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A group of doctors who last week accused the UK General Medical Council of failing children are forming an action group to counter what they say is the “intimidation” of child protection professionals.
In a paper published in Pediatrics on 2 April, more than 50 UK paediatricians and other professionals accused the GMC of deterring doctors from raising concerns about children's safety and increasing the risk of serious child abuse. The GMC's actions against the paediatricians Roy Meadow and David Southall, they said, “conflict with current child protection laws and guidance for professionals” (Pediatrics 2007;119:800-2).
Many believe that the combined efforts of the GMC, campaigning groups, and the media are seriously disrupting the safeguarding of children. A large number of paediatricians and allied professionals are now organising themselves into a lobby group with the aim of correcting misleading propaganda about child protection issues.
“Neither the government nor, thanks to the media, the public appear to realise just how serious the situation has become,” said one doctor, who asked not to be named. “Such is the extent of the intimidation that fewer and fewer paediatricians are prepared to engage with child protection, and that can result in only one thing: deficiencies in the care of vulnerable children.”
The GMC defended its decisions to take action against Professor Meadow and Dr Southall. “We have sought only to act to protect the public interest from doctors who fall significantly short of accepted standards,” a spokesperson said. “After careful and separate consideration, we decided that both [cases] justified fair and scrupulous enquiry before a panel.”
Many paediatricians, however, resent what they regard as the GMC's persecution of Dr Southall, a consultant paediatrician at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire. They point out that he is now in the middle of a second hearing of a professional conduct committee, adjourned last November for an entire year, and that if he survives this he faces a record third set of charges.
Furthermore, they say that the conduct of the first hearing was far from fair. In 2004 a professional conduct committee found Dr Southall guilty of serious professional misconduct for having reported his concern that it was Stephen Clark, and not Sally Clark, who had killed the couple's children. Dr Southall was banned from child protection for three years (BMJ 2004;329:366, doi: 10.1136/bmj.329.7462.366-a).
The Pediatrics article echoes widespread disquiet about the GMC's decision to instruct as its sole expert witness a doctor who had already been intimately involved in the Clark case.
That witness was Tim David of Manchester University. Professor David became involved in 1999 when he was instructed as a joint expert by all four parties to the care proceedings initiated by Cheshire County Council in respect of the Clarks' surviving child: the local authority as the applicant, the child's guardian, and the two parents, each of whom had separate legal representation.
Subsequently, in October 1999, Professor David was ordered to give evidence as an expert witness at the trial of the criminal case against Sally Clark, following an application by Mrs Clark's lawyers.
When Dr Southall raised his concerns about Stephen Clark in 2000, the Family Court instructed Professor David to examine them. Then it was the turn of the GMC. As Dr Southall's lawyer observed at the 2004 GMC hearing, “Professor David is, first of all, a witness of fact … Secondly, he is an expert in the family proceedings … Thirdly, and this is the unusual and somewhat unique set of circumstances, he has then been converted by the GMC . . . into an expert in these proceedings.” This, say critics, created a potential conflict of interest, which the GMC could and should have avoided.
Professor David is also the GMC's witness in Dr Southall's latest professional conduct committee hearing.
Asked about the use of Professor David as a witness, a spokesman for the GMC said: “We considered the position of Professor David carefully and took legal advice which we acted upon. We are not in a position to comment on our use of expert witnesses in upcoming hearings.”
A spokesperson for Manchester University said, “Professor David is emphatically giving no comment about this article.”