Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 19 July.
“I thank the right honourable lady for her question. I note that she does not appear to be seeking the full debate that I recently wrote to her in support of, and I would commend my recent letter to her, wherein I suggested that perhaps a full debate would be in order when the House resumes, if the Leader of the House will agree. I frequently pay tribute to her, as she knows, for her long-standing work on this issue, and I ask her to accept from me that other people are also working hard on it, including my officials and officials from across Whitehall. She has been a resolute advocate for her constituent—also through her all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood—and I am seeking also to support the wider community of people who have been affected by this appalling tragedy.
The specific question that the right honourable lady raises today concerns the compensation framework study. This was produced by Sir Robert Francis QC and was commissioned by my predecessor in her then capacity as sponsor Minister for the infected blood inquiry. I can tell the House that it was delivered to me as the current sponsor Minister for the infected blood inquiry only in March. Sir Robert had been asked to give independent advice about the design of a workable and fair framework for compensation for victims of infected blood that could be ready to implement upon the conclusion of the inquiry, should its findings and recommendations require it.
The Government published Sir Robert’s study some six weeks ago on 7 June. Sir Robert then gave evidence about his work to the inquiry last week, on 11 and 12 July. His evidence was quite detailed, quite lengthy, quite technical and forensic. As honourable Members will appreciate, Sir Robert’s study is a comprehensive and detailed one. It reflects the contributions of many victims and their recognised legal representatives, and of the campaign groups who have been representing the infected and affected communities so well. In total, Sir Robert makes no fewer than 19 recommendations that span the full spectrum of considerations for the creation, status and delivery of a framework, including non-financial compensation, for victims—both individuals who were infected by contaminated blood or blood products and those whose lives were affected after their loved ones or family members received infected blood or infected blood products.
The Government are grateful to Sir Robert for his thorough examination of these complex questions and the detailed submissions, and I wish to assure all those who have taken part that the Government are focused on making a prompt response. One of Sir Robert’s recommendations, and the focus of the right honourable lady’s question today, is that the Government should consider making interim compensation payments to infected blood support scheme beneficiaries before a compensation scheme is established, in the interest of speeding up justice and giving some level of assurance and security to those who may not live to see the end of the inquiry. My colleagues and I are particularly and keenly aware of this reality. After all, it was this Conservative Government, under my right honourable friend the Member for Maidenhead, that launched the inquiry in the first place and it was this Government under the current Prime Minister that commissioned the compensation framework study last year.
To conclude, I can confirm to the right honourable lady and the House that officials across Government are making haste to address this as quickly and thoroughly as possible. However, responsible government requires proper and careful consideration of how complex and important schemes can and should work, and it will take a little more time for the work to be completed.”
My Lords, we are in the slightly strange position that the House has not heard the Minister’s response. I think it would be helpful if the House were to return to hearing the Answer to an Urgent Question repeated before we ask questions on it. I think Members of this House would agree that, had we heard the Answer, we would think it embarrassingly unacceptable.
I pay tribute to the Haemophilia Society for the work that it has undertaken and its support for those affected by contaminated blood. The scale of this is staggering: over 3,000 people have died, including over 400 in the five years since the public inquiry was called. The Government do not seem to be in any hurry to respond to the recommendations in the report that they received four months ago.
I want to press the Minister on just one issue. She will be aware of the advice and recommendations on compensation and interim payments. She will also understand the impact that delays in addressing this have had on the victims and their families. Many are dying while they are waiting for this to be resolved. The deadline for responses on the specific issue of interim payments is Friday, when Parliament is in recess. Can the Minister give an assurance that this will not be any excuse for delay? What work is being planned now to address this and the other recommendations in the original report? If necessary, will she write to noble Lords and others with a statement and an update during the recess?
My Lords, I join the noble Baroness in paying tribute to all those who have campaigned over many years on this issue, including her honourable friend Diana Johnson MP, who asked this Question in the other place and has been a great campaigner on the issue.
