PM: No decision on compensation yet
Written by Jessica Bomford, July 28, 2023
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak caused huge disappointment when he told the Infected Blood Inquiry that his government would not make a decision on compensation payments until after its final report has been published later this year.
Mr Sunak’s appearance sparked a large protest outside the inquiry building before he gave evidence on 26 July. Under the banner ‘Dying for Justice’, protesters urged Mr Sunak to act now on the inquiry’s second interim report on compensation.
Chair of the inquiry, Sir Brian Langstaff, has already recommended that interim payments should be made immediately to bereaved parents and children and for a full compensation scheme to be set up before the end of the year, but so far there has been no significant government response.
Mr Sunak said that for ‘rational decision-making purposes’ the government would wait until after the inquiry has published its final report before it made a final decision on whether to pay compensation. Acknowledging the ‘appalling scandal’ which this inquiry was set up to investigate, Mr Sunak said he was not prepared to give an ‘artificial timeline’ which would add to the ‘litany of broken promises and dashed expectations’ of the past.
Mr Sunak, three other senior ministers and one senior civil servant were called to give evidence at the inquiry from 24 to 28 July to answer questions about the ‘nature, adequacy and timeliness’ of the government’s response to the issue of compensation. The inquiry made the surprise move to re-convene hearings following frustration at the lack of progress and information about a full compensation scheme.
Large sums of money
Jeremy Hunt, Chancellor and former health secretary, told the inquiry that ‘potentially very large sums of money’ were involved in the decisions about compensation and admitted that he found himself in an ‘uncomfortable’ position, as he could not ignore the current financial climate. He said: ‘The country only has the money it has’. He told Sir Brian that he supported the decision to wait until his final report was published because it was ‘responsible and right to the taxpayers who are funding this..to see the full context of the horrific scandal’.
He said the government’s acceptance of the moral case for compensation should offer some ‘comfort’ to those who he acknowledged had a ‘very, very high degree of suspicion’ about whether the government would deliver compensation.
Compensation warning three years ago
When Penny Mordaunt, former Paymaster General and the current Leader of the House gave evidence, the inquiry was told that she’d written to Mr Sunak three years ago to alert him to the likelihood that ‘substantial’ compensation payments would be made. Two months later, she wrote again, to stress the urgency of the issue. Ms Mordaunt told the inquiry that she’d wanted to ‘shout loudly’ about the situation.
Mr Sunak said he’d never seen the letter and that he was not directly involved because the costs had not been ‘crystallised’. Asked by Lead Counsel Jenni Richards KC whether, three years on from this warning, the lack of concrete details about a compensation scheme was ‘good enough’, Mr Sunak was jeered by the audience for his indirect response.
Progress is happening, ministers claim
All ministers were keen to reassure Sir Brian that progress was taking place behind closed doors. Mr Hunt said that the issue was ‘moving very fast, in Whitehall terms’. He said 50 meetings had taken place this year and current Paymaster General Jeremy Quin revealed during his evidence that there was team in place looking at the ‘cost and scale’ of compensation. Mr Hunt said he believed this government’s position was ‘closer to justice’ than any other previous government.
But it was also clear that there were delays ahead in terms of primary legislation that would need to be passed to implement some of Sir Brian’s recommendation and concern was repeatedly expressed by ministers about issues of public accountability if the proposed independent Arms-Length Body is set up to make decisions about compensation amounts. Ministers said uncertainty over the number of likely claimants was also adding to the complexity of their decision-making.
‘Delay is corrosive’
Sir Brian used his final comments to urge each minister to do more, and quickly, to provide ‘tangible reassurances’ to those waiting for a decision. To Mr Hunt, while thanking him for the ‘tone’ of his evidence, he asked him to think again about an interim payment for bereaved parents and children, telling him that ‘delay is corrosive’.
To Mr Sunak, Sir Brian said political will was needed to ensure compensation was delivered quickly. He told him: ‘Because if it troubles my conscience, I would think it would trouble the conscience of a caring government and you have said that’s what you would wish to be.’
Left in limbo
Commenting on the week’s evidence, Kate Burt, Chief Executive of the Haemophilia Society said: ‘Those looking for reassurance that Rishi Sunak’s government would not pass the financial buck on compensation remain in limbo. While we welcome the additional detail Jeremy Hunt provided, his evidence stopped short of providing the answers our community expected.
‘The government’s frustrating and evasive refusal to make a commitment to pay full compensation to all those who have suffered as a result of the biggest treatment disaster in the NHS’s history has left many in our community angry and concerned.
‘If compensation is truly a priority for this government, then it will need to match its words with actions and move swiftly to allay the acute anxiety its delays are causing.’
Towards the final report
Sir Brian said he would ‘do his best’ to write his report quickly but warned that it would not be published in ‘early’ Autumn, prompting speculation that it may come out in October 2023.