Health: Contaminated Blood Products — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:20 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of Lord Archer of Sandwell Lord Archer of Sandwell Labour 12:20 pm, 23rd April 2009

My Lords, I add my congratulations to those that we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell. I wonder whether at this point it is also in order to add my congratulations on my noble friend's forthcoming election as a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. It is proper recognition of a lifetime spent in the service of those who suffer.

I express my felicitations, too, on the timing of this debate. Those responsible in government needed time to read and consider our report, and to consult and discuss it, so we never expected an immediate reaction from the Government. Of course, a listening Government are an asset only if they are also a reflecting Government, and their value diminishes if they then become a dithering Government. It is nine weeks since we reported, and my noble friend's timing of this debate cannot be faulted.

I express my thanks, too, to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, for the kind things that they said about us. I speak on behalf of my colleagues on the inquiry in saying that we greatly appreciated the encouragement that we received both during the inquiry and since we reported.

Our report could have been more informative if we had been appointed 20 years ago—a point already made by contributors to this debate. Memories would have been fresher, the principal participants would still have been alive and all the records and documentary evidence would probably still have been available. That is the position, which it is too late to alter. We had to deal with the situation as we found it and, although the Government continued the policies of their predecessors in declining to provide oral evidence, it is fair to say that they tried to assist us within the boundaries that they had established. Even this week, we were offered documents that until then had been withheld. Sadly, of course, it was too late to refer to them in our report.

It is always a pleasure to have the ear of my noble friend Lady Thornton. Once again, I suspect that she has been assigned as wicket keeper when it is expected that there may be some fast bowling. The Government's strategy is, I suspect, transparent. There was a need for a Minister on the Front Bench who is cool and persuasive, who is known for her compassion to those who suffer and who bears no responsibility for any aspect of the tragedy.

It was inevitable that in reporting on this sad history we would feel compelled to comment on some of the decisions that were reached or on decisions that were not reached at all when it mattered. We tried to make allowances for the fact that the past is another country; we are judging from a body of knowledge that was not available at the time, as my noble friend Lord Morris pointed out, when perspectives were very different. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, properly drew our attention to those limitations; we were very conscious of them. We did not consider it our major task to apportion blame, as the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, pointed out.

The past cannot be changed. It may sometimes be rewritten but the reality remains with us. What is still open to change is the future, which remains open in two ways. First, we may learn lessons that help us to ensure that we do not make those mistakes again and, secondly, although we cannot prevent past mistakes, we may be able to mitigate the consequences. The effects of infection not only on patients but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, pointed out, on their families are almost impossible for those of us who have not suffered to appreciate. We had a moving example from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas.

For that reason we invited those who read our report to consider first how to ensure that future Governments have the maximum available expertise and experience. Among our recommendations, as earlier contributors to the debate pointed out, is a proposal for a statutory advisory committee, including clinicians, a representative from the Department of Health and, at least as important, patient representation—members from the Haemophilia Society and from other bodies who represent patients. Patient participation in relation to both individual treatment and national policy was conspicuously lacking when this tragedy occurred. Since then we have heard of the success achieved in Ireland, Canada, Japan, Thailand and the USA. Of course, there is a need for the very best expertise available, but that is enriched by an input from some of those who have actually been there.

I seem to remember that Aristotle said somewhere, although I have not been able to trace it in the past few days, that if you seek an opinion on the building of a house you should ask two people—the architect and the person who has to live in it. The second way of mitigating the consequences of the tragedy, as my noble friend Lord Morris reminded us, is to consider the financial position of someone who is already affected with haemophilia and is then affected with hepatitis C, HIV or both. In addition to the loss of the normal amenities, of which we have already been reminded, the patient is faced with additional expenses, such as extra heating, special diet, assistance with transport and domestic help and additional premiums for travel and life insurance. As living expenses escalate, earnings may well diminish. The patient may lose not only earning capacity but such additional benefits as pension rights. Families who formerly enjoyed good living standards are forced to live on benefits.

The present Government have been at the receiving end of a great deal of criticism in this case, but we have to remember that we are considering successive Governments. The details are set out in our report as to the provision that some Governments have attempted to make to alleviate financial hardship, but they compare poorly with the provision available in Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Italy, to cite just a few examples. In most cases, that provision came about by way of settlement of claims that were being pursued in the courts. Part of the indignation felt here is that it was necessary to initiate proceedings in the courts. We believe that such action is not the appropriate way of approaching this question.

It is understandable that those who have suffered have looked for someone to blame and equally understandable that Governments have said that they were not to blame and regarded that as an end to the discussion. We said in our report that argument in the courts addresses the wrong questions in such situations. It does not matter whether claimants are time-barred by the Limitation Act, whether they were persuaded as a condition of the relief that has been available to sign a release exempting the Government from further claims, whether participants are now dead or whether records have been lost. We believe that it is unworthy for the Government to argue, "It wasn't our fault, so we won't relieve the financial hardship". The party that I joined more than 60 years ago believed that the Government had a duty to ensure for all their citizens a reasonable standard of living and relief from poverty—poverty for which they were not responsible—particularly where it is attributable to a specific misfortune that is clearly identifiable. I recollect Lord Ackner asking in this Chamber on more than one occasion how this situation could be distinguished from the criminal injury legislation; a victim of crime is compensated by the Government without anyone asking whether the misfortune was the Government's fault.

I am very conscious that this is not the optimum time to choose to press on the Government the need for expenditure adequate to address the hardship, but the relief has been withheld for too long. Many whose final years might have been passed free from financial pressures are already dead. Others have only a limited time left. For too long, the debate has been about what might have been. What needs to be discussed now is what may yet be.