• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Complaints culture ‘is bleeding schools and hospitals dry’ as NHS faces £16bn of claims

Britain’s escalating compensation culture is ‘bleeding the health and education services dry’, according to a report to be published tomorrow.

The scathing report shows that the increasing number of legal claims against the NHS and schools after accidents or mistakes has reduced the quality of services rather than improving safety and accountability.

It says the litigation culture is ‘ingrained in the national psyche as a warped form of normal behaviour’.

This has the effect of undermining the role of doctors and teachers and preventing them from doing their jobs properly, it claims.

A huge amount of time and money in the NHS and education is spent dealing with such claims.

The NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA), which deals with legal action taken against the health service, estimates it now has liabilities of £16.8 billion – equivalent to 16 per cent of the annual healthcare budget.

The report, produced by the think-tank Centre for Policy Studies, has described this as ‘a spectacular own goal’ because the money must eventually come from the taxpayer.

One of the report’s authors, Professor Frank Furedi, from the University of Kent, said: ‘Demanding recompense for accidents is now perceived not only as a commonsense way of gaining financial compensation, but as a way of holding public services to account.

‘But taken together, the combination of an engrained compensation culture and litigation avoidance is bleeding the health and education services dry: both financially and in terms of their public-sector ethos and professional role.’

Prof Furedi added: ‘The increasing fear of litigation is also extremely damaging to the professionalism of doctors, nurses and teachers. It erodes professional autonomy, stifles innovation, leads to defensive practices in both hospitals and schools and encourages greater bureaucracy.

‘If we want to put a brake on the culture of litigation and litigation avoidance in Britain we need to look beyond ambulance-chasers and greedy lawyers to the cultural conditions that have allowed litigious sentiments to flourish as common sense.’

One GP who contributed to the study, who has practised in London for 25 years, said the compensation culture encouraged a ‘defensive form of practice’ where treatment was given not because of what was in the patients’ best interests, but to cover the doctor’s back.

He said doctors often referred patients to hospital for investigation just in case they sued if it turned out they had cancer and the diagnosis was delayed. This ends up costing the NHS more money because it means patients are often examined unnecessarily.

He also argued there was a ‘culture of complaint’ where patients were on the lookout for ‘less-than-perfect care’.

Payouts made by the NHSLA have trebled in ten years to £911 million in 2010/11.

However, 2,922 clinical claims were closed in 2010/11 without any compensation being paid – but still at a cost to the NHS of £10.9 million because of legal fees.

Staffing the NHSLA alone now costs £7 million a year.

The problem is similarly acute in schools, according to the report. It reveals several cases where local councils have been forced to pay compensation to school pupils injured in its care, and says many schools will now not take pupils on trips in case they are sued if something goes wrong.

One council in Derbyshire paid out £40,000 after a pupil broke a leg on a school trip.

The headteacher of a primary school in Warwickshire said it was the norm for parents to sue following injuries in the playground.

Tim Knox, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, believes professionals aren’t always offering what’s best for their pupils or patients

He described a recent incident in the playground, involving a boy who had cut his head after running into a bench.

He said: ‘It was probably two days later that I noticed something very odd, that I hadn’t had happen for many years.

‘I didn’t receive a letter from the parents asking for a written account of the incident, witness statements, the contact details for the school’s first aider.

‘And then something even odder – the dad brought in chocolates. Nowadays we expect the opposite to happen.’

Tim Knox, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, said the rise in the compensation culture ‘has created a climate in which professionals will prioritise litigation avoidance above what is best for their pupils or patients’.

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