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Former Town Hall leader died after choking on food in restaurant

‘Steve’s contribution to public life in Islington and north London was very considerable’

28 February, 2020 — By Calum Fraser

Steve Hitchins with his wife, Baroness Sarah Ludford

THE former leader of Islington Council died after choking on a piece of food, a coroner’s court heard.

Steve Hitchins, 68, who had also been a chairman of the Whittington Hospital, died suddenly in September, triggering a series of tributes to his community and political work.

An inquest into his death held on Tuesday was told that he died after choking while having dinner in a restaurant with friends.

A statement from Jonathan Gardner, a fellow Whittington board member, was read to St Pancras Coroner’s Court.

He had been sitting next to Mr Hitchins at the “social dinner”.

“The evening was a very positive and happy time. Steve was on good form and seemed well,” he said. “At some point during the meal, he covered his mouth with a napkin.

“Very shortly after that, seconds rather than minutes, he passed out.”

Mr Gardner tried to administer the Heimlich manoeuvre to help Mr Hitchins while another person called the ambulance.

Paramedics arrived and took over from Mr Gardner.

In a statement read out in court, lead paramedic John Hunter said that he examined Mr Hitchins and found a “small piece of material” lodged in the throat.

He was taken to the Whittington where he was found to have suffered a severe brain injury due to a lack of oxygen and he died at the hospital later that evening.

Mr Hitchins had served as Liberal Democrat councillor for St Peter’s ward for 16 years including seven years as leader of Islington Council.

He stepped down from the Whittington last year.

In the past, Mr Hitchins had told the Tribune of how he had suffered from septicaemia, which led to his leg being amputated.

Senior coroner Mary Hassell concluded that death was the “result of an accident”.

“It must be very difficult to understand for his loved ones,” she added. “It seems such a trivial event.”

Mr Hitchins’ wife Baroness Sarah Ludford, who also used to be a Liberal Democrat councillor in Clerkenwell, attended the inquest.

She told the Tribune: “I thank the coroner and her staff for the sensitive way they handled the inquest, which was, of course, difficult for our family.

“I would also like to thank all the medics and others who tried valiantly to save his life that night. Steve’s contribution to public service in Islington and north London was very considerable and I’m gratified at the huge respect he attracted and the kind messages I received.”

Paying tribute after his death, James Kempton, another former leader of the council, said: “He brought all sorts of people not into politics, into politics. He was often digging all sorts of people out of scrapes. He touched the lives of many.”

Lucy Watt, the former deputy leader of Islington Council, said: “He was the father of Islington Liberal Democrats.

“He encouraged many of us to stand for council who would never have otherwise had the confidence to do so.”

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