Government attempts to avoid responsibility for the contaminated blood scandal that caused the deaths of more than 2,400 people from AIDs and Hepatitis C can be revealed for the first time by Sky News.
Previously unseen Cabinet documents show senior ministers in the 1987 Conservative Government pursued a deliberate policy of not accepting any responsibility for allowing contaminated blood products to be given to haemophiliacs.
The papers also show ministers tried to limit the Government's financial liability to victims – despite privately acknowledging it could not "refute convincingly" the allegation that it was at fault.
In the 1970s and 1980s more than 4,000 British haemophiliacs were given blood products contaminated with HIV and Hepatitis C.
Because the UK was not self-sufficient in blood products the substance – called Factor VIII – was imported from the United States, where it had been manufactured with blood drawn from multiple donors.
These included prisoners, habitual drug users and sex workers who had been paid for their blood.
Campaigners say the Cabinet papers amount to evidence of a cover-up.
Former Labour health secretary Andy Burnham, now metro mayor for Manchester, told Sky News the documents show "attempts to deny victims support, truth and justice went to the very top of Government."
Lord Owen, who as health secretary in the 1970's proposed Britain should be self-sufficient in blood products, a policy which if followed may have avoided thousands of deaths, said the papers revealed the Government had "clear responsibility and liability".
The new details are contained in a Cabinet memo from 1987, written by the then Conservative Secretary of State for Social Security John Moore.
The document was unearthed by campaigner Jason Evans, whose father Jonathan was infected with both HIV and Hepatitis C and died in 1993, when his son was four.
The memo is a note of a proposal put to the Cabinet Home and Social Affairs Committee sub-committee on AIDS, a body that included some of the most high-profile ministers of the Margaret Thatcher Government including Willie Whitelaw, Norman Fowler, Douglas Hurd, Kenneth Clarke and future Prime Minister John Major.
The meeting was convened to discuss the fall-out from the unfolding contaminated blood scandal on November 4, 1987, a day before the Haemophilia society was due to lobby MPs in Parliament.
By 1987 it was clear that thousands of people had been infected and were dying, and in the memo Mr Moore acknowledged the scale of the problem.
"About 1,200 haemophiliacs were infected before 1986 with the HIV virus by Factor VIII and about 40 have already died of AIDS. The prognosis for the remainder is bleak," he wrote.
Mr Moore, who was in talks with the Haemophilia Society about a possible financial settlement, acknowledged that the Government's denial of responsibility was unlikely to be believed.
"The (Haemophilia) Society have successfully got across their view that the haemophiliac's problems with AIDS is due to Government's failure to ensure self-sufficiency in blood products. While unfair, this is hard to refute convincingly in presentational terms," he stated.
Mr Moore went on to discuss ways of limiting the financial assistance paid to victims while pursuing a policy of not accepting responsibility.
Discussing a proposed £10m "once-and-for-all payment" to be administered by the Haemophilia Society, he wrote: "(This) is particularly attractive as it minimises Government intervention; and it would be consistent with the policy of not accepting any direct responsibility for damage caused in this way."
The minister also revealed concern about the impact of any payments on potential future litigation.
He wrote: "Lawyers advise that payments received by haemophiliacs in this way might not be as helpful legally as would a direct ex-gratia payment by the Government should a haemophiliac take legal action; which at this stage seems unlikely."
The payment scheme ultimately went ahead and, in the 1990s, the Government made ex-gratia payments of £60,000 to those infected with HIV, who were forced to waive any right to legal action.
The revelations come with campaigners still awaiting details of how the Government intends to proceed with an inquiry into the scandal promised by Theresa May.
Three months after the Prime Minister made the pledge, a chairman has still not been appointed and the format, terms of reference and timing are yet to be confirmed.
In addition, around 500 victims and their relatives have launched a High Court action against the Department of Health.
Mr Evans, who is the lead complainant in the legal action, says the memo is evidence of a cover-up.
"For 20 years people have been told that we had no case, that the Government had no responsibility, and that the deaths were not the result of the failure to ensure self-sufficiency in blood products," he told Sky News.
"But what this shows is that from the very start the Government knew their argument was weak. It was 'hard to refute' because it was true.
"This is some of the clearest evidence we have ever had that points towards a cover-up. Here it is in black and white that we have been told for 20 years one thing, but actually the Secretary of State in 1987 was saying quite the opposite – and it has never been made public until now. If that is not a cover-up then what is?"
Lord Owen, who previously revealed that records from his time as health secretary had been destroyed, said: "I think (government) has responsibility, and personally I think there is a strong case they have liability.
"They admit that in this Cabinet paper when they say it would be very hard to refute, and it has already been proven hard to refute.
"I think now the Government has decided to do something about it cuts through all this legal argument and comes up with a generous settlement."
Mr Burnham said: "These revelations tell us that at the very top of Government, from the Cabinet downwards, there was an attempt to deny support to the victims and to deny them truth and justice.
"That's what people have suspected for many years and now these revelations begin to give the full picture and it really is a very dark chapter in our country's history."
The Department of Health said it could not comment on the actions of former governments or ministers but a spokesman said: "The infected blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s is an appalling tragedy which should simply never have happened, which is why this Government committed to a full inquiry to ensure that victims and their families finally get the answers they have spent decades waiting for.
"Views put forward in the consultation will now be considered and the nature of the inquiry will be announced in due course."
Mr Moore was made a life peer in 1992. His office at the House of Lord's did not respond to a request for comment.