HC Deb 27 July 1976 vol 916 cc230-2
5. Mr. Bidwell

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services in view of renewed public interest in documents recently published for the first time, if he will order a public inquiry into the case of the drug thalidomide affecting the birth of deformed children.

9. Mr. Ashley

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will now hold a public inquiry into the thalidomide tragedy.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. David Ennals)

Following the thalidomide tragedy the Committee on Safety of Drugs was appointed in 1963 and a review of medicines legislation was completed. The review led to the Medicines Act 1968, which provided powers for new and comprehensive controls for the safety, quality and efficacy of medicinal products for human and veterinary use. It is unlikely that an inquiry into the thalidomide case would be helpful in identifying further safety measures.

Mr. Bidwell

Does the Secretary of State agree that an inquiry should take place at this time into the manufacturing and marketing methods pursued by the Distillers Company, in view of the legal restraints imposed on those making claims on behalf of children and also on the Press, particularly bearing in mind the attitude and ministerial responsibility—or irresponsibility—at the time of the tragedy? Does he not agree that this matter should be investigated?

Mr. Ennals

I do not think that would serve any useful purpose. The facts are well known and have now been published. I do not believe that an inquiry would lead to any new or helpful facts. It would be disturbing for many of those involved.

Mr. Ashley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I believe that he is wrong in assuming that a public inquiry would not help to uncover further safety measures, because a good deal of information about the thalidomide tragedy has not yet been disclosed? It is possible—I would say probable—that some other firms are doing exactly the same things now as the Distillers Company was doing then. Therefore, does he agree that a public inquiry, with full public disclosure, is the only way of avoiding this situation? Does he further agree that the cases of the "Y" list children not yet decided would be helped by a public inquiry? Will he reconsider his decision?

Mr. Ennals

An inquiry into the thalidomide case would not necessarily reveal any facts in relation to other firms. Under the present system, extensive tests and trials are undertaken before a product licence for a new drug is granted. Results of such tests and trials cannot provide a complete assurance against the possibility that a product when brought into widespread use will have an adverse effect on some patients. There is no doubt that the situation has greatly improved since the events of 10 years ago. As for the children, it is a matter between the children, their legal advisers, the Distillers Company and the courts. My information is that so far no claim has been turned down and that 12 of the original children, who numbered 97, have now had their claims accepted. So far as I am aware, the others have not had their claims rejected. It is hoped that their cases will be speedily settled.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

I have had my differences with the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), but will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to deny the suggestions made in The Sunday Times that the right hon. Gentleman bore some share of the blame for this tragedy?

Mr. Ennals

I am delighted to hear that the differences between the two right hon. Gentlemen have now been resolved—

Mr. Powell

Haud tali auxilio nec defensoribus istis.

Mr. Ennals

—however, I do not think that it is for me to stand in some judicial capacity and say that no responsibility falls on the right hon. Gentleman. It is not for me to reach a conclusion one way or the other, and I do not think the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) would want to do so.

Mrs. Castle

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider his decision not to hold an inquiry? Is he aware that when I was Secretary of State for Social Services I was ready to hold a public inquiry, but it seemed to all those interested at the time that the Press would be able to reveal the full facts? We now know that it is not possible, and that certain documents cannot be published. In view of the fact that this is the most serious drug tragedy in our history, can my right hon. Friend be absolutely sure, without holding a public inquiry, that we have learned all the lessons from this matter that will lead to our full protection?

Mr. Ennals

I have such respect for my right hon. Friend that if ever she asks me to think about anything again, I agree to do so.