Mum and I travelled into Birmingham last week to attend one of a number of meetings around the country, organised by the Infected Blood Inquiry (IBI) team.
It was hosted by Catherine Nalty – the Deputy Secretary to the Inquiry, along with Laura and Luke, to update the participants on how the inquiry is progressing.
The aim is to have all public hearings completed by Autumn 2021 including hearing from all those who were in a position to make decisions at the time and since. After the hearings Sir Brian Langstaff will produce his report and recommendations, with this expected to take at least 6 months. This is expected to be released mid 2022, which will be 4 years since the terms of reference were produced. The balance between completeness and duration is one the team is working hard to manage.
The scale of this inquiry was described as unprecedented, given the length of time this has been ignored, and this obviously poses unique challenges for the team.
A concern was raised about the importance of hearing from those who are ever more elderly but vital in their direct involvement with the decisions and treatment of the time. The inquiry team stressed they were very aware of this and working to mitigate that and hear from those involved as soon as possible.
We the infected and affected know our stories. It is our life. The difference with the doctors involved is that they need time to consider the evidence raised against them to be in a position to respond when they appear in front of the inquiry. The skill of the QCs is in bringing out the truth from that.
During an inquiry any relevant archives are searched for pertinent information that should be included. Usually this is done by asking the on site archivists to search for anything relating to the inquiry. In this case, teams of IBI investigators are going in person to search the archives in order that nothing of value is missed. In doing this new deeply relevant information has come to light. This information needs work prior to releasing it to the inquiry and thus is a frustratingly slow process, but one that is crucial and has to be thorough.
In June / July 2020 doctors and haemophilia staff members are being called, however the scheduling of this is complex. They are aiming to release the timetable two months before the hearings where possible but this does depend on who is ready first.
Catherine explained that when calling someone to give evidence in accordance with Rule 9 of the Inquiry Rules 2006, a request for a written statement (“Rule 9 request”) will be made in writing for all persons from whom the Inquiry proposes to take evidence. The Rule 9 request will contain a description of the matters or issues to be covered by the written statement. The initial statement should be submitted to the Inquiry not later than 21 days after the Rule 9 request has been received. If the witness refuses to respond to a Rule 9 Request, then a Section 21 notice can be served. Having looked into this, it means that a person is guilty of an offence pursuant to section 35 of the Act if he or she fails without reasonable excuse to comply with a Notice issued pursuant to Section 21. The offence is punishable on summary conviction by fine or imprisonment. Certification may also be given to the High Court pursuant to section 36 of the Act for enforcement proceedings which may also result in imprisonment.
We expressed concern that those requested to appear could just ignore those requests. It seems according to the above that there is power to compel through the use of a Section 21 Notice. A Section 21 Notice is also publicised and the resulting bad publicity for anyone who went down this route was felt to be as much of a motivator for those facing a Rule 9 request as the Section 21 Notice. Sir Brian Langstaff is of the opinion that any doctors likely to be called up will be preparing themselves for appearing.
We were assured that there was no chance of granting immunity to those required to give evidence.
It was pointed out that as more time went by there were doctors who we wished to see at the inquiry who had in fact passed away. There was concern about key witnesses not being present to account for their decisions and actions. Catherine explained that due to the numbers involved it would be impossible to ask every doctor to appear. Sir Brian Langstaff reads every one of the witness statements. He has read over 1000 so far and expects there to be at least 3000 in total. He notes if a name comes up multiple times or if there are legal implications involving a specific person within a witness statement. If a doctor is no longer alive there may be colleagues that could be questioned or written evidence that can be found to investigate. However, there are so many the inquiry is unable to investigate in depth all those mentioned. It will be more of a systemic judgement, which will be evidenced in the report. Later in the meeting the disparity between the number of witness statements and those infected was raised, given just within the haemophilia community we know at least 5000 individuals are affected. It is clear that some people have chosen not to be involved, often to protect their own mental health.
There are statisticians who’s job it is to look at all the numbers involved and make some sense of them. They will include those who choose not to be involved where possible. However, their best estimate of the infected and affected will only ever be an estimate.
