Public Inquiry into infected NHS-supplied blood and blood products

11th July 2017

Philip Dunne apologises on behalf of the Government to those affected by the tragedy of infected NHS-supplied blood or blood products and confirms there will be an independent public inquiry into the events that led to so many people being infected with HIV and/or hepatitis C through such products.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for explaining to the House the sequence in which we are speaking today in this very important debate.

I wish to start by offering my personal apology to all those who have been affected by the tragedy of infected NHS-supplied blood or blood products. This has had a terrible impact on so many individuals and families. I know that, quite rightly, there have been many debates on the subject in this Chamber, which have been prompted by the quite proper concern of Members on both sides of this House over many years.

There have been two previous inquiries on this issue: the privately funded Archer report, which was published in 2009, and the Scottish Government-funded Penrose inquiry report, which was published in 2015. However, I am aware that, over the years, there have been several calls for a full independent inquiry.

In addition to those reports, the Department of Health has worked to bring greater transparency to the events. Many documents relating to blood safety, covering the period from 1970 to 1995, have been published and are available on The National Archives website. Those documents provide a comprehensive picture of events and decisions, many of which were included in the documents reviewed by the Penrose inquiry. However, I recognise that, for those affected, these steps do not go far enough to provide the answers that they want or to get to the truth of what happened.

In the light of those concerns and of reports of new evidence and of allegations of potential criminality, we think that it is important to understand the extent of what is claimed and the wider issues that arise. I am pleased to be able to confirm to the House that the Government intend to call an inquiry into the events that led to so many people being infected with HIV and/or hepatitis C through NHS-supplied blood or blood products.

I am very pleased with the news that the Minister has just confirmed. Will he ensure that the process that is followed—I very much support a Hillsborough-style inquiry—facilitates the ability to bring criminal charges so that the full force of the law can be applied to anyone who may be guilty of criminal wrongdoing?

I shall come on directly to the form that the independent inquiry should take, and I hope that that will help to address the right hon. Gentleman’s question.

We have heard calls for an inquiry based on the model that was used to investigate the Hillsborough tragedy—the so-called Hillsborough-style panel—which would allow for a sensitive investigation of the issues, allowing those affected and their families close personal engagement with an independent and trusted panel. There have also been suggestions that only a formal statutory inquiry led by a senior judge under the Inquiries Act 2005 will provide the answers that those affected want. Such an inquiry would have the power to compel witnesses and written evidence—an apparent shortcoming in previous reports. The Government can see that there are merits in both approaches, and to ensure that whatever is established is in the interests of those affected we will engage with the affected groups and interested parties, including the all-party parliamentary group, before taking a final decision on the type of inquiry.

Will my hon. Friend tell the House whether the terms of the inquiry will allow for recommendations to be made about the correct levels of compensation for those who have been affected?

I shall make a little progress, then endeavour to answer that.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and Ministers at the Department of Health will meet those affected and their families so that we can discuss the issues and understand their preferences directly about the style, scope and duration of the inquiry.

I am grateful for what the Minister is saying, but can he give a time estimate of when the meetings will take place? My experience of the Department of Health is that, on this issue, deadlines are not met and things have to be dragged on to the Floor of the House to get Ministers to respond. Is there a set timetable for when a decision will be made and those meetings held?

The hon. Lady, who has taken an active lead in encouraging inquiries, will want to make sure that we get it right. We will take the time that is necessary to consult colleagues and interested groups. Our intention is to be able to come back to the House as soon as practicable—I anticipate in the autumn.

The Minister has mentioned the Department of Health, and he will know that my constituents live under a devolved Administration in Wales but were infected in a hospital in Liverpool. What consultation is he undertaking with the Welsh Assembly, including on the schemes that it is running, and on the liability ultimately for any objective?

We recognise that there is a legitimate interest for all constituent nations in the United Kingdom. As many of these incidents took place before devolution, we intend to consult devolved Governments.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, quite rightly, the inquiry has to give answers to the victims of the scandal and their families? There will be great interest in the conclusions of the inquiry in the House and among the wider public to ensure that historical circumstances that led to the scandal are never repeated.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend.

I shall make a little progress on devolved matters before responding to other colleagues. Regardless of the style of the inquiry, our intention is that it should cover the whole of the UK, so we will be in direct contact with counterparts in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland to discuss that with them and to seek their views before determining those aspects of the inquiry.

