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1 July 2009 : Column 127WH
4.25 pm

On resuming—

Dr. William McCrea (in the Chair): I call Jenny Willott to continue the debate, which may carry on until 4.45 pm.

Jenny Willott: We were speaking about the treatment of people with hepatitis C and how it differs from that of those who have contracted HIV. I would be grateful if the Minister told us why people with hepatitis C are treated differently from those with HIV—both conditions are debilitating and life-threatening and have caused severe financial hardship for those affected.

This tragedy has already produced hundreds of widows and widowers. They do not receive any financial support after the death of their partner. Furthermore, it is almost impossible for anyone with HIV or hepatitis C to get affordable life insurance. My constituent, Haydn Lewis, recently got a quote for basic life insurance cover, which had a premium of more than £6,000. That is completely unaffordable for someone who is dependent on benefits and Macfarlane Trust payouts. Lord Archer has said that the issue needs to be tackled, but unfortunately, the Department’s response was that insurers do not discriminate against infected haemophiliacs, and that premiums are based on risk assessment. To me, that is both patronising and inadequate. No one is claiming that insurers discriminate against infected haemophiliacs, and of course premiums are based on risk. However, it is because the NHS infected those people with life-threatening viruses that they pose such a high insurance risk and are therefore charged unaffordable insurance premiums. All the recently announced extra funding for HIV sufferers will be swallowed up in life insurance costs, and the Government are proposing nothing to help those with hepatitis C.

The tragedy has affected a number of different countries around the world, yet the British Government’s behaviour is different from that of other Governments. I have already spoken about the Irish tribunal, and in Ireland the Government decided to provide

Despite Government protestations, there is no difference between Irish and UK circumstances. Neither state has been found liable for the infection of haemophiliacs, but the Irish Government have recognised their duty to support those whose health was ruined by treatment under the national health system.

Almost every MP has a constituent who is affected by this issue or who has died from their infections. We can see the level of interest from the number of MPs who have turned up to the debate. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), who are elsewhere today, have both been involved with constituents on this matter. During the last debate on the subject in the House in 1990, the late Robin Cook said that this was not a party political issue, but an issue of conscience and of justice.

Early-day motion 963 calling for full implementation of the Archer inquiry already has 184 signatures from hon. Members across all parties. This issue has been going on for decades and has taken the lives of more
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than 1,800 people. Now is the time to draw a line under it once and for all. I would be grateful if the Minister let me know whether she will meet me and a small cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament, together with representatives of the Haemophilia Society and a couple of patients, to discuss how we can finally move forward and ensure that the Archer inquiry is put into practice.

4.29 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Gillian Merron): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to her and others, including parliamentary colleagues, who work to support those who have acquired infections through treatment with blood or blood products.

I am deeply sorry for what happened and have the utmost sympathy for those whose lives have been affected by it either directly or indirectly. Parliament has debated the matter in both the Commons and the other place, and Lord Archer and his team conducted a thorough and valuable review. I thank Lord Archer for his report.

We can all agree that the circumstances are tragic. How could a revolutionary new treatment for haemophilia that offered so much hope at the time—the early 1970s—end in so much tragedy for so many? Almost 5,000 people in the UK and thousands more around the world were infected with hepatitis C and HIV, resulting in the loss of many lives.

Before the treatment became available, the life expectancy of someone with severe haemophilia was less than 30 years. Although there were warning voices at the time about the risk from infection, the consensus in both the scientific and haemophilia communities was that the risk was low and worth taking. Unfortunately, we know now that that consensus was wrong. The best available treatment at the time, a treatment intended solely to improve length and quality of life, resulted instead in heartbreak for many people and their families. The risks were higher than was thought, and the pain and grief caused can never be undone.

If doctors and medical experts had known then what they know now, the tragedy could have been prevented, but the fact is that they did not. Successive Governments have been accused of trying to hide what was said and done during the period when most of the infections occurred, but this Government have done more than any other to make information available about the events, judgments and decisions between 1970 and 1985, after which safer blood products were introduced. In line with the Freedom of Information Act 2000, we have made more than 5,500 documents publicly available. In examining all those documents, which span decades, neither we nor Lord Archer and his team found any evidence of a cover-up.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central asked about co-operation with Lord Archer’s inquiry. I will say straight off that there is nothing to hide.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I thank the Minister. I apologise for not being here for all of the debate; I mistimed the vote. As she is so committed to full disclosure, can the issue be debated on the Floor of the House? There are many lessons to be learned, and many people to be convinced that the matter is being dealt with openly and fully.

