opinion

Irang Nick Harvey MP after Alan Milburn's statement on the Bristol inquiry. Although he has now handed over the Lib Dem health portfolio to Dr Evan Harris and taken up the culture, media and sports brief - lucky chap, he now visits the opera instead of A&E - he had made an intriguing point during exchanges in the Commons.

Like former health secretary Frank Dobson, who set up the inquiry and welcomed its findings - especially the proposal to replace clinical negligence litigation with no-fault administrative compensation - Mr Harvey was pleased with Professor Ian Kennedy's evidently rigorous analysis.

But the MP for North Devon, an area within patient-reach of the Bristol Royal Infirmary up the M5, wanted more openness. He and Bristol MPs had all complained about the hospital, with the result 'that the shutters were pulled down and we were given misleading answers. Perversely that caused me to take a far greater interest than I would otherwise have taken, ' he told Mr Milburn.

From his Barnstaple home Mr Harvey explained that in 1994 he was approached by Michaela Willis, a constituent from Croyde whose baby son, Daniel, had died after an operation at the BRI.He started writing letters to Dr John Roylance, BRI chief executive.

As the world now knows, the MP got short shrift, much as the whistleblower, Dr Stephen Bolsin, had done. 'I took to tabling parliamentary questions, some more specific than you would, perhaps, expect ministers to answer, but I wasn't getting much out of the trust, ' Harvey recalls.

At the time Dawn Primarolo (now a Treasury minister) and Jean Corston, both local Labour MPs, encouraged him. 'It is easier for you being outside the area.We are getting pressure from the medical profession in Bristol to let sleeping dogs lie. Keep at it, ' he recalls them telling him.

Neither woman is a push-over - quite the reverse - so that is an eye-opener.Mr Harvey also had the help of some local media, notably BBC and HTV. 'They kept feeding me things.

Steve Bolsin would also ring from Australia with lines of questioning. But we got no sense out of the trust and not much out of my questions.'

Then in August 1996 Mr Harvey held a press conference in Barnstaple. It was a slow news day and he got himself all over the nationwide TV news that night. Such is the hit-and-miss life of a modern MP.

Next day Stephen Dorrell (who had recently swapped the opera-going brief with Virginia Bottomley) rang and said: 'You can have your inquiry, but the GMC wants to deal with the Wisheart and Dhasmana cases first. Can you help persuade the parents to shut up and await the GMC's [disciplinary] hearings?'

That is what happened, and Mr Dorrell's pledge came in handy when Mr Harvey and others demanded their inquiry from the new health secretary, by then Frank Dobson, who hesitated but did the right thing. Getting the remit wide enough was also a battle. 'The parents were obsessed with dates, and feared the inquiry would be confined to 1991-94 instead of going back to 1984, ' says Mr Harvey.

Indeed, Andrew George, Lib Dem MP for distant St Ives, has constituents whose son, William Barnes, died in 1983. Like the families of Dr Harold Shipman's possible victims, they, too, want what we now call closure: what happened to our loved ones and why? Harvey's notes and evidence were used at the inquiry.

Mr Milburn, it should be said, was firm but fair to the medics and the managers. He will use the affair to drive through further reforms on top of those already implemented, though he was silent on the Kennedy proposal that the Commission for Health Improvement and National Institute for Clinical Excellence should be fully independent of him.

The trouble is that 'club culture' is pervasive in human affairs. Look at the Jeffrey Archer case - no whistleblower there, either. By now there is probably even a Milburn Club at work. Ibsen's great play, An Enemy of the People, set it all out a century ago: no one wants to know.

But let's take some comfort. Like Dr Bolsin, Michaela Willis, now 33 and with three other children, is one of the encouraging figures in the tragedy. She emerged as a pillar of strength, heading the group dealing with the organ retention aspect of the scandal, helping to calm the (less calm) parents at Alder Hey in Liverpool. She is even counselling doctors.