NHS Redress Bill [Lords]

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 5:57 pm on 5th June 2006.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne 5:57 pm, 5th June 2006

It is a great pleasure to follow Laura Moffatt, who was very clinical in her analysis of the problems facing the NHS.

It is impossible to set a price on loss. Losing a mother or father, or—God forbid—a son or a daughter, is an absolute tragedy. In most cases, those losses are unavoidable, but very occasionally a mistake is made by clinicians and responsibility needs to be taken. If a person has just lost someone they loved very dearly, they are in a hugely complex emotional state. If, on top of that, they have to take on the NHS, they are David challenging Goliath. For most people, that is daunting. After all, where do they start? Most people have never embarked on legal action in their life, so what is the beginning point for them?

One problem, which has been clearly identified in the debate, stems from the fact that we live in a litigation culture, which has developed over the past 20 years and which means that no one—but no one—says sorry. Even if an individual's urge and driving force is to apologise for the mistake that they made, they are taken aside by a lawyer or senior manager and told, "Whatever you do, do not apologise to this family." Often, such an apology at a very early stage would mean so much, and put an end to a great deal of suffering. It would halt much of the needless litigation in the NHS. Hospitals are frightened to admit any form of liability, lest they face a very expensive legal claim.

I broadly welcome the Bill. It is not as good as it could be, but it goes a long way towards addressing some of the concerns that I shall raise. Three years ago, a constituent lost her mother, who had heart disease and lung cancer. She was dying, but she was not meant to die on the day that she did die; she was meant to go into hospital for routine checks and be sent home. A litany of mistakes were made in the treatment of that elderly lady, perhaps the two most serious of which were the fact that bedsides were not put up on her bed, so she rolled out and fractured her hip, and in response to that she was pumped full of fluids, which was the mistake that led to her unfortunate death.

My constituent bravely and nobly took her complaint to the health service ombudsman. I have a 34-page report, which is devastating in its content. One of the saddest parts is in the last paragraph, in which the senior investigating officer, Sarah Gallagher, writes:

"The Trust has asked me to convey—as I do through my report—its apologies"— to my constituent—

"for the shortcomings I have identified and has agreed to implement the recommendations" in the report. That was welcomed by my constituent, but what she really wanted was an apology from the chief executive or the chairman of the trust. She did not want an apology via a third party. She wanted an apology from the people who run that organisation, who are responsible for its day-to-day management. It was only after my intervention that she got an apology.

I bear no grudge against the chief executive and chairman of that trust. They were operating within the parameters that the NHS had set them. But I do bear a grudge against a system which for two and a half years made them feel that they could not issue an apology to my constituent. Echoing some of the comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber this afternoon, I question some of the legal advice that the NHS receives from its lawyers, which seems pretty poor.

My constituent's lawyers are in negotiation with the NHS for a cash settlement. It is not a huge settlement—well below the £20,000 being discussed today. She wants £10,000; the NHS is offering £5,000. This has gone back and forth between solicitors for a year and a half, with the NHS quibbling over £5,000 after a devastating ombudsman's report. If the Bill addresses such inequities, it is a step in the right direction.

When I raised the matter with the then Minister, Jane Kennedy, I received a wonderful compassionate response from her. At the bottom of her letter there was a handwritten note passing on her condolences and apologies to my constituent, which was gratefully received. I am sure the Minister of State, Andy Burnham will do as good a job as his predecessor. In this case she was outstanding, and a credit to her profession as a politician.

My one concern about the Bill is that my constituent's faith in the NHS is shot to pieces. She does not believe that she has been treated fairly. If it was suggested to her that a new system was in place to ensure that she received fair recompense and that there would be an investigation by the NHS to make sure that the mistakes were not repeated, she would not attach much credit to those promises. She believes that the NHS is ultimately self-serving—I am sure that it is not—that it will seek to protect itself, and that the Bill probably would not go far enough to change that.

I hope the Minister will give serious thought to ensuring that the process for helping patients and those who have lost loved ones who bring a claim against the NHS is transparent and, most importantly, impartial. The redress scheme must be the patients' champion and the champion of the bereaved, not just another arm of the NHS which is perceived, perhaps wrongly, as existing to protect the status quo.