Oral Answers to Questions — Business, Innovation and Skills – in the House of Commons at 11:19 am on 26th March 2015.
(Urgent Question) To ask the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement on the publication of the Penrose inquiry and its implications for the United Kingdom Government.
Yesterday the Prime Minister issued an apology for these tragic events on behalf of the Government, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health laid a written ministerial statement as an interim response to the Penrose inquiry.
As the hon. Lady knows, this was a Scottish public inquiry. I understand that Scottish Ministers will not make a statement to their Parliament until this afternoon, and it would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment on the report in detail at this stage. However, I can say that Lord Penrose reviewed more than 118,000 documents and more than 150 statements from patients and relatives, and also took oral evidence from many of the officials who were involved in decision-making at that time. It seems to have been an extremely thorough job, and it has provided the first authoritative narrative of these events.
During the Back-Bench debate in the House on
Yesterday we announced that the Department of Health would allocate an additional one-off amount of up to £25 million from its 2015-16 budget to support any transition to a different system of financial assistance. We intended that announcement to provide an assurance for those who have been affected by these devastating events that we have heard their concerns and are making provision to reform the system. As the hon. Lady knows, we had hoped to consult during the current Parliament on reform of the ex gratia financial assistance schemes, and I very much regret that our considerations on the design of a future system of financial assistance for those affected were postponed while we awaited the publication of Lord Penrose’s final report.
The Prime Minister also said yesterday that if he was still Prime Minister after the election in May, his Government would respond to the findings of the report as a matter of priority.
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for her response.
As we know, the contaminated blood scandal was the biggest disaster in the history of the NHS. Today we should again remember all those who contracted HIV and hepatitis C, and their families. For them, this is not an historical issue, but an ongoing tragedy which continues to have a devastating impact on their lives.
I am pleased that the report of the Penrose inquiry was published yesterday, after six years. It runs to five volumes and 1,800 pages, and it appears to document accurately the tragedy, how it came about, and the decisions that were made at the time. However, I share the surprise and disappointment of those affected that the report makes only one recommendation. I know that, for that reason, yesterday was a very difficult day for many people.
The Prime Minister’s apology on behalf of the United Kingdom Government represents a significant moment in the long struggle for recognition of the scale of the tragedy, and it is very welcome, but what we need is a proper system to support and compensate all those who are affected. The report that was published a few weeks ago by the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood shows that the current system is simply not meeting the needs of those whom it is meant to help, and is not fit for purpose. I should like to hear a reassurance from those on both Front Benches that, whichever party forms the next Government, swift action will be taken to provide a permanent support and compensation settlement. I should also like to be reassured that it will be specifically stipulated that the £25 million which was announced yesterday should go directly to the beneficiaries, rather than the trusts and funds deciding what to do with it.
This is not the end of the matter. As the Minister knows, a large number of Members on both sides of the House will return to it after
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that this is an ongoing tragedy, and that, as I said in my statement, many people’s lives have been devastated and continue to be severely affected. I pay tribute to her and to other members of the all-party group, including my right hon. Friend Alistair Burt, who cannot be present today but who has spoken to me in the last couple of days, since the publication of the report. Indeed, I pay tribute to all the Members who have represented their constituents so ably and passionately over many years.
As the hon. Lady said, the next Parliament will return to this issue. I was very open with Members during the Back-Bench debate on
In response to the specific points the hon. Lady raised, let me reiterate something I said in my initial remarks: the one-off amount of up to £25 million is to support any transitional arrangements to a different system of financial assistance. That is intended to provide assurances to those affected by these devastating events that we have heard their concerns.
Order. I remind the House that there is a further urgent question that has to be taken and I am keen to proceed in an efficient way. So we will hear from colleagues, but as briefly as possible, and then we must move on.
The 2010 to 2015 Parliament will be remembered for some extraordinary work to right historical wrong—on Bloody Sunday, on Hillsborough, on child abuse—but as it comes to an end this Parliament has not made enough progress on perhaps the greatest injustice of them all: the loss and ruination of many thousands of lives through the use of contaminated blood.
That is not to say there has not been progress. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Diana Johnson and many others across the House who have worked assiduously in this Parliament to keep this issue on the agenda. The Prime Minister was right to apologise yesterday, but my hon. Friend is right that it will have real meaning only if it is followed by efforts to bring truth, accountability and redress.
