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The Bristol heart babies Monday, 15 March, 1999, 23:38 GMT
Public inquiry launched into heart babies tragedy
Health Secretary Frank Dobson
Frank Dobson announces the public inquiry
An independent public inquiry is to be launched into the Bristol heart babies tragedy, the government has announced.

The Bristol Heart Babies
Health Secretary Frank Dobson also revealed the setting up of new national standards for doctors after two doctors involved in the scandal were struck off and one was censured by the General Medical Council.

Other new measures, including a new national institute for clinical excellence and a commission for health improvement are also being launched, Mr Dobson told the Commons.

James Wisheart
James Wisheart, one of the surgeons struck off
The inquiry, into the deaths of 29 babies at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, will be chaired by Professor Ian Kennedy, of University College, London, an expert in legal, medical and ethical issues.

It will have power to require witnesses to attend and give evidence on oath, said Mr Dobson.

'We owe it to the victims'

"The inquiry will examine all aspects of what went wrong, identify any professional, management and organisational failures, and make recommendations to improve safeguards," he told a hushed House of Commons.

He said in meeting the babies' parents he had been impressed by how they coped with their grief and their dissatisfaction and disillusionment with a health service system which had failed them.

"We owe it to them to ensure that this inquiry gets to the bottom of what went wrong, that all the facts are exposed and responsibilities are identified.

"We owe it to them to them and everyone else in the country to make sure lessons are learned so that such a tragedy never occurs again."

The institute of clinical excellence would set national standards for the first time in the history of the NHS, Mr Dobson told MPs.

New duty for health trusts and doctors

A duty of clinical governance will be placed on NHS trusts, he said. And to ensure new standards are met, a commission for health improvement will be established.

All hospital doctors must join a new national external audit and patients and GPs will be able to get information on treatment success rates at local hospitals, he said.

The measures have all been welcomed by the Bristol parents, Mr Dobson told MPs. He hoped they would gain at least some consolation that the lessons learned should mean nothing like this would happen again.

Protection for whistleblowers

Conservative Shadow Health Secretary Ann Widdecombe welcomed the government's announcement, the new measures and the speed of the setting up of the inquiry.

But she questioned the role of the hospital's chief executive. In future, who would guard the guardians, she wanted to know, as in this case the new measures would not have worked.

Mr Dobson replied that the chief executive in the Bristol case had been subjected to disciplinary proceedings so his role as a medical practitioner had been dealt with by the GMC. His role as chief executive would be dealt with by the inquiry.

Surgeon Janardan Dhasmana
Surgeon Janardan Dhasmana, who was censured by the GMC
Liberal Democrat Dr Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon) asked whether the government had plans to protect health service whistleblowers as there was still a culture of fear among many junior medical staff about raising fears over their seniors.

And would extra resources back up the national doctors' audit, he asked.

Mr Dobson replied: "No staff should be frightened to speak out because - other than those at the top - we have told all health authorities and trusts that they must not apply the gagging clauses on staff introduced while the previous government was in power."

He said doing things properly was cheaper than doing them badly.

If the Bristol operations had been a success, millions of pounds would have been saved, as well as the lives of the children, he said.

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