HL Deb 05 February 2004 vol 656 cc799-802

11.22 a.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and declare an interest—not a pecuniary one— as president of the Haemophilia Society.

The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty's Government how they arrived at the scale of ex gratia payments for patients infected by contaminated National Health Service blood products with hepatitis C, proposed by the Secretary of State for Health on 23 January; and why the widows of those who have died are excluded from help.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner)

My Lords, the level of payments was decided after consideration of a number of independent sources. Those included the payment schemes of the Macfarlane and Eileen Trusts, the reports of the Scottish Executive's expert group and the Hepatitis C Working Party to the Haemophilia Society. The underlying principle behind the ex gratia payments is to help alleviate the suffering of people living with inadvertent hepatitis C infection. That is where the money available has been concentrated. These payments are not compensation for bereavement, although we recognise the pain and hardship suffered by widows.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, while I am grateful to my noble friend and, more especially, to John Reid, for the major reversal of policy in setting up a payments scheme, are Ministers aware of the scale of the disaster that has befallen the haemophilia community: that more than 1,000 people with haemophilia have already died from contaminated NHS blood and blood products; that many others are now terminally ill and waiting to die; that the help the scheme proposes is barely one-tenth of what is paid in Ireland; that excluding widows whose lives have been devastated by the disaster, causing them added distress and double despair, is seen as a total disgrace by the Haemophilia Society; that the society insists that there has been no meaningful consultation about these, among other deeply disturbing defects in the scheme, and that such consultation should take place forthwith?

Lord Warner

My Lords, this Question gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to the work done by my noble friend in his tireless efforts on behalf of the Haemophilia Society and the wider haemophilia community to put this item on the agenda. As he rightly says, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made a big gesture towards the concerns of that community, which we all recognise, and the hardship that has followed. It is important to distinguish between the scheme and that in Ireland, where public inquiries and criminal charges affected the basis of the scheme.

There has been strong dialogue with the Haemophilia Society. It has been involved in meetings with Ministers and departmental officials. It has a nominated representative to sit on the group of experts advising on the trigger point for the scheme's second payment and, at its behest, that representation was recently increased. We will continue to consult it fully on development of the scheme.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, is the Minister aware of emerging research evidence suggesting that a modified preparation of Interferon may prove to be an effective treatment for hepatitis C, with the hope that there may ultimately be a means of eliminating the virus? If that is proven, do the Government want such treatment made available under the NHS? Or will they at least promote research into the use of that preparation in treatment?

Lord Warner

My Lords, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence has published guidance on the use of combination therapy for the treatment of hepatitis C. We have provided additional funding and placed statutory obligations on the NHS to implement NICE's recommendations, so that clinical decisions made by doctors involving NICE-recommended treatment or drugs can be funded. I will look into the further points that the noble Lord made, but that is the current position for therapies in that area.

Lord Addington

My Lords, do the Government accept that we have been hearing Questions on this subject for a long time? The impression that many of us have gained from listening to the Answers is that the Government have moved slowly and only when pushed. They seem to have been hiding behind a curtain of legal restriction, and have not been addressing the point that people have died and are dying through no fault of their own, but through government action. Do the Government accept that, in future, quicker action should be taken and that there should not be this ritual dance around legal niceties?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I do not think that we are engaged in a dance around legal niceties. We have been working with the Haemophilia Society and other interests to produce a workable scheme, which has as its basis an initial payment of £20,000, with a further £25,000 if cirrhosis develops or if a claimant has liver cancer or has had a transplant. We are now trying to ensure that we can bring the scheme into operation as quickly as possible—wherever possible, from April this year.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many patients are still alive and how many widows there are now to be considered?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I do not know the precise number of widows. I will look into the matter and write to the noble Lord; but more than 5,000 or 6,000 people may be beneficiaries of the scheme.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that that benefit will be tax free and that people on social security will have a total disregard of that amount?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I am pleased to tell the noble Baroness that, subject to the necessary amendments to social security legislation, the payments will be fully disregarded for the purposes of social security benefits. A similar disregard has been secured for tax assessment.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, are widows being included? If not, what is the philosophy behind the decision to exclude them?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I tried to cover that point in my first Answer. These payments are not compensation for bereavement, although we recognise the pain and hardship suffered by widows. They are payments to alleviate the suffering of people who are living with inadvertent hepatitis C infection.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned the Macfarlane Trust. Am I right in thinking that that fund covers widows? It certainly does not seem obvious that there should be any difference between the Government's proposals and the Macfarlane Trust scale. Secondly, have the Government compared their proposals with the scale available, for example, in Canada, which is much more generous?

Lord Warner

My Lords, the awards that were made in Ireland and in Canada followed public inquiries or criminal charges which established that wrongful practices were employed. The payment structures of those schemes were therefore based on claims for punitive damages. We do not acknowledge any such wrongdoing in England, so it is not fair to make a comparison between those schemes. The Macfarlane Trust will be involved in the administration of this scheme, but there are significant differences. The Government's policy is as I set out in the Answer to my noble friend.