Previous Section Index Home Page

1 July 2009 : Column 120WH—continued

I express my thanks to those airlines that have made their aircraft, their pilots and their management time available to the research effort, especially as they have
1 July 2009 : Column 121WH
done so free of charge. It is no exaggeration to say that without that help the work could not have progressed, as sadly was the case in the USA, where such joint working was not possible. I assure the House that the research is entirely independent of industry. It has been suggested that it was industry-led, but the Government and the taxpayer are paying for it—to the tune of approximately £500,000.

Cranfield university, the project manager, is actively engaged on the cabin air sampling programme, and about 40 of the planned 100 flights have now been tested by scientists on board. Samples are being taken by named individuals, who have received special briefing by Cranfield to ensure a consistent methodology and a secure chain of custody for delivering the samples to the laboratories for analysis. It is likely that this phase of the research will last until the end of the year. The logistics are complex, which is why it cannot be done sooner. Equally, we want to ensure that the work is not open to substantial challenge because procedures and so on were not followed.

We lost some months recently because of internal procurement procedures, but those delays were important in enabling us to test that we were getting value for money in what are obviously tight departmental research budgets. I am pleased to say that those hurdles have been overcome and that the research continues.

The project manager is Professor Helen Muir, an aviation safety expert at Cranfield. The project also has the support of Cranfield Health and two external laboratories. The research design was overseen by a steering group, which includes a number of independent occupational hygiene experts, a British Air Line Pilots Association pilot and the Health Protection Agency. It reports to the aviation health working group, the members of which include trade union representatives, the Air Transport Users Council, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Department of Health and the Health and Safety Executive. It is a robust reporting system. We needed an organisation that was familiar with aircraft and with which airlines would work. That is not what happened in the USA, where airlines did not make aircraft available for air sampling. It is essential, therefore, to have an organisation that can undertake such complex work.

Once completed, the findings will be peer-reviewed, before being published as a whole, and I hope that that will be as soon as is practicable. The Chamber will understand that we are filling a gap in knowledge. Fume events are unpredictable and can last less than a minute. There are no published studies of air sampling during fume events. The only way to resolve the issue is with top-quality science of a standard necessary to encourage aviation regulators to take the action required. I am confident that Cranfield will give us the best scientific picture possible in what happens during a fume event. Any regulatory action required will have to be taken, as far as the EU is concerned, by the European Aviation Safety Agency. Hon. Members will be aware that EASA will not take any regulatory action without sound evidence, which is why it is critical that our pioneering, world-leading research is robust and responsive.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East claimed that the Government are basically doing nothing. I have
1 July 2009 : Column 122WH
already indicated that we are leading the world. The issues are not being ignored, as I hope he will recognise in the light of my comments so far.

Mr. Ellwood: I have a letter from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, which is one of the main engineering associations in the United States of America, and is very influential in writing quality standards that are then adopted by the regulatory authorities. The letter asks Ministers to introduce sensors on to flights. The society, and others in America, have done a lot of work on this matter, so it would be a bit disingenuous to say that we are leading the way. If we were, the report would have been ready for us to discuss today, and we would be talking about actions, rather than about when it will be published. This letter, which I am happy to provide to the Minister, if he has not seen it, requests that sensors to measure toxins be put on to aircraft now.

Paul Clark: The report will do exactly that necessary detailed research, in conjunction with the private airlines with which we are working closely on the monitoring work. We are involving their staff, as well as independent, on-board scientists, in the work that we all want done.

We accepted, and are now acting on, COT’s recommendation for further work to be done. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) referred to COT and raised various other issues. COT arranged for an independent review to be carried out by Professor Morris, who is professor of neuropsychology at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s college hospital. His report said that the association between flying and neuropsychological abnormality

He concluded that the study

Mr. Brazier: I have huge respect for King’s despite my son being a medical student there. COT recommended that a study be done, but that study has been described as being not big enough to give a proper answer. We need a large study so that we can find out whether that link exists.

Paul Clark: There is a need in terms of the scale of requirement. We are working through some of the requested work and have accepted some of the recommendations to which I referred earlier.

I shall address the point about the Boeing 787. Indeed, Boeing has designed a new aircraft with no-bleed air, but it has not withdrawn the older models, such as the 757, or required extra filters to be fitted.

Mr. Ellwood: No one has told it to!

