NHS Ombudsman Says, Patient will be Endangered by Flaws in Health Bill

NHS Ombudsman Says, Patient will be Endangered by Flaws in Health Bill

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    According to recent news, The parliamentary and health service ombudsman Rob Behrens, has said that victims of medical negligence could be denied justice because of what he termed ‘curtain of secrecy’. He expressed fears that he and his staff will not be able to get to the bottom of clinical blunders because the new bill denies him potentially vital information collected by the NHS’s Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB).

    He added that the legislation would allow the HSIB to “operate behind a curtain of secrecy” and cause lapses in its investigations in patient safety and potentially deny grieving families the opportunity to find out exactly why a loved one died.

    The NHS ombudsman voiced his concerns about government plans for NHS staff involved in medical negligence incidents to give evidence about blunders privately in a “safe space” to the HSIB, which cannot be shared with anyone else except coroners. He has said that he could be forced to take the agency to the high court to access these materials which the new bill excludes him from seeing.

    In his words, “If the ‘safe space’ provisions become law as drafted there is a real risk to patient safety and to justice for those who deserve it. This is a crisis of accountability and scrutiny.” 

    The HSIB which was set up in 2017 by the then health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to improve patient safety after the Mid Staffordshire NHS trust scandal is now set to be renamed Health Service Safety Investigations Body (HSSIB) in the bill. With the exclusion of the ombudsman from vital information it needs to make unflawed investigations, Behrens says it would be a curious anomaly and poor use of taxpayers’ money if two government agencies have to fight in court for documents to be made available.

    Julia Neuberger, the University College Hospitals NHS trust Chair, has submitted an amendment to the bill in the House of Lords to allow the ombudsman to gain access to information obtained via “safe space” processes. She recently told a Lords debate that if the ministers fail to make an amendment to the bill, “there could be serious consequences for members of the public who use the ombudsman service.”

    She added that patients may find it harder to obtain justice if the ombudsman is not able to robustly investigate patients’ complaints unless they obtain permission from the high court. This, according to her, will make the NHS less accountable for its shortcomings. 

    However, Barbara Young, a former chair of the Care Quality Commission, supported the bill warning that NHS staff would not give evidence to the HSSIB if that information were then shared with the ombudsman. She said that disclosing protected material to a third party is a risk to the safe space and will prevent people from coming forward to the HSSIB making it unable to improve patient safety. 

    Contrastingly, Terence Etherton, a leading lawyer, is also urging an amendment to the bill saying that “the plan would impede the ombudsman’s work, undermine his independent, non-judicial constitutional role and breach the UK’s obligations as a member of the Council of Europe and UN to support the work of ombudsmen.” According to Him, it was “an incomprehensible inconsistency” to deny the ombudsman information given to coroners.

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