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9.56 am

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) on raising the matter in the House and on his eloquent and moving speech, in which he put the arguments extremely well. I whole-heartedly support a great deal of what he said. He made a strong case and brought to the attention of the House, and, I hope, of the Government, the needs of families with a child damaged as a result of the vaccination programme.

I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about the importance of that programme. However, one thing that should not come out of the House today is any scare story about the vaccination programme in general. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it has proved an enormous success, leading to a huge reduction in the incidence of diseases, which have almost been eradicated from our country, and a huge reduction in the number of deaths, especially of young children, as a result of those diseases.

Our generation owes the greatest debt of gratitude to the medical services, as we were the first generation to enjoy the full benefits of the vaccination programme. In my very early years the vaccinations were just being introduced. As a result, most of my friends and my generation have not suffered as previous generations did.

It is important that the vaccination programme should continue. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that even the families of children who have suffered as a result of accidents following vaccinations are aware of the need for the programme to continue for the sake of the public. It is inevitable that there have been and always will be one or two children who are damaged as a result of vaccinations. We must take care of them. It is in the best traditions of the hon. Gentleman's party and of mine that in the House we should consider not just the public as a whole, but the individuals who, in one or two cases, may have suffered from what is in the best interests of society at large.

Mr. Llew Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we are speaking not about one or two cases, but about thousands of cases? If he is in any doubt about that, perhaps he should consult some of the solicitors and barristers dealing with those cases.

Mr. Rendel: I apologise if I gave the hon. Gentleman the impression that I was trying to minimise the

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importance of the matter. The number of people damaged by vaccines, as opposed to other causes, is in dispute. The numbers now are small in comparison with the huge numbers being vaccinated in the overall vaccination programme.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): It is not only the numbers that are in dispute, but whether the vaccine is responsible for what has happened in some cases. I attended the same meeting as my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) with the chief medical officer. For every statistic that we could throw up, the chief medical officer threw up a counter-statistic. Does that not tell us that more research is needed, so that we can establish whether and when vaccines are responsible? That would allow the people described by my hon. Friend to be adequately compensated when it is clear that the vaccine caused the damage.

Mr. Rendel: I am sure that we would all welcome more research, but for some families it is already too late--the damage has been done. We should concentrate on what can be done to help the families of people who have already been affected.

Many hon. Members have probably had the opportunity--the privilege--to visit such families, as I have, and will know how severe the effects of vaccine damage can be. Those affected may need direct care for as much as 24 hours a day. Young children who are disruptive as a result of mental disability must be watched for every moment of their lives, because they may be a danger to themselves and others. As the hon. Member for Eccles said, the current programme does not provide enough compensation to enable such people to be looked after properly.

In other cases involving medical accidents, compensation has run into millions of pounds. If we are to retain the system whereby lump sums are provided in compensation for some medical accidents--and I am not sure that it is the right system--such sums must be large enough to give the family a continuing income, so that proper care can be paid for. Compensation should be higher than the £40,000 agreed in the summer.

The hon. Gentleman was also right to point out that there are different degrees of damage. Some people will need more care than others. There is a good case for a sliding scale, and for a reduction in the current highly restrictive requirement for sufferers to be 80 per cent. disabled to receive compensation.

That the 80 per cent. requirement is restrictive was demonstrated last summer, when the Minister told us that the number of cases receiving compensation had fallen to about five a year. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) said that the figures that I had mentioned might be too low in relation to needs. Certainly, compensating a mere five families a year will not require much in terms of public resources.

There has also been a problem in regard to legal aid. I am delighted to learn that in a number of cases that is apparently being resolved, but if we are to continue with the programme as it is now we must consider the needs of families, many of whom, because of their difficulties, have few resources of their own. They should be given a chance to take their cases to court and to obtain compensation.

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We have been told that a review of the whole scheme is under way, but the process seems to be rather slow. The Government are very keen on reviews: they are reviewing all sorts of things, and setting up working parties. Admittedly the issue is difficult, and, as has been said, a number of the medical problems have not been fully resolved. I accept that a review must be proper and thorough, but I hope that the Government will not consider the fact that fairly small numbers are involved to be an excuse for allowing this review to drag on and on. It should be speeded up as much as possible because the issue is critical for those involved, although they form a relatively small proportion of the population.

