HC Deb 27 June 2000 vol 352 cc719-27

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling)

With permission Madam Speaker, I would like to make a short statement on benefits payable under the vaccine damage payment scheme.

The Vaccine Damage Payment Act was introduced by the last Labour Government in 1979 in response to the Pearson commission on civil liability and compensation for personal injury.

The purpose of the vaccine damage payment scheme is to provide a single tax-free payment for people who, on the balance of probabilities, have suffered severe mental or physical disablement of 80 per cent. or more as a result of vaccination against specified diseases.

The scheme aims to ease the present and future burdens of those suffering from vaccine damage and their families. It is designed to recognise the extra costs falling on the families concerned.

Under the scheme, claims have to be made within six years of the date of vaccination or of a child reaching two years of age, whichever is later. Payment was initially made at a rate of £10,000. It was subsequently raised to £20,000 in 1985 and to £30,000 in 1991. In 1998, the present Government decided to raise it further to £40,000 for claims made on or after 1 July of that year. Also in 1998, my right hon. Friend Baroness Hollis announced in another place that a review of the scheme would be undertaken. Today I am announcing the outcome of that review.

First, I have decided that the six-year limit for making claims is too short in respect of young children, who account for the vast majority of claims. I propose to change this limit in line with Law Commission proposals which would have the effect of enabling claims to be made at any time up to age 21.

Secondly, I have decided that the disability threshold, which at present is 80 per cent. is too high. I therefore propose to reduce it to 60 per cent. The changes both to the time limit and to the threshold require primary legislation. We shall legislate at the earliest available opportunity. I have also reviewed how vaccine damage victims should be supported through the social security system.

People disabled from an early age at present qualify for severe disablement allowance. This will, of course, include recipients of vaccine damage payments. From next April, as a result of measures introduced in last year's Welfare Reform and Pensions Act, younger disabled people will be able to claim incapacity benefit without having to satisfy the normal national insurance contribution conditions. That will mean that they will be able to claim up to an extra £26.70 a week.

People with severe mobility difficulties or care needs also qualify for disability living allowance. From next year the Government have also extended help to disabled three and four-year-olds with higher-rate mobility needs. That will again include young children receiving vaccine damage payments. They will be able to claim £37 a week.

I have also considered the lump sum which is payable under the scheme. The Government recognise that caring for people who have suffered damage puts a considerable burden on their families and carers. In 1998, the Government raised the sum from £30,000 to £40,000. That sum is too low, so I propose that the sum payable to each individual should be raised to £100,000 for all new cases.

However, we must also recognise the situation of families who received lump-sum payments in the past who have not benefited from any of the previous increases. So I can announce that those who have already received lump sums will get top-up payments so that they are put on an equal footing in real terms with new claimants. These payments for the 900 existing recipients will range from £58,000 to £67,000. We will introduce regulations to make these payments as soon as possible. The cost of my proposals is around £60 million.

Nothing can make up for what has happened to these children, but we have a clear duty to support them and their families. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome the changes.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

Hon. Members on both sides of the House do, indeed, welcome the changes, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) who has led the all-party campaign on the issue. I also pay tribute to Olivia Price, the chairman of the Vaccine Victims Support Group, who is coming tomorrow to lobby Parliament on the issue, for the fourth time since 1997. The Opposition welcome the statement and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) has already made clear, we recognise the need for a generous and sensible settlement for the grievance.

I have one question for the Secretary of State about his proposals. We have read that he has been involved in negotiations with the pharmaceutical industry about the possibility of its contributing to such a scheme, as happens in some other countries. The right hon. Gentleman made no mention of the pharmaceutical industry in his statement, and it would be interesting to know how those discussions proceeded.

The hon. Member for Eccles rightly observed in a previous debate on this subject that good policy is not made on the hoof, but this one has been around the paddock far too many times.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 6 June 2000; Vol. 351, c. 1 WH.] That is certainly true of this announcement. In December 1998, the then Minister of State said that the Government hoped to conclude our review early in the new year.—[Official Report, 2 December 1998; Vol. 321, c. 817.] That would have been early in 1999. We were told by the Minister in the Lords that an announcement would be made "as soon as possible."

