It is increasingly obvious that citizens worldwide are becoming disenchanted and disengaged with established government.
This has been manifest in various forms of political and economic meltdown. Underpinning all the movements is a desire for accountability and transparency. Where this is not forthcoming ordinary people are finding ways of exercising democratic control and making their voices heard. This cannot be better illustrated than by a remarkable initiative undertaken by the people of south London in Lewisham. In their midst is a fine hospital which is regularly cited in the top echelon of UK hospitals.
To the surprise of doctors and public alike in 2012 it appeared the hospital was earmarked for closure, a threat which has now been distilled into a massive downgrade. To cap it all it is intended to sell off 60% of the Lewisham hospital estate. This so-called reconfiguration has little or nothing to do with healthcare but everything to do with the financial crisis pertaining in a neighbouring healthcare trust.
None of this has the support of Lewisham hospital, its own trust, the clinical commissioning group, neighbouring hospitals and GPs, let alone the people of Lewisham. Result – public outcry.
One of the ideas forged by this anger was to carry out what the government had failed to do – establish a proper inquiry to hear the evidence and voices of those excluded or ignored. In essence this became the Lewisham Independent People’s Commission of Inquiry.
Such a concept has a recognised history and precedent internationally. Bertrand Russell convened a tribunal of international civic conscience on Vietnam in 1966, which has recently reconvened on Palestine 2010/12. Another similar tribunal took place in the Hague last autumn to focus on human rights abuses in Iran. These initiatives have been entirely motivated and organised by civil society.
The Lewisham Commission had a panel of three (Baroness Warnock, Blake Morrison and Michael Mansfield QC – chair) appointed by the community campaign group, which also agreed a remit – to look at first principles of the original NHS vision, how it has become warped by the internal market and privatisation, and see where Lewisham stood in the overall ideological changes.
The campaign team was extraordinarily well organised, its members brimming with information on every aspect of the issue, enough for a six-month inquiry. We had a day.
A meeting was held in chambers where barristers agreed to prepare a witness template and take statements. Others would act as advocates on the day. Even more would assist in compiling the final report.
The numbers wishing to give evidence were almost overwhelming. Doctors, nurses, patients, parents waited patiently, sometimes for hours, to tell their story to the evidence gatherers.
The Broadway theatre in Catford was booked for 29 June 2013, bundles were prepared, a running order agreed. Jeremy Hunt was invited along with Bruce Keogh, one of his advisers. They did not reply, nor did they attend. Their words were read by an actor.
Some 25 witnesses were called on the day, only one could not attend – a doctor on call in the A&E department. The evidence of another 20 was given from pre-recorded videos. Throughout the day more than 500 people attended the inquiry. All were invited to make their own contribution by email, tweet or by writing comments on a scroll in the theatre foyer.
Witnesses spoke of the impact such changes would have on them as individuals – three bus rides for a mother in labour, long journeys across the borough for a sickle cell sufferer, losing the long-established teams of known and trusted doctors and nurses for young teenagers in danger of slipping through the cracks in the system.
An interim report by the panel was issued on 8 July and the full report will be released in September.
Michael Mansfield QC and Elizabeth Woodcraft are barristers at Tooks Chambers