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Health Service Safety Investigations Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:26 pm on 29th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Hollins Baroness Hollins Crossbench 5:26 pm, 29th October 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord. I remind the House of my interests in the register.

I will make two main points about the proposed legislation which I hope will be considered carefully. The first relates to the patient safety issues experienced by those with learning disabilities in accessing healthcare, and the second concerns the safety of the wider healthcare community and the role of fear.

As many of your Lordships know, people with learning disabilities face huge health inequalities, with an estimated 1,200 deaths every year that could have been avoided with better healthcare. Many reports have shown this starkly, perhaps none more so than Mencap’s 2007 report, Death by Indifference. The groundbreaking but shocking reports from the Learning Disabilities Mortality Review Programme revealed that people with learning disabilities are four times more likely to die from causes amenable to good healthcare. This is clearly unacceptable in the 21st century. However, will HSSIB be the body which will identify and change the system so that it is truly safer for people with learning disabilities? The Bill we are debating is a small but welcome step towards tackling some of these injustices. What could make a real impact are the proposed and welcome powers of this new body, not only to identify risks to the safety of patients but, as emphasised by other noble Lords, to,

“address those risks by facilitating the improvement of systems and practices”.

Will the Minister clarify whether in practice the new body will have the powers to ensure that learnings from investigations are implemented, and in a timely manner?

Too often, even when solutions to problems are found, implementation of these solutions is either delayed or forgotten about. A variety of factors can be attributed to this, including institutional resistance and lack of political will. One such example is the delay in the implementation of mandatory, co-delivered learning disability and autism training. While the Government have at last committed to its introduction, it is unlikely that people with learning disabilities, and the clinicians responsible for their care, will see the benefits of this in the near future. Fifty per cent of clinicians responding to a YouGov survey in 2017 said that on-the-job training about learning disability would help them to deliver safer and better healthcare.

The second, increasingly serious, issue I should like to raise is staff safety, support and the role of fear. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for repeating some obvious points, but I want briefly to consider why we investigate serious incidents. Is it because it is usually easy to find somebody to blame and allow the courts and professional regulators to do the rest, passing convictions and apportioning damages? The problem with this approach is that, in all but the most serious cases of individual failure or malice, it does not stop the problem happening again. Serious incidents occur when systems fail. When investigations focus on individuals, systematic failures go unnoticed, nothing of value is learned and harm occurs again.

The case of Dr Bawa-Garba demonstrated this tension well. She was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter and struck off the medical register for her involvement in the tragic death of six year-old Jack Adcock. But there were system failures too. On the day of Jack’s tragic death, Dr Bawa-Garba was covering for two doctors. She had recently returned from maternity leave. This was her first acute shift on call, but she had not received any induction. The GMC says that induction after a period of leave is essential. Furthermore, the IT system responsible for delivering test results was broken.

Whatever her individual failures, it is clear that her criminal conviction and being struck off did little to prevent a similar tragedy in future. It did not address widespread staff shortages. It did nothing to address the way in which the NHS supports doctors returning to work after a period of leave or to fix our broken and outdated NHS IT infrastructure. Out of such tragedies, there should be opportunities to address system failures. Doing so successfully could prevent more deaths and greatly improve the experience of both patients and staff working in the health service.

For those reasons, the placing of the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch on a statutory footing and the additional investigatory powers granted to it are welcome, but if we are to have a body which undertakes investigations of the systems failures resulting in risks to the safety of patient, could we not include the safety of staff too? After all, the same systems underlie risks to both groups.

I recently heard of a trainee psychiatrist, a young mother working part-time, choosing to wear protective clothing to work to prevent serious injury in the event of a knife assault. Was her fear of being attacked justified? Just the previous week, a colleague had been stabbed, seriously injured and airlifted to a trauma centre. Thankfully he survived. Is not his injury as important to investigate as any other serious failure in the health service? Could his injury have been prevented if both he and the person who injured him had been better supported?

A recent report suggested that in 2016-17, there was an average of 200 assaults on NHS staff every day. The same report found that staff in mental health trusts were more than seven times more likely to be assaulted than staff in other NHS trusts. The most recent NHS staff survey showed that more than one in five workers in mental health trusts had witnessed an error, near miss or incident that could have hurt a member of staff in the previous month.

Fortunately, grave assaults on staff, such as the one I just mentioned, are rare, but they are a grim reality. Last week, I met a young doctor who raised that concern with me. I worry that such young doctors will choose to leave the NHS rather than stay and work in it. We need them.

Incidents involving staff safety provide no less an insight into the workings of our health service than incidents threatening patient safety directly. The same systems failures underlie risks to both, and there can be no doubt that investigating risks to staff could also result to improvements in patient safety. A dilapidated estate, a lack of safe places for clinical assessments to take place and dysfunctional alarm systems in hospitals are just some of the realities that staff working in mental health services face on a daily basis, which no doubt have an impact on both patient and staff safety.

The National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health, which investigated patient homicides for two decades, had its funding cut recently. It is a great loss that it is no longer able to undertake its important work on homicide. It found that for the 11% of homicide convictions in the UK that involved mental health patients, around half of those patients were not receiving care as intended, either through loss of contact or non-adherence with drug treatment. These observations carry the hallmarks of system failures. The proposed body has an opportunity to pick up where the inquiry left off and investigate the errors, incidents and system failures that result in this worst-case scenario of patient homicide, in particular if the victim was a member of the NHS workforce. Will the Minister therefore consider explicitly including risk to staff in the remit of the proposed new body?