This week the Gosport Independent Panel, which has been looking into deaths at the Gosport War Memorial Hospital between 1988 & 2000, will publish their long awaited report after a 4 year enquiry. Since becoming Member of Parliament for the Gosport Constituency in 2010, I have been determined to support those affected by events at the Hospital to get access to the facts.
My first meeting with someone who had lost a loved one at the hospital during the period in question came in the first few weeks after I was elected. A local taxi driver, Ian Wilson, came to see me to explain the events surrounding the death of his father, Robert in 1998.
Problems at the hospital first came to light in 1998 and 1999 when several police investigations took place, which resulted in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announcing in 2001 that there was insufficient evidence for prosecution, however, the CPS asked CHI (Commission for Health Improvement) to look at events at the hospital.
That CHI Investigation concluded that there was poor practice at the hospital, which led in turn to the Department of Health looking at the hospital death rates. Professor Richard Baker was asked to investigate. This in turn led to the police being asked to investigate 81 deaths at the hospital over a prolonged period (2002-2006). The CPS announced in July 2006 that none of the cases would go to court.
In April 2009 a long awaited inquest in the deaths of several patients found that Dr Jane Barton contributed to 3 of those deaths as a result of the drugs she prescribed. Following that inquest the General Medical Council found Dr Barton guilty of multiple instances of serious professional misconduct and she was subjected to special conditions to practice as a doctor.
In the months after I was elected as the Member of Parliament for Gosport a number of other constituents had contacted me to share their concerns about the way events at GWMH had been handled. It was clear that there was a worrying lack of openness and transparency, in particular the findings of the Professor Baker Review, which had taken place in 2002, had never been made public. The families deserved answers, nothing less, and I was determined to help achieve this.
However, I was also extremely aware of the importance of proceeding with great care and respect. Since May 2010 I have also been contacted by a number of constituents who worked at the Gosport War Memorial Hospital during the years in question, and indeed their loved ones. They spoke of their care and compassion for their patients, their professional integrity and their distress at the allegations that were circulating in the community.
I applied to the Department of Health for the Baker report to be released, but because a further inquest was pending, my request was turned down. My letter requesting the Secretary of State for Health (Andrew Lansley) meet with some of the relatives, with a view to establishing a full public inquiry into the events, was turned down for the same reason.
Frustratingly the last of the inquests did not take place until April 2013, but during those years I took every opportunity to push for when this final inquest was to be concluded, the Baker Report to be published, and to lobby Ministers for a public enquiry to take place, not least because of the distress this delay was causing to the families concerned.
Once the inquest was complete I wrote to the Department of Health requesting that the Baker report be made public and they confirmed in July 2013 that it would be. The report was issued in August 2013. Professor Baker's report was very concerning, but not surprising. It confirmed that opiates were often prescribed before they were needed, suggested that they had almost certainly shortened the lives of some patients and even the possibility that a small number of patients may have been discharged from hospital alive if they had not been prescribed this medication.
Following the publication of this report things moved quickly, I was invited, along with a number of families of those who had died at the GWMH, to meet with the then Health Minister, Norman Lamb, where the offer of an enquiry was put forward and several different options discussed. The families agreed that a 'Hillsborough' type Independent Panel was of interest, but needed further information.
On 21 November 2013 a meeting was held at my Constituency office at 167 Stoke Road, Gosport with Bishop James Jones, the former Bishop of Liverpool who had chaired the Hillsborough Independent Panel, others who had been involved with that Panel, Constituents and others who had lost loved ones at Gosport War Memorial Hospital. The Bishop explained the Panel process, answered many questions, and left it to the relatives to decide whether this was the type of enquiry they would prefer. My staff collected the relatives' response, which was in favour of the Independent Panel Process, but with the request that the Bishop himself be the Chair.
In December 2013 Bishop James Jones was formally named Chairman of the Gosport Independent Panel, which was originally scheduled to finish its work in December 2017. I have met with the Bishop on a number of occasions since then for an update on the progress of the Panel (although I was never updated on any details of the process or findings, because of the vital importance that the Panel remain scrupulously independent.) Initially the meetings were to ask for my support in appealing for those who thought they might be affected by events at the Hospital to come forward. My office were also asked to submit all our evidence and correspondence to the Panel – we handed over 44 items. Last year the Bishop updated me that, because of the higher than expected number of people who had come forward to give evidence, the date would be extended to 20 June 2018 when, as promised, families of those involved would be given first sight of the Report at Portsmouth Cathedral.
In January I was appointed Minister of Care at the Department of Health and Social Care, however I took the decision at that point to officially recuse myself from any Ministerial involvement in these historic cases at the Gosport War Memorial Hospital, or the Independent Panel, so that I could continue to fully represent the interests of my Constituents when the Report was published, without any conflict of interest.
My underlying motivation, since that very first meeting with Ian Wilson back in 2010, has been to support the families of the deceased to finally get the full facts and answers they have been demanding for far too long. It breaks my heart that along the way some relatives, including Mr Wilson, have passed away, never knowing the truth of what happened to their loved ones, never seeing justice. I have always called for openness and transparency - the families deserve nothing less. While I am pleased that the Government has fulfilled their commitment to fund this £13M Independent Panel, as a vital step towards addressing the concerns and uncovering the truth, it has been a very long and hard journey for all those involved.
My team and I have worked hard to ensure that there is a support network in place for those who may be affected by the contents of the report and I am pleased to say that the Department of Health & Social Care have put that in place. Those affected should call 01132545290 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org where comprehensive support will be provided, including counselling where necessary. As ever, my office stands ready to support any constituents.