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10.11 am

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) on securing the debate and on the moving content of his speech. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden), who

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did so much during the previous Parliament to call public attention to the number of children who have been casualties of an immunisation programme to which we are all committed and to which we want parents to be committed.

I am vice-chair of the newly formed all-party group on vaccine damage, and I put on record the fact that we are working to put pressure on the Government about promises and obligations that we think rightly fall on them. We have been assisted by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, who, before his elevation to that august post, was an active member of our group.

I shall use the time available to me to detail a particular case in my constituency--that of Matthew Needs. Matthew, and his parents Enid and Ivor, became my constituents as a result of boundary changes following the general election. Before that, they had been the constituents of, in reverse order, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry); Mr. Rob Hayward, who was Conservative Member for Kingswood for a time; and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who at that time was the Member for Bristol, South-East. Mr. and Mrs. Needs have worked with all those Members of Parliament to try to achieve justice for Matthew.

The total sum of compensation available in the statutory scheme is slightly more than two years of the average wage. At the same time, children who have been damaged at birth or who have had a disability, and have been in the fortunate position of being able to prove negligence in civil law, are receiving damages counted in millions because of the cost of care for a lifetime. That is what is involved: a lifetime of care from parents, many of whom are reaching retirement, as my hon. Friends have said.

Matthew was born on 11 June 1975. There were no complications in his birth, and he held up his head at between six and seven weeks, which is quite forward. He sat up at six months, in December 1975. On 16 September 1975, he had his routine three-month check at the local authority children's health clinic. The doctor who saw him, Dr. Joan Boyd, had 43 years experience as a child health doctor by the time of her retirement. She said:

On 8 January 1976, Matthew had his first injection of the vaccine DTP--diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. Pertussis is commonly known as whooping cough. Afterwards, his mother said that he had a prolonged screaming fit, became drowsy and slept for 17 hours. His behaviour was noticeably different when he woke, and he was unable to recognise his mother, which is extraordinary in a child of seven months.

Quite a long way down the road, and after lots of pennies had been put in the legal meter, a medical opinion was sought from two eminent specialists--Dr. F. Clifford Rose of Harley street and the Charing Cross hospital neurology department, and Professor G.T. Stewart of the University of Glasgow. They said:

Mrs. Needs said that he

    "seemed suddenly lifeless and floppy . . . like a rag doll".

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A couple of days later--on or about 10 January--Matthew had brief seizures in which his body became rigid and his eyes stared for a few seconds. Mrs. Needs reported that to the clinic and to her doctor, but she was told that there was no need for concern, but Matthew remained backward and disturbed in the weeks thereafter. Dr. Clifford Rose and Professor Stewart said:

    "We interpret this as a global disturbance of cerebral function which was followed immediately, as the record shows, by severe mental and physical retardation."

At that point, some hearing loss was noticed, and Matthew saw a doctor at a hearing clinic in March. Nevertheless, on 4 March 1976 he had his second injection of the triple vaccine, because Mrs. Needs was told that there was no cause for concern. After that, Matthew had another prolonged screaming fit and the retardation increased.

On 16 March 1976, Matthew had his nine-month check-up with the same doctor, Dr. Boyd, at the children's clinic. She said:

Obviously he was being referred to a consultant because of the inexplicable deterioration in his condition, from being a normal baby at three months to a slow child at eight months.

On 7 May 1976, in Southmead hospital, it was discovered that Matthew was unable to sit unsupported. He later saw Dr. Carpenter at Purdown hospital in Bristol. He had an appointment with a paediatrician, who said that the child's condition was not related to vaccination. That seems to be the sole bit of evidence on which the Department relies in shutting Matthew out of the scheme altogether. My hon. Friends have made the point that the scheme as it stands is inadequate to compensate these children--most of whom are now adults--and their parents, but Matthew's parents have never received a penny because the Department relies on that one written comment from a paediatrician.

On 1 July 1976, despite that catalogue of horrors, Matthew was given his third injection of the vaccine. The consultants to whom I have referred said:

The Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 was passed in the dying days of the 1974-79 Labour Government. For its first 18 years on the statute book, it was the responsibility, and under the discretion of Conservative Secretaries of State. Cases were heard by a vaccine

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damage tribunal. On 10 September 1979, the tribunal turned down Matthew's application. Its judgment says:

    "From the history it appears far more probable that the influenza illness which coincided with the first immunisation caused this child's condition rather than the immunisation."

