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Infected Blood Inquiry

Volume 826: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2022


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 15 December.

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a Statement to update the House on our preparations for the infected blood inquiry, which is expected to conclude next year.

I took over as the Minister sponsoring the inquiry on 25 October. While I have been aware of this issue for many years, as have so many of us who have been contacted by affected constituents, undertaking this role has further impressed on me its scale and gravity—not only the direct, dreadful consequences for victims, but the stigma and trauma experienced by many of those infected, by their families, and by those who care for them. I recognise that, tragically, we continue to see victims of infected blood die prematurely, and I also recognise that time is of the essence.

I commend the work of the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood. I am pleased to have met the co-chairs, the right honourable Member for Kingston upon Hull North, Dame Diana Johnson, and the Father of the House, my honourable friend the Member for Worthing West, Sir Peter Bottomley, and I am grateful for their insight.

In July 2017 my right honourable friend the Member for Maidenhead, Mrs May, established the infected blood inquiry, chaired by Sir Brian Langstaff. My predecessor as Paymaster-General, the current Leader of the House, went further by commissioning a study from Sir Robert Francis KC, which is entitled ‘Compensation and redress for the victims of infected blood: recommendations for a framework’. The purpose of the study was clear: namely, to ensure that the Government were in a position to fully consider and act on the recommendations. Sir Robert delivered it in March this year.

The Government had intended to publish a response alongside the study itself, ahead of Sir Robert’s evidence to Sir Brian Langstaff’s inquiry. However, as the then Paymaster-General explained, the sheer complexity and wide range of factors revealed in Sir Robert’s excellent work meant that when the study was published by the Government on 7 June, it was not possible to publish a comprehensive response. The Government remained absolutely committed to using the study to prepare for the outcome of the Langstaff inquiry, and that is still the case.

On 29 July, in response to Sir Robert’s recommendations, Sir Brian Langstaff published an interim report on interim compensation. It called for an interim payment of £100,000 to be paid to all those infected and all bereaved partners currently registered on UK infected blood support schemes, and to those who registered between 29 July and the inception of any future scheme. The Government accepted that recommendation in full on 17 August. Quite rightly, a huge amount of work was undertaken across government during the ensuing weeks to ensure that the interim payments could be exempt from tax and disregarded for the purpose of benefits, and that an appropriate delivery mechanism existed. This involved work across many departments, and with the devolved Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Interim compensation is just one part of our overall response, but it was important that we got it right.

I fully recognise that interim compensation was but one of the recommendations in Sir Robert’s study. I want to stress to the House and to the many people who have a direct and personal interest in the inquiry that those interim payments were only the start of the process, and work is ongoing in consideration of Sir Robert’s other recommendations. I am pleased that all the interim payments were made by the end of October. Sir Robert recognised in his study that the Government could not give in advance a commitment on the exact shape that redress will take. Our comprehensive response must await the final report of the infected blood inquiry. However, I want to assure those affected that this Government, which delivered a statutory inquiry and interim compensation, remain absolutely committed to our intentions in commissioning the compensation framework study. Accordingly, and recognising the need to continue to build trust with the affected community, I want to share with the House the progress we are making.

A cross-government working group, co-ordinated by the Cabinet Office, is taking forward work strands informed by Sir Robert’s recommendations. A cross-departmental group at Permanent Secretary level has been convened, chaired by the Cabinet Office second Permanent Secretary, Sue Gray, to oversee that work. I am pleased to be able to say that Sir Robert has agreed to provide independent transparent advice to the group as work progresses. I am grateful to him for his continued input into our thinking. It is my intention over the coming months to update the House on progress and, where it is possible, to provide greater clarity on the Government’s response to Sir Robert’s recommendations prior to Sir Brian’s report being published.

In the meantime, I wish to make clear one critical answer to a recommendation posed by Sir Robert. In the first recommendation of his study, Sir Robert sets out that there is in his view a moral case for compensation to be paid. The Government accept that recommendation. There is a moral case for the payment of compensation. We have made that clear in our actions with the payment of interim compensation. I now want to make it equally clear on the Floor of the House. The Government recognise that the scheme utilised must be collaborative and sympathetic, and as user-friendly, supportive and free of stress as possible, while being consistent with the Government’s approach to protect against fraud. The Government will ensure those principles are adopted.

We have significant work to do to ensure we are ready for Sir Brian’s report. For example, Sir Robert makes detailed findings and recommendations about the delivery of the scheme, which must be worked through in discussion with the devolved Administrations. Work will need to be undertaken to ensure, in line with his recommendation, that final compensation can be made free of tax and disregarded for benefits purposes.

