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Infected Blood Inquiry

Volume 638: debated on Thursday 29 March 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office to reconsider the decision to deny funding for legal assistance and advice to those affected by the contaminated blood scandal during the consultation on the terms of reference for the infected blood inquiry.

The infected blood inquiry is a priority for this Government. The infected blood tragedy of the ’70s and ’80s should never have happened, and the victims, who have endured so much pain and hardship, deserve answers. The Government will ensure that the inquiry has the resources it needs to complete its work as quickly as a thorough examination of the facts allows. We are committed to making sure that all those who have suffered so terribly can have the answers they have spent decades waiting for and that lessons can be learned so that a tragedy of this scale can never happen again.

We want to make sure that all those who need to contribute to the inquiry can do so. The Inquiries Act 2005 allows for the chair to make awards for legal representation for the inquiry itself once it is formally established—in other words, after the terms of reference have been set. We know that the inquiry chair intends to make early provision for core participant designation and legal expenses awards after the inquiry is formally set up. So the Government are not denying funds for legal representation at the inquiry. These funds will be available as soon as possible after the inquiry is up and running.

In addition, I can confirm that Ministers have decided that reasonable expenses properly incurred in respect of legal representation for the purpose of responding to the consultation by the infected blood inquiry on the terms of reference prior to the setting-up date will be awarded. Any claims will be handled by the solicitor to the inquiry, and it will be for the solicitor to determine these expenses. I hope that that is good news to the House.

I know that the chair of the inquiry, Sir Brian Langstaff, is keen to ensure that all those affected by this tragedy have a chance to make their voices heard. I know that last night he held a meeting with interested groups and that he is continuing to engage with those who are affected and the bereaved families. Sir Brian wants to ensure that the consultation process is as user-friendly and inclusive as possible, and such that legal advice is not a necessity for being able to respond to the consultation on the terms of reference. He wants to ensure that everyone has the chance to share their views, which will inform the terms of reference.

We believe that this is an exceptional circumstance. Thousands of people have been fighting for years to get answers to why this terrible tragedy happened, and they want to be part of ensuring that such a tragedy can never happen again. I know that the whole House welcomes the fact that the Government have established this judge-led public inquiry to provide the answers that victims and families have had to wait for. I and others here today, I am sure, will continue to play our parts passionately for our constituents.

I thank the Minister for her response. I just wish that the decision had been made earlier. As she outlined, this is a group of people who have battled for many, many years for a public inquiry, and we now want to make sure that the terms of reference are so drafted as to incorporate all the concerns of those affected. As she will know, many of those implicated in the inquiry will have access now to legal advice and expertise in their submissions on what the terms of reference should be.

I must add that the letter of 23 March, drafted by the Minister’s civil servants, which tried to draw a contrast with the families affected by Grenfell—who have been granted exceptional funding for legal assistance—saying that those families were more deserving than this group of people, has caused enormous hurt in the community. Of course we want to make sure that the Grenfell families find out what happened, and 71 lives were lost in that case, but in this case, 2,400 people have already died, and since the announcement of the public inquiry last year, another 70 have died. Many are living with HIV and hepatitis C, and many are co-infected, so they are in poor health. I am really pleased, therefore, that the Minister and the Government have accepted the argument that, while the organisations are well funded to put their cases, individuals should also have access to legal advice and guidance.

I want to say finally that I have met with Mr Justice Langstaff, and I believe that he will do his best to get justice for this group of people. He met with some of the campaigning groups last night, and I know that those meetings went well, but I hope that the Minister will pay particular attention, between now and when the inquiry is set up and Mr Justice Langstaff takes over, to making sure that no more decisions are made that put these individuals, who have been so damaged by the state, in a position where they feel hurt and lack confidence in what I think the Government are trying to do, which is to have a public inquiry that instils the confidence and good will of everybody.

As I have said from the Dispatch Box before, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work, her campaigning and her compassionate tenacity on this issue. I have worked with her over the years, as have many other Members, and I am pleased that she welcomes the news that I have been able to bring to the House this morning. I reiterate that Ministers share her concerns and are keen to be able to get on with the inquiry as quickly as possible. It will be ably led by Sir Brian Langstaff, so that the constituents whom we all serve can get the answers that they deserve.

