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Revealed: The extent of the BMA’s use of solicitors to investigate complaints

bullying BMA

Exclusive A leaked letter to BMA officials has revealed the extent of the use of solicitors to oversee complaints against GP Committee members, which have had a ‘horrifying’ effect on members’ physical and mental health.

Pulse revealed last week that there had been at least six investigations led by solicitors against members of GPC England but since the story was published, we have heard of at least five more.

And a letter to senior BMA officials seen by Pulse from Dr Paul Cundy, a member of the committee, has revealed how he faced a complaint and an investigation as a result of replying to an email thread on which there were alleged offensive remarks made.

The BMA told Pulse that it was up to the complainant whether a complaint is dealt with formally through a solicitor-led investigation.

It also said that it was following recommendations in the reports by Daphne Romney QC and Orla Tierney QC for complaints to be ‘independently, externally investigated’.

GP leaders outside the BMA said this was ‘Kafkaesque’, and showed that the complaints system was ‘being weaponised to stifle legitimate debate and dissent and indeed used as a tool to bully and harass’.

Last week, Pulse revealed the ‘toxic’ culture within GPC England, and how the chair of GPC England had to take sick leave in part due to sexist comments and the culture within the committee.

In his letter, Dr Cundy said that he had faced four complaints, including two solicitor-led investigations, all of which he was cleared of.

He alleged:

  • Complaints were made against a number of committee members who raised concerns about the administering of elections on the ‘listserver’ – the email group that is the main form of communications for the committee;
  • He hadn’t posted anything that could be regarded as offensive, but was cited by the complainant because he had posted an email on the same thread as emails that had caused distress;
  • When informed about the complaint, he wasn’t told what particular email of his was under investigation, or informed that the investigation itself that this was a joint complaint against a number of committee members
  • He was given two working days’ notice of a panel hearing to consider whether the emails constituted a ‘risk’ to the BMA.
  • BMA has removed staff from the listserver in response to tensions between them and committee members.

The letter also said that complaints are being investigated by solicitors ‘on a whim’.

Dr Cundy said in the letter: ‘The BMA’s resolution process thus left me the invidious task of attempting to respond to a formal complaint being administered by a law firm made about me about a message or messages that had not been clarified and from a person as yet not identified and against a charge not actually disclosed to me in full and to do this during the only time available to me, two weekday evenings or the weekend.’

The letter added: ‘After four complaints and no findings against [me], this begins to suggest a problem.

‘The impact that these numerous complaints and investigations is having on members’ mental and physical health is horrifying.’

In the letter, Dr Cundy said that the threshold for starting a solicitor-led investigation was ‘ridiculously’ low.

Dr Clare Sieber, a former GPC member, said she was also investigated over the issue with the listserver and the elections.

She told Pulse: ‘It’s been mentioned that the Orla Tierney QC report found that the complaints process was being used to “stifle debate, disrupt elections and settle old scores“.  My experience shows that this is still the case. The BMA says this report recommended that all code of conduct complaints are referred for external independent investigation. Yet… the BMA now says that it is up to the complainant to decide whether it should be referred to an external legal team. This is somewhat contradictory.’

In response to Dr Cundy’s letter, a BMA spokesperson told Pulse: ‘The decision about whether a complaint is managed informally or formally is the choice of the complainant who can discuss their concerns and options for resolution with our free, 24-hour, BMA code of conduct support line – a telephone line managed by an external, independent provider which is staffed by accredited counsellors.’

The spokesperson added: ‘The BMA does not comment on or disclose information about any cases/concerns raised by or about individuals within its organisation, as these are strictly confidential.

‘The Association has been faithful in its implementation of the recommendation from the Romney Review; in her report Daphne Romney QC specifically supported the BMA adopting Orla Tierney’s recommendation that complaints should be independently, externally investigated.

‘The Romney review also emphasised that staff and members should not feel deterred from complaining on matters with the proviso that any complaint would then be investigated impartially by a body external to the BMA.

‘The independent complaints process has been in place for almost three years and as a part of good governance and ensuring we are responsive to feedback our processes and policies are kept under review.’

Dr John Hughes, chair of GP Survival, said: ‘GP Survival is very disappointed to learn of further cases of what appear to be vexatious misuse of the BMA complaints system, with members of GPC summoned by an external law firm to hearings… without either details of the allegations or adequate time to prepare a response.

‘This Kafkaesque process, and the fact that the accused was actually found to have no case to answer, does not reflect well on either GPC or the BMA, and suggests that the complaints process devised to protect members from harassment and bullying is in fact being weaponised to stifle legitimate debate and dissent and indeed used as a tool to bully and harass.

‘At a time when GP is in crisis and needs clear leadership and support, we would urge BMA to urgently examine the process, especially the potential for vexatious misuse, rather than continue to issue the bland excuses in support of it.’

This article was amended to clarify that panel hearings are not overseen by the chief officers of the BMA

READERS' COMMENTS [4]

Clare Sieber 9 June, 2022 12:34 pm

Eleven investigations now, at members’ expense… presumably this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m grateful to Paul for also calling this out, as I did at the time of my resignation from GPC.

Patrufini Duffy 9 June, 2022 1:17 pm

Well done for calling them out. It’s going to be a recurrent theme in life, exposing the power trippers.

Vinci Ho 9 June, 2022 2:46 pm

While I always believe the principle of all benefits of reasonable doubt should go to the defendant, it is most extraordinary how BMA/GPC had got itself into this mess . It appears to me somehow , the left hand did not speak to the right hand in the summit of the hierarchy. And certainly innocent committee colleagues were sucked in by collateral damages . And have the real culprits got away , on the other hand ??🤨🤔

Matthew Shaw 10 June, 2022 10:52 am

This needs addressing. The lack of balance between the “right to complain” and the need to use that right responsibly is killing our public services. GPs teachers and many public servants are retiring early over vexatious or weaponised complaints with no consequences at all for those making exaggerated complaints after using the public services selfishly. We have lost several caring GPs to early retirement over this. You are guilty until you prove your innocence. Its time to give better protection to those serving on the front line from these accusations which are often far more damaging than physical assault or the alleged breach of of conduct.