Why I’m considering legal action against Jeremy Hunt

6th October, 2013 10:39 pm

People may have read today that I am considering legal action against the Secretary of State for Health. This, I accept, would be an extraordinary step to take. But it is necessary because of the exceptional circumstances in which I find myself.

So I wanted to set out what’s at issue clearly and precisely.

On Friday afternoon, the Secretary of State for Health sent out the following tweet:

“Shocking revelations on @andyburnhammp’s attempts to cover-up failing hospitals.”

This is an extremely serious allegation to be made by anybody. But it is all the more serious when it comes from a serving Secretary of State against a predecessor. It needs to be considered in the context of a series of events that started with my arrival in the Department of Health in June 2009 in the aftermath of the initial revelations of failures at Stafford Hospital.

Establishing a proper investigation into what went wrong was one of my first priorities.

The official advice I received from the Department was not to hold any further inquiry. I rejected that advice and, in July 2009, appointed Robert Francis QC to head an independent inquiry.

Robert Francis’s first report was published in February 2010 and told in horrifying detail what had gone wrong. He recommended a second-stage Inquiry into the policies and practices of the regulatory bodies, including the Department of Health. I accepted his recommendation and asked him to begin this work immediately.

It was this second-stage Inquiry that was subsequently upgraded into a full Public Inquiry by the incoming Coalition Government. The three-year Francis Inquiry, to which I gave evidence, looked in detail at the Department of Health, the CQC and Monitor. It concluded:

“There is no evidence that any Minister received or ignored advice that would have led to safer outcomes. No criticism of the conduct of any Minister is intended in this report’s findings.”

On the day it was published, the Prime Minister said in the House:

“Let us also be clear about what the report does not say. Francis does not blame any specific policy, he does not blame the last Secretary of State for Health and he says that we should not seek scapegoats.”

David Cameron rightly continued the same cross-Party approach that Labour had adopted on Stafford, with both sides of the House apologising to the families of loved-ones who had suffered. But then something changed. After the Francis Report was published, the Conservative Party decided to change tack and politicise the whole issue of hospital failure.

What has followed can only be described as an orchestrated smear campaign against the last Government and the integrity of Ministers who served in it.

First, it was claimed I had ignored a letter from Professor Brian Jarman providing a list of hospitals with high deaths rates. Not true. On receiving his letter, I immediately referred it to the independent regulator. Then came the CQC’s internal report on its handling of failures at Morecambe Bay. Even though the alleged deletion of the report happened in 2012, on the Coalition’s watch, it was claimed Labour had ignored the problems at the hospital. Again, not true. Next came the publication of the Report by Professor Sir Bruce Keogh into hospitals with high indicators in 2011 and 2012.

In advance of the report, Conservative sources briefed newspapers that 13,000 people had died unnecessarily at the hospitals since 2005.

In an extraordinary diversion from established Parliamentary practice on matters of such seriousness, Jeremy Hunt carried this overtly political tone into his opening statement in the House of Commons.

When the full Keogh Report was published, it did not back up the pre-spinning from Tory HQ or the partisan tone of the Secretary of State. Indeed it said:

“It is important to understand that mortality in all NHS hospitals has been falling over the last decade: overall mortality has fallen by about 30% and the improvement is even greater when the increasing complexity of patients being treated is taken into account.”

On the 13,000 figure, Keogh specifically said that it would be “clinically meaningless and academically reckless” for people to make any calculations of this kind.

It was hard not to conclude that the Conservative Party had deliberately briefed unfounded accusations about the past failings at troubled hospitals for their own political purposes.

So, against this background, we come finally to claims made this week about Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

In response to a Freedom of Information request from a Conservative MP, the Care Quality Commission released internal emails on the handling of problems at the hospital. Newspaper reports claimed the emails showed I had tried to block publication of information on failures at the hospital. Here are the emails as redacted and disclosed by the CQC (click on images to see full size):

Burnham1

 

Burnham2

 

Burnham3

The pertinent parts are paragraphs 10 and 11. They relate to a media briefing from the CQC press office given without the authorisation of the CQC leadership. The release of information about any hospital failure is a serious matter. It needs to be handled in a considered manner and according to an agreed process.

This did not happen in the case of Basildon.

