In her capacity as Shadow Minister for Public Health, Sharon responded to a debate secured by Dan Jarvis MP on the need for the Government to consider the introduction of an opt-out organ donation system to improve organ donation in England.
You can read the full debate on Hansard here.
Read Sharon's contribution to the debate below.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this debate, for his excellent contribution and for all the work that he has done in recent weeks to raise awareness of the need for more people to become organ donors. I commend other hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions to this debate; the Daily Mirror for raising awareness of organ donation since the case of Max Johnson, a nine-year-old boy in need of a new heart; and the more than 9,000 people who signed the Change.org petition.
I also pay my respects to other hon. Members who have brought this issue to our attention over the last decade or so. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who introduced a private Member’s Bill on this topic back in 2004, and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who introduced a private Member’s Bill more recently and who spoke so well today.
I will quickly set the scene on organ donation in the wider sense and then move on to the situation in countries such as Wales and Spain, in which opt-out systems have been introduced. Finally, I will talk about three tests that Opposition Members would like the Government to look at, if such a system were implemented in England, to ensure that patients, NHS staff and community groups could have confidence in such a change in the law.
There is no doubt about the need for more organ donors in England. We have heard about that so clearly today. With so many people on the waiting list for new organs, it is important that we get more people signing up to donate their organs so that we can ensure that more people have the chance to live. That is why it is welcome that in a written answer last year, the then Public Health Minister, Nicola Blackwood, confirmed that since 2008 organ donation across the whole of the UK had increased by 68% and transplants by 47%, and that 2015-16 saw the highest ever deceased donor rate in the UK, with 1,364 deceased donors resulting in 3,529 transplants.
However, as we have heard, there is still a lot more to do because, tragically, 1,000 people every year die while waiting for a transplant. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central, 6,388 people in Britain currently need a transplant. That includes 183 children. It also includes Rebecca, the adult daughter of my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott). I send my hon. Friend, Rebecca and all her wider family my best wishes, as I am sure we all do.
Like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and, I am sure, others here today, I am a card-carrying organ donor. As soon as I became old enough to carry a card, I did, and that was also because of a direct family experience of someone requiring organ donation. My Aunty Ella was one of the pioneers of organ donation when she received a kidney transplant at the fantastic Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. That was about 50 years ago. I have just looked this up: the first organ donations at the Freeman were in 1967, so my Aunty Ella was literally one of the first. She had a very young family at the time. I was born in ’66, but I can remember being told that all she wanted was to live long enough to see her children grow up. Well, she saw her children grow up, get married and go on to give her grandchildren. That is what organ donation is all about: it gives people a future.
There are issues, though, when it comes to black and minority ethnic communities. NHS Blood and Transplant reported that 66% of people from BME communities in the UK refuse to donate their organs, despite being more likely to need a new organ because of a predisposition to certain illnesses, such as diabetes and hypertension. I will cover that issue when I come to the three tests that we would need to set. It is why it is welcome that we have had an opportunity today to debate this issue and everything that comes with it and to think about how we go about improving organ donation, alongside considering what my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central set out on the principle of an opt-out system.
Currently, we know of two countries in which opt-out organ donation systems work: Wales, which we heard quite a bit about today, and Spain. As we heard, Scotland is also considering how it can introduce an opt-out scheme. In Wales, the system was brought in via the Human Transplantation (Wales) Act 2013, which came into force in 2015. The new law sets out that those who live and die in Wales will be deemed to have given consent for their organs to be used unless they have explicitly said otherwise—that is the opt-out.
According to the Organ Donation Wales website, a public awareness campaign before the change in the law came into effect resulted in the numbers of organs transplanted increasing from 120 to 160. NHS organ donation statistics have shown an 11.8% increase between 2014-15 and 2016-17 in people in Wales opting in to donate their organs—the highest increase among England, Wales and Scotland. However, a written answer from the Minister present today, based on NHS Blood and Transplant figures, stated that
“there has been no notable change in Welsh deceased donation figures since the change in legislation”.
This is backed up by NHS organ donation statistics, which show that despite the opt-out system in Wales, there were more deceased organ donors in England and Scotland. That could be because the system is still in its early days; people who have not opted out are still alive and have not yet been able to donate their organs.
Further afield, our friends in Spain have had a soft opt-out system since 1979, in which consent is presumed in the absence of any known objection by the deceased, but family consent is still sought. The implementation of that system led to a small increase in organ donation and transplant, but there was a dramatic increase after 1989 when the Spanish Government made a big push to reorganise organ donation, as a result of which there was a medically trained transplant co-ordinator in every hospital by 1999. However, as a 2012 British Medical Association report stated, there are likely to be differences between the UK and Spain’s performance on organ donation because of their different approaches to resources and clinical practices. For example, Spain has a higher number of intensive care beds, different ICU admissions criteria and end-of-life practices, and the use of higher-risk donors in comparison with those used here.
Nevertheless, those two examples give us food for thought on the change in organ donation rules in England. They show that if we implement this policy, we need to get it right. It is important that we learn from what has already happened, adapting and using what we learn from other countries to get it right in this country. I hope the Minister and her officials will be busy doing that after the debate.
As I said, Labour will set three tests for the Government if any new organ donation system is introduced in England. First, they must obviously ensure full public awareness of any change in the organ donation rules. Secondly, they must ensure that medical and healthcare professionals are involved in designing any changes to the system and that they have the support to raise awareness among the public. Thirdly, they must promise to work closely with community groups to ensure that cultural and religious views are fully consulted on and taken into account before any change is introduced. Those three tests are based on work done in other countries, notably Spain and Wales, but also on the current situation across the UK, where there have been documented issues with engaging with BME communities on organ donation.
Organ donation and transplantation is a sensitive issue, as we have heard in this debate. Many people have strong and differing opinions on it, and it is crucial that the Government ensure that all voices are listened to so that we can come up with a solution. These real problems must be addressed. We know of many people who are on transplant waiting lists for far too long. Sometimes people die because they have been on the waiting list for years without a match to save their lives. We need considered action by the Minister and the Government. They must look at the issue carefully, consult with the public, ensure that solutions are found and bring about the improvements needed. I trust that the Minister will endeavour to do just that.