Second Reading

Part of Contaminated Blood (Support for Infected and Bereaved Persons) Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 1:08 pm on 11th December 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 1:08 pm, 11th December 2009

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Morris on this Bill and on the excellent and moving way in which he introduced it. I also join other noble Lords in paying tribute to my noble and learned friend Lord Archer for his leadership of the independent inquiry into contaminated blood and blood products, whose report was published on 23 February. I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, comments and insights.

The provisions of the Bill are based on the recommendations of my noble and learned friend's inquiry. Despite my efforts and those of my noble friend Lord Darzi-and, indeed, of the noble Lord, Lord Morris-to secure a debate on the Government's response to the inquiry, we failed with the usual channels, for which I was berating my noble friend the Chief Whip as he was sitting next me just now. We failed to secure time before summer for that debate. For that, I apologise. However, this Bill has given us a welcome opportunity, eloquently taken by noble Lords in this Second Reading debate. I assure my noble friend Lord Rooker, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that I do not feel in the least sorry for myself. I am always delighted to discuss these important issues, although I always also welcome good wishes and sympathy.

The Government fully understand the nature of the appalling tragedy and are fully committed to supporting those affected by it. We continue to work to provide ever safer blood and blood products. We are also committed to consulting haemophilia stakeholders in developing a new policy, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, referred, on the treatment of people with haemophilia. This will be an ongoing process covering all aspects of their treatment and care and will forge links with other groups-for example, specialised commissioners, as required in the health service.

I fully recognise the passionate commitment of my noble friend Lord Morris to this important cause. I congratulate him on the successes that he has already achieved. Today I have a number of reservations about whether there is a need for recourse to legislation. On 20 May, the Government published their final response to the report of my noble and learned friend Lord Archer, and we are working to implement the commitments that we made in our response. I will briefly set out how the Government's response has already addressed the main elements of this Bill, before moving on to address specific questions raised during the debate.

Clause 1 provides for a statutory committee to advise on the treatment of haemophilia. However, the majority of the Department of Health's advisory committees are not established on a statutory basis. Instead, we are now meeting twice yearly with the Haemophilia Alliance, which is an existing UK-wide partnership between patients, haemophilia doctors and others involved in their care. I emphasise the issue of patients and their families; several noble Lords have suggested that they are not listening, and I hope that my remarks will refute that contention.

The first meeting, which was very productive, took place on 20 November. The group unanimously agreed that it would be helpful for all parties to better understand how specialised services for haemophilia patients are commissioned and to identify how the Haemophilia Alliance can influence service provision countrywide. The committee will meet twice yearly, but it is also setting up a work stream that will run right through the work of the department with regard to haemophilia. The first meeting also saw a discussion of the terms of reference for the group, which include how new policies will be developed and how the department will be accountable to the community for ensuring that work is carried through.

The next meeting date is to be agreed, but it will be in the new year. I am just making the point that this is not a twice-yearly meeting but a meeting about a work stream. Similarly, the group agreed to a Department of Health proposal for a workshop for patients, carers and health professionals about vCJD. We are planning to hold this workshop during March or April 2010. The outputs of this workshop will be used to help to inform future communication with the haemophilia community about the risk of vCJD. I hope that noble Lords will see that this has come about without legislation and with a commitment from the Government.

Clause 2 provides for haemophilia patients to be offered testing for a number of specified infectious agents, and for blood donations to be screened for those same agents. I can confirm that testing for all but one of the specified agents is already available to haemophilia patients, if their clinicians advise they are needed, and that all blood donations are screened for the same conditions. The sole exception is vCJD, for which there is currently no validated test available, but I shall update the House later with where we are on that issue. Therefore, we cannot legislate on something that it is currently not possible to implement.

Clause 3 provides for a scheme of NHS cards for those infected through treatment with contaminated blood and blood products, which would enable access to NHS benefits free of charge, including prescription charges. The Prime Minister has already announced our intention to progressively phase out prescription charges in England for patients with long-term conditions. Professor Ian Gilmore has completed a review of prescription charges in England that considered how to implement and phase in the Prime Minister's commitment. We are considering the recommendations and will publish the report and a response to the recommendations and action in the new year.

The other services specified, such as counselling and physiotherapy, are already available in England under the NHS, where needed, while statutory guidance to local authorities on charging for non-residential social care services already makes it clear that they should assess and take into account service users' specific needs, and costs associated with their condition or disability. That includes any additional costs related to living with chronic infections.

I confess that am puzzled about Clause 3(3), which provides for priority access to NHS treatment for haemophilia patients whenever possible. We need some clarification. Does that not run counter to the fundamental principles, now enshrined in the NHS constitution, that the NHS provides a comprehensive service, based on equality and fairness, that is available to all, with access based on clinical need? I am sure that my noble friend does not mean that one patient group should be treated differently from others.