Hospitals a soft target for thieves and thugs: Managers told to curb crime which costs health service pounds 600m a year

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NATIONAL Health Service hospitals are a criminal's paradise, providing rich and easy pickings to thieves and open house to thugs, the Government was warned yesterday.

Security in most is so lax that they are like 'supermarkets without tills', yet few managers have any coherent strategy to stop thefts or to combat attacks on staff. The warning came in a study, commissioned by the Department for Health, on security and crime in six large English hospitals.

Crime prevention specialists who interviewed a cross-section of managers and staff concluded the number of reported incidents, 120 to 5,000 a year for each hospital, 'skimmed the tip of a very large iceberg'.

Informed sources have told the Independent that losses could be running at pounds 600m a year - around 2 per cent of NHS turnover - or up to pounds 1bn if staff absenteeism or 'theft of employers' time' is included.

Sir Duncan Nichol, NHS chief executive, ordered managers to review crime prevention procedures.

The report, presented by its authors, Crime Prevention Consulting, to a conference of health service managers in London, said most NHS staff failed to wear identity passes. Too many entrances and exits were unlocked, enabling anyone to wander through most areas.

In one hospital, wheelchairs worth pounds 30,000 went missing over two years. Another lost 40 kettles and 750 pieces of cutlery in 18 months. One accident and emergency department lost 20 telephones in a year, and several hospitals reported thousands of pounds' worth of 'telephone abuse'.

Expensive items of medical equipment seem to disappear regularly. On the day John Drummond and Sheena Carmichael, two management consultants, arrived at one hospital, a probe worth pounds 7,000 went missing. Rooