Starmer calls for 'duty of candour' after infected blood scandal

Infected blood scandal is "truly shocking, but it is not unique", with "concerns raised but ignored", Labour leader says
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Sir Keir Starmer has called for public servants to have a statutory “duty of candour” to prevent future cover-ups, after this week's Infected Blood Inquiry report revealed major failings in the advice given to ministers and top civil servants.

Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday, Starmer said the infected blood scandal – through which more than 3,000 people have died because of contaminated transfusions and blood products since the 1970s – is “truly shocking, but it is not unique”.

“The story is familiar: concerns raised but ignored; reports written but not acted on; victims and their families campaigning for years just to be heard,” he said.

He said the absence of a statutory duty of candour for officials “has been a failing in scandal after scandal and injustice after injustice from Grenfell to Horizon, Hillsborough and now the infected blood scandal”.

“I have read that the government have called for evidence on the duty of candour in health, but I cannot think of a single example where that duty of candour should not apply to all public servants across the board,” he said.

“I do not think it is possible for any of us to stand at these dispatch boxes and honestly say ‘never again’ unless we address that. Does the prime minister agree that the time has now come for the duty of candour to be clearly enshrined in law across the board?”

The final report of the Infected Blood Inquiry, published this week, called on ministers to consider introducing statutory duties of candour for civil servants and ministers in their day-to-day work that would be in line with legal duties expected in evidence to courts, effectively strengthening non-statutory duties in the civil service code.

NHS staff have had a professional duty of candour since 2014 requiring them to be open and honest with patients and families when something go wrong with their treatment or care that causes, or has potential to cause, harm or distress.

Inquiry chair Sir Brian Langstaff said departmental officials' responses to the infected blood scandal had seen civil servants and ministers adopting "lines to take" without enough thought, and when those lines were "inaccurate", "partial", or in need of qualification. 

If ministers are unwilling to introduce new obligations across the civil service, senior civil servants at least should have a "statutory duty of accountability" for the "candour and completeness" of advice given to permanent secretaries and ministers, and the candour and completeness of "their response to concerns raised by members of the public and staff".

Responding to Starmer’s question at PMQs, Rishi Sunak said he was aware of Langstaff’s recommendations but made no commitments.

“It is important that the government take the time to fully digest the gravity of the report’s findings. The wrongs that have been committed are devastating and life-altering for so many, and ensuring that nothing like this ever happens again is a priority,” the prime minister said.

“We are sympathetic to that, and are going through the recommendations in detail at the moment before providing a comprehensive response. Of course, given the situation and the gravity of the findings, it is a recommendation for which there is an enormous amount of sympathy.”

Pressed further, Sunak said “the patterns of behaviour we have seen in this appalling tragedy have been replicated in others, and I mentioned Hillsborough specifically, so I am very aware that there are structural and behavioural cultural problems that we need to fix” – echoing comments he made on 21 May when the inquiry report was published.

Campaigners also called for a statutory duty of candour in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, in which 97 football fans died in a crush at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield in 1989.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, police officers were told to blame "drunken, ticketless Liverpool supporters". An inquest in 2016 found the victims had been unlawfully killed and that their deaths were down to failures by police, the ambulance service, and defects in the stadium.

In December, deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden signed the Hillsborough Charter, which pledges to “ensure that the lessons of the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath are learned, to prevent those who are affected by public tragedy in the future from having the same experience”, on behalf of the government.

The charter includes promises to “place the public interest above our own reputation” and to “recognise that we are accountable and open to challenge”.

But ministers stopped short of introducing a Hillsborough Law making the so-called “duty of candour” a legal one, as campaigners have called for.

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