Sunak ‘sympathetic’ towards establishing duty of candour for public officials

The Prime Minister responded to Labour pressure to act following the Infected Blood Inquiry.

Rishi Sunak said he is sympathetic towards the idea of establishing a duty of candour
Rishi Sunak said he is sympathetic towards the idea of establishing a duty of candour (House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA)

Rishi Sunak said he has an “enormous amount of sympathy” with calls to establish a “duty of candour” on public officials in the wake of the Infected Blood Inquiry report.

The Prime Minister also told MPs that he expects all recommendations made by inquiry chairman Sir Brian Langstaff to be acted upon by the end of the year.

More than 30,000 people were infected with deadly viruses between the 1970s and early 1990s as they received blood transfusions or blood products while receiving NHS care.

The 2,527-page report from the inquiry found the infected blood scandal “could largely have been avoided” and there was a “pervasive” cover-up to hide the truth.

About 3,000 people have since died.

The report suggested the Government should introduce a “statutory duty of accountability on senior civil servants 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”.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer highlighted the lack of a duty of candour – to require staff to be open and honest – in “scandal after scandal”, including the Grenfell Tower fire, the Post Office Horizon IT scandal and 1989 Hillsborough football disaster.

He said: “I’ve read the Government’s call for evidence about the duty of candour in health, but I can’t think of a single example where that duty of candour should not apply to all public servants across the board.

Sir Keir Starmer pressed the issue of a duty of candour for public officials
Sir Keir Starmer pressed the issue of a duty of candour for public officials (House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA)

“I don’t think it’s possible for any of us to stand at these despatch boxes and honestly say, ‘never again’ unless we address it. So, 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?”

Mr Sunak said he is aware of the recommendations made by Sir Brian, adding a duty of candour has previously been introduced in the NHS – which compels health service workers to be open and honest with patients about mistakes.

He said: “It is important that the Government takes time to fully digest the gravity of the findings of the report, the wrongs that have been committed are devastating and life-altering for so many, ensuring that nothing like this ever happens again is a priority and, of course, we are sympathetic to that and going through the recommendations in detail at the moment before providing a comprehensive response.

“But, of course, given the situation and the gravity of the findings, it’s a recommendation that there’s an enormous amount of sympathy for.”

Sir Keir said he understood Mr Sunak wanted to examine the matters in detail, adding: “We can’t look away on this duty of candour so, can I at least ask the Prime Minister to expand the call for evidence beyond health – we do owe that to the victims of Hillsborough and Horizon – and to work across the House to establish a far-reaching and binding duty of candour just as quickly as possible.”

Mr Sunak said he is “very aware that there are structural, behavioural, cultural problems that we do need to fix”, adding: “The duty of candour is something, that as I said, there’s an enormous amount of support for the principle and sympathy for.

“He will understand we’re digesting the full contents of the report but, of course, we want to right the wrongs of the past and crucially ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

Sir Keir went on to praise the NHS for its “remarkable job every day”, but added the “very culture of the NHS needs to change” amid cover-up concerns raised by the inquiry.

Mr Sunak said NHS “failed” people and “let them down”, adding: “It’s right that they are held accountable for that and learn the lessons.”

He said improvements have been made since the scandal, adding: “We need to go through the full recommendations of Sir Brian Langstaff’s report and hold the NHS to account for bringing through the changes that are necessary.”

Sir Keir said there remains “clear examples of NHS managers still gagging staff and then being moved on instead of being moved out”, adding: “Will the Prime Minister now commit to ensuring that those who do gag and silence whistleblowers will no longer be able to work in the NHS?”

Mr Sunak said such behaviour is “wrong”, adding: “I believe (it) already is illegal under our laws, but we will make sure that people do have the ability to raise concerns.”

In his final question, Sir Keir said: “There is a chance for us to make real progress on this issue and we must do that with victims in mind.

“Given the degree of cross-party consensus that we’ve already seen on apologies and compensation, and given the Government’s promise to ensure compensation by the end of the year, will he also now promise to deliver on all the recommendations in the same timeframe by the end of the year?”

Mr Sunak replied: “Of course, we want to deliver on the recommendations as quickly as practically possible and indeed our expectation is that we can do that before the end of the year.”

According to Government documents, people living with an HIV infection as a result of the scandal could receive between £2.2 million and £2.6 million.

Payments for people living with hepatitis vary from £35,500 for an “acute” infection up to £1,557,000 for the most severe illnesses caused by the virus, according to the illustrative figures.

People infected with both viruses could be paid up to £2.7 million, the tables show.

Cabinet Office minister John Glen on Tuesday announced that many will also benefit from further interim compensation payments of £210,000 within 90 days.