HC Deb 22 July 1985 vol 83 cc745-9

Lords amendment: No. 5, after clause 20, insert the following new clause— .In section 1 of the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979

  1. (a) in subsection (1), for "£10,000" there shall he substituted "the relevant statutory sum";
  2. (b) the following subsection shall be inserted after that subsection—
(1A) In subsection (1) above "statutory sum" means £10,000 or such other sum as is specified by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this Act by order made by statutory instrument with the consent of the Treasury and the relevant statutory sum for the purposes of that subsection is the statutory sum at the time when a claim for paments is first made."; and (c) the following subsection shall be inserted after subsection (4)— (4A) No order shall be made by virtue of subsection (1A) above unless a draft of the order has been laid before Parliament and been approved by a resolution of each House.".

Mr. Newton

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may discuss the following Lords amendments:

No. 7, in clause 28, page 26, line 37, at end insert— (3A) Section [Vaccine damage payments] extends to Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man.

No. 8, in clause 28, page 26, line 38, leave out "(3)" and insert "(3A)"

No. 10, in clause 29, page 27, line 15, at end insert— section [Vaccine damage payments];

No. 40, in the title, in line 3, after "to" insert amend section 1 of the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 and

I must inform the House that these amendments involve privilege.

Mr. Newton

The amendment provides the power needed to change the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 to vary the amount payable by means of an order subject to affirmative resolution in each House.

The House will recall that among the many announcements made by my right hon. Friend during recent weeks that have caused pleasure was his statement—[Interruption] Do I sense an air of disbelief in the House? It cannot be from the Government Benches and there are hardly sufficient Opposition Members present to constitute disbelief.

The House will recall that my right hon. Friend told the House on 18 June of his intention to double the present vaccine damage payment of £10,000—which has stood unaltered since such payments were first introduced under the 1979 Act—to £20,000. There was no provision in the 1979 Act for increases. Therefore, we have used the flexible instrument of this Bill to introduce the necessary primary legislative amendment quickly. We hope to bring the necessary order before the House at the earliest possible moment after the Bill has received Royal Assent., should it be so favoured.

Although the power that we have taken will make the new amount payable in respect of new claims made on or after the date of coming into operation of the order, my right hon. Friend is making arrangements to apply the increased amount to new, successful claims made on or after 18 June, when he announced the increase. I hope that that provision will be welcomed by the House and that I will have its support in carrying this amendment into law.

Mrs. Beckett

We give a cautionary welcome to the proposal. It is most unfortunate that the payment has not been increased since it was announced in 1978 and introduced in 1979. We note the flexibility of the Bill that has allowed this proposal to be chucked in at the last minute.

Why was the proposal chucked in at the last minute? Given that it is a fairly obvious proposal for the Government to introduce, we wonder why it happened only in the amendments made in another place and was not put before us for lengthier consideration at an earlier stage. What will be the cost of the increase in a full year?

Most important, we wonder what the proposal means for the future of the scheme. The Minister said that there was no provision for increases under the 1979 Act. I am sure that he will recall that that was because we did not want the Act to pre-empt decisions that we thought would have to be made following the recommendations of the Pearson commission. It was intended as a stop-gap measure to ensure that vaccine damaged children received some assistance before a proper scheme could be worked out that would be more far-reaching and generous.

Will introducing the proposal to increase the sums available, welcome though it is, mean that the whole idea of implementing the Pearson commission's recommendations has now been consigned to the dustbin? The sum is to be increased broadly in line with the rate of inflation between 1978 and the present day. Is it intended that the order should be increased each year, as are other regular payments? If not, I am sure that the Minister will tell us why not.

On the timing of the proposal, will the Minister tell us what light it casts on the consideration of the review being undertaken into degrees of disability? Although any increase is always welcome, it is a little strange that the Government have brought forward this proposal so abruptly at a time when they are undertaking a fundamental survey of the needs of the disabled.

4.45 pm
Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

My hon. Friend introduced the amendments with a degree of levity. I wish briefly and seriously to welcome the Government's prompt action in responding to the needs of these children. I am especially delighted that the measure will be backdated to 18 June. That is a tremendously generous gesture and will be very welcome.

I first came across vaccine damaged children in care in Birmingham. I was most concerned by the degree of disability that they suffered. Some were only mildly disabled, but some were seriously disabled and many will need care for the remainder of their lives. One family in my constituency has a seriously disabled daughter aged 14, who obviously faces the future with some apprehension.

Mr. Frank Field

It is understandable that the hon. Lady should welcome the measure and its backdating. But does she not realise that, in a sense, it would be unfair if the benefit was reviewed only every so many years? Many of our constituents will have claimed compensation at the old rates and some will be a few days outside being eligible for the new rates.

