Hull’s first female Labour MP Diana Johnson, a key campaigner for victims of the contaminated blood scandal, explains what drives her in her relentless battle for answers. Alexandra Wood reports.
It may sound an unlikely source of inspiration, but when Hull North Labour MP Diana Johnson was a teenager it was Margaret Thatcher who set her thinking.
“Although her politics weren’t my politics I thought: ‘Why are there so few women in the House of Commons? She stirred in me something.”
Ms Johnson became Hull’s first female MP, representing Hull North, when she succeeded veteran MP Kevin McNamara at the 2005 General Election. She started out as a barrister, working in a number of law centres in London, knowing it would stand her in good stead to fulfil her ambition to be an MP.
The skills accrued dealing with casework – and a determination to get to the bottom of a case – have come in useful in the campaigning role for which she is increasingly well-known, particularly over the contaminated blood scandal, dubbed the worst treatment disaster in the NHS’s history.
Her involvement began when a constituent, Glenn Wilkinson, walked into her surgery just before the General Election in 2010, when her majority took a battering from the Lib Dems.
Mr Wilkinson had been infected with hepatitis C aged just 19, after a blood transfusion while getting two teeth removed at Hull Royal Infirmary in 1983. She said: “I told him if I get back in I will do what I can for you.”
She was as good as her word and within a couple of years she was co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Haemophilia and Contaminated Blood.
During the 1970s and 80s, about 7,500 people in the UK with haemophilia and other bleeding disorders were infected with hepatitis C and/or HIV.
Most of the blood products used to treat them were sourced from profit-making American firms. It was known at least as early as 1970 that US-supplied blood carried a higher risk and more likely to come from people desperate for money, including prisoners and drug users. Yet nothing was done for more than two decades.
More than 2,400 people with bleeding disorders are believed to have died. Thousands more may have died from hepatitis C from blood transfusions years ago but it wasn’t linked to contamination then.
In June the MP got six party leaders, including the DUP, to sign a letter calling for a public investigation. It led to an emergency debate and with the Government facing the possibility of a defeat, the Prime Minister announced a publicly-funded inquiry.
Last week it was announced, after pressure from campaigners – who were adamant that the Department of Health should not be in charge – that the Cabinet Office would take the lead role. Like the families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, it now appears, that after two other limited inquiries, they may finally get the justice they are seeking. “I think if we get the terms of reference right and a good chair and panel this has a good chance of uncovering actually what happened. I think there was a cover-up. There was evidence that it was known it was risky because blood was being brought in from the US.
“There was certainly evidence that peoples’ medical records were tampered with or were lost. Some people were accused of being alcoholics and that was how they got hepatitis C, when all they had was an occasional glass of wine or beer.”
It was a second constituent, Tina Trowhill, who went to see her MP after discovering that the ashes of her son William had been collected and scattered at the baby cemetery at Chanterlands Avenue without her knowledge, who inspired another major campaign.
“We met with the leader of Hull City Council and he was sympathetic initially,” said Ms Johnson. “We were hopeful she would get a local inquiry. Here we are two years on still arguing for what seems to be absolutely obvious – an independent look at what happened.”
A council report admitted 57 families were not given the ashes of their babies.
Although the cremation produced ashes, the hospital told some mothers it would take care of funeral arrangements and there would be no ashes. Others went to a funeral, but were not told about the ashes afterwards.
Ms Johnson said: “The report just focussed on the council. It didn’t trawl through the records. It didn’t address what the NHS did or what was going on with the funeral directors. It was incomplete. Why did the hospital say there were no ashes – why did the midwives think that?
“What gets me mad is that there are 70 families who are part of Tina’s campaign who don’t know what’s happened. Tina came to see me with her husband because they had been battling to find out.
“I thought this is a bit like Glenn – an individual where something has gone wrong in the system, but the system is like: ‘Nothing to see here, move along.’
“The council and Department of Health investigate themselves and everything is OK. It’s all sorted out. That’s the lawyer in me coming out – actually it’s not alright.
“When I think there’s an injustice. I can’t just say: ‘OK fine’. It’s a moral thing. I am very privileged as an MP. I can stand up in the Houses of Parliament and people will listen, they will take note, they have to. Many of my constituents don’t have the opportunity (to speak up). They are often people who, if authority says ‘no’, they don’t challenge it.”