The email from CQC specifically states that it had “broken CQC/DH rules”. The next sentence correctly summarises how I felt about that breach of normal process. It goes on to say that the Department, on my instruction, ordered CQC and Monitor to issue a joint press release later that day in the proper manner. There was never any question of information being withheld.

Following this, at my own instigation, I made a full statement to the House of Commons on Basildon at the first opportunity. I promised to update the House on the hospital at regular intervals, which I subsequently did.

It is simply not possible to consider the CQC email, and my actions in the days that followed, as proof of “attempts to cover-up”. That is why I believe Jeremy Hunt’s tweet crosses a line. It is an unfounded attack on my integrity and I am not prepared to let it go.

Jeremy Hunt has received a legal letter from me asking him to provide direct evidence to back up his specific claim that I attempted to cover up failings at Basildon. It is on that sole question on which this whole debate now turns. It is no good Tories trying to distract attention by raising other allegations. He must answer the question I have asked.

I am conscious that rows like this turn people off politics and distract from the serious issues the NHS is facing. That is why I do not wish to prolong it for a moment longer than necessary. If Jeremy Hunt deletes the offending tweet and apologises, I will consider the matter closed.

But, if he fails to do that, I hope people will understand how I can’t leave such a serious, untrue claim unchallenged.

Andy Burnham is the Shadow Health Secretary

To report anything from the comment section, please e-mail [email protected]
  • kb32904

    Aaargh, it’s impossible to read the emails. even enlarged. The copy is too poor to be legible.

    • rongraves

      Not great but legible. If you haven’t already, try adjusting your Clear Type settings in Control PanelAppearance and PersonalizationDisplay (depending on Windows version). Enlargement, btw, is in two stages – did you miss the second?

      • kb32904

        Thank you so much for that suggestion. It worked brilliantly.

  • Tubby_Isaacs

    Good luck. From what I’ve seen, it’s utter rubbish.

    The fact the Tories were throwing out stuff yesterday via an unnamed spokewoman didn’t suggest they were very confident.

    • mactheanti

      Even the unnamed spokeswoman could have been sued for making libellous comments, so no wonder she remained anonymous which points to lack of confidence in herself and what she said.

  • terryec

    The paws of the Ausie yard dog is all over this, he is dragging our politics into the gutter, we can tell the Tories are desperate to try these tactics, Miliband last week Burnham this, they have 18 months to go through the rest of the Party nothing they do from now on will surprise me.

  • John Smith

    Consider away, at least it keeps it in the limelight . .
    Can take your time, after the reshuffle ..

  • Gabriel Scally

    The FOI material makes it clear that there was a handling shambles, mainly by CQC it seems. Certainly nothing in the slightest suggesting a ‘cover-up’.

  • Go for it!

  • Jeremy Hunt really has sh!t for brains – and to think he was (genuinely) seen as leadership material (although I concede the Tories did elect IDS). I notice the right wing blogs have been stirring things up and Hunt has no doubt got himself excited by all this. He’s like the nerdy kid being egged on into a fight by the tough kids because they think it’s funny. Where will Hunt go from here if Burnham sues him for slander? He demonstrates perfectly how the utterly useless of the ruling class are protected from failure in life.

  • Sid Sockhead

    I think that the charge is you surpressed the report of the CQC in the run up to a general electtion not that you ignored advice. Your careful choice of words suggest that there might well be something in this.

  • EoinClarke
  • mrslibrarylady

    Good luck with this. You seem to have excellent grounds for a case. Cheap shots seem to be the principal tactic of Government at the moment to get their own way, and to deflect from the real issues.
    Discrediting any opposition, be it MP’s, Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband, everyone who works in public services, teachers, NHS staff, and ordinary people trying to express views.

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  • Monkey_Bach

    Politicians lie brazenly all the time and base far reaching policies on lies and untruths. Iain Duncan Smith, David Freud, and Mark Hoban at the DWP do it as a matter of course on a daily basis. Quite recently in his recent keynote speech at the Tory Party conference David Cameron himself made the assertion that: “Today it is still possible to leave school, sign on, find a flat, start claiming housing benefit and opt for a life on benefits.”

