Week 12: I wrote 11,962 words on Southern Health’s crap communications so you don’t have to #107days

Ally has written a corker of a blog post for Week 12 that needs no more introduction:

Ally

Hi everyone! Just to give a bit of background to this blog, I’m Sara’s niece and I’ve just finished my linguistics degree in Leeds. During my final year at university, I had to write an 11,000-word dissertation. Or more specifically, I wrote about the transitivity and non-apologies in the communications from Southern Health to Sara, Monitor and the public, and how these structures were manipulated to assign responsibility for the positive and negative actions detailed in the texts.

The transitivity system deals with where participants are positioned in a sentence, and this can be changed to emphasise or hide these participants. For example, in an ‘active’ sentence like Sara wrote a blog, the ‘actor’ is Sara, and she writes the ‘goal’, which is the blog. Sara is positioned first in the sentence, so she is emphasised. In a ‘passive’ sentence like The blog was written by Sara, the blog is first and Sara is second. This hides Sara’s responsibility for the writing behind the blog itself, so the blog is emphasised. Passive sentences can also appear without an actor, e.g. The blog was written, where nobody is shown to be responsible. Active and passive sentences are very common and don’t always suggest deliberate manipulations of participant responsibility… but often they do, particularly in newspaper reportage.

Non-apologies are especially common in situations where public trust is at stake, such as from institutions and politicians. Non-apologies suggest that they are following social norms and expectations that they will apologise for what is perceived to be some kind of offensive act, but actually avoid performing a proper apology. Non-apologies come in several forms, but in general terms they can suggest that an apology will come or has already come, e.g. I want to apologise, or I have apologised, which doesn’t actually perform the act of apology. Non-apologies can also be selective about what they apologise for, such as I apologise for this distress, but not the act that causes the distress, or I apologise if this caused any confusion which dismisses the idea that anyone should have been confused.

The texts I analysed were the infamous Katrina Percy letter, the follow-up letter from Simon Waugh, the briefing note to Monitor (all on Sara’s blog), and the public statement that was issued after the Verita report was published. From these I chose the statements referring to positive events, such as improvements to services, previous good care etc., and the negative events such as LB’s death and the general failings of the unit.

My analysis compared the frequencies of features across positive and negative statements, including:

  • Who was emphasised as being responsible and who was hidden in positive and negative statements
  • If the participant responsible was hidden then which participant could be inferred from the surrounding context
  • How often participants were shown to be doing actions, and how often actions were done to them
  • The non-apology strategies present in the text

I won’t go into huge amounts of detail with the analysis, but there were pretty interesting findings (in my opinion!). In terms of transitivity:

  1. Passive sentences (backgrounding responsibility) were more common in statements regarding positive events such as ‘improvements’, and responsibility seemed to be suggested to fall on Southern Health as an organisation.
  2. When the responsible participant was removed, the responsibility could almost always be inferred from the surrounding context, and the participant suggested to be responsible was generally Southern Health as a whole in positive statements, but staff at the unit in negative ones. This seemed to create a divide between the ‘good’ organisation and the ‘bad’ staff.
  3. Southern Health was most frequently shown to be doing things to something else, such as improvements, whereas staff were always positioned behind something else which backgrounded their involvement in actions.
  4. Inanimate nouns such as ‘investigation’ were also often shown to be responsible for actions rather than explicitly naming who was driving these processes, further hiding personal responsibility.
  5. Inanimate nouns often ‘helped’ Southern Health in positive events, but ‘revealed’ information to Southern Health in negative events. This frames Southern Health as being dependent on these inanimate nouns, and reduces their responsibility for actions.
  6. Staff were often shown to be responsible for ‘failings’, whereas Southern Health was shown to be responsible for a greater variety of actions, again creating a divide between ‘good’ Southern Health and ‘bad’ staff.

The non-apology findings were:

  1. 10/14 possible non-apology strategies were present in the texts, often with more than one example of each found.
  2. The most common strategy was to use words like ‘incident’ to avoid explicitly stating what the apology was for.
  3. The second most common strategy was to express a will to apologise or refer to a past apology.

I only looked at four texts so it’s not really possible to make sweeping statements about Southern Health based on these findings, but in these texts there is evidence suggesting some deliberate manipulation of Southern Health and its staff in assigning blame and taking credit for actions, as well as intentional avoidance of producing an actual apology and risking admitting responsibility for negative actions.

