A row has broken out after the General Medical Council recruited a woman convicted of conspiracy to abduct a child on to an expert group charged with producing child protection guidance for doctors.
Penny Mellor, from Wolverhampton, served eight months of an 18-month jail sentence after being found guilty of a "wicked conspiracy to abduct" a little girl in 1999. Mrs Mellor has been involved in more than 50 complaints against professionals working in child protection, accusing numerous doctors and nurses of misconduct.
The GMC was last night under growing criticism from respected paediatricians, just months after winning widespread praise for setting up the group.
This followed controversy involving a paediatrician, Dr David Southall, an expert on a condition formerly known as Münchhausen syndrome by proxy, in which a person causes injury or illness to another (often their child) to gain attention. Mrs Mellor, who describes herself as a campaigner and medico-legal researcher, has confirmed taking part in around 30 complaints against Dr Southall. The GMC had ruled that he be struck off the medical register but he successfully overturned this at appeal. Mrs Mellor has been investigated, but not charged, for criminal harassment against Dr Southall.
Child protection experts say they are dumbfounded at the decision to appoint Mrs Mellor, who they believe has contributed to an environment of fear among paediatricians, leading many to turn their backs on child protection work.
Mrs Mellor posted a letter on the British Medical Journal (BMJ) website announcing her membership, ahead of an official statement by the GMC. She declared: "I am sure this is going to cause a furore." She did not, however, turn up for the group's first meeting last week. The IoS has been told that some of the group's 13 other members, who include the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and Lord Justice Thorpe, were unaware of her appointment until then.
Following the revelation, the BMJ published an open letter from Professionals Against Child Abuse to the GMC chairman, Peter Rubin, saying: "We are astonished that you consider Mrs Mellor an appropriate person to contribute to the group, given that she has made false allegations against numerous doctors and nurses... in some cases wrecking their professional lives... led a hostile media campaign against internationally acclaimed paediatricians ... and created an environment in which doctors are now turning their backs on child protection work, for fear of being targeted."
The GMC refused to explain its decision to The IoS but its chief executive, Niall Dickson, told the BMJ that Mrs Mellor was included in order to give the group credibility and that it was important to hear all perspectives.
Two retired paediatricians and co-authors of the letter, Drs John Bridson and Nigel Speight, last night said the GMC had plenty of critics without criminal convictions to choose from, and Mrs Mellor's inclusion had diminished optimism about what the group would achieve. The new guidance to help doctors working in child protection is expected in 2011.
In his judgment at Newcastle Crown Court in 2002, Mr Justice Whitburn, said of Mrs Mellor: "What is unforgivable is the way in which you manipulated, for your own purposes, the genuine distress of the family... It is chilling to read... the effect of abduction upon that already emotionally damaged child... an abduction which cost others... their liberty."
Mrs Mellor could not be reached for comment, but in her BMJ letter she said she welcomed the opportunity to sit around the table with the RCPCH president and "get paediatricians to listen to the other side of the story".