A local authority which has voted to close 14 care homes has banned reporters from talking to residents at council-owned care homes.
The move raises questions on human rights issues because the premises are – in effect – the residents’ homes, and any duty of care argument may be weakened because of the fact that contact by reporters is allowed off the premises.
Staffordshire County Council sent an e-mail to newspapers across the county with the order after it received a complaint from a concerned member of staff.
When reporters tried to canvass opinions from elderly and disabled residents directly, the council said that reporters were only free to speak to residents off-site.
The Staffordshire Newsletter carried a closures story on three pages complete with reactions from relatives of a number of residents, some of whom had joined in calls for a reprieve.
It ran alongside a scathing editorial in last week’s edition ahead of yesterday’s summit meeting, where council chiefs opted to shut 14 homes and retain seven.
The newspaper said: “It is ironic that in a weekend when we collectively honour those who died in the cause of freedom, we only have to cast our eyes around the world to see that freedom is an elusive concept for many people.
“The council’s edict is that care home residents may speak to Newsletter reporters but only if they are off the premises which they happen to regard as their home.
“The idea of frail and elderly people leaving the warmth of their care homes to talk to a reporter in November’s inclement weather is too horrific to contemplate.
“The freedom to speak has been bridled by a spiteful ruling by an administration that seems more intent on protecting its image than concern for those who have been entrusted to its care.”
A further statement from Staffordshire County Council, issued to the media this week, said: “At no time whatsoever, have we ever said or implied that a service user cannot speak to the media.
“It is totally their right to do so.
“What we have said is our primary concern is for the welfare, safety, confidentiality and well-being of every single one of our service users.
“In the past, we have had a photographer on our premises who poked his head through a window and distressed service users among other incidents.
“This is not acceptable. Everyone of our service users, some of whom have dementia, have the basic right to move around their respective homes without fear of unknown people possibly causing them distress or confusion.
“At such a sensitive time, this is all the more appropriate and I am confident that the vast majority of people would understand this.
“If a service user wishes to speak to the media they can do this. All we ask is that this is done off the premises of the homes.”
But media consultancy business Orchard News Bureau, which specialises in local government and law, believes the council’s actions are unsustainable in law and that it could be open to a court action under human rights legislation.
ONB journalist Richard Orange said: “The important point is that the council has defeated its best argument for ‘protecting’ what are described as vulnerable people from media ‘intrusion’, by approving contact with journalists on the condition that meetings and interviews take place off council property.
“If that policy were to be applied more generally, we would have a situation where council house tenants were not allowed to talk to reporters in their own homes. This decision is discriminatory, arbitrary and is probably illegal.
“The blanket nature of this curtailment of people’s basic and fundamental rights to have their voices heard is also flawed. There may well be people in care homes whose interests would not be served by being interviewed by a journalist, without permission of family or supervision by legal guardians.
“But the principle that no one may therefore speak out in public, via the media, from the privacy of their own home is extremely disturbing. Prisoners are allowed phone cards and contact with journalists. It seems elderly people in Staffordshire care homes are not.”
He said that any judicial review would have to be filed by a care home resident who believed he or she had been silenced, a concerned relative, a journalist directly affected or a bona fide trade body within three months.
Human rights are not absolute, and public authorities may derogate from them on a number of grounds if necessary, such as, for instance, public safety, protection of health and for the protection of rights and freedoms of others.