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Archer Inquiry

– in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 1st July 2009.

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Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 4:00 pm, 1st July 2009

I am grateful to have secured this debate about the Archer inquiry into contaminated blood and blood products. I should like to put it on record that I am sincerely grateful to Lord Archer’s team for its informed and reasoned assessment of the situation. Lord Archer himself did not apportion blame. His focus, and mine today, was the treatment of the victims of this appalling tragedy.

Some 1,200 patients were infected with HIV and 4,670 with hepatitis C as a result of NHS treatment in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of those patients were unaware of their infection and went on to infect their husbands and wives as well. So far, some 1,800 members of the haemophiliac community have died. In the past few years, many of the survivors have been told that they may have contracted variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from infected blood products.

Haydn Lewis, a constituent of mine, has been infected with hepatitis B and C and HIV. He also infected his wife with HIV before he was aware of his own status. His brothers, who are also haemophiliacs, are infected as well. Last year, Haydn was informed that he had been exposed to vCJD. Moreover, as a result of his hepatitis C, he developed liver cancer and has recently had a liver transplant. Haydn’s health has suffered massively over the years. He had to give up work early, and his entire family has suffered as a result of his condition. His family is just one of thousands across the country.

Despite the fact that a large number of people have been affected, there has been a desperate lack of public debate on the subject. The last debate in the Commons was in 1990, and the last Westminster Hall debate was nearly 10 years ago. The Department of Health did not even make an oral statement when it responded to Lord Archer’s report. The level of interest in today’s half-hour debate demonstrates the need for a much longer debate in Parliament.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Minister without Portfolio

Does the hon. Lady not agree that what is so extraordinary is that the Government do not appear to want to engage with Lord Archer even at this stage?

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

That is a very valid point, and I was about to mention it. Although Lord Winston described the tragedy as

“the worst treatment disaster in the history of the national health service”, the Government have always argued that a public inquiry would be unjustified and unnecessary. The Archer inquiry was the first public attempt to uncover the truth, but because it was not a statutory inquiry, Lord Archer could not compel witnesses to give evidence and he could not oblige bodies to release documents. The Department of Health even refused to send witnesses to give public evidence to the inquiry.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Labour, Llanelli

Does the hon. Lady agree that whatever the form of the inquiry, what we do not want to do now is launch yet more inquiries or waste more time? We need direct help from the Government for those who have suffered the most from this terrible tragedy.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

It is true that we need to move forward and consider providing decent compensation. However, given that more documents have been released since the publication of the report, there is probably a need to hold a further investigation.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

On the need for further work, does the hon. Lady not agree that good as the report was, it was fettered by its focus on the haemophiliac community? For example, one of my constituents, who was treated for the blood disorder idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, is being disadvantaged by that focus.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

It is true that a number of different groups of patients have been affected. There are also people who have been infected with blood products as a result of blood transfusions. As they are a much smaller group, they often feel that they cannot make their voice heard. A wide range of people has been affected for a number of different reasons.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families)

I must declare an interest because my nephew is a haemophiliac, and he has been infected with hepatitis C. He was forced to carry on taking treatment that was not safe long after the Government knew about the infected blood. The manufactured blood product, recombinant, was available only to those under the age of 16. Any haemophiliac over 16 had to take potentially infected injections. There has been an entrenched resistance by the Government to admit what happened in the past. Now, though, as Nia Griffith said, we must move forward to deal with the issue in an open, frank and honest way, which will give sway to the relatives and change their futures.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP, South Antrim

Order. Interventions must be brief because the hon. Lady has only a short period in which to speak, and the Minister must respond.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

Many of the relatives of those who have died feel that there are questions that still need to be answered before they can move on with their lives.

I welcome the release of thousands of documents by the Department of Health. Those documents were initially thought to be lost or destroyed. However, the Department has not played fair with the inquiry team. In response to my parliamentary questions in December 2008 and January 2009, which was about a month before Lord Archer reported, the Department told me that 35 documents were being withheld under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It then released 27 of those documents two months after Lord Archer reported. In May, the same day that the Department responded to the report, 468 more documents were released. They had been identified in late 2008. None of the documents was made available to the inquiry team or mentioned in responses to my parliamentary questions even though the Department knew about them. Will the Minister clarify whether Lord Archer was aware that so much relevant information had not been released when he reported? Moreover, will she tell us how many documents have still not been released by the Department?

