Thalidomide pressure grows: A third victim has joined a hunger strike in a campaign for better compensation and a public inquiry. Nicholas Timmins reports

HEALTH ministers yesterday brought forward a meeting with an action group demanding better compensation for thalidomide victims as a third member of the group announced a hunger strike.

Freddie Astbury, 34, the oldest thalidomide victim and the Thalidomide Action Group's founder, yesterday sent a letter to Downing Street demanding a public inquiry into how the tragedy was allowed to happen, the abolition of tax on payments made by the Thalidomide Trust, and new guidelines on the drug's use.

As the Department of Health said Baroness Cumberledge, the junior health minister, would now meet the group next Wednesday, Mr Astbury said he would today join Kim Morton, 31, from Belfast, and Heather Bird, 32, from Motherwell, who are already on hunger strike.

Mr Astbury said compensation paid to the thalidomide victims was inadequate. Most of the 459 survivors were paid lump sums ranging from pounds 20,000 to pounds 30,000 (the equivalent of about pounds 120,000 to pounds 200,000 today) in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Distillers, the company that marketed the drug, prescribed to pregnant women for morning sickness.

In addition, pounds 28m was put by Distillers and the Government into the Thalidomide Trust, which has so far paid out about pounds 65m and has pounds 65m in trust, according to Neil Buckland, its director. The trust allocates sums that average about pounds 10,000 a year but range from pounds 1,000 to pounds 24,000, depending on the degree of disability. Capital payments are tax- free but income payments are taxed at 35 per cent at source with individuals able to reclaim the tax when they pay tax at rates below that.

Mr Astbury said that for many thalidomide victims, the lump sums had gone in buying houses or having them adapted. They were now dependent on state benefits and the discretionary payments from the trust. 'These are compensation and you should not be taxed on compensation.'

The group had decided on hunger strikes after John Major and Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, had failed to deal with their concerns in five or six letters over the past six months.

(Photograph omitted)

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