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22 Oct 2002 : Column 244—continued


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Food Supplements Directive

10.25 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I rise to present a petition about choice in health food products, signed by about 340 of my constituents, which reads:

To lie upon the Table.

10.26 pm

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): I rise to present a petition in similar terms to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous).

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The petition reads:

That petition was signed by more than 120 people at Herbs, Gardens and Health, a health food store in St. Peter's, near Broadstairs.

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To lie upon the Table.

Air Weapons

10.27 pm

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): I am delighted to be able to present a petition calling for greater regulation of air weapons, which was signed by 272 people from my constituency of Gloucester. The petition

To lie upon the Table.

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22 Oct 2002 : Column 247

Hepatitis C

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Caplin.]

10.28 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): May I thank you personally, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity of introducing this debate, and the Minister for being here to reply.

I would like to bring the Minister's attention to something about which there has already been correspondence with the Department of Health, namely the case of my constituent, Dominique Porché, who suffers from hepatitis C and for whom all avenues of compensation appear to have closed, most unjustly.

Before discussing the circumstances surrounding my constituent's case, I would like to talk about the condition of hepatitis C itself.

The Campaign for Effective and Rational Treatment estimates that there are between 300,000 and 500,000 hepatitis C, or HCV, cases in this country. By way of tribute to the Haemophilia Society, I should add that about 2,800 haemophiliacs also have HCV and the society has produced a well thought-out compensation package for consideration.

I shall outline what we are dealing with medically. Hepatitis C is a disease characterised by inflammation of the liver, usually producing swelling and, in many cases, permanent damage to liver tissue. It is a contagious, viral disease that can lead to serious permanent liver damage. The identification of the specific hepatitis C virus in 1989 solved a mystery: over the previous 10 years, large numbers of hepatitis victims began to appear, but when examined those patients tested negative for both hepatitis A and B. In 1990, when a test was developed to identify individuals infected with a hepatitis variant, hepatitis C was found to be responsible for the majority of cases.

In contrast with most other types of hepatitis, the majority of HCV infections lead to liver disease. Hepatitis C, in combination with hepatitis B, accounts for 75 per cent. of all cases of liver disease throughout the world. As HCV infection is typically mild in its early stages, it is rarely diagnosed and is often not recognised until it has progressed.

The virus mutates frequently. Once an infection has begun, hepatitis C creates different genetic variations of itself within the body. The mutated forms are frequently different enough from their ancestors that the immune system cannot recognise them. Thus, even if the immune system begins to succeed against one variation, the mutant strains can take over and become new predominant strains. As a result, the antibodies developed against hepatitis C do not produce an immunity against the disease, as would be the case with most other viruses.

I turn to the case of my constituent Dominique Porché who, despite his infection, has dealt with his illness in an enormously robust and positive way. I have come to admire his resilience, patience and good humour in adversity.

In 1998, he contracted hepatitis C from blood transfusions given during operations at Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge. In September 1991, routine

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testing for blood transfusions was brought in. It is unclear exactly when the National Blood Authority may have become aware of the likelihood of my constituent's infection. In any event, he was not informed of that possibility for a further five years.

In 1996, he was informed by the National Blood Authority, via his GP, Dr. Bateman, that he had been identified as infected. That flowed from the Department of Health's national hepatitis C look-back exercise. My constituent said:

In a letter from the consultant in transfusion medicine based at the East Anglian blood centre in Cambridge, my constituent was offered assistance to try to understand the implications of his infection. Disgracefully, there was not even an allusion to compensation.

In April 2001, more than 12 years since my constituent underwent surgery, he happened to be watching a television programme and became aware of possible compensation claims. At no stage had he been informed either by Addenbrooke's hospital, the National Blood Authority or any other arm of the national health service of his right to pursue such a claim.

I shall also mention the case of another constituent—Mrs. Angela Woodley of Haverhill. Although her case is different in some respects from that of Dominique Porché, there are similarities in that she contracted the disease at Addenbrooke's hospital from blood transfusions in the 1980s. Mrs. Woodley was receiving treatment for cancer at the time. Her situation represents another tragic story and she is still fighting for compensation. She recently observed to me:

The Minister will of course be aware of section 32(4)(a) of the Consumer Protection Act 1987, which overrides normal provisions concerning the deliberate concealment of facts. That means that even if it were proved that the National Blood Authority knew about the likelihood of infection sometime around 1991, there would be no way of extracting such evidence.

Indeed, in a letter to me dated 25 January, the then Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), detailed the legal underpinnings of the so-called 10-year rule:

In the circumstances surrounding the case of Dominique Porché, the cry has to be, XWhere is natural justice?" There was a clear dereliction of duty on the

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part of different NHS personnel not to tell him his rights. When he brought the matter to my attention, I obviously got into correspondence with both Addenbrooke's hospital and the then Suffolk health authority. In a letter to me dated 8 February 2002, the Administrative Director of Addenbrooke's hospital wrote with almost heroic understatement:

It has been pointed out to me that the Consumer Protection Act 1987 is draconian in respect of limitations of actions. Schedule 1 of the Act introduced section 11A into the Limitation Act 1980. It provides for a 10-year long stop on actions for breach of statutory duty. At the end of 10 years the right of action is extinguished. There is no discretion to disapply the 10-year long-stop rule and no provision for extension in respect of late knowledge of a potential action.

Similarly, in a letter sent to Dominique Porché written at my instigation, the Chief Executive of the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire health authority, Peter Houghton, wrote:

So we have reached a dead end, but it is scandalous that that should be the case. Of course there has to be a time limit on litigation, and of course litigation cannot be open-ended in the pursuit of a compensation claim; but how on earth can an individual know of his rights when no one in authority tells him?

Dominique Porché is a self-employed painter and decorator. He has a young son and his wife is expecting another baby. Obviously, he worries about their future in the event of his condition deteriorating. I personally feel deeply committed to supporting him and to trying to secure him some compensation for the tragedy that has cast such a blanket of anxiety over his life.

Let me tell the Minister that I shall not allow this issue to be pushed under the carpet after this debate. Compensation arrangements have been made in many other countries—Ireland, Spain, Hungary, Sweden, Canada, Italy and Norway, among others. The Minister will note the absence of the United Kingdom from that list.

British citizens are entitled to clean blood, as Mr. Justice Burton ruled in the case of S and others v. the National Blood Transfusion Service and others last year. However, in practice, that right is not recognised in this country, as it does not extend to individuals, such as Dominique Porché, who are also seeking compensation.

In my view, the moral argument is transparently obvious and powerful. I hope that the Minister will accept that Dominique Porché has been treated shabbily and unsympathetically because of inflexibility of the system. That really is not fair; it is simply not good enough.

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