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House of Lords

Monday, 30th January 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.

Haemophiliacs: Contaminated Blood Transfusions

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What information they have about the percentage of haemophiliacs who have Hepatitis C following infection from contaminated blood products, and whether they are planning a compensation scheme similar to that for haemophiliacs infected by the HIV virus.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, figures are not collected centrally for haemophilia patients who have contracted Hepatitis C through contaminated blood products. We have great sympathy for those affected, but have no plans to make special payments.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that haemophiliacs depend entirely on blood transfusions. Does she also know that virtually all of those who received blood transfusions before 1986 had been infected with the deadly Hepatitis C, and although no fault is involved, does the Minister agree that they need payment just the same as those haemophiliacs who were infected by the HIV virus through contaminated blood? The Minister is aware that they were treated humanely by the Government in 1990. Does the Minister agree that there is no difference in principle and there should be none in practice? Therefore, will the Government avoid discriminating against those with Hepatitis C by extending the role and funding of the Macfarlane Trust which helps the other group?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, we draw a distinction between HIV and Hepatitis C. When compensation was given HIV was a very new disease and, unlike Hepatitis C, it was thought to be invariably fatal. It carries with it a range of health, social and financial effects which are devastating to those affected. Again, that is unlike Hepatitis C patients many of whom can lead very ordinary lives for decades. As regards hereditary haemophiliacs, they had all those disadvantages superimposed on their hereditary haemophilia.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone: My Lords, is it not possibly a mistake to concentrate entirely on Hepatitis C? When I had jaundice in 1942 that was before the three kinds of hepatitis were differentiated. I was warned never to give my blood to anybody because

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it would be poisonous for the rest of my life. Therefore, should not one just speak generally on the subject of Hepatitis and not simply on Hepatitis C.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble and learned friend. He is absolutely right. People are given the best treatment available at the time in good faith. As regards haemophiliacs, without the blood they would certainly have died. That risk had to be assessed.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, is the Minister aware that following a recent Panorama programme on Hepatitis C there were very many concerned people who could not get through to the helpline because there were too many callers? What advice can the Minister give to all those people who have had blood transfusions? Further, is there any benefit in having interferon should the persons affected be positive to Hepatitis C?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, we were very concerned by the Panorama programme especially as the programme editor did not co-operate with us on the helpline. We had to approach the makers and endeavour to ensure that the helplines we run were similar in terms of the advice given. In general, our advice is that if people are concerned they should immediately see their general practitioner. They should talk about the matter and take the advice given.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I know that the Minister was not in her present post at the Department of Health at the time, but is she aware that there was considerable and justifiable anger at the length of time it took the Department of Health to come to an opinion and a decision about the Macfarlane Trust on HIV and AIDS compensation? Will she seek to avoid a similar atmosphere developing and a similar sense of unjust treatment of people with haemophilia who have been infected by Hepatitis C? There is really no difference in the position which the Minister has explained between those infected who have Hepatitis C and those who have HIV and AIDS.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I believe that there really is a very great difference and I outlined that in my initial response to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke. HIV is very different in that people are likely to die of it. We believe that there is no cure or treatment for it, but there is with Hepatitis C. We know that interferon can have a very beneficial effect. Therefore, we have to draw a distinction. We also have to be careful not to open the floodgates to every case that is made for compensation. If that were to happen I believe that we would reach the situation which exists in the United States where doctors are very frightened to give quite ordinary treatment to people for fear of being sued. That would finish the National Health Service and we would all be the poorer.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, notwithstanding what the Minister has quite sincerely said, is she aware that I find it difficult not to agree with my noble friend Lady Jay? Can the Minister give the House some statistics about the number who are now

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suffering from Hepatitis C and about those who suffer from the HIV virus? I understand from what the Minister said in her Answer that the number in the first case is not very great at present.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have all those figures with me. In fact, they are difficult to obtain. That is why we have introduced a system of looking back at all those who have received blood transfusions from donors who have suffered from Hepatitis C. I have figures relating to the HIV cases—although not with me this afternoon—and I shall write to the noble Lord with that information.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I apologise for coming back on this point, but surely the Minister is aware that it is not a question of what happens once somebody is infected? We all understand that there are differences between the impact of Hepatitis C and of HIV. The issue is how those conditions are caused. In this case, both were caused by contaminated blood. Surely that is the position which the Government should seek to redress.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, it is only very recently that we have been able to detect Hepatitis C in blood products and to remedy that situation. As soon as we knew what was happening, and once we had a foolproof test, we took early action. That is the situation. There is no question at this time of compensating those who have contracted Hepatitis C through blood transfusions.

Lord Annan: My Lords, does the Minister accept that we run a risk every time that we go to the doctor and receive treatment but that, mercifully, owing to the skill of the medical profession and the admirable work of pharmaceutical companies the risk is very small? Does the Minister further accept that many Members of your Lordships' House agree with her in regard to the situation in the United States where doctors have to carry extremely heavy insurance cover against the risk of being sued by patients for improper treatment? If we go down the road of having a compensation scheme, we shall find that exactly the same thing happens in this country, at enormous cost.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. That was the point I was trying to put, although not as effectively.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, is the Minister aware that seven people died last year, and many more are going to die, so there is no point in the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, and herself writing down Hepatitis C? It is a fact that this situation has been created by contaminated blood that was given through the National Health Service, so I hope that the Minister will think again about this very special case.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I should like to stress just three points. At the time, the people concerned were given the best possible treatment. That treatment was given in good faith and, without it, they would certainly have died.

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QEII: Safety Inspections

2.46 p.m.

Lord Monkswell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will set up an independent inquiry into the efficacy of the Marine Safety Agency in the light of the permission granted to the QEII to sail from Southampton to New York on 17th December 1994.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): My Lords, no. While the Marine Safety Agency has confirmed that standard procedures were followed, the Secretary of State for Transport has asked the chief executive to consider the case as part of his review of the agency's survey and inspection instructions.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. But is he aware that not only were passengers inconvenienced during the voyage and the image of Britain overseas heavily tarnished, but furthermore, given the decline of the merchant navy over the past 10 to 15 years by more than 50 per cent., surely we have a right to question the fitness for purpose of the merchant marine as demonstrated by this incident? What action are the Government taking to make sure that shipowners ensure that their ships are fit for the purpose when they sail from UK ports?

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