Archer Inquiry

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:29 pm on 1st July 2009.

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

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.