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What is the point of the GMC?

What is the point of the GMC?

Editor Jaimie Kaffash reflects on the role of the GMC in light of Dr Sarah Benn’s suspension for taking part in climate change protests

I suspect the majority of readers won’t get past the headline. But, in this case, it is not a rhetorical question.

I’m asking the question in the wake of the Dr Sarah Benn case. In reality, the ruling was a token one. The GP, who this week faced a five-month suspension from the GP register for her role in climate change protests, had already retired. The MPTS ruling had no material impact. But it says a lot about what the GMC is supposed to be. 

If you don’t know the facts of the case, Dr Benn was jailed for breaching court orders. She had been involved with peaceful protests against oil companies, but had breached a court injunction preventing her from entering areas around the companies’ premises.

The GMC says that there is nothing in its guidance to stop doctors from expressing personal opinions, lobbying governments or protesting. However, it adds, ‘patients and the public rightly have a high degree of trust in doctors and that trust can be eroded if doctors repeatedly fail to comply with the law’. It is not the GMC’s role to consider their motivations or to ‘determine UK law’.

I don’t want this to become an existential debate around civil disobedience, or even climate change. People will have different views around the right to break the law around protesting (and, as a politics graduate myself, I have served my time when it comes to listening to this debate). And – although personally I have strong feelings around climate change and what needs to be done – again, that isn’t the point of this case.

Because I just don’t understand what the GMC aims to do. It used to be clear on their logo – ‘Regulating doctors, ensuring good medical practice’. Now that seems to have disappeared. In fact pinning down their remit (from a search on their website) is really hard, which maybe is telling.

After an extensive search, this is what I could find: ‘We work with doctors, patients, and other stakeholders to support good, safe patient care. We set the standards doctors and those who train them need to meet, and help them achieve them.’

A further root around its website suggests that it is supposed to uphold standards, and investigate when there is a chance that ‘patient safety, or the public’s confidence in doctors, is at risk’. In their view, Dr Benn’s criminal conviction contravened this final point.

But in the case of Dr Benn, even the most SUV-driving, patio-heater-using, Jeremy-Clarkson-loving climate change denier wouldn’t lose ‘confidence’ in the profession if she is allowed to practise. They might disagree with her, sure, but as the GMC itself says, doctors are allowed to hold controversial opinions.

And her behaviour does not suggest that patients need protecting. As Dr Benn argued herself, she is taking the action because she feels it is in the best interests of patients, and the science backs this up. 

The GMC’s work is complex. It has an ambiguous purpose and, as a result, it needs expert judgement and understanding of the nuances of every case.

But pursuing this case to tribunal is a cowardly decision, and displays a failure to show rational judgement. As the GMC says, it is not responsible for making UK law. But it seems slightly contradictory to me that it feels the need to rigidly follow UK law. It is probably true that in the vast majority of cases public trust would be affected by a convicted criminal coming straight back to medical practice. But each case should be taken on its own individual merits.

I’m not asking the GMC to start campaigning on climate change, or even to uphold the right of people to take part in civil disobedience. I’m simply asking it to fulfil its stated purposes, without piling more unnecessary anguish on doctors.

Jaimie Kaffash is editor of Pulse. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @jkaffash or email him at



Please note, only GPs are permitted to add comments to articles

So the bird flew away 1 May, 2024 4:27 pm

I’m with you on this Jamie. You’re right, it isn’t about what side of the climate debate you’re on, or whether you feel the new public order laws introduced last year by this Govt are counter to the great tradition in this country of the right to peacefully protest (see what happens in some other countries, eg disappearance, prison without trial, torture).
It’s about whether the GMC, given it has latitude, should have allowed this to go beyond the case management stage to the MPTS stage and then further punished this doctor, sending such a message to potential doctor protesting on any issue.

A woman peacefully protests, the unjust laws mean she is arrested and imprisoned. Then her employment is taken away.
The woman’s name was Rosa Parks…

So the bird flew away 1 May, 2024 4:45 pm

Should have also said that, when farmers protested and blocked the roads, nobody was arrested or imprisoned…double standards?

Graham Moyse 1 May, 2024 6:25 pm

There is a danger of this debate polarising along the lines of those who broadly agree with “Just Stop Oil” and those who don’t. If so, they are missing the point. This is not about whether climate change is real but about whether a doctor who repeatedly broke the law should be allowed to practise. It is not the role of the GMC to determine whether the law is correct. Unless the GMC has set precedent by not suspending other doctors who have repeatedly broken the law, then they had no option but to suspend. For what it is worth, I absolutely agree with the aims, if not necessarily the methods, of “Just Stop Oil”.

Dr No 1 May, 2024 11:43 pm

GMC over-reach, passing judgement beyond their remit. I wonder that it is in line with the right-wing denialism agenda. Who is pulling the strings at the GMC?

Marilyn Monroe 2 May, 2024 11:45 am

Completely agree with the editor. There is confusion at the heart of the GMC. What it is, why its there, how it should achieve all this. What it should be doing, and why. It just doesn’t really seem to know. This is bad news. Fundamentally this body exists to provide clarity. There is none

Michael Green 2 May, 2024 9:43 pm

Oh they know what they’re doing

Just Your Average Joe 3 May, 2024 12:49 am

Time for the GMC to admit they have lost the confidence of the profession and no longer should require us to pay for them to persecute doctors, on political whims and on the altar of ‘protecting the public’. If that is the case – then the DOH should be paying for the GMC – or equivalent regulator to do this role.

Also now they are diluting themselves by representing PAs who all rational people will acknowledge are not doctors, that should be the final nail in the coffin for this discredited regulator and a government funded replacement to protect the public should be formed, and perhaps the RCGP could start protecting doctors, from the government and patients!

Anonymous 5 May, 2024 8:40 am

They will wash their hands off as usual, not their decision but the tribunal. Elitist white folk who are out of touch with clinical day to day reality. This is my ‘controversial opinion’.

Dave Haddock 6 May, 2024 7:00 pm

Dr Benn could probably retire early with an uprated pension on mental health grounds.
Meanwhile, why does the GMC allow doctors who are openly anti-Semitic to remain on the Register?

Decorum Est 8 May, 2024 12:24 am

Apologies for my simplistic analysis.
Medical doctors should as citizens be similarly answerable to the standard civil and criminal proceedings. But, there is no reason that a cadre of highly educated, highly motivated, highly socially committed etc, should be answerable to a notoriously corrupt agency?

Decorum Est 8 May, 2024 12:31 am

Medical doctors should be answerable to the standard civil and criminal courts. But why should a cadre of highly socially committed, highly educated, highly intelligent etc be answerable to an agency that is notoriously corrupt?