Health: Contaminated Blood Products — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:56 am on 23rd April 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Shadow Attorney General 11:56 am, 23rd April 2009

My Lords, it is my privilege to be the first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, on securing the debate and to pay tribute to him for his dogged and determined campaign over 45 years in Parliament on behalf of disabled people. He was appointed the Minister for Disabled People—the first of anybody to achieve that post anywhere in the world—and in this House he has continued to show exactly the quality of the advocacy that he has for disabled people. He is much to be congratulated.

I also congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, Ms Judith Willets and Dr Norman Jones for their very thorough examination of the issues involving the examination of some 300 statements that were sent to them, the examination of 64 witnesses who gave evidence orally and something like 20,000 documents. As the noble Lord, Lord Morris, said a moment ago, this is not an issue of right or left; it is not a party matter. Nevertheless, the Government have resisted the appointment of a statutory public inquiry. They no doubt will explain why they have done that in due course, but it is deplorable that the Department of Health refused to provide witnesses for public examination and cross-examination.

There are a number of unsatisfactory aspects. Since it was not a statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, did not have power to compel witnesses or to call for papers. Counsel was not provided to the committee to assist in the marshalling of evidence and to cross-examine witnesses. In particular, there was no funding other than private donations, which public spirited people—or a person, I believe—put forward to fund the inquiry.

It is true that the Department of Health did supply documents, but many of the relevant documents had been destroyed under what was described as the 10-year rule. In its report, the inquiry makes it clear that it was never able to get to the bottom of that. Nobody from the department gave a public explanation. It appears to be a serious error of judgment; that is the only explanation that has ever been given, but it was not given to the inquiry. There has been some suspicion that this has been the reason for resisting a public inquiry and failing to co-operate in the inquiry of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer. I await an explanation from the Minister.

The noble Lord, Lord Owen, who gave evidence to the inquiry of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, was of the view that the documents might have been destroyed a long time ago in a desire to draw a line under the whole story. The absence of a statutory public inquiry in this country contrasts strongly with what is happening as a result of an opinion of my friend the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon. The Scottish Government are setting up a statutory inquiry, and no doubt we shall have a full report from them in due course. I only hope that it will match the thoroughness of the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer.

I see that it may be difficult for the medical community to keep up with the development of new and newly identified diseases. These issues have come forward over a period of time. However, the report demonstrates that there has been clinical and research confusion. There has been limited and contradictory advice given to practitioners. One must have some concern that lack of resources has affected the care of patients and the caution that should have been taken with them. It is undoubtedly the case that contaminated blood contributed to the wider dissemination of these illnesses: hepatitis in its various forms, HIV/AIDS and, latterly, as the noble Lord, Lord Morris, pointed out, vCJD.

One recipient's widow is a friend of mine; his name was Graham. Graham had only three treatments with blood products. The last was in 1971 when he was only 13 years old. He was then admitted with a bleed in December 1984. By January 1985, he had seroconverted and contracted HIV and non-A, non-B hepatitis, currently known as hepatitis C. Graham was not informed of his HIV status for a considerable time—years after those who were treating him had realised that he was suffering from it. He suffered from numerous minor ailments, including flu-like symptoms, extensive rashes, exhaustion and depression. In addition, he suffered life-threatening illnesses including severe anaemia. When he learnt of the nature of his condition, he was unable to have any more children. Fortunately, he had had one daughter before the condition had developed, but he was unable to have any more children for fear of infecting them and his wife.

His job was affected, and he lost it. After redundancy, he could not fill in application forms without disclosing his status, so Graham took self-employed locum work and lost many days' pay going to hospital appointments. He could not explain to his employer why he was absent so often, and he eventually lost that work. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred to insurance, and Graham could not get life cover. His family and social life were severely curtailed. Perhaps the worst part was that he had to lie about his condition to neighbours and friends, and even to his own daughter; of course, at that time there was a great fear of the conditions from which he was suffering.

He died at the age of 40 in 1998. Samples of his body were sent to the National CJD Surveillance Unit without his wife's knowledge. Four days after his death, she was told by the unit, "Well, haemophiliacs make an excellent model for this kind of study". She was refused an inquest and did not qualify for the Skipton payments or, indeed, any other payments, because her husband had died too soon. Therefore, she did not qualify for the reasons to which the noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred. She spent four years going through independent review of the treatment and ombudsman inquiry and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. I have mentioned this case to illustrate to your Lordships the devastating effect of what happened to Graham before he was 13, and the impact that it had on him and his family.

The report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, sets out the chronology of events, which demonstrates time and again a lack of urgency and shows how much the Government were in denial. Despite targets to ensure self-sufficiency in blood products in the United Kingdom within two to three years being set in 1975 by the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Owen, that goal was never met either in his timeframe or anybody else's. Ultimately, by 1990, the attempt to make this country self-sufficient in blood products was abandoned. Government continued to rely on the importation of blood products from the United States in spite of warnings. For example, in 1983 Dr Galbraith, the director of the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre, warned of the nature of US blood products. When, in that same year, Susan Douglas wrote an article in the Mail on Sunday referring to killer blood from high-risk donors, she was reported to the Press Council, which concluded that her article was alarmist and extravagant. Therefore, you can see the attitudes of resistance and denial that existed at that time.

When the United States introduced regulations to exclude donors from high-risk groups for plasma collected after March 1983, the old stocks were not withdrawn, either in the United States or in the United Kingdom. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred to Crown immunity as the cloak behind which the government department concerned hid. It is always possible not to use Crown immunity. Negligence could not have been proved unless it was shown that there was a failure by the standards of care as known at that time. The law does not require that today's knowledge about medical matters be imported back to that time. However, by using Crown immunity, the government department concerned was able to avoid an investigation into whether, by the standards of that time, there had been negligence in what had occurred. It is not too late. If the Government chose to waive Crown immunity dating back to that time, I am sure that it would be possible for actions to be brought. However, I do not suppose that they will.

The lack of participation by the Department of Health in the inquiry of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, indicates to me a worrying complacency and an assumption that no other disease communicable by blood products will ever again emerge, but vCJD emerged after the problem became known. Who knows what other disease may emerge in the future which may cause the problems that I have discussed?

We on these Benches support the recommendations of the report, particularly that there should be a statutory committee to advise Government on the management of haemophilia in this country, with patient and family representation. We agree that there should be direct financial relief for those who have been infected and for their carers, on whom much of the burden so often falls. We also agree that there should be free access to National Health Service benefits. We accept that there should be government assistance for access to insurance.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, reminded us that this whole thing has been described as a treatment disaster, as, indeed, it was. It behoves this Government and any future Government to take the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, seriously on board and to implement it.