23:24, 13 April 2012
03:40, 14 April 2012
Few places could have been more fitting for a memorial to one of Britain’s most celebrated and respected ambassadors.
In the Crypt Chapel of St Paul’s Cathedral, representatives of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, as well as diplomats from around the world, had assembled for a service to remember Sir Reginald Hibbert, the former Ambassador to France.
With the stone sarcophagi of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington within touching distance of the congregation, Sir Reginald’s son, Dr George Hibbert, could not help but be moved by the turnout for his father, who had died, aged 80, from cancer. Delegates from the Foreign Office, Diplomatic Service, the Royal Hussars, where Sir Reginald once served, and Worcester College, Oxford, where he studied, were also present that crisp February morning in 2003.
Under investigation: Dr George Hibbert, pictured outside the Family Assessment Centre near Blunsdon, Swindon
And although he was very proud of his father, Dr George Hibbert could also later claim that his own career was flourishing as the self-proclaimed expert and psychiatrist called on by local authorities from across the country to assess whether hundreds of young mothers were fit to be parents. After the service, as he got into his black Porsche Turbo to drive home, he probably thought that, like his father, he would one day be respected and esteemed by the great and good of his profession.
But today, Dr Hibbert is famous for very different reasons. He is being investigated by the General Medical Council (GMC) following accusations that he deliberately misdiagnosed parents as having mental disorders to allow social services to take their children into care.
This week, it was revealed that applications by local authorities to take children into care in England have reached an all-time record, soaring to 10,000 a year. Since 2008, the figure has more than doubled as the authorities decide ever-more parents should have their children taken away from them.
In the UK as a whole, there are at least 90,000 children in care. And it is to ‘experts’ such as Dr Hibbert that authorities turn to for court evidence to back up their applications.
Hibbert has offered to surrender his licence to practise medicine but still faces a full GMC inquiry. The scandal of Dr Hibbert — accused in Parliament of being little more than a ‘hired gun’ for local authorities trying to take children into care — has shone a spotlight on a family courts system normally shrouded in secrecy.
Crucially, it raises the question of whether a single ‘expert’ should be allowed to determine the most fundamental rights of parents to bring up their own children. Even the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, the minister responsible for Britain’s family courts — where Hibbert gave many of his judgements — has been asked to launch a parliamentary investigation.
Now some of Dr Hibbert’s fellow psychiatrists are pouring scorn on the hugely controversial methods that helped him amass a fortune of more than £2 million.
But how did this privileged son of a respected British ambassador end up in such an embarrassing scandal at the age of 59? Born in Vienna in April 1952, while his father was working at the consulate in Austria, George Hibbert became accustomed to life as the son of a distinguished dignitary.
His father received Foreign Service postings in Bucharest, Guatemala, Ankara, Singapore and Mongolia, to name but a few. George was the middle of three children with an older sister, Jane, and younger brother, William, who is now a barrister.
At 13, he was packed off to board at the historic public school, Charterhouse. Eager to follow in his father’s footsteps, he went to Worcester College, Oxford, where he graduated with a BA in psychology, philosophy and physiology in 1974.
He then gained his medical qualification at the University of London, and began work as a psychiatrist.
In 1977, the year he completed his medical studies, he married Krystina Tysler, a midwife from Essex whom he had met through work. They bought a family home on a Thirties estate in Oxford and had three daughters, Katharine, Rosalind and Elizabeth — all now grown up.
The scene seemed set for a perfect family life and career, perhaps almost as distinguished as his father’s.
But that was not to be.
A psychiatrist who worked with Dr Hibbert at the Warneford Hospital, a specialist mental health unit in Oxford, in the Nineties, recalls a vain man with an eye for the ladies.
‘His nickname was “Gorgeous George” because he was so full of himself,’ she says, speaking on condition of anonymity. ‘He was incredibly vain and was often seen looking at his reflection in the window.
‘His hair was immaculately styled, and while most consultants would just wear chinos and a jumper, he would wear expensive suits and arrive at work in a sports car.
Former Charterhouse pupil and Oxford graduate Dr Hibbert is the son of a privileged British ambassador
‘He was a massive show-off, very arrogant and looked down on people.’
It appears snobbery was not his only failing. The psychiatrist told us that he revelled in the old school tie network, and expressed antiquated views about the role of women.
‘I often heard him making very laddish comments about women he considered attractive,’ the psychiatrist continues. But some nurses would be flirty and he would love it. I think it made him feel powerful.’
At first Hibbert specialised in patients suffering drink-and-drug addiction problems. Before long he was running the addiction unit, and, it is said, told colleagues he planned to join a march in 1998 organised by the Independent on Sunday newspaper calling for the decriminalisation of cannabis. It was the talk of the hospital — we were so shocked,’ the psychiatrist continues, explaining that heavy cannabis use can lead to psychosis. ‘Here was a consultant psychiatrist treating people with cannabis addiction, preparing to publicly support the legalisation of cannabis.
‘To say it raised eyebrows was an understatement.
‘It was inappropriate.’
He also viewed the drug as a way to make money. He became a sizeable shareholder in GW Pharmaceuticals, a company that secured a Home Office contract to grow and develop medicines from cannabis.
By 2000, Dr Hibbert decided to part company with the NHS to make ‘real money’ and fund the kind of lifestyle he had become accustomed to as the son of a diplomat. In March that year he set up the consultancy Assessment in Care, making himself its director and psychiatrist, and offering its services to local authorities. His business partner was Jill Canvin, a solicitor specialising in representing children in care proceedings.
For premises they paid £390,000 in 2001 for Tadpole Cottage, a detached four-bedroom house near Swindon in Wiltshire. It would house up to four families at any one time as they were assessed at the request of local authorities to see whether children should be taken into care. Methods Dr Hibbert used to assess parental skills were bizarre and unorthodox.
