Second Reading

Part of Contaminated Blood (Support for Infected and Bereaved Persons) Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 12:26 pm on 11th December 2009.

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Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative 12:26 pm, 11th December 2009

My Lords, I have been moved to take part in the debate on the Bill because of the sheer quiet tenacity of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester. A chance meeting in the Corridor some time ago led to a discussion about his great cause of the moment. As everyone who knows him or has had the pleasure of speaking to him knows, the noble Lord is a wonderful supporter and campaigner for those who have no strong voice. Among them are those on the real margins of society with chronic conditions, who never seem to come across our paths, who suffer and have suffered in silence for so long.

As an aside, it would be wonderful if our powerful media would publicise this cause and if the Haemophilia Society, which is so short of financial support at the moment, were nominated as the Christmas charity by one of the national newspapers for next year-it is too late this year. That is something we can do as a group of people who are deeply concerned. That is about the only thing that I can suggest from a practical point of view, having listened to all the moving speeches this morning. I am not going into the Department of Health to look for lost documents-I would not have any locus there and would be kicked out-but there must be something we can do. Of course, supporting the Bill is the first thing, but that is another idea, and I hope that someone will take it up.

After researching the whole issue of those who are affected-fatally affected-by contaminated blood and blood products after my chance encounter with the noble Lord, and after supporting him in previous exchanges in your Lordships' House, I became more and more depressed and appalled. There is no way that I could not support the Bill, and I do so wholeheartedly.

My sense of depression was somewhat alleviated when I realised that another noble Lord for whom I have the utmost admiration, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, is still deeply involved in this issue. I have read his report. I have to admit that I read it reluctantly, because it made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I was astonished that such a situation could exist and that I could have been oblivious to it. It was rather like the experience I had a couple of months ago when we were examining the Coroners and Justice Bill. I undertook to investigate the issue of the prostitutes exploited and trafficked to provide sex. Of course, the victims of today's debate have no chance of recovery from their dreadful situation.

Let us not forget that we are talking about people with a significantly diminished lifespan. My intervention has been motivated by the huge injustice and by the lack of compassion shown to the victims. As has already been stated, the purpose of the Bill is to provide support for people who have been infected with certain diseases as a result of receiving contaminated blood and blood products supplied by the NHS. They were infected by the NHS. Their illnesses are not a result of a chosen lifestyle. They were infected unknowingly and were the tragic victims of mischance, mistake or negligence.

At this stage, I shall deviate from concentrating on blame because it does not help or strengthen the cause of the victims, and neither will it help the surviving dependants and loved ones. The Bill is a straightforward case of justice and compassion and just deals with a wrong that must be righted. Of course, I know that there are those who will argue that we should apportion blame, and one sympathises with them, but an in-depth analysis of who or what was to blame has already been carried out, and I trust that the factors have been isolated to such an extent that precautionary systems are now in place to make it as sure as one can ever make sure of anything that the root cause will never happen again. Further analysis is not the purpose of the Bill. I reiterate that this is a matter of justice and compassion. We as a nation can hold our heads up high only if we exercise justice and compassion in everything we do. I just hope that the Government will give the Bill a fair wind.

Before looking at the detail of the Bill, I must make it clear that as an economist-I do not often admit that-I am constantly conscious of the financial impact of any measure we blithely put before the Government in which we demand resources to improve a situation. The Bill does not give any indication of the likely cost of the measures proposed but, to be stark about it, the costs will diminish, and with so few tragic people involved, it is unlikely to be hugely costly. Already some £142 million in ex gratia payments has been given to patients and their dependants since 1988, and £46 million is being provided for the NHS to help fund the purchase of clotting factors in 2009-10. I fear I have already strayed into territory that is both unknown to me and distressing. I will leave it to others, but suffice it to say that there is a need for an impact statement so that we can have some idea of the financial impact of the Bill, if, as I hope, it becomes an Act.

The Bill has the great merit of being clear, written in plain English and completely comprehensible to mere lay people like me. Each section seems logical and comprehensive and provides answers to the questions that crowded into my mind when approaching the subject. In addition, it was good to be able to read a technical Bill quickly and understand every word. I fear I cannot resist the temptation to articulate the wish that each Bill produced in our Parliament was so well drafted.

The people who have been treated with, and infected by, contaminated blood and blood products are central to the Bill, and that is how it should be. I fear my heart sank to see that the objective of Clause 1 is to establish a committee to advise on haemophilia-yet another committee! Please do not let it be another quango. I suggest that a time limit be put on the operation of such a committee. I have just one further gentle suggestion about it: a lay person with a reputation for seeing the world through common-sense glasses could bring an additional, different and, probably, helpful perspective. Sometimes the experts get too close to the subject and need a jolt of the ordinary to clear the way.

I now turn to Clauses 2, 3 and 4. Of course, there should be provision for blood donations, a scheme for NHS compensation cards for those affected and provision for the compensation of people treated with, and infected by, NHS contaminated blood and blood products and their widows, dependants and carers. However, here I have a slight moan: what about widowers? I am sure that this is just a drafting point, but I suggest that an amendment be made to the relevant clause to cover them. I particularly approve of the fact that it is proposed that a review will be held within six months of the passing of the Act.

This is an excellent Bill and it would result in improving the lot of those so brutally affected. They are a hidden group. They do not seem to have celebrities promoting their cause. They have been living in despair and without hope. I nearly wept when I heard the description of the five people who wanted to come to give evidence but could not afford the fare. What sort of a society are we? It is time that we all realised that we have a duty of care towards these people, which is all part of justice and compassion. I hope that the Bill has an easy passage through both Houses and becomes law speedily.