Infected Blood Inquiry: Government Response - Statement

– in the House of Lords am 4:25 pm ar 19 Rhagfyr 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 4:25, 19 Rhagfyr 2023

With the agreement of the House, I will repeat a Statement made yesterday in the other place by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, John Glen:

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement on the Government’s response to the Infected Blood Inquiry. I made clear my intention to do so at Cabinet Office questions on 23 November, and the Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, my right honourable friend the Member for Charnwood, reiterated this on the Floor of the House on 4 December.

First, and most importantly, the suffering of the victims must be recognised. The distress and trauma that each individual has faced as a result of this tragedy is unimaginable, and the Government understand that no measures can fully compensate for the losses and hardships that they have suffered. The priority here must be to ensure that victims get the justice they deserve.

With the interim compensation payments issued last October, the Government recognised the immediate and urgent needs of those most severely impacted. This was the start of the process, not the end. The Government have accepted the moral case for compensation, and I am fully committed to ensuring that we bring this matter to its long-awaited conclusion.

In April 2023, the Government welcomed the publication of the Infected Blood Inquiry’s second interim report, which set out a detailed framework for compensation for both those infected and those affected by infected blood, and it is a significant step towards the culmination of the inquiry’s deeply important work.

The inquiry has taken a wide-ranging and innovative approach to compensation, and I was pleased to see that the Government’s commissioning of Sir Robert Francis KC’s compensation study assisted in the inquiry’s work. It is now a year on from the Government’s acceptance of the moral case for compensation, and I understand the calls for urgency. I know that, from many of those infected and affected, there is anger and frustration with the Government’s response so far.

The inquiry’s recommendations are not without complexity, and it would be inappropriate for the Government to prejudge the findings of the final report. For these reasons, the Government are not yet in a position to share any final decisions on compensation. However, Members on both sides of the House have made it clear that we must do right by the victims, and the Government recognise this. I am personally committed to making sure that we do that.

I also give enormous credit to the right honourable Member for Kingston upon Hull North on her continuing hard work to advocate for the victims of the infected blood scandal. The Government recognise the strength of feeling across the House on this matter and the importance of what the amendment seeks to achieve.

The Government are working through the implications of the amendment. Cabinet Office officials worked hard under my predecessor, my right honourable friend the Member for Horsham, to develop this policy and we are reviewing this work in the light of the amendment made two weeks ago today.

I am also pleased to provide the House with an update on the wider progress we have made in this area, and on the steps we are taking to address the concerns of this House. First, I announce that the Department of Health and Social Care will fully implement a bespoke psychological service for people infected and affected by infected blood products, delivered by NHS England. Our intention is for this service to go live in early summer 2024. We recognise the harrowing impacts of the infected blood scandal and the psychological impact this has had on many infected and affected individuals. This announcement is an important step for victims in England. The service will provide tailored support to meet the unique needs of infected and affected individuals.

The Government are also urgently appointing clinical, legal and social care experts to advise the Cabinet Office on detailed technical considerations early in the new year, which will ensure that the Government have the relevant expertise to make informed choices in responding to the inquiry’s recommendations on compensation.

Finally, I reiterate the commitment that the Government will seek to provide an update to Parliament on next steps through an Oral Statement within 25 sitting days of the inquiry’s final report being published. As my predecessor made clear both to this House and to the inquiry, there are a number of technical issues that must be considered as they will have a significant impact on public finances. It is important that any decisions on compensation funding are taken carefully, and the House should expect the Government to work through the associated costs to the public sector while, at all times, considering the needs of the community and the far-reaching impact that this scandal has had on their lives.

The victims of the infected blood scandal deserve justice and recognition. Their voice must be heard, and it is our duty to honour not only those still living and campaigning but those who have passed without recognition. This is my highest priority, and I will continue to progress this work with all the urgency it deserves. I commend this Statement to the House”.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 4:31, 19 Rhagfyr 2023

My Lords, we are grateful to the Minister for reading the Statement out this afternoon, and we very much welcome it.

