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GMC could get new powers to challenge fitness to practise rulings

The GMC could be armed with powers to challenge the verdicts given in fitness to practice hearings, after the council approved plans to transfer the running of hearings to a new independently run tribunal service.

The Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service will take over the responsibility for running hearings from next year as part of an overhaul of fitness to practise procedures, the GMC has announced.

The new body, which will report annually to parliament and twice-yearly to the GMC, will sit ‘within the GMC family' but will have separate management and be chaired by a ‘senior judicial figure', the council said.

The GMC's current dual role of presenting evidence at hearings alongside handing out rulings has been controversial. Medical defence bodies have argued that the set up means the GMC acts as ‘investigator, prosecutor and judge' in fitness to practise cases.

GMC Chief Executive Niall Dickson said the establishment of the MPTS would see a ‘clear Chinese wall' separating the GMC's investigation and adjudication responsibilities.

The ‘clear separation' between the two bodies would allow the MPTS to flag up any criticisms of the GMC's investigation work in its report to parliament, Dickson said. The GMC is to push for a legislative change that, for the first time, would arm the council with powers to appeal any MPTS rulings it sees as ‘too lenient' on doctors. In such cases, appeals would be made to the High Court.

‘I think it is a very fundamental right that people who are subject to a judicial process can see a separation [between accusatory and judicatory roles],' Dickson said.

‘We want the ability to make clear where we disagree with decisions and we want the right to appeal if we believe our disagreement is such that it can be challenged in law. On the other side, the view of panel members on the quality of services that the GMC is offering is silenced at the moment. The MPTS is going to give them a voice, as the chair will report to parliament.'

The move to set up the MPTS, follows the coalition government's decision to scrap proposals to set up an independent tribunal body called the Office of the Health Professions Adjudicator OHPA. The coalition abandoned the plans, drawn up by the previous Labour government, last year claiming that the new body would increase NHS red tape and cost the health service over £60 million.

The news that the MPTS is to be established was met with a mixed reaction by medical defence bodies. The Medical Defence Union told Pulse it remained concerned that the new service would not be 'independent enough' from the GMC. The Medical Protection Society said there was a need for the MPTS to 'demonstrate its independence' but felt the new organisation was an opportunity ensure tribunal systems are 'fit for purpose'.

Dr Priya Singh, The Medical Protection Society's Medical Director, said:

'Once established, the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service will need to demonstrate its independence if it is properly to reflect the original intentions and drivers for a modernised adjudication system. We are pleased to see that there was significant support for the use of legally qualified chairs, which we note the GMC will be taking forward...This is an opportunity to ensure that the new tribunal service is fit for purpose and able to deliver considered and proportionate decisions.'

In a separate move, the GMC also revealed that fitness-to-practise hearings will no longer be held in London as the council is moving all adjudication hearings to Manchester. At present 70% of hearings are held in Manchester. The GMC said the shift would bring cost savings for the medical profession.