I do not want to apportion blame today. It is more important to talk about the issue of compensation, particularly as we have such a short time in which to debate the subject. The compensation is for victims who are still alive and for the widows and families of those who have died. Lord Archer said that the financial assistance that is currently available is insufficient, and recommended that assistance should be on a par with the existing Irish scheme. The Irish tribunal, which was set up 12 years ago, assesses each case on an individual basis and then sets out an initial lump sum payment and periodic payments thereafter. The main cost in Ireland has been the lump sum payment. Between 1997 and 2007, the tribunal awarded €566 million to 2,666 people, which is an average of £150,000 per person per case. Using the Department’s own figures, a similar scheme in the UK would cost about £50 million a year for the lump sum payments in each of the first 10 years. In the scale of the Department of Health budget, that is entirely affordable. I personally think it is the least the victims deserve.

The Department’s response to doubling the annual payments to those with HIV is extremely welcome, but it is the bare minimum that Lord Archer himself recommended. Just 350 of the 1,200 haemophiliacs and their spouses who were infected with HIV are still alive. The increase in payments to them is only £7 million a year, which, although welcome, is a very small amount of money, and will help only a small number of people.

In contrast, the Department has offered nothing at all to those with hepatitis C. Of the 4,600 people infected with hepatitis C, around 2,500 of them are alive today, so quite a few people are still living with that dreadful condition. The Skipton Fund, which was designed to help them, has paid out £97 million to 4,000 people since 2004, which is the equivalent of just under £5,000 per person per year. That is considerably less than the average benefit claimant receives in a year.

That is just not fair compensation for infecting someone with a virus that causes them huge daily suffering and is ultimately very likely to kill them. The Department of Health has said that it will reassess the scheme in 2014, but that is a very long way away, and we are talking about people with life-threatening conditions. By that time, many more of the affected people will have died after many years of suffering. That is not fair.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

The hon. Lady has been exceptionally generous in taking interventions bearing in mind the shortness of the debate. Does she agree that this is essentially a matter of justice and responsibility? That is why appropriate recognition by the Government of their position is so very important to those who have suffered.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP, South Antrim

Order. I call Jenny Willott to continue the debate, which will carry on until 4.45 pm.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

We were speaking about the treatment of people with hepatitis C and how it differs from that of those who have contracted HIV. I would be grateful if the Minister told us why people with hepatitis C are treated differently from those with HIV—both conditions are debilitating and life-threatening and have caused severe financial hardship for those affected.

This tragedy has already produced hundreds of widows and widowers. They do not receive any financial support after the death of their partner. Furthermore, it is almost impossible for anyone with HIV or hepatitis C to get affordable life insurance. My constituent, Haydn Lewis, recently got a quote for basic life insurance cover, which had a premium of more than £6,000. That is completely unaffordable for someone who is dependent on benefits and Macfarlane Trust payouts. Lord Archer has said that the issue needs to be tackled, but unfortunately, the Department’s response was that insurers do not discriminate against infected haemophiliacs, and that premiums are based on risk assessment. To me, that is both patronising and inadequate. No one is claiming that insurers discriminate against infected haemophiliacs, and of course premiums are based on risk. However, it is because the NHS infected those people with life-threatening viruses that they pose such a high insurance risk and are therefore charged unaffordable insurance premiums. All the recently announced extra funding for the HIV sufferers will be swallowed up in life insurance costs, and the Government are proposing nothing to help those with hepatitis C.

The tragedy has affected a number of different countries around the world, yet the British Government’s behaviour is different from that of other Governments. I have already spoken about the Irish tribunal, and in Ireland the Government decided to provide

“compensation for persons with haemophilia...on compassionate grounds, without legal liability on the part of the state.”

Despite Government protestations, there is no difference between Irish and UK circumstances. Neither state has been found liable for the infection of haemophiliacs, but the Irish Government have recognised their duty to support those whose health was ruined by treatment under the national health system.

Almost every MP has a constituent who is affected by this issue or who has died from their infections. We can see the level of interest from the number of MPs who have turned up to the debate. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), who are elsewhere today, have both been involved with constituents on this matter. During the last debate on the subject in the House in 1990, the late Robin Cook said that this was not a party political issue, but an issue of conscience and of justice.

Early-day motion 963 calling for full implementation of the Archer inquiry already has 184 signatures from hon. Members across all parties. This issue has been going on for decades and has taken the lives of more than 1,800 people. Now is the time to draw a line under it once and for all. I would be grateful if the Minister let me know whether she will meet me and a small cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament, together with representatives of the Haemophilia Society and a couple of patients, to discuss how we can finally move forward and ensure that the Archer inquiry is put into practice.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Minister of State (Public Health), Department of Health 4:29 pm, 1st July 2009

I congratulate Jenny Willott on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to her and others, including parliamentary colleagues, who work to support those who have acquired infections through treatment with blood or blood products.

