HL Deb 17 July 2000 vol 615 cc658-64

8.8 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 5th July be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, when we discussed vaccine damage payments on 28th June, I said that we hoped that the new £100,000 payments would be in place before the Summer Recess. We have acted quickly in bringing this order before your Lordships' House tonight, and it will be debated in another place tomorrow. There will, therefore, be the minimum of delay before the new rate becomes effective.

The draft order increases the amount of payment under Section 1 of the Vaccine Damage Payments Act to £100,000 for claims made on or after the date that it comes into force. The intention to make this increase was announced on 27th June by my right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Social Security in a Statement made in another place.

The change introduced by the order, and the other proposed changes that were announced, do not represent any change of judgment about the safety of vaccination. They simply reflect our view that it is right and proper that a more generous regime be introduced in this area. The Government will have effectively increased the rate of payment that we inherited by £70,000. This is a significant increase and is far removed from the previous increases made to the payment which broadly only reflected changes in the retail prices index.

We have also listened to the concerns of those parents who received £10,000 in the early 1980s. They have struggled daily under difficult circumstances, devoting their lives to the care and support of their often grievously disabled children. Were we to do nothing, they would have been treated far less generously than anyone claiming after this order comes into force. That would be not only unfair, but also unjust. We have therefore decided that it would be only right in this unusual circumstance to make top-up payments to bring past recipients up to a real terms equivalent of the new £100,000 rate.

The coming into force of this order is a necessary prerequisite to the making of these payments. The order does not directly provide for the top-up payments which will be made under the Appropriation Act, but clearly until a new higher rate is in force there is no benchmark against which revalued previous payments can be topped-up. Parents are eagerly anticipating these additional payments and we want to start making them as soon as possible. We aim to make the first payments in August.

In our debate on 28th June my noble friend Lord Brennan asked if a nominated office would have the task of dealing with queries that parents might have. The vaccine damage payments unit of the Benefits Agency in Preston will deal with all these cases. It is a small unit, although we are providing it with additional resources for the efficient discharge of this exercise, and it can be contacted by phone, fax or e-mail. The numbers are known to the various parents' groups and we shall be making them generally known. I shall be happy to provide them to noble Lords.

Once Parliament has approved this order, those recipients who received £10,000 in the past will receive an additional lump sum payment of £67,000. Those who received £20,000 will receive £62,500. Those who received £30,000 will receive £61,500 and those who received £40,000 will receive a further £58,000. This represents an additional £60 million for the most severely disabled, a very significant sum. These payments will be treated like the original payments for the purposes of income related benefits. They are placed in trusts and as such will not disentitle recipients of those benefits.

We have also thought about those families whose vaccine damaged children have sadly died since the original payment was made. They, too, devoted time and effort to the care of their children prior to the child's death, and they too have made sacrifices, financial and otherwise, along the way. We believe that it would be unfair to exclude them from these arrangements, and therefore top-up payments will also be made to those families.

We also intend to amend the Vaccine Damage Payments Act to bring about changes to the time limits for claiming and to the disability threshold. However, as I explained on 28th June, this requires primary legislation and will necessarily be on a longer time-scale. But it is not an issue that we are prepared to let lie and we shall take action to bring about these changes at the earliest available opportunity.

The main provisions of new legislation would be to introduce new, more generous time limits for claiming which will allow affected children to submit a claim at any time up to their 21st birthday; to reduce the disability threshold from 80 per cent to 60 per cent; and to introduce an element of retrospection so that those people who previously claimed and were rejected under the old provisions—for example, they had between 60 and 80 per cent disability—but would have succeeded had the new rules then been in force are given the opportunity to reclaim and have that claim considered afresh.

The latter point applies to both the time limits and the disability threshold. In response to questions following his Statement in another place, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said that he wanted to avoid the situation in which someone who would qualify now is barred because of the old rules. I believe that this is a welcome proposal and equitable to those who have been previously disallowed. I am sure that it will also be welcomed by noble Lords who will appreciate how unusual it is for retrospection to be introduced in such matters.

Government have also been looking at improving provision for all people with severe disabilities. We have had regard to the range of benefits and support available to severely disabled people however their condition was caused, and from 2001 we shall introduce a disability income guarantee and make changes to the mobility component of disability living allowance and to incapacity benefit. These changes can equally benefit vaccine damaged children and adults.

On 28th June noble Lords on all sides of this House, welcomed the changes to vaccine damage payments. There were some questions of detail that I hope I addressed. No doubt others may arise when we bring forward primary legislation. But for the moment we are concerned with the first brick in the wall, introducing the new £100,000 payment with which this order is exclusively concerned. From this the other changes will flow.

I am sure your Lordships would wish to join with me in paying tribute to the campaigning groups which have been active in keeping the issue of vaccine damage in the public eye. These include the British Polio Fellowship and JABS. In particular I pay tribute to Rosemary Fox, of the Association of Parents of Vaccine Damaged Children, and to Olivier Price, of the Vaccine Victims Support Group. They, with the help of their members, have been rightly tireless in their determination to seek enhancements to the scheme. As parents of children in difficult circumstances, they have none the less campaigned selflessly on behalf of others. As I say, I hope and expect that we shall return as soon as we can with appropriate legislation to complete the package. In the meantime, I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 5th July be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Earl Howe

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the order which I warmly welcome. I also welcome the promptness with which the Government have brought the order forward. The substantive issues which stem from it were debated on 28th June when we considered the Unstarred Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke. I shall not therefore take up the time of the House with unnecessary repetition.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, she mentioned that one of the elements of the Government's announcement last month was that those people who have in the past received lump sum payments will now be entitled to top-up payments to put them on an equal footing with new claimants. Will the Minister say when that retrospective part of the package will be put in place? Will she confirm my understanding that further regulations will be needed to achieve that?

