Health: Contaminated Blood Products — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:11 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Shadow Minister, Health 1:11 pm, 23rd April 2009

My Lords, I start by adding my thanks to those already given to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, for calling for this debate and for his powerful speech. He has been tireless in raising this issue successively in the other place and in your Lordships' House, and for that he deserves our gratitude and appreciation. The infection and deaths of patients with HIV and hepatitis C through contaminated National Health Service blood and blood products was, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, stated in his report on 24 February, a "horrific human tragedy". It is therefore appropriate and just that the noble Lord, Lord Morris, should fight so hard for attention to be drawn to this report and I thank him for that.

It is also fitting that at this time we should extend our gratitude to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and his colleagues for their enormous efforts in producing this thorough, detailed and truly informative report. It is to be hoped that the two years of hard work that went into the report will now result in many more years of hard work for successive Governments as the insights raised are taken into account and, where appropriate, acted on. I acknowledge that this affects successive Governments, and the report was careful not to apportion blame. We on these Benches believe, however, that the Department of Health has done a great wrong by not taking part in the inquiry publicly. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, called it a "worrying complacency". The few meetings that it did have were held behind closed doors.

This report outlines a tragedy that has resulted in the deaths of over 1,700 people and has meant great hardship and distress for many other haemophilia patients and their families. The strong underlying story of the psychological effects has been movingly told by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, and the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale. As the noble Lord, Lord Morris, reminded us, the noble Lord, Lord Winston, has described this as,

"the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS".

Can the Minister shed some light on why the Department of Health would not allow files and documents relating to the case to be examined? According to the Times, 35 documents were withheld on grounds of confidentiality. I will be most grateful if the Minister could elaborate further on the nature of these documents, the reasons for the secrecy and why the decision was then taken to make some of the documents available—but too late, as we heard today, for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer.

In 2006, the noble Lord, Lord Warner, stated that the Government's position on an inquiry was that,

"we do not consider that a public inquiry is justified as we do not believe that any new light will be shed on this issue as a result".—[Hansard, 12/1/06; col. 299.]

I doubt that anyone reading this excellent report could agree with those sentiments. In pleasing contrast, on the last day of Grand Committee on the Health Bill, the noble Baroness said in response to an amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, that the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, was "a wonderful document" and that,

"the Government take the report very seriously ... giving careful consideration to all the recommendations".—[Official Report, 17/9/09; col. GC 95.]

The Minister also informed us that there might be some feedback from the Government on this report before the next stage of the Bill. The next stage is to begin on Tuesday. Do the Government plan to release any useful feedback between now and then, or could it be that today the Minister will announce whether the Government intend to adopt any of the measures recommended? I ask that because there is an understandably pressing desire to hear something.

In particular, do the Government intend to establish a committee to advise on the management of haemophilia within the UK, and what is their opinion about a look-back exercise, which would attempt to identify as far as possible those who may have been infected and are still unaware of it? Regardless of whether the Government decide to accept the findings of the report, does the Minister not agree that this is an important public health factor on its own? Will she also assure your Lordships' House that the United Kingdom will continue to be self-sufficient in haemophiliac clotting products for the foreseeable future? Have the Government had any discussions with the companies involved in this tragedy, such as Baxter, on the issue of donations to the charitable victim funds that have been established in a manner similar to those for thalidomide victims?

The report not only demonstrates the horrific consequences of the terrible tragedy surrounding contaminated NHS blood and blood products, but also warns against renewed dangers which could mean that a similar disaster may occur again. It states:

"The problems surrounding vCJD are a reminder that new infections may yet arise with serious results".

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, called it a "deadly scourge", and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, graphically described the problem. Is the Minister able to say whether any action is being undertaken to address this?

When we are ill, we have faith that the treatment that we receive will help to make us better, or will help us to manage the disease so that we can lead as full and dignified a life as possible. To receive treatment that leads to such tragic consequences is unimaginably cruel. I look forward to the Minister's response to this timely debate.