In response to her questions, it may be useful for the House if I say that, under the Inquiries Act 2005, it is for Ministers to make decisions, on an exceptional basis, on whether funds might be made available during this preliminary stage. That is what we have done today, because we believe that the circumstances are exceptional.

My constituent Lesley Hughes was infected with hepatitis C back in 1970, and that timescale suggests that thousands of documents must be held by the relevant Department. Will the Minister assure us that full disclosure of all such relevant documents will be made?

Technically, it is for the inquiry chair to give that assurance, but Ministers, officials and the machinery of Government will be fully co-operating with the inquiry and will give evidence if asked. All the relevant papers will be submitted, and the inquiry can also request evidence under oath.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for continuing to champion this important issue. I echo the concerns that she and other colleagues have raised.

The victims of this appalling tragedy have been waiting decades for answers and for justice. Sadly, they continue to wait for the justice they so desperately deserve. I note the Minister’s personal commitment to the victims of the scandal, and I welcome the movement that she has made today towards correcting a perceived wrong that we heard about in the House yesterday. I am sure that the Minister appreciates that it was deeply concerning for many of the victims to be informed by the Cabinet Office that they had been denied legal aid funding for advice during the crucial consultation period on the terms of reference, but we welcome the movement today.

The letter from the Cabinet Office caused understandable upset among contaminated blood victims and their families, particularly the comments relating to Grenfell. While the contaminated blood scandal and the Grenfell fire are obviously different, there are two key similarities—both have had a devastating impact on the lives of those involved, and both should not have happened. The contaminated blood tragedy has killed over 2,400 people, and 70 people have died since the inquiry was announced last year. I hope that the Minister appreciates why the letter of 23 March has caused offence; will she apologise for it on behalf of the Government? The active participation of Grenfell victims led to the terms of reference in that inquiry being wider than those initially suggested by the chair. It is therefore welcome news that victims of the contaminated blood scandal will now be afforded the same opportunity to influence the terms of reference for this inquiry.

I thank the Opposition Front-Bench team for their support for what I have been able to announce today. I share the keenness of the hon. Lady and all colleagues to see the inquiry done and done well. I have reflected on the letter that was sent by my officials, and I am sorry for any concern that has been caused by it. By way of explanation, I return to the fact that Cabinet Office officials were expressing the normal position under the Inquiries Act, which is that, as I explained to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), Ministers may decide to provide funding for the preliminary stage of any inquiry on an exceptional basis. I have already explained that we certainly see this tragedy as exceptional and Ministers have therefore made the decision that I have conveyed to the House today. I hope that it is clear that the normal position under the Inquiries Act is that there would not be such funding, but we have decided that there ought to be.

The people who know most about a tragedy are often the victims and their families, so will my hon. Friend do all she can to listen to them, especially with regard to the terms of reference, and to deliver for those affected by the contaminated blood scandal?

I welcome that reminder that the people we are doing this for are those who have suffered so awfully over too many years, which is why I am pleased that Sir Brian Langstaff is moving forward on making sure that the terms of reference are as they should be and reflect what people who have suffered need to make known to the inquiry. That work is being done at the moment, and I look forward to the good-quality terms of reference that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster or I will present back to Parliament shortly.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on securing this urgent question and on her persistence in standing up for the victims of this scandal. I also warmly welcome what the Minister has said today.

Getting the answers that the victims of this scandal deserve requires asking the right questions and making sure that the inquiry has the right remit, and it is good that what the Minister has said means that that will now happen. I share the concern that the letter from the Cabinet Office was, as some have described it, contemptuous and insulting. How that came about should be looked at.

Is it not now time for the ongoing review of legal aid to be made entirely independent of Government? Will the Minister make sure that the provision of legal aid for those involved in public inquiries is part of that review, including the operation of pre-inquiry funding?

I believe that the hon. Gentleman raises an issue that is not what we are discussing today. I would be happy to come back to him with more detail on the broader review of legal aid, but I do not believe the issues we are discussing today are specifically those of legal aid, as we commonly use that phrase. I hope I have explained the position that applies to this inquiry, but I would be happy to come back to him on his other question relating to legal aid.

