Health: Contaminated Blood Products — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:32 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 12:32 pm, 23rd April 2009

My Lords, I intervene briefly to support my noble friend and others. Other than a Written Question and an Oral Question in the other place, probably in the 1970s, when the noble Lord, Lord Owen, was trying to get things moving, I do not think that I have spoken on this issue in the House. However, having followed the debate, if—as I was in the past as a constituency Member of Parliament—I were asked by constituents, "Are blood transfusions safe?", I would have some doubt today about giving the answer that I gave then. There are people who are opposed on ideological and ethical grounds to blood transfusion. Occasionally one gets called in to persuade them that it is a good thing. However, the reluctance of the department to have full disclosure—no one is interested in blame, I am not looking for who to blame and neither is my noble and learned friend Lord Archer or other noble Lords—naturally leads to suspicion.

I have no grounds for saying what I am about to allude to, but my experience is that somewhere advice will have been given about the risk of precedent because of the possible discovery of X, Y or Z that is not in the public domain. I do not know about that; what I know is that, to take vCJD for example, we still do not know the incubation period. When in 1998 I took the order for the beef-on-the-bone ban through the other place in a raucous House late at night, the one way I silenced the House was to point out the simple fact that when the post mortems were done, the medical instruments could not be used again. Sterilisation was not an answer—they simply could not be used again because it is so infectious. As I said, we do not know the incubation period of that disease. I do not know whether there are other examples, but natural doubt and suspicion is created where there is reluctance to disclose information in a no-blame situation—the individuals concerned are not around because of the time lapse.

I very much regret that we have reached that the position. The National Blood Transfusion Service is always campaigning because we need blood for transfusions for all kinds of things, but there is bound to be a festering doubt in people's minds. I regret that. We have to ask, as others have: "What is government for?". I always taken the view that government is for the public good, to do the things that people cannot do for themselves privately. People say that government interferes, but that is what government is for. Public good works—that is what the Government are for. However, if in doing those public good works the Government harm people—inadvertently; no one is saying that anyone went out to do this deliberately—how then do we as a society care for those who we have harmed collectively by the action or inaction of the Government? There is enough evidence of the warnings about buying blood products created from blood paid for in suspicious circumstances, especially from prisoners in United States. It is all there on the record from the 1970s and 1980s. It is there for anyone to see. It is not as though doubts were not around; they were.

The issue comes up occasionally in respect of the Armed Forces. We have a moral responsibility and a public duty. The Government—I use government as a generic term to cover all Governments—and the machinery of government, our professional civil servants, are basically there to make sure that we do not have a collapse in the standards of conduct of public administration. When there is reluctance to have an inquiry because it is said that there is nothing more to learn—"Oh, and by the way, on the inside track, we might be creating a precedent for something else coming down the line"—that is a collapse of or a lapse in standards of conduct of public administration.

I look—I looked as a Minister—to the guidance we get from civil servants to make sure that we do not fall into that trap as Ministers come and go. There is an issue here that transcends the technicalities and the human tragedies that we have heard about this morning. I shall not repeat those, but there is a serious issue of the doubt, uncertainty and pressures on individual families. I just make one point about finance, which was drawn to my attention by one of my former constituents from many years ago, whose name has already been mentioned. The £140 million paid out to the 5,000 people averaged out at £28,000. That is a sum not adjacent to £124,000, which is a sum bandied about in the other place as the annual second-home allowance. One can see what a pitiful amount it is if you have lost your career and have caring responsibilities, doubt about work and other extra pressures. It is a pittance—and many people have been denied even that.

I doubt that my noble friend will be able to answer all our questions, but, by and large, the Civil Service is frightened of this place—that is my experience from working in four departments—because civil servants do not understand it. The one thing they know about it is that the Government do not control it, unlike the other place. As long as we keep off the money side, we can be taken far more seriously and there is always the chance that we can get some action. I do not imply a threat about the legislation that is coming. Governments are judged in some ways on the big issues of the day—yesterday's Budget is a good example—but they are also judged in people's hearts and minds and, in the minds of opinion-formers, by the smaller matters of how they deal with people who cannot help themselves. There may be 100 people here, 50 there, 1,000 there, whose lives are devastated and harmed because of the state doing its function. That is a test by which any Government must be judged. The question is how they react when the small people are damaged by them—how they handle not the big financial and industrial issues of the day but these issues. The eyes of the country are on this place, and indeed on the Government—as they should be because they are the Government of the day, and as they should be on any Government—to see how a case such as this is handled. I look forward to my noble friend's response on the issues that have been raised here today, and hope that she will take them back to the department and consider them seriously. The one message that the department will get from this debate is that this debate is not the end.