Richard Barr Writer (and lawyer)

Open Government or Closed Doors?

This Government makes much of its openness. Its Website calls itself "open.gov". Superficially there seems to be greater accountability and transparency in its dealings with the public. The Government Website says:

"The Government is committed to the principle of an open and modern government." It refers to the Government's plans to introduce "greater openness in the public sector"

Yet like so much in this country, window dressing simply conceals the fact that the curtains are closed. This has been brought into sharp focus in the past few days, when the families of the victims of the mass murderer Dr. Harold Shipman were finally told that the inquiry into his activities was to be held in private, that they would not be allowed legal representation, let alone have it paid for out of public funds, and that their only assistance during the inquiry would come from representatives of Victim Support.

The decision is reminiscent of the case of Beverly Allitt (the nurse who killed and injured children in her care at a Lincolnshire hospital). There, again, the families were told that there was to be no Public Inquiry.

It could be argued that a Public Inquiry is not appropriate in the unique circumstances of Dr. Shipman's bizarre activities: if a doctor decides to murder his patients, then that is a criminal activity which must be outside the scope of any public interest issue.

If that is the official view then it is erroneous. There are many matters of public importance surrounding the case of Shipman. Not least of these are the ease with which he was able to persuade other doctors to countersign cremation certificates, the fact that he was allowed to practise unsupervised even after a serious drugs-related finding by the GMC, the general lack of control over the activities of general practitioners and the failure of anyone to spot that the death rate among his patients was higher than anyone else’s.

It may not be the fault of anyone other than Shipman that he became a murderer; one does not expect a genial family doctor to do such things. But whether he was a killer, or simply a substandard practitioner, it is astonishing that no one was monitoring his work, or noting that he was acquiring huge quantities of lethal drugs.

An inquiry held in private without legal representatives present may save a few thousand pounds. It may enable lessons to be learned without too much public embarrassment being caused. It may (just) permit those who were involved in decision making to speak more freely than they otherwise would have done.

What it will not do is reassure either the families of the victims or the public at large that no stone has been left unturned. It will not give the families the opportunity to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions, and have those questions answered in public. It will not give them the feeling that they have made sure that everything which could have been done, will have been done to prevent this horror being repeated anywhere else in the country.

Above all it will not give reassurance that in this country we have a Government which fearlessly faces up to unpleasant issues, and is prepared to tackle them openly, even if the results are unpalatable. In short, open government behind closed doors, gives the lie to some of the most fundamental claims of New Labour.

Published in Solicitors Journal 5 May 2000

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