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Infected Blood Inquiry

Volume 837: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2024

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 23 April.

“Let me start by stating that the stories reported in the recent BBC news article, and indeed the Sunday Times report by Caroline Wheeler, demonstrate the unimaginable suffering of all those impacted by this dreadful scandal. As the House will know, in 2017 the Government established an independent public statutory inquiry chaired by Sir Brian Langstaff, to give those impacted and their families the answers that they deserve.

Since it was established, the inquiry has taken evidence from a range of sources, and the testimonies are indicative of the bravery of every individual who has come forward. The Infected Blood Inquiry’s final report is due to be published within a month, on 20 May, and we expect the inquiry’s findings to cover a set of extremely challenging issues. It would not be right for the Government to pre-empt the findings of this long prepared and carefully considered report, but the Government have committed to update Parliament through an Oral Statement on next steps within 25 sitting days following 20 May. It is our intention to make that Statement as soon as possible. The 25-day stipulation is a deadline, and certainly not a target.

In January this year, I appointed an expert group to provide technical advice to the Cabinet Office in responding to the Infected Blood Inquiry’s recommendations on compensation. That work is well under way and will build on the recommendations of the Infected Blood Inquiry to inform the Government’s substantive response to the inquiry’s recommendations on compensation. The Government understand the need to move quickly to provide compensation to victims of infected blood. Most recently, we tabled amendments just last Wednesday to the Victims and Prisoners Bill to impose a duty on the Government to establish an infected blood compensation scheme. It also establishes a new arm’s-length body, named the infected blood compensation authority, to deliver the compensation scheme. It will operate on a UK-wide basis to ensure parity and consistency. That demonstrates our absolute commitment to deliver long overdue justice to victims of infected blood.

We understand that for many there is an urgent need for compensation. As the House will know, in October 2022, the Government paid more than £400 million in interim compensation to help to ease the short-term needs of those infected. The government amendment also includes a statutory duty to make interim payments of £100,000 to the estates of the deceased infected people who were registering with existing or former support schemes, where previous interim payments have not already been made to infected individuals or their bereaved partners. That is an important step forward to get substantial compensation into the hands of families and victims of infected blood. Should that government amendment be supported in the other place, it will return to this House for debate in the usual process of Commons consideration of Lords amendments.”

My Lords, as a result of this scandal, two people die on average each week. It now seems that children, even babies, were experimented on in the 70s and 80s without their parents’ consent. As my right honourable friend Diana Johnson said yesterday:

“These disturbing revelations raise serious criminal and ethical issues for the NHS and the medical profession”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/4/24; col. 802.]

Last week, the Government laid amendments to the Victims and Prisoners Bill after the Commons forced the Government to act, but we were disappointed to see that the Government are attempting to wriggle out of the three-month time commitment to introduce a mechanism for compensation payments to be made. My noble friend Lord Ponsonby has tabled an amendment that would reinstate the commitment to act within three months. This will be considered next week. Will the Government accept the amendment?

The Government accept the moral case for compensation, so can the Minister confirm what progress has been made on setting up the basis for a compensation scheme for those infected by contaminated blood and whether the Government will respond to every recommendation in the Infected Blood Inquiry report? How long after publication will the Government publish their full response to the recommendations? What preparatory work is being done by the Treasury on this issue, and will the Minister commit to making this publicly available?

We learned this morning of the sad passing of our loved and respected friend Lord Field of Birkenhead, a steadfast champion for justice on this and many other issues. I can do no better this afternoon than to consider Frank’s words. In his statement to the inquiry, he said:

“I do not know how to value the life of someone lost due to Factor 8, but I know that it is worth more than £20,000.”

He said this with reference to a meeting that he led in 1989. This has gone on for far too long. The time to act, as Frank said, has now long passed.

My Lords, the story of infected blood is one of unimaginable suffering, inflicted on thousands of individuals and families over decades. It is undoubtedly an unparalleled tragedy in the history of the NHS.

