The Department of Health (DoH) has been criticised for the “extremely troubling” way it failed to produce on time potentially crucial documents to aid the Mid Staffordshire Public Inquiry and throwing the schedule off track.
The DoH, which is sponsoring the Inquiry into appalling standards of care at Stafford Hospital between 2005 and 2009, was due to start giving evidence on 13 June, but the bulk of the documentation requested by the Inquiry team had still not been received by mid-March 2011.
Tom Kark QC, counsel to the Inquiry, said it was now “not feasible” to start hearing the Department’s evidence then “and we want to put on record very plainly why, in our view, that is the position”.
DoH solicitor Gerard Clarke denied the delay in providing information reflected a “lack of openness”, saying it was due to a “misunderstanding”.
Mr Kark said the Inquiry team wrote to the DoH on 6 July 2010 asking for a provisional statement by 13 August 2010. This was received, with a “ready acknowledgement that the Department had much more to offer by way of evidence”.
The Inquiry team then presumed the DoH was “hard at work” identifying and preparing relevant documentation, said Mr Kark. But on 15 December, an email arrived from the Department saying it was continuing to assess all potentially relevant documents and would make them available to the Inquiry.
This prompted a letter from Inquiry chairman Robert Francis QC on 12 January 2011, reminding the DoH of its duties under the Inquiries Act and warning that the later documents were disclosed, the greater the risk to the Inquiry timetable and “the more my team and I are hindered in putting questions to witnesses”.
To speed up the process, Mr Francis attached a list of categories of documents the Inquiry team wanted disclosed “urgently”.
A series of meetings, starting on 18 January, then followed between the DoH and Inquiry solicitor Peter Jones and his team, and a number of emails were exchanged. A further package of relevant material was received in mid-March, “which triggered another letter from the inquiry solicitor, expressing great concern at the nature of the disclosure and expressing the concern that what was highly relevant material had not been provided much earlier”.
On 17 March, the DoH wrote to say a “department-wide trawl” was being commissioned by the DoH, but adding: “We cannot yet give a firm indication of the overall volume of evidence to be disclosed because it is held in a range of different locations”.
When the first batch of material did arrive, on 21 March, “it was in a box. It had no covering letter and no index to the contents. The contents were not in date order. Further boxes then arrived with indexes to the material, and the provision of material has continued sporadically until the most recent delivery at the very end of last month”.
Mr Kark said the Inquiry team had now received 22 tranches of documentation, comprising around 2,500 documents.
“But it is right to say that inevitably the Inquiry solicitor and his team will need to interview witnesses again. Today is 5 May and to date, apart from the provisional statement, we have not received any statements from the Department of Health and they, it seems, have only just completed the disclosure process. They have also indicated there may be a small amount of material still to come. Given that the Department of Health is the sponsoring department for this public inquiry, and had been engaged with it from the beginning, we find the fact that the disclosure of documents from the Department is still ongoing and has been performed in the way that it has been performed extremely troubling.”
Mr Clarke said he did not accept “all the criticisms” made, saying there had been a “misunderstanding” over what documents were needed.
“It has been a very substantial task to collate those documents and present them in a way which will avoid the risk of simply deluging the inquiry or deluging the other core participants with documents which won’t assist.
“The Department flagged up in its provisional statement last August that it was committed to complete openness and candour with this Inquiry and that is still the case, and the Department has striven to respond to requests from the inquiry promptly and carefully.”
The DoH had “indicated” it hoped to receive guidance from the Inquiry as to the categories of document that would be helpful.
Asked by Mr Francis if, therefore, “no action was taking place” between August 2010 and the start of 2011, Mr Clarke said: “So I gather to be the case, and it looks as though effectively there’s been a misunderstanding between the Inquiry and the Department as to whose court the ball was in at that time.”
He added: “We do regret the situation…but we don’t agree that this is something which reflects either a lack of openness on the part of the Department or indeed a failure to apply adequate resources because it’s been a very significant task.”
Mr Francis said it was clear the Inquiry timetable would have to be changed as a result, saying: “We find ourselves in an avowedly unhappy situation. Without wishing to attribute blame or conduct an inquiry within an inquiry, for whatever reason there has been a disappointing and surprising delay in disclosure. Other core participants, with vast volumes of documents, have managed to produce what the inquiry required in a rather shorter space of time.”
This story first appeared on the NHS Local website