While we welcome the uprating—I am sure that the whole House does—if it is reviewed only every now and again instead of regularly each year, that will make a tremendous difference to the amounts of money payable to these children.

Mrs. Currie

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that nothing can compensate for that sort of disability when children are born normal but handicapped through vaccine. I hope that he will bear with me for a minute because I have a view on the matter that he raised.

These children are tragic victims of something that, in a sense, benefits the whole of society. I hope that people will not be put off having their children vaccinated and inoculated. The hospital with which I used to be involved in central Birmingham was involved in the eradication of smallpox, which was substantially carried out through an inoculation programme. I hope that in years to come the day will arrive when most infectious diseases can be eradicated from this nation and others by such programmes.

There is no doubt that those who care for these people are devoted and dedicated, whether the children are in care or at home. They deserve our full support. I hope that eventually it will be possible to set up some form of proper tribunal for assessment of such cases to determine payment of appropriate compensation—perhaps on the lines of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. However, this is obviously not the time to debate the methods that might be used.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in welcoming the Government's generous action in introducing these amendments.

Mr. Newton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) for her kind words.

I come now to the specific points raised by the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett). To pick up the slightly uncharacteristically uncharitable phrasing that she used about why the proposal was "chucked in at the last minute", I can tell her that it was because a number of representations had been made to the Government. It is well known that there has been concern about this matter for some time.

The Government came to the conclusion—and I personally strongly reached the conclusion—that it was right to create a position in which we could increase, and increase more easily, the amount payable. and we have taken the opportunity provided by this Bill to do that.

On the last of the hon. Lady's questions about inflation and future uprating, this increase goes rather beyond the simple application of inflation during the period since 1979. No doubt because of the movement in prices at some points around the time when the payment was first introduced, the calculations may depend slightly on the time of the year taken. My calculations show that the 1985 equivalent of the £10,000 applicable in 1979 is £17,750. Therefore, on that basis the increase to £20,000 is significantly more than pure inflation proofing.

Mrs. Beckett

I calculated my figures from the announcement of the scheme in 1978, and what was thought then to be a worthwhile sum of £10,000 would now need to be £19,230. The Government are being slightly generous, but not a lot.

Mr. Newton

That may be right, but the hon. Lady might have been wiser not to have raised that point because she has calculated the rate of inflation between the time when the then Labour Government announced the proposal in 1978 and implemented it in 1979. That is not the sort of issue on which I want to have a verbal punch-up with the hon. Lady today, but when she walks right into it in that way I am bound to pick up the implication of her remarks.

What we are doing cannot be described as a mean increase. It represents a broad sum of £20,000, ahead in value of the £10,000 when it was introduced in 1979. That probably gives the hon. Lady a clue to my next remark, which is that we do not have a definite plan for annual uprating, though it follows from the type of amendment that we have made—which is not to substitute a new substantive figure in the primary legislation but to take power to make such an increase by order—that there will henceforth be greater flexibility. As I say, I cannot make a commitment on behalf of the Government to engage in annual uprating of the payment.

Regarding the future of the scheme, as the hon. Member for Derby, South pointed out, some of the broader issues that can be related to this relatively limited issue—picking up the whole theme of the Pearson commission and the question of compensation more widely—go wider than we can sensibly debate today. However, the hon. Lady will be aware that the Government have not accepted the recommendation of the Pearson commission for a system of compensation in the courts based on strict liability in tort, subject only to causation being proved.

I hope that I carry the hon. Member for Derby, South—this answers her question about our survey of the extent and effect of disablement in the population—when I say that it would not be sensible now to make further large decisions in this sphere until we have the results of that survey—which is the biggest survey ever carried out in Britain of disablement problems and their effects—and are thus in a position to have the greater information required to examine disability and disability benefits as a whole.

Mrs. Beckett

May I take it, therefore, that the Minister is saying that the decision to make the uprating in this way does not pre-empt a more widespread scheme in the future?

Mr. Newton

In putting forward this proposal in relation to vaccine damage payments under the 1979 Act, the Government are not seeking to pre-empt anything in the future. Equally, I am not seeking to prejudge anything in the future or to suggest that the Government have taken decisions beyond the decision to raise the vaccine damage payment from £10,000 to £20,000 in relation to claims made on or after 18 June 1985.

The hon. Member for Derby, South questioned me about the cost. It is modest. We estimate that the extra cost in a full year will be £120,000, so that in terms of the great sweep of the Department of Health and Social Security budget it is a small sum. Nevertheless, it will be of considerable significance to those families who are helped.

Question put and agreed to. [Special Entry.]

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