Someone dies every four days as a result of this scandal. Time is passing. Each week, more families are left to grieve. The campaign led by victims, by their families and, in Parliament, by Diana Johnson, and the vote in the other place to amend the Victims and Prisoners Bill, forcing the Government to establish a body to administer compensation in anticipation of the final report of the inquiry, are no doubt focusing Ministers’ minds. I had hoped that the Statement that the Minister helpfully read out would provide some assurance that the Government are proceeding with this work. Can the Minister clarify what they are doing in anticipation of the completion of the passage of the victims Bill to comply with its new Clause 40?

It is clearly the will of Parliament that the Government make progress quickly. They could, for example, set about appointing a chair and members of the compensation awarding body. They could begin conversations with devolved Governments about how to work together to ensure fairness across the United Kingdom. Much could be done ahead of the final report. Can the Minister inform the House when these steps will happen? We are pleased to hear that the Government are establishing specialist psychological support, but can she explain why this will not be available until next summer?

We pay tribute to the bravery and determination of the victims of this scandal and their families. These Benches would gladly work on a cross-party basis to ensure that a scheme can be agreed and implemented as soon as possible to provide certainty to those infected and affected.

The Minister said that the Government are appointing clinical, legal and social care experts to advise the Cabinet Office on detailed technical considerations in the new year. It is not clear from the Statement what this will involve or what technical considerations are meant. Can the Minister elaborate? Is it the Government’s view that primary legislation will be needed to establish the body to administer the compensation? If so, this could also be done in January, given the cross-party support that exists. When do they plan to introduce any necessary legislation?

There is no need to wait for the victims Bill to pass, given the clarity of the words of the Minister of State in the Ministry of Justice that the Government would

“put in place the necessary legislative framework and timescales for a delivery body for compensation for the victims of infected blood”.—[Official Report, Commons, 4/12/23; cols. 136-37.]

In the light of this Statement, when does the Minister anticipate that payments can start to be made?

We cannot undo what has happened. We cannot bring people back, but we can, through a fair compensation scheme, recognise the wrong that has been done to so many families and individuals. We can provide the financial support that is due. But I reiterate that we do not have the luxury of time. We have a moral duty to act, which the Government accept, and Parliament has demanded. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, I would like to pick up from where the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, left off. We need to occasionally remind ourselves of the history of this. I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and thank the various campaign groups that continue to persevere for justice and compensation and to ensure that we are kept informed about the current situation.

I particularly thank Colette Wintle and Carol Grayson for their briefing and their amazing campaigning over the years. They reminded us that the history of this started in 1991 with the HIV litigation, when the Conservative Government blocked compensation. In 2003, the Skipton Fund was set up, but that was blocked by the Labour Government. In 2009 and 2010 there were other incidents that were also blocked by that Government. In 2012, the coalition Government also blocked compensation, delaying things for a further decade. This year, given that Sir Brian Langstaff’s second interim report made it absolutely clear that compensation should be set up and run from now, it is extraordinary to have a three-page Statement, in which the first page says all the right things but the second and third pages then put it into the long grass.

It is good news about Clause 40 in the Victims and Prisoners Bill. It had its Second Reading in your Lordships’ House yesterday and, had we heard the details of the Statement before that, some of us might have changed our speeches. It is almost as if Ministers have not yet seen Sir Brian Langstaff’s recommendation on 5 April. To remind your Lordships’ House, he said:

“I recommend that a compensation scheme should be set up now and it should begin work this year”.

The Statement says that the Government will work through everything before starting the scheme. Can the Minister say on what grounds they are going specifically against Sir Brian’s recommendation that the scheme should start immediately? Time is not on the side of the victims or their families.

From these Benches, we too welcome the proposals for a bespoke psychological service for people infected by and affected by the infected blood products. But can I ask the Minister if there is new funding for this? There has to be funding outside the existing mental health budgets, which are severely under strain. If there is not, it will just put further pressure on an overwhelmed service and lead to further distress for people who believe that it will be available to help them when it is not. Even worse, others who have been waiting years for urgent mental health services will find that they cannot get them.