We know, too, that the inquiry will make recommendations in relation to bereaved parents and children. In his interim report, Sir Brian made clear his view that the moral case for their compensation is beyond doubt. Sir Brian recognised that the approach to compensating this group of people is complex and the Government must be ready to quickly address recommendations relating to them. The work in consideration of the study will ensure that the Government are prepared to act swiftly in response to Sir Brian Langstaff’s final recommendations relating to compensation.

Those infected and affected have suffered enough. Having commissioned both the inquiry and the report, the Government have further shown their commitment in our actions by the payment of interim compensation. Sir Brian and Sir Robert have both ensured that the voices of those infected and affected are front and centre of their work, and I, too, hope to be able to meet and hear from people directly affected as our work progresses. We have much to do, but I wish to assure the House—this is why I wished to be here today—that this is a priority for the Government and we will continue to progress it. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I begin by thanking the Minister. This Statement is welcome but, as I sure she would acknowledge, information for victims and their families is long overdue. Earlier this year, the Government did not provide an Oral Statement to the House when they published Sir Robert’s report. Ministers were, of course, forced to publish the report after it was leaked, and sadly, that has been all too typical of the experience of victims and their families throughout this long and painful process. Most heartbreaking of all is that many of those infected have not lived to see the justice they deserved. The Terence Higgins Trust calculates that in the five years since the start of the inquiry in July 2017, more than 400 victims have sadly died. While we await the report conclusion and inquiry, another person dies every four days. The Minister knows that answers are needed, so today I have four questions for her.

First, will she commit to the publication of a timetable for the compensation framework? Will she work in partnership with the infected blood community to develop the compensation framework for those affected? When will she end the Government’s silence on the other 18 recommendations that have not been acted on so far? How will she make sure that everyone who wants to respond to the proposals has the opportunity to do so?

Sporadic updates, unfortunately without any substance, are not good enough. We would like to see regular progress updates to this House and, more importantly, victims and their families. The contaminated blood scandal has had life-changing impacts on tens of thousands of victims who put their faith in the promise of effective treatment. When the Government received a copy of the report by Sir Robert Francis, Ministers were clear that it would be published alongside a government response. The report was published in June but we still do not have the full government response. It would be helpful to understand why it did not come with the report.

I am aware that the Minister in another place said that the Government are awaiting the full report of the infected blood inquiry chaired by Sir Brian Langstaff before responding in full to that report and that of Sir Robert Francis. The Minister said that the issues were so complex that the Government could not commit to a timetable. However, given that the inquiry began over five years ago, surely they cannot credibly justify the length of time this is taking. Surely the Minister can understand the deep disappointment of victims and their families that this most recent government Statement contains nothing to suggest that their formal response will be forthcoming any time soon. Victims will not and should not be expected to accept empty gestures.

It seems to families that the plan changes with every announcement. In another place, the Minister did not provide any clarity on the timeline for payments and declined to commit to one. Given the length of time that has elapsed and the now broad understanding of what happened, affected families must be involved at every stage. The Government should have plans to work in partnership with the infected blood community to develop the compensation framework.

We acknowledge and warmly welcome the support for victims and their partners in the interim scheme, but we know that the contaminated blood scandal deeply affected other family members and loved ones, such as their parents and children. So far, their experiences have not been similarly acknowledged. It would be helpful to understand what the Government will do to ensure that these victims are also supported. There will need to be consultation on the proposed compensation framework, and the Government must make sure that everyone who wants to has the opportunity to respond to all the proposals.

I will repeat my four questions to the Minister, as I am aware that questions are often lost in these exchanges—there can be dozens of them and it can be difficult for Ministers, so I ask them again for absolute clarity. First, will she commit to a timetable for the publication of a compensation framework? Secondly, will she work in partnership with the infected blood community to develop the compensation framework for those affected? Thirdly, when will the Government respond to the other 18 recommendations? Fourthly, how will they make sure that everyone who wants to respond to the proposals can do so? I apologise for repeating those questions, but there are only four and I would like to leave the Chamber with some clarity about the answers.

This has been a deeply distressing and shaming episode. We know that what has happened cannot be undone. All that is possible now is to understand, recognise and compensate those harmed so terribly by this scandal. As we approach Christmas, the loss of those dearest to us is often felt more keenly than during the rest of the year. I am sorry that another Christmas will come and go without the certainty that so many families are owed. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, Sir Robert Francis’s study into a framework for paying compensation starts with powerful testimony from those who were given infected blood products and those around them whom this affected deeply. Members in another place shared moving stories of their constituents in responding to this Statement last week.

This all points to the absolute urgency of getting compensation to the people who we are morally obligated to help, as Ministers now have agreed. We need to keep coming back to the timetable for establishing the full scheme and press the Government to move as quickly as humanly possible. I certainly echo the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, that we need a timetable to give people certainty.

