Justice for LB: Southern Health pleads guilty

Part of the frontage of Banbury Court House, a two-storey yellow stone building.In another chapter of the ongoing battle to bring to book those responsible for the death of Connor Sparrowhawk (known as Laughing Boy or LB) in a bath in an NHS learning disability facility in Oxford in 2013, today the NHS trust responsible, Southern Health, pled guilty at Banbury magistrates’ court, Oxfordshire, to breaching section 3 of the Health and Safety Act, namely failing to ensure the safety of people other than employees. Sentencing was meant to take place on 12th October at Oxford Crown Court (the magistrate can only levy a very inadequate £5,000 fine) but the trust are in court on charges brought by the Care Quality Commission that day, so it is likely to be delayed until the new year. The management has changed somewhat since Connor’s death, with the then CEO Katrina Percy resigning in October 2016 (after having served in an ‘advisory’ role since nominally stepping down as CEO in August 2016) and all the non-executive directors resigning in March 2017; Connor’s mother, Dr Sara Ryan, tweeted that they “were dragged to the guilty plea by meticulous work by the HSE” and that Katrina Percy was still sitting on a £200,000 payout.

It’s still appalling that it has taken more than four years to get to this point; Southern Health have strenuously avoided taking any responsibility until they are forced to, in large part because of the persistence of Connor’s family and their friends, and as Dr Ryan says, the HSE. They behaved like a driver who has caused minor damage to someone’s car in a shunt on the A34 — as a professional driver, I’m well aware that we’re told to simply avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as an admission of guilt — not like a group of professionals who were supposed to keep someone safe, who needed to be kept safe, and didn’t. In fact, they (and to a certain extent also, Oxfordshire county council) attempted to shift blame, including onto Connor’s family, who they claimed would also not supervise him in the bath, and also disputed his epilepsy; OCC sent letters to two disability activists (as the first dismissed the story) with false claims about the family’s actions before Connor was admitted. In their statement today (which people are reporting on Twitter is absent from the front page of the trust’s website), they claim that “there have been times when our actions unintentionally added to the distress of Connor’s family”, but their actions have been self-serving and at best unthinking about the distress they would cause.

It will, of course, be the taxpayer who will foot the bill for this. That’s only right as it was a public healthcare trust, but if the trust’s new management cannot compel those directly responsible for Connor’s death and the conditions which allowed it to happen to pay at least some of the cost, the law should be changed to make sure they can, so that the public do not have to pay in the form of cuts to health services and patients do not pay in the form of more restrictive régimes caused by cuts to staffing, not only because of the cost of the fine but also because of increased public liability insurance premiums. George Julian has done some research on this and found that no NHS trust prosecuted by the HSE has been fined more than £500K and many have been fined less than £100K; others have been able to get their fines reduced with protestations about their tight budgets; these constraints never stop them awarding their directors large salaries or payouts.

It is, of course, vitally important that an NHS trust which caused someone’s death with a very elementary mistake — a mistake that even very basic training in epilepsy should warn against — has admitted or been convicted of the health and safety failing. Merely transferring a sum of money upwards, from an NHS trust to central government, will not change whatever rot had set in that caused this and so many other things to happen that shouldn’t. Where the money comes from and what it will be used for is less important, at this point, than the accountability required when a disabled person dies in a hospital because of negligence, especially negligence as basic and egregious as this.

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