Paul Clark: With due respect—

Mr. Ellwood: No one has legislated!

Dr. William McCrea (in the Chair): Order.

1 July 2009 : Column 123WH

Paul Clark: People working in the industry need regulation, to a certain extent, but I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that Boeing is so irresponsible that it would allow planes to fly that could contaminate passengers, according to his earlier arguments. It would be uncharitable to follow that line in suggesting that regulation is needed to tell it to remove planes that he thinks are “lethal”—his word.

The hon. Member for Lewes asked about a public inquiry. COT, an independent panel, looked into the matter. In 2007-08, the issue was revisited by the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, which urged the Government to complete the air sampling research, which we are doing. I am not convinced that a third public inquiry would take us much further forward.

On non-co-operation with the USA, we have had a number of contacts with the Federal Aviation Administration about a collaborative effort, but the principal effort is UK-led, because, as I have already alluded to, no American airlines are participating in the research funded by the FAA. A further point was made about insect spraying, which is done on planes, especially in hot climates. Complaints are occasionally received from passengers claiming respiratory illness after spraying. Under 2005 international health regulations, the World Health Organisation aims to prevent and control international spread of disease. Insecticides approved by the WHO can be used.

Norman Baker: Does the Minister accept that it is not satisfactory for people not to know what is being sprayed when they get on a plane? Will he undertake to ensure that planes identify what chemicals are used and notify individuals in advance? Will he let me know what they are? When I have asked stewards and stewardesses on planes, they do not know the active ingredients. If he cannot answer now, he can write to me.

Paul Clark: That is covered by WHO provisions, guidance and rules.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Canterbury missed a very good debate in this Chamber yesterday on medical oxygen supplies on airlines. I am pleased to say that a number of UK airlines, such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, are leading in that field by not charging for oxygen supplies. The matter has been raised by, among others, the British Lung Foundation. As I said here yesterday, that will help to raise awareness of the problem. Individuals will take note of provisions made, but further work needs to be done.

The UK is taking steps to help the world aviation industry to deal with this important issue. However, we need to ensure that we have clear evidence before us when doing so.

1 July 2009 : Column 124WH

Archer Inquiry

4 pm

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): I am grateful to have secured this debate about the Archer inquiry into contaminated blood and blood products. I should like to put it on record that I am sincerely grateful to Lord Archer’s team for its informed and reasoned assessment of the situation. Lord Archer himself did not apportion blame. His focus, and mine today, was the treatment of the victims of this appalling tragedy.

Some 1,200 patients were infected with HIV and 4,670 with hepatitis C as a result of NHS treatment in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of those patients were unaware of their infection and went on to infect their husbands and wives as well. So far, some 1,800 members of the haemophiliac community have died. In the past few years, many of the survivors have been told that they may have contracted variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from infected blood products.

Haydn Lewis, a constituent of mine, has been infected with hepatitis B and C and HIV. He also infected his wife with HIV before he was aware of his own status. His brothers, who are also haemophiliacs, are infected as well. Last year, Haydn was informed that he had been exposed to vCJD. Moreover, as a result of his hepatitis C, he developed liver cancer and has recently had a liver transplant. Haydn’s health has suffered massively over the years. He had to give up work early, and his entire family has suffered as a result of his condition. His family is just one of thousands across the country.

Despite the fact that a large number of people have been affected, there has been a desperate lack of public debate on the subject. The last debate in the Commons was in 1990, and the last Westminster Hall debate was nearly 10 years ago. The Department of Health did not even make an oral statement when it responded to Lord Archer’s report. The level of interest in today’s half-hour debate demonstrates the need for a much longer debate in Parliament.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Does the hon. Lady not agree that what is so extraordinary is that the Government do not appear to want to engage with Lord Archer even at this stage?

Jenny Willott: That is a very valid point, and I was about to mention it. Although Lord Winston described the tragedy as

the Government have always argued that a public inquiry would be unjustified and unnecessary. The Archer inquiry was the first public attempt to uncover the truth, but because it was not a statutory inquiry, Lord Archer could not compel witnesses to give evidence and he could not oblige bodies to release documents. The Department of Health even refused to send witnesses to give public evidence to the inquiry.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady agree that whatever the form of the inquiry, what we do not want to do now is launch yet more inquiries or
1 July 2009 : Column 125WH
waste more time? We need direct help from the Government for those who have suffered the most from this terrible tragedy.

