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Stafford Hospital Inquiry BBC blog: the archive

Chris King

Chris King is BBC Radio Stoke's Stafford correspondent. He has been following the campaign for a public inquiry into the failings at Stafford Hospital from its beginnings in 2007. The campaign achieved its aim in 2010.

This blog represents Chris's personal take on the events at the resulting public inquiry, which is being held at the offices of Stafford Borough Council. The inquiry started in November 2010; Chris has been at nearly every day's sitting of the inquiry.

For regular updates on the evidence, see the links below:


To see latest updates of this blog, please go to:
Chris King Inquiry Blog 2011

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The Inquiry Blog - Archive (Nov 2010 - March 2011)

Friday, 11 March 2011

The problem with sitting in the public inquiry day in/day out, is it tends to take over your life. You become almost addicted to the evidence. If you have to take a day off (like I did last week) you start to pray you do not miss a massive revelation. You also find yourself talking about it to anyone who will listen.

Inside the inquiry room I have a routine: I sit in the same chair on the front row; talk to the same people everyday; try not to drink too much coffee just in case I get a caffeine rush; dash out to my daily broadcast with Radio Stoke's Mid Morning programme just before lunch. This week however that routine was thrown into disarray. On Monday the Chief Executive of the Royal College of Nursing, Peter Carter, was giving evidence.
I admit I was running late, but I arrived to discover that at least one reporter had obviously not seen the seating plan, and had plonked themselves down in my chair. Because of the interest in what Dr Carter had to say there were also several others there too, which meant I was relegated to the second row. It does not sound like a big deal - but you get used to reading the transcripts from a certain position and it can really throw you. As regular readers of this blog will know I normally share the front row with Shaun from the Express & Star, who found himself all the way back in the third row in the afternoon (he was running late too). This was the source of much amusement among others at the inquiry. I did consider explaining to the reporters the error of their ways, and there was also a suggestion that we put a beach towel down the night before (apparently forcibly ejecting theses same reporters is not an option).
Perhaps the best suggestion though is not to be late - although if there are any other journalists reading this, if you could avoid the front row I would be eternally grateful.

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Friday, 4 March 2011

Sorry everybody - this was such a busy week, I' have had no time for the blog. Expect a double episode next week!

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From Monday 21 to Friday 25 February the Stafford Hospital Inquiry was in recess

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Friday, 18 February 2011

Written by Matt Lee

Chris was on holiday this week, so I was in the inquiry hot-seat, and it was a bit of a home-from-home for me. I used to cover Stafford for BBC Radio Stoke and was district reporter there when all the revelations of the serious failings at the hospital came to light.

I met Julie Bailey back in 2007 when she set up Cure The NHS campaign group after her mother Bella died at Stafford Hospital. I heard then the stories of patients being left in their own soiled bed sheets, without medication or pain relief, drinking out of flower vases, and being neglected on wards.

Although 3 years on, it makes it no less shocking to hear how and why some of these things were allowed to happen, and the evidence at the inquiry this week provided an interesting insight.

On Tuesday, we heard from a former member of the board of governors at the hospital, Christine Woodward, who admitted that they should have done more to question the management at the hospital. She admitted they were naive to believe managers when they told the governors things were being done to improve areas of their concern, despite reports in the media of poor patient care.

On Wednesday, two doctors told the inquiry that their concerns over a shortage of nurses and medical staff were raised with management on numerous occasions but nothing was done to tackle the problem.

Consultant Dr Pradip Singh said there had been a climate of fear and intimidation within the hospital trust, and that his worries were met with a "wall of silence".

When he was asked why, having been ignored ny managers, he failed to take complaints outside of the trust, he admitted he was worried about losing his job. He said: "What I did took a lot of guts - but I'm not Nelson Mandela. I had to look after my family and my mortgage".

It seems from the evidence like there was a deep rooted culture at the hospital which did not encourage staff to speak out - but it does seem that promises about things getting better at the hospital are now being followed through effectively.

Dr Singh told the inquiry that things were getting better - that the air of hostility has been lifted, making it easier for staff to voice their concerns. He said: "It's not as simple as flicking a switch, but slowly, slowly, there's no doubt improvements are being made".