I am deeply sorry for what happened and have the utmost sympathy for those whose lives have been affected by it either directly or indirectly. Parliament has debated the matter in both the Commons and the other place, and Lord Archer and his team conducted a thorough and valuable review. I thank Lord Archer for his report.

We can all agree that the circumstances are tragic. How could a revolutionary new treatment for haemophilia that offered so much hope at the time—the early 1970s—end in so much tragedy for so many? Almost 5,000 people in the UK and thousands more around the world were infected with hepatitis C and HIV, resulting in the loss of many lives.

Before the treatment became available, the life expectancy of someone with severe haemophilia was less than 30 years. Although there were warning voices at the time about the risk from infection, the consensus in both the scientific and haemophilia communities was that the risk was low and worth taking. Unfortunately, we know now that that consensus was wrong. The best available treatment at the time, a treatment intended solely to improve length and quality of life, resulted instead in heartbreak for many people and their families. The risks were higher than was thought, and the pain and grief caused can never be undone.

If doctors and medical experts had known then what they know now, the tragedy could have been prevented, but the fact is that they did not. Successive Governments have been accused of trying to hide what was said and done during the period when most of the infections occurred, but this Government have done more than any other to make information available about the events, judgments and decisions between 1970 and 1985, after which safer blood products were introduced. In line with the Freedom of Information Act 2000, we have made more than 5,500 documents publicly available. In examining all those documents, which span decades, neither we nor Lord Archer and his team found any evidence of a cover-up.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central asked about co-operation with Lord Archer’s inquiry. I will say straight off that there is nothing to hide.

Photo of Susan Kramer Susan Kramer Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

I thank the Minister. I apologise for not being here for all of the debate; I mistimed the vote. As she is so committed to full disclosure, can the issue be debated on the Floor of the House? There are many lessons to be learned, and many people to be convinced that the matter is being dealt with openly and fully.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Minister of State (Public Health), Department of Health

Obviously, that is a matter for the usual channels. I am sure that the hon. Lady will raise the issue at business questions. I would be happy to reply and debate it as required.

We know that there is a misconception that the Department somehow did not co-operate fully with Lord Archer’s inquiry. That is not true. Lord Archer asked for someone from the Department of Health to meet him, and officials did so on several occasions, but he did not invite Ministers to attend or participate in his inquiry. More than 5,000 documents released in prior years were available to him. The most recently released, it appears, did not add materially to what was already known, but I am happy to write to the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central setting out precisely which documents were made available to Lord Archer.

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Labour, Newport East

One issue troubling some constituents of mine—the parents of Colin, who tragically died aged seven—is what consultation took place with those affected between the publication of the Archer report and the Government’s response. There is tangible concern that the community affected was not spoken to before the Government’s response.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Minister of State (Public Health), Department of Health

There has been consultation and discussion. The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central asked me about a meeting. As always, I am happy to meet, but the requirement on the Government was to make a response to Lord Archer. We have done so, and it has been published widely.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I am grateful. May I press the Minister a little further on the relationship with the Archer inquiry? Surely, knowing that the inquiry was going on, the Department could have been proactive in offering help and assistance, rather than relying on the fact that it did not receive a formal invitation to take part. It could have been more constructive, and have involved more documentation in the inquiry, had it done so.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Minister of State (Public Health), Department of Health

I can assure Members that, to the best of my knowledge, all co-operation has been made available. As I have stated, Lord Archer has made no suggestion of a cover-up. We have given him full co-operation. On the matter of being proactive, we met the inquiry team several times.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, as I appreciate that she wants to make progress. The response said that the Government would review the situation in 2014. That seems a long time away, particularly for my constituents and indeed everyone else’s. Why was that date chosen? It feels very much as though the issue is being kicked into the long grass, when for many people involved, the financial concerns are immediate.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Minister of State (Public Health), Department of Health

I am happy to come to that, but the simple answer is that it is in order to allow the scheme to be operational for 10 years, so that the issue can be assessed in full. There is no intention to kick anything into the long grass; indeed, it is not possible to do so.

On the point raised earlier about the supposed withholding of documents, I can assure Members that no documents are being withheld on either policy or commercial grounds. The Department has now released all of them. Only five documents from the period 1970 to 1985 are being withheld under a freedom of information exemption, on the basis that they contain personal information.

