Amendment 133A

Part of Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 26 February 2024.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 4:30, 26 February 2024

My Lords, in arriving, as we now have, at Part 3 of the Bill, I should like to begin by thanking all noble Lords who have spoken so powerfully and movingly on a set of events which many regard as constituting the worst disaster in the history of the National Health Service. The story of those who received infected blood as part of their NHS care and treatment is one of unimaginable suffering and terrible tragedy over more than four decades. It is a story that is still not yet over. The victims’ suffering has been made even worse by an absence of full justice for those individuals and, alongside that, a failure to reach—as far as may be possible—a sense of closure.

The official public inquiry currently under way, under the chairmanship of Sir Brian Langstaff, is the start of delivering the justice that is needed. The inquiry has been informed by the expert work of Sir Robert Francis, and Sir Brian has so far published two interim reports on his findings, with his final report due on 20 May. Meanwhile, in the other place, Clause 40—as it is now—was added to the Bill to speed up the delivery process.

The Government accept the will of Parliament that arrangements should be put in place to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, that the victims receive justice as quickly and efficiently as possible. Therefore, my desire—and, I trust, that of all noble Lords—is to see the Bill added to the statute book as soon as is reasonably practicable. The Government are well aware that every passing season sees more suffering, death and bereavement. We are therefore eager to avoid more needless delay.

Ministers have already taken action and given a number of undertakings. First, we have promised that within 25 sitting days of Sir Brian Langstaff’s final report being published, we will make a Statement to Parliament setting out the Government’s response. The period of 25 days is not a target but a deadline. We will issue our response as soon as we possibly can.

Secondly, in response to a recommendation from Sir Brian, we have made interim payments amounting to £440 million to infected individuals or bereaved partners registered with existing infected blood support schemes.

Thirdly, in readiness for Sir Brian’s final report, we have appointed Sir Jonathan Montgomery to chair an expert group whose remit is to advise the Government on some of the legal and technical aspects of delivering compensation. I realise that some have questioned Sir Jonathan’s appointment because of his former connection with Bayer. Noble Lords may wish to note that Sir Jonathan ceased to be a member of the Bayer bioethics council on 31 October 2023. The council was an independent advisory group which had no role in the day-to-day operations of the company. It has had no executive power in the operational business of Bayer.

I emphasise that nothing in the work of the expert group is intended to cut across the conclusions of the inquiry or the advice of Sir Robert Francis—quite the opposite, actually. The expert group is there to enable Ministers to understand certain technical issues and thus enable decisions to be taken more quickly.

On the amendment passed by the House of Commons, which we are now considering, noble Lords will understand that the provisions of any Bill need to be legally coherent and should not cut across the integrity of the statute book. There are two principal defects with Clause 40: first, its coverage does not extend to the whole of the United Kingdom. The Government are clear that infected blood is a UK-wide issue. For that very reason, the infected blood inquiry was set up on a UK-wide basis. In March 2021, we announced uplifts to achieve broad financial parity across the UK’s infected blood support schemes, increasing annual payments to beneficiaries across the country as a whole. Maintaining a commitment to parity across the UK is extremely important.

We also need to agree on a set of arrangements that are workable and, above all, work for victims. It is therefore essential for the UK Government to engage with all the devolved Administrations with those aims in view. That is what we are now doing. My right honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office met counterparts from the Welsh Government, Scottish Government and Northern Ireland Executive earlier this month to discuss this matter; those discussions will continue.

The second principal defect of Clause 40 is that in proposing the establishment of an arm’s-length body, as Sir Brian recommended, it does not also propose any specific functions for that body. The Government’s intention, therefore, is to bring forward an amendment on Report which will correct these two deficiencies and add further standard provisions to ensure a more complete legal framework when setting up an ALB. I plan to engage with noble Lords in advance of Report to discuss the content of the government amendment once it has been drafted.

That drafting is not yet complete. One of the main reasons for this—which I personally felt strongly about—was that we should use this Committee stage as an opportunity for a general debate on the infected blood scandal and, in advance of Report, for the Government to be made aware of the views expressed by noble Lords from around the Chamber. I hope the Committee will agree that this was a reasonable approach.

My remarks thus far, have, I hope, given some reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, as regards Amendments 133A and 133B. I listened carefully to the noble Lord’s speech, and I entirely appreciate the concerns that he has raised. I have already made it clear that it is our aim is to achieve parity of treatment across the entire UK. However, in the light of what I have said, I hope the noble Lord will understand why I cannot at this stage say anything about the funding of compensation. In regard specifically to Amendment 133B, it would not be appropriate for the Bill to seek to override the existing processes that are in place to secure His Majesty’s Treasury funding. I cannot provide further reassurances at this stage, other than to say that the UK Government have accepted the moral case for compensation.

I now turn to Amendment 134, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. I am grateful for this amendment, which seeks to probe—as she made clear—how and when interim compensation payments will be made to affected victims of the infected blood scandal. Many noble Lords will, I am sure, share the noble Baroness’s sense of urgency—expressed equally powerfully in the other place—on the need to deliver justice swiftly to the victims of the infected blood scandal.

Victims of infected blood have suffered terribly over many years, and that distress has been compounded by the financial uncertainty that they have faced. The Government recognise the imperative of providing justice for these victims as soon as is reasonably possible, and we are well aware that many have short-term needs. Interim compensation of £100,000 to those infected, or their bereaved partners, registered with the existing infected blood support schemes was paid in October 2022 for precisely that reason.

I realise that the noble Baroness would like us to go further, faster. The need to move quickly and provide certainty is being taken very seriously. In advance of the Government’s formal response to the inquiry—which, in turn, depends on the publication of the final report—regrettably I cannot commit to specifics as regards the cohorts of those individuals identified in the amendment, or provide answers to questions around eligibility generally. I wish it were otherwise.

I cannot yet overcome a legal impediment either. The interim payments made from October 2022 have been made through the current infected blood support schemes, which are run separately in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The schemes can make payments only to people registered with one of them. To extend interim payments to the cohorts identified in this amendment would not be possible across the UK as a whole, because the legal powers to register, and make payments to, the new cohorts do not exist.

Indeed, the alternative to registering individuals with existing schemes is making payments through a new arm’s-length body, as defined by Clause 40. I heard the concerns around a delay and procrastination, but Sir Brian has recommended setting up an arm’s-length body. Establishing such a body is a significant undertaking for the Government; unfortunately, there are processes that cannot be expedited, including the appointment of staff, the procurement of any required IT systems and ensuring that there is proper accountability to both the Government and Parliament for expenditure of public funds. That takes a certain amount of time to achieve, with the best will in the world.

Against that background—again, I wish that matters were otherwise—I regret that I cannot commit to a timetable or comment on the scope of any further interim payments at this time. However, I come back to what I emphasised earlier: the Government’s twin priorities are certainty and speed. With those aims in mind, I assure the Committee that the government amendment on Report will have the desired effect of speeding up the implementation of our response to the inquiry’s findings. To provide further reassurance to the noble Baroness—