Health: Contaminated Blood Products — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 23rd April 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Morris of Manchester Lord Morris of Manchester Labour 11:37 am, 23rd April 2009

My Lords, we are met to seek the Government's response to a report of landmark importance to a small and stricken community of congenitally disabled people for whom acquaintance with grief—recurrent and abject grief—is an inescapable fact of life. Already disabled by a rare, life-long blood disorder requiring continuous medical treatment, haemophilia patients have twice been infected en masse by contaminated blood and blood products used in their NHS treatment. Of a patient group of barely 5,000, 95 per cent were infected with hepatitis C and one in four with HIV, involving for the haemophilia community a loss of life more grievous in proportion to the numbers of people at risk than the Black Death.

Thus of the 1,243 haemophilia patients infected by their NHS treatment with HIV only 361—29 per cent—are still alive; and the much higher number of deaths among hepatitis C-infected patients is still increasing. Moreover while stigma is less explicit today than the warning cross scrawled on a plague-victim's door, it is no less cruelly oppressive in terms of social exclusion at a time of dire need.

I have two interests to declare in the debate, not pecuniary, as president of the Haemophilia Society, and as the architect of the independent public inquiry headed so admirably by my noble and learned Friend Lord Archer of Sandwell. I am most deeply grateful to him and his colleagues—Dr Norman Jones, emeritus consultant physician at St Thomas's Hospital, and Judith Willetts, chief executive of the British Society for Immunology. No inquiry team could possibly have shown more commitment or have been more eminently qualified for the arduous task they so readily and so ably undertook, entirely without remuneration.

Their report, exhaustively researched, is one also of excelling integrity and humane concern for arguably the most needful minority in Britain today. I warmly acknowledge, too, the help of my noble friend Lord Turnberg who, as immediate past president of the Royal College of Physicians, served the inquiry with such skill and dedication until he and his wife Edna were so tragically bereaved. I am indebted to all noble Lords who will be participating in the debate and delighted that my noble and learned friend Lord Archer is speaking. He deserves well of this House for the example he sets in practical concern for the well-being of vulnerable people to whom all of us here owe the duty of care.

I thank also my good and noble friend Lady Thornton, who will be replying to the debate. We have worked in close fellowship over many years in active support of the co-operative movement, and I know that she will readily understand why I am so glad also that my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, whose triumph over severe disability is so deeply moving, honours us with her presence here this morning.

When I announced the setting up of the inquiry two years ago, 1,757 haemophilia patients had already died from being infected by their NHS treatment with HIV and/or hepatitis C. The death toll has since risen by over 200 and many more are left terminally ill by what my noble friend Lord Winston, vice-president of the Haemophilia Society, describes as the worst ever treatment disaster in the history of the NHS.

Yet the grievous death toll is not the whole story: the haemophilia community suffers privation at a depth most other people can barely imagine. Not surprisingly, I receive many letters from infected haemophilia patients. They speak of no longer being able to work full time; of having become uninsurable due to the prohibitively high premiums demanded of them by insurers; and of other costs now being too dear to cope with.

For parliamentarians, there can be no higher duty than that of ensuring just treatment for those afflicted and bereaved by life-threatening medication supplied by the state, and the emphatic backing for the Archer report's recommendations by the mass media shows how clearly that duty is understood by the people of this country. Just as clearly, it was quickly understood by my right honourable friend Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the House of Commons. Speaking on 5 March, she praised my noble and learned friend Lord Archer for his "important work" and added her "congratulations to the campaigners" on having,

"brought to the public's attention the injustice" suffered by the recipients of contaminated NHS blood and blood products. She then told MPs:

"The Government will respond shortly"—[Hansard, Commons, 5/3/09; col. 999.]— to the report.

That was seven weeks ago. More recently, on 17 March, my noble friend Lady Thornton, speaking in Grand Committee during the Committee stage of the Health Bill, described my noble and learned friend Lord Archer's report as "a wonderful document" and concluded:

"I warmly thank him again".—[Official Report, 17/2/09; col. GC96.]

