We should be able to sue the NHS

This culture of secrecy and gagging orders needs to be changed.

There are few more divisive political topics than the NHS. Those interfering with it risk the wrath of keyboard warriors, campaigners, journalists and politicians.

At the extremes, there are views that we are either dangerously nudging towards privatisation, or sleep walking into low quality "socialised" health provision that is far below the average standard of care within the developed world.

But regardless of which side of the political divide you sit on, it is hard to deny that the NHS needs to up its game.

However at the top of both camps’ hitlist are lawyers, it seems. “Ambulance chasers” lining their pockets on tax payers’ money, fleecing the NHS for every last penny when things go wrong. Because of this it seems anyone bringing a case against the NHS feels guilty for doing so, or, worse, treacherous.

But should that be the case?  No one else has the political will to change the NHS for the better. One could argue we are in a catch 22 situation where a decade of Labour "investment" is followed by a few more years of partial privatisation and Tory tinkering. None of which confronts the main problems faced by the NHS: massive institutional failings.

As a lawyer who has experienced the very best of NHS care when I severed my spinal cord during a motorcycle accident, it saddens me that now the NHS is stuck between a rock and a hard place, where politicians seem unable to tackle the institutions’ problems head on.

Alongside waste and poor distribution of resources, another major failing is at the frontline. While the NHS is staffed by compassionate, caring and committed workers, there are huge understaffing problems and many are locked into a system that breeds institutional negligence and huge, catastrophic mistakes. That’s why lawyers step in - as an important check and balance to try and raise standards of care within the NHS by investigating wrong doing, highlighting malpractice, negligence and failed systems.

This is not a small issue. Data shows that NHS negligence claims are on the increase - by 20 per cent year-on-year and 80 per cent since 2008. That’s a monumental £19bn bill – one fifth of the NHS budget. This is to service claims made by over 16,000 patients and families of those bereaved. These are voters of both political persuasions – left and right.

So are these costs purely to line the pockets of ambulance chasing scum or is this money compensation for patients and families who have suffered horrendous, life changing, often preventable incidents?

Month on month at Fletchers Solicitors, we are contacted about hundreds of new clinical negligence cases. These are terrible cases of people who have been denied basic care, such as food or water, suffered catastrophic injuries from simple surgical errors, right through to repeated and systematic failure to diagnose symptoms of preventable yet life-threatening illnesses.

While the individual stories are of course tragic the cost to the exchequer is also appalling. The fact of the matter is that the bulk of the £19bn cost could be dramatically reduced if the NHS’ culture of secrecy and gagging orders were changed in favour of a more open and honest approach to dealing with negligence investigations.

The majority of costs are not for compensation but proportional to the time taken to investigate the facts of the case and establish guilt. Claims against the NHS take longer than any other industry, and accrue more costs as a result.  Often cases take three times as long when most private sector businesses would have admitted guilt at a much earlier stage. An accountable NHS could shave tens of billions of its legal bill.

So should we sue the NHS? In a perfect world the medical negligence marketplace would be small and compensation would be given to people who deserved it.

Today there is now a large legal market which ultimately feeds off a sometimes disorganised and chaotic NHS. It’s our view, however, that the most important consideration for legal action against the NHS is that families whose lives have been destroyed by failings can in some way rebuild them again using their compensation.  Yes, it’s controversial but we’ve been very open and honest about the state of the NHS and our role in it. In fact, we are running a campaign to determine opinion about litigation, and we’re starting a debate to gauge the public mood around whether suing the NHS is ethical.

Ed Fletcher is the chief executive of Fletchers Solicitors

More information on the campaign can be found via its Facebook page.

 
Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Fletcher is the chief executive of Fletchers Solicitors

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.