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House of Commons

Wednesday 2 December 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair

Vaccine Damage (Compensation)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

9.33 am

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles): I am delighted, after several unsuccessful attempts in the ballot, to have secured this debate today. This matter was last debated in the House in April 1996, when my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) presented a Bill to review and amend the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979. He has given much commitment and hard work to the cause and he hopes to attend the debate later. I pay tribute also to the campaigning work done by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General before his elevation to the Government.

My particular interest in the issue results from my meeting two constituents, Brendan Hanlon and Gary Hunt, whose lives and those of their families have been blighted by vaccine damage. Gary Hunt, who is 30, is profoundly mentally and physically handicapped and needs 24-hour care seven days a week, 365 days a year. He is wheelchair bound, cannot feed himself, is blind and epileptic, still wears nappies because he is doubly incontinent and, to top it all, cannot speak. Three days a week he attends the Links day care centre in Salford.

Brendan Hanlon, who is 37, has an academic age of a child under two. He suffers from unpredictable and severe epileptic fits, which frequently lead to physical injury. Only yesterday, his mother and sister took him to hospital for treatment for an ankle injury. Brendan must be accompanied outside by two people at all times, which considerably restricts his life style. He attends Craig Hall day care centre at Irlam in Eccles most weekdays, fits permitting.

We commonly talk about vaccine-damaged children, although, like my constituents, victims of vaccine damage are often well past the age of majority. Those children and adults have a spectrum of needs. They and their families are all different and try to cope in their own, unique way. Some children live at home and some are in residential accommodation. Some families rely on respite care and others rely on the extended family to give that support. All families want the greatest degree of independence and choice. I want fair and comprehensive compensation for my disabled constituents and their parents.

Following a parliamentary lobby in May, a cross-party group for vaccine-damaged children was formed by Members of Parliament. The group's aims are to assist parents and children in obtaining fair

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compensation and to further the reform of the vaccine damage payments system. Officers of the group had a meeting with the Minister of State, Department of Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) last month to press the case for additional compensation. We told him that we hoped that the parliamentary group would be the shortest lived ever. The time has come for a just and adequate settlement for damaged people and their families.

This week I met two parents' groups--the Association of Parents of Vaccine Damaged Children and the Vaccine Victims Support Group--to discuss and agree on the components of a fair and adequate compensation scheme. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that he arranges a meeting with them in the near future to hear their proposals.

I make it clear from the outset that the parents of those children and adults and the cross-party group for vaccine-damaged children are 100 per cent. behind a public vaccination programme. We are discussing today what responsibility the Government have adequately to compensate people when accidents occur.

Earlier this year I attended a briefing for Back-Bench Members on the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. The Minister for Public Health and the recently retired chief public health officer, Sir Kenneth Calman, were present. Sir Kenneth made the point that politicians will always have to make hard decisions about any proposed Government vaccination programme in the full knowledge that there will always be accidents. I put it to him that if politicians make those hard decisions in the light of the wider public interest, it is surely politically, socially and morally right that before implementing the decisions, a system of adequate compensation for accident victims should be devised, and that funding should be shouldered jointly by the Government and the pharmaceutical industry. He replied simply, "Yes, I agree with you."

I am not here today to debate whether, or to what extent, vaccination is responsible for my constituents' disabilities. I know that the recent attempt to reopen that debate in a prominent Sunday newspaper has been very painful for parents. In my opinion, the Government accepted responsibility for vaccine victims with the 1979 Act and the scheme that was established a couple of years earlier. Successive Governments have honoured that responsibility--albeit inadequately--by periodically uprating the payment. The £10,000 payment of 1979 was increased to £20,000 in 1985, to £30,000 in 1991 and to £40,000 this year for new cases.