I pay tribute to the late Lord Field for all the work he did in championing the cause of so many people who required justice in one form or another. The Government are determined to deliver justice to the victims as swiftly as we can. The Infected Blood Inquiry’s final report will be published within a month, on 20 May. We will update Parliament through an Oral Statement on next steps as soon as possible thereafter. Meanwhile, as the noble Baroness has said, the Government have tabled amendments to the Victims and Prisoners Bill, which we will debate next week. They are designed to deliver on the Government’s commitment to pay compensation and will set up the legal framework to do that.

My Lords, from the Liberal Democrat Benches we also pay tribute to Lord Field, who campaigned actively for infected blood victims from 1989. As with Lord Cormack, he will be greatly missed by the infected blood community.

Yesterday, Dame Diana Johnson rightly highlighted the appalling experiments which were carried out on an estimated 380 children. In particular, the parents of the children at Lord Mayor Treloar school were not even aware that their children were part of a research study. This was first highlighted by “World in Action” in 1975. Caroline Wheeler and the Sunday Times have campaigned rigorously on this for the last three decades, and to continue to remind people. It appears that the Government need reminding yet again that this is long overdue. I too have laid amendments to the Victims and Prisoners Bill for next week’s debate. The deadline for the compensation scheme is important, but victims need mandatory provision of support and legal advice. Interim payments are needed for those who have not yet received them: for those who are known about, within three months; for those who may not be confirmed, as soon after as possible.

Finally, we thank the Government for setting up the arrangements for the compensation body, but we hope that a High Court judge and a shadow board will also be appointed within three months.

As the noble Baroness rightly says, it has been known for many years that many dozens of children with haemophilia at Treloar school in Hampshire were infected with HIV and hepatitis C in the 1980s through contaminated blood products. We are acutely aware of the distress and suffering of those individuals and of the bereaved families of those who have died. We expect Sir Brian Langstaff’s report to reveal the full circumstances of how this appalling tragedy came about.

The Government’s aim is to deliver compensation to those eligible as speedily as possible. Government amendments to the Victims and Prisoners Bill are designed to do this. One particular amendment will set up an arm’s-length body to deliver the compensation scheme, as recommended by Sir Brian. It will provide for interim payments to a particular group who have so far received no compensation, and for early commencement of the ALB and the interim payments. The ALB will be set up straightaway in shadow form, led by an interim chief executive, so that the practical work for delivering compensation can begin as soon as possible.

My Lords, in noting what my noble friend the Minister said, on the matter of compensation, I am sure he will agree that those who received inflected blood products, or their estates if they are deceased, should receive early compensation. That also applies to dependants who can establish clear financial loss. Beyond that, should we not be a bit cautious about compensation? Otherwise, the bill will be colossal.

My noble friend is quite right to highlight what is likely to be a very significant impact on the public finances as a result of compensation in this area. It is important that any decisions on compensation funding are taken carefully. I think the House would expect the Government to work through the associated costs to the public sector while considering the needs of members of the community and the very far-reaching impacts this scandal has had on their lives.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister appreciates the deep mistrust the community has regarding this Government. It has, for 40 years, struggled to have its voice heard and its needs met. Bearing this in mind, could he expand on the ways the Government intend to involve the community from here forward in all the developments? As there has frequently been such mistrust, we owe it to the community to involve it at every stage of the way.

My Lords, I fully recognise the point that the noble Baroness has just made. My right honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office is preparing to engage with members of the infected and affected communities at the beginning of May in a succession of meetings. Further than that, we agree that it is critical for those infected and affected to have a role in the infected blood compensation authority itself. We intend to utilise the provision for committees and sub-committees to make sure that the community is represented on these groups. It is right that the exact committees and board make-up is defined once the shadow body is established, with the input of the infected blood community. The message I would give is that we want to work collaboratively with stakeholders to achieve the right outcome.

My Lords, this has been an unimaginable tragedy, and we must move to compensate those who have been affected by it as quickly and as well as we can. One part of it is worth thinking about, which is trying to ascribe malign intent to those who were involved in giving this product in the hope that it would stop the bleeding and potential death of children. That was the intent in using factor 8 at the time. It had tragic consequences and many mistakes were made, but we must not assume malign intent on the part of the people involved.

The noble Lord makes a very good point. For me to comment further would be wrong. What we need to do is wait for Sir Brian Langstaff’s final report on 20 May, which should, we expect, reveal some of the underlying facts that the noble Lord alluded to.