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Friday, 11 February 2011

The press area for the public inquiry is just off the public gallery and acts as a retreat for journalists who want a bit of peace and quiet to file a story or ring the office. I generally wander in there around midday so I can work out what I'm going to say during the Stuart George Show. But the timing of your departure from the inquiry room is crucial, you have to make sure that you have enough interesting stuff to talk about but you don't want to miss anything crucial.

Unfortunately this has happened on more than one occasion and you're left to play catch up. To be fair, the press pack does tend to look out for one another. If one leaves the room, they'll bring them up to date on what's been said. I also tend to keep the door open so that I can keep an ear across the evidence, although on one occasion that nearly ended up in an argument with a group of councillors who were complaining about the draft! That said, it's always best to check the transcripts at the end of the day.

The only thing about the press area is that people have to walk through it to get to the toilet, and the cleaning cupboard's there too. This can lead to people talking to you whilst you're trying to type up the evidence, which has led to several conversations with a cleaner who kept complaining about people ringing her whilst she was cleaning the loo! The other thing is that people giving evidence have also been known to walk past just minutes before I'm about to go on air.

Don't get me wrong, I can't report on anything that hasn't been said in the inquiry room, and I have to remain completely impartial. I also know that they could listen to what I have to say on the radio, or even on the BBC iPlayer, but saying it whilst they're standing there is a whole different ball game, especially if they've said something which doesn't show them in a good light. I'm not entirely sure what I'm worried about… maybe one day I should try it, and see what happens.

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Wednesday, 2 February 2011

On your average day there will be two journalists in the public gallery, myself and Shaun from the Express and Star. For five hours a day we sit on rather uncomfortable chairs, in a room with no natural light, staring at three large television screens, one with live pictures of the inquiry room next door, the second with the transcript of what's being said, and the third showing the documents which are being used for evidence.

It can be a rather frustrating experience. As reporters, we're used to asking questions, but here we are merely observers. That means that we're constantly critiquing the performance of both the witness and the Inquiry Counsel who is asking the questions.

It's fair to say that the majority of people who have been asked to give evidence are there because they could or should have done more to highlight the problems at the hospital. Very few of them have actually admitted to it though. Many have someone to blame - the system is a popular one, as is "it wasn't in my remit".

The hospital's former management have also taken quite a bit of criticism too. One witness blamed a woman who wasn't working for the hospital during the period he was talking about.

Listening to the line of questioning can also be a frustrating experience. I'm after the story of where it all went wrong, but the inquiry also needs to make recommendations to improve the system. That can lead to lot of people giving their opinion on how things could be improved. For the inquiry team it could prove vital, but for me it's rather dull.

Don't get me wrong, it may sound like I'm moaning, but I promise you I'm not. As I think I've said before, I admire anyone who takes to the stand, because it's not an easy experience. I'm also extremely grateful that I've been allowed to cover the inquiry so thoroughly because it is a story which needs to be told. Terrible things happened inside that hospital, but what's becoming clear is that things were just as bad on the outside.

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Friday, 27 January 2011

Politics is a funny old game and it appears that for the past 8 years Stafford Borough Council has being playing 'Guess Who?'. But the questions the councillors are asking do not involve the colour of someone's hair…they have been trying to guess who is responsible for scrutinising Stafford Hospital!

In order to explain the problem I will have to take you back to 2003 when the Labour Government introduced Scrutiny Committees. The idea was that these committees of local councillors would take an area of expertise - such as health - and they would be given the power to call to account local managers and policy makers (such as fellow councillors).

In Staffordshire the government gave all the power to the county council's committee - which had to decide which issues and health trusts the district and borough councils should be scrutinising.
Once they had been told which areas to look at, these local committees could write a report demanding a response about anything they were not happy about; they could also refer the matter to other bodies which could dig deeper into an issue than their powers would allow.
In fact, if it got really bad they could even get in touch with the government's Health Secretary - but only if it was in their remit.

Going wrong

But when things started going wrong at Stafford Hospital that didn't happen....and this week the public inquiry has been asking "why"?

I'll be honest with you: it has been a very confusing picture.

