When will the First Minister ‘get a grip of this rotten health board,’ asks Labour leader
Anas Sarwar takes on Nicola Sturgeon over hospital scandal.
By Bill Heaney
Two years ago, Anas Sarwar, the leader of Scottish Labour, stood in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament and revealed what brave NHS whistleblowers had uncovered about water contamination at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and Royal Children’s Hospital in Glasgow, which taks patients from West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute.
“It was met with denial, delay and attempts to bully into silence by the health board.,” Mr Sarwar told MSPs at Holyrood on Thursday.
He added: “Two years on, we have had a discredited independent review, a case note review, the commencement of a public inquiry and on-going police investigations. Every step of the way, we have had to fight the system to bit by bit, piece by piece, uncover the truth.
“Thanks to the case note review, we know that two children’s deaths were linked to hospital-acquired infections. There is now a criminal investigation into one of those deaths, that of Milly Main. However, the health board referred Milly’s case to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service only when her family applied for a fatal accident inquiry.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and (left to right), with Jonathan McColl, Jane Grant CEO and chairman John Brown., of the ‘rotten health board’.
Mr Sarwar said the health board, which is led by chairman John Brown and Chief Executive Jane Grant, and has as its local representative SNP council leader Cllr Jonathan McColl, who once said it was more important for him to catch up with his constituency correspondence than attend a health board meeting, did not take that opportunity to refer the case of the second child, nor did it take the opportunity to refer it when the case note review was published.
He added: “I met the Crown Office, which did not know the details of the second child and had to ask me to provide them. I could do so only thanks, once again, to the bravery of whistleblowers. That case note review was commissioned by the Scottish Government. Why was that child’s death not reported for investigation?”
Stating the obvious, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, told parliament: “These are serious matters that the Government has taken and continues to take seriously. The Government commissioned the independent review, and I do not accept that it is discredited, although the Government also accepted that there had to be further process to ensure that parents and families who had been affected by what happened at the Queen Elizabeth hospital knew that it had been fully and properly investigated.
“The Government established the public inquiry that is under way. It will take its course and is completely independent of Government and, of course, of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. As Anas Sarwar has said, there is also a live police investigation into some of the cases that have been discussed in the chamber before.
“For all those reasons, it would not be right, appropriate or helpful to the families concerned for me to get further into the detail of any of those cases, given the independent processes that are under way.
“However, as I have said before, I want to leave no one in any doubt about how seriously the Government and I take these issues, or about how determined we are, through the processes that we have established in the form of the public inquiry, to get to the answers and the truth. Then all of us, as a Parliament, will have the opportunity to reflect on those findings and consider what further action is necessary.”
However, Mr Sarwar was not content with her answer. He said: “I think that the First Minister misses the fundamental issue here, which is that campaigners, families and whistleblowers are still having to take on the system to get answers, instead of the system working in their favour.
“At the heart of this is grieving families. We know that one of the families had not been told the truth about why their child died and had not been contacted. The First Minister gave Parliament a personal commitment that every effort would be made to contact that family. I would appreciate an update on progress with that.
Milly Main’s death is being investigated because of the bravery of Kimberly Darroch, pictured with the MSP, in going on television and speaking in a newspaper about what happened to her daughter, Sarwar told the Scottish Parliament.
“There is a fundamental issue here. In the one case, Milly’s family is fighting for answers, and they now have a criminal investigation into her death. The other family had been kept in the dark, and until now there has been no criminal investigation into their child’s death. Those cases should not be being treated differently.
“It should not take a family publicly fighting for answers—that is not acceptable. Criminal investigations should have been launched into both deaths as soon as the circumstances became clear. Why is it still falling to whistleblowers, families and campaigners to do the job of the health board and the job of the Scottish Government for them?”
The First Minister replied: “I have the greatest respect for whistleblowers, and I have the greatest respect and the greatest sympathy for the families. I do not hesitate to say that.
“It was the Government, through the previous health secretary Jeane Freeman, who commissioned and established the public inquiry. The public inquiry is now under way. There are criminal investigations under way. It is, rightly, not up to me which cases are investigated from a criminal perspective and which are not. It is up to the police and the Crown Office.
“It is important to try not to divide on such issues, but to recognise the actions of, in this case, Anas Sarwar. I know that he cares deeply about the families involved. That is why I also know, or at least hope, that he will recognise that the worst thing I could do, standing here as First Minister, in light of the independent processes that are under way—a statutory public inquiry and criminal investigations—would be to in any way inadvertently prejudice either of those processes by getting further into the detail right now.
Ten year old Milly pictured with her mother, Kimberly Darroch. Family picture
“We have done what I think is the right thing in establishing the independent inquiry. It is entirely for the police and the Crown Office to determine what criminal investigations are undertaken. It is incumbent on all of us who take the issues seriously and want to get to the answers that we allow those processes to take their course. Of course, when we have the findings from them, the Parliament will have not just the opportunity but the duty to reflect on any further action that is necessary.”
The Labour leader pointed out that the First Minister did not give an update on the progress in finding the family [of the second child].
He added: “I think that she is also missing the fundamental point that it should not take a family having to campaign in a newspaper to get a child’s death investigated, which is fundamentally what has happened. Milly Main’s death is being investigated because of the bravery of Kimberly Darroch in going on television and speaking in a newspaper about what happened to her daughter.
“The other family does not have the opportunity to do that because they do not know what happened to their child. That cannot be a reason not to have a criminal investigation into that child’s death. Months ago, I asked the First Minister to help to find the family and, years ago, I asked her to hold the health board to account. Every time we ask the Government to take action, little happens. Every bit of progress has been fought for by the families and the campaigners.”
Mr Sarwar said the public inquiry was hard fought for and won by the families and the campaigners, not by the Government.
He pointed out that Nicola Sturgeon was health secretary when the hospital was commissioned, she was First Minister when the hospital was opened and she has been in charge throughout this scandal.
“Surely there must come a point when it stops being whistleblowers, families and campaigners taking on the state in order to get answers and, instead, the state takes the side of the whistleblowers, families and campaigners to find the answers and get justice.
“We cannot wait for the outcome of the public inquiry for families to get justice. That could take years. Words of sympathy from the First Minister are, frankly, wearing thin. What is it going to take for Nicola Sturgeon to take responsibility, own the crisis, get a grip of this rotten health board and get the families the truth and justice that they deserve?”
However, Ms Sturgeon rebutted the Labour leader’s allegations: “I apologise for not addressing the point about the efforts to trace the second family. Last time Anas Sarwar asked about that, I set out the steps that the health board had taken to try to locate the family.
“As I understand it, the board has not located the family. As I understand it, that is not for the want of trying and effort, and appropriate steps will continue to be taken.
“On the issue of criminal investigations, it is a fundamental point of constitutional democracy that it is not up to the First Minister of the country—at any time, whoever he or she may be—to determine what cases are and are not subject to criminal investigation. It would be deeply improper if that was the case.”
“However, It is not credible for Anas Sarwar to say that a public inquiry was fought for and campaigned for—I accept that, although the Government did establish the inquiry—and then in the next breath say that the inquiry does not matter, we cannot wait for it and we have to do something different. It is an independent statutory public inquiry.
“Those who have a genuine interest in getting to the answers and the truth now have a duty to allow that inquiry to properly do its work. That is what the Government will do and I would suggest that that is what Anas Sarwar needs to do, as well.”
- The First Minister said criminal investigations are “a fundamental point of constitutional democracy”. Perhaps she should inform the SNP group on West Dunbartonshire of that. Editor