My noble friend's remarks, like those of Harriet Harman, were much appreciated by the haemophilia community and taken as a clear pointer to an early and positive response from the Government.

As everyone in touch with the community knows, what they yearn for now is closure with the Department of Health on terms reflecting the severity of the pain and suffering endured by the afflicted and bereaved. But to date, although my noble and learned friend sent his report under personal and urgent cover to the Secretary of State for Health eight weeks ago, on 20 February, there has still been no response from him.

Often where despair from living with serious long-term illness is compounded by stressful delay, anguish can turn to anger; and sadly this is now being reflected in letters I receive from infected patients and their families. In a letter dated 15 April, the wife of a man now terminally ill asked me:

"Why was no Health Minister willing even to give evidence to Lord Archer's Inquiry when people living with terminal illnesses and in poverty, many of whom have since died, went all the way to Westminster to do so?".

Her letter went on:

"In other words, poor as we are, we traipsed all across the country to help forward an inquiry for which no Minister was prepared even to cross Whitehall. Worse still, why were Health Department officials forbidden, clearly by Ministers, from attending any public hearing of the Inquiry?".

My reply to her as to other such correspondents was that, while I could not answer for the Department of Health's decisions, I have known and respected the present Secretary of State for many years; that I was sure he must share the admiration of Members in all parts of both Houses of Parliament for my noble and learned friend Lord Archer's integrity and judgment as a former law officer of the Crown; and that he would certainly be aware of the huge public backing for the report. I also sent the Hansard coverage of ministerial comments on the report in both Houses of Parliament.

Turning now to issues raised in the report that merit close attention in this debate, I want first to raise the sombre threat now of a third deadly scourge to patients dependent on NHS blood and blood products. In response to Parliamentary Questions about the growing number of haemophilia patients known by the Department of Health to have been treated with blood from donors who have since died of variant CJD, I was told on the authority of the Chief Medical Officer that the risk of infection in such cases was purely "hypothetical". Today that demonstrably is no longer true, a recent post-mortem on a hepatitis C-infected patient having found vCJD in his spleen.

Thus an urgent updating of ministerial statements made to Parliament on the vCJD threat is called for. Specifically we need to know the department's current figures for the number of patients treated with blood from vCJD-infected donors. We need also to know what action Ministers have taken since the post-mortem on the implications of its findings. Again, how do the Government now assess the risk facing patients treated with blood taken from such donors; and further, what protection is now in place to safeguard recipients of donated blood?

I was told on 17 March that no screening test is currently available and that securing,

"a validated screening test is a priority".—[Official Report, 17/3/09; col. GC96.]

Meanwhile, however, many noble Lords are aware that technology already available to remove by filter the abnormal prions which are the causative agent of vCJD is not being used by the Department of Health, despite having passed EU-wide safety testing and clinical trials as required for use in the United Kingdom. Failure to use that technology could cost lives and here again we need an updating today of ministerial statements on this vitally important issue of making NHS blood and blood products free of prion disease agents.

I move now to the issue of Crown immunity, which the Archer report raises in commenting on the behaviour of the Blood Products Laboratory—the BPL. It states:

"In July 1979, the Medicines Inspectorate visited BPL, following which they reported that the buildings were never designed for the scale of production envisaged and commented that, if this were a commercial operation, they would have had no hesitation in recommending that manufacture should cease until the facility was upgraded to a minimum acceptable level".

Starkly, the Archer report then states:

"BPL was rescued by Crown Immunity", adding that,

"BPL's existing plant continued production, relying on Crown Immunity to dispense with all the requirements of the Medicines Act, but was able to meet only 40 per cent of the national requirements".

Words have surely lost their meaning if this does not mean that by the use of Crown immunity, a relic of feudal England, the lives of countless haemophilia patients were put blatantly and gravely at risk.

Speaking in this House on 16 March, my noble friend Lord Darzi, responding to me in exchanges about thalidomide, referred to,

"the tremendous amount of work that has gone into the marketing, testing and regulation of drugs, as encapsulated in the Medicines Act 1968, from which society has benefited greatly".—[Hansard, 16/3/09; col. 1059.]

