Inside Parliament: Parties clash over hospital murders inquiry

The Beverly Allitt case became the focus of party political wrangling yesterday as John Smith, the Labour leader, repeatedly pressed the Prime Minister to institute a full public inquiry into the circumstances leading to the deaths of four children at a Lincolnshire hospital.

Tory backbenchers grew increasingly angry at Mr Smith's insistence, shouting 'cheap, cheap'. Labour MPs, in turn, alleged a 'cover-up' as John Major defended the investigation to be conducted by Sir Cecil Clothier.

Opening the Question Time clash, Mr Smith expressed his party's sympathy for the parents of the victims of Allitt, a nurse at the Grantham and Kesteven General Hospital.

'Does the Prime Minister fully appreciate the extent of the anger and apprehension which exists among parents throughout the nation that it should be possible in one of our hospitals for a nurse with a known psychiatric disorder to destroy the lives of children in her care?

'In view of the appalling negligence that has obviously occurred, why has the Government refused to have a full public inquiry with the powers to require the evidence of witnesses on oath and compel the disclosure of all documents?'

Mr Major said the most important thing was to have an inquiry that was most likely to get at the truth. 'We take the view that Sir Cecil's inquiry is likely to be the most effective.' It was Sir Cecil's view that people would be more willing to speak freely to his inquiry than to a public inquiry, he said. 'I share that view and I think upon that basis that it is right to proceed with the inquiry under the chairmanship of Sir Cecil.'

Mr Smith did not doubt Sir Cecil's competence or integrity but wondered how he knew whether people would be willing or not to give evidence. 'Surely in the public interest, we should have an inquiry with the fullest powers? The parents of the children concerned and the majority of the nursing staff want a full public inquiry so that nothing is concealed. What is wrong with such a reasonable request?'

Mr Major said Sir Cecil had agreed to see the parents. 'If he wishes further powers, then he will come back and seek them from the Government and we will provide them.' Sir Cecil, as a former parliamentary commissioner for health, had a great deal of experience, the Prime Minister said. 'I am happy to accept his judgement on what is the most appropriate way to carry out the inquiry.'

But Mr Smith said the nature of the powers should be the Government's responsibility, not Sir Cecil's. 'Is it not inappropriate for the inquiry to be set up and asked to report to the very regional health authority whose own actions may be the subject of the inquiry? And is it not totally unsatisfactory. . . that the Health Secretary (Virginia Bottomley) has apparently given more weight to the wishes of the health authority than the parents of the children?'

With Tory backbenchers starting to boil, Mr Major retorted: 'I do believe upon reflection that the Right Honourable Gentleman might be ashamed of some of the things he has just said. We want a rigorous and swift inquiry. . . that gets at the truth, not an inquiry that just raises party political points.'

The Allitt case also figured briefly in the debate which followed, a wide-ranging affair on a procedural motion approving the spring adjournment from 27 May to 7 June. MPs take part in recess debates by arguing, completely disingenuously, that they should not go on holiday until a particular issue has been dealt with.

Several Tory MPs used the occasion to criticise the Government over VAT on fuel bills, school tests, 'diffident' leadership on Bosnia and attempts by the Department of Social Security to get pensions paid directly through banks and building societies. William Powell, MP for Corby, wanted heads to roll at the DSS over the 'extremely maladroit' letters sent to pensioners. 'This is one of the most serious political misjudgements which has been made,' he said. Earlier, Mr Major promised that pensioners would continue to be able to receive the money from a nationwide network of post offices.

Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackey North and Stoke Newington, wanted action to tackle the problems caused by prostitution which she said had reached an 'epidemic stage' in areas like Stamford Hill in her constituency.

She spoke of women being propositioned as they walked their children to school and the residents of sheltered housing finding their doorways littered with syringes and used condoms. Police should have more resources to deal with prostitutes and tougher action should be taken against kerb crawlers, Ms Abbott said.

David Nicholson, Conservative MP for Taunton, blamed his party's county council election defeats on 'a sense of lack of competence, of lack of direction, at the heart of Government'. He was 'baffled' that John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, was pressing ahead with tests that he had accepted were 'far too complex and bureaucratic'.

Complimenting the Tory dissident, Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham NW, added: 'This Conservative government is beginning to resemble Eldorado - rotten actors, lousy scripts and no popularity whatsoever.' Mr Banks's main theme was a call to the Government to consider the legalisation of drugs. He declared he had never used cannabis but was informed it was non-addictive, unlike alcohol. 'If we are really looking at this from a health point of view. . . let us legalise cannabis and let us declare illegal alcohol and nicotine.'

Nigel Jones, Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham, used the omnibus debate to air the grievances of his voiceless and forcibly deunionised constituents at the Government's GCHQ listening post. They wanted the Government to make clear that GCHQ has not been bugging the private telephone calls of the Prince and Princess of Wales, Mr Jones said.

There was a feeling among staff that the Government was happy to let the stories run 'because it diverts attention away from the Government's economic and policy difficulties'.

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