We heard from the chief executive of Stafford Borough Council and two councillors who were on the borough council committee, all of whom told the inquiry that there was no formal agreement as to which areas they were supposed to be looking at - until last year.

Councillor Phillip Jones, who was on both the county and borough committees, told the inquiry that he had constantly tried to get clarification as to the borough's role... but he never got it.

This caused a problem. At one point he wrote to the hospital about various issues (including mortality rates and A&E), and at the same time he had heard anecdotal evidence of problems in some areas of surgery.
But he did not raise the other issues - because he didn't think that it was the borough committee's job to do so, (but, then again, he said he did not check with the county council either).

In 2005, when the hospital came to the borough with a proposal to save £4m by cutting 180 jobs, the committee (it is claimed) gave them a good grilling.
But, the current chair of the committee Cllr Ann Edgeller admitted they did not write to the Health Secretary - because they didn't have the power to do so.
They have not written to him about the hospital since, either.

2011

So fast forward to 2011 and what is the current situation?

Well, last year the delegated powers were written down; and the county council took responsibility for all of the county's hospitals. Although, it appears, there was a disagreement over who should be looking after Stafford Hospital.
Despite that, the borough council is still 'calling in' members of hospital management on a regular basis…
What is not clear is: if they have a problem with the hospital, do they legally have the power to do anything about it? It looks like the answer is no.

Neither council is without blame in this. As the chief executive of Stafford Borough told the inquiry, this was "a joint failure".

But what is clear is that, from now on, all of the councils in Staffordshire need to work more closely - so that you, and the councillors themselves, know who is supposed to be scrutinising our local hospitals.

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Friday, 21 January 2011

This week, the coalition government announced its proposals to totally transform the way the NHS is organised, with groups of GPs handed complete control of who runs local health services, and how much they're paid. In South Staffordshire they're ahead of the game, GP consortiums have had control of the purse strings since 2005.

This week local GPs and members of that consortium as well as other local committees began giving evidence to the public inquiry and what they say could be of national importance.

What is apparent is that they were aware of issues at the hospital, but none of them realised how bad things actually were. One described it as a "disaster waiting to happen" just months before the release of the damning Healthcare Commission report into the issues there.

The problem seems to be that they kept their concerns within the medical profession, with the general practice being to talk directly to the hospital. Some practices were even working with management to sort things out by trying to organise pilot schemes all be it with limited success.

But perhaps the most striking evidence we heard this week was from Dr Ian Greaves who is a GP in Gnosall. He told the inquiry that he "would have serious difficulty having the confidence to raise a serious concern" because as a GP "you've got to have respect for hierarchy…you've got to have lots of good evidence… you've got to work with these people again".

In short, developing a relationship with hospital staff and management means he feels uncomfortable about blowing the whistle on any problems. Although he did admit he has raised concerns about the standard of care with the PCT recently. If Dr Greaves' anxieties are shared by the majority of GPs in the country, we could have a major problem.

It is worth pointing out that the Chairman of the Stafford GP Consortium told the inquiry that it's come up with a system to ensure that links with the hospital are more transparent. Members sit on various committees and have had regular meeting with the hospital's management, and they've also carried out unannounced inspections of the hospital too. They also discuss complaints at their meetings.

Nobody is denying that GPs face a difficult challenge over the next few years. Somehow they have to balance the treatment of patients, with the commissioning of services.

But what has become clear over the past week is they also have an added responsibility to ensure the organisations they commission those services from are fit to do the job… because if they start giving contracts to hospitals which are failing as badly as Stafford was, the consequences don't bear thinking about.

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Friday, 14 January 2011

This time last year, Robert Francis was extremely close to the bottom of Cure the NHS's Christmas card list. He was the Chairman of an independent inquiry which they saw as secretive, and a waste of time and money.

When he unveiled his report, Julie Bailey described it as a white wash, and she accused him of "writing his next pay cheque" by suggesting a second stage inquiry. So when the new Health Secretary Andrew Lansley announced he'd be heading up this public inquiry, there was a fair amount of scepticism.

Fast forward to January 2011 and they did send him a Christmas card (all be it a bit of cheeky one). So what's changed?

