Hepatitis C

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 12th March 2002.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 7:45 pm, 12th March 2002

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Morris, has been a doughty warrior for those who suffer from haemophilia. This subject has been discussed before and my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, who is unable to be here due to a severe but not life-threatening domestic crisis, and I have both spoken on it a number of times.

People with haemophilia have a potentially life-threatening disability which restricts their life. Their history is basically tied up with the fact that suddenly they were led to believe that there was an answer to haemophilia which would enable them to lead normal lives. That answer—clotting agents—turned out to be, effectively, a death sentence or at least placed a great restriction on their lives. Two groups of infection arose—one of which has been dealt with and one of which has not. That is roughly what happened. We then get into the morass of why one group of sufferers is treated differently from the other.

There are definitions of what is "legal responsibility" and so on, but I am sure that a good lawyer could dance circles around them. However, we are not in the job of interpreting the law, we are in the job of making it. We try to give guidance to lawyers as to what they should do.

If the Government provided treatment for a group of people who needed it desperately and offered them the chance of a whole life as opposed to a part life and a life of restriction, and that treatment damaged people in that group in two different ways, there is something fundamentally wrong if only one part of that group receives compensation.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, has brought forward more information today—I know that he will ensure that we all have copies of the letter of the noble Lord, Lord Owen—but it merely increases the significance of certain actions. However, one fact is absolutely clear: lives have been affected and lives have been foreshortened.

There is a further irony in that new drug treatments mean that someone with HIV stands a better chance of surviving, in better shape, than someone with hepatitis C.

A series of issues come together to make this case more solid every time we discuss it. The Government sit back and adopt a legal defence that states that at a certain time they felt that one form of infection was caused through negligence while they could not possibly consider the other form of infection. The notes suggest that artificial factors should have been used at certain points, but, whatever happens, there is no easy answer as to what should be the cut-off point. If there is, the Government should do something about it. I would never dream of suggesting what level of compensation should be paid. Indeed, given the passage of time, I would suggest that different calculations are probably necessary for the different situations.

But a recognition that the Government have disadvantaged one group against another—perhaps, "a subsection of one main group" is a better way of putting it—and then not treated those subsections in the same way lies at the heart of the issue. We have two groups of people who have acquired different life-threatening diseases through the same treatment. It is not their fault; it is the fault of the treatment they were given. They were told that the treatment would make them better and deal with the underlying condition. Given that information, they would have been insane to refuse treatment. Then, having been damaged, one of the groups does not receive support. There is something wrong about that.

The Government can dig themselves into a certain legal position. However, unless they are prepared to address the fact that there is something very wrong at a basic level, this problem will not go away. Unless they give a better answer—unless they say, "Yes, we will deal with the underlying problem, not put up legal defences"—they will be hearing a great deal more about the issue for a great deal longer.