I shall focus on people damaged by the diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough vaccination--DTP--and on the level of financial help given, although I shall mention the six-year time limit for claiming payments and the 80 per cent. disability threshold currently in operation. Other hon. Members may wish to speak about these issues and their concerns about the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

In the early 1970s, parents of vaccine-damaged children argued for compensation on the ground that they were encouraged to have their children vaccinated as much for public health reasons as for the interests of the individual child. The then Labour Government established a royal commission on civil liability and compensation for

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personal injury, known popularly as the Pearson commission. It reported in March 1978. Recommendation 158 concluded that there was

    "a special case for paying tort compensation for vaccine damage, where vaccination is recommended by the state and is undertaken to protect the community."

The 1974-79 Labour Government, keen to ensure an early measure of help, introduced the 1979 Act. The then Health Secretary, the late Lord Ennals, said that the payment would not

    "pre-empt decisions which the Government still have to take"

on the Pearson recommendations. Answering a Member who expressed great dismay that the payment was so small, he said:

    "This is not saying, 'This is the end. We are wiping the slate clean'. This is some way in which we can help these people now".--[Official Report, 9 May 1979; Vol. 949, c. 977-80.]

However, when the Conservative Government took office in 1979, parents were told that the £10,000 was a full and final payment.

The value of the scheme has deteriorated considerably between upratings. In 1984-85, the real value of the £10,000 was about £5,600. In 1985, the payment was increased to £20,000. Upratings have been irregular; families waited until 1991 for another increase, and a further seven years for the latest increase.

Many Members of Parliament, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield, tried hard to persuade the previous Conservative Government to improve the level and scope of compensation. Their entreaties fell on deaf ears. I am glad that now several Conservative Members feel that they can support the case for adequate compensation and a review of the criteria laid down in the 1979 Act.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Does my hon. Friend accept that although the Government have set up a vaccine damage unit in Blackpool--in recognition of the fact that things can go wrong and that people should be compensated--in the case of some vaccinations, such as the triple MMR and also just measles and rubella, the Government refuse to believe that there might be a link between vaccination and damage to a child? Does my hon. Friend also accept that it is difficult to prove that the vaccination led to the damage, even when a perfectly healthy child who has never had a day's illness becomes seriously ill within minutes of vaccination? Is it his opinion that the Government should introduce a scheme whereby, instead of its being the parents' responsibility to prove that the child was damaged by the vaccination, it is the responsibility of the Government and the pharmaceutical industry to prove that the child was not damaged by that vaccination?

Mr. Stewart: Yes, I accept the validity of some of the points made by my hon. Friend. However, today I shall focus wholly on the DTP and the 1979 Act.

In April 1996, an early-day motion was tabled calling for comprehensive improvements to the 1979 Act. The motion attracted about 300 signatories, including 26 Labour Members who are now Ministers and several more who are now Whips. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson),

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my right hon. Friends the Members for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Ms Jowell) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms). My call for improved compensation therefore has supporters at the Department of Health and the Department of Social Security and--perhaps most important--I believe that it has friends at the Treasury.

On 23 June 1998, my hon. Friend the Minister told the First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation:

That acknowledgment of preference tells me that the Government have reviewed the evidence, identified vaccine damage victims as a special case and given some special support. However, I am afraid that I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Minister when he says that the preference is substantial. I believe that it is neither substantial nor remotely adequate.

My hon. Friend told the Committee that United Kingdom vaccination programmes had been very successful. We all agree. He said that, between 1951 and 1955, there were 627,033 cases of whooping cough in England and Wales, resulting in 1,103 deaths. Between 1991 and 1995, when vaccine coverage rates reached 94 per cent., there were only 1,873 reported cases and, thankfully, only five deaths. My hon. Friend said:

Essentially, we are arguing about what is the right measure. The £10,000 received by Brendan Hanlon is an inadequate measure. Even the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) said that the figure was missing a nought or even more. It would have helped if the Conservative Government had shown the compassion and responsibility that some individual Conservative Members are now showing. If all the children who received the original £10,000 were to receive £100,000, it would cost only £79.5 million; and we all know of recent medical compensation cases in which payments of £1 million or more have been awarded to individuals.