    This is a absolutely staggering, deliberate lie. Nobody under 35 can rent a flat, or any form of accommodation other than a single non-self-contained room in shared accommodation, and have it paid for by Housing Benefit due to changes that Cameron’s own government made to Housing Benefit. I find it extraordinary that a serving Prime Minister can barefacedly lie like this in public in order to give impetus to another attempt at stripping benefits from the under 25s as a cost-cutting measure. If done unwisely or precipitously such a policy could result in hundreds of thousands of innocent boys and girls made homeless and destitute. Not one journalist or anyone in the media has, to my knowledge, had the gumption to take arch-liar David Cameron to task about incessant dissembling like this.

    So I reckon it would be a wonderful thing if at least one liar-politician were to be exposed for what he/she actually is, dragged through the courts, and made to account and pay for their dishonesty.

    Jeremy Hunt sued for libel?

    In my opinion it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy!

    Eeek.

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  • David Battley

    As a non-lawyer, perhaps someone can explain to me how the author arrives at the conclusion that:

    “Shocking revelations on [his] attempts to cover-up failing hospitals” are equivalent to a “specific claim that I attempted to cover up failings at Basildon”?

    If Mr Burnham is saying, plainly, that he did not engage in a cover up of any failings he became aware of at any hospitals during his time as Secretary of State then I would fully support a libel case as a way of cleaning up our politics, and would expect the current Secretary of State to be stripped of office and receive a hefty fine at a minimum.

    If, however, this is an attempt to re-base the question and answer a specific, but different, allegation, i.e. concerning only whether he covered up any failings in the specific case of Basildon, and to which the answer is somehow different from the more general question, then I would raise serious concern that he is bringing political class into further disrepute through a form of weasel words, and would expect him to resign accordingly.

    • mactheanti

      In law he can only bring an action about a specific problem, so I don’t know what you are trying to imply!

      • David Battley

        You can’t bring a libel case against an accusation that is different to the one made by the person you accuse. That way lies madness.

  • gareth jones

    Hope you get apology from hunt. You’re right about public not interested in politicians fighting amongst each other when some kids go hungry. All the best in nailing this little creep.

  • barrydavies

    It isn’t only Hunt Camaroon repeated the lie that people drank out of flower vases at Stafford Hospital although this has been proven to be a total fabrication, there were no vases at all at Stafford hospital they were all removed in the 90’s. He also complained of lack of cleanliness, well whose party outsourced laundry and cleaning services to private companies who charge more for poor service. Go for it Andy show them up for what they are a bunch of liars who want to privatise the health service. I’m not a labour supporter but I support you on this.

  • FionaUK

    We should demand Hunt’s resignation: Dirty campaigning is nauseating at any time but all the more so because Burnham consistently maintains the standards that many aspire to. Milliband is setting an agenda on ethics in public life and people of all political persuasions are showing an appetite for it. It would be a shame if Hunt manages to bring the whole public debate back to ‘he who smears wins!’

  • DanFilson

    By all means consider taking legal action, but do so in private without announcements. If your legal advisers say you have a 90% chance of success, go for it. Otherwise don’t. Libel or slander is a game for deep pockets. Suggesting you are considering legal action and then not taking it suggests there was an element of truth in the allegations and / or that you are a wimp, willing to talk courts, but not wiling actually to use them.

    It also goes to show how slippery is the slope of answering the questions of “journalists”. “Are you going to sue Jeremy Hunt, Mr Burnham?” becomes a minefield question, where any hesitation in replying could be taken to imply you had thought of it. A clear denial or a “I’m not answering that kind of question” still leaves it open to the press to report that Andy Burnham has considered legal action, whether true or not, confident in the knowledge that nobody sues for being accused of having considered legal action.

    As for those suggesting Andy Burnham is to be axed, that is plain mischievous – he is evidently immensely popular and even Ed Miliband has not yet reached the stage of loathing having Crown Princes near him.

    • mactheanti

      So someone should carry on being maligned and deliberately lied about, but much worse no one should do anything about a Secretary of State who is deliberately attempting to mislead the public?

      It is in the public interest so no it should not be done in private the public has a right to know if a minister is trying to make them believe something which isn’t true and which Hunt knows isn’t true. Hunt is not exactly the sharpest tool in the box, he would do himself a favour by deleting the tweet before it goes any further because I don’t think andy Burnham is bluffing.

      If this case is brought and won it may help stop future breaches of ministerial code and this kind of nasty false accusations and mudslinging.

