Bristol heart scandal ‘could happen again’ warns lawyer
The Bristol heart scandal could happen again as hospital units are being kept open despite concerns about their safety, according to a leading lawyer.
Laurence Vick, who handled dozens of cases relating to the deaths and serious injuries of babies and children at Bristol Royal Infirmary, said it is unfair to families that several paediatric heart surgery units whose performance is being reviewed are still operating.
He urged the authorities to publish full details of death and injury rates recorded at each centre before parents agree to let their children have surgery there.
Mr Vick also questioned if it is right that MPs should campaign to keep local units open if they could be putting young patients at risk. Leading politicians including Chris Huhne, the energy secretary; Stephen Dorrell, chairman of the health select committee; and David Miliband, the former foreign secretary, are trying to stop paediatric heart surgery units in their constituencies being shut as part of an official review.
The solicitor, a partner at Michelmores in Exeter, said: “I am worried that despite all the checks and balances that were supposed to be in place, another Bristol could still occur.
“There are reports now that certain units have been under-performing. If the other units under scrutiny are known to have been producing adverse outcomes over a lengthy period of time – otherwise why would they be earmarked for closure – this is completely unacceptable and grossly unfair to the families who have placed their trust in these units in the past or whose children are still to undergo surgery.
“If these reports are correct and the units now under scrutiny continue operating when they know their results are inferior to comparable units then they should call a halt to high-risk procedures at the very least, exactly as Bristol should have done in the early to mid 1990s.”
Mr Vick was joint lead solicitor to the 300 members of the Bristol Heart Children Action Group at the landmark public inquiry that finished exactly a decade ago. It looked into children’s heart surgery at the Bristol Royal Infirmary hospital between 1990 and 1995 where up to 35 children and babies died as a result of poor care but as many as 170 might have survived if they had been treated elsewhere.
In the wake of the Bristol Inquiry it was recommended that paediatric cardiac units perform at least 300 operations a year, and that such surgery be concentrated in a few specialist centres, in order to ensure quality of care.
Last year the NHS Safe and Sustainable review team began assessing the 11 remaining centres in England while the unit at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford was closed, in a separate review, after four babies died.
But other threatened units – including those in Newcastle, Leeds, Leicester, Southampton and London – remain open while a public consultation is carried out into which four or five should stop carrying out the complex surgery on babies and children. A decision on their future is unlikely to be made until the end of the year, and could be delayed still further as the Royal Brompton is taking legal action against the plan.
An independent report has claimed that mortality rates have been higher than expected at some of the surgical units under review, but no official figures on deaths or serious injuries have been published.
Mr Vick, who is still working on four compensation cases relating to children operated on at Bristol who are now brain-damaged, said: “From what I am sure have been genuine patient safety considerations on the part of those involved in the review and the need to avoid another Bristol – with the cost in human lives and the financial cost to the NHS of claims for compensation – the debate has now entered the political arena.
“MPs and doctors don’t want to see their local units close. Neither do many of their constituents but do they really understand the issues involved? Saving lives and giving children with life threatening conditions the best possible chance of survival at a centre of excellence must over-ride the otherwise understandable desire to have a unit serving the local area.”
NHS Specialised Services, which is carrying out the Safe and Sustainable review of children’s congenital heart services, said there was not enough reliable data on mortality and morbidity rates at the centres.
Working class pupils ‘perform better in Slovenia than UK’
Poor children in Britain are more likely to be condemned to educational failure than in most other developed nations, new figures show. In a damning indictment of Labour’s legacy, it emerged that deprived pupils in countries such as Estonia, Indonesia, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Mexico and Slovenia perform better than those from Britain.
Data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development shows some 31 per cent of poor children internationally manage to exceed expectations for their social class in school tests. But in Britain, the proportion slumps to just a quarter – placing the country below the global average and 39th out of 65 countries.
It suggests disadvantaged children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have less chance of climbing the social ladder than in the majority of developed nations.
Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said achievement among the poorest pupils was a “scandal” and suggested a £30billion rise in the schools budget under Labour failed to improve results.
The comments came as the Government threatened to convert hundreds of the poorest-performing primary and secondary schools into independent academies under the leadership of private sponsors in an attempt to drive up standards. Some 200 of the worst primaries will be pulled out of local council control as early as 2012, it emerged.
Addressing head teachers in Birmingham, Mr Gove said: “The scandal which haunts my conscience is the plight of those students from the poorest backgrounds, in the poorest neighbourhoods, in our poorest-performing schools who need us to act if their right to a decent future is to be guaranteed. “We still have one of the most segregated schools systems in the world, with the gap between the best and the worst wider than in almost any other developed nation.”
He added: “Just over half of students get a C pass in GCSE maths and English. And the half which fail are drawn overwhelmingly from poorer backgrounds and are educated in poorer-performing schools.”
In the latest study, the OECD analysed the number of students who “overcome their socio-economic background” to perform well at school. The data – based on independent maths, reading and science tests sat by 15-year-olds in 2009 – shows the proportion of pupils drawn from the poorest 25 per cent in each country who go on to perform above the international average for their social class.
According to figures published this week, more than 70 per cent of poor pupils in parts of China and Hong Kong exceeded the standard expected of them. Korea, Singapore and Japan were also named among the top-performing nations.
Britain was ranked 39th out of 65 countries, below other European competitors such as Portugal, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Ireland and Sweden. It was also rated lower than the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, but it outperformed Germany, Austria and Russia.
The Government has already pledged to bring exams into line with rigorous tests sat in the Far East amid fears school standards are slipping behind other nations.
An argument for marriage? Unwed parents are six times more likely to split by the time their child is five
Perhaps this just shows that more stable people have more stable children
Unmarried parents are six times more likely to split by their child’s fifth birthday than those who are married, say researchers. Cohabiting partners face a ‘disproportionate’ risk of breaking up in the early years of their son or daughter’s life.
The study from the think-tank the Jubilee Centre will reignite concerns that Britain is fast becoming a nation of broken homes.
The trend is particularly worrying because other research shows that children brought up by couples, especially married couples, are likely to do better than youngsters in single parent homes.
Last year Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith warned that children from broken homes are nine times more likely to commit a crime than those from stable families.
Researchers from the Cambridge-based think-tank analysed data from more than 14,000 households and 22,265 adults. Among parents who were living together when their first child was born, 37 per cent separated by the time the child reached five. For couples who were married at their child’s birth, the figure was 6 per cent. By the time the child was 16, 16 per cent of married couples had separated compared to 66 per cent of cohabiting couples – a four-fold difference.
For couples who initially cohabited but subsequently got married, the corresponding risks of separation were 7 per cent and 29 per cent at the child’s fifth and 16th birthdays. This is still a 20 per cent and 80 per cent greater risk compared to couples already married when their first child was born, according to the report, Cohabitation: An Alternative to Marriage? which is published on Monday.
Dr John Hayward, director of the think-tank, said: ‘All the evidence suggests that families headed by married, biological parents who have not previously lived together provide the best environment for both the individuals involved and their children. ‘This has huge personal, social, economic and political consequences for us all.’
Office for National Statistics figures show that nearly one child in three lives without their mother or father.