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Penrose Inquiry

Volume 760: debated on Thursday 26 March 2015


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat, in the form of a Statement, an Answer given in another place by my honourable friend the Minister for Public Health on the Penrose inquiry. The Statement is as follows:

“Yesterday, the Prime Minister issued an apology on behalf of the Government for these tragic events, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health laid a Written Ministerial Statement as an interim response to the Penrose inquiry. I would, however, like to remind the honourable Member for Hull North that this is a Scottish public inquiry, and I understand that Scottish Ministers will not be making a Statement to their Parliament until this afternoon. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment about the report in detail at this stage.

However, I can say that Lord Penrose reviewed more than 118,000 documents and more than 150 statements from patients and relatives and also took oral evidence from many of the officials involved in decision-making at that time. It would therefore seem to be an extremely thorough job, which for the first time provides an authoritative narrative of events.

I said in this House during a Back-Bench debate on 15 January that this Government would be making an interim response to Lord Penrose’s report, which we did yesterday in a Written Ministerial Statement, and that it would be for the next Government to consider a more substantive response, once they have had time to consider what the inquiry says.

Yesterday, we announced that we will be allocating up to an additional one-off £25 million from the Department of Health’s 2015-16 budget to support any transitional arrangements to a different system of financial assistance. We intend this to provide assurances to those affected by these devastating events that we have heard their concerns and are making provision to reform the system.

We had hoped to consult during this Parliament on reforming the ex-gratia financial assistance schemes. I very much regret that our considerations on the design of a future system of financial assistance for those affected have been subject to postponement while we awaited publication of Lord Penrose’s final report. The Prime Minister also said yesterday that if he were to remain Prime Minister after the election in May, we will respond to the findings of the report as a matter of priority”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for repeating that Answer. Clearly the Penrose report is a detailed factual account of what happened, and I pay tribute to Lord Penrose for the work that he and his team have completed.

I noted the noble Earl’s comments this afternoon that we have the initial response, but that the full response is to be left to the next Government. It is clear that the report needs very careful reading in order to come to a substantive view. Certainly, as a Minister, I dealt with this issue in my time at the Department of Health—I see the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and other former Ministers here—and Dr David Owen has on a number of occasions drawn attention to some issues about the way this was handled by the Department of Health. On the face of it, does the noble Earl think that at the very least this warrants some discussion about whether his own department needs to establish some kind of view on the Penrose report?

Lord Penrose made a single recommendation: that all people in Scotland who had a blood transfusion before 1991 should be tested for hepatitis C. Again, is that to be left to the substantive response after the election, or can he give an initial view on the implications of that recommendation for people affected in England?

The noble Earl referred to relief. Can he say anything about the Skipton Fund payments and progress made on that fund since its establishment in 2004, and about decisions that I believe were made by the Government in January 2011 with regard to payments to the estates of people who died prior to the announcement of the scheme in August 2003?

One of the stark conclusions from reading the report is about what could be described as the paternalistic view taken by doctors on information to be given to patients. He says that the expert evidence available to the inquiry indicated the withholding of information from patients on the absence of treatment for the condition, which from a contemporary ethical perspective was not acceptable. Does the noble Earl agree with that, and does he consider that circumstances have moved on such that today such information would not be withheld?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for his comments and questions. There is no doubt that Lord Penrose has done a very thorough job in examining the facts. It is worth understanding that he has considered the evidence from England as well as Scotland.

I pay tribute to those who showed tremendous courage in telling the inquiry about the impact of infection on their lives and the lives of their families. The report has systematically examined the facts and set them out. As well as other inquires, such as the Archer inquiry, with which the noble Lord is familiar, this report has now given us a detailed account of what happened, which is extremely valuable. I agree that there will be a need to reach a formal view on Penrose’s conclusions once my department and the next Government have had an opportunity properly to consider the conclusions that he reached.

As for Lord Penrose’s recommendation to offer a hepatitis C test to everyone who had a blood transfusion before 1991, the department conducted a look-back exercise in 1995 to try to identify everyone who might have received infected blood prior to 1991. We will consider whether anything more can be done on this in England, although obviously Lord Penrose’s recommendation relates specifically to the Scottish Government taking steps along these lines. We have already done an exercise to identify anyone who could have been affected, and we will consider whether anything more should be done on this.

The noble Lord asked about the Skipton Fund, which, as noble Lords will remember, is there to make non-discretionary payments to patients infected with hepatitis C. To date, over 5,100 individuals in the UK have received the stage one payment and around 1,500 have received a stage two lump sum in the UK, with around 700 receiving annual payments in the UK.

My Lords, I am very glad to hear the Government’s pledge to give all possible help to those who have been harmed through no fault of their own. However, with respect that pledge has been given before. It is very important this time that it is properly, and above all generously, followed through.

Does my noble friend agree that we should take note of Lord Penrose’s statement, following his very detailed and long inquiry, when he said yesterday:

“Much of the comment made over the years on the topics discussed in the Final Report has reflected strongly-held beliefs. Some commentators believe that more could have been done to prevent infection in particular groups of patients. Careful consideration of the evidence has, however, revealed few respects in which matters could or”—

more importantly—

“should have been handled differently”.

Will my noble friend endorse that conclusion?

My Lords, if my noble friend will forgive me, I do not want to be drawn too closely on Lord Penrose’s comments, as we should reflect on them carefully. However, it is clear that, as knowledge of these viruses began to emerge in the 1970s and early 1980s, no tests were available to screen blood donations and no means existed to inactivate the virus in blood or blood products. By 1985, a screening test for HIV was available, and heat-treated plasma products that inactivated the virus had been developed. It was not until 1990 that an effective screening test for hepatitis C was available. It is important to put that into context, because Lord Penrose found that clinicians acted in accordance with the technical facilities that they had available to them and in accordance with the ethical frameworks that were in place during the 1970s and 1980s. The ethical frameworks in which clinicians operate today are of course very different from those that were in place then.

My Lords, looking ahead to the future with the new Government, would the noble Earl agree with me that there are new drugs coming along for hepatitis C? For those poor, unfortunate patients who had haemophilia and who got HIV and hepatitis C, it really was a disaster. Would he consider, if he is still a Minister, that the very best treatment with these new hepatitis C drugs will be given to these patients? That would prevent liver disease, which is a huge problem.

The noble Baroness makes a very important point. NICE guidance on the first of the new hepatitis C drugs is expected in June this year. Pending that, in April last year NHS England introduced an early access scheme for the new hepatitis C therapies. Over 700 patients have now been treated as a result of that policy, including some of those who were infected by blood or blood products in the 1970s and 1980s. NHS England is considering a further early access policy to include patients with cirrhosis, which it is aiming to have in place in the first half of this year. I think that should be of comfort to many patients.

I am very grateful to the noble Earl for repeating the Statement. He may be aware that the report was very badly received by the public in Edinburgh, which is a source of concern. One of the people, no doubt someone affected by the disaster, was shown on television burning the report. Against that background, and appreciating of course that this is primarily a Scottish matter, will the noble Earl take steps to ensure that the Statement itself and some of the reassuring remarks that he and indeed the noble Lord opposite have made are drawn to the attention of the media in Scotland, as the more it can be put across that this is a valuable report that has done a great deal of work and sets a basis for further study, the more the public will be reassured? I would be grateful if the noble Earl would do that.