Remember Rose Gibb? She was the hospital chief executive who was given a payoff to quit her job after a Clostridium difficile (C.diff) outbreak in which 90 people died. After she had signed what she thought was a legally binding agreement, the health secretary stepped in and ordered the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust to stop the payment. When Ms Gibb went to court to try to get her money the high court ruled that the health secretary had acted legally because the trust had exceeded its powers by making an over-generous payment to Ms Gibb.
I was surprised by this verdict at the time and, sure enough, the court of appeal overturned it yesterday. In his summing up Lord Justice Sedley said that the Department of Health had decided “to sacrifice on the altar of public relations a senior official who had done nothing wrong.” That’s judge-speak for ‘panicked in the face of a tabloid-led witch-hunt’.
There is an obvious similarity between this case and that of Sharon Shoesmith where a hysterical media campaign led the government to step in and, effectively, force a public body to break the law. (OK, OK, I know that hasn’t yet been tested in the Sharon Shoesmith case yet but if she doesn’t win her unfair dismissal case I will be utterly gobsmacked.)
This is yet another example of the government’s pretend-localism. We believe in local autonomy – let’s free local authorities and NHS trusts from stifling central control. Until the next tabloid campaign, at which point we will steam in and take over faster than you can say ‘Foundation Trust’.
Will it be any different under the Coalition? Probably not.