Major in retreat on Allitt inquiry: Witnesses may be forced to appear

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THE PRIME Minister signalled yesterday that the Government was preparing a partial retreat over the inquiry into the Beverly Allitt hospital murders in the face of protests at the refusal to hold a public inquiry.

John Major said the inquiry chairman, Sir Cecil Clothier, would be given additional powers, if the former health ombudsman sought them. Senior ministerial sources confirmed last night that the Government was ready to upgrade the inquiry by enabling him to compel witnesses to attend.

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, is considering letting Sir Cecil hear witnesses in public, if the parents insist, to avoid the Government being accused of a cover-up. She may also agree to see parents, after they have met Sir Cecil.

Labour MPs shouted 'cover- up' when the Prime Minister rejected repeated demands by John Smith, the Labour Party leader, for a public inquiry amid angry Commons exchanges. But Mr Major said: 'If Sir Cecil wishes further powers, then he will come back and seek them from the Government and we will provide them.'

Ministerial sources said that Mrs Bottomley decided against a judicial inquiry, after taking advice from Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, to avoid further distress to the parents. Ministers did not want a repeat of the lengthy and harrowing Cleveland inquiry into alleged child abuse, felt at times to have been an 'unedifying spectacle'.

The Prime Minister's office suggested last night that Sir Cecil had been responsible for the decision. 'He has said it is a better way to get at the facts.' But Mrs Bottomley is taking full responsibility for the decision.

Mr Smith, who was briefed by his health spokesman David Blunkett, warned Mr Major of the parents anger at the decision to allow Trent Regional Health Authority to carry out the inquiry into its own failings. 'Surely in the public interest you should have an inquiry with the fullest powers. The parents . . .and the majority of the nurses and staff want a full public inquiry,' Mr Smith said.

Parents of Allitt's victims said the inquiry would have to examine allegations of under-funding and mismanagement by Trent, the same authority to which it reported.

They added that a full inquiry was the only chance of a fair hearing for two consultant paediatricians responsible for Ward 4, Charith Nannyakkara and Nelson Porter. Both lost their jobs when paediatric services were transferred by Trent to Nottingham, but they retain the parents' confidence.

'There is a lot to come out, and the only way it will is through a proper public inquiry,' Chris Taylor, the father of Allitt's first victim, said.

Yesterday Richard Allitt said his daughter was innocent and he will be urging her to appeal against her 13 convictions - for murdering four young children, attempting to murder three more, and harming six.