Claims that pornography, drugs and alcohol were widely available at Ashworth Special Hospital - whose most infamous patient is the Moors murderer Ian Brady - will also be investigated, along with suggestions of financial irregularity.
The Merseyside hospital's chief executive, Janice Miles, was suspended yesterday, as were two nurses from Lawrence Ward - the personality disorder unit, where last month a "substantial" amount of pornography was found. Police also visited the home of a former Ashworth patient on 31 January and as a result a child, believed to be a girl aged eight, the daughter of a former patient, has been taken into care under an emergency protection order.
"There's some very unpleasant allegations being made and it's not for me to speculate as to the truth or otherwise of the allegations, but it's important that they are investigated," Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, said yesterday. "One of the allegations is that children were allowed into the hospital."
He said that action had not been taken sooner because the hospital had suppressed evidence regarding the allegations and continued to maintain that press reports of unacceptable activities were "unfounded". But last week he took action after Alice Mahon, the Labour MP for Halifax, submitted a 60-page dossier on the allegations to the Department of Health.
Many of the reports came to light after a patient, Stephen Daggett, absconded while on a visit to Liverpool last September. He returned to the hospital on 7 October and made serious allegations. An investigation was launched and the nurse responsible for his security during the visit was found guilty of gross professional misconduct and dismissed last November. However, no information was passed to the Department of Heath, and Mr Daggett was transferred to another hospital.
Last month, there were reports of knives, a grappling hook, drugs and child pornography being found in searches at the hospital. Staff also found bras, knickers, suspenders and children's underwear, it was claimed. What appeared to be a fertiliser bomb was said to have been discovered in the vegetable garden.
It has also been claimed that Lawrence Ward patients hacked into the hospital's computer system, and obtained confidential information which menaced staff. "They were able to discover the private addresses of doctors and nurses," a solicitor who visits clients at the hospital, said.
Patients on Lawrence Ward have now been dispersed to other wards.
David Preece, secretary of the Prison Officers' Association branch at Ashworth, told the BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "We have been concerned for some time now that some patients have been able to club together to buy video equipment where they have been able to copy hardcore videos ... When we raised these problems with the management of Ashworth we have been ignored."
"We are aware of an ex-patient visiting the hospital with a child and the possibility that this child has been interfered with by patients at Ashworth, with the staff being quite ignorant of it," he added.
Mr Dorrell said the inquiry would be led by the retired circuit judge Peter Fallon QC. It will have the power to summon witnesses, take evidence on oath and award costs. Erville Millar, a National Health Service manager with a background in mental health, will become acting chief executive at Ashworth. Mr Dorrell added: "The ongoing care of patients at the hospital is of paramount importance and the acting chief executive will give this highest priority."
It is not the first time that Ashworth, which has 500 patients, has come under fire. In 1992, complaints about persistent neglect and abuse of patients by a substantial minority of staff at the Merseyside hospital were upheld by a government inquiry headed by Sir Louis Blom-Cooper.
Mrs Mahon said last night that she was satisfied with the action taken by the DoH. But she said the fact that Stephen Daggett had had to alert outside authorities to the allegations showed there was "something wrong".
"It seems to me there is a culture where whistle-blowers are not encouraged and they are worried they might be penalised," she said. Mr Daggett's parents live in her constituency.Reuse content