A ROW has erupted over the borough council’s role in the Stafford Hospital scandal.
Councillor Robert Stephens told the Newsletter there was ‘an omerta of silence’ over discussion of anything to do with the hospital in an attempt to distance the council from the widely-reported failings at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust in the period covered by Robert Francis QC’s public inquiry.
But council leader Mike Heenan and former health scrutiny chairman Ann Edgeller have rushed to rubbish his claims and Mrs Edgeller has accused Councillor Stephens of trying to gain publicity.
The Francis report, published last week, refused to apportion blame to individuals.
This week Councillor Stephens said he had read all of the publicly available documents surrounding the role of the health scrutiny committee into the disaster and believed there was a complete lack of engagement with patient representatives.
“So much so that the courageous efforts of Julie Bailey and Cure the NHS are not mentioned in the minutes of the committee around the time their campaigning began,” he said.
“The health scrutiny committee should be just that,” said Councillor Stephens. “Looking after the health of people in the borough, and surely that must include how they are treated by the local hospital.”
He said the borough council’s scrutiny committee terms of reference said they were required ‘to review and scrutinise … matters relating to the health service in the council’s area and to make reports and recommendations on such matters’.
“I am sorry to say this, however in my opinion only one conclusion can be reached, and that is that the Borough Council failed in its duty to ensure the health and safety of its citizens was properly looked after,” he said. “To hide behind legal terms and definitions is, in my mind, further staining reputation of the council.”
He said the council’s constitution stated the health scrutiny committee may ‘review and scrutinise the performance of other public bodies in the area and invite reports from them by requesting them to address the overview and scrutiny committee and local people about their activities and performance’.
“With such a wide remit granted above, I can only see it as a failure of the organisation and particularly the chairman of the Health Scrutiny Committee at the time, Councillor Anne Edgeller and those that were advising her,” he added. “I think the chief executive and the head of administration all have to look at how they could have been more effective in their roles as guardians of the public of Stafford.”
Councillor Stephens said in his report Robert Francis QC had referred to a lack of training and expertise within the council.
“I reject this as the council should lead and deliver for the community and if those in charge thought they did not have the necessary skills then they should have got themselves trained or sought out the necessary expertise,” he said. “This is a whitewash of responsibilities that leaves a stain on the reputation of the council.”
Councillor Anne Edgeller said: “I lost my husband through lack of care and he was only 50 years old so I know the heartache and the worry it causes.
“But I think it is a disgrace that a councillor should be using these tragic events with the only purpose, it seems, to gain publicity for himself.”
Stafford Borough Council leader Mike Heenan said it was ‘ridiculous’ to suggest the council had stayed silent pointing to a statement apologising for not being thorough in the role of health scrutiny published in full in the Newsletter and broadcast live on the radio on the day of the publication of the report.
“Hardly the ‘silence’ that Councillor Stephens speaks about,” he said. “We also had a no-holds barred briefing which all members were invited to, on Monday, regarding the hospital inquiry and its implications for local authorities and I’m disappointed that Councillor Stephens did not attend, or at least submit questions on the subject, especially if he has such an interest.”
Councillor Heenan said the report said more could have been done in the role of health scrutiny but recognised the limitations of a committee of elected councillors.
“But Robert Francis said in his report that the evidence exposed a ‘number of weaknesses in the concept of scrutiny, which may mean that it will be an unreliable detector of concerns, however capable and conscientious committee members may be’,” he said. “We pointed out to the inquiry those weaknesses of scrutiny – for example having no authority to inspect hospitals and an inability to investigate complaints – and it is pleasing that these weaknesses are addressed in the recommendations.”
He said the council received a number of presentations from the hospital but like others, at the critical time, it is now obvious the committee were misled about the true situation by the hospital management.
“We have already taken steps through the setting up of the joint accountability sessions, led by Staffordshire County Council, to strengthen scrutiny of the hospital.”