A weekly paper has stopped an NHS Primary Care Trust from holding secret meetings after giving a warning that it could be breaking the law.
Journalists at the Newark Advertiser, in Nottinghamshire, had been concerned for several weeks that they were not getting proper access to meetings of Newark and Sherwood Primary Care Trust.
The issue came to a head when the trust excluded the press from a session that decided not to grant a second pharmacy licence for the village of Balderton.
According to the Advertiser, people in the growing village were of the opinion they did need a second chemist.
With support from the Newspaper Society’s legal department, the Advertiser told the trust it was acting unlawfully and ignoring guidelines laid down by the Secretary of State for Health.
At the body’s next public meeting, trust chief executive David Sharp announced that he had seen the error of his ways.
According to the paper, Sharp said: “All credit to the Advertiser. It does a fantastic job for its readers. I have a lot of time for the Advertiser for helping us in these sort of issues.”
He said that he felt the trust had acted lawfully, but admitted to “operational issues” and promised that future meetings would be open to the public. Sharp also promised that agendas for meetings to which the public are excluded will be circulated in future.
The trust has also decided to review its decision not to grant a second pharmacy licence for Balderton.
Advertiser editor Harry Whitehouse said: “We have expressed ourselves in a very forthright manner in our dealings with the trust over this issue.
“I am pleased that Mr Sharp has reacted to that pressure in such a constructive manner and I trust that no further prodding will be necessary.
Unfortunately, many people involved in local government and assorted quangos are far more reluctant to acknowledge that the press has a constructive role to play in monitoring their activities.”
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH GUIDELINES REGARDING TRUSTS
Under Department of Health guidelines, NHS trusts are expected to conduct business in as open a manner as possible.
According to a government guidance note, quoted in McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists: “Closed sessions should be limited to those areas where real harm to individuals may result.”
Meetings of NHS trusts are governed by the Public Bodies Act 1960, which states that the public must be admitted to their meetings and to committees that include all the members of the body.
The act states that the public can be excluded “whenever publicity would be prejudicial to the public interest because of the confidential nature of the business to be transacted, or for other special reasons stated in the resolution”.
Complaints about access should first be made to a senior trust officer and then to the Health Service Ombudsman.
By Dominic Ponsford