I reassure noble Lords that the Government are incredibly cognisant of the time pressure: we are working as fast as we can to work through the report that was delivered to the Government—Sir Robert’s study—including the recommendation on interim payments. We need to do that work thoroughly, but we are cognisant of the need to do it as quickly as possible. On the noble Baroness’s point about the deadline for responses being when the House is in recess, I reassure her that that relates to the work of the inquiry, the timetable for which is set independently of government. The Government will consider any recommendations the inquiry makes on this matter. My right honourable friend in the other place has committed to updating MPs as this goes along, and I am sure that the recess will not be a barrier to any updates we would wish to make.
My Lords, my sister’s son, a haemophiliac, died from contaminated blood aged 35, leaving a 10 month-old baby daughter. All victims have a terrible story to tell. The interim payments should be made immediately, but what eats away at my sister and others is their quest for the truth against a government cover-up that resulted in thousands of further infections and deaths that could have been prevented. When the inquiry finds there was a cover-up, as it clearly will—a cover-up that has been denied by every Government over decades—will the Minister commit the Government to come to both Houses to publicly admit that cover-up and finally give all involved that longed-for admission of guilt?
The noble Baroness is absolutely right that it is extremely important that all those who have suffered so terribly get the answers that they have spent decades waiting for. The chair of the inquiry, Sir Brian Langstaff, has made clear his determination to complete his work as quickly as thoroughness allows. Many of the infected will not live to see the inquiry’s conclusions. When that work is complete, I am sure that Ministers will want to return to the House to reflect on the outcomes of the inquiry.
My Lords, are the Government considering introducing a similar system to that introduced for miners’ compensation? That took away the need for individuals to make claims and speeded the process up. Have they looked at that as a potential model?
My Lords, the purpose of asking Sir Robert Francis QC to work on the compensation framework while the inquiry was ongoing was so that we did not to have to wait for the results of that inquiry to do some of the thinking in this area and look at the right approach for these specific circumstances. I believe that that work produced 19 recommendations that the Government are now working through and looking at closely.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness pointed out, we are a little bit in the dark, not having had the Answer repeated. Will my noble friend please outline whether this is a situation where it would be appropriate for a low-level interim payment of a modest amount to be paid across the board, obviously not reflecting blame? It is clear that time is of the essence here for people, and paying out a few tens of thousands would make an enormous difference to most families.
One of Sir Robert’s recommendations, and the focus of the Urgent Question in the other place, is that the Government should consider making interim compensation payments to infected support scheme beneficiaries before a compensation scheme is established, in the interests of speeding up justice and to give some level of assurance and security to those who may not live to see the end of the inquiry. My right honourable friend in the other place, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and all colleagues in government, are keenly aware of that reality. We are working carefully to consider the recommendations in the report, and making haste to address this as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.
My Lords, my noble friend keeps using the word “quickly”. Some of us were around when this terrible scandal broke many years ago—I heard heart-rending stories in my own constituency surgery. We really need to get things sorted out within this year, at the very latest. Can she give an assurance that, by the end of this year, everything will have been dealt with, in so far as it can be?
The assurance I can give noble Lords is that we are extremely cognisant of the time pressures in this scenario. We know that those infected and affected have been waiting for decades, so we are aware of the time pressures and are working as quickly as we can on the recommendations from Sir Robert’s study. The work of the inquiry continues, and its chair has made it clear that he is aware of the need to conduct it as quickly as the thoroughness that is needed will allow.
My Lords, we all agree that the victims of the infected blood scandal have waited far too long for justice. Interim payments are important but, as my noble friend has said, many other elements of the inquiry are important too, not least the official recognition it gives people of what they have been through, through no fault of their own, and the chance for all those infected and affected finally to be heard. Would my noble friend agree that, in this, Sir Brian Langstaff’s inquiry is fulfilling an essential role that had been ignored by many Governments for many decades previously?
My noble friend is right about the nature of the tragedy for those affected and that they have waited far too long for recognition of that. I hope that the process of starting the inquiry and going through it provides some of the recognition they deserve. I am glad that it was my right honourable friend Theresa May who initiated the inquiry in the other place. That work needs to conclude so that they can get the full results and the full truth of what happened at the time.
My Lords, we now come to the next business, which will include a valedictory speech by a much-loved and respected Member who has made a major and sustained contribution over many years to this House, government and society. As noble Lords will know, I refer to none other than the distinguished former Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.