Former Minister: Theresa May was misled over review into pregnancy drugs linked to birth defects

Posted On: 
14th December 2017

Speaking to PoliticsHome Sir Mike Penning says that MPs and victims have 'no confidence' in a recent review into Primodos as he calls for a new judge-led inquiry.

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Ex-Minister Sir Mike Penning insists Theresa May was misled by her aides. They told her an expert in Thalidomide had endorsed a recent review into controversial pregnancy testing drugs - a review Penning is convinced is a “whitewash”. He is determined to set the record straight and he gets the chance to do so in the House of Commons today. The Commission on Human Medicines ruled last month that Primodos and similar hormone testing drugs from the 50s, 60s and 70s did not damage unborn children. But women who were given the drug as a pregnancy test and went on to have babies with birth defects - or even stillbirths - argue otherwise.

They have found a fighting force among supportive parliamentarians like Hemel Hemsptead MP Penning, who argue the review was botched and now want funding for new research and a full-scale, judge-led inquiry.

“As you can imagine, these people’s lives have been turned upside down,” the former home office minister tells PoliticsHome. “You don’t love your child any less because it’s been born with disabilities or an abnormality, but it changes your life.” Blindness, deafness, heart and limb defects, spina bifida, and cleft palates are some of the conditions said to have been triggered.

Drugs like Primodos were given free to NHS GPs who subsequently handed them over to more than a million women who wanted to know if they were pregnant between 1953 and 1975. It was stopped after concerns were raised about its effects - although Britain was slow to ban it compared with other countries. The test appeared simple: If they took it and menstruated the next day they were not pregnant. No prescriptions were issued and no note made on patient records that they had been given the drug. Penning is angry that the open system for handing it out was not covered by the inquiry, and he lists a host of other complaints about the probe he says amount to victim concerns being “literally dismissed out of hand”.

The key allegations are that it failed to look at all the information and used out-of-date evidence; it changed the remit of its inquiry without ministerial consent; and it suggested Nick Dobrik - head of the Thalidomide trust national advisory council - backed the conclusions when he did not. Dobrik will break cover today and question the review on the record. The revelation is embarrassing for the Prime Minister, who in the Commons last month used his involvement with the process to bolster its credibility. “She has been misled by her officials - so she unintentionally said that Nick was supporting it when he didn’t,” Penning explains. He adds, sympathetically: “I used to be a minister - I understand what happens with these things.”

Penning says the review had no ministerial authority to consider whether there was a causal effect between the drugs and the birth defects - a conclusion he argues would have been impossible to come to anyway. He explains: “When I interviewed the chair of the inquiry as to why they changed the remit that had been set for them by ministers, they said: ‘We are scientists and we follow the evidence and we decided that’s what we should do’.” He notes that some working on the review “actually used to work in the drug industry” and raises concerns that those from the “incestuous” sector may have led to a narrowing of the “thought process” of the panel.

Penning says there is “completely no confidence” from victims and MPs, and he and hopes enough supporters in parliament will vote for his backbench business motion today calling for a judge-led review.

“Tomorrow we will set the record straight,” he vows. “It’s a scandal that natural justice tells everybody we have got to resolve and that’s what we’re here for. It’s what I was sent here to do.”