Page last updated at 16:29 GMT, Monday, 12 January 2009

Hep C inquiry chairman appointed

Lord Penrose
Lord Penrose will begin by examining documents dating back 20 years

A chairman has been appointed to lead a public inquiry into the deaths of two people who contracted Hepatitis C through NHS blood products.

Lord Penrose will chair the probe into how Eileen O'Hara and Rev David Black contracted the virus while in NHS care.

It follows complaints by relatives of the victims over the length of time it has taken to start the inquiry.

The Scottish Government said the withdrawal of the original chair, judge Lady Cosgrove, had led to the delay.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament the inquiry will be known as the Penrose Inquiry.

She said: "I have every sympathy with those who have suffered or lost loved ones as a result of Hepatitis C or HIV infection through NHS treatment with blood or blood products.

"I hope the Penrose Inquiry can provide answers and the closure which I know they so desperately want.

"This inquiry will also ensure that all possible lessons are learned to prevent such a tragedy occurring again."

Examining documents

Lord Penrose and a fully-staffed inquiry team are in place. Lord Penrose has indicated he will begin by examining documents, which date back 20 years and, due to the volume involved, it is expected to take some time.

Mrs O'Hara and Mr Black died in 2003 after contracting Hepatitis C through blood transfusions or blood products supplied by the NHS.

This inquiry will also ensure that all possible lessons are learned to prevent such a tragedy occurring again
Nicola Sturgeon, Health Secretary
Last February, Court of Session judge Lord Mackay ruled that their relatives had the right to expect a reasonably prompt inquiry into their deaths.

He said: "Since the deaths of Mrs O'Hara and Mr Black, both the lord advocate and the Scottish ministers have acted in a manner incompatible with the European Convention of Human Rights of the deceased."

Lord Mackay quoted article two of the convention, which states that "everyone's right to life shall be protected by law".

He quashed the lord advocate's decision not to hold Fatal Accident Inquiries into the deaths and also referred to ministers' refusal at the time to hold a full public inquiry into the general issue of infections through NHS blood products.

After this ruling, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said she would honour an SNP manifesto promise to hold a public inquiry into how NHS patients were infected during the 1970s and 1980s.

Lady Cosgrove was originally appointed to head the inquiry, but she stepped down due to personal reasons.

The families have absolutely no assurance that the inquiry will have the powers it requires to get at the truth
Frank Maguire
Lawyer for families of victims
Mrs O'Hara and Mr Black were among more than 4,000 people who became infected with the virus during the 1980s, before effective screening.

The Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service did not introduce any Hep C screening test for blood donations until 1991.

Lord Penrose also led an inquiry into the collapse of mutual life assurer Equitable Life, which reported in 2004.

Frank Maguire, the lawyer representing both families, criticised the proposed powers of the inquiry and said they were considering further legal action to force the creation of a joint Scottish/UK inquiry.

Mr Maguire said the Penrose Inquiry would have "no power to require the evidence of witnesses from UK departments, including the Department of Health nor will it have power to require them to produce all and any relevant documents".

He added: "That means the families have absolutely no assurance that the inquiry will have the powers it requires to get at the truth."

Mr Maguire went on: "We believe the family's rights under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights would only properly be respected with an inquiry set up jointly between the Scottish Government and the UK Government."

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