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Sunday, October 06, 2013

Labour to sue Tory Health Secretary?

Just how sensitive are Labour about their tenure in government in charge of the health service? Well, sensitive enough to sue a Cabinet Minster its seems over disputed allegations about Andy Burnham's time as health secretary.

According to the Sunday Times Mr. Burnham, who is now the shadow health secretary, is preparing libel proceedings against one of his successors in that post, Jeremy Hunt over remarks made on Twitter. They say that Labour party lawyers yesterday wrote to Hunt demanding that he remove the comments from the social networking site or face further action:

Burnham has been under intense pressure from the Conservatives over how he responded to evidence of substandard care in NHS hospitals when he was health secretary between June 2009 and May 2010. He has faced repeated claims by Tory MPs that he tried to sweep the scandal under the carpet. Until last week, Hunt had stopped short of joining any personal attacks.

However, the secretary of state changed tack on Friday after the publication of an email exchange between staff at a health quango in 2010 suggesting Burnham’s department blocked a press release about failings at Basildon and Thurrock hospital in Essex. The messages also said Burnham was “furious” when he discovered that the quango had broken health department rules by briefing the media.

After the emails were exposed on Friday, Hunt posted a tweet in which he referred to “@andyburnhammp’s attempts to cover-up failing hospitals”, adding that the government would legislate “to make sure this can never happen again”.

Burnham initially responded by writing to Hunt, giving him until the end of Friday to provide evidence that he was involved in a cover-up, or retract the tweet and issue a public apology. When Hunt refused, Burnham began consulting lawyers.

Sources close to Burnham say he feels Hunt’s intervention on the social networking site “crossed a line” and that he regards it as “unprecedented” for a secretary of state to impugn the integrity of a predecessor in such a manner. He instructed Labour’s lawyers, Steel & Shamash, to write to Hunt yesterday.

The legal letter, signed by Gerald Shamash, repeats the demand for evidence that Burnham personally orchestrated or was involved in a cover-up; or for a retraction of the tweet and public apology. It adds that if Hunt fails to act, Burnham will “consider his remedies” — a clear threat to sue.

Jeremy Hunt is refusing to back down, which leads me to wonder whether Burnham will go ahead with his threat to sue. After all juries are notoriously (and quite rightly) unsympathetic to politicians and their reputation.

More damagingly though such a court case could lead to a very public and forensic dissection of Andy Burnham's time in charge of the NHS. Would any minister, irrespective of party voluntarily agree to such a scenario?
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