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House of Lords

Thursday, 28 October 2004.

The House met at eleven of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Peterborough): The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Royal Assent

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Horserace Betting and Olympic Lottery Act 2004

Christmas Day (Trading) Act 2004

Companies (Audit, Investigations and Community Enterprise) Act 2004

Medway Council Act 2004

University of Wales, Cardiff Act 2004

vCJD

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest, not a pecuniary one, as president of the Haemophilia Society.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner): My Lords, in England 15 recipients of whole blood were notified in December 2003 of their possible increased risk of variant CJD. For recipients of plasma products, the patient notification exercise started on 21 September, and will run for a few months. Patient records are being examined currently. Until completed, it is not possible to say how many more people will be notified as a result of this exercise.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Is he aware just how devastating this deadly further threat has been to the haemophilia community, already mourning 1,000 deaths from HIV and hepatitis C infection by contaminated NHS blood products, and both deeply hurt and offended by the total denial of any financial help for families bereaved by hepatitis C infection?

We are told nobody is to blame for the disaster. But how can this be validated, except by an independent inquiry and how, without one, shall we ever know
 
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whether the risk of vCJD would have been reduced had the safer recombinant treatment been available for all haemophilia patients in 1995? Is there not now a compellingly urgent need for a wide-ranging public inquiry into this worst-ever treatment disaster in the history of the NHS?

Lord Warner: My Lords, I recognise what my noble friend says. This exercise causes further anxiety for a group of people for whom everybody in this House has enormous sympathy. We have undertaken this tracing exercise in full consultation with the Haemophilia Society, to which I pay tribute for all its help. I am afraid that we must accept that there is a great deal of scientific uncertainty about variant CJD and no consensus among experts on assessing the risks to those patients who have received potentially contaminated—I emphasise "potentially"—batches of plasma. The Government have been transparent in their actions and in putting information on variant CJD in the public arena and before Parliament, and we will continue to do so. Wrongful practices have not been employed; we do not believe that a public inquiry is justified.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the agent responsible for the transmission of both sporadic and new variant CJD is neither a bacterium nor a virus but an abnormal molecule of protein called a prion? Does he therefore accept that the presumed discovery of transmission of that agent by blood transfusion was both unexpected and alarming? No diagnostic or screening test exists at present, although recently Stanley Prusiner, Nobel prize-winner for his work on prions, suggested that one may be impending. Nevertheless, is it not crucial, as the noble Lord, Lord Morris, has said, that recombinant factor 8 should be made widely available throughout the NHS for all haemophilia sufferers?

Lord Warner: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his remarks, given his great expertise in this area of medicine and science. It is certainly true that, as yet, there is no blood test for variant CJD, let alone one that could detect the disease years before symptoms develop. We accept the need to make progress on recombinant products but we will do so in an orderly way. I can write to the noble Lord with details of our progress.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, what sort of financial assistance is available in those 1,000 cases to which the noble Lord referred? Obviously, many families will have been devastated by those deaths.

Lord Warner: My Lords, this Question is about variant CJD and a tracing exercise. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, introduced the issue of hepatitis C, which we have debated in this House on several occasions but that is outside the scope of this Question. I will write to the noble Lord with details on hepatitis C and the other issues that he mentioned.

Baroness Neuberger: My Lords, in agreeing that, obviously, considerable distress has been caused to all
 
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those who have received the letters, will the Minister now consider whether something particular should be done for the younger people who may be affected? There is growing evidence that younger people are more susceptible to variant CJD than older ones. Growing evidence, particularly from some French scientists, shows that of the cases in the UK a disproportionate number of younger people and teenagers have been affected. Is the Minister prepared to consider specific counselling for younger people among those who have received a letter warning them of the possible risk?

Lord Warner: My Lords, the exercise for tracing people who, I re-emphasise, are potentially at risk of having received possibly contaminated plasma products is being conducted through the Health Protection Agency and, perhaps more significantly, through the 150 clinicians who are treating those with haemophilia and bleeding disorders. They are best placed to advise their patients—they know their patients—on how to respond and to present this information of risk to them. I emphasise that we are talking about products that are potentially contaminated. The 176 batches of plasma products that have been traced are all the result of further dilution of any contaminated blood that has been injected into those batches. It makes risk assessment in this area extraordinarily difficult. There is no consensus among experts on the risk.

Earl Howe: My Lords, the Minister will know that, as part of the Government's precautionary approach, it was decided that all people who have received a blood transfusion since 1980 are banned from giving blood. What official assessment has been made of the effect of that ruling on the number of people now able to donate blood, and is there any threat to blood supplies?

Lord Warner: My Lords, taking a proportion of donors and potential donors out of the supply chain has some impact. But the Government have gone to great lengths to ensure that we have an adequate blood supply. One of the measures that we have been taking, in full consultation with the medical and other health professions, is how we make best use of the blood supply that we have. Over the years, there has been concern that we may have inappropriately used some of our blood supply. We are taking measures with experts to ensure that our available blood supply is used efficiently.

Merchant Shipping Regulations: Consultation

Lord Greenway: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I apologise for the fact that, due to circumstances beyond my control, one line of the Question is missing.
 
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The full text of the Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government which recreational boating interests were consulted on the amendments to the original draft of the Merchant Shipping (Vessel Traffic Monitoring and Reporting Requirements) Regulations 2004 which extended the regulations to include recreational craft with a length of less than 45 metres.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, after public consultation on the original draft of the Merchant Shipping (Vessel Traffic Monitoring and Reporting Requirements) Regulations 2004, changes had to be made to incorporate provisions on safety and pollution prevention that needed to have effect in order to meet international requirements. The time available for implementing Directive 2002/59/EC was insufficient to permit further consultation with recreational boating interests. In those circumstances, the Government will consider with interested bodies whether changes to the regulations are appropriate.


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