FOI: The council boss who threatened to sue a hospital

Good work from the Chester Chronicle in uncovering a remarkable spat between a local council and a local hospital.

The Chronicle used FOI to obtain letters between Cheshire West and Chester Council and the Countess of Chester Hospital following a spat between the two bodies.

As Chester West and Cheshire has long been one of the cheerleaders for reducing the strength of FOI legislation, it won’t come as any surprise to hear it was the NHS Trust which has been revealing the information.

The row broke out after the hospital lost a sexual health contract to a neighbouring NHS Trust. Councils are responsible for public health these days, so Cheshire West was the body doing the awarding of this contract.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the consultant who had led the service at the Countess for many years wasn’t happy, and wrote to GPs urging them to protest at what he considered to be a ‘flawed tendering process.’

Worryingly for anyone who hoped the council and hospital would try to work together for the good of the local population, it appears Cheshire West Council decided the nuclear option was the best option:

So incensed was Fiona Reynolds, the council-employed director of public health (interim), that last November she wrote two letters to Tony Chambers, chief executive of the Countess of Chester Hospital, saying Dr O’ Mahony’s word were ‘potentially libellous in the criticism of Cheshire East’s model of delivery and the council’s tendering process’.

Correspondence obtained from the Countess under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals she asked Mr Chambers to ensure Dr O’Mahony ‘ceases and desists this activity forthwith’, pointing out that as his employer the Countess ‘could be held vicariously liable for any libellous statements he makes’.

After Dr O’Mahony continued the campaign to save his service, Ms Reynolds wrote again: “As I mentioned last week, we are concerned that the content of the emails that are now in the public domain is potentially libellous and we will be seeking legal advice regarding possible legal action against Countess of Chester if this behaviour is not addressed.”

The hospital’s response to the Chronicle for comment is, at best, withering in its thoughts on Ms Reynolds:

“These emails from the Interim director of public health were discounted by the Trust as inappropriate. As a result they were not taken seriously. They did not reflect wider on-going conversations between the Countess and Cheshire West and Chester Council at the time.

“The Trust encourages a culture whereby transparency, candour and speaking out are an important part of the way we work and behave. As a local leader of NHS services, I would not want our clinicians to feel unable to ask questions or speak their minds. This was a highly emotive time for our doctors and nursing staff working in sexual health services, who felt a responsibility to raise concerns about the future provision of care on behalf of their patients.”

That’s perhaps one of the best responses I’ve read from a hospital ever. I hope they stick to those principles, as many other hospitals don’t.

As for Cheshire West Council, reaching for the threat book rather than seeking to justify the way council money is being spent is quite remarkable, even by their would-rather-not-have-to-answer questions standards. 

For journalists, the lesson here is clear: Always ask for the documents and correspondence following a big decision.

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