Staff monitored and made notes on everything parents did with their children during their stay, which could last as long as three months.
He set them stressful challenges. He made some mothers vacuum the stairs while holding their baby.
Or he told parents to take a car journey with their infant strapped in the back seat and then simulate a breakdown to add stress to the situation as a test to see if they were fit to keep their children.
Former residents have claimed their time spent at Tadpole Cottage was like a nightmare version of the Big Brother household on television.
But, for Hibbert and Canvin, it was a lucrative business that resulted in their company being valued at £2.7 million last year. Local authorities paid £6,000 a week to have a family in his care. He charged £210 an hour simply to read a report from their social services departments.
But Dr Hibbert’s gilded life began to unravel when, in 2007, a mother complained that he had wrongly diagnosed her with bipolar depression. The GMC began to investigate.
Other parents began to tell their of their shocking experiences. Many of them claimed they were in a ‘no-win’ situation: if they were too attentive to their babies, they were deemed to be ‘trying too hard’, while if they worked at seeming to be less conscientious, they were accused of being distant.
A whistleblowing member of staff, who has agreed to give evidence at the GMC inquiry, claims Dr Hibbert was in the habit of putting his fingers in his ears and chanting ‘Nah, nah, nah. I’m not listening’ when he wanted to ignore an aggrieved mother.
At Tadpole Cottage, staff-recorded details about a number of parents reveal the true extent of the impossible situation they faced.
It included details of what time a mother or father got up, what they wore, what they ate and even the telephone conversations they had.
It would be noted that a three-month-old baby ‘did not seem to respond’ when told she was a good girl by her mother.
That apparent failing became the basis for an accusation that the mother was not ‘in tune’ with her child. Another mother was said to be unable to ‘prioritise her child’ because she had bought herself hair conditioner during a trip to a pharmacy. Yet another mother, who liked to bake cakes, read books and was chatty and outgoing, was reported to have worn ‘a bright orange sundress’ and ‘inappropriate socks and trainers’.
Yet another was criticised for ‘a blank expression’ while doing the cleaning chores. Some parents who stayed there felt Hibbert’s demands for perfection were not only excessive, but also hypocritical. By then, the psychiatrist had split up with his wife and moved from their Oxford home into a cottage adjacent to the Wiltshire centre —Ms Canvin lived in a flat above the centre’s garage.
A woman who Hibbert had chided as a bad mother because she had split from her husband recalls him becoming ‘very aggressive’ when he was asked about his own family life.
The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, tells of how her father once attended the cottage and challenged Dr Hibbert over his views on single mothers.
‘He tried to tell my Dad that because my baby’s father and I were not together, it proved I was a bad mother,’ the woman says.
‘He said it showed I had problems forming relationships.
‘My dad was stunned and asked: “Have you never had a failed relationship?” Dr Hibbert became really angry and aggressive.
He snapped back: “We’re not here to discuss me — we are here to discuss your daughter”. Later on, we found out from a member of staff that he was going through a divorce at the time.
‘We just thought: “What a complete hypocrite.”‘
While the psychiatrist’s career has not ended as successfully as his esteemed father’s, he did inherit a reputation for being combative and abrasive (a trait that was noted about Sir Reginald in one newspaper obituary).
We have obtained a letter Dr Hibbert sent in response to Kristina Hofberg, a consultant psychiatrist, who was critical of his methods when she reviewed his care of one mother.
In it, he rounds on his fellow medical professional, accusing her of having an ‘apparent difficulty in interpreting English words in common usage’.
He concludes: ‘Her reinterpretations consistently imply that it is our behaviour and judgement, rather than our patient’s, that is at fault.’
The question the GMC will have to answer is whether Dr Hibbert’s methods were ethical and professional and, if not, how many children were torn needlessly from their mothers. Inevitably, many women — some as young as 16 — spoke of a deep sense of despair and stress while in his care.
During her period of assessment, one told a member of staff that she ‘hadn’t spoken to anybody in days except for my baby, but she doesn’t talk back’. It was observed how one mother ‘was tearful and began to swear, saying: “I am fed up here — fed up of being watched.” ’
On another occasion, the same mother tried to withdraw to a quiet room but was followed there by staff.
When staff looked in and asked if she was all right, she snapped back: ‘Can I just have five minutes on my own please?” and was crying.
A woman who was at the centre with her eight-week-old son told us that she became alarmed when she arrived because she believed that no one left the establishment with their babies. ‘It was like something from Victorian times. I started to panic,’ she recalls. ‘It seemed like no one got out without having their baby taken away. You would see them screaming and crying, begging not to have their babies taken away.’
Her premonition came all too tragically true. She was ordered to leave without her son after Hibbert ruled that she was suffering from a bipolar disorder.
Two other psychiatrists later criticised his findings, insisting she had no such condition. By then, however, her child had been adopted and she could not get him back.
The centre is now closed. And the company website, which featured a picture of Dr Hibbert smiling reassuringly, has been taken down.
Although we made regular calls and left messages for Hibbert, he has refused to comment.
Instead, he relies on the Medical Protection Society. A spokesman says: ‘Dr Hibbert is limited in the amount of information he can provide about his actions or advice.
‘He is unable to comment on allegations raised in relation to care of a patient due to his professional duty of confidentiality.
‘We can confirm that Dr Hibbert is co-operating with an ongoing GMC investigation and that no findings have been made against him.
‘The questions raised with regards to Dr Hibbert’s personal life constitute a wholly unacceptable intrusion into his private and family life and as such he does not intend to respond further.’
In the meantime, families torn apart as a result of Dr Hibbert’s findings into their personal relationships are trying desperately to rebuild their shattered lives.