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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 Statutory Sum Order 2000

Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 18 July 2000

[Mr. John Butterfill in the Chair]

Draft Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 Statutory Sum Order 2000

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 Statutory Sum Order 2000.

Hon. Members will recall that in his statement about vaccine damage payments on 27 June my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security said that the Government hoped that the new payment of £100,000 would be in place before the summer recess. We have acted quickly to bring the order before the House, and it was debated in another place yesterday. There will thus be the minimum of delay before the new rate becomes effective.

The order will increase payments made under section 1 of the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 to £100,000 for claims made on or after the date when the order comes into force. The change introduced by the order and the other proposed changes that were announced do not represent any change in the Government's judgment about the safety of vaccination. They simply reflect our view that it is right and proper that a more generous regime be introduced.

Some hon. Members may think that we have not gone far enough, and that we might have done more, but the changes that we propose, of which this is the first, represent a substantial improvement in the way in which we intend to provide for those who find themselves in that unfortunate situation. The Government will increase the rate of the one-off payment that we inherited by £70,000—a significant increase. The new payment introduced by the order has been described as being less than a king's ransom. That may be true, but it is also far removed from the previous increases, which merely reflected increases in the retail prices index.

In addition to considering the level of the payment, we have listened to the concerns of parents who received £10,000 in the early days of the scheme—as long as 20 years ago. They have struggled daily, under very difficult circumstances, investing time and effort in providing care and support, both financial and emotional, for their often grievously disabled children. If we had done nothing, they would have been treated much less generously than those who claim after the order comes into force. That would have been not only unfair but unjust. We therefore decided that it would be right, in that unusual circumstance, to make top-up payments to bring past recipients up to a real-terms equivalent of the new £100,000 rate, thus putting them on the same footing as new claimants.

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

After my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's statement, it was asked whether a nominated office would have the task of dealing with parents' queries. The vaccine damage payments unit of the Benefits Agency office in Preston will deal with all such cases. It is a small unit, but additional resources have been allocated to it to ensure the efficient conduct of the exercise. That is the office to which all queries should be addressed. It can be contacted by post, telephone, fax or e-mail, and its address and the relevant numbers are known to the various parents' groups. We shall make that information more generally known, and I will happily provide it to hon. Members.

Once Parliament has approved the order, those recipients who had received £10,000 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. That represents an additional £60 million for the most severely disabled, which is a significant sum. The payments will be treated in the same way as the original payments for the purpose of income-related benefits. If they are placed in trusts, they will not disentitle recipients to those benefits.

We have thought also about families whose vaccine-damaged children have died since the original payment was made and who have also devoted time and effort to the care of their child before his or her unfortunate death. They, too, have made sacrifices, financial and otherwise, along the way. We believe that it would be unfair to exclude such families from the arrangements, so top-up payments will also be made to them. We intend to introduce legislation to amend the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 to change the time limits for claiming and the disability threshold. As such amendments require primary legislation, it will have to occur over a longer time scale. However, this is not an issue that we are prepared to leave lie and we will take action to bring about those changes at the earliest opportunity.

The main provisions of the proposed legislation would introduce a more generous time limit for claiming in order to allow affected children to submit a claim up to any time before their 21st birthday and to reduce the disability threshold from 80 per cent. to 60 per cent. We intend also to introduce an element of retrospection, to ensure that people who made claims that were rejected under the old provisions but which would have succeeded under the new rules will be given the opportunity to have their claim considered afresh. The retrospection will apply both to the time limits and to the disability threshold. In response to the questions that followed his statement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that he wanted to avoid circumstances in which someone who would qualify under the new rules was barred because of the old ones. The proposal is welcome and equitable to those who have been previously disallowed. It will be welcomed also by hon. Members, who will appreciate how unusual it is for retrospection to be applied in such matters.

The vaccine damage payment scheme has never pretended to address all the financial implications of disablement for those affected by vaccines. At the risk of repetition, I remind the Committee that it was designed only to ease the burdens of people suffering vaccine damage and their families. The changes that we propose will increase our support and provide further help with those burdens. We have also been considering improving provision for all people with severe disabilities. We have had regard to the range of benefits and support that is available to severely disabled people, however their condition was caused. From next year, we are introducing a disability income guarantee and making changes to the mobility component of disability living allowance and to incapacity benefit. Those changes can equally benefit vaccine-damaged children and adults.

Hon. Members from all parties welcomed the changes to vaccine damage payments that were announced on 27 June. Some questions of detail may arise when we introduce primary legislation, but for the moment we are concerned with the important first link in the chain: the introduction of a new £100,000 payment with which the order is exclusively concerned and from which the other changes will flow. I commend the order to the Committee.

4.38 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): On behalf of my colleagues, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Butterfill. I begin by conveying to the Committee the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), who is unable to participate in our proceedings as he is nursing his wife, who is recovering from an eye operation that was carried out at the weekend. I convey also the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford), who sent me notice that he has had to go to hospital today, also for an eye problem. Finally, I welcome the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who is probably attending his first sitting of a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation. I am sure that he will find it interesting, although I do not know whether all such sittings will be the highlight of his parliamentary year. I notice that he took his seat immediately after the Secretary of State's statement on the vaccine damage scheme on 27 June.

Conservative Members welcome today's measures. We would like to pay tribute to the parents, the carers and those affected by the damage caused by vaccines. We recognise, as does the Minister, that the sums and the various measures that we are talking about today go only a small part of the way to easing their problems. We should say also that, although we are discussing distressing cases, we still very much endorse the vaccination programme. Looking around, I can see many members of the Committee of a similar age to me who will have young children. When the question of vaccination occurs, there is trepidation on hearing of such cases. On balance, we know that the vaccination programme should be endorsed.

We welcome the order, which will generally increase the payments from £40,000 to £100,000; the Minister has explained the intricacies. I do not claim to be a great expert on the matter, having been thrust into this position at rather a late hour. Are the payments inflation-linked? If so, which inflation figures might be used; those that the Government used for upgrading pensions or those used for increasing duty on fuel? If there is no inflation link—I am sure that the Minister will tell me if there is not—is there a time scale for looking at the payments again?

As the Minister said, the measure was part of a Government announcement made by the Secretary of State on 27 June. Two other key points require primary legislation; the reduction of the 80 per cent. disability threshold to 60 per cent. and the opportunity for claims to be made with regard to people up to the age of 21. The Minister acknowledged that fact. Will he give the Committee a firm idea of the time scale for introducing those key measures? Further, have the Government completely ruled out the possibility of having a sliding scale of disability and the abolition of all time limits for making a claim?

Today's measures are a welcome and significant improvement to the vaccine damage payment scheme and Conservative Members welcome them.

4.42 pm

 
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