Shipman inquiry will be in public, Milburn accepts

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The relatives of patients murdered by GP Harold Shipman won their seven-month battle yesterday to have an inquiry into his crimes heard in public.

The relatives of patients murdered by GP Harold Shipman won their seven-month battle yesterday to have an inquiry into his crimes heard in public.

After losing a judicial review into his initial decision to stage the inquiry in private, Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, bowed to the inevitable and ordered a public investigation into how Shipman managed to go undetected for years as he carried out his killings.

Significantly, the scope of the inquiry has become substantially wider. While the initial investigation could only examine issues relating to the NHS, the new inquiry will be of the kind which has been held after disasters and catastrophes such as Aberfan in 1966 and Dunblane in 1996, under the auspices of the 1921 Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act.

The chairman, likely to be a senior legal figure, will have the same powers as a High Court judge to compel witnesses to appear, recover any documents, examine non-NHS issues - such as the role of police - and make more binding recommendations. The initial inquiry, to have been chaired by Lord Laming, a former chief inspector of social services, lacked such weight.

The establishment of a 1921 inquiry - only the 21st in 79 years - suggests a rigorous investigation into how Shipman eluded detected for years, how he was able to obtain supplies of drugs, cover his tracks by altering computerised medical records and arrange for most of his victims to be cremated without post-mortem examinations.

The death toll of Shipman patients has been put as high as 200, though he has been convicted of only 15 murders and inquests have found that a further two patients were unlawfully killed.

The Department of Health said the inquiry will inevitably take longer than it would have done in private. The name of the chairman has yet to be announced, though Lord Laming has already stood down because of other commitments.

Mr Milburn argued in February that a private inquiry would be quicker and cause less distress to relatives. But in July, Lord Justice Kennedy ordered him to reconsider his decision and set new terms.

Because Shipman's murders occurred without detection over a long period, checks and controls which should prevent such a tragedy had broken down,Lord Justice Kennedy said. Confidence in a critical part of the NHS subsequently needed to be restored and there were positive advantages to be gained from taking evidence in public.

Ann Alexander, the relatives' lawyer, said. "We're now confident the inquiry will be able to investigate the background to Shipman's murders with the rigour needed to ensure questions are answered and lessons learned."

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