FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES — WHEN IS AN APOLOGY NOT AN APOLOGY?
The answer is quite simple – when it comes in the form of an Oral Statement from a Minister of State of the current British Government.
Yesterday, 14th January 2010, was billed as the day Thalidomide impaired people in this country would hear the word “sorry”. I, like many others, watched the Health Minister Mike O’Brien make the Oral Statement to an almost empty Chamber, which was sadly bereft of any political clout. There was no Prime Minister to apologise, no Leader of the Opposition, who would set aside party political differences, to agree with the Prime Minister that for nearly five decades successive Governments, had “fudged” the issue of accepting the part played by previous administrations in the Thalidomide saga. I had looked forward to applauding the show of unity from two senior political leaders, who both know, first hand, the responsibilities of caring for a disabled child. Perhaps more importantly, I eagerly awaited a statement from the Prime Minister who is himself a disabled person.
Instead, what was on offer was a statement of “sincere regret and deep sympathy” from an MP who is not even a member of the Cabinet.
You may wonder why I am so incensed … Sadly; a Statement of regret is not – by any stretch of the imagination – an apology.
An apology includes an admission of error or wrongdoing. Regret merely expresses a desire that the event had not happened, without any acceptance of wrongdoing.
This is what was said … “The Government wishes to express its sincere regret and deep sympathy for the injury and suffering endured by all those affected when expectant mothers took the drug thalidomide between 1958 and 1961 … We acknowledge both the physical hardship and the emotional difficulties that have faced both the children affected and their families as a result of this drug, and the challenges that many continue to endure, often on a daily basis.”
It would only have taken a five letter word beginning with “s” and ending with “y” to have brought closure for many, in what was the worst medical disaster ever to be seen in Great Britain and the Commonwealth.
In the statement there was no admission that Government had supported Distillers in establishing a Biochemicals division during the early years of World War II. There was no acknowledgement that, at the very least, a public enquiry should have been held into this tragedy, and most importantly, there was no acceptance of liability that Governmental and administrative failures allowed Thalidomide to wreak havoc with so many lives over a sustained period of time.
Wouldn’t it have been comforting to the parents of Thalidomide impaired children, to have been afforded the sincerity given to the Ghurkha veterans, after the campaign by Joanna Lumley for proper recognition of their plight. Wouldn’t it have been appropriate for Government to acknowledge that our parents were placed in an impossible situation because of legal and other issues during the early years of the fight for compensation. But then, maybe that would have been too much to ask.
When my mother died at the young age of 49 years, I firmly believed that the strain of looking after such a severely disabled child took its toll on her health. I know I am not alone when I say this. There are many Thalidomide impaired people who have lost parents in circumstances like mine. For this reason alone, it would have been of enormous comfort to us to hear a Governmental acknowledgement of responsibility.
When news broke of the agreement of further funding and of the pending formal statement, media hype was such that even the Sunday Times (so pivotal in the 1970’s fight and more recently during this current campaign) was expecting the Prime Minister to make the Statement. However, what we got was a Minister who, at times, seemed ill at ease with the Statement he was making and spent much of his response time paying tribute to everyone involved in the negotiation process. I am pleased there was an acknowledgement of the good work done by Lords Morris and Ashley, and of course, we cannot underestimate the contribution made by Harold Evans and his team at the Sunday Times. However, not once did the Minister refer directly to the people at the forefront of the fight back in the 1960’s and 70’s – our parents.
I have to make it clear that I commend the work of the present campaigners, and their commitment to the cause cannot be underestimated. However, there was, I think, a lack of understanding that much of what needed to be said, should have been addressed to our parents. For me, the anticipated apology was for them; as much as it was for us.
As and when the technicalities of how the additional funding will be managed are made known, it will of course make life a little easier. I am however uncomfortable with the fact that the Minister referred simply to “Thalidomiders in England.” The Thalidomide issue is a country-wide issue, and should have been addressed as such. We Thalidomide impaired people in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (not forgetting those in other Commonwealth countries) are right to feel a little aggrieved at being excluded from the “evaluation” of how our health needs “can be best met in the longer term.”
Also, the public should be under no illusion that the 466 beneficiaries of this additional money will not become ultra-rich. Put in context, £20 million will be distributed, at the discretion of the Thalidomide Trust. By comparison, we should remember that during the latter months of last year, £90 million was shared between eight people in a massive lottery win. Media headlines like “set for a deal” or “£20 million payout” are misleading and is not helpful in allowing us to continue the low-key life that most of us seek. Friends may perceive us in a different light and people in the supermarket may look at us differently. But what they forget is that the Statement of Regret or the additional funding does not change the simple fact, that we have very unique impairments that no amount of money or support can completely obviate.
During yesterday, the telephone at home did not stop ringing. I was invited to comment on the so-called apology and make a statement for public consumption. During these interviews, I expressed sadness that the much anticipated apology had not materialised. Even having had the chance to now fully digest the Minister’s Statement I have not changed my view.
As I left the BBC studios after one such interview, I noticed a small Robin perched on the wall just near to my car. The Robin was my Mum’s favourite bird. Its bright cheery red breast still reminds so much of her lovely warm personality. As I passed, the bird flew away, and it left me wondering whether this was my Mum’s way of saying “No worries, it will be alright in the end.” I am sure it will be, but I fear the opportunity for that long awaited and genuine, heart-felt apology has now passed, and such an opportunity will not arise again.