First, I apologise to the House, the Minister and to you, Mr Speaker, for not being present at the beginning of this very, very important debate. The Minister said that he is going to consult on the inquiry, which will be UK-wide. He will know that we do not have an Assembly, and there is no corresponding Health Minister in Northern Ireland, which is absolutely disgraceful. There is no prospect of our having such a Minister before autumn, so with whom will the Minister liaise in Northern Ireland in the Assembly’s absence?

We will ask the Northern Ireland Office to facilitate discussions with officials and representatives in Northern Ireland.

On the point about devolution made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson), is the Minister telling the House that this is a UK-wide inquiry and that the consultation will take place across the UK, so that there will be equality for people such as Mr and Mrs Hutchinson in my constituency in the outcome of the inquiry?

The scope of the inquiry will be determined as part of the discussions which, as I have said, will take place over coming weeks and short number of months. Our intention is that the devolved Administrations and their residents will have full access to participation in the inquiry, irrespective of where people live or were infected.

The Government intend to update the House once the discussions are complete, and I encourage colleagues with a specific interest to engage in discussions through the all-party group or other relevant groups. In the meantime, if anyone in the House or outside has any evidence of criminality, they should take that evidence to the police as soon as possible. If anyone has any other evidence that they want the inquiry to consider, I would request that they submit it to the inquiry once it has been established. The Government will write to everyone in receipt of payments from the current schemes to make sure that they all know about today’s announcement and to inform them of next steps.

I very much welcome the Minister’s comments. Will he confirm that when the scope of the inquiry is drawn up care will be taken not to do anything that might endanger future trials? Will he further emphasise that anyone with information should make sure that it is made available to the police?

My hon. Friend will recollect that the recent Hillsborough inquiry gave rise to certain information that was made available to the police and led to charges being made. We would envisage that the inquiry that is established would have the ability to do the same thing if appropriate.

I must make progress, because Mr Speaker has encouraged me to take 10 minutes so that everyone can make a contribution, and I have already exceeded that.

I should like to take the opportunity to inform the House that implementing the reforms to the infected blood ex-gratia support scheme remains a priority for the Government. That is why, as David Cameron established a year or so ago, within this spending review period, until 2020-21, up to £125 million of additional funding has been added to the budget for the ex-gratia support scheme. That more than doubles the annual spend over the spending review period. The second consultation on scheme reform, which closed on 17 April this year, received over 250 responses. The consultation contained proposals for a special category mechanism that would allow people with stage 1 hepatitis C to apply for the higher annual payment, greatly increasing the number of individuals eligible for the higher payment. The responses are being looked at and the consultation response will be published in due course. All the annual payments will remain linked to the consumer prices index and will be disregarded for tax and benefit purposes.

I thank the Minister for what he said about input into the inquiry. As the new chair of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS, I am sure that our members will want to contribute. I want to press him on the financial liabilities arising from the inquiry and the impact of devolution. Will he guarantee that, no matter where anyone was infected or where they live now, they will be treated with equality across the United Kingdom when it comes to financial liabilities and payments arising from the inquiry?

I have just described the additional contribution to the financial scheme for England. It will be for the inquiry to decide whether it wants to make recommendations about financial arrangements. At present, I am not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman the confirmation that he is seeking. That will have to come through the inquiry.

My constituent, Lesley Hughes, was infected with hepatitis C in 1970, but this was discovered only about three years ago. Will any consideration be given to those long years of suffering when the compensation scheme is put into effect?

I offer my sympathy to my right hon. Friend’s constituent for the challenges she finds herself facing. We have to say at this point that it will be down to individuals to make their applications. We will respond to the consultation in due course. I strongly encourage my right hon. Friend to make representations on his constituent’s behalf to the inquiry when it is established.

I thank the Minister for being extremely generous in giving way. May I press him on the issue of health records? Many families are still trying to establish what has actually happened, while the Minister is discussing the scope of the inquiry. Should we write to the Minister if there are any issues with families obtaining health records?

I think it would be appropriate to write to the inquiry, once that is established. I completely concur with an earlier point about ensuring that any evidence of medical records being tampered with should be made available to the inquiry.

I am afraid that I must bring my remarks to a conclusion. I thank those on both sides of the House who have worked tirelessly on the issue over the years. I add my voice to those of others who have already spoken to commend the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). She has spoken very powerfully in the House on this subject not only today, but on many occasions and for many years. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), who co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North did, I thank past and present members of that group, notably the former chair, Jason McCartney, late of this parish. Finally, I thank ministerial colleagues who have handled this delicate issue in previous Administrations, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who has worked so hard not just for his constituents, but for all those affected by the tragedy.

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