Second Reading

Part of Contaminated Blood (Support for Infected and Bereaved Persons) Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 1:00 pm on 11th December 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach - Shadow Minister (Also Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions), Shadow Minister 1:00 pm, 11th December 2009

My Lords, I do not think I am chancing my arm in saying that all of us in this Chamber approach the subject matter of this Bill with a heavy heart, knowing as we do of the extensive suffering and grief that has given rise to it. The story that the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, has recounted, and which is laid out in detail in the report of the inquiry chaired so ably by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, is one that can only move us profoundly. I therefore congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Morris, not only on introducing the Bill but on his assiduous championing, over many years, of that group of persons to whom life has dealt the cruellest of hands.

Nearly 5,000 people who received contaminated blood from the NHS in the 1970s and 1980s were thereby exposed to hepatitis C. Of those, more than 1,200 were also infected with HIV. Almost 2,000 have now died as a direct result, leaving behind in many cases widowed spouses and bereaved children. The origins of the disaster have been well described by noble Lords and I shall not repeat them. Successive Governments have taken the view that what happened was an accident which at the time could not have been foreseen or prevented and that no negligence was involved. Nevertheless, both the previous and the current Governments recognised the exceptional hardship inflicted on those haemophiliacs and their families and that, setting aside the issue of causation, what mattered was the well-being of those people in the future. Accordingly, the Macfarlane and Eileen Trusts, followed by the Skipton Fund, were established with the intention of alleviating the financial plight of the victims, a plight which, not infrequently, was severe.

However, it was the conclusion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, that those arrangements, well motivated though they may have been, were inadequate and flawed and that the time had come for the Government not only to make direct payments to the affected individuals and their families but to set up permanent mechanisms designed to ensure that the wider need of those people should never be lost sight of. Hence the provisions of the Bill which, as we know, closely reflects the recommendations of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer.

My noble friend Lord Howe, who very much regrets that he cannot be present for this debate, has spoken to one of the witnesses who gave evidence to the inquiry. As a result of those conversations, he is clear that one of the main hardships inflicted by this disaster is the very poor state of long-term health often experienced by the victims who, as a direct result of having received contaminated blood, have found themselves suffering from incurable and debilitating illnesses. That hardship is frequently made worse by a lack of access to prompt treatment. Little or no recognition is given to the fact that the NHS was instrumental in making these people ill in the first place, or to the idea that there is on that account an enhanced obligation on the system to look after them as well as it possibly can. It is therefore appropriate and unsurprising that both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and the noble Lord, Lord Morris, should wish to see provision made for access to effective and timely medical treatment for haemophiliacs-a call I fully support.

The anger and frustration underlying the Bill is not hard to discern. As the Archer report spells out:

"The haemophilia community feels that their plight has never been fully acknowledged or addressed".

That complaint surely encapsulates much of the case. I do not doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Morris, would not have thought it necessary to bring the Bill forward had the Government responded more tangibly to the recommendations of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, when they were first published.

It is, of course, for the Government to indicate whether they will now respond positively to the proposals presented here and for the noble Lord, Lord Morris, to press them on the Government as hard as he feels it appropriate to do. Nevertheless, having examined the Bill in some detail, I can say to the noble Lord that there are certain features of it which may not quite do justice to his intentions, and that he might therefore like to consider spending some time in Committee to enable some of the detailed wording to be looked at. For example, I am not certain that the function of the new committee in Clause 1 is described as precisely it ought to be, or that Clause 4 would deliver the kind of financial compensation which it is clear the noble Lord has in mind. There are also some more minor concerns, such as the apparent ambiguity of the territorial coverage of the support arrangements being proposed.

Nevertheless, these are matters of detail which it is inappropriate to rehearse at this stage. More important is the need for us to acknowledge the external reality. The distress of the victims of this tragedy and the uncertainty which they feel about the future came through loud and clear in the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer. Many simply want official recognition of what went wrong and why, and an acknowledgement of the suffering that they and their families have gone through, as well as a sense of confidence that nothing like the catastrophe that they experienced could happen again.

We are debating this Bill at a time when worry over NHS blood supplies has shifted from contamination by hepatitis C to possible contamination by variant CJD, as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. We do not know, since it is currently impossible to know, how small or great such contamination may have been, but the explicit provision in Clause 2 for the testing of blood for contamination by variant CJD is a clear and appropriate signal that this is a live issue. When it comes to blood safety, we cannot afford to relax our guard.

It was a chain of chance circumstances which led to my involvement in this debate. I have learnt much. I say in all humility that I am very grateful for the opportunity of so doing.

I end as I began, by expressing my admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Morris, for having brought forward this Bill. Not many of us, I suspect, would have remained as undeterred as him by the formidable obstacles in the way of doing so. It is a mark of the noble Lord's deep compassion and sense of humanity that he should have initiated today's important debate. In thanking him for that, I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply and to the Bill's further stages.