Let me ask the Minister about the one recommendation that the Penrose report makes: that all people in Scotland who had a blood transfusion before 1991 now be tested for hepatitis C. Does the Minister think that recommendation should apply in England?
Given that, as my hon. Friend says, Penrose does not answer all the questions, and nor does it apply accountability to those who made decisions in this regard, does the Minister think there now needs to be a further process of inquiry in the next Parliament to produce that accountability?
Finally, while we cannot bring about a resolution today, does the Minister agree that the best thing we can say to the many thousands of people affected who will be watching these proceedings is that we will work together across the House in the next Parliament to bring a full, fair and final resolution to this terrible injustice?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s last point. This is a tragedy that goes beyond party and has spanned many Parliaments now and we do need to move forward. I can only reiterate my frustration at the fact that we were not able to make more progress in this Parliament, but I can give the assurance to the House, and through Members to their constituents, that a great deal of detailed work has been going on, and I am sure it will continue as the many pages of Lord Penrose’s inquiry are considered.
With regard to the one recommendation that Lord Penrose makes—that the Scottish Government take all reasonable steps to offer a hepatitis C test to everyone who had a blood transfusion before 1991—I can confirm that the Department of Health concluded a UK-wide look-back exercise in 1995 to try to identify everyone who might have received infected blood prior to 1991, but the Department will consider if anything more can be done on this in England. That work is very important and will be undertaken.
On the next steps, as confirmed in the written ministerial statement yesterday, all relevant documents have been, or will be, released. The Government’s initial reaction is that another inquiry would not be in the best interests of sufferers and their families as it would further delay action to address their concerns. The strong message I have had is that it is time for action, and I have just heard the same message from the shadow Secretary of State.
The apparent thoroughness of Lord Penrose’s report and the fact that it sets the events in Scotland in a wider UK context gives us a sense of the fact that he has looked at these events in the widest possible way, including for England. He has done a thorough job of examining the facts, and we now for the first time ever have that detailed authoritative narrative account of what happened, and that is an important building block on which the next Government can take their policy forward.
You will recall, Mr Speaker, that on many occasions I have raised the case of John Prior, who is from Moodiesburn in my constituency. He was infected in the ’70s and his files have been lost. To put it bluntly, he is devastated; he says that the report offers him nothing. He regards the £25 million on offer from the Prime Minister as peanuts—not even sufficient for Scotland. The report cost £12 million, went on for seven years and has produced one recommendation. Does the Minister accept that that is not sufficient to respond to 4,000 people who are suffering? May we have a final agreement—a settlement—for every individual, consistent with what happened in Ireland and with the last Labour Government’s delivery on miners’ compensation? Otherwise, this report will be seen as a mountain that produced a mouse.
This inquiry was commissioned by a Scottish Minister—I believe it was the current First Minister—in 2008. It is a matter for the Scottish Government to comment on the length of time taken by Lord Penrose and the expense. The money announced in yesterday’s written ministerial statement was, as we said it would be, part of an interim response—it is interim because this very long report comes right at the end of this Parliament. I am sure that the next Parliament and the next Government will want to return to this and give a more substantive response to the findings of this very thorough inquiry.
I was the chair of the all-party group on haemophilia from 2001 to 2010, and what we got then was an interim settlement as well, because no one would face up to the fact that these people should be compensated, not just given an ex gratia payment or some more money to go away quietly. We are told that all documents were looked at, but in the time that I have been involved in this campaign we have been told by the late Alf Morris that he was promised by Lord Owen, a former Health Minister, that there were documents available which proved that after the Government adopted the policy that no more contaminated blood would be brought from America and from dangerous sources, the health service went on buying that blood. The report said that many people’s lives have been saved, but the reality is that somebody in the health service contaminated these people by breaching the policy of a Government. When are we going to see those documents revealed, and to look for a proper public inquiry and compensation for the victims, not some pay-off?
That is a rather harsh response. It is worth noting that the terms of reference given by the Scottish Government to the Penrose inquiry do not make reference to compensation. Yesterday’s written ministerial statement referred to an amount that is specifically intended to help with transitional arrangements while the next Government consider how they might want to take forward the reform of the various payments systems. We explored that in the Back-Bench debate.
The report runs to many thousands of pages and has considered all of the many documents and statements, as I set out. All the relevant documents held by the Department of Health on blood safety covering the period from 1970 to 1985 have been published, in line with the Freedom of Information Act, and are available on the National Archives website. As part of our response to Lord Penrose’s report, we are releasing all the relevant documents on blood safety that we hold for the period 1986 to 1995. The Government have been completely transparent and open about that, and given the inquiry all the documents it asked for. We are now releasing all the relevant documents, subject to that. Some of the issues the hon. Gentleman refers to are, I am afraid inevitably, because of the timing of this report, a matter for the next Government to consider in detail.