There has been considerable political turmoil this year, but it is good to know that the machinery of government kept working and has now been able to deliver the interim payments that Sir Brian Langstaff asked for in July. It would be helpful if the Minister could reiterate for the record what I understand the policy to be: that there are no circumstances under which any of those interim payments could be required to be paid back and that they could go up from £100,000 once the final scheme is in place, but they will never go down. That reassurance needs to be repeated for those applying to the scheme.

Could the Minister also ensure that recipients of compensation are properly protected as they claim for and receive these payments? We know that, sadly, there are some less moral people out there who will seek to take advantage of those entitled to compensation in any such scheme, either through excessive charges to support them through the claim process or by defrauding or seeking to defraud them once they have received the funds. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that we minimise the risks of financial exploitation of claimants during and after the claim process?

Sir Robert’s report included a recommendation for an arm’s-length body to be set up to manage the compensation scheme. This seems sensible as a way to build confidence from all parties concerned and shows lessons being learned from previous schemes such as the Windrush scheme, where there was a breakdown in confidence which damaged the scheme. Are the Government looking at how such a body could be set up? Are they doing that now under the committee that I understand is being led by Sue Gray in the Cabinet Office, to ensure that setting up such a body does not itself become a source of further delay if this is what the inquiry eventually recommends?

My Lords, I start by saying that this is an unimaginably awful matter causing heartbreak and pain to all those directly and indirectly affected. It is a deeply shaming episode, as the noble Baroness rightly said. It dates back many years to the 1970s and 1980s and is a tragedy that has affected all Governments. We have to resolve it and move forward. The noble Baroness did not mention the need to ease the stigma and to be more vocal about the awful experiences of those involved and their loved ones, especially a long time ago when HIV/AIDS was less well understood.

The noble Lord, Lord Allan, asked about the interim payments, which we have all welcomed. It was an amazing effort by the machine once those were recommended to make them all by the end of October. They can only go up; they cannot come down. I think that was the reassurance he was seeking.

The noble Baroness had a number of questions. I think the first was on whether we can commit to publishing a full timetable for compensation. Clearly, that is something we would like to do. As she will understand from the Statement, it was the Government’s intention to publish our response to the compensation framework, and timings and so on, alongside the study, but the sheer complexity and the interdependencies have meant we are not able to set a timetable or, to answer one of her other points, to respond on all of the other recommendations in Sir Francis’s extremely good and perceptive report on compensation until we have the report from Sir Brian. I understand that that is expected next summer—I cannot say anything more explicit—and clearly, we will need to respond. The plans we have put in place will ensure that we are ready to respond.

The group led by Sue Gray was referenced, and that is progressing work on many fronts. This is a priority for government, so she is bringing together Permanent Secretaries—obviously the prime group of the Treasury, HMRC, the Cabinet Office and DHSC is leading on that, but it also involves the DWP, DLUHC, the devolved nations and others, as necessary. Preparations are being made so that, once the complexities are resolved with Sir Brian’s report, we will be able to move quickly.

Clearly the Government want to work with the people affected. I should take the opportunity to say how amazing the APPG has been, and I thank Dame Diana and Sir Peter Bottomley, and I know that in this House the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady Meacher, have been involved. Both Sir Brian and Sir Robert have also consulted, and as we get closer to paying out more compensation, there will be more work with the various groups—I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Allan, nodding. To pick up some of the wording of the report by Sir Robert, the schemes have to be collaborative, sympathetic and as free of stress as possible for these people who have had unending disappointments. But they also have to be simple and easy to access, and consistent with our fight against fraud and scammers. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Allan, made that point; again, it is high on our agenda.

We are working across government to ensure that we can deliver on the recommendations of the report. As I have already explained, it is a high-level, cross-government working group; it meets monthly and it is gearing up, thinking about the IT systems and how we ensure that we contact people who might want to seek compensation once we know the precise framework, and make sure that everyone can respond. Publicity is very important with these public issues, and noble Lords across the House can help with that, so that people know what is happening.

The final point I do not think I have covered is whether there should be an ALB, which is one of the recommendations in Sir Robert’s report. We are of course giving that careful consideration. It is clear how important it is that any vehicle for delivery of a compensation scheme carries the trust of the victims—I cannot make that point strongly enough—but it also has to achieve the objective of delivering compensation in a speedy and efficient manner. There are also issues regarding legislation and so on, which the Gray group is looking at.

To conclude, we are doing everything that we can within the constraints that I have described, and which the Paymaster-General, who spoke in the House last week, was very honest about. We will make progress statements to the House so that we do not repeat the difficulties of the past. We are absolutely determined as a Government to give this priority and get it sorted. This has been a serious failure and we have to compensate those who have had such a ghastly time.

