TORY health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s decision to forcibly impose the new contract on the junior doctors was wrong because he does not have the power to do so, a court heard last week.
Doctors’ group Justice for Health argued that Hunt had ‘acted beyond his remit’ in seeking to impose new terms and conditions on doctors, rather than to ‘merely recommend’ them to employers.
Justice for Health’s counsel Jenni Richards QC said Hunt’s parliamentary statement on 6 July, when he said he was imposing the contract in the wake of junior doctors’ decision to reject the government’s offer, ‘failed to meet standards of transparency and clarity’, and that Hunt ‘acted irrationally’.
Richards told the High Court in London that the case was not about determining the merits or demerits of the contract itself, or the government’s associated pledge for a seven-day NHS, but that ‘the decision to impose was wrong’.
Richards cited Hunt’s parliamentary statement on July 6 in which he made it clear to Parliament and the public that he had the power to impose the contract on the junior doctors.
‘He assumed powers when he has no such powers,’ Richards declared to the court.
She went on to argue that in making his announcement, Hunt also failed to clarify what the immediate impact of imposing the contract would be.
Another aspect of Richards’ case against the health secretary was that his decision to introduce a new contract for junior doctors was the result of ‘irrational reasoning’. Richards explained that Hunt insisted that a new contract was an essential part of the government’s wider policy of a seven-day NHS.
This in turn was designed to address something which he presented as fact, that there were more patient deaths at weekends. She said that in reality there was much conflicting evidence over the ‘weekend effect’ and its cause. There are many studies which refute the ‘weekend effect’.
Hunt had chosen only to heed those studies that supported his case for imposing a new contract. Describing it as ‘a failure of sufficient enquiry’ on the part of Hunt, Richards said that the failure to consider wider evidence on weekend deaths had led to ‘irrational decision-making’.
She said: ‘The health secretary is not entitled to ignore such material which is at least as weighty, if not more, in its totality. It is his duty to engage substantively with that evidence and, having done so, have a rational, logical basis for choosing one course of action over the other. We say he has not done that.’