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Doctors oppose new criminal sanctions

Government to unveil legislation that could mean five year sentences for doctors guilty of ‘wilful neglect’

Mark Gould

Monday, 18 November 2013

This week the government plans to introduce measures that would mean that doctors and nurses found guilty of "wilful neglect" of patients could face jail. Wilful neglect will be made a criminal offence in England and Wales under NHS changes following the Mid Staffordshire and other care scandals. The offence will be modelled on one punishable by up to five years in prison under the Mental Capacity Act.

But the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) and the BMA oppose the changes saying that the threat of criminal sanctions could create a climate of fear in the NHS.

RCGP chair, Dr Maureen Baker, said: "Doctors, nurses - we are human. Human beings make mistakes. "You can't change the human condition, but you can help support the humans in having systems around them that help keep them safe, caring and compassionate."

Dr Andrew Collier, co-chairman of the BMA's junior doctors' committee, said doctors who failed to meet certain standards needed support and help.

"They don't need this new climate of fear. They don't need to be concerned that they may be sent to jail. What they need to do is learn from their mistakes and develop their practice," he told BBC Breakfast.

He called the move a "headline-grabbing exercise" and said it did not address the other recommendations made by Prof Berwick, such as minimum staffing levels and culture changes.

And Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said a law change on its own was "not a panacea". He added that legally enforced staffing levels would have a far greater impact on patient care, as they had in Australia and California.

Last week Prime Minister David Cameron said health workers who mistreated and abused patients would face "the full force of the law" in a package of measures. A consultation on what scale of sentence should be applied to the extended law will be carried out over the next few months.

The move was one of the recommendations of a review of patient safety led by Professor Don Berwick which was commissioned by ministers following the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust scandal.

Mr Cameron said the NHS was full of "brilliant" staff but the Mid Staffordshire case showed care was "sometimes not good enough".

"That is why we have taken a number of different steps that will improve patient care and improve how we spot bad practice," he said.

"Never again will we allow substandard care, cruelty or neglect to go unnoticed".

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