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Health: Contaminated Blood Products

Volume 697: debated on Tuesday 18 December 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Further to the Written Answer by Lord Darzi of Denham on 23 October, how they reconcile its claim that “no criticism of the Archer inquiry team was intended” with the assertion in the Department of Health’s letter of 14 August, prepared “using information supplied by the department’s blood policy team”, to Mrs Harriet Bullock of Southwold, Suffolk, the widow of a haemophilia patient infected with contaminated National Health Service blood products, that Lord Archer of Sandwell’s inquiry “ignored the department’s offer of a meeting with the inquiry”; on what date the department’s head of blood policy first saw the letter of 14 August; under whose supervision it was written and sent; and in how many other letters the same information was used. [HL36]

As I said in my earlier reply of 23 October, I am very sorry that the department’s letter of 14 August to Mrs Bullock was open to misinterpretation, and an apology has been sent to Mrs Bullock, copied to the Archer inquiry team. However, to avoid any possible misunderstanding, I can assure the noble Lord that at no time did anyone in the department claim that Lord Archer of Sandwell had “ignored the department’s offer of a meeting with the inquiry”.

The letter of 14 August was prepared by the department’s customer service centre, using information supplied by the blood policy team. The letter of 14 August stated:

“Department of Health officials met with members of the inquiry team on 25 April to discuss how the Department may assist. In the months since April, the Department has suggested further meetings with the inquiry team, but as yet Lord Archer’s team has not arranged to meet again”.

This was intended to convey that the department remained ready to meet Lord Archer’s team and I am sorry if any other interpretation was possible.

Mrs Bullock replied to the department on 24 August. Mrs Bullock’s letter alerted us to the possibility that our own letter may be capable of different interpretations, as Mrs Bullock’s letter of 24 August stated:

“You have written that for five months the Dep. of Health has, ‘suggested further meetings with the enquiry team’, but that these requests have been ignored or refused by Lord Archer’s team”.

Mrs Bullock requested information about contacts between the department and Lord Archer’s inquiry team and her request was brought to the attention of the blood policy team. A reply to Mrs Bullock, copied to the Archer inquiry team, was sent from a freedom of information officer in the department on 17 September and stated:

“Thank you for your further letter of 22 August requesting information on the dates the Department wrote to Lord Archer’s inquiry team suggesting a meeting. We are treating your letter as a request under the Freedom of Information Act. Your letter has been passed to me for reply.

I am sorry if our reply of 14 August to your letter of 9 July to Alan Johnson was misleading in this respect. For your information, I attach two e-mails between the inquiry team and the Department suggesting a meeting once the inquiry team has had an opportunity to hear all the evidence and review relevant documentation which we are making available. No criticism of the inquiry team was intended and I apologise for the unfortunate wording of the previous letter.

As you know, officials met with the inquiry team on 25 April. We appreciate that the inquiry team is currently occupied in hearing evidence, and will no doubt contact the Department once it has completed this process”.

During the time that this further reply was in preparation, the department’s head of blood policy received a letter from Lord Archer of 4 September, stating that his attention had been called to the department’s first reply to Mrs Bullock of 14 August and that he was concerned that the letter could be taken to imply that requests for a meeting had been ignored by the inquiry team. He asked that the department take steps to avoid repeating any misconception in future correspondence.

The head of blood policy immediately spoke to Lord Archer to apologise for any misunderstanding. When a reply had been sent to Mrs Bullock, the head of blood policy contacted Lord Archer on 18 September to repeat his apology in the following terms:

“The department’s initial response to Mrs Bullock was written by our customer service centre and they have written again to Mrs Bullock apologising for the misleading impression they gave that your inquiry team had ignored our offer of a further meeting. I apologise that the erroneous impression was given, in the original letter, that your team had ignored our offer: this is not the case and I too was concerned when I saw the initial reply to Mrs Bullock”.

The department has now met the inquiry team again, on 19 September. The department has also copied to the inquiry team, in stages from June to October, several thousand official documents identified in the Review of Documentation relating to the Safety of Blood and Blood Products (1970-1985), which was issued in May 2007. I can therefore assure the noble Lord that our officials are co-operating fully with the inquiry team.

Officials have traced 11 pieces of correspondence in July and August that used the same information. These were received and replied to before we were aware of any possible misunderstanding from the wording used. A follow-up letter has been sent to clarify our position and prevent any further misunderstanding.