Secondly, I refer to the other two improvements to the scheme; that is to say, the reduction in the disability threshold and the lifting of the six-year limit for making claims. As the Minister has just confirmed, both those changes will require primary legislation. Will the Minister be more forthcoming about that legislation? Of course I understand that she cannot pre-empt the Gracious Speech. However, it would be reassuring to hear her say that it represents a high priority for her department.

I reiterate my welcome for the order which will undoubtedly bring with it considerable relief for victims of vaccine damage, for whom we all have the utmost sympathy, as well as for the families who look after them.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I, too, warmly welcome what the Minister said. I associate myself strongly with her acknowledgement of the role played by the parents' groups in a long campaign. Despite the length of the campaign and the slowness of the review, I welcome the fact that the regulations have been brought before both Houses with such speed.

As the Minister pointed out, we had an extensive debate—I describe it as extensive and robust—which aired a number of points. I welcome the additional detail the Minister has provided today. I understand rather better how the Appropriation Act operates in these circumstances. I did not understand how this measure would achieve retrospection, but now I think I do. That is helpful.

The Minister responded to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, with regard to a nominated office. I believe that the families concerned will be reassured to know that they can get in touch with the vaccine damage payments unit in Preston if they need to. That is a helpful measure. Is the office in Preston—I assume that the staff there have this responsibility—making good progress in identifying those to whom top-up payments should be made? I hope that as soon as the measures under the Appropriation Act are implemented, those who are eligible will be written to quickly. The Minister made the point in our debate on 28th June that all their names and addresses were not known. I hope that that matter can be rectified with some speed.

I second what the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said about the primary legislation. I hope that the Minister will say that this is a priority for her department. Whether or not her department wishes to introduce the matter during the spill-over or after the Queen's Speech, we on these Benches will give every possible co-operation in terms of making sure that it speeds its way through this House. The issues raised by the primary legislation in terms of the threshold and the time limits are extremely important and we very much want to see them on the statute book.

I shall not repeat what I said on 28th June. However, I wish to raise one issue as I do not feel that the Minister quite answered my question about whether the Government are working to secure more substantial compensation—I use the word "compensation" and not "payment" advisedly—for those damaged by vaccines. Is this change in the VDP scheme—as the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, hoped—a first step? Do the Government feel that they have now discharged their duty to the unfortunate victims? Or will they now consider introducing strict liability for vaccine damage as recommended by Pearson so long ago in 1978? Further to that, will the Government engage in further discussions with the pharmaceutical industry?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am obviously delighted that both Opposition Benches welcome the order and the speed with which the Government have approached the matter. I am sure that, like everyone else, they will be cheering when the parents get their first cheques, probably in August, but as soon as possible.

As to the question raised by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, retrospection relates to the threshold and the time limit changes. That is why primary legislation is needed. The top-up payments to current and former holders of payments can be made without the need for legislation. So the question does not arise and further regulations are not an issue.

The noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked whether I could give a date for primary legislation. I am sure they will understand the difficulty I am in; we shall not see primary legislation this side of the Queen's Speech. But it is important to the Government that we complete the rest of the programme. Subject to any other decisions, I hope that we will see legislation as soon as possible in the not too distant future.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, spoke about the difficulties of locating people who do not necessarily know that they are entitled to these payments. He is absolutely right. That is why we want the unit at Preston identified and why we want to achieve as much publicity as possible through the organisations. I hope also that we shall be able to call on the press—particularly the campaign led by the Daily Express—to encourage parents who may not be aware of their rights to come forward. One of the difficulties obviously is that some vaccine damaged children are 30 years old; their parents may have moved home several times and we may have lost track of their records. Anything the media can do to help publicise their right to claim would be very welcome.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, picked up on the issue that, to some extent, he ran with when we discussed the matter on 28th June. He asked whether there will be more substantial compensation to individuals. We regard this legislation as producing a just recognition of the difficulties that families face in meeting some of the additional costs that arise with a vaccine damaged child. It is not strictly compensation. Compensation suggests some admission of liability, and I certainly do not wish to suggest that. It is some contribution to the recognised financial and emotional costs that these families and children incur.

We, as a Government, are not proposing to go beyond that and to engage in litigation with companies or any such further proposals. Indeed, we do not share the view held by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that the companies are in any sense negligent in terms of their behaviour; nor does the research suggest in any way— for example, with the MMR vaccine, which I think is the one that particularly concerns the noble Lord—that there is any cause or connection between those inoculations and any of the illnesses (autism or bowel disease) that have been suggested as being correlated with it.

For those reasons—the fact that we do not believe that the vaccine (in the MMR cases in particular) was at fault, and the fact that there is no evidence that there is any physical connection between the illnesses subsequently (and, in some cases, almost before the jabs took place) being experienced by the children and the vaccination itself—we do not feel that it is appropriate to talk the language of negligence, liability or suing companies for compensation. That will not be the Government's route.

Obviously, both the limits and any other areas in which it is appropriate to help vaccine damaged children will, as always, be kept under review. I am not trying to shut the door on this matter, but we believe that by going for an increase from £30,000 in 1997 to £100,000 now the Government are honourably meeting some of the costs that families have. It should not be forgotten that families with vaccine damaged children continue to have access to a full range of benefits, which, were they to be amortised into capital, would be effectively a quite substantial sum.

That is the Government's position. We shall be coming forward to your Lordships' House with legislation to complete the picture as soon as we appropriately can to ensure that children who have received vaccine damage, particularly through the polio jab, get the compensation and the help they are entitled to. We hope that this will make a useful and decent difference to their families' lives. With that, I ask your Lordships to accept the draft order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.