First of all, he's in charge of the inquiry that they campaigned for, and the general consensus is he's not doing a bad job of it either. In reality there was no other choice for the role. Having chaired the independent inquiry, he was the only one with the experience and background knowledge to do it. If they'd asked anyone else it would have taken months to get them up to speed.

But what we are learning about him is that he is intelligent, witty and charming, but he's not afraid to put witnesses in their place, or ask difficult questions.

You shouldn't underestimate what he has to do. He listens to five hours of evidence everyday. He can't afford to miss anything because he may have to ask for a clarification. The evidence he's hearing isn't necessarily interesting stuff either but for what he has to achieve it could be vital.

When it's all done, he'll have to come up with a report which not only identifies what went wrong with the bodies who are supposed to be regulating the NHS, but also come up with suggestions to prevent it happening again. With such a massive change to the Health Service his report could be vital to its future.

That said, his biggest challenge is yet to come. He has the power to compel people to give evidence. Some have already been sent legal notices ordering them to come in, but there is one man who everyone is waiting to hear from. His name is Martin Yeates and he is the Hospital's former Chief Executive.

He gave written evidence to the last inquiry because he said he was too ill to attend. All the indications are he will say the same thing this time around. Robert Francis will face extreme pressure to make him give evidence in person, the decision he makes will determine whether he's on Cure the NHS's Christmas card list this time next year.

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Friday, 7 January 2011

The inquiry resumes on Monday and we're expecting to hear from more people who were involved in the Public Watchdogs. They of course had the power to inspect the hospital, report any problems, and supposedly hold them to account.

One of the issues which has been raised on numerous occasion is how qualified are people like you and me to spot if something's not right. Even Julie Bailey refused to go and inspect the hospital because she didn't know what she was looking for.

This was brought into sharp focus for me over Christmas. My Dad was taken into a hospital in Cheshire on Christmas Eve and spent the next five nights there, and I have to admit that visiting him was one of the most uncomfortable experiences I've ever had.

Having spent the majority of the last few months hearing evidence of how people apparently did nothing about problems at Stafford Hospital my head was swimming. I was asking myself questions like "should that plastic wrapping be on the floor?", "has she noted down his medication?", and "is that dried blood on the clothes of the patient in the next bed?"

He also told me stories of confused patients calling out not knowing where they were, as well as getting out of their beds and wandering off. What made matters worse was I didn't want to say anything to nursing staff just in case I was being oversensitive.

At this point it's only right to say that my Dad was extremely happy with his care, and even hugged the nurses when he left. But what would have happened if he hadn't have been happy? What if that hospital was going through the same problems as Stafford did? What should I be looking out for? What would I have done? And who would I have gone to?

I'd like to think I'd have exposed the problems there just like Cure the NHS did, after all I'm a journalist, that's my job. The honest answer is I don't know. I just hope I never find myself in a situation where I have to answer those questions.

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Friday, 17 December 2010

This morning, BBC Radio Stoke reported that between April and October the public inquiry cost just over £1.4m. That figure is rising all the time and it's probably already passed the £1.7m it cost to stage the independent inquiry. So in a time when money is tight, and we're seeing budgets slashed across the country, can we really afford it? Or, as many believe, is it just a complete waste of time and money?

Let's start with the case for the defence: firstly there is a feeling that this inquiry is covering old ground. Yes we have heard about the appalling treatment that people received (in graphic detail), but what we didn't know is what happened when they tried to complain. The hospital managers who insisted that lessons had been learnt when they were just carrying on regardless. We didn't know how many organisations were told there were problems, and did nothing, because they either didn't think it was their job, hadn't collated the statistics, or simply were just too trusting when hospital management told them the problems were in the past.

It could also be argued there's a benefit to the local economy. There are a lot of legal teams who attend everyday; I'd put money on the fact that hardly any of them bring a packed lunch, and that some of them will be staying in local hotels for most of the week.

You may think that from what you've just read, I don't see any downsides to this inquiry. I do, however, harbour one fear. That is we spend all this money, that the conclusions that Robert Francis come up with could make a real difference, and that the politicians ignore them.