In particular, it was noted that

    "the second and third immunisations with the same vaccine did not result in any deterioration of the child's condition."

That is a strange point to make. Furthermore, that was the first Mr. and Mrs. Needs had heard of Matthew having had influenza. It looked as though that had been entered on Matthew's medical records by his general practitioner.

Mr. and Mrs. Needs applied for a re-trial based on a mistake as to a material fact, which was that Matthew had suffered influenza at the time of his first vaccination. In October 1979, Dr. Carpenter, who was the consultant psychiatrist at Purdown hospital, said:

In 1980, the vaccine damage tribunal turned Matthew down again, and did not give any reasons. It just said that, on the balance of probabilities, it did not think that his condition was as a result of a vaccination.

A psychological assessment of Matthew in 1981 said:

the doctor was James B. Norman--

    "having seen what milestones he had reached prior to the vaccination, I feel that he is less advanced now than he was prior to the vaccination which to my mind suggests very strongly that the vaccination may well have been the cause of his brain damage."

Since that time, Mr. and Mrs. Needs have been on a legal merry-go-round. They do not have a batch number for the vaccination, because the records have been destroyed. I do not allege any malpractice. Matthew's medical records referred to influenza, but they have now gone, so no one has any evidence that influenza was given as a cause. It is impossible, or at least very difficult, to prove negligence.

The matter has gone backwards and forwards. It has gone to various Secretaries of State. Lord Henley said that the case was out of time. When the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) was the Secretary of State, he turned down an application. In the interval, Mr. and Mrs. Needs have, to my knowledge, spent £5,361 of their own money trying to get justice for Matthew.

Some people have said that there is a question mark over whether vaccine damage exists, despite the 1979 Act. I have a letter from the Minister for Public Health, who referred to the findings of a national childhood encephalopathy study. She said that it

She went on:

    "However, we do know that pertussis itself can cause brain damage."

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In 1976-77, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration reported on the yellow card system. He noted that doctors were not reporting suspect adverse reactions on the yellow card system as rigorously as they should, and that that was a matter of concern. Although there was no statutory requirement for doctors to do so, it was made clear that it was extremely important. The Department had reminded doctors from time to time of the yellow card system to help identify hazards, but the Commissioner felt that it was generally accepted that there was under-reporting.

The report made specific reference to the whooping cough vaccination. It said:

Those are precisely the symptoms that Mrs. Needs described. The report reviewed research from 1961 to 1974, and said that

    "the sudden onset of collapse within 4 hours of immunization and the peculiar screaming attacks following the triple vaccination in the young infant may be attributed to the vaccine with greater confidence as they do not appear to have been observed after other prophylactics given at the same age or in children who have been given no vaccine."

When Mr. and Mrs. Needs came to see me in my advice surgery last year, Matthew came with them. He was very frightened at being in a room with people he did not know, and sought refuge by constantly hugging his mother, as would a baby of seven months who was in a room with strangers. For reassurance, he put out his hand to his mother and said, "Round and round the garden." She had to stop and do "Round and round the garden like a teddy bear" on his palm--he was 22. That reassured Matthew and he beamed, but there was not a dry eye left among the rest of us in the room. This was a man of 22 exhibiting the familiar behaviour of a 7-month-old baby.

I pay tribute to Ivor and Enid Needs for the love and care they have given Matthew and his siblings. I cannot imagine how much patience they have required. I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to make it clear to the Secretary of State that the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 gives him the discretion to make an order to add medical evidence, such as that submitted by many doctors in the case of Matthew Needs, in the absence of proof, such as a batch number or GP's records. If eminent specialists in the field say that the cause of disability is almost certainly vaccination, that should carry equal weight. I do not want to criticise the vaccination programme, but we have a responsibility towards its victims.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), who met me recently to discuss Matthew's case. However, I am not convinced that the Department is taking this matter seriously enough. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take careful note of what I have said and to recognise that young people such as Matthew, and their parents, deserve justice from the Government.

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