Jenny Willott: It is true that we need to move forward and consider providing decent compensation. However, given that more documents have been released since the publication of the report, there is probably a need to hold a further investigation.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): On the need for further work, does the hon. Lady not agree that good as the report was, it was fettered by its focus on the haemophiliac community? For example, one of my constituents, who was treated for the blood disorder idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, is being disadvantaged by that focus.

Jenny Willott: It is true that a number of different groups of patients have been affected. There are also people who have been infected with blood products as a result of blood transfusions. As they are a much smaller group, they often feel that they cannot make their voice heard. A wide range of people has been affected for a number of different reasons.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I must declare an interest because my nephew is a haemophiliac, and he has been infected with hepatitis C. He was forced to carry on taking treatment that was not safe long after the Government knew about the infected blood. The manufactured blood product, recombinant, was available only to those under the age of 16. Any haemophiliac over 16 had to take potentially infected injections. There has been an entrenched resistance by the Government to admit what happened in the past. Now, though, as the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, we must move forward to deal with the issue in an open, frank and honest way, which will give sway to the relatives and change their futures.

Jenny Willott rose—

Dr. William McCrea (in the Chair): Order. Interventions must be brief because the hon. Lady has only a short period in which to speak, and the Minister must respond.

Jenny Willott: Many of the relatives of those who have died feel that there are questions that still need to be answered before they can move on with their lives.

I welcome the release of thousands of documents by the Department of Health. Those documents were initially thought to be lost or destroyed. However, the Department has not played fair with the inquiry team. In response to my parliamentary questions in December 2008 and January 2009, which was about a month before Lord Archer reported, the Department told me that 35 documents were being withheld under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It then released 27 of those documents two months after Lord Archer reported. In May, the same day that the Department responded to the report, 468 more documents were released. They had been identified in late 2008. None of the documents was made available to the inquiry team or mentioned in responses to my
1 July 2009 : Column 126WH
parliamentary questions even though the Department knew about them. Will the Minister clarify whether Lord Archer was aware that so much relevant information had not been released when he reported? Moreover, will she tell us how many documents have still not been released by the Department?

I do not want to apportion blame today. It is more important to talk about the issue of compensation, particularly as we have such a short time in which to debate the subject. The compensation is for victims who are still alive and for the widows and families of those who have died. Lord Archer said that the financial assistance that is currently available is insufficient, and recommended that assistance should be on a par with the existing Irish scheme. The Irish tribunal, which was set up 12 years ago, assesses each case on an individual basis and then sets out an initial lump sum payment and periodic payments thereafter. The main cost in Ireland has been the lump sum payment. Between 1997 and 2007, the tribunal awarded €566 million to 2,666 people, which is an average of £150,000 per person per case. Using the Department’s own figures, a similar scheme in the UK would cost about £50 million a year for the lump sum payments in each of the first 10 years. In the scale of the Department of Health budget, that is entirely affordable. I personally think it is the least the victims deserve.

The Department’s response to doubling the annual payments to those with HIV is extremely welcome, but it is the bare minimum that Lord Archer himself recommended. Just 350 of the 1,200 haemophiliacs and their spouses who were infected with HIV are still alive. The increase in payments to them is only £7 million a year, which, although welcome, is a very small amount of money, and will help only a small number of people.

In contrast, the Department has offered nothing at all to those with hepatitis C. Of the 4,600 people infected with hepatitis C, around 2,500 of them are alive today, so quite a few people are still living with that dreadful condition. The Skipton Fund, which was designed to help them, has paid out £97 million to 4,000 people since 2004, which is the equivalent of just under £5,000 per person per year. That is considerably less than the average benefit claimant receives in a year.

That is just not fair compensation for infecting someone with a virus that causes them huge daily suffering and is ultimately very likely to kill them. The Department of Health has said that it will reassess the scheme in 2014, but that is a very long way away, and we are talking about people with life-threatening conditions. By that time, many more of the affected people will have died after many years of suffering. That is not fair.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): The hon. Lady has been exceptionally generous in taking interventions bearing in mind the shortness of the debate. Does she agree that this is essentially a matter of justice and responsibility? That is why appropriate recognition by the Government of their position is so very important to those who have suffered.

Jenny Willott: Absolutely.

4.10 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Next Section Index Home Page