Second Reading

Part of Contaminated Blood (Support for Infected and Bereaved Persons) Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 12:48 pm on 11th December 2009.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Shadow Attorney General 12:48 pm, 11th December 2009

My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, for his tireless work, and to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and his colleagues for the report that they have produced.

I welcome the Bill. I am speaking from the Front Bench because I consider this to be a matter of justice. It is a wrong that must be righted, as the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, has pointed out. These are victims who have been damaged by the state, and not entirely inadvertently: from an early stage concerns were expressed about the possibility of contamination in blood products that were being imported from abroad, yet health authorities were permitted to use imported blood products in a way that has been a disaster.

It is shameful that the Government have sheltered behind Crown immunity, which was abolished in 1991. Because they are able to do that, they say that there are no findings of fault. As I said in the debate on 23 April, if the Government were to take that attitude now, a test action should be brought to see whether they would dare to rely on limitation and dare not to waive the Crown immunity, which they could do. It is also shameful that no public inquiry has been brought by the Government. We await the report of the Penrose inquiry, to which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, have referred. The fact that documents were destroyed inadvertently is completely unacceptable. The Government did not participate in the Archer inquiry. Suddenly, 5,000 documents emerged after his inquiry was completed. That, too, is completely unacceptable.

In the past few days, it has been brought home to me that we should not be concerned about just the terrible illnesses, but also the stigma of those illnesses. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, referred to children who were refused entry to Disneyland. I was told of a woman who, after many years of being widowed, summoned up enough courage to start a relationship with another person. When he learnt that her husband as died of AIDs as a result of contaminated blood, he immediately dropped her. That is the sort of thing that people have to live with. As a result of these things, people are also uninsurable. I welcome the Bill and the chance to come back to this subject, which we debated on 23 April, before the Government responded.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, has pointed out the wide nature of the committee that he proposed and the need for a standing secretariat. That was met by the Government saying, "Well, we have the Haemophilia Alliance, with which we meet twice a year". No doubt, the Haemophilia Alliance does good work, but it has no representatives from the Department of Health. No patients or families are part of it. It meets once every six months; so, presumably, its departmental meeting is once every six months. There is no statutory requirement for the Secretary of State to consult it. I would suggest to your Lordships that the Government's response to that part of the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, is utterly inadequate.

Clause 3 proposes National Health Service compensation cards and access to free National Health Service treatment. In May, the Government's response was to say that they were awaiting the Gilmore review of prescription charges due in the summer. On 19 June, a question was asked in another place and the Minister said that that review would be published in the autumn. Since then, there has been silence. It is only right that the National Health Service, which was responsible for this disaster, should be under a duty to make free provision for its consequences without any question. As has already been pointed out, that domiciliary care should be shrugged off as the responsibility of local authorities is again a completely inadequate response.

Clause 4 deals with compensation, which is the only significant financial obligation in the Bill, and obviously it involves considerable sums of money. The Government say that ex gratia payments are enough. That took me back to the criminal injuries compensation scheme, of which both I and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, were both once members. The scheme was first put forward on an ex gratia basis that was thought to be satisfactory. I resigned when the tariff system was introduced which cut back people's awards. That change was challenged in the courts, and as a result, the Government were forced to place the scheme on a statutory basis. The Government say all the time that victims are at the heart of the criminal justice system, so the victims of crime for whom the Government are in no way responsible now get compensation under a statutory scheme currently running at £200 million per annum. A permanent and ongoing assessment body is in place under a statutory responsibility that will continue year in and year out and which Governments will have to fund.

Here we are dealing with a finite number of people who have been damaged not by criminals, but by the state itself. How can it be said that they should not be under a statutory scheme whereby money is paid directly by the Government to those who have suffered? The ex gratia, lump sum and discretionary payments made to beneficiaries have been increased in response to the Archer report and it is said that repeat applications to these trusts are no longer necessary, but it is a matter of concern to families that they have to go cap in hand to plead their case to the trust if they have particular or special needs. A direct payment under a statutory scheme should be made, as the Bill provides.

Clause 4 irons out artificial distinctions and demands that regulations are put in place that do not draw distinctions on the basis of cause, age, date of receipt of contaminated products, or the date of death. It provides that there should be no means test and no impact on other benefits. The balance between lump sum and periodic payments can take into account the financial circumstances of the country at the time. We are in a bad way at the moment, but I hope that it will not be permanent.

As I have said, this is a question of justice. Compensation should not be a charge on the National Health Service budget because it is a matter of wider government responsibility. We should not accept that compensation paid to the victims of the state's default in this way should in some way affect the provision of care under the National Health Service to other people. I, too, believe that a review within six months to consider the present situation and to make recommendations, as Clause 4 requires, is the right approach. The essential requirement is that the issue should be fully addressed now. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, has given us the figures: some 1,974 people have died as a result of the infections that they sustained. There should be justice for the living who have been damaged by the state while they are still alive. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said that the Minister will have a miserable time. So be it, but if a particular Minister feels sorry for him or herself, I would ask them to consider the permanent misery of those who live with what the noble Lord rightly called a festering sore.