Hunt says NHS will learn lessons as birth injury compensation scheme is launched
Jeremy Hunt has pledged that the NHS will learn lessons from its mistakes as he launched a new voluntary compensation scheme for parents whose babies are damaged at birth.
The Health Secretary said he believed the new scheme - together with a raft of other measures - would create a culture where NHS staff can speak more openly.
At the moment, parents can start legal proceedings against an NHS trust if they believe their child has been damaged due to negligence around the time of birth.
Under the new plans, parents who believe medical errors have caused severe damage to their children - such as cerebral palsy or brain damage - would be able to join a voluntary "rapid resolution and redress" scheme.
Their claim would be assessed by investigators working independently from the NHS trust where errors occurred, and they would quiz NHS staff and parents and look at medical records.
Their findings would be presented to a panel of legal and medical experts who would decide whether any compensation is warranted and arrange for payments to be made to the family.
The Government hopes the scheme - which would assess around 500 cases a year - will help dismantle what it sees as a "litigation culture". It would work out far cheaper for the NHS than the current route, which sees cases going to court or settled out of court, often for millions of pounds each.
Data from the NHS Litigation Authority shows the compensation bill to the NHS for errors around the time of birth is rising, reaching £509.3 million in 2015/16 - up from £393.2 million in 2014/15.
This includes damages plus the legal costs of dealing with claims and includes regular payments made due to previous years' settlements.
According to the NHS Litigation Authority, the legal costs claimed by solicitors working for families as a percentage of damages paid has risen in the past year and is "disproportionate" when compared with defence costs.
The new scheme - which will be the subject of a consultation - will not "lock" parents into the scheme. This means they would still be able to go down the route of launching their own legal case against the NHS trust if they were unhappy with the voluntary scheme.
Speaking on ITV's Good Morning Britain, Mr Hunt said there was a need to drive down the UK's stillbirth rate as well as create a culture of openness when things go wrong.
He said: "When you look at stillbirths, there are 20 wealthy countries who have a better rate than we do, and if we could match what they do, we could save the heartache for thousands and thousands of parents."
Mr Hunt said there were a number of reasons for this, explaining: "One of them is that we make it very difficult for doctors and midwives and nurses, when things go wrong, to do the one thing they really want to do more than anything else, which is to learn from their mistakes so that they can spread those lessons across the whole NHS.
"We have a litigation culture, people are worried they might get fired, they're worried about the reputation of their hospital, and the one thing that everyone wants to do, and parents are passionate should happen, which is lessons should be learned - is the thing we make most difficult."
In a speech at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) later, Mr Hunt will also set out £8 million for training, and a £250,000 maternity safety innovation fund.
Maternity ratings for every part of England - using data that already exists - will be published and a new Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, modelled on the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, will be launched.
Professor Lesley Regan, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) said: "The UK is a safe place to give birth, however, the pressures on maternity services are growing and stretched and understaffed services affect the quality of care provided to both mothers and babies.
"Doctors and midwives must train and work in multi-professional teams to ensure that women receive a high quality and safe service."
Quizzed on the impact of immigration and so-called health tourists using the NHS for free, Mr Hunt told Good Morning Britain: "There are pressures caused by health tourism and they have duty to make sure that if you're not entitled to free NHS care, we don't mind treating you and in an emergency we will always treat you, but you should pay for your care because people who live here are paying taxes and so people who come from overseas should make their contribution."
Mr Hunt told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "This is a totally voluntary system, so we are not in any way removing people's rights to go to the courts.
"It needs to be a totally attractive and fair alternative to the courts so that people can get on with their lives but, more importantly for the NHS, so that we can also have a more honest, open discussion."
Mr Hunt said he wanted to create a "safe space" where NHS staff can talk about things that have gone wrong without fear of retribution.
"Sometimes when you have a litigation culture, what happens is the shutters come down, people get very nervous, very defensive, quite understandably.
"And the one thing that every doctor, every midwife, nurse, want to do ... is to get to the bottom of what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how we can learn the lessons across the NHS to make sure that doesn't happen again."
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: "Any measure to improve the quality and safety of maternity care is welcome.
"However, the Government is offering no plans to address the serious financial crisis now facing the NHS and the shortage of midwives.
"It was the Tory government who promised us 3,000 more midwives but have actually presided over a shortage of 3,500 midwives in England."