The division between ‘good’ Southern Health and ‘bad’ staff is interesting as it shows a lack of ‘duty of care to staff’, something that they emphasise throughout the communications. The findings also contradict the NHS Being Open policy that is designed to avoid shady communications, which suggests that this kind of communication isn’t widespread across the NHS and that Southern Health needs a reminder.

So, what now? As satisfying as it is to know that I managed to use my degree to give a giant middle finger to Katrina Percy et al, realistically I’m just an undergraduate with a long essay to wave at Southern Health. What would be ace is if someone who could use these findings for positive change (i.e. someone from Southern Health who reads this), actually had the balls to admit that their communications could do with a bit more openness.

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Week 2: Inquest inequalities #107days

If someone dies unexpectedly in detention (in prison, immigration services, police custody or under mental health sectioning) there is a legal requirement that the coroner must hold an inquest. An inquest is a public investigation to establish who the person was, and where, when and how they died. If someone dies in the care of the state, then article 2 of the European Convention on Human rights (the right to life) is evoked, and the coroner may decided to hold an article 2 inquest. This is more thorough and far reaching than inquests into deaths that do not engage this duty.

For further info, INQUEST have thorough info and excellent caseworkers to provide advice.

This all seems fairly straightforward but in practice is a lot murkier and difficult for families to negotiate. Here are some of the issues that we’ve learned over the past year or so.

1. The NHS can use public funding to pay for legal representation at inquests

Astonishingly, NHS trusts are able to fund expert legal teams while families can only rarely access exceptional funding to cover their costs. The criteria for exceptional funding is enormously complicated and confusing. The cost of legal representation is not only for attendance at the inquest (and pre-inquest review meetings) but involves a large amount of preparatory work. Our solicitor has read through extensive documentation and records, identified issues to be brought to the attention of the coroner, written submissions, created a witness list and repeatedly requested missing documentation from Southern Health. So far, this has cost around £14,000.

Last month a High Court ruling in a case brought by Joanna Letts (who was trying to establish whether her brother’s death was related to hospital failings) says official guidance on whether to provide legal aid has been ‘misleading and inaccurate’.

2. Inquests are supposed to be inquisitorial and not adversarial

In practice, NHS trusts may be very keen to narrow the focus of inquests to reduce potential damage to reputation and avoid negative findings by the coroner. Sloven had an expert barrister in representing the police and medical defence organisations at the first pre-inquest review meeting. He argued that an article 2 inquest was not necessary because the article 2 procedural obligations were met by the various ongoing investigations relating to LB’s death. He also argued the conditions for having a jury were not met because drowning was not an ‘unnatural’ death. The Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties, Simon Hughes, argues that families do not need legal representation at inquests. The coroner should make the process understandable. This is clearly nonsensical given the legal arguments banging back and forth between the Sloven legal team and ours.

3. Witness coaching

Witness coaching is clearly common at inquests. Rosi Reed documented the obvious coaching Sloven employees had undergone at Nico’s recent inquest. There have also been repeated questions about the behaviour of staff at Joshua Titcombe’s inquest, and the common view is that staff were clearly coached. Indeed, Dr Bill Kirkup in his investigation into what happened at Morecambe Bay had this to say:

We also found evidence of inappropriate distortion of the process of preparation for an inquest, with circulation of what we could only describe as ‘model answers’. Central to this was the conflict of roles of one individual who inappropriately combined the functions of senior midwife, maternity risk manager, supervisor of midwives and staff representative. We make no criticism of staff for individual errors, which, for the most part, happen despite their best efforts and are found in all healthcare systems. Where individuals collude in concealing the truth of what has happened, however, their behaviour is inexcusable, as well as unprofessional.

Kirkup’s report had 44 recommendations for improvements, number 30 is as follows:

30. A national protocol should be drawn up setting out the duties of all Trusts and their staff in relation to inquests. This should include, but not be limited to, the avoidance of attempts to ‘fend off’ inquests, a mandatory requirement not to coach staff or provide ‘model answers’, the need to avoid collusion between staff on lines to take, and the inappropriateness of relying on coronial processes or expert opinions provided to coroners to substitute for incident investigation. Action: NHS England, the Care Quality Commission.

It is explicitly clear that if a family hopes to establish what actually happened to their loved one then a legal team with expertise in getting beyond learned statements is necessary.

Yesterday the Public Administration Select Committee of the House of Commons published a report Investigating clinical incidents in the NHS. You can read the JusticeforLB response to it here, while we welcome it’s recommendations, we do not think they go far enough.

It is crystal clear that more reform is needed of the inquest system in the UK. The system is archaic and there is no parity of arms.