HC Deb 24 May 1988 vol 134 cc216-8 4.35 pm
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

I beg to move,

That leave he given to bring in a Bill to amend the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 in order to facilitate arrangements for the assessment of compensation of victims of vaccine damage. I want to draw to the attention of the House the injustices caused by the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 which was introduced to compensate that minority of tragic victims who are adversely affected by vaccinations. It has manifestly failed to achieve that.

I also seek the support of the House for two amendments to the Act, which will, I hope, alleviate the suffering of many people, including some of my constituents. The Vaccine Damage Payments Act and the system of compensation were introduced on 9 May 1978 by the then Secretary of State for Social Services, now Lord Ennals. The aim of the Act was to compensate those who had suffered damage directly caused by one of the vaccines listed in the Act. The thinking behind the scheme was that vaccine damage was a special case since vaccination was carried out as a matter of public policy. However, the Act specified that a victim would have to be at least 80 per cent. damaged according to the scale used for assessing industrial injuries disablement.

As the Secretary of State said on 9 May 1978, this marked the recognition by both sides of the House of what a terrible personal tragedy vaccine damage is for the families involved. It was right, when all the legal principles had been studied, that the Government should accept some responsibility for helping these victims. These words must have filled the families involved, including a family in my constituency, with some relief in 1978. In many cases, the reality of 1988, 10 years later, is shattered hopes and inadequate assistance.

The signs were there in the prophetic remarks 10 years ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) who said that the £10,000 offered by the Government was a drop in the ocean in respect of children who arc irretrievably damaged for life? … Will my right hon. Friend consider introducing a viable scheme for all vaccine-damaged children?".—[Official Report, 9 May 1978; Vol. 949, c. 977.] Today, even though the Social Security Act 1985 has arbitrarily increased that lump sum to £20,000 in recognition of the general inadequacy, my right hon. Friend's demand is one that I repeat in the House today.

This is not, and should not be, a party issue. Since the introduction of the scheme, the Government, like their Labour predecessors, have refused to implement the recommendations of the Pearson Royal Commission, which I and many hon. Members feel would have been most welcome. I do not have time to discuss the many legal implications of the Pearson commission's report or the legal reasoning behind the scheme that it proposed. However, it is time to recognise that not only is the compensation of £10,000, which has been increased to £20,000, totally inadequate but that the standard of proof required is too high. In addition, to award payments only to those who are more than 80 per cent. damaged is arbitrary, unnecessary and grossly unjust.

I seek leave to introduce the Bill and commend to the House two recommendations about the Vaccine Damage Payments Act and the amendment thereof. First, I urge the House to recognise the inadequacy of the payment of £20,000 currently being offered under the Social Security Act 1985. I base my criticism on first-hand knowledge of the suffering of the family of one of my constituents. Mr. and Mrs. Whyte of Bell's Hill, Lanarkshire, have endured that suffering of a loved one, Mrs. Whyte, since as far back as 1960.

The award of £10,000 made for the loss of earnings of a professionally qualified woman and the consequent home conversions and essential provisions that are necessary for a disabled person meant that the small sum that the family was granted under the provisions of the 1978 Act justified the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South. He spoke about three years' average earnings in respect of children who are irretrievably damaged for life simply being too little. Such compensation was certainly too little for my constituent.

My constituent brought this to my attention with no hope whatever of retrospective payment, but merely so that those who suffer in future may not have to undergo the financial deprivation that she has had to suffer. To put the present £10,000 in perspective, I must explain that in 1978 it was accepted by the whole House that an independent actuary would have estimated compensation based on principles of strict liability for child damage to this extent to be not £10,000 but £115,000. If that figure were inflation-proofed, it would now be £250,000.

I realise the limitations of the Bill and simply ask the House to approve an increase in compensation from £20,000 to £50,000 when the proven damage as a result of vaccination is 80 per cent., with provision for review of that figure should further evidence of disability come to light. This is not too much to ask, as the financial burden on the Government would be small because of the relatively small number of claimants. Up to 8 November 1985, 812 applications for compensation had been granted. It is certainly not too much to ask, given that the Secretary of State for Social Services himself admitted at the time the "small sum" and "interim nature" of the awards.

I turn to the 80 per cent. rule. It is unjust and beside any logic, apart from the logic of saving money, to exclude all claimants who are less than 80 per cent. damaged. That rule leaves countless worthy claimants in a void, having to endure a lifetime of suffering because of an arbitrary and in some ways thoughtless ruling. Of the 2,321 claims disallowed up until November 1985, 692 were disallowed because the degree of directly caused disability was less than 80 per cent. Victims are faced with the bizarre situation that if they suffer 75 per cent. physical or mental damage caused by vaccination they can make no claim.

To deny a suffering victim any compensation on the ground that he or she is "only" 75 per cent. vaccine damaged is unacceptable and unjust. If there need be any illustration of that point it is the case of a small girl named Breege Cannon in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), who sponsors and supports this Bill. She is paralysed for life as a result of a polio vaccination. The DHSS will not present her with a penny as she stands close to, but, tragically, on the wrong side of, the 80 per cent. rule.

I ask the Government to provide compensation commensurate with the extent of the vaccine damage sustained. That would mean that anyone who was 80 per cent. or more damaged would receive the full sum of £50,000 but those suffering less than 80 per cent. physical or mental disability would receive a proportionate amount. For example, those who are 50 per cent. damaged would receive £25,000, and so on. I am not satisfied that such a scheme would alleviate suffering completely but it would be a move towards a more just system, with scope for increasing provision in the future.

When a Committee of the whole House met on 15 February 1979 my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, who has fought tirelessly on this issue, moved an amendment providing for a reduced level of payment where the degree of disablement was less than 80 per cent. but more than 20 per cent. He was refused on the now familiar grounds that such a provision would be "costly" and would cause "delay". It was also suggested at that time that the scheme was only an interim measure until something better came along. That was 10 years ago, but nothing better has come along. The cost would be wholly insignificant in terms of the numbers involved and in terms of the acute suffering it would alleviate. Victims and their families have been prepared to wait if it meant justice, as opposed to getting nothing.

Every Member of the House would fully support as a matter of public policy the widest possible encouragement of the protection of the present generation and future generations by vaccination. In a world in which scientific advance can often lead to a threat to life, vaccination has proved to be one of our most powerful weapons against crippling and killer diseases. However, it is a sad but verifiable fact that in that pursuit of the greater good a minority are afflicted. No financial gain can ever provide sufficient recompense for the mental or physical damage that they may sustain. But for their sake, as well as for the common good, we are all duty bound to ensure that those people are comforted and compensated as adequately as possible. In the absence of a full and wide-ranging scheme providing compensation for the vaccine damage, I ask the House to support the Bill and the provisions it contains.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. John Reid, Mr. Sam Galbraith, Mr. John Maxton, Mr. Tom Clarke, Mr. Harry Barnes, Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie, Mr. John Hughes, Mr. Doug Henderson, Mr. Roger Stott, Mr. Rhodri Morgan and Mr. John McFall.