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Gillian Merron: Obviously, that is a matter for the usual channels. I am sure that the hon. Lady will raise the issue at business questions. I would be happy to reply and debate it as required.

We know that there is a misconception that the Department somehow did not co-operate fully with Lord Archer’s inquiry. That is not true. Lord Archer asked for someone from the Department of Health to meet him, and officials did so on several occasions, but he did not invite Ministers to attend or participate in his inquiry. More than 5,000 documents released in prior years were available to him. The most recently released, it appears, did not add materially to what was already known, but I am happy to write to the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central setting out precisely which documents were made available to Lord Archer.

Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): One issue troubling some constituents of mine—the parents of Colin, who tragically died aged seven—is what consultation took place with those affected between the publication of the Archer report and the Government’s response. There is tangible concern that the community affected was not spoken to before the Government’s response.

Gillian Merron: There has been consultation and discussion. The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central asked me about a meeting. As always, I am happy to meet, but the requirement on the Government was to make a response to Lord Archer. We have done so, and it has been published widely.

Several hon. Members rose

Gillian Merron: I give way to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt).

Alistair Burt: I am grateful. May I press the Minister a little further on the relationship with the Archer inquiry? Surely, knowing that the inquiry was going on, the Department could have been proactive in offering help and assistance, rather than relying on the fact that it did not receive a formal invitation to take part. It could have been more constructive, and have involved more documentation in the inquiry, had it done so.

Gillian Merron: I can assure Members that, to the best of my knowledge, all co-operation has been made available. As I have stated, Lord Archer has made no suggestion of a cover-up. We have given him full co-operation. On the matter of being proactive, we met the inquiry team several times.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, as I appreciate that she wants to make progress. The response said that the Government would review the situation in 2014. That seems a long time away, particularly for my constituents and indeed everyone else’s. Why was that date chosen? It feels very much as though the issue is being kicked into the long grass, when for many people involved, the financial concerns are immediate.

Gillian Merron: I am happy to come to that, but the simple answer is that it is in order to allow the scheme to be operational for 10 years, so that the issue can be assessed in full. There is no intention to kick anything into the long grass; indeed, it is not possible to do so.

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On the point raised earlier about the supposed withholding of documents, I can assure Members that no documents are being withheld on either policy or commercial grounds. The Department has now released all of them. Only five documents from the period 1970 to 1985 are being withheld under a freedom of information exemption, on the basis that they contain personal information.

I understand the sense of grievance and anger and the need to find out what happened and why. I also understand the feeling that someone somewhere must be to blame for what happened, whether individually or collectively. I know that for some, whatever action is taken will be too little and too late. I can assure Members that we have demonstrated our commitment to those affected and responded positively to Lord Archer’s report, to which I will come.

We continue to work to provide ever safer blood and blood products, and we are committed to helping everyone infected through contaminated blood transfusions by giving them the high-quality treatment, care and information they need to help them look after their health. We continue to provide financial relief for those infected through treatment so many years ago.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Gillian Merron: I am happy to do so, but this will be the last time.

Dr. Iddon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. When I compared the Irish situation with the UK situation in the House the other day, she said:

However, will she admit today that the Irish paid out without liability and before any tribunal had met to discuss the position? In addition, Crown immunity applied to the health services in Britain at that time.

Gillian Merron: I stand by the points that I made. Furthermore, a judicial inquiry in Ireland found failures of responsibility by the Irish blood transfusion service and concluded that wrongful acts had been committed. As a result, the Government of the Republic of Ireland decided to make significant payments to those affected. As I will explain, that was not the case with the blood transfusion service here.

Lord Archer made a number of recommendations, and we have published our response to them. I will mention some of the main ones. For example, he recommended that those infected should be issued with cards to entitle them to benefits not freely available under the NHS, including free prescriptions. Last year, we announced our intention to phase out prescription charges in England for patients with long-term conditions. Professor Ian Gilmore chairs an independent review that is considering how that might be done. We will consider whether further action is required to implement Lord Archer’s recommendation following the Gilmore review.

Lord Archer also recommended that Government should provide funding urgently to the Haemophilia Society. We have agreed to provide £100,000 this year
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and for each of the next four years on top of any project funding that the society receives from the Department of Health. Lord Archer also recommended that further efforts be made to identify people who may be unaware that they have been infected through their treatment with blood products. We agree with that and will provide funding for the haemophilia doctors organisation to identify any such patients.