I start with the words of my constituent:

“The miracle of child birth tainted and forever seen as a sadness by my advice to abort my child at 7 months old. An empty vessel of a lost life and its opportunities of normal happiness and future building.”

Gone forever, after which she was advised that she should be sterilised. How tragic. This happened 30 years ago, and she still lives in secrecy. I want her voice to be heard by the Minister in this place. My constituent has not told a soul to this day. Given that she has waited for 30 years, I am sure that she will welcome the legal aid. How much longer will she need to wait for the final answers?

That is one of the most awful things I have heard during my time in this place. It speaks for itself.

On the timeline, I can give my hon. Friend the reassurance for her constituent that the consultation on the inquiry’s terms of reference will close in late April. Very shortly afterwards, Sir Brian Langstaff will review what he has received and report to Ministers, who will then lay the way forward before Parliament. Thus the inquiry will start very shortly in the weeks after 26 April.

As I have previously relayed to the House, the judge intends to conduct the inquiry as quickly as possible, consistent with getting to the truth and getting to those answers. In that sense at least, I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituent will be able to draw a little comfort from what we are doing.

In light of the Minister’s helpful initial answer, will she and the Government reconsider the decision that, from April 2018, compensation payments will not be increased in line with inflation?

I will write to the hon. Gentleman on that point in order to give him the fullest possible answer.

Victims of other scandals, such as Epilim—valproate—and surgical mesh, report that they have not always been properly represented by the interested groups. Will my hon. Friend therefore ensure that those individuals who feel they are not being represented by particular interested groups have access to proper legal aid so they can put forward their case, rather than just being represented by a group of people?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and one that the chair of the inquiry has also pointed at: that he wants people’s real voices to be heard. Some will feel comfortable for that to be done on their behalf through campaign groups—I pay tribute to the work of many of those groups, which have walked these long miles over the years—but others will prefer to do it in their own individual ways. I hope that the decision I have relayed to the House this morning can accommodate both.

As I mentioned, the consultation on the terms of reference is still live, and I encourage constituents of every right hon. and hon. Member to have a look at it and participate. The way that is produced is designed to be as user-friendly as possible, and therefore as open as possible to those who wish to respond in their own right. None the less, as I have said today, all reasonable expenses properly incurred in this respect will be looked at by the inquiry.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on the dogged way in which she has pursued this matter. I also thank the Minister for the statement she has made today. She will acknowledge that many victims of the contaminated blood scandal are feeling angry and frustrated at the lack of progress to date. Will she keep an open mind on any representations that may be made arising out of her statement today?

I certainly will. The Government are keen to hear any and all representations that are relevant here although the focus rightly begins to turn towards the inquiry that is to be set up, and it is for its chair to hear those representations fully.

I have said in my remarks today and previously that this matter has taken too long to reach the justice that we now hope can be done, but the Government are now acting swiftly. I would not accept the right hon. Gentleman’s characterisation that at present the Government are in some way delaying, as we are not. We are getting on with the inquiry, and that is as it should be.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) and thank the Minister for her statement. Will she confirm that the judge will engage properly with the victims and representative groups? Will she set out what lessons have been learned, so that nothing like this ever happens again?

I know that Sir Brian Langstaff wants to do exactly that. I will not be able to answer today as to what the lessons learned are, as that will of course be the work of the inquiry, but I know Parliament will be kept fully informed of this process so that we can continue to reassure our constituents.

May I reiterate to the Minister that these families, including the Smith family from Newport whose tragic story was told in an excellent article in The Guardian recently, have been through so much? That is why it is so important that we are sensitive to getting this process absolutely right.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have been able to voice their constituents’ words, both in this session this morning and on several other occasions in Parliament. Too many people have felt that they do not have that voice. Members of Parliament may be able to help in providing that, and I hope that this inquiry can also assist in providing it.

I welcome what my hon. Friend has had to say today. As she might be aware, one of my constituents experienced real difficulties in accessing the treatment that she so desperately needed, and we have managed to resolve that. Is that ease of access to treatment something that could be considered by the inquiry?

The inquiry will specifically be about the cause and conduct in respect of the problem as is it has unfolded over the years. As my hon. Friend and the House will be aware, other present-day policy questions arise as to what is available to the victims of this scandal. I know that my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care will have listened to what he has said today and will be keen to continue to provide that assurance to the House also.