As of June 1998, 890 payments had been made under the 1979 Act and the scheme which briefly pre-dated it. That is from a total of 3,999 claims--a success rate of just 22 per cent. The vast majority of payments--some 795 of the 890--have been at the £10,000 level. I believe that the low success rate is related to the highly restrictive 80 per cent. rule. Parents find it hard to accept that a child can have a considerable disability yet get no compensation. The 1979 Act also includes a six-year time limit on the period during which claims must be made. That disadvantages parents who might not have access to full information about the scheme. It might be well publicised now, but that has not always been the case.

It could and can take time for parents to become aware of the cause of their child's injury, and it can take many more months or even years before the necessary medical information is compiled. Up to 31 March 1995, 210 claims fell foul of the six-year rule. I am today calling for a review of the limitation on actions to relax those restrictions.

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The Government must not hide behind the mantra that additional compensation is for the courts to decide, and my hon. Friend the Minister cannot continue to say that legal aid is not a matter for him. The Government are committed to a policy of co-ordination--joined-up thinking, as it is now routinely called.

Litigation is a dead duck for most parents, although I was delighted that on 17 November the Legal Aid Board allowed 16 families the right to re-apply for legal aid certificates to fight cases on behalf of their children where medical negligence is alleged. My constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Hanlon, had their legal aid certificate withdrawn in 1994 after 13 years. They are among the 16 families who can now re-apply for a certificate. Mr. and Mrs. Hanlon are 74 and 78 years old respectively, and they are tired of getting on and off the legal merry-go-round.

For many parents, the courts offer no solution. The relevant documents are missing, and vaccine batch numbers are lost, destroyed or missing. The Government's proposed changes to the qualifying criteria for legal aid may make such cases even more difficult to pursue. It has been argued that the conditional fee agreement that the Government are recommending would be particularly difficult in medical liability cases.

Victims of vaccine damage and their parents are looking to the Government to provide a decent and adequate compensation scheme. I know that various proposals have been advanced. One suggestion is for a substantial lump sum. Other proposals are for the payment of a severe disability pension like that paid for industrial or war injuries. Both suggestions may be appropriate. It is also time to revisit the Pearson report, which gave the issue a thorough investigation. I do not want to be too prescriptive, but the parents of vaccine-damaged children and I are looking to the Government to present some realistic options that will move the matter forward quickly.

A new or revised scheme should acknowledge five principles. First, it should recognise the need for a lump-sum payment which takes account of the wide spectrum of need among vaccine damage victims and the variety of suitable care provisions, ranging from full-time home care to full-time residential care. Families should have the financial wherewithal to make choices about the best care for their child now and in the future.

Secondly, it should be acknowledged that the longest suffering children and families have had the most expense and the least help. Any proposed settlement should recognise that. Thirdly, it must be accepted that in any vaccine programme, even in the future, inevitably there will be a small number of accidents. Therefore, an adequate and fair system of benefits and/or pensions should be established. Fourthly, the funding of such compensation should be the joint responsibility of Government and the pharmaceutical industry. Fifthly, the 80 per cent. and six-year criteria should be relaxed.

Since the early 1970s, parents have done all the right things. They have lobbied, they have tried litigation, they have persuaded sympathetic Members of Parliament to raise the matter, they have had an early-day motion tabled and they have lobbied Ministers, most recently in May this year at the House of Commons. I know that for many families it was a great struggle to get here, and that it was expensive for those who came from far-flung parts of the United Kingdom. They did so despite having to attend to

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the constant needs of severely disabled children and adults. Now they want action. They want their sons and daughters' futures to be secured and they want an end to almost three decades of fighting for justice.

To my mind, the parents and sisters of Brendan Hanlon spoke for all the families and all the damaged children when they wrote:

Mr. and Mrs. Hanlon, who are in their 70s, want to ensure that during their lifetime they have secured and provided for the future care of their child. In that sense they are no different from all the other parents who have mature vaccine-damaged children. They know that they are stoic. They have been told that they are heroes, and undoubtedly they are, but time is running out. They want justice and concrete proposals for proper compensation now. I am confident that my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government will meet that challenge.

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