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Health: Contaminated Blood Products

Volume 719: debated on Wednesday 2 June 2010


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the implications for the Department of Health and haemophilia patients infected by contaminated NHS blood products of the High Court judgment in March v Secretary of State for Health; and what action they will be taking.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and, in doing so, declare a non-pecuniary interest as president of the Haemophilia Society.

My Lords, we have decided not to seek leave to appeal the judgment, and we shall be writing shortly to let the court know of our decision. We are considering our response to the judgment and will announce our decision in due course. In the mean time, ex-gratia payments will continue to be paid at current levels to those affected.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl and congratulate him on his well merited ministerial post, which I know he will grace with all his customary integrity. Is he aware that 1,982 haemophilia patients have now died from being infected with HIV and hepatitis C by contaminated NHS blood products in this worst ever treatment disaster? Given the High Court’s landmark judgment, the wide all-party acclaim for the Archer inquiry’s findings and David Cameron’s strongly positive response to the Haemophilia Society’s pre-election call for urgent new help for the afflicted and bereaved, can the Minister confirm that there will be no delay now in ensuring a just settlement for this cruelly stricken and arguably most needful minority in Britain today?

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the noble Lord for his kind words. I am sure he knows how seriously I take these matters. I hope he can take as read my wish to see that those whose health is suffering as a result of this tragedy are properly looked after by the NHS. I know that the noble Lord will understand that we are looking at the court judgment. It is early days yet, but we are considering very carefully what the court has said and I cannot be of more help to him at this stage than I already have been in my earlier Answer. I stand ready to talk to him, either inside or outside this Chamber, on these important matters.

My Lords, I endorse my noble friend’s congratulations to the noble Earl. Do the Government accept that the scale of payments to victims in Ireland was not a response to criticisms from an official inquiry, as the scale had been decided and implemented long before either official inquiry reported? Furthermore, is it now accepted that to argue that there has been no similar criticism from an official inquiry in this country is, to say the least, disingenuous, as successive Governments have failed to appoint one?

My Lords, obviously, I cannot speak on statements made by Ministers of the former Administration. However, I can confirm to the noble and learned Lord that the compensation scheme in the Republic of Ireland was set up in the light of evidence of mistakes made by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service Board. That has been confirmed to us by officials in the Republic of Ireland’s Department of Health and Children. It is important to understand that the events that gave rise to the people in Ireland becoming infected through contaminated blood transfusions were quite dissimilar to the sequence of events that occurred here. There were specific circumstances in Ireland, and quite different circumstances in the UK.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the widow of a haemophiliac who died from contaminated blood products 16 years ago. Is the Minister aware that many of the widows, widowers and children of people who were infected and died received very little compensation—in fact, many do not receive a penny in support from the state? Does he not agree that it would have been wiser to spend the Department of Health’s money used to fight the High Court case on supporting those bereaved families, many of whom have lost their breadwinner?

My Lords, I am well aware of the noble Baroness’s personal interest in this matter and feel deeply for her. She is of course correct that the Skipton Fund was not designed to support bereaved relatives. It was designed to alleviate the suffering of those infected with hepatitis C. Sympathetic as I am towards those who have lost their loved ones in this tragedy, that fund does have a specific purpose and it would require a major review to alter that purpose. However, I note her concern on this matter.

My Lords, I share in the congratulations and good wishes to the noble Earl, who has served this House so well on health issues, and offer my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, on their tenacious pursuit of this issue. Does the noble Earl agree that the High Court judgment shows a confusion of thinking on the part of the Department of Health not only in regard to this matter but on the whole question of dealing with adverse health events? Does he accept, as the Scottish Executive have done, as the Chief Medical Officer did in 2003 and the National Audit Office did in its report in 2004, that much more money would be available in compensation if it were not being spent on legal fees and court cases, and that the introduction of a no-fault compensation scheme could achieve that?

My Lords, I share the noble Lord’s antipathy to taxpayers’ money being shelled out in legal fees, but what has happened has happened. In the current constrained financial climate, every department of Government will look very carefully at its legal activity.

My Lords, I join my noble friend in welcoming the noble Earl to his new position and wish him all the very best. Not so long ago, during the passage of my noble friend’s Bill last November, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, were very keen on a full compensation package for those affected by contaminated blood products. Has this commitment been translated into the coalition Government’s policy? If so, how and in what timescale?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kind remarks. We are in a coalition Government. Not every pledge in either the Conservative or the Liberal Democrat manifesto can be honoured. That is the nature of coalitions. In fact, the specific Liberal Democrat proposal which she referred to was not included in the programme for government which we published.