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6.12 pm

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): First, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) in thanking Mr. Speaker for granting us this Adjournment debate tonight. Secondly, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I shall not repeat what he said because he has covered the issue adequately, and I am conscious of the fact that we want to try to give the Minister adequate time to respond because it is no good our having a debate without a proper response. That is what the debate is all about.

We recognise that a lot of good things have happened, certainly since the change in chairman of Walsgrave hospital. I would not want to detract from the fact that a lot of positive things have happened at that hospital. I want to make it perfectly clear—I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree with this—that this is not an attack on staff or anything like that and it is not necessarily an attack on the management, but some of us come into politics because we have a sense of justice and we want to see justice done. It is not for us to judge who is right or wrong in this case, but I am alarmed that this is probably the third case that we have been involved in that has taken nearly two years to resolve.

Of course hon. Members will know that, fairly recently, the National Audit Office drew attention to the costs in these cases and to the length of the procedures. In fact, it made about 10 or perhaps 12 recommendations, if I remember correctly off the top of my head. In fairness to the Government, I have to say that they have made suggestions on implementing some of those recommendations. However, I would disagree with the Government about the six-month time frame. Most cases could be resolved in about three months. Many years ago, I used to be involved in industrial relations—I am not an expert in them, but I have a shrewd idea of how those things can be conducted.

Given that there had been a change at the top at Walsgrave, we took the view that the slate should have been wiped clean. The charges against Dr. Mattu were made before the new arrangements came in at Walsgrave, and we must be clear about that. I hope that the panel that has been set up will be totally independent, and I want reassurance from the Minister on that. We know that a list is used, but we have not had too much detail on that.

My second concern is that, if the panel recommends reinstatement, we do not have the situation in which the trust says no. That has happened before in one or two cases, but I hope that, in this case, the trust will feel bound to accept a person back into a job that he is well qualified to do. In fact, anyone who has considered Dr. Mattu's qualifications knows that he is extremely well qualified.

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That leads me to the next point that I hope the Minister will consider. Given that the doctor was not suspended for medical incompetence—on the contrary, he is an able cardiac specialist—I would have thought that the investigation should have been carried out before the suspension was proceeded with. However, in this and other cases, someone is suspended straight away and the matter may not be resolved for two years. The individual and his family suffer much hardship and, whatever we might think about the individuals involved, we must recognise the effect on their families. The Minister should seriously consider that point. However, when it can be proved that a doctor is guilty of medical incompetence and medical malpractice, it is right and proper that they should be suspended right away. I make that distinction.

My hon. Friend touched on another point that I wish to make. Rough estimates suggest that, over the past two, three or probably four years, the three cases together have probably cost the national health service £1.4 million or £1.5 million. The costs have not stopped yet, because the doctor is still suspended. That is a lot of money that could have been used in a far better way for health service delivery or care.

As I have said in previous debates, it is also strange that someone should be suspended within two or three days of an attempt at whistleblowing. Someone may put their neck on their line to expose something that they think is wrong, and Dr. Mattu exposed the practice in the hospital of what I term "five in a four-bed ward" that has been investigated and may be the subject of further investigations. He certainly thought that patients were at risk, and I am alarmed that suspension should result from that.

One would not have to be a very good shop steward to know that one can put a case together if one is determined to put a case together. That is the easiest thing in the world. The hardest thing in the world is to make a case that stands the test. My hon. Friend has already demonstrated that there are question marks against the case against Dr. Mattu to say the least.

I am conscious of the fact that we want the Minister to have adequate time to reply, but we cannot reinforce often enough the point about these lengthy suspensions. If they relate to a non-medical issue, the doctor should remain in post until such time as the case is properly heard—not the other way around. I have already drawn a distinction on that.

I agree with my hon. Friend that, to re-establish credibility in the personnel system and the disputes procedure, an independent body should have a good look at not necessarily the merits of the three cases, but the way in which they have been handled by the trust. There is a tremendous sense of anger among the public in Coventry not necessarily about who is guilty of what, but about the length of time and the costs that it has taken to try to resolve the matter.

Having made those points that reinforce my hon. Friend's argument, I shall leave the Minister adequate time to reply. However, once again, my hon. Friend and I wish to thank Mr. Speaker.

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6.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) and for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on their tenacious campaign to right what they see as an important wrong. Both have substantial experience of trade unions from different aspects, so I challenge them to put themselves in the place of a shop steward representing the individual who originally made complaints against Dr. Mattu and the others who made complaints against him. If they were in the position of that shop steward, would they be happy to listen to the comments that have just been made? Would they be happy to reinstate somebody against whom serious complaints have been made, knowing that the complainants still have to work in that environment?

Would my hon. Friends be happy to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West make unsubstantiated allegations against an individual involved in this case, knowing that the trust cannot respond like for like because this matter may go to court one day and the trust must make sure that the proceedings are not prejudiced; and knowing that I, as the Minister, cannot respond like for like, because that might prejudice future proceedings? I challenge my hon. Friends to put themselves in the position of people representing the accusers or alleged victims of Dr. Mattu.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson: I would be unhappy to hear my own remarks but it is entirely right to make them. There was only one accuser and one allegation. Two days after that allegation was made, Dr. Mattu was suspended for alleged victimisation without any investigation, That is the worst practice and procedure to adopt.

Dr. Ladyman: Surely my hon. Friend accepts that whether or not it was appropriate to leave Dr. Mattu in place depends on the nature and seriousness of the allegation. Although there was only one complainant initially, subsequently more than one person was shown to have a grievance against Dr. Mattu. We could debate the case ad nauseam.