Now we are told by the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] I shall remind the House of this, because it is very important. The Secretary of State now says that he will legislate at the earliest available opportunity. I make it clear to the Secretary of the State—and the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip, who are in their places—that we will co-operate in legislation at the earliest available opportunity and if he tables a simple Bill to amend the Vaccine Damage Payment Act 1979, which is a simple Act that should not be complicated to administer, we will ensure that it has full and fair passage through the House. The challenge to the Secretary of State, after so much delay and so many promised reviews, is whether he will legislate before the next election.

Mr. Darling

When we consider the children with whom we are dealing, I do not think that the issue should be the stuff of knockabout politics.

The hon. Gentleman asked me one question of substance, the answer to which in part explains why the results of the review have been announced today. We did approach the pharmaceutical industry to see whether it would co-operate in part-funding a trust to be set up to make payments to the children affected by vaccine damage. The response from the industry was not enthusiastic and it struck me that it would take several years to resolve the matter. I felt that, rather than wait for discussions that might take months or years, it would be better for the Government to act to improve the vaccine damage payment scheme.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the scheme. It was good of him to give it. Arguably, the children concerned have been waiting for 20 years for this statement. I believe that the Government are doing the right thing, and I hope that when we introduce legislation we will receive co-operation from Opposition Members on both Front and Back Benches.

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement today. He has a record of being able to take hard decisions, but when we spoke to him and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health recently, I pointed out to them that the hardest decision in the whole matter was the decision that the parents had to take when they chose to have a child born without impairment vaccinated. The first thing that we must say is that the vaccine programme has been a great success. It has reduced the number of cases from several thousand in 1979 to a handful a year now. We must say loudly and clearly to the public that the vaccine programme works—

Madam Speaker

Order. I realise that the hon. Gentleman has done a great deal in this campaign, but I must remind him that he is not speaking in an Adjournment debate at the moment; he is putting questions. There are other Members who want to ask questions, so I hope that he will put his question right away.

Mr. Stewart

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

Will the Secretary of State join me in acknowledging that his statement today will be welcomed by the parents groups and the families? This is not just about the individual who has been damaged; it is a whole-family issue. The proposals go a long way towards providing the immediate help that those families need. Will my right hon. Friend join me in telling the families that the issue is not finished here, and that this statement is about the payment scheme only? The issue of compensation now needs to be addressed, and will be addressed by the all-party group and the parents groups.

Mr. Darling

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) for the work that he has done in the all-party group. Anyone who says that Back-Bench Members cannot make a difference is wrong. My hon. Friend has shown, along with his colleagues in the all-party group, that Members of Parliament can play a valuable role in helping the Government to formulate policy. I am grateful to him also for acknowledging that the Government announcement today will go a long way towards helping families who have lost out in the past. I hope that all the parents concerned will accept that we have made a number of changes which I hope will make a real difference to the problems and difficulties that they face.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I welcome the Secretary of State's statement, which illustrates why we worked so hard for a change of Government—although I am sorry that it has taken us a little while to get this far. I join in the congratulations to the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) and thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), who put the issue on the agenda a couple of weeks ago. I particularly welcome the recognition of the need for backdating some of the payments. In many instances, we are talking not about children but about grown people and their carers. The Secretary of State has recognised that there is a need for no-fault compensation in this aspect of public health policy and NHS activity. Will he now explore the possibility of introducing no-fault compensation in other areas of national health concern?

Mr. Darling

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, nothing in what I said today makes the case for no-fault liability. That was raised by the Pearson commission in the 1970s and rejected by the then Government in 1983. Successive Governments have not changed the position so far as that is concerned. The vaccine damage payment scheme is a separate matter and is focused on a particular problem affecting a particular group of people. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken on his last point.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's general welcome for the statement. The matter has been on the agenda since we came into office. We announced the review in 1998 and, last year, we announced an increase of some £27 a week in the amount of payments that go to severely disabled young people, as well as access for the most severely disabled people to disability living allowance. Today's announcement is a further step along the road to ensuring that we help people who have suffered a great deal over the years.

I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding us that this is the first time that the payments are to be backdated. Some 900 recipients will receive between £58,000 and £67,000 a year as a result of what I am proposing today.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Does he agree that, no matter what is said by Opposition Members today—mealy-mouthed or otherwise—thousands of families will thank the Government for proposing changes to the scheme and that families affected by vaccine damage can look forward to better care from the state in the future than they have received in the past?

Mr. Darling

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said. He is right in saying that many families have waited too long for this scheme to be put on a proper footing, but we have now done that.

