BLOOD from Scottish prisoners continued to be used in NHS transfusions during the 1980s despite serious concerns that the practice was unsafe.

Confidential minutes from meetings held by directors of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service (SNBTS) also show the agency was taking increasing quantities of blood from American troops and that doctors knew in 1981 the blood they were buying in from the US was contaminated with at least two forms of the hepatitis virus.

The documents, released under the Freedom of Information Act, are now to be used by lawyers to build up a case for the government to order a judicial inquiry into how thousands of patients in the UK - including hundreds of Scots - contracted HIV and hepatitis from contaminated blood in the 1970s and 1980s.

More than 1000 people are now dead as a result of receiving infected blood and many have gone on to develop Aids and liver cancer because of their infection. Haemophiliac families, who were given NHS products to make their blood clot, have been wiped out by the faulty treatments.

But unlike other countries where so-called "tainted blood" scandals have led to inquests and criminal convictions, the UK government has refused a public inquiry into what has become known as "the biggest medical treatment disaster in the history of the NHS".

The government has said that an inquiry is not justified "as it does not believe any new light would be shed on this issue as a result".

But details of the secret SNBTS meetings were hailed by campaigners last night as "dynamite" and a "breakthrough" in their fight to find out how they became infected.

It comes as Glasgow-based lawyer Frank Maguire, who represents around 140 patients who contracted hepatitis C through infected blood products, is preparing to take a case against the Lord Advocate, Scotland's most senior law officer, to force an inquiry.

Maguire, of the law firm Thompsons, said: "No-one has ever been given a proper explanation of how this happened and who was responsible."

The dossier reveals that in 1983, a time when the US had stopped taking blood from its prisoners amid growing concerns about the spread of HIV and hepatitis, Scotland continued with its policy of taking blood from inmates. Documents from the government in Canada, which also continued with the controversial practice, showed there was a "high probability" of prison blood being contaminated with both HIV and hepatitis C.

Effective heat treating of blood - which killed hepatitis and HIV - was not introduced in Scotland until 1987.

In the minutes of a SNBTS meeting held on March 29, 1983, the directors warn that the Medicines Inspector had "commented adversely on the practice of collecting blood in prisons and borstal institutions" and admit that blood collecting sessions were held "in penal institutions in all regions".

However, minutes of a meeting held six months later reveal nothing was done and, despite concerns from some SNBTS doctors, the practice continued.

The minutes state: "On the matter of collection in prisons and borstals it was noted that the Medicines Inspector had expressed concern at the practice. Owing to different circumstances in the transfusion regions the directors had been unable to reach a consensus."

The minutes conclude:

"Some directors felt that a blanket decision to cease visiting prisons would be a mistake."

But at a meeting of the UK's Regional Transfusion Directors in 1988, there was proof the agency knew how dangerous the practice was. The minutes of that meeting note that "many" donors who were subsequently found to have become seriously ill with hepatitis "had come from blood donor sessions in Her Majesty's Prisons".

The complete dossier - which totals more than 100 pages and includes minutes from confidential meetings of SNBTS directors over two decades from the 1970s - contains the acknowledgement that haemophiliacs were being given blood that contained "non-A, non-B" hepatitis, which later became known as hepatitis C.

The information in the document appears to contradict evidence that former health minister Malcolm Chisholm gave to the health committee when he said the dangers from hepatitis C were not known until 1990.

Campaigners last night reacted with fury to the revelations. Robert Mackie, a haemophiliac who contracted HIV in March 1984 through contaminated blood products and who now has full-blown Aids, said: "This information is outrageous. It's now my belief that I was infected with blood that was taken from the British prison service. It made me physically sick when I read it.

"I'm so bloody angry about this. I asked year after year if the products were safe and each time they told me categorically that the blood was screened.

Obviously this was lies. These papers show they could not care less about any of us."

Mackie, who stays in the Borders, was only told by doctors that he had HIV more than three years after becoming infected. Two uncles and a cousin, also haemophiliacs, died from Aids in the 1990s after receiving contaminated blood products. A nephew has hepatitis C.

"What we need now is a judicial inquiry into how we came to be infected with contaminated blood, " he said.

Philip Dolan, chairman of the Scottish Haemophilia Forum, said: "We have continually requested an independent public inquiry and this information reinforces this. It's a scandal."

Brian Adam, an SNP MSP who has been a vocal supporter of haemophiliacs, said he backed calls for an inquiry "wholeheartedly".

An SNBTS spokeswoman admitted that blood was taken from prisoners until 1984 but said it had done everything it could have to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis.

She added: "SNBTS took a proactive approach to hepatitis B, HIV and hepatitis C prevention. In each case, donor exclusion criteria were introduced as evidence became available; specific tests for each of the viruses were introduced promptly and effectively."

liam. mcdougall@sundayherald. com