FOI: A hospital’s shameful secret, and the pathetic attempts to keep the public in the dark

The Manchester Evening New broke a story on Wednesday night which was result of months of hard work. It was a story which should chill the bones of any parent living in North Manchester, or any journalist who believes that those running hospitals should do so in an open and transparent way.

I’m not alone in falling into both categories on this one. It’s a story which shames the NHS, and shames the people who tried to keep a lid on it – the very people who were sent into a hospital because it was deemed to be failing. The fact they tried to keep the scale of those failings out of the public domain should shock us all.

By now, you’ve probably heard of the story. Social Affairs Editor Jennifer Williams got hold of a review into maternity services at hospitals run by the Pennine Hospitals Trust. It was a report which contained findings including:

  • A very premature baby who was left to die alone in a sluice room
  • A mum who died of a ‘catastrophic haemorrhage’ after her symptoms were put down to mental illness
  • A baby who died because staff failed to identify their mother’s rare blood type
  • A woman who was left with a colostomy because her condition was missed three times

To say maternity services failed families in North Manchester is an understatement. The NHS knew this – a new management team was assembled at the hospital to address the problems.

Sadly, that new management team appears to have gone to remarkable lengths to keep the details of what was going on a secret. Williams battled for four months to get hold of the report after being told of its existence by a contact. It took repeated information requests, the threat of the information commissioner and, perhaps crucially, the actions of a whistleblower for the NHS trust to finally do the right thing.

It would appear that as far as the Pennine hospital trust is concerned, the principle of ‘your right to know’ as enshrined by the Freedom of Information Act means little. For the rest of such, their actions to keep what went on before them under wraps begs the question: What else could they be hiding?

Indeed, when the Trust was first asked about any review, the response was: “The M.E.N. asks for it several more times, to be told officially: “There has not been an internal report specifically on our maternity services that has been presented or seen by the trust board.”

So the MEN turned to FOI. And it took until October to get a response, and even then, the response failed to deal with the part which asked for the report. Cock-up? That’s presumably the best light you can put on it.

 

Reading Williams’ timeline on her dealings with the hospital, it’s clear they were playing a well-worn game of looking for words or sentences to hide behind to not release something which any sane person who respects the value of an informed public would instantly realise the public have a right to know about:

There had been no internal reports into avoidable deaths or harm over the previous year, it says.

It also notes the second request of October 17 which included the full title of the report and confirms that the report we are seeking does exist. “While it contains information on harm, it also reports on many other aspects of the trust’s service. As such, it is not a report, review or investigation into avoidable deaths or harm.”

The second FOI has been logged as a new request, it says.

Lets not forget that the reports covers matters of life and death. And yet someone, somewhere, in Pennine NHS Trust was playing semantics over FOI requests.

In the end, the Trust published the report. The board had seen the report in private, in June.  The Trust has been keen to stress that it has taken steps to ensure that the events documented can’t happen again. Good. NHS managers do job. But of their determined attempts not to be straight with the public? Not a word.

But what of the attempts to hide the truth from the public? Are we seriously expected to believe that it wasn’t clear that the first FOI request wasn’t clearly asking for the report which outlined such terrible failings in Maternity? Are or are there so many such reports knocking around at the Trust that it wasn’t possible to identify which one in particular the MEN wanted?

The fact that as recently as last week the Trust said:

““We are still considering the applicability of an exemption to certain elements of the requested report and are awaiting clarification from the relevant business areas.”

speaks volumes.

It is perhaps the most remarkable case I’ve yet seen of an organisation seemingly determined to keep the public in the dark, regardless of FOI.

But here’s the thing. For as long as there are good journalists, and people working inside public organisations with an ounce of integrity, the truth will come out.

The events uncovered at these hospitals were headlines in their own right. The Trust’s determination to keep things under wraps simply guaranteed the events got even more coverage when the truth did come out. 

For journalists everywhere, the two lessons from this are obvious. 1. Keep fighting for information, and don’t be afraid to turn to the Information Commissioner 2. Make sure readers know how difficult organisations are when they won’t be open by default.

For this particular NHS Trust, the lessons should be even more obvious. 1. You are custodians of public health services, and should remember you are there to serve the public, not keep them in the dark. 2. Nothing good comes from trying to keep things a secret.

The actions of the Trust surely fatally damages the ability of the public to have faith in the hospital’s leadership. Those in the room at that board meeting in June need to ask themselves why they felt such devastating information about local NHS services could be kept a secret.

Being on a hospital trust board is surely about more than nodding through reports over tea and biscuits every few weeks. It shouldn’t take the actions of a journalist and a whistleblower to remind those in charge that their first priority should be the people they serve, not the reputation of their tarnished organisation.

 

 

 

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