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Bercow and a worrying lack of insight


NO doubt much will be written and spoken about the findings of the independent appeals panel about the bullying allegations against former Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow.

Largely upholding the report by the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, which branded him a serial bully and liar, the panel said: ‘[Bercow] does not accept the findings we have made and does not acknowledge the impact of his behaviour. In our view he has little or no insight into the way he behaved or its consequences.’

Bercow himself has, of course, vehemently denied the findings and branded the process as attempted political assassination. His BBC Radio 4 interview was a masterclass in obfuscation and self-justification. He has been suspended from the Labour Party and banned from holding a Parliamentary pass. This is a disturbing outcome for an individual who once held one of the highest and influential offices in the country. We are entitled to ask, how did this happen?

There are some remarkable similarities to a case in which I had some involvement although the personalities are very different.

In 2013 I was part of a small team commissioned to carry out a clinical governance review into a series of surgical disasters in an NHS trust. The purpose of the review was not to find out what went wrong – that was already known – but to try to understand why it went wrong, given the checks and balances (clinical governance processes) that are, in theory, in place in a hospital. The issues I will describe are a matter of public record so I am not in breach of confidentiality.  

The NHS hospital concerned was part of a trust which covered two adjacent towns. Because of a concern to protect its services it was decided to introduce a highly specialised surgical technique which was already in place in the other hospital. After a standard recruitment process a surgeon, Mr A, was appointed, commencing in summer 2011.

All seemed satisfactory until concerns began to be raised about frequent complications in Mr A’s patients. These were picked up quite early on by the nursing staff, who recorded their concerns in a standard way through the hospital’s reporting system. But these were not investigated or acted on, despite the fact that some of the complications were quite significant.

An NHS consultant is quite a powerful person. This may be positive if they are standing up for patients or challenging dubious management decisions, and I have seen both. However it may make it difficult for them to be challenged individually, especially if they have a strong personality (which Mr A did not). 

So Mr A’s complications mounted up until the fateful day later that year when the specialist technique he was using on a patient went catastrophically wrong. The patient spent many weeks in intensive care where he suffered other significant medical complications. He was eventually discharged to a care home where he died a few months later.

The initial response of Mr A’s colleagues was supportive (‘things may go wrong even for the best of us’), and he continued operating with ongoing complications. There was no serious incident case review undertaken which the event should have immediately triggered. Finally notice was taken and he was suspended (on full pay) in 2012.

As part of our review a colleague and I interviewed Mr A for four hours in his solicitor’s office in central London. This was not a cross-examination – we are not lawyers or police. But what struck us was his complete lack of insight into what had happened. Everything was someone else’s fault – poor supporting staff, inadequate equipment etc. He believed himself to be completely innocent of any inadequacy and did not acknowledge the impact of his practice on his patients.

Does this remind you of anybody?

It subsequently came to light that Mr A had lied about his experience at his interview, and submitted a fraudulent curriculum vitae. He was dismissed and prosecuted for fraud by false representation in 2018, and sentenced to six years in prison (out after three).

Unbelievably. he applied to the General Medical Council to have his licence to practise restored. The full transcript of the case was published on the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service website which concluded, ‘His lack of insight is astounding and that the doctor remains convinced that he had done nothing wrong.’ He defended himself by identifying ‘previously undiagnosed dyslexia’ as the reason for his mistake. (That’s a good one!)

It remains deeply worrying that such a person could be appointed to such a responsible position, and I know that there was a separate inquiry into the appointment process, and that others involved would also have faced disciplinary processes.

So how come a man like John Bercow, who equally seems to lack any insight, rises to such a high position in government? Will there be a governance investigation into his appointment?

Don’t hold your breath.

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Dr Tom Goodfellow
Dr Tom Goodfellow
Tom Goodfellow is a retired NHS consultant radiologist who had a specialist interest in paediatrics and cancer diagnosis.

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