Beverly Allitt: we must hear the full story

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The Independent Online
The author is parliamentary spokesman on health for the Labour Party.

ON BEHALF of the whole Labour Party I wish to extend deepest sympathy to the parents and families of the victims of Beverly Allitt. I know that nothing can bring back loved ones, but if society wishes to see justice done then action must be taken to deal with the outstanding non-criminal matters of this case, such as compensation and the failure of procedures that allowed Allitt to carry out her crimes. We also need to understand the sequence of events that led to these tragedies and learn appropriate lessons.

As the parents have made clear, an effective inquiry must be totally independent of the Trent regional health authority and must have the powers to compel witnesses to appear, take evidence on oath, secure the disclosure of appropriate documents and hold its proceedings in public. In short, I support the parents' call for a full statutory public inquiry to ensure that all the facts become known and that all those concerned are called to account for their actions.

Unfortunately, the form of inquiry set up by the Secretary of State for Health, with its terms of reference and reporting mechanism partly set and controlled by the regional health authority, can provide no guarantees that a complete picture of events will be established. All concerned accept that answers are needed to those questions which fell outside the ambit of the trial or were left unanswered by it, not least because the defendant never gave evidence. They also accept that the inquiry must cover the circumstances in which Allitt came to be employed at Grantham and Kesteven hospital, the supervision of the prescription and administration of drugs at the hospital and the time lapse in reporting and investigating the tragedies on Ward 4.

The inquiry should also look at the inadequacy of supervision both within the hospital and from the district and region, the off-site management of vital services, the monitoring of staff recruitment and accreditation, and the lack of accountability within the health service in the wake of the Government's reforms. If we are to have a thorough examination of every aspect of these matters, statutory powers will be needed.

The Salmon Report of the Royal Commission into tribunals of inquiry in 1966 pointed out the advantages of a full inquiry. First, in order to establish the truth it is necessary to be able to call witnesses and have them properly examined and cross-examined by counsel. Second, it is desirable that an individual heading the inquiry should himself be detective, inquisitor and judge. Third, it is not possible for an inquiry to reach conclusions that are critical of individuals or organisations unless they have had the opportunity to explain and/or defend themselves before the inquiry.

Witnesses cannot be compelled to give evidence unless there is a full inquiry. While most, if not all, of the individuals are employed by the National Health Service, that does not give the employer the right to insist that they give evidence. An informal inquiry held in private will not dispel public disquiet, nor will it enable those who believe they have been wrongly blamed to clear their names.

A criminal trial is, by the very nature of our criminal justice system, narrow. It is adversarial rather than inquisitorial and concerned only with the charges in the indictment. Wider issues were not and could not be addressed in the trial at Nottingham Crown Court.

Setting up a public inquiry would not occasion an unreasonable delay. The question of compensation claims, moreover, can be pursued quite independently of such procedures.

If we are to ensure that these tragic events cannot be repeated, then we must proceed on the lines suggested by the parents. I hope that it is still not too late for the Secretary of State to change her mind and to provide Sir Cecil Clothier with the powers he may need to ensure a comprehensive examination of this horrific case and its lessons for the management of the NHS.