It is important because, as the Factor 8 scandal campaign has said, in a recent case of a young man whose father, mother and sister all died of AIDS when he was three years old, he has received nothing. He gets no ongoing support and struggles deeply with his mental health. Factor 8 says that it is “unimaginable” that his case is not

“described as ‘one of those most severely impacted’”.

There is also reference to setting up a group of experts. Who is appointing these experts? It would be normal for the chair of the compensation panel to choose their experts. There would usually be two panels —one would be medical advisers and one would be legal advisers. There is, of course, the important element of making sure that there is the voice of the people affected. Can the Minister say whether this is being done by the Government in advance of the panel being set up?

It would really good if we could have some speeding up of this process. There is no time, as everyone has said—but we have been saying this for close to 30 years, and it needs to be actioned now.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her comments about cross-party support because, after all, this dreadful scandal dates back, I think, 40 years and has involved many different Governments. She is also right that we have to recognise what has gone before us and do the right thing. It has been an awful scandal and, even more, it has left a stigma—particularly in the days before HIV and AIDS were properly understood—on all those involved. She is right to say that the amendment to the victims Bill has helped to focus minds on this issue.

Obviously, the Government recognise the strength of feeling across the House and the importance of what this amendment seeks to achieve. We are working through the implications as drafted and considering the question of primary legislation and, having this amendment, what is the right vehicle.

As I said, the inquiry’s final report is expected in March 2024. There was, I suppose, a small ray of light in the last day or two, as the inquiry said it would announce the date of its report on 17 January. The Government have already made it clear that, within 25 sitting days following the publication of that report, we will provide a full response to Parliament with an Oral Statement on the next steps. That gives us a better timetable than we have had before. I understand, of course, the points made about speed, and I look forward to being able to fill in on them.

I reiterate the news about the bespoke psychological service for people infected and affected by infected blood products and the appointment—I hope, imminently —of clinical leader and social care experts. The role of social care experts will be to advise on technical issues that require a high level of relevant knowledge in order to make informed choices in responding to the inquiry’s eventual recommendations on compensation—things such as tariff schedules. These experts will be independent and will be appointed solely to advise on technical issues. Our feeling is that it is right to get on and make those appointments: the Minister for the Cabinet Office was very clear about that. That probably means that it is not possible to do the chair and the experts at the same time. He made it clear that that process was ongoing, would be communicated early in the new year and that he was working, as it were, right over Christmas on this important issue.

In relation to the psychological support service in England, I understand the concerns that the service cannot go live until early summer 2024. The reason for that is that we need time to recruit suitably experienced and qualified staff and for all the necessary arrangements to be made for them to start seeing patients. What is good about the scheme is that access is anticipated to be primarily by people referring themselves. There may be onward referrals from GPs and hospitals, but people will not be reliant on that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, was right to run through the history of this again and remind us of that and of individual cases. I am the process of reading Caroline Wheeler’s book on this blood scandal in preparation for today and have been shocked by the individual cases. I commend that, and think it has been influential in this whole matter. We have made a Statement because we promised to do one before Christmas and, as I have said, the Minister for the Cabinet Office is working relentlessly on moving these schemes forward so that we are in the best possible stage of readiness for the final report when it emerges.

Photo of Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Ceidwadwyr 4:44, 19 Rhagfyr 2023

My Lords, as a former Member of Parliament, and like many other former MPs in this House, I had constituents affected by this awful condition. I will ask my noble friend a point of clarification. In the original Statement, the Government welcomed

“the publication of the infected blood inquiry’s second interim report, which set out a detailed framework for compensation for both those infected and those affected by infected blood”.

