Thalidomide victims are growing older and need support, but only the state can do this properly
Justice is not time limited. It is an absolute. When a grievous wrong is done, those who have suffered need respect and help throughout their lives, not just while the rest of us can be bothered to pay attention. Yet most forget too easily, and so one wrong is followed by another.
This is what has happened to the victims of thalidomide, a drug whose devastating side-effects were discovered after its prescribed use for the prevention of morning sickness in the 60s and 70s: nearly 500 babies were born without arms or legs, or were deaf, blind or suffering from autism.
It took a decade of legal wrangling before they were given any compensation. Now, as the thalidomide generation enter their 40s and 50s, cases are emerging of women whose deformities are causing increasing pain and difficulties with advancing age.
They face a host of new problems as their bodies suffer from the wear and tear that the overuse of certain muscles has caused. The money that seemed adequate in the 70s is simply no longer enough. But again, the demand for adequate compensation is being resisted.
Has the shock of seeing pictures of deformed and stunted limbs worn off? Or do people somehow feel the matter is closed? Both would seem understandable. In the 70s, the public were inundated with shocking pictures and stories in the press. Some of Britain's best journalists, led by the Sunday Times's brilliant Harold Evans, and a few politicians and campaigners set out to imprint the horror of thalidomide into the national mind. For it was the fact that this man-made disaster was hidden away for years that made its continuation possible.
Even then, with journalists, politicians and the involvement of some of the parents, like David Mason, the father of a thalidomide child, the response was slow and halting. Gradually the campaign became more emotional. As I said in a parliamentary debate at the time: "Adolescence is a time for living and laughing, for learning and loving. But what kind of adolescence will a 10-year-old boy have when he has no arms, no legs, one eye, no pelvic girdle and is only 2ft tall?"
The first campaign resulted in a great victory: the compensation offer made by the manufacturer was increased tenfold. But it failed to take full account of any future problems arising directly from thalidomide, which we are now witnessing. Newspapers have recently reported cases of women whose deformities are causing increasing pain and difficulties with advancing age.
The awards that seemed enough three decades ago can no longer be regarded as being so, as movements become more restricted and the costs of mobility mount. The proper way to assess requirements is by making comparisons with an unaffected person's life; even when allowance is made for the payments to cover extra costs such as special housing and adapted vehicles, there remains the daily struggle to cope. It isn't easy to evaluate these issues, but they must be taken into account.
Alan Johnson, the health secretary, has been quoted as saying he is "not persuaded of the case" for financial assistance. We have heard that before. Diageo, which has taken over from the drug's original manufacturer Distillers, has increased contributions to the Thalidomide Trust, but the amount victims receive remains small compared with current compensation rates.
The best solution is for state help. This would solve all the problems at a stroke. It's hard to believe that, more than 30 years on, we have to fight again to win justice for these totally innocent victims. In parliament, and in the media, the campaign must begin again.
Lord Ashley was Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South from 1966 to 1992
The Gaurdian, 10th February 2009