Government must up the pace on inflected blood compensation
It is highly unusual for public inquiries to be reopened once closing statements are done and the Chair has retired to write the final report.
Yet last week, senior government ministers found themselves recalled to the Infected Blood Inquiry to give evidence in a series of specially convened sessions, with only the topic of compensation on the agenda.
This rare step signified Inquiry Chair Sir Brian Langstaff’s frustration at the Government’s lack of progress on compensating the victims of the infected blood scandal. Back in October last year, interim payments of £100k were made to those still alive and some widows, but Sir Brian’s recommendation that such payments be extended to those who lost children and parents has been ignored, as has his call to set up an independent arm’s length body to oversee the distribution of meaningful compensation.
Earlier in the Inquiry’s proceedings, the government indicated it accepted the moral case for compensation over the scandal, widely acknowledged as the largest treatment disaster in NHS history. However, ministers are still stalling. The government has yet to respond to the compensation framework study it commissioned from Sir Robert Francis KC, delivered back in spring 2022, despite claiming it is working “at pace” on the issue. This oft-repeated line is wearing thin in the face of Sir Brian’s various interventions seeking reasonably to push the issue. Sir Brian’s Second Interim Report, published in April this year, clearly envisaged that steps would be put in place to advance compensation payment structures prior to publication of his final report in the autumn.
Instead, we have seen media reports, clearly leaked, deliberately designed to scaremonger over the potential size of the final compensation bill. That recognition of the moral necessity for compensation coincides with an economic downturn, when the UK’s public coffers are already stretched to the limit, is hardly the fault of those thousands of families who have suffered terribly at the hands of the state for thirty or forty years and counting. We are left wondering whether compensation will ever actually come. It feels so near and yet still so far.
The fear of infected blood victims (and by that, I mean the families of those affected as well as those still alive and directly infected with Hepatitis C or HIV as a result of receiving contaminated blood products in the 70s and 80s) is that the issue of compensation will be kicked into the long grass until it becomes a new government’s responsibility. Sadly, last week’s performances, first by Penny Mordaunt (formerly the Cabinet Minister responsible for the Infected Blood Inquiry), then Paymaster General Jeremy Quinn, thereafter by the Prime Minister and finally the Chancellor, did little to assuage concerns. All expertly stuck to the line of expressing sympathy without giving an inch on any demonstrable action.
The Prime Minister, a father of two himself, was visibly moved when hearing of the impact this scandal has had on countless lives.
Each appeared in front of a packed audience of victims and core participants and, perhaps understandably, some were heckled by onlookers during their quizzing by the impressive Counsel for the Inquiry, Jenni Richards KC, such is the frustration felt. Yet still all they got were empty words and repeated unconvincing assurances that the government is working “at pace”.
The Prime Minister, a father of two himself, was visibly moved when hearing of the impact this scandal has had on countless lives. Jeremy Hunt, despite calling the scandal an “incredible injustice” when giving evidence as former Health Secretary last year, this time emphasized the very large sum of money that redress will cost the taxpayer and admitted no decisions on reparation payments would be made before the inquiry publishes its final findings later this year.
Despite the palpable lack of progress updates, in some ways last week’s appearances were to be welcomed. The senior politicians involved at least turned up, were confronted with the issues in full public view, had to look Sir Brian and victims in the eye and endure the discomfort of their position. The PM firmly stated that he doesn’t intend for his government to add to previous governments’ broken promises. We can only hope the time he and his colleagues spent at the Inquiry helps increase their personal investment in addressing the problem of compensation and in extracting the financial solution from civil service officials that is so desperately required. With a victim dying every four days, each decision-making minute counts.
The Inquiry has played a vital role in exposing a scandal that impacted a shocking number of UK citizens needlessly and negligently back in the day. It has shone a light on cover-ups, intransigence, and inaction across successive governments. Sir Brian Langstaff is to be commended for pushing the boundaries of his role with strident recommendations to government. However, ultimately, he can’t compel the government to pay up or force their timetable.
Apart from praying for the government to find its honour and moral compass, we have one final lever to pull. If the government doesn’t do the right thing by victims after the final inquiry report, we will reinstate the Contaminated Blood Group Litigation Order (GLO) claim against the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care for misfeasance in public office which had been stayed pending the outcome of the Inquiry. If ministers choose to continue to give platitudinous responses, then victims and their families will have no choice but to look to the court to award compensation. And the Government’s bill for that will not be cheap either.
Des Collins is Senior Partner of Collins Solicitors and adviser to 1,500 families and victims impacted by the Infected Blood Inquiry
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