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 pecuniary one, as president of the Haemophilia Society.
The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty's Government what further consideration they are giving to providing financial help for the dependants of patients who have died in consequence of being infected with hepatitis C by contaminated National Health Service blood and blood products.
My Lords, the Government have great sympathy for the pain and hardship suffered by the widows and dependants of those inadvertently infected with hepatitis C. But, as I have previously indicated, our scheme of financial help is designed to alleviate the suffering of those people infected with hepatitis C; it is not intended to compensate for bereavement.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that contaminated NHS blood products have now caused the deaths of 1,137 haemophilia patients, 896 after being infected with HIV and 241 with hepatitis C, making this much the worst treatment disaster in the history of the National Health Service?
My noble friend Lord Winston, vice-president of the Haemophilia Society, has said of HIV and hepatitis C:
"The cause is the same, a virus, and it comes from the same source, blood products".—[Hansard, 5/6/98; col. 672.]
For the wives of those who have died the result too is the same: devastated lives and widowhood.
Why, then, by ministerial decree, are hepatitis C widows denied financial help available to HIV widows? What social justice or morality is there in denying parity of treatment to widows in identically the same tragic position?
My Lords, we have been clear throughout these discussions on hepatitis C, which have been going on for quite a long time, that no negligence was involved and that the scheme was set up to help people who had been infected. It was not a bereavement compensation scheme, no matter how much sympathy we had for the widows and dependants of those infected with hepatitis C. The scheme will provide for around 7,000 people to benefit. I remind noble Lords of the scale of the benefit: a first payment of £20,000 and another £25,000 when the condition is more advanced.
My Lords, in view of what the noble Lord, Lord Morris, said about this being the worst self-inflicted disaster in the history of the NHS, should we not have a public inquiry, particularly into the consequences for victims' relatives, especially widows? There is no point in the Government trying to brush this under the carpet; it is bound to reappear.
My Lords, we are not brushing anything under the carpet. I shall go back over the history: the issue arose under another government, but I am not making a party-political point, because they also behaved responsibly in this area. In 1991, advances in microbiology enabled us to introduce screening of blood donors. At that point the world changed in this area. We are talking about the inability to test for hepatitis C in blood donors before that period. There has been no negligence; it is one of those tragedies. There is no need for a public inquiry.
My Lords, I do not think that there is any question of compensation and negligence in this matter. The Government have been very positive in helping those unfortunate individuals who, through no fault of their own, have received blood from patients with AIDS or hepatitis C. The question now is whether the Minister can extend the Government's magnanimity to the dependants of haemophilia patients who have died of hepatitis C.
My Lords, we have enormous sympathy but, as I have said, we have no plans at this point to extend the scheme beyond those infected with hepatitis C.
My Lords, what is the cost to the families of bringing a claim to the compensation fund, and what is the average time taken between a claim being brought and it being settled?
My Lords, I do not have the details of the time taken. We anticipate that approximately 7,000 people will be entitled to payments under the scheme. So far, just over 3,500 have received payments. Most of those have received the initial payment of £20,000 but just over 350 people have also had the second payment.
My Lords, we will return to some of those issues when the NHS redress Bill comes before the House later in the Session.
My Lords, in view of the concern expressed on this matter, will the Government provide the findings of the internal investigation into haemophilia blood policy, which began in 2002, in order that lessons can be learnt about the safety of blood and blood products?
My Lords, I think that my noble friend refers to the internal review of Department of Health papers going back into the past. It is still ongoing.
My Lords, can I tell the Minister, now, that while the policy of this Government and the previous one is clear, both governments got it wrong? I invite him, the next time this Question comes up in your Lordships' House, to decline to stand up and justify a position where different treatment is given to victims of dirty blood on the basis of whether they got HIV or hepatitis C, as in the case of my former constituent Bob Threakall? Will the Minister acknowledge that contaminated blood was the cause of both lethal infections and that Mrs Threakall and other spouses demand and deserve equal treatment?
My Lords, I sympathise entirely with my noble friend's former constituent. I am always very respectful of his ability to give me instruction. I think that I can set out more clearly and at greater length than we have time for today why we are proceeding in this way.