HC Deb 16 April 1996 vol 275 cc534-6 4.56 pm
Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a review of the operation of, and make amendments to, the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979.

I, too, welcome my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Staffordshire (Mr. Jenkins).

I am grateful for this opportunity to bring to the House's attention injustices being created by the operation of the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 and to propose what I hope the House will agree is a sensible suggestion for its review.

I must make it clear that I support vaccination. I recognise the huge contribution to the nation's health made by mass immunisation. The benefits of immunisation clearly and definitely outweigh the risks, but the risks are real enough for the small minority of children who are damaged every year following an adverse reaction to routine vaccinations administered as part of the Government's public health programme.

In the 1970s, the then Prime Minister—now Lord Callaghan—recognised how important it was to confidence in the vaccination programme that public anxiety about vaccine-damaged children be addressed. In 1978, therefore, the Pearson commission on civil liability and compensation for personal injury recommended a weekly disability benefit for all severely disabled children irrespective of cause of disablement". It added: the Government or local authority concerned should be strictly liable in tort for severe damages suffered by anyone (adult or child) as a result of vaccination which has been recommended in the interests of the community".

The Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 was introduced as a temporary measure, but, 17 years on, still far too many families are being provided with little or no compensation because of the failure to update that inadequate legislation. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone who believes that the Act is working fairly and effectively in its present form.

The problems with the Act were first brought to my attention by my constituent, Mrs. Olivia Price, whose baby daughter Melissa was vaccinated in 1976. She believed that the vaccinations would provide her child with vital protection against debilitating diseases in the years to come so, as a caring mother would, she agreed to them. After vaccination, however, Melissa suffered fainting spells, spasms and various behavioural problems. Mrs. Price's worries were initially dismissed as those of a "fussy mother", but medical reports show that vaccination was indeed the cause of the brain damage that has denied Melissa the chance of a normal life. In 1979, Olivia Price applied for a vaccine damage payment and received a one-off payment of £10,000, which was available at the time.

Later awards to families increased to £20,000, and subsequently, to £30,000 in 1991. Such awards remain woefully inadequate for the care of a severely disabled child for the rest of his or her life. What is more, they are paltry compared with what victims of medical accidents may receive in court and with what victims of vaccine damage may receive in other countries. In the United States, for example, the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act 1986 paid out $74 million to just 145 families in its first four years under a scheme funded by a combination of tax on the sale of vaccines and money from Congress. In Japan, the courts have made large compensation awards to families of people who died or have been permanently damaged. In Ireland, a £2.75 million award was made to Kenneth Best, who was brain damaged by whooping cough vaccine.

Mrs. Price has obtained legal aid to try to secure compensation by proving negligence through the courts. I wish her well in that, but I do not think that she should have to jump through such hoops to get the support that she and Melissa need. The Government's treatment of Melissa falls far short of what the Pearson commission saw as reasonable recompense for children in her position and, more important, the principle of equal treatment for disabled people that lay behind its recommendations.

The inadequate level of payments is only one of the three main problems associated with the Vaccine Damage Payments Act that require review. The Act also contains an illogical rule that denies children who are said to be less than 80 per cent. disabled any assistance whatever. That rule has, for example, prevented Edward, who lives in Crawley, from getting any payment, even though he was left badly paralysed, with one leg considerably shorter than the other, following a reaction to a polio vaccination in 1986.

A further problem with the Act is that there is a six-year time limit in which claims must be made. That has excluded some families from even having their claims investigated. That is particularly unfair since the Government took very few steps initially to inform parents, and failed to provide doctors and social workers with the information that they need to make parents aware of their rights. New research suggests that the six-year rule is even more unjust, since it appears that measles vaccine virus can cause inflammatory bowel disease, which shows up some years after vaccination.

The result of all that is that three quarters of all claims have been rejected. Up to 31 March 1995, only 876 of the 3,667 claims have resulted in an award under the Vaccine Damage Payments Act—210 of those fell foul of the time limit and 569 were refused for medical reasons associated with the 80 per cent. rule. Not only are we failing to deliver justice in the interests of our national health to those who suffer, but in doing so we are potentially undermining a vital public health programme.

The Government spend large sums on promoting their vaccination programme. A doctor vaccinating 90 per cent. of children under the age of two on his or her list even gets an incentive bonus in excess of £2,000. Moreover, in 1994, £3.5 million was spent on a campaign to promote a single vaccination for measles and rubella—four and a half times the amount paid to victims of vaccinations since 1987.

Such promotions pay great dividends. The World Health Organisation estimates that the global saving from eliminating polio will be about $3 billion by 2015. That is a vast saving. In part at least, it has been paid for by the victims of vaccine damage. Surely, as part of that effort to eliminate disease, it is not unreasonable to allocate some of those savings to proper provision for children who suffer damage.

Vaccine manufacturers have also reaped substantial benefits from the immunisation programme. Companies such as Glaxo Wellcome plc and SmithKline Beecham plc each year make millions of pounds of profit. Could such companies not contribute towards a fund to compensate the tiny minority who suffer as a result of being administered the vaccine that they supply?

The review of the Act that my Bill recommends should examine compensation levels, investigate the provision of a fixed sum for those who are less than 80 per cent. disabled, ensure that claims that have been rejected are properly investigated and ensure that payment should not be refused because of unrealistic time limits. The problem of vaccine damage has been ignored for far too long; it now requires action. An early-day motion that I tabled almost two years ago was supported by more than 200 hon. Members. A further motion, which I have tabled today, looks likely to gain even greater support. It is clear that hon. Members from all parties want action in support of vaccine damaged children, and the House now has a chance to do something about it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Richard Burden, Mr. Roger Berry, Sir Patrick Cormack, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Dr. Norman A. Godman, Mr. Nigel Griffiths, Mrs. Helen Jackson, Mr. Andrew Mackinlay, Mrs. Diana Maddock, Ms Rachel Squire, Sir Teddy Taylor and Mr. Dafydd Wigley.