The Chingford skinhead has mugged a hospital's staff

'Mr Duncan Smith took so little trouble to discover the truth before shooting his mouth off'
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There is a view, and many people hold it to some extent, that it doesn't much matter what gangsters and hooligans do, as long as they do it to each other. When Al Pacino in The Godfather organises the simultaneous slaughter of a dozen rival mafiosi, that seems fair enough. That's a dozen fewer bad guys, whichever way you look at it. And if the Chelsea nutters meet the Millwall maniacs on a piece of wasteground far from civilisation, then who really cares?

The trouble is that the law-abiding always, somehow, get in the way. A Danish tourist stops a flying bar chair with her head, or the drive-by shooter manages to drive by a little too quickly or too slowly and a kid on a bike gets it in the face.

So too with politics. It is perfectly ethical (and during an election, almost obligatory) for the parties to make outrageous claims about each other. Labour wants to abolish the Army, or the Tories plan to do away with your pension, that kind of thing. In Prime Minister's Question Time the exchanges are, when regarded in any rational way, ludicrous and unseemly. The behaviour of MPs towards each other is composed of an absurd, manufactured discourtesy – the subtext of which is always that the honourable gentleman or lady opposite is a lying, ludicrous incompetent. Such (or so we are told by the political classes) is the nature of democratic debate. And those of us who – back in '97 – hoped that New Labour and the Liberal Democrats might do something to civilise this savage state have been disappointed. Maybe it's our fault too.

But there is a line, and this week it was not so much crossed as obliterated. Politicians do not, on the whole, involve real people in their exaggerated disputes with one another. Yet the staff of the Whittington Hospital were mugged this week, purely in order to get the new Leader of the Opposition a good soundbite on the Ten O'Clock News. The nearest equivalent that I can remember was Gordon Brown's intervention in the Laura Spence case, when he used the rejection of one candidate by an Oxford College – whether it was justified or not – as a basis for an attack on the whole admissions system.

But the Rose Addis affair is far, far worse. Not, strangely enough, because many of the facts are disputed, but because the politicians – and particularly Iain Duncan Smith – took so little trouble in trying to discover the truth before shooting their mouths off.

You can understand why a hospital horror story running in a respected London newspaper and involving one of his own constituents would have seemed tempting to IDS. If the claims made by Zena Gold were correct in fact and interpretation, then the staff at the Whittington on duty during the period when Mrs Addis was there were guilty – individually and collectively – of shocking neglect.

Yet by the time that Mr Duncan Smith got up at Prime Minister's Question Time on Wednesday he knew that the hospital vehemently denied Mrs Gold's version of what happened. He must also have known that Mrs Gold had not actually been present to witness what had gone on at the Whittington, and was basing her evidence on the sight that greeted her when she came to see her mother two days after admission. In fact the only version we have from people who were there is that given by the hospital, and – so far – not denied by the staff.

By now most readers will have some familiarity with the claims and rebuttals. The hospital has said that, contrary to reports, beds were available in general wards, but that they preferred to keep Mrs Addis in a bed close to A&E; that her hair wasn't washed because that would have disturbed the sutures; that Mrs Addis's clothes weren't changed because she refused to allow nursing staff to change them. Etcetera.

At the very least a senior politician, let alone a party leader who hopes to be Prime Minister, might have tempered his remarks in the House by showing an awareness that another side to the story existed. He might have done this, if not out of a puritanical regard for the truth, then out of concern that the hospital staff (not all of them, one imagines, Labour activists) should not be slandered. Mr Duncan Smith, however, spoke as though there were no refutation, as though there were no reputations. He hadn't even, it transpired later, had his office call the hospital.

And yet, in his stand-off with Tony Blair, Mr Duncan Smith referred at least twice to "the fact that", when he knew that there was no established fact, and then – crassly and unforgivably – quoted Mrs Gold's comment, for the whole country to hear, that "if my poor mother were a dog, she would have been treated better".

If you don't think that's bad, then try this. For all I know, the Gold/Addis family are a devoted bunch and an example to us all. But suppose I was a Labour MP with an eye for the main chance. Might I stand up in the House and note that 94 is quite an age to be living alone, when there is family that is quite close by? That Mrs Gold is in a flat in South Woodford (near the Central line) and the Whittington is next to Archway station on the Northern Line, and that 50 minutes with one change at Bank is not such a long time? That to visit your aged Mum on the third day of her hospitalisation seems a little, what shall we say, casual? Especially when your photojournalist son is staying with you at the time, a son who is sufficiently concerned about grandma as to not get to the Whittington Hospital for three days, but then take a picture of her in hospital after the event which is then credited to him on the front page of the Evening Standard?

Maybe I'd get up at PMQs and denounce this family for their attempt to blame the National Health Service. And no, I was under no obligation to call them and get their side of the story.

That would be disgraceful, and yet it is exactly what Mr Duncan Smith did. And then, just to make things more absurd, when the hospital's version was published (a version which Alan Milburn erred in accepting too readily), several newspapers – and the Conservatives – complained about breaches in patient confidentiality, citing the red herring of little Leo's undisclosed MMR jabs.

An interesting notion: anyone can make any complaint they like, as detailed as they like, directly to the media, expect to see it repeated verbatim in the House of Commons, but neither the hospital concerned nor the Government may rebut or qualify those charges with reference to the same cases. I'm sorry, but that is not natural justice. That's just bad logic and sophistry.

I do not accept that there is an equivalence of blame for this row: it is Mr Duncan Smith who has played the Chingford skinhead, and I think his party knows it.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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