It was asked if the inquiry will include all haemophilia centres and again, not necessarily will there be representatives from all called, but evidence from all centres is being thoroughly investigated. The inquiry will aim for a good geographic spread and to focus on those with key involvement at the time. This will also depend on availability of those called and the strength of evidence.
If medical notes have been destroyed the lack is not necessarily a hindrance because the pattern of destruction is in itself evidence. This may be shown to be prevalent at specific centres or during specific periods.
The inquiry has at least 150 paralegals, all of whom are putting together different parts of the same jigsaw.. Sir Brian Langstaff will bring it all together and maintain the focus. His skill is to focus on the key evidence that is then pursued. New information has been uncovered that wasn’t brought to light during the Archer or Penrose Inquiries.
All evidence hearings are now online, including transcripts, videos, evidence and criticism responses. Going forward the evidence will be uploaded every 3 months or in batches of around 200 at a time. If your evidence is going to be published you and potentially your law firm will be informed in advance of this.
Sir Brian Langstaff still intends to end with evidence from the infected and affected but this may take the form of small groups of 6 or 7 and they may be asked to comment on the inquiry. I’m not sure exactly what form these evidence hearings will take but hope it will become clear.
Catherine then spoke about Core Participants (CPs), which many of us infected and affected are. However, within that is a subset of CPs who can bring something to the process, be it in their expert knowledge, their years of working with politicians, their personal campaigning as an affected person or their membership of a campaigning group. They are anyone who has a particular interest in the inquiry. Within the Infected Blood Inquiry we have over 2000, which is unusual for an inquiry. These CPs are given early access to the submissions to the Inquiry, with a view to providing feedback or expert opinion. Most don’t opt to take that level of involvement. Smaller numbers who wish to, and solicitors, have access to a database called Relativity, which has key pieces of evidence uploaded to it. In January of this year over 3000 documents were uploaded to it, including information from the National Blood & Transfusion Service. Items to be uploaded include documentation from the Central Blood Laboratory, Haemophilia Centres and 300 journal articles. These documents have all been checked by the paralegals for relevance prior to their release onto Relativity.
As we’ve seen the expert reports have now been published on the website. The clinical ones are in medical language that may be difficult to follow and read like journal articles. The psycho-social experts watched and read around 60 witness statements and they based their report around that. The QCs job will be to bring out the key information from those during questioning. I intend to read those and feedback to my legal or the inquiry team.
The February hearings are expected to be very busy with some likely to be asked to watch over video link in the break rooms.
Another very short report that has recently been published on the website is by the Inquiry intermediaries. Three intermediaries met with anyone who did not wish to give a direct statement or who required protection and more support; and this report is a compilation of all the evidence they heard. Eighty five conversations with individuals and families make up the summary report. Catherine recommended we read that if we got the chance.
This report from the intermediaries will kick off the February hearings. All expert witnesses appearing in February will be live streamed.
Compensation was briefly discussed along with feedback from Jason Evens who attended the recent meeting with the Cabinet Office. The response from MPs on the day of the meeting was “no” to even considering compensation in advance of the Inquiry reporting, however the Inquiry team made clear that the inquiry being ongoing does not prevent the government from starting to put compensation in place. The remit of the meeting, to discuss disparity between the existing support schemes, did not lead to any action. Since the meeting there had been one email from the Cabinet Office, the gist of which was that they would get back to attendees.
The need for counselling was also raised at the meeting and we discussed the fact Wales now has three dedicated counsellors. They will be attending the local Inquiry meetings to be held in Wales and are funded by the Wales Infected Blood Scheme. So far in England the only counselling on offer is that which you can claim via EIBSS, a laborious and off-putting process, speaking from personal experience.
A further event along the lines of the commemoration at the preliminary hearings is likely towards the end of the inquiry.
Those of us who attended the meeting found it helpful in general terms and although the duration is difficult to bear, bear it we must in order to get as near to the truth as we can. It is certainly nearer than we have ever been before.