My constituent David Fielding has suffered as a result of this and his whole life has been ruined. I ask this Government and any successive Government to compensate these victims properly.
As I have said, those are matters for the next Government to consider. Compensation was not in the terms of reference of the Penrose inquiry, but it was important, given the extent of the inquiry, that we waited for it to report. Unfortunately, it has reported too late for us to be able to make substantial progress in this Parliament, but I am quite certain that the next Government, held to account by the next Parliament, will return to these matters as a priority.
A constituent points out that he received a letter in 2009, stating that he could have been infected as late as 2001, including with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. As the report goes up only to 1991, will the Minister reassure those people that all the issues, even those going up to 2001, will be taken into consideration, and that they are equally likely to be compensated?
All relevant matters will need to be considered by the next Government. By the time the next Government are formed, and the next Parliament is assembled, Members will have had more chance to look at Lord Penrose’s detailed narrative of these tragic events.
The Minister says she regrets that more has not been done in this Parliament. The main reason for that was that we were waiting for the Penrose inquiry—so that is doubly disappointing today. She says that much of the work has been done. I appreciate that her writ is about to run out, but has she or the Government formed the opinion that there should be a comprehensive financial settlement, of which what the Prime Minister announced should be just the downpayment?
Yesterday’s written ministerial statement was just what I said it would be in the Backbench business debate on
Will the Minister reflect carefully on paragraphs 111 to 113 of the Science and Technology Committee’s Legacy report on variant CJD? The Minister gave compelling evidence to our inquiry; the one area of difference was the long-term protection of research funding to give public confidence. Will she look carefully at that and put her response in the public domain?
I will certainly look at that matter, but I fear that I may not have time to put a response in the public domain. I can give an assurance to the Select Committee that were I to be in office in the next Parliament I would be happy to respond to that in detail. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have had detailed exchanges on such matters over the past year.
The sad reality for all our constituents who are affected by this matter is that, after waiting for the Penrose report, nothing has materially changed for them during the life of this Parliament and it rests with the next Parliament to move forward. In a more positive vein, does the Minister have a view—personally and as a Minister and a representative of the Government—whether these people, whose lives have been torn apart, should be adequately compensated by the next Government?
I think the Prime Minister was clear yesterday when he told the House that returning to this important matter and these tragic events was a priority. The reason we say it is an interim response is that the Prime Minister and this Government feel that a more substantive response will need to be given in the next Parliament. Of course my feeling is that we need to return to this important subject and respond more substantively across a wide range of issues. I am well aware of the high concern among sufferers about the way in which the current financial assistance schemes work, and they will need to be considered in a great deal more detail.
On Friday, I met a hepatitis C nurse and support worker in Bristol, and they urged not only speedier diagnosis but earlier treatment for people who are infected, before they develop serious liver problems. Will the Minister take that thought back to her Department?
Of course. In my response to the Backbench business debate, I gave Members a sense of how to represent constituents as regards the latest NHS treatments. The latest treatments available for hepatitis C are of a different order of effectiveness and have many fewer side-effects than the older treatments and it is important that anyone affected is seen by a hepatologist and referred appropriately. NICE and the NHS are currently considering the new treatments.
The report published yesterday suggests that NHS staff were working according to the best available knowledge at the time.
As chair of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS, however, I often hear about current incidents in which NHS staff do not have the best available knowledge at their fingertips. What have the Government done and what are they doing to ensure that we have a well-informed NHS? Is the Minister confident that there is not a similar tragedy brewing within the NHS today?
For blood donations, the picture is thankfully very different today from the situation in the 1970s and ’80s that Lord Penrose was considering. Today, blood donations are screened for both HIV and hep C as well as a number of other infections. I recently visited the blood processing site at Colindale to see the rigorous and high-tech approach to blood safety in this country. Members can be more reassured in that regard. Of course, synthetic products are available for the treatment of all haemophilia patients for whom they are suitable. On the question of the latest knowledge, I can only reiterate that NHS England is considering a further early access policy to include patients with cirrhosis. It is aiming to have that in place in the first half of this year. Importantly, NICE guidance on the use of such therapies is also expected in the first half of this year.