My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest, not a financial one, as president of the Haemophilia Society.
The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will reconsider their decision to exclude the widows of patients infected with hepatitis C by contaminated National Health Service blood and blood products from help under the ex gratia payments scheme.
My Lords, the Government have great sympathy for the pain and hardship suffered by the widows of those inadvertently infected with hepatitis C. However, it has always been clear that the ex gratia payments scheme known as the Skipton Fund is not designed to compensate for bereavement. As such, there are no plans to reconsider that decision.
My Lords, while again I acknowledge the breakthrough achieved by John Reid's announcement of the scheme, can my noble friend say what it will cost and from which budget or budgets? Meanwhile, how can any of us justify excluding widows? Is not theirs the cruellest loss, having seen a husband and father die what my noble friend Lord Winston describes as a,
"slow, agonising death from cirrhosis or liver cancer due entirely to contaminated NHS blood products"?
Infected with hepatitis C, they were denied life assurance, and the onset of liver disease forced many into early retirement, so impoverishing their families. Where is the natural justice in including widows in the existing ex gratia scheme for HIV infection, while excluding them from this scheme? And where is the morality in denying parity of treatment to widows in identically the same tragic position?
My Lords, again I pay tribute to the work done by my noble friend and the Haemophilia Society in pursuing the issue. But the underlying principles of the scheme that has been announced is that it should be targeted to help to alleviate the suffering of people living with inadvertent—I stress, inadvertent—hepatitis C infection. The fund is not designed to compensate for refusal of cover, loss of earnings or bereavement. I understand the problems that my noble friend has outlined, but my understanding is that hepatitis C does not automatically preclude someone from gaining life assurance.
It is difficult to predict the cost of the scheme and the number of people who will benefit, but our best estimates are that between 6,000 and 7,000 people will benefit from the scheme. I can reassure my noble friend that the department will honour all valid claims.
My Lords, does the Minister not agree that we have heard in the past a great deal of resistance to our making any payment to those infected with hepatitis C in very similar terms to the resistance we have heard about giving it to families of those who have died as a result of the infection? Under those circumstances, would it not be sensible to consider making a payment to those who are suffering financially in exactly the same way?
My Lords, I am in danger of repeating myself. We have made absolutely clear the basis of the scheme: to alleviate suffering among those who are living and have suffered as a result of the infection. It is not a compensation scheme. All credit is due to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health, who decided last summer to bring the scheme into operation.
My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Morris, asked a similar Question some time ago, the Minister commented that the equivalent schemes for compensating haemophiliacs in Canada and the Irish Republic, which are much more generous than the scheme that the Government have now proposed, were based on the fact that the governments of those countries had accepted liability for the damage that took place. Can the Minister confirm the Answer that he gave before, because my information is different from his?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving me the opportunity to clarify the issue. My understanding of the position in Ireland, which has been corroborated by officials in the Department of Health and Children in Dublin since my last utterances on the subject in the House, is that the Irish Government set up their hepatitis C compensation scheme following evidence of negligence by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service. A judicial inquiry, the Finlay report, found that "wrongful acts were committed". It is important to stress that the blood services in the UK have not been found to be similarly at fault. Compensation is therefore being given in very different, specific circumstances in Ireland that do not apply in the UK. I do not believe that the Irish scheme creates any precedent for us.
The awards being made in Canada follow a class action brought against the Canadian Government. The compensation from the federal government is limited to those infected between 1986 and 1990. Subsequent inquiries found that wrongful practices had been employed, and criminal charges were made against organisations including the Canadian Red Cross Society. Those conditions in Ireland and Canada do not apply in the UK.
My Lords, firstly I appreciate that, whenever I hear the Government express sympathy, I irritate them by pointing to the millions of pounds a year spent on victims of violent crime for whom the Government have not the slightest responsibility, whereas in this case the Government actually injected the substance. But for the fact that negligence must be proved, they would be liable.
Secondly, will the Minister explain, not why damages for bereavement are not provided, but why no damages for loss of dependency are provided? That is a separate head of damage which, if there were liability, would have had to be accepted by the Government.
My Lords, I always bow to the noble and learned Lord in his knowledge of the law, but it is not my responsibility to answer for criminal compensation schemes. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Scotland will read his comments with interest. A line must be drawn somewhere on eligibility for this scheme. As I said in answers to previous supplementary questions, there was no case of negligence by the National Blood Service. The lines have been drawn on the basis that I have explained, and there is nothing more that the Government can say on this issue.
My Lords, I confirm that I answer for Her Majesty's Government, but the subject of the criminal injuries compensation scheme is outside the remit of the Department of Health.