Julie Bailey has already promised to ensure that doesn't happen. The Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has also told BBC Radio Stoke in the past that he will be looking very carefully at the findings - which will help him with his plans to transform the NHS. But if he doesn't act on them, then YES, it will be a complete waste of money.

The inquiry is now on a break and it'll reconvene on 10 January, but I'll try to update this blog between now and then. If I don't see you before - have a fantastic Christmas!

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Friday, 10 December 2010

Sitting in the inquiry room you can go through a rollercoaster ride of emotions. There are days when you can't believe what you're hearing, days when you feel yourself welling up, and some days you just want to bang your head against the wall and ask "What were they thinking?"

Tuesday was one of those days when I went through all of those emotions and more. That was the day we heard from Nicola Monte. What made her evidence different is that she is one of those who received appalling treatment and survived.

With her husband sat behind her as she fought through the tears to tell the story of how MRSA had almost killed her. We heard how she'd had an abscess which covered two thirds of her back, and how it was drained on the ward without an anaesthetic. She described how machinery was "caked" in dirt, and how stool samples were allowed to build up because nurses were too busy to collect the pots.

At one point she was told she'd be wheelchair bound and could be dead within five years. She got a second opinion and following several operations, she's on the mend. Her evidence is important because she gave us a brutally honest first hand account of her experiences.

Last week I talked about the courage it takes for people to give evidence to the inquiry… Nicola could be the bravest of all. (If you want to read her evidence it starts on page 59 of Tuesday's transcript on the inquiry website)

On a lighter note…I always like to give you an idea of what happens behind the scenes and there's a competition going on amongst the local reporters as to who can get the most mentions in evidence. The Express and Star is currently leading the way although Radio Stoke has come up several times including in a letter to the Department of Health.

Next week is the final week before the Inquiry adjourns for Christmas… I'll keep you updated throughout the week on BBC Radio Stoke.

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Friday, 3 December 2010

You should never underestimate the courage shown by witnesses giving evidence to the public inquiry. For some they have to relive the most harrowing days of their lives, whilst others will inevitably face tough questions over their actions.

But probably the bravest person this week was Dr Mark Whitehouse who gave evidence on Monday. He is a junior doctor who admitted that he was advised "to be careful what he said" by senior staff. This wasn't in a malicious or threatening way but apparently people who've given evidence to other inquiries have found it difficult to get a job afterwards.

Mark was there because his grandmother had died at Stafford Hospital but what he told the inquiry about the medical profession made your jaw drop. He admitted he wasn't entirely sure who to go to if he had a problem, and that he'd heard (from credible sources) that nurses were drafted onto wards at short notice to sort out problems ahead of "unannounced inspections". As he said himself, it could lead to "career suicide" but his admissions may prove invaluable.

On a lighter note… I'd like to pay tribute to one of the Public Inquiry's unsung heroes - the lady who does the transcripts. She sits in the corner with a pair of headphones on, frantically tapping away at her keyboard recording everything that people say.

The problems start when witnesses talk too fast. As the Chairman always says you should always look for the "pained look on her face" (that and the small plume of smoke rising from the keyboard). I'm not sure how she does it. I don't make a note of everything that's said but my hands still feel like they're ready to drop off!

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Friday, 26 November 2010

It's been an emotional week at the public inquiry. It was the first time we'd heard from the relatives of those who died as a result of their treatment at hospital. You may have seen reports on the TV or radio, or read it in the press but it's not until you hear it first hand that you realise how badly their lives have been affected by the whole experience.

One witness told me it sounds "like something out of a Stephen King novel" and she wasn't wrong. Members of Cure the NHS listened to the evidence throughout, and you get a real sense of the bond which has grown between them. They were there to support each other at what was clearly a difficult time.

There were some lighter moments too. A particular highlight was retired nurse Catherine Matthews, who described the response she'd received from the Department of Health as "four pages of gobbledygook". It was also clear that despite her age and failing eyesight she was desperate to get back on the wards and sort things out…. and she'd do it too. I certainly wouldn't argue with her!




SEE ALSO
Stafford Hospital Inquiry diary
20 Dec 10 |  People & Places

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