and that they, in his words, deserve credit for doing so.

As I said to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), there are certain categories of documents that will be desirable when executing this inquiry. As I said before, the Government will give the inquiry all the resources necessary, so that it can complete its work. We would all wish to see an inquiry that is comprehensive, independent and effective for the families who need answers after too many years.

I have spoken before about the experiences of my constituent David and others who have been affected by this tragedy, and this is also of great interest to members of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS, given the number of individuals who were infected by HIV, some of whom of course went on to develop AIDS and to die from it, in a national disgrace. I must press the Minister further: can she say whether we are talking about days, weeks or months until the judge is appointed and the inquiry gets under way?

We are talking about this happening very shortly—it certainly will not be months—and I look forward to being able to make an announcement to the House.

My constituents just want this over, so that they can get their lives back on track. Will the Minister confirm that when she does appoint the judge, they will be working full time on this? Does she anticipate when recommendations will finally be made?

Unfortunately, I am not able to answer that question, as I do not have the answer with me today, but I will make sure that either I or the Secretary of State writes to the right hon. Gentleman.

On behalf of my party, I welcome the Minister to her post. I recognise the constructive nature of her answers. Will she guarantee that groups such as the Haemophilia Society, the Hepatitis C Trust and TaintedBlood will be fully consulted on the contaminated blood inquiry?

As I have said, the Government have already committed, through the statement that the Prime Minister made to the House in December, to further consultation with those affected, so that the terms of reference can be set and the chair can commence their work. I certainly expect that that will involve individuals affected—or, indeed, family members—and representative groups.

As the Minister is aware, there is a two-tier approach for the families affected. Will she be able to look at the postcode lottery that exists for different people now? As she has said, many people are very ill right now and there are differing patterns across the UK. Will she look at bringing those approaches into alignment, perhaps even in advance of the review?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question. I shall pass it to my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care who remain responsible for the policy on victims and the funding, as it operates today. The inquiry, about which I am answering today, is about how the situation came about and the more historical nature of things, but I shall ensure that her questions, which are of course in the minds of many hon. Members in relation to constituents who are suffering now, are heard by the Department, as it might be able to provide her with an answer.

The Minister must be tolerant if there is a cynicism about the “shortly”. An urgent question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) brought us here in July, when we asked urgently for the inquiry to be moved into the orbit of the Cabinet Office, but that took four months to do. We were promised a judge in December, but we are still waiting. Given that we are now at the end of January, does “shortly” mean before the end of February? Can we at least give ourselves some hope that we will not need another urgent question from my hon. Friend to bring us back here again, nagging for a decision?

Mr Speaker, I do not think we will need to trouble either you or hon. Members for another urgent question. I do expect us to be able to return promptly to the House with an update—the update that the House rightly asks for and our constituents and the victims of this scandal rightly require. We are working hard and fast so that victims come first and can be served by a judge as quickly as possible.

With respect, the Minister has said nothing to advance this matter today. I have been supporting affected constituents with declining health for eight years, which sounds like a long time but is a fraction of the time that victims have waited for justice. Does she now regret the four-month delay in moving the inquiry from the then Department of Health to the Cabinet Office, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) asked for last July?

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s tone is helpful. I have endeavoured to answer every question as constructively as I possibly can. I think I have made clear my personal commitment, as well as the Government’s, to ensuring that the matter is brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible for the benefit of the victims, for whom every hon. Member present wishes to speak. The Government have listened and responded by making the inquiry judge-led, which is the right thing to do. They have listened and responded by removing responsibility for the inquiry from the Department of Health and giving it to the Cabinet Office. It has been important to take what little time has been needed to get that right, so that we can have a better inquiry that better responds to what victims have been asking for.