I turn to the recommendations on financial relief, our responses to which have come under the closest scrutiny. In the UK, such payments are not compensation but ex gratia payments. That is an important distinction. Lord Archer made recommendations on the payments and made comparisons with Ireland. However, it is important to restate that the position in Ireland is very different. The independent inquiry in Ireland found the transfusion service to be at fault because it had not followed its own official guidelines on protecting the blood supply from contamination. That is not the case in the UK. Comparable levels of payment are therefore not appropriate.

I understand that there can always be a debate over the adequacy and fairness of payments. So far, more than £45 million has been paid out through the two long-standing financial relief schemes for those affected by HIV. The Macfarlane Trust was established in 1988 and the Eileen Trust in 1991. This is the first occasion on which the structure of their payments has been reviewed. We are increasing the payments to those infected with HIV and will provide them with a flat-rate, tax-free payment of £12,800 per year. That amount is disregarded for benefits, which are payable on top. That change removes the need for people to make repeated applications for funds, and addresses Lord Archer’s recommendation that payment to those who are infected should not be means-tested. We will also increase funding
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to the trusts to allow them to make higher payments to widows and dependants, although the level of payment will remain at the discretion of the trustees.

Turning to payments to those infected with hepatitis C, the Skipton fund has to date paid out nearly £100 million. In answer to why the review will be in 2014, in my view the fund is relatively young, as it has been running for only five years. I assure Members that I view the 2014 review with importance.

For all pre-existing conditions, insurability and the level of premium are determined through the assessment of individual risk. Lord Archer suggested that patients be given greater access to insurance, perhaps through payments. The Government’s view is that it is the individual’s choice how they spend the payments they receive. We have published our final response to Lord Archer’s recommendations and are working to implement our commitments as soon as we can.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central also raised the issue of access to insurance through insurers. The Association of British Insurers has assured us that insurers do not treat haemophiliacs or those infected with HIV or hepatitis C differently from people with other pre-existing conditions. In practice, all pre-existing conditions must be declared and are usually subject to additional premium loading. In some cases, insurance is unavailable. If there are any further matters on insurers, I would be happy to raise them with other Ministers.

In closing, I realise that the Government’s response will not satisfy everybody. We are dealing with an extremely difficult situation, which none of us would have chosen. I hope I have confirmed that there has been openness and transparency in the Government’s response and that we have sought to do the best we can in this situation.

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Energy Security and Nuclear Non-Proliferation

4.44 pm

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): This is an important debate. I am pleased that somebody with such a keen intellect as yours, Dr. McCrea, is presiding over it because it requires such a tenor of adjudication. I am pleased to welcome the Minister to his new role. I know that he will bring his own brand of intellectual rigour, diligence and enthusiasm to the post, which he displayed as an able Back-Bench colleague.

The Minister and I have just left a debate on the Parliamentary Standards Bill. As constitutionally important as that Bill is, it is my conviction that the issues before us in this debate are more important than those being discussed in the main Chamber. The Minister holds an important post in what is perhaps the most important Department. There is no more important issue facing this country and the world than climate change. It is widely recognised by left-wing and right-wing Governments around the world that this country—and by definition this Government and this Department—is leading the international response to the threat of climate change.

Energy policy is the engine of our policy response in this field and is at the heart of the Government’s new industrial policy. Energy policy is one of the most pressing issues facing this country. Energy security and nuclear non-proliferation are at the centre of the issues we are discussing. I will outline the importance of energy security, the pressing requirement on us and other developed nations to formulate a solution to the threat of nuclear proliferation, the policy solutions that I believe the Government should pursue without delay, and the associated benefits of those solutions. We must recognise the reality of the situation and the opportunities presented by it.

The Sellafield nuclear facility in my constituency is the largest concentration of nuclear engineering skills, abilities and facilities in our country. The site is home to highly advanced facilities such as the Sellafield mixel oxide plant—SMP—and the thermal oxide reprocessing plant, or THORP. It is also home to tens of thousands of tonnes of uranium oxide and more than 100 tonnes of plutonium oxide.

I should declare an interest in Sellafield. Although I have no direct financial interest, I am a former employee of the plant. Its importance to my constituency is such that I should declare about 17,000 individual interests.

The Government’s policy in this area is right and I believe that we should go much further. Put simply, THORP reprocesses spent nuclear fuel from the UK, Japan and other countries. Reprocessing results in the separation of the unused uranium and plutonium from a spent fuel rod, both of which are stored at Sellafield in oxide form, which is essentially a fine granulated powder.

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