Perhaps I could correct an earlier slip of the tongue, when I referred to an annual payment of between £58,000 and £67,000. I should of course have said that that amount is a lump sum.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

At least two families in my constituency will very much welcome the Secretary of State's announcement today. Cases such as theirs are appalling: perhaps it is because they are so few and so random that they are so sad.

My question concerns the top-up payments. In both the cases with which I am familiar, the families received the £10,000 interim payment in 1979 for injuries that occurred in the 1970s. How will the top-up payment be calculated in relation to the period of time that has elapsed since then?

Secondly, the child in one of my constituency cases has subsequently died, but her parents spent half their lives nursing her until she was 25. What will happen in cases such as that?

Mr. Darling

I can help the hon. Gentleman on both points. First, we aim to ensure that people who have received a payment in the past will receive a top-up payment so that they get the equivalent in real terms of the £100,000 total sum that is to be paid. All the relevant provisions will be set out in regulations. The lump sum, unlike the change in the threshold or the time limit for claims, will be dealt with in regulations which I hope to bring before the House at the earliest possible opportunity.

I shall deal with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about children who have died. Although there are not many of them, there are a few, and I need to reflect on how to deal with such cases equitably. I certainly undertake to do so.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I wish to add my support for my right hon. Friend's very welcome statement. I am especially pleased that he referred to families who were affected when the scheme began in 1979. Although those families received payments, they have nevertheless felt a serious sense of injustice over the ensuing 21 years—of which this Government have been in power for only three.

My right hon. Friend has assured the House that the regulations will be introduced and the primary legislation changed at the earliest possible opportunity. May I urge him to use all his endeavours to ensure that the necessary changes are introduced without any further or undue delay?

Mr. Darling

I want to bring the regulations forward as quickly as I can, as it is important that payments—especially those involving the lump sum—are made as quickly as possible. After waiting so long for an increase in the lump sum, most families will want to receive it as quickly as possible. That is what I intend to make sure happens.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

As a member of the all-party group, and on behalf of my constituent Hamish Thompson, may I thank the Secretary of State for what he has achieved in terms of removing the time limits, lowering the disability threshold and increasing the top-up payment? However, I have one practical request.

The Secretary of State will know that many parents will attend a lobby at the House of Commons tomorrow. They will have a lot of questions about the regulations, the primary legislation, the interaction of benefits and top-up payments. Would it be possible for an official in the Benefits Agency to be designated as the person with lead responsibility in this matter? That would mean that there would be someone for parents and hon. Members to contact and deal with. One of the frustrations for parents in this position has been that they feel that there is no particular point of reference for them to contact. That has caused confusion, and it would be very much appreciated by the families if they could get information by telephone from one person at one address.

Mr. Darling

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but I am not sure that I can provide by tomorrow an official who could give chapter and verse on the number of matters about which I have just informed the House. Lobby groups and parents have been in contact with the Department. Once we have the details, we intend to write to them and set out the position. That might be the best way to proceed, as hon. Members will know that trying to run what amounts to an information stall is not always a practical response to lobbies in this place.

Mr. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the welcome announcement that he has made today. I seek clarification on two small matters.

Two young women in my constituency have now gone into residential care. How will they benefit from what my right hon. Friend has announced? I hope that they will be able to get some protection, so that their families, who cared for them so many years, will benefit. Going back to 1979, some young people affected will now be over the age of 21, but would have been 60 per cent. disabled because of vaccine damage in the intervening period. Will they be able to seek some redress?

Mr. Darling

On the latter point, I want to ensure that people are not unfairly excluded simply because they do not come within the new scheme. Clearly, the primary legislation that is required will take longer to introduce because of other constraints, but I want to avoid the situation in which someone who would qualify now is barred because of the old rules. Not many people are in that situation, but it would be unfair to exclude them.

My hon. Friend asked about people who are now in residential care. That would not affect their entitlement to the increased lump sum, as I set out in my statement.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I join other right hon. and hon. Members in welcoming the statement. Will the Secretary of State underline the point made by the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart)? While we try to help those people who have suffered for reasons that some of us cannot fully understand, we should also be sending out the message that, on the whole, vaccination is helpful and safe. We must assure people that the vaccine programme should be followed through because it has been so positive. Having said that, I plead with the Secretary of State to look again with compassion on those parents who lost children as a result of vaccine damage: they have sometimes been left without any clear guidance concerning the real problem and have been fobbed off with reasons that are not acceptable.

