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'Neglect is unacceptable': NHS staff face jail if patients are abused

Measure was one of the key recommendations of a report into the fallout from the Mid Staffordshire scandal

Nurses, doctors and managers who mistreat or neglect their patients will face up to five years in prison under a major law change announced by David Cameron last night.

The Government will introduce a new criminal sanction for “wilful neglect”, covering any staff suspected of abusing or mistreating patients in their care. The measure was one of the key recommendations of a report by Don Berwick, Barack Obama’s former health adviser and a patient safety expert, into the fallout from the Mid Staffordshire scandal.

Mr Cameron said last night: “This is not about a hospital worker who makes a mistake, but specific cases where a patient has been neglected or ill-treated. This offence will make clear that neglect is unacceptable and those who do so will feel the full force of the law.”

The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, will announce details of the policy in the Commons on Tuesday, as part of the Government’s response to the Francis Report into events at Mid Staffordshire, where hundreds of patients may have died as a result of neglect and mistreatment between 2005 and 2009.

The package of measures will include more support of NHS staff and greater transparency, according to sources at No 10. But introducing a criminal sanction for nurses and other NHS staff could be controversial among the health unions, which already feel that the wider NHS has been unfairly tainted by the shocking scandals at Mid Staffordshire, Gosport and Morecambe Bay.

At present, criminal sanctions for wilful neglect are applied to those caring for children or mental health patients. A Number10 source said the change would close a loophole and was designed only for those guilty of the most extreme poor care.

The new offence will mean that there is a clear legal sanction where individuals or organisations are, as Professor Berwick suggested, “guilty of wilful or reckless neglect or mistreatment”. Professor Berwick was commissioned to lead a review of patient safety in the NHS as part of the Government’s initial response to the Francis Report. 

He suggested that individual sanctions should be along the same lines as those set out in the Mental Capacity Act 2005 in relation to wilful neglect or ill-treatment of adults who lack capacity – which allow for a fine, imprisonment for a maximum of five years, or both. However, doctors’ groups are likely to view the new measures with suspicion. In its response to the Berwick Report, the British Medical Association questioned whether the threat of prosecution for wilful neglect would add anything to existing sanctions for medical staff.

Lawyers for the Medical Defence Union said doctors accused of wilfully neglecting patients were already reported to the regulator, the General Medical Council, and faced having their licences revoked if found guilty. Such sanctions were adequate to protect the public, they added.

The Government will launch a consultation on the plans in the next few months before legislation is put before parliament. Mr Cameron added: “Mid-Staffordshire hospital showed that sometimes the standard of care is not good enough. That is why we have taken a number of different steps that will improve patient care and improve how we spot bad practice.”