I understand the sense of grievance and anger and the need to find out what happened and why. I also understand the feeling that someone somewhere must be to blame for what happened, whether individually or collectively. I know that for some, whatever action is taken will be too little and too late. I can assure Members that we have demonstrated our commitment to those affected and responded positively to Lord Archer’s report, to which I will come.

We continue to work to provide ever safer blood and blood products, and we are committed to helping everyone infected through contaminated blood transfusions by giving them the high-quality treatment, care and information they need to help them look after their health. We continue to provide financial relief for those infected through treatment so many years ago.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Minister of State (Public Health), Department of Health

I am happy to do so, but this will be the last time.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. When I compared the Irish situation with the UK situation in the House the other day, she said:

“I cannot accept the comparison with Ireland, because the Irish blood transfusion service was found to be at fault, and that was not the case here.”—[Hansard, 23 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 656.]

However, will she admit today that the Irish paid out without liability and before any tribunal had met to discuss the position? In addition, Crown immunity applied to the health services in Britain at that time.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Minister of State (Public Health), Department of Health

I stand by the points that I made. Furthermore, a judicial inquiry in Ireland found failures of responsibility by the Irish blood transfusion service and concluded that wrongful acts had been committed. As a result, the Government of the Republic of Ireland decided to make significant payments to those affected. As I will explain, that was not the case with the blood transfusion service here.

Lord Archer made a number of recommendations, and we have published our response to them. I will mention some of the main ones. For example, he recommended that those infected should be issued with cards to entitle them to benefits not freely available under the NHS, including free prescriptions. Last year, we announced our intention to phase out prescription charges in England for patients with long-term conditions. Professor Ian Gilmore chairs an independent review that is considering how that might be done. We will consider whether further action is required to implement Lord Archer’s recommendation following the Gilmore review.

Lord Archer also recommended that Government should provide funding urgently to the Haemophilia Society. We have agreed to provide £100,000 this year and for each of the next four years on top of any project funding that the society receives from the Department of Health. Lord Archer also recommended that further efforts be made to identify people who may be unaware that they have been infected through their treatment with blood products. We agree with that and will provide funding for the haemophilia doctors organisation to identify any such patients.

I turn to the recommendations on financial relief, our responses to which have come under the closest scrutiny. In the UK, such payments are not compensation but ex gratia payments. That is an important distinction. Lord Archer made recommendations on the payments and made comparisons with Ireland. However, it is important to restate that the position in Ireland is very different. The independent inquiry in Ireland found the transfusion service to be at fault because it had not followed its own official guidelines on protecting the blood supply from contamination. That is not the case in the UK. Comparable levels of payment are therefore not appropriate.

I understand that there can always be a debate over the adequacy and fairness of payments. So far, more than £45 million has been paid out through the two long-standing financial relief schemes for those affected by HIV. The Macfarlane Trust was established in 1988 and the Eileen Trust in 1991. This is the first occasion on which the structure of their payments has been reviewed. We are increasing the payments to those infected with HIV and will provide them with a flat-rate, tax-free payment of £12,800 per year. That amount is disregarded for benefits, which are payable on top. That change removes the need for people to make repeated applications for funds, and addresses Lord Archer’s recommendation that payment to those who are infected should not be means-tested. We will also increase funding to the trusts to allow them to make higher payments to widows and dependants, although the level of payment will remain at the discretion of the trustees.

Turning to payments to those infected with hepatitis C, the Skipton fund has to date paid out nearly £100 million. In answer to why the review will be in 2014, in my view the fund is relatively young, as it has been running for only five years. I assure Members that I view the 2014 review with importance.

For all pre-existing conditions, insurability and the level of premium are determined through the assessment of individual risk. Lord Archer suggested that patients be given greater access to insurance, perhaps through payments. The Government’s view is that it is the individual’s choice how they spend the payments they receive. We have published our final response to Lord Archer’s recommendations and are working to implement our commitments as soon as we can.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central also raised the issue of access to insurance through insurers. The Association of British Insurers has assured us that insurers do not treat haemophiliacs or those infected with HIV or hepatitis C differently from people with other pre-existing conditions. In practice, all pre-existing conditions must be declared and are usually subject to additional premium loading. In some cases, insurance is unavailable. If there are any further matters on insurers, I would be happy to raise them with other Ministers.

In closing, I realise that the Government’s response will not satisfy everybody. We are dealing with an extremely difficult situation, which none of us would have chosen. I hope I have confirmed that there has been openness and transparency in the Government’s response and that we have sought to do the best we can in this situation.