Mr. Darling

All of us, as Members of this House or as individuals, have come across families who have agonised over that problem, to which there is no easy answer. As I know, nothing that I can say from this Dispatch Box will provide comfort to parents in that position. On parents whose children died, as I said in my statement, nothing can make up for what has happened. As a Government, all that we can do is to ensure that we provide help as appropriate for parents who have been in that dreadful situation.

On the general point to which the hon. Gentleman referred, I agree that the vaccination programme has brought great benefits to this country and to other parts of the world. The remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles were extremely measured and I support what he said.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In view of the frankly uncalled-for contribution from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, in contrast with the contributions of Opposition Back Benchers, I remind my right hon. Friend that David Ennals had made the undertaking—and a Labour Government would have carried it out—on the delicate question of time limits which he has honoured, which was very much open to argument. In particular, I thank my right hon. Friend for generously topping up the lump sum. Will he, the Department of Health and other colleagues reflect, however, because that raises the thorny issue of medical negligence? Will he look sympathetically at the case put forward by Lord Justice Sir Philip Otton on medical negligence because, in one form or another, heaven help us, these problems may well arise again and we ought to tackle that question.

Mr. Darling

The statement was not about medical negligence, which is a matter for the Lord Chancellor, not for me. On the events of 1979, I understood that the then Labour Government certainly intended to complete the reforms, but unfortunately were not able to do so. I have nothing whatever to say about the comments of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman to which my hon. Friend referred.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I too offer a warm welcome to the statement from the Secretary of State. In reducing the threshold from 80 per cent. to 60 per cent. disablement, is the right hon. Gentleman considering altering some of the assessment procedures that are used? He, like all hon. Members, will know that one of the most distressing aspects is the definition of the threshold that enables people to be recipients of the benefits. Will that be included in the legislation?

Mr. Darling

No, I cannot promise that. I appreciate the point that the hon. Lady makes about medical assessments. There will always be some problems with them but, as I said in my statement, I consider the tariff level of 80 per cent. to be too high for the degree of disability, so I want to reduce it to 60 per cent. We always keep procedures under review, but I cannot promise to make specific changes in respect of this particular group of people.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

I thank my right hon. Friend for this act of justice. Labour Members take pride in the fact that, in doing something about this matter, the Government have done what previous Governments conspicuously failed to do. May I say, especially on behalf of those 900 people who are now in their 30s, many of whom are totally dependent, for whom life is a struggle and whose families often live in great poverty, that this action is vastly overdue? It was a scandal that when they had taken part in a public health programme and received a certificate to say that damage was caused by vaccine, they were rewarded with only £10,000. That was a scandal waiting to be addressed, and I am glad that the Government have now addressed it.

May I simply ask that the top-up payments, for those 900 people in particular, come through as soon as possible?

Mr. Darling

I certainly hope that they will. Now that the announcement has been made, people rightly want to see the sums that are due to them.

On my hon. Friend's general point, I believe that the course of action that we have announced today is the right one. I am only sorry that we have had to wait so long for Parliament to have a chance to make those changes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I welcome the statement that the Secretary of State made and congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) most warmly on the important work that he has done, but may I suggest that the required legislation could be given greater priority if the Government were to relegate to the circular filing tray their planned legislation against hunting with dogs?

Mr. Darling

I believe that most Members on both sides of the House have recognised that this is a very difficult matter. We are dealing with children who have suffered serious damage as a result of what has happened to them, and I do not think that this is the time and place for Tory knockabout politics.

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

I welcome the statement. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider extending the principle underlying the scheme by joining forces with the Secretary of State for Health to re-examine the case for a no-fault compensation scheme for medical accidents.

Mr. Darling

This is not a compensation scheme, and never has been since it was set up in 1979. It exists in recognition of the extra burden that families are obliged to shoulder. As I said in reply to some other hon. Friends earlier, the question of no-fault liability is a matter for the Lord Chancellor; it is not the subject of my statement.

The right thing to do now is to face up to the fact that some 900 children lost out in the past. Today we have an opportunity to resolve some of the problems that they face by increasing the lump sum, making back payments and ensuring that the process by which claims are entertained is much fairer than it was in the past. I am grateful to my hon. Friends and others on both sides of the House for the welcome that they have given today's announcement.

Forward to