Sir Mike Penning: Primodos hormone pregnancy test review is a "cover-up"

23rd April 2019

Sir Mike Penning calls for an end to the ongoing cover-up of the Primodos hormone pregnancy test scandal and for the Government to admit mistakes were made and apologise.

It is a pleasure to be involved in this debate, to be part of one of the largest all-party parliamentary groups in the House, and to look after my constituents and speak for them and the others who have been so dramatically affected. They trusted the NHS and the drug company and so thought that the drug they were taking was safe. As was suggested, these ladies may went to their GP surgery perhaps because they had missed their period or had some of the other symptoms of pregnancy. It was such an important time in their lives. Often the GP just opened a drawer, gave them the tablets and said, “This will tell you whether you are pregnant or not.” There were no pamphlets and no advice, even though the risks were known to nearly everyone, apart from those ladies who took those tablets.

In this excellent debate, we have touched on a lot of the science. I am not a scientist or a lawyer; I am just a dad who is trying to help out some constituents in this area and as part of the group. In the debate that followed the publication of this so-called independent review, I said that it was a whitewash, but it was not; it was a cover-up, and we have to discover what is being covered up. Is it the legal side of the NHS giving a drug to a woman on its premises when it knew there was not only a risk, but an effect? Is it the drug company having undue influence on the report, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the Department of Health and Social Care, or a bit of everything?

I say to the Minister that this is not about this Government, but Governments. The issue was being discussed when I was the shadow public health Minister, not least by thalidomide campaigners. They were supportive of this campaign, and they had to rely extensively on evidence that was there, but that the Government and the drug companies had ignored over the years.

Is it not the case that we do not need to be lawyers or medical experts to realise that a drug that is 40 times the strength of the contraceptive pill—it was being given in such countries as Germany as an abortive—would surely have profound impacts on unborn foetuses, or children who were born after their mothers had taken Primodos?

No one in this room or anyone listening to this debate could disagree with that, unless they were a lawyer working for the drug company, the Department of Health and Social Care, or perhaps both.

Believe it or not, Mr Hollobone, 70% of me, you and anyone else in the room is the same as a zebrafish. I swim really well, but I did not realise that until this morning. We chuckle, but the point is that the effects of an experiment on zebrafish will be similar to those on a human being. There are many studies, but the link is important. Professor Neil Vargesson’s report in 2018 supported Professor Heneghan’s report. What does that mean? We all know about the disgrace of thalidomide. Through experimentation on zebrafish, it was proven that thalidomide damaged children. We do not want to experiment on humans. It appears that that is exactly what has gone on here. It is obvious that the mechanism of the action of thalidomide is the same as that shown by the Primodos tests. Everybody can read the technical stuff. There was an effect on zebrafish, who share 70% of their genes with humans. Does that mean it could have had an effect on humans? Of course it does; it is not rocket science.

The right hon. Gentleman is taking us through the history. Does he not agree with me that it is extraordinary? We need to remember the chronology. The thalidomide episode took place in the 1960s and was exposed by The Sunday Timesand Harold Evans in a great step forward, but the drugs continued to be supplied afterwards. Even now, 40 years later, there is, in the statement of Lord O’Shaughnessy, doubt about whether such things should still be used. We should surely say that they should not be used.

I cannot understand how a drug company, now owned by Bayer, could know what was going on and continue to supply the drug in an underhand way to GPs. As a father—as a human being—I simply do not understand it. What on earth was going on? The MHRA, which gave evidence to us, was in complete denial. We did not ask for a cause. I was lucky enough to be a Minister in seven Departments. If I had said, “This is the review that you are going to do, and these are your terms of reference,” and those terms of reference were changed by the review group without my permission, I would have smelled a rat. I would have thought something was going wrong.

We can go through all the science, which cannot be denied. I do not blame any Minister—I can feel the special advisers’ eyes on my back—but something went dramatically wrong, and it has been covered up by several Governments. That must stop now. If compensation has to be paid, fine. Most of the families simply want an apology. Why is there no apology? Because there would then be the threat of legal action. Mistakes happen. When we make mistakes, we should admit it, no matter what Government are in power. We should sort it. We did that over Hillsborough when I was a Minister in the Home Office. It was a really difficult decision to make, but we made it, and the right conclusion was reached. That should be the case in this instance.


Later interventions in the same debate

The key is for evidence sessions to happen under oath. That is what we called for in the House, and what should happen now.

I wholeheartedly agree; they have to be under oath. Justice would also be served if the Secretary of State were to appear before the Health and Social Care Committee to answer detailed questions about the way the inquiry was conducted, and to explain and defend its findings.


I think this is a really fundamental point. I apologise if it seems like I am going to give the Minister a hard time, but I am. They were not asked to look for a causal link; they were asked to look for an association, and we have now seen evidence that they knew it was there. I know what happens when the notes are written for the Minister. They were not asked to look for a causal link, but for an association. They decided among themselves to change what they were supposed to look at, which is why they came out with the results that they did. That is a really fundamental point.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says. There has to be some element of cause, otherwise there is no scientific basis for a judgment. I will have to agree to disagree with him on that point.


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