The Government may wish to consider a no-fault compensation scheme as a way of resolving not only this problem, but other medical problems. It is time that they did so. Many people have special needs as a result of medical damage of some kind, whether or not that damage was a result of negligence on the part of a doctor, and those caring for them experience difficulties in providing for those needs. Surely we should do what we can for them, regardless of the cause of the problem.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): One good reason for the Government to establish such a scheme is the possibility of avoiding endless actions against different health authorities and trusts which must then arrange for administrators and staff to deal with the litigation. A central system tied in with no-fault compensation would hugely reduce administration costs in the national health service, as well as making matters much easier for claimants.

Mr. Rendel: My hon. Friend is right. Sadly, the only people who are likely to benefit from the retention of the current system are the lawyers who, year after year, deal with these lengthy cases in the courts. It would be better for some of the money to be given to the victims of medical accidents. My hon. Friend was also right to mention trusts. A number of trusts are known to be in great difficulty after losing cases that they expected to win, and being stung for large amounts of compensation.

I ask the Minister to respond to the points that I have made, and to tell us whether he is considering a no-fault compensation scheme. I feel that that must be the answer in the end, and I hope that that end will come sooner than seems likely at present.

10.7 am

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) on securing the debate, and apologise to him, and to my hon. Friend the Minister, for the fact that I shall be unable to stay until the end.

I have been interested in vaccine damage for some time. In the last Parliament, I introduced a ten-minute Bill and tabled an early-day motion on the subject. Significantly, the early-day motion secured more than 200 signatures from hon. Members on both sides of the House, which demonstrates the strength of feeling in all parties.

My involvement, like that of many other hon. Members, began as a result of a constituency case. I pay tribute to Mrs. Olivia Price, and to all the other parents of vaccine-damaged children who have worked so hard over the years and have shown such resilience in campaigning for justice.

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"Vaccine-damaged children" is, in a sense, a misnomer. As my hon. Friend pointed out, we are now dealing mainly with vaccine-damaged adults. That certainly applies to the cases approved under the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979. The parents of those concerned are getting on in years, and the time has come for us to address the issue. Indeed, such action may be overdue.

The position was clear back in 1978. The Pearson commission recommended a weekly disability benefit for all severely disabled children,

It went on to say that

    "the Government or local authority concerned should be strictly liable in tort for severe damages suffered by anyone (adult or child) as a result of vaccination which has been recommended in the interests of the community".

That, surely, is the key issue. The vaccination programme, which I support, is a public health measure. Vastly more children have benefited from it than have suffered. Given that it is a public health measure, however--a measure promoted by the public for public health reasons--and given that there will always be a small number of children who are adversely affected by vaccines, we, as a community, have an obligation to look after them and their families. That is all that parents have been saying for all these years. The obligation is important not just in terms of justice for those families, but in terms of the credibility of the vaccination programme.

There are legitimate arguments about the MMR--measles, mumps and rubella--vaccine and other issues, on both sides. I am a supporter of vaccination, but, in all seriousness, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that until we sort out the issue of compensation for the small number of families who have been affected, those two matters will continue to get mixed up. The credibility of the vaccination programme will suffer as a result of the issue of compensation not being adequately addressed.

Although I accept in many ways what the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) said about the need to examine an overall no-fault compensation scheme, we should not leave the addressing of the issue of compensation until we tackle those broader questions. This has gone on for too long already, and there are some fairly simple things that can and should be done. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles said, the level of compensation should be dramatically increased for all those affected. That is a vital component.

Secondly, we should remove the 80 per cent. rule, which has unjustly ruled out too many families. Thirdly, we should do something about the six-year rule, which has had a corrosive effect. That would not cost a great deal of money. The parents deserve it, and we as a community have an obligation to the families involved and to the credibility of the vaccination programme.

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