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NHS: Contaminated Blood

Volume 783: debated on Thursday 20 July 2017


My Lords, I shall now repeat the Answer given by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“I would like to begin by adding my personal apology to those who have spoken in this House on previous occasions about the tragedy of contaminated blood, and reiterating that the Government recognise the terrible impact this has had on many thousands of lives. The Government recognise that the 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 that inquiry to be fully independent. However, before it is established, there is a need to define the scope and format so that terms of reference may be set by the relevant Secretary of State. Given the impact this tragedy has had on so many lives it is vital that we get this right, and 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 honourable Member for Kingston upon Hull North 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 that it is normal practice for public inquiries to be sponsored by the relevant department. However, in light of concerns raised, we are keen to listen to those concerns and ensure 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 today, hosted at the Cabinet Office, where the Secretary of State and Ministers hoped to understand further the important views of those affected about the shape and establishment of the 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 there will be safeguards put in place to ensure independence, for instance by ensuring that the secretary to the inquiry never worked at the Department of Health or any of its agencies. 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. We will work with those affected and Members of this House to do so”.

I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Minister’s response in the Commons. While we of course very much welcomed last week’s announcement of the public inquiry, we are dismayed at the lack of sensitivity and understanding shown by the Government in the way they have gone about consulting the victims and survivors on the inquiry’s terms of reference.

The Minister underlined that no final decisions have been made on the scope, format or leadership of the inquiry and that the Government are in discussions with the Cabinet Office to ensure cross-departmental involvement. We on these Benches say categorically that the Department of Health should have no role in how this inquiry is established or conducted. Can the Minister please give the House that assurance today? Can the Minister also place on record her acceptance that true and meaningful consultation should now take place and tell us how the Government intend to make up for their deeply regrettable start on such a vital issue?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for those questions. It is normal for the relevant department to sponsor an inquiry, and the Department of Health is the sponsoring department. We are listening on this, which is why the Cabinet Office has joined the discussions, and other departments may well be involved. We are absolutely committed to an independent inquiry and the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team has been liaising with the Department of Health about this inquiry.

As regards how people can make sure that they are able to consult, we are sending letters this week, or at the beginning of next week, to all 3,500 beneficiaries of the schemes. MPs will also receive the letter. The letter will state clearly how to make contact so that people can put forward their concerns, ideas and representations.

My Lords, I welcome the fact that we are to have a proper inquiry at last and that it will be fully independent. I also welcome that the secretariat to the inquiry will be someone who has never worked at the Department of Health. However, the remit of these inquiries always has an enormous effect on the deliberations and the outcomes. Victims are concerned that the Department of Health could sign off the remit. To be seen to be completely independent, will the Minister consider which department would be more appropriate than her own for signing off the remit? Perhaps it could be the Cabinet Office.

The inquiry must have statutory powers not just to summon witnesses but to compel them to appear and to receive documents. In the debate in another place last week the Minister seemed to see two alternatives: either giving the inquiry these important statutory powers or providing a,

“Hillsborough-style panel—which would allow for a sensitive investigation of the issues, allowing those affected and their families close personal engagement”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/7/17; col. 187.]

I do not see these as two alternatives. If the inquiry is properly constituted and the remit laid down by an independent body with the approval of the victims, it could command their trust and close personal engagement could then be achieved. However, these inquiries usually take a long time, and the victims of this scandal need help now. How will the Minister ensure that victims have access to the compensation they deserve in the short term? Will she reverse the decision made in April not to increase the compensation payments in line with inflation? Will the Minister set a date for responding to the consultation on the support scheme, which closed in April?

As regards the set-up of the inquiry, no final decisions on how it will be have been made. That will be taken into account following the consultations. As the noble Baroness said, there are two possible ways of doing it, either by a statutory inquiry, which involves a judge and means witnesses can be ordered to appear, or rather like the Hillsborough panel, which is more “families first” but cannot force witnesses to appear. No decision has been made. It will all be part of the consultation over the summer before a decision in September.

As for the other queries mentioned by the noble Baroness, I do not now want to go into what happened before. This Urgent Question is about how the inquiry will be set up. However, I understand the noble Baroness’s concerns about the consultation. I do not know the date yet. When I go out, if I find the date has been agreed, I will make sure I write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Haemophilia Society. The Minister will be aware that the Haemophilia Society and others boycotted the meeting this morning to discuss the remit of the inquiry because of the involvement of the Department of Health. The Department of Health will be the main subject of this inquiry. For example, why did the Department of Health continue to allow contaminated blood to be given to patients when it was known to be unsafe? Which documents were shredded by Department of Health officials and why? It is surely preposterous for the Department of Health to be able to restrict the inquiry by being involved in setting the terms of reference or the remit. It gives it enormous power over something where it should have no power at all. Will the Minister ensure that the decision on the remit of this inquiry will not involve the Department of Health at all and that the inquiry will be a statutory inquiry to ensure that witnesses can be required to give evidence so that justice can finally be given to these innocent and badly affected victims?

I thank the noble Baroness for the question. We are very aware of the worries that various Members involved in this have. That is why an early consultative meeting was scheduled for today at the Cabinet Office. As I said in the Statement, the Secretary of State and Ministers hope to understand further the important views of those affected about the shape and establishment of the inquiry. It was the first of several meetings. Over the summer, following the responses as a result of the letters, we will be going forward, listening to what everyone is saying and making a decision. I can guarantee that.

My Lords, as a Member of Parliament around 30 years ago, I was approached on this very tragic issue and became involved. Will my noble friend listen very carefully and talk to the Secretary of State about the point just made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher? We cannot have a department that is judge and jury. The Department of Health is being investigated. We need an inquiry presided over by a judge, answerable perhaps to the Cabinet Office, as has been mentioned, or perhaps to the Ministry of Justice, but it cannot be to the Department of Health. I urge my noble friend to take that message, which I rather infer is supported throughout your Lordships’ House, to the Secretary of State.

I thank my noble friend for his question and indeed for all he did all those years ago. The feelings when the Urgent Question was answered in the other place were obvious, as they are in this House, and I am sure the Department of Health is listening. I cannot stand here and categorically say what will happen, but I can say that the department is listening and is very aware of the deep feelings that everybody has on this subject.

On the narrow point that has just been raised, it is not the department that needs to listen; it is Her Majesty’s Government who need to listen as to who is to draw up the brief for this inquiry.

I cannot categorically say whether it will be involved, but the point about the inquiry is that it will be far reaching and go into every avenue to be able to get the proper result that we want, so I am sure that will be considered.