HL Deb 16 November 1987 vol 490 cc21-5

3.46 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement currently being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Health on haemophiliacs infected by the AIDS virus. This Statement is as follows:

"With permission, I wish to make a Statement about haemophiliacs who have become infected with the AIDS virus as a result of treatment with infected blood products. I should explain that I am doing so in the unavoidable absence of my right honourable friend who is unwell.

"As the House knows, the position under successive governments has been that, while compensation may be sought through the courts if there is a question of negligence, there is no state scheme of no fault compensation for those damaged by medical treatment.

"The Haemophilia Society has, however, put to us a powerful case that the position of haemophiliacs is wholly exceptional and should be treated as such. Their employment prospects and insurance status were already affected by the haemophilia itself. The treatment that led to their infection was designed to help them to live as near a normal life as possible. The hereditary nature of haemophilia can, and in some cases does, mean that more than one member of the family may be affected.

"The Government, having considered all the circumstances, have concluded that it would be right to recognise the unique position of haemophiliacs infected with this virus. We therefore propose to make an ex gratia grant of £10 million to the Haemophilia Society to enable it to establish a special trust fund. It will be able to make payment to the affected individuals and families throughout the United Kingdom and to do so with greater flexibility than could readily be achieved in any other way.

"The House will wish to know that we have put this proposal to the society, which has welcomed it warmly. The society has asked for advice and assistance in administering the fund, which we have gladly agreed to arrange.

"The grant of £10 million is being made from the reserve. When the full details of the grant and trust fund have been settled, there will be an exchange of letters with the society. I shall arrange for copies to be put in the Library.

"I know that the House wishes to express its sympathy to the individuals and families who have been affected in this tragic way. I hope that the whole House will welcome this action to translate that sympathy into practical help".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for reading the Statement that was read in another place by the Minister for Health. For once it is a pleasure to give an unqualified welcome to a statement of government policy. It is a rapid and positive response to the proposals which came not only from the Haemophilia Society but from both sides of your Lordships' House in the debate on Tuesday of last week, including the speeches made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and myself.

The statement is a positive recognition of the great hardship, too often resulting in death, suffered by those who have been struck by two potentially life-destroying conditions. Our sympathy, like the sympathy of the Government, goes out to the victims and their families.

As the Minister said, and as I said last week, the position of haemophiliacs is exceptional. I have great respect of the Haemophilia Society, whose officers I have met. I am sure that, with the readily accepted offer of assistance from the DHSS, it will admirably administer the ex gratia payment. However, I should like to put one question to the Minister. Does this not give added weight to the argument for some kind of system of no fault liability for others who may suffer under circumstances where proving negligence by a health authority or a doctor is neither easy nor desirable? If the Minister does not now wish to give a considered answer to that question, I hope that the Government will carefully consider the matter and that he will bring back a Statement to the House.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I should like to associate these Benches with the comments of the Government as regards the tragedy of the haemophiliacs and also with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, in praise of the government scheme. I should like to ask the Minister a question in almost the same terms as that asked by the noble Lord but phrased in a different way. It is clear that the haemophiliacs who contracted AIDS in this way deserve the best form of government financial help—and I avoid the expression "compensation". Is this rather large block grant to a society which consists of those who are ill and those who are caring for them for that society to administer a new form which has been devised? If so, do the Government see any future in such a way of administering help in the case of other medical conditions, or indeed misfortunes that may befall people, which are not illnesses at all but something quite different? In short, are we at the beginning of a new age of social and health administration?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am most grateful to both the noble Lords, Lord Ennals and Lord Kennet, for their immediate and generous response to this Statement. I certainly agree that the position of haemophiliacs is quite exceptional. When members of the Haemophilia Society met my right honourable friend on 3rd November, he took the point very quickly and, as the House has now discovered, reacted very rapidly. Personally I am delighted that we have been able to help sufferers from haemophilia who have contracted AIDS as a result of the treatment they have received, which incidentally is through no fault of the clinicians treating them or indeed the Government.