My hon. Friend is right to say that it is the job of the House to bring facts into the open but it is also the job of the House to be even-handed. The position in which my hon. Friend places me does not allow me or the trust to be even-handed in the public domain. These matters must be handled in the proper way by due process, allowing both sides to have their say, to allow a judgment to be made.

Mr. Robinson: I take my hon. Friend's argument that it is difficult for him to reply to some points but when it comes to even-handedness, that is precisely the subject of our principal charge against the trust. It has not been even-handed. Dr. Mattu made a number of serious allegations against other people working in the hospital but they have not been investigated. Nobody else has been suspended. Equally, the charges against Dr. Gieowarsingh remain on the table. They have not been properly investigated and the trust refuses to do anything about them.

Dr. Ladyman: Even-handedness is important but I challenge some of my hon. Friend's interpretation of events.

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As this is not the first debate on the subject, I shall reiterate some of the points made by the Under-Secretary my hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), when she responded on the last occasion. I will not deal in detail with national health service disciplinary procedures, other than to acknowledge that the Government have already said that they are not fit for the purpose and we are in the process of dramatically transforming them.

I, too, am worried about the length of time that it is taking to resolve the case. Some of Dr. Mattu's supporters alleged that he had been suspended not because of bullying but because he was a whistleblower. It was said in the previous debate that the Government expect a climate of openness and dialogue in the NHS and that we will not tolerate the victimisation of whistleblowers. As part of that, I would expect all NHS employers to operate in the spirit of the guidance that we issued in 1999 and updated in July last year.

I stress at the outset that, after the previous Adjournment debate on the subject, I took note of the points that were made because the hospital falls within my regional responsibilities. I had a meeting with my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry, North-West and for Coventry, South, at which they reinforced many of those points. I looked into the matter and I did not find evidence of improper behaviour by those who decided on the action against Dr. Mattu. After examining the nature of the complaints, and with due regard both to the rights of Dr. Mattu and those of the complainants, whom, I reiterate, appear to be ignored in the debate, I reject the idea that the action resulted from any whistleblowing for which he may have been responsible.

Let me outline the background. Dr. Mattu has been employed at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire national health service trust since May 1997 as a consultant cardiologist. He was suspended from duty on full pay on 21 February by the then joint medical director at the trust, following allegations of serious bullying. A further allegation was made after Dr. Mattu had been suspended, corroborating the original complaint. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary confirmed, the suspension was and remains neutral, pending investigation of the allegations. I accept the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West that suspension is distressing and not neutral from a personal point of view. However, the circumstances are not ideal.

On the one hand, we have a person against whom serious allegations have been made and, on the other, an individual who believes that they have been victimised and bullied. We have to take into account the best way in which to manage the needs and feelings of both people.

I stress that the complaints against Dr. Mattu are serious and originate from more than one source. They cannot be ignored. If they were swept under the carpet, it would be unfair to those who made the allegations. A formal investigation was therefore conducted in accordance with the trust employment procedures for

15 Jan 2004 : Column 1054

clinical staff. They have been agreed by the trust's local negotiating committee and are recognised as fair and appropriate.

During the investigation, statements were taken from people who were identified in the complaints about Dr. Mattu and several interviews were held. Dr. Mattu remains suspended. The joint medical director of the trust has reviewed his suspension fortnightly. After the investigation, an independent panel meeting was held on 30 January 2003, in accordance with trust procedure and agreed with relevant parties, to review the evidence and consider what, if any, further action was necessary on the continuing suspension. The panel undertook a preliminary assessment and found that a prima facie case of personal misconduct needed to be answered.

Dr. Mattu engaged the services of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association and a solicitor. The trust has been required to seek legal advice to reduce the risk of any legal breaches that may compromise the progress of the case. Not compromising any future procedures limits the trust's ability to respond publicly to some of the things that Dr. Mattu's supporters allege.

It is fair to say that progress has been slow. That is due to lengthy and complex disputes between the trust, Dr. Mattu and his representatives about the application of trust procedures. Dr. Mattu's unavailability due to sickness has also been a factor in the delays and it is therefore important not to attribute all the delay to the system.

Representatives of West Midlands South strategic health authority met the trust on 30 July 2003 to review the trust's processes and to ensure that the fundamental principles of due process and natural justice had been followed. The meeting was followed by a further meeting with the trust and Ian Stone.

I shall briefly summarise the remaining details of the proceedings because I want to comment on the current position before I have to resume my seat. Ian Stone, who is the chief medical officer's adviser on disciplinary procedures, has also examined the case. He acknowledged that it was complex but he has advised that the only appropriate way in which to resolve it is through the disciplinary process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West knows that we suggested that a further attempt should be made to obtain a compromise solution. Such an attempt was made early in December. Consequently, meetings were held on 10 and 12 December between the trust and Dr. Mattu. Both sides agreed that the most appropriate way forward was the disciplinary process. I am sorry that Dr. Mattu's support group has tried to portray that differently, but it was a joint decision about the right way in which to proceed. In my view, it is the only possible forward. We must take into account the needs of Dr. Mattu and the accuser. There is no prospect of doing anything other than allowing the disciplinary process to run its course. I know that that will be a great disappointment to my hon. Friends, who have been tenacious about the matter. However, given the complexity of the case, I see no alternative but to allow the disciplinary process to continue.

Question put and agreed to.

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