Boost for blood scandal victims as Government announces it will pay legal costs
Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith confirmed in the Commons that funds would be provided for families seeking legal advice on the terms of reference of a public inquiry.
She also apologised for a letter sent to victims which initially refused them legal funding, and compared the contaminated blood inquiry to the Grenfell Tower fire probe.
Theresa May announced last year that a “full statutory inquiry” would be carried out into the scandal that left at least 2,400 people dead.
Ms Smith said: “The infected blood tragedy of the 70s and 80s should never have happened and the victims of this tragedy who have endured so much pain and hardship deserve answers.
“This Government will ensure that the inquiry has the resources it needs to complete its work as quickly as a thorough examination of the facts allows.
“We are committed to making sure that all those who have suffered so terribly can have the answers they have spent decades waiting for and that lessons can be learnt so that a tragedy of this scale can never happen again.”
She added: “I can confirm that ministers have decided that reasonable expense properly incurred in respect of legal representation for the purpose of responding to the consultation of the infected blood inquiry on the terms of reference prior to the setting update will be awarded.”
The decision to launch the inquiry was made after victims and families expressed strong views over the involvement of the Department of Health.
About 7,500 people, many with an inherited bleeding disorder called haemophilia, were given blood products infected with hepatitis C and HIV in the 1970s and 80s.
The UK imported supplies of the clotting agent Factor VIII from the US, some of which turned out to be infected - and much of the plasma used to make the product came from donors like prison inmates in the US, who sold their blood.
Hull MP Diana Johnson, who has campaigned on the issue for many years, welcomed the announcement.
She said: “In this case 2,400 people have already died and since the announcement of a public inquiry last year, another 70 people have died.
“Many people are living with HIV and Hepatitis C, and many are co-infected, so they’re in poor health.
“I am really pleased that the minister and the Government have accepted the argument that whilst the organisations are well-funded to put their case, individuals should also have access to legal advice and guidance.”
Ms Johnson also raised the letter to victims, saying: “The letter of March 23 drafted by her civil servants which tried to contrast Grenfell, which had been granted exceptional funding for legal assistance to the families there affected, saying that was somehow more deserving than this group of people I think has caused enormous amount of hurt in the community.”
MPs called the letter “crass”, “contemptuous” and “insulting, while shadow Cabinet Office minister Cat Smith called for an apology from the Government.
Minister Ms Smith told MPs: “I have reflected on the letter that has been sent by my officials and I am sorry for any concern that has been caused from it.
“What I would just return to, by way of explanation, is that actually Cabinet Office officials were in fact expressing the normal position under the Inquiries Act, which is that... ministers would decide by exception to be able to provide funding for this preliminary stage of any inquiry.
“Now, I have already explained that we certainly do see this tragedy as exceptional, and therefore ministers have made the decision that I’ve conveyed to the House today.”
The consultation on the terms of reference for the inquiry closes next month and the inquiry will be starting “very shortly in those weeks after April 26”, said Ms Smith.