There could be no clearer text than this for describing the enormity of the use by the BPL of Crown immunity to dispense with all the requirements of that renowned and so vitally important statute. Hence we need to reflect in this debate on from whom the BPL was "rescued" by its use of Crown immunity.

First and foremost, of course, it was "rescued" from the afflicted and bereaved of this worst-ever NHS treatment disaster by denying them any prospect of legal redress, a denial made all the more cruelly unjust by the refusals of successive Governments to agree to a public inquiry, thus leaving them with no hope of any independent assessment of responsibility for their plight until the Archer inquiry was announced.

Crown immunity has now been abolished. It was ended by John Major's Conservative Government in 1991, and infected NHS patients ask why the present Government, who clearly have no intention of reinstating Crown immunity, cannot now review the claims of the victims of contaminated NHS blood from whom the BPL was "rescued" by Crown immunity. If anyone thinks that there is no way now of reversing what happened here or of doing any more to help infected NHS patients, they should look at how the Canadian and Irish Governments have found ways of compensating victims there by more than anything even contemplated by Ministers for NHS-infected patients here.

My noble friend Lord Warner, speaking for the Department of Health on 25 March 2004, told the noble Earl, Lord Howe, that this was because it was found both in Canada and the Irish Republic that legally wrongful acts were committed by the providers of blood and blood products but that this had not been established in the UK. Of course we now know the shaming reason why, namely, that the use of Crown immunity prevented our courts even from being approached. It was because there was no such thing as Crown immunity in Canada and the Republic that legal wrong could be established there.

Among other issues of concern, the non-availability of recombinant therapy still rankles with infected NHS patients made to wait longer for it in some parts of this country than elsewhere. In England it was given only to patients under 16, but in Scotland and Wales it was available irrespective of age. It is said that this was almost certainly Treasury-driven but, for whatever reason, patients made to wait felt that they were treated unjustly and with scant regard for the effects on their health.

Another injustice said to have been Treasury-driven is that of crudely discriminatory treatment of widows of NHS-infected patients in deciding eligibility for financial assistance solely on the dates when their husbands died, even where they died within two days of each other from exactly the same cause. The Archer report's recommendation to end such illogicality and inequity is warmly welcomed by the haemophilia community.

I come now briefly to two further issues that we must not overlook today: first, the need for action now, at no great cost, to implement the Archer inquiry's call for improved access for infected patients to NHS facilities; and, secondly, the inquiry's recommendation on securing the financial future of the Haemophilia Society, faced as it is now by ever-increasing calls for help from NHS-infected patients. That this recommendation has not already been implemented has appalled noble Lords in all parts of the House, and I honour those who have made clear the depth of their concern, more particularly the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, for her active support for restoring at once the punitive 70 per cent cut recently made by the Department of Health in the society's government grant.

The history of the contaminated blood disaster has been described as one of a "gallery of heroes" locked in an unequal struggle with terminal illness and the power of executive government. That is so, but there is also a "gallery of heroines" left widowed and bereaved by the disaster. I reflect in particular today on the courage, constancy and tireless campaigning of wives and mothers such as Harriet Bullock, Carol Grayson, Gaynor Lewis, Liz Rizzuto, Sue Threakall to whom I know my good and noble friend Lord Corbett will refer, Colette Wintle and, of course, the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, all of whom belong in that gallery.

In none of the many parliamentary campaigns I have been closely involved in over 45 years in Parliament—even thalidomide, vaccine damage, and those nearly 40 years ago for statutory recognition of dyslexia and autism—have I had so strong a sense that no campaigning should ever have been necessary to right the wrongs suffered by the haemophilia community. Support for their cause, as I believe this debate will demonstrate again, is everywhere seen today as an issue not of right and left, but of Right and Wrong.

I conclude now in renewed appreciation of the nobility and humanity of my noble and learned friend Lord Archer and his inquiry team. Humanity was never more humane. I beg to move.