However, on certain occasions in the Minister’s responses in the other place, he referred only to those who were infected by this blood. For absolute clarity, is it the Government’s intention to compensate those both affected and infected?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I thank my noble friend Lord Lancaster for his comments. Of course, many people who had constituencies had similar experiences to him, including Mr Glen himself. The interim compensation scheme that we set in train last October paid out £400 million in interim compensation to a combination of infected people and their bereaved partners if they were registered on the scheme. That gives some understanding of the way we look at this—or at least how we did then —but, obviously, the report is much more wide ranging. We were able to deliver payments quickly then because of the clear parameters of eligibility. As my noble friend suggests, the final report will no doubt be much broader, which is one of the reasons why we have to do so much more work on the complexities involved.

Photo of Lord Cashman Lord Cashman Non-affiliated

My Lords, I welcome the Statement repeated by the Minister and pay tribute to the campaigners who have campaigned for nearly four decades. There is an urgency to this issue: as we heard, there is a death every four days, and the families and the victims need an explanation. Can the Minister explain why it has taken Governments so long to accept the moral case for compensation?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

That is a question for many previous Governments. I can speculate, as can the noble Lord, but this Government have accepted the moral case. That has implications, and we have made interim payments. This is not a difficult matter; I always go back to the need to give the victims the justice they deserve and our intention to do that.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

The Government’s Statement on their response to the Infected Blood Inquiry is a deep disappointment—that is an understatement. The Commons Minister said, and our Minister repeated it—I in no way criticise our Minister for this; I respect her greatly—that the

“distress and trauma that each individual has faced as a result of this tragedy is unimaginable”.

Yet the Minister went on to do absolutely nothing about it, other than establish a psychological service 40 years on. In my view, all this does is recognise the extraordinary depth of the damage done to these people—nothing more.

The Government have had the full and final recommendations on compensation and redress from the inquiry since April 2023, when it said that the compensation scheme should be set up and work should begin in 2023—of course, the Government ignored this. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, mentioned the Government appointing legal and clinical experts to advise them further on the operation of the compensation scheme, when the inquiry made it very clear that the chair of the arm’s-length body should make those appointments.

As president of the Haemophilia Society, I remind the House of the sheer numbers of people affected in this appalling way by those administrative errors. Over 5,000 people with haemophilia and other bleeding disorders were treated with contaminated blood products brought over from the United States that were taken from prisoners, drug addicts and others. This is a shocking history, and it is surely time that all those directly or indirectly affected should be compensated fully and immediately.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am sorry for the disappointment that the noble Baroness found it necessary to express. I cannot help sharing it, to some extent. I thank her for reminding us of the numbers involved, which may be even more than she talked about. We do not exactly know, which is one of reasons why we are not in a position to do the necessary moving forward.

I reiterate the point made on previous occasions when we have discussed this: the lack of a timetable is very worrying to us all. As I explained, we will have a firm date for the final report very shortly, by 17 January. We expect the report in March, and within 25 sitting days we will provide a proper response to Parliament, with an Oral Statement on next steps. We have to move forward, as well as being disappointed and complaining about the slowness of this. This is a major scandal and we are, as a Government, trying to move forward and sort it out.

Photo of Baroness Hooper Baroness Hooper Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, as a former Health Minister who was called to give evidence at the inquiry, I know how thoroughly Sir Brian Langstaff conducted it. That is why it has gone on for so long— I think over a year longer than originally intended. I therefore welcome the steps the Government outlined in the Statement and the action they propose to take immediately. However, as has already been said on all sides, it is not only the tragedy of the case but the length of time which makes a final settlement so urgent.

Most of the supplementary questions I planned to ask have already been asked, about interim payments and the composition of the new clinical, legal and social care expert committee, which is to advise the Cabinet Office. I understand that similar supplies of infected blood went to other countries in Europe and around the world. How have they dealt with it, and to what extent have we been guided by their examples?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I thank my noble friend Lady Hooper for her question. In another life, she and I worked together on food safety and health issues. I know how much she knows about these issues, and there are many difficulties and tragedies in these areas.

I will write to my noble friend with an answer on the international practice. I am reading the Caroline Wheeler book, which talks about some of this. We may not have done as well as we could have done, and we need to learn from that for the future. The noble Baroness is right to ask about what they did. I know that some countries had similar problems but others did not. We should learn from that for the future.