Health: Contaminated Blood Products — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:40 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Labour 12:40 pm, 23rd April 2009

My Lords, it is with great sadness that I thank and congratulate my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester on staging this debate. There is a huge monument of shame to successive Governments, who for more than 20 years have found ways of avoiding what are clearly their responsibilities to the victims who were infected with dirty blood and to their carers, often spouses, who are left behind and condemned to abject poverty.

One of my former constituents, Mrs Sue Threakall, who gave evidence to my noble friend's inquiry—I congratulate him and his colleagues on it—e-mailed me this morning to say that she wanted to be here to sit in the Public Gallery and listen to this debate but could not afford the train fare from Somerset. It should shame everyone that we allow this to happen.

My noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell so aptly described this as an horrific human tragedy. That is exactly what it is. What was the response of an unnamed spokeswoman from the Department of Health, which was published in the Times on 24 February this year, to my noble and learned friend's report? She is quoted as saying:

"We have great sympathy for the patients and families affected by contaminated blood products in the 1970s and 1980s".

My former constituent Mrs Threakall does not want sympathy; she finds it offensive. She wants relief from the shattering poverty to which she is condemned because her breadwinner husband, Bob Threakall, who was given dirty blood, died on the wrong date in the wrong country. He died at the age of 47 in 1991, having been infected by HIV and hepatitis B and C in 1977. Since then, Mrs Threakall has been forced on to means-tested benefits as she tries to come to terms with her loss. That personal tragedy, which is repeated all around the haemophilia community, is made worse by a state that supplied contaminated blood without accepting its moral responsibilities for the consequences of that action.

As the Archer report says on page 101:

"Without necessarily apportioning blame, the state needs to act responsibly in addressing the tragedy of patients being infected with potentially fatal diseases through NHS prescribed treatment".

When her husband died, Mrs Threakall said, "It just ripped the family apart". It takes no great imagination to understand the full force of those words. Had her husband Bob died after August 2003, the Government would have made a compassionate payment, but as he died in 1991 she and the family got nothing, not even any kind of apology. There was no well thought out and well argued principle; there was simply an arbitrary date that had been snatched for a reason that was not explained, and that was it. If you died that side of the line, you got nothing; if you died this side of the line, you got something. That is both offensive and indefensible. It is unfair and unjust, and it has condemned Mrs Threakall, who is now 55, to severe financial problems that deserve and demand to be met. A date on a calendar and an accident of geography have denied Mrs Threakall and others justice. Had that family lived in Ireland, up to £100,000 would have been paid to Bob as a patient infected by HIV, and an average of £750,000 would have been paid to those like Mrs Threakall's husband who went on to contract hepatitis C from the dirty blood.

My noble and learned friend's report gives this Government the chance to right a huge wrong. No one is arguing whether it is right or wrong. As my noble and learned friend says, there is no point in trying to apportion blame. This happened, and it had severe, known consequences for the patients who were given the dirty blood and for the carers who were left behind. There is no argument about that, but successive Governments have displayed stubbornness: "Yes, that's alright. We know all about that but we can't do anything about it". However, it is not a question of "can't do anything about it", but, "won't do anything about it". This Government should understand, as should other Governments, that if this is not dealt with, it will not, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said, go away. There is a determination in this House and the other place, and certainly in the community that is so seriously affected by this, not to give up this fight. I made a promise to my former constituent Mrs Threakall that I would not give it up either, because I stand proudly alongside her.

I hope in the process that the Government will find a way not to express sympathy but to apologise to the community for what happened, because we are entitled to trust our National Health Service to take all proper care, and to trust the treatment that is on offer to us. That trust was betrayed in this case, which again underlines the moral responsibility of Governments in this matter.

It is no proper response for successive Governments to argue that the NHS acted in good faith. No one doubts that; what matters are the terrible consequences of judgments made in good faith, of which this is an example. Those judgments have cost lives and have left relatives hurt and in severe financial circumstances. Those judgments, which I accept were made in good faith, were simply wrong, and victims and relatives have an unanswerable moral case to have that loss recognised.

My noble and learned friend Lord Archer mentioned the words of the late Lord Ackner—I remember him standing in the Chamber on 21 November 2002. He summed this up—this is the lawyer's skill—in this way:

"My Lords, how does the noble Lord differentiate between this case and the extensive compensation provided for victims of crime? There is no obligation on the Government to provide a penny piece for victims of crime, but, in the past, it was provided on the same basis as the ordinary civil liability. Subsequently, it went on to a tariff system. Many millions of pounds are provided for victims of crime. Why is there a differentiation between them and the haemophiliacs whom we are discussing?".—[Hansard, 21/11/02; col. 508.]

Why indeed? The question that he asked then is as relevant today as it was on the day when he asked it.

Finally, page 108 of the Archer report says:

"Direct financial relief should be provided for those infected, and for carers who have been prevented from working. We propose that the scheme should have the following characteristics".

I shall not read them all out, but I draw the attention of your Lordships, and of my noble friend, particularly to paragraph (e) on page 109. It states:

"The anomalies which at present apply according to the age when the recipient was first infected, or when the infection took place or, in the case of dependents, the date of death of the original patient should be rectified. In particular, the Government should review the conditions under which the widow of a patient", for haemophilia,

"now becomes eligible for benefit from the Eileen Trust and from the Skipton Fund".

I hope that when my noble friend replies she can at the very least assure us that the Government intend to accept and implement the report's recommendations and bring to an end this dreadful agony.