That brings me very neatly to the subject of no fault compensation. As the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, will remember, last week we had a debate on the subject in which the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, raised that question, which was considered many years ago by the Pearson Commission. The commission reported in 1978. Having studied the evidence from other countries and considered a possible compensation scheme for personal injuries resulting from medical accidents, the report concluded that this was a very difficult matter but that on balance such a compensation scheme should not be introduced here; it recommended that negligence should continue to be the basis for liability for most medical injuries. I should point out that in this case no court has judged compensation to be in order and of course it would be a matter for the courts so to judge if anybody were to bring an action.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, asked whether this issue ushered in a new form of social security arrangement. I do not view this measure as a form of social security arrangement, whether new or old. Certainly it is not entirely new. I am advised that the family fund administered by the Rowntree Trust would be similar. As we have all agreed, the needs and treatments of haemophiliacs are quite unique, and I cannot think of any further groups that would qualify for such assistance.

It is easy to make such a remark. Nobody knows what the future will bring. In 1980 and 1981 we did not know about the terrible scourge of AIDS, nor realise how many people it would affect so disastrously in the following five or six years. Moreover, it will continue for some considerable time to come.

Returning to my original remarks, I am very pleased that both the noble Lords have been so generous in their response.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, from these Benches I also warmly welcome this very proper act of generosity by the Government toward these doubly unfortunate people. I also welcome the method that has been adopted, which in these circumstances seems to be so much more sensible than setting up some bureaucratic organisation.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for putting the point of view of these Benches. I should point out that the fund is unique in that it is specifically for those people who are facing the singular and tragic circumstances of haemophilia and HIV infection.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I should like to make one brief supplementary remark. The Minister accepted that the Government agreed with one of the negative conclusions of the Pearson Report, but so far as I know they have not agreed with any of its positive proposals. I happen to disagree with the one conclusion that the Government have accepted. I wonder whether the issue, which has still not been answered, is one to which the Government will give further thought.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, that goes extremely wide of this Statement but, as I said in the debate last week, this matter will continue to engage the energies of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, having taken part in the vaccine damage debate in your Lordships' House some time ago, and indeed having initiated it, I only wish to rise briefly to congratulate the Government on having met what is a wholly exceptional situation with such humanity, speed and generosity. The situation is exceptional in a number of ways but not wholly exceptional in others.

As is well known to the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, one aspect of the matter has a more general significance. If one looks at the state of the art of medicine at the relevant time, there was then no known causative link between the treatment and the infection. This is a problem of more general application.

Secondly, until we reach forward in the law to accept some form of strict liability, in cases where fault is not an essential ingredient the only way that the Government can deal with such catastrophes is not by compensation as it is ordinarily understood but by offering a generous ex gratia grant. I congratulate the Government on their action. However, there are greater problems that lie beyond this wholly exceptional situation.

Lord Skelmersdale

I am very grateful to my noble friend for underlining that point. Of course, in order to be in a position to pay compensation, there must be something that requires compensation. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, that can only be established through our legal system and therefore compensation would not be appropriate in this particular case whereas an ex gratia payment clearly is appropriate.

Lord Walston

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House approximately how many haemophiliacs there are who are confirmed sufferers from AIDS or who have died?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, according to the estimates of the Haemophilia Society, with whose figures we do not disagree, I regret to tell the House that there are some 1,200 HIV infected people. Of that number, 57 have AIDS and so far 41 have died.

Lord Galpern

My Lords, can the Minister say whether this contribution is to be a final and full settlement of the claims for the misery that will be suffered by such people in the future? In the event of the Haemophilia Society indicating quite clearly and fully to the satisfaction of the Minister that additional aid is required, will that request be taken into consideration?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I do not accept that this payment is in settlement of a claim. As I have already explained, it is an ex gratia payment in respect of a particular and tragic circumstance. The offer was made to the Haemophilia Society at the end of last week and it has been gratefully accepted.

Lord Somers

My Lords, I do not think anybody who is interested in such matters will feel anything hut heartfelt gratitude to the Government for making that Statement. But I wonder whether the noble Lord could tell me one thing. One sees in every surgery and hospital waiting room a notice urging one to become a blood donor. When one volunteers to do this, is one given a strict examination to make sure that one is not a carrier of the virus oneself?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, indeed, my Lords, and the country remains extremely grateful to those people who continue to give blood at this very difficult time. Not only is the blood tested initially before full amounts and futher amounts of blood can be given, but the blood products are now also heat treated.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether or not the Government have given further consideration to the suggestion that was made to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, about the possibility of suing the suppliers of Factor VIII?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I think I need a little more notice of that question. If I may, I shall look into it and write to the noble Lord, Lord Sefton.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, I should be obliged if the noble Lord would allow us to know the reasons for not suing them.