The British Medical Association ethics committee agreed last week to investigate controversial child protection procedures developed by a clinical research team based for the last three years at Keele University. In a bizarre twist, two opposing camps in the bitter philosophy standards dispute at Swansea University have joined the controversy to criticise the work at Keele.
The Keele team, led by David Southall, professor of paediatrics, has developed a set of diagnostic techniques, including Event Recording at home and Covert Video Surveillance in hospital, for use when parents are suspected of repeatedly suffocating babies.
The BMA's decision was taken a day after a protest meeting in London by a group of parents, some of whom have cleared their names of allegations of child abuse.
The parents want the Department of Health to set up an official inquiry into the handling of suspected Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy child abuse.
The BMA tabled the matter for discussion after CAFAS, the Swansea University philosophy department-based Campaign for Academic Freedom and Standards, wrote about concerns that research had allegedly been conducted on National Health Service patients without the safeguard of Local Research Ethics Committee scrutiny.
Anne Maclean, the Swansea philosophy lecturer involved in the academic standards row at Swansea in 1990, is now a member of the BMA ethics committee. She said last week that CAFAS, of which she is joint secretary, had sent a letter asking for an investigation of the research history of Event Recording.
In addition, the Journal of Medical Ethics last week published a paper by Donald Evans, director of Swansea's Centre for Philosophy and Health Care. Dr Evans, who was also involved in the academic standards row, said in his paper that Covert Video Surveillance has "considerable research elements", and should have been, but was not, submitted to North Staffordshire Local Research Ethics committee.
Dr Evans said in his paper that the medical team has, from the evidence of its own published papers, been attempting to match physiological traces taken from children during videoed episodes of suffocation with those taken at home using the Event Recorder. This has the research objective of enabling "home surveillance for imposed asphyxiation without video facilities".
Ambiguity over whether or when CVS was submitted as a research project to North Staffordshire Local Research Ethics Committee has never been resolved. CVS does not appear in any list of research projects submitted to the LREC since April 1992.
Keele has never commented on Professor Southall's work, apart from saying that he holds only an honorary professorship, and referring inquiries to the hospital, where the academic department is located. The hospital has refused to clarify the issue of ethical approval.