      • DanFilson

        What I suggested Andy Burnham did in private was consider whether to take legal action against Hunt. He can fulminate against Hunt as mich as he likes but the issue of taking legal action is one that needs careful consideration in private before being embarked upon.

        I think you are quite wrong to describe Hunt as not being the sharpest tool in the box. He is dangerous precisely because he is both intelligent and canny (the two do not always walk hand in hand). What Hunt inadvertently has done is make Andy Burnham unmovable, let alone unsackable, in the current reshuffle. Maybe that was his intent, who knows. Both are potential leaders of their respective parties and both have time on their side.

  • Tolkny

    I am a recent patient in another NHS hospital that at one time this year faced close scrutiny but subsequently was virtually exonerated on the basis of improvements.

    My wife was an NHS and GP employee in Merseyside and Essex over 30 years.

    I was a probation officer in Merseyside, Essex and London over 30 years.

    The circumstances at the hospital I was treated as a repeated in and out patient over 12 months revealed mainly determined dedicated and highly skilled staff, trying to work in an under staffed place where the facilities were not sufficiently adequate to prevent a demented man remaining in bed, rather than fall unsupervised and hit his head on the floor – the response was magnificent but if anything else untoward had happened simultaneously the staff would have struggled more.

    There have been numerous reorganizations and name changes from the top down so there is very little personal continuity where an organisation learns and changes by its own incremental experience. All public services seem to have become part of a party political – my dad’s bigger than your dad’ type struggle and as governments and Ministers have changed (the latter too rapidly) they have been more interested in making their own mark than continuing to develop the service(s) on the basis of research and piloted improvements.

    At the GP level, although I am with the same practice for 30 years there is NO continuity of care with practitioners seeing me without even a cursory knowledge of the treatments I have been receiving so I need to repeatedly insist they read what is in my file. I am sure some hospital stays are as a consequence of inappropriate actions from my GP – but as I live in a semi-rural area, there is not another GP practice where I can transfer and I got almost no help when I phoned the latest management organisation – it was difficult to first identify them – NHS England.

    Now the much maligned and over managed probation service is being broken up, with no real understanding from any Government or Opposition spokesmen.

    What I joined in 1975 as a highly professionalised organization, relying on the skills and experience of practitioners is turning into an organisation that already makes assessments by computer programme and treats its clients as fodder to be passed about rather than understood and challenged and helped through continual professional relationships – mainly one on one alongside specialist individualized appropriate rehabilitation programmes.

    Understandably ex ministers try to defend their reputations but there are far more important things going on and if politicians, attempted to really understand the services about which they pontificate – we would all be the better for that sort of approach.

    • mactheanti

      There is only so much people can or should take, I am a former NHS medical professional of many years. I have worked in the NHS under the Tories and Labour. I know from first hand what a parlous state the NHS was in in 1997 and I know how long it took to even begin to slow this and turn the NHS around. The NHS in 2010 was unrecognisable from where it was in 1997 and that is solely down to the investment of the former Labour government and the work and dedication of ALL NHS staff from medical to managerial. The NHS is interdependent, we cannot run without medical staff, we cannot run without cleaners, we cannot run without ancillary staff and we cannot run without managers.

      I shudder to think where our NHS will be in ten years time if the current government are not stopped from destroying it by breaking it up and selling off the lucrative parts to Tory doning private healthcare companies. Rather than keep bringing Mid Staffs up, which is now actually an excellent hospital valued by the local community who turned out in their thousands to march to try and save their A&E Department, we should be exposing what a catastrophic mess the current government are making, this will not affect just a number of hospitals, it will affect every hospital in the country.

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  • Alister_Troup

    “can’t trust the Tories on the NHS” is your mantra? Well, who was in power from 1997 to 2010? Did the culture at mid-Staffs et al. suddenly develop? If you sue it may be a pyrrhic victory, as it will give Hunt’s lawyers a chance to question you, under oath, in a fully press covered open court about each and every hospital that has failed – not just the big head lines, any failure at any hospital. I’m guess that it takes a lot to get on the 6 O’Clock news, so how many others didn’t get the publicity? How many deaths of patients were quietly overlooked? 10 here 10 there they add up. And this will be headline news right up to the election. Hunt might loose, but so rightly would Labour

    • trotters1957

      A judge would not allow that line of questioning but you probably know that. Any action would be limited to the issues raised by Hunt in his slander.
      You’re just sh1t stirring.
      Troll off.

