For those 18 or so Thalidomiders gathered in the gallery of the House of Commons on Thursday 20 December 2012, it was a momentous occasion.
We heard Norman Lamb, the Minister for Care Services state the UK government’s commitment to paying around £80 million into the Thalidomide Trust over the next 10 years. This is for Thalidomiders in England.
Next, we heard him reiterate the regret and deep sympathy first expressed three years ago by the then Health Minister, Mike O’Brien. Mr Lamb also acknowledged the physical hardship and emotional difficulties faced by Thalidomiders and their families, and the challenges we continue to endure.
Norman Lamb then went on to pay tribute to the Thalidomide Trust and the campaigning expertise of its National Advisory Council – at this point he glanced up at those of us in the Public Gallery.
It was so right that trustees Marlene Winfield and Kevin Wesbroom, and director Martin Johnson were in the Gallery to hear the government acknowledge the expertise and valuable work of the Trust.
Liz Kendall, labour Shadow Health Minister responded to the statement, querying the need for an annual review and asking for a commitment to not reducing the grant in future years.
The answer? “We will not let those people down in the commitment we are making today, and the funding will be maintained.
Society has a responsibility to this group of people”.
As the debate unfolded, Thomas Docherty (Labour MP for Dunfermline and West Fife) called for the manufacturer of thalidomide finally to acknowledge its culpability, something that it has repeatedly failed to do. He asked Mr Lamb’s opinion “will he update the House on his assessment of the likelihood of getting those cowards finally to take responsibility?”.
Norman Lamb responded by referring to his conversations with us, “Thalidomiders are deeply frustrated—as am I—by the failure of the manufacturer to face up to its responsibilities. I cannot provide a positive update that suggests that it is about to do what it should do, but I think we would all agree that it should acknowledge its culpability without delay”.
This was fantastic to hear – and very much in line with what the NAC wishes to achieve next.
Frank Field (Labour MP for Birkenhead) asked how did he fix on that sum? Does it meet all the trust’s demands?
The answer was that it does not meet all needs. We seem to be getting our messages across…………
As the debate progressed, a message came in by mobile phone – Scotland was getting ready to announce its proportionate share, and so it did around lunchtime. £14.2 million for a 10 year period for the 58 Thalidomiders in Scotland. Alex Neil had put flesh on the bones of his commitment to us made five weeks previously.
This was proving to be a good day indeed.
As we filed/wheeled out of the Public Gallery and into the lobby, there were tears in quite a few eyes – including those of the mother of one Thalidomider.
Norman Lamb and two of his senior civil servants came to speak to every individual Thalidomider in the lobby, which meant a lot to us.
In the cafe we gathered to celebrate with wine or coffee (thank you Kevin for insisting on paying for us all – now we know what Trustees are for!!).
The excitement was electric – some were on the phone (including to the Welsh Assembly!), others just revelling in the relief that the statement gave them – and the ability to make proper plans for the future.
On the way home, the third announcement came in from Northern Ireland – Health Minister Edwin Poots says he will extend the current health grant for Thalidomiders in Northern Ireland for a further 10 years.
Whilst the day had begun with some disappointment – that the incredibly short notice had prevented many Thalidomiders from being here (who badly wanted to be with us) – our conclusion was that 20th December had been a momentous day.
Looking ahead, the details will unfold about the terms and review arrangements of the grants announced on this day, with Wales committing to its proportionate share the following morning. Job done.
Now we have some more campaigning on the cards – roll on Thalidomiders!!