My Lords, I declare an interest: I was a Health Minister 43 years ago and am someone who has been told that they may be a potential witness in this inquiry.

Along with those who have served in another place, we have all met those who have suffered from these tragic errors and waited so long. We want to see an early resolution. I urge my noble friend the Minister to give sympathetic consideration to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Allan, following up the recommendation from Sir Robert Francis, that there should be an arm’s-length body to administer compensation with independence of judgment and accountability to Parliament. That seems to be a crucial factor in maintaining confidence in the system.

Finally, are there some lessons to be learned by government from this tragedy? The fatal errors were made in the 1980s, the inquiry was established in 2017, it will be 2023 before we get the final recommendations, and then there will be payments. Are there lessons to be learned about the sheer timescale of the inquiry in order to minimise the distress that will be caused in future?

I thank my noble friend. I think I have said probably as much as I can about having an arm’s-length body, but clearly it is helpful to have Sir Robert’s advice on this important matter. No options are ruled out, and that is certainly one of the recommendations that we are looking at very seriously.

Independence in making sure that everybody gets the compensation they need and ensuring trust in the system are lessons that need to be learned. I like my noble friend’s challenge that we always need to learn lessons from mistakes that are made in government; coming from another world, it is something that I always try to do. Across all parties, we have been slow to take grip of this awful issue.

Having said that, it was the Conservative Government who set up the inquiry into infected blood in 2017. We then commissioned Sir Robert Francis to do a compensation study. The force of that study led Sir Brian—they are both involved in this; they work together—to recommend, on 29 July 2022, that an interim payment should be made. By October, we had paid that interim payment to all those he recommended should receive it. We have also ensured that it is exempt from tax and disregarded for benefits.

My Lords, as the Minister said, this is a tragedy. It is almost unimaginable what the families affected by this have gone through and are going through. My question is very simple and follows on from what two noble Lords who have spoken said. Do the Government anticipate that all the people who have suffered infection will get an interim payment, or is it limited?

The interim payment is confined to those Sir Robert suggested it should be paid to—those who were infected. There was an ongoing scheme over a number of years to make payments to those affected—there were around 4,000 of them, so we knew who they were—and their bereaved partners. It was limited, as you will see if you look at Sir Robert’s report, because he felt that the complexities of deciding who else should receive compensation were too difficult, and that we should therefore come back to the wider group when we had Sir Brian’s report.

My Lords, I think the whole House is grateful to the Minister for accepting that there have been too many long delays on this over the years. On the third page of the Statement, there is a reference to possible delays in working with the devolved Administrations. I gently point out that, this year, we have had two Bills going through your Lordships’ House where work was done speedily with the devolved Administrations. The Minister knows one of them very well—the Procurement Bill—but there was also the Health and Care Bill, where Members of your Lordships’ House were not allowed to lay amendments because of pre-agreement with the devolved Administrations. So it is certainly possible to work at pace. If the spirit of the Government is willing to move this forward, will they please prioritise these sorts of discussions, including with the devolved Administrations, to overcome the hurdles?

I worked with a theatre group that performed at Treloar School every summer. Of about 89 haemophiliac children who were at the school in the 1970s and 1980s, only a quarter are still alive, and of course, some of them are dying. They are psychologically scarred, not least because they were children away from home and had no say in the treatment that they were given, which everyone believed was a miracle cure. Factor 8 was going to be the change of life for haemophiliacs. Instead, for many of them it has become death.

I echo the questions raised by other noble Lords. It would be helpful for the Government to confirm a date by which they will come back with clear proposals. Generous though it is, this Statement just pushes things further into the long grass. To paraphrase another well-known saying, compensation delayed is compensation denied. In this case, it is also about justice being delayed and justice being denied.

I thank the noble Baroness for those comments, which underline the scale, gravity and dreadful consequences of this. It is very important that we dwell on that point. It is important to those who have been affected that they understand our sympathy as well.

Obviously, we hope and expect to get the report next summer. We will then move as fast as we can. It is clear that those of us now working in the Cabinet Office are giving this a very high degree of commitment. I assure the noble Baroness that we are also trying to work closely with the devolved Administrations. She knows that I mean it because we worked together on the Procurement Bill. It will be a UK-wide scheme, which is a good thing, but she will know there were disparities in the support scheme payments that were made. The DHSC acted to remedy that in a parity exercise, ensuring that Northern Ireland was aligned. That is an example of how we have been working with the devolved Administrations. When I answered the question asked by the noble Baroness opposite, I made it clear that the devolved Administrations were part of efforts to anticipate the findings that will come through and ensure that we are well prepared.