Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:01 pm on 17 May 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Cumberlege Baroness Cumberlege Conservative 6:01, 17 May 2022

My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Addington, because he always says something of real interest; today was no exception, and I congratulate him on that. I declare my interests, which are in the Lords’ register.

I will be brief. I want to focus on one issue that is related to our healthcare system. As we know, the NHS is under great pressure, with a workforce crisis, the impact of Covid and a huge backlog of patients awaiting treatment. Yet we also know that the NHS is capable of great things: it saves and improves lives, and it enables us to live our lives, day in, day out. But sometimes things go wrong, and I do not mean isolated incidents. I am referring to avoidable harm on a sustained and widespread scale. That is what my team and I discovered when we undertook the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review.

Thousands of women’s and children’s lives have been turned upside down by two medicines and a medical device. Warnings and patients’ concerns were ignored. The system seemed unwilling or unable to listen, let alone respond. It was unwilling or unable to stop the harm. The harm these women and their families have suffered is irreversible and lifelong: children with physical and cognitive damage from the anti-epilepsy drug sodium valproate; women in agony due to the cavalier attitude on inserting pelvic mesh; and women who took the hormone pregnancy test Primodos, and miscarried or had children who were physically damaged.

Things do go wrong, and when they go wrong on this scale lessons really have to be learned. We have to learn to prevent similar tragedies in the future, but that is not all. We must also accept that in any decent society we have a moral and ethical duty to provide help to people whose lives have been ruined and who suffer constant emotional turmoil through no fault of their own. They did nothing wrong. The system failed them and we have a duty to help them. We must not turn our backs on them.

This principle of providing redress is not new and has been applied in this country—for example, in the case of Thalidomide and in variant CJD, where a fund of over £67 million was allocated by the Government for victims of the disease. There was no need to go to court or to prove negligence or liability. This is not compensation. Going to court is costly and stressful, and it has not helped the families affected by sodium valproate, Primodos and pelvic mesh. They need redress schemes. Just like Thalidomide victims or those diagnosed with variant CJD, they need and deserve our support—not just financially but with practical, non-financial help as well. Other Governments are acting—in France, for example—and it should happen here. We should ensure that redress schemes are established.

Even now, two years after we finished our review, I am regularly contacted by affected individuals who tell me of their suffering and what they need. I know their lives would be improved immeasurably by the support that such a redress scheme would offer them—a new wheelchair, a respite break or additional help at home, for example. They cannot currently access these things from existing state providers.

There is widespread cross-party support for this in this House and the other place. The patient groups support us, of course, and the Sunday Times is calling for it. The Government have so far refused to help, saying that their focus is on preventing future harm. This should not be a choice between reducing the risk of future harm on the one hand and helping those who have already suffered on the other. We should do both. We must do both.