      • Alister_Troup

        Covering up failing hospitals- which ones? No names were given therefore ANY hospital could be infered. Twitter only has 160 characters and there was no link any thing. Where are the revelations, I don’t know and Hunt didn’t say!

    • mactheanti

      How long do you think it takes to turn around a failing health service after 18 years in terminal decline, in not just one hospital, but in every single hospital in the land?

      If he sues it may be a “pyrrhic victory”? So you admit that Burnham has a point and is likely to win then, even after being questioned under oath? It won’t be a pyrrhic victory, it will be a victory and Hunt should know he will be questioned under oath too and this time he won’t have the cloak of the House of Commons to lie and evade charges in.

      Sue Andy, it is time these Tories were shown up for the unprofessional liars they are.

      How coincidental is it that on the same day that Hunt is accused by GPs of “ruining the NHS” he decides to resurrect this? Never in all the governments I have known have I ever see such crass unprofessional infantile behaviour from a government and it’s time it stopped.

  • driver56

    Demand a public apology and sue if he doesn’t, It won’t do any good to go overboard. concentrate on asking questions, The Tories have enough to defend if we throw their crap back in their faces. but concentrate on putting our policies forward when the time is right. we can and should win the next general election.

  • Mike McIndoe

    Andy, this is obviously another blatant attempt to try to
    stain or attempt to destroy your reputation. The fact that they
    “will” fail to win the next election because of the contempt that
    they show for the British people and our NHS staff, means you are obviously a big
    worry for them. So the only things they have in their armoury are personal
    attacks and Lie’s, SAD MEN; if you can call them that. Good Luck Andy and keep
    up your fight against this Con-Dem pantomime and save our NHS Please.

  • mactheanti

    BREAKING NEWS: Jeremy Hunt retracts smears levied at Andy Burnham – Hunt admits Burnham did #NOT cover-up health failings

  • David Zenati-Parsons

    Jezza Hunt did not say sorry Andy, follow the example of Mitchel, Lord MacAlpine et al and sue, then give the settlement to the victims of Mid Staffs.

  • Mr Arthur Cook

    You’ve heard of drunk in charge of a bicycle
    Now it’s crap in charge of a health service

  • Amber_Star

    Amazing – every media outlet seemed to carry the allegation but only a few are giving a little coverage to Jeremy Hunt’s apology. I hope Andy keeps going with this & gets the original tweet taken down too.

  • nyeannebevan

    Yet again – the Tories and specifically Jeremy Hunt have been proved to be downright liars! Their slurs, smears, and fabricated, unsubstantiated attacks on Andy Burnham – show just how terrified they are of him and his demolition of their pathetic attempts to denigrate and destroy the NHS and its employees! Andy should take that obnoxious little toad to Court and lets see how his “evidence” stands-up! The Tories have lost the NHS battle and they know it – it’s up to Labour to challenge them on every lie, every, slur, ever, smear and make them “prove” what they claim! The NHS is not safe in their hands and Labour need to reclaim it, promise to get rid of the hated Health reforms and kick all “privateers” and “corporate vultures” out of the NHS!

  • Turtle Soup

    I agree that Jeremy Hunt is a dipstick and that he should be shamed and brought to account for this. But for Andy Burnham to turn to litigation suggests that he is more interested in either playing the victim card, or stirring up the brown stuff to score party political points and playing to his echochamber, rather than doing his proper job of representing his consitutents.

    This is no different to the kind of ‘ungentlemanly’ tactics and strategies that politicians engage in every day of the week, and if politicians or public officials started going to law every time their character was impuned in this way, political issues would end up being played out in law courts instead of parliament, and government would grind to a halt.

    This will just add to the ever growing culture of litigation that increases costs for everyone, discourages any kind of risk taking, and creates a chilling effect where taking intiatives and free speech is concerned. Mr Burnham, you have a privileged well paid job, courtesy of the electorate and taxpayer, so get on with doing that rather than wasting your time and our money pursuing a course of action that should be left to the sphere of politics, and that serves nobody except the legal profession.

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