The Minister will realise that those affected by the contaminated blood scandal have very low levels of trust in the Government and other authorities, not least because they have been literally short-changed over so many years. Today’s announcement is good, but will the Minister say whether the Government will make funds available going forward, particularly to fulfil any recommendations made by the inquiry?

As I have already said, the inquiry will most certainly be fully resourced and fully facilitated by the Government. For rather obvious reasons, I will refrain from commenting on what the recommendations of the inquiry might be—I cannot do that today—but I have confidence that we will return to discuss in this place what needs to be done afterwards, and that we will give that our very fullest attention.

I thank the Minister for her response to the urgent question. We should be grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for her dogged perseverance on this matter—for us in this House but even more so for the people outside the House. I thank her very much.

Will the legal aid and terms of reference be extended to the victims of the contaminated blood scandal in Northern Ireland who have been greatly disadvantaged and whose health has been affected? They equally qualify for the financial assistance that the Minister referred to.

The previous time I updated the House on this inquiry, Members spoke about the need for the inquiry to respond to the needs of victims in all the nations of our country. I am happy to write the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, to other representatives of constituencies in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, should they have such questions, to set out exactly what the situation will be for their constituents.

My constituent, a victim of the contaminated blood scandal, has asked the Minister the following: now that a cover-up and illegal research have been acknowledged in Parliament, the Prime Minister has used the word “scandal” and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has said that this should never have happened, why are dying victims waiting for compensation? Why will the Cabinet not show leadership? At what point do the Government increase the insult by failing to acknowledge their liability for what the Prime Minister has described as a scandal?

I thank the Minister for her announcement. It is important that the terms of reference are considered widely. My constituent has suffered not only from receiving contaminated blood at the time of the birth of her daughter in 1986, but further injustice because the medical records have been lost. Does the Minister agree that it is important that she makes the case for the fullest possible terms of reference? Her announcement today will help with that.

The hon. Lady gives us yet another example of how people have suffered in this terrible saga, over time. I hope that her constituent’s experience will be reflected in the terms of reference. I urge the hon. Lady and all Members to encourage their constituents to complete the form, which is extremely easily accessible on the inquiry website, to ensure that their voices are properly heard. The inquiry can then proceed to do its full job.

My constituent, Sue Sparkes, wrote to me and described as “crass” and “insensitive” the letter that made the comparison with Grenfell. Will the Minister do two things today? First, she has rightly rowed back from that position, but will she undertake to consult my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) before the Cabinet Office issues letters of that kind in future? Secondly, will she apologise for the hurt caused by that letter?

I think the hon. Gentleman would have heard me do so earlier, but I am happy to say again that I am sorry for the concern caused by that letter. In case he missed it, I shall repeat the explanation that I gave a little while ago. My officials in the Cabinet Office were carrying out what is actually the normal legal position for inquiries, which is that Minister would decide by exception whether to provide funding for legal assistance in this preliminary period. I refer to section 40 of the Inquiries Act 2005. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s reminder that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North has done so much work here. I am happy to meet her at any time to discuss the issues at hand in a way that is appropriate around the work of the inquiry.

The Minister has made a gracious and positive response to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), but will she indicate to the House whether there is a cap on individual financial support in the consultation period and, crucially, in the actual inquiry period?

What I have said to the House today is that it will be for the solicitor to the inquiry to determine those expenses, so I am not in a position directly to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question today. As I have said, my colleagues and I have decided that reasonable expenses, which are properly incurred in respect of legal representation for the purpose of responding to the consultation of the inquiry on the terms of reference, will be awarded.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for bringing this issue to the House and, indeed, to the Minister for accepting the issue and for her tone this morning. Since being first elected in 2015, I have been in regular contact with victims of this scandal, who have been deeply frustrated by the pace at which the Government have been dealing with this. Will she commit her Government now to do what is in their power to move this process on as quickly as possible, with dignity and compassion, for those who have been affected by this outrageous scandal?

As I have said this morning already and have said before, we want this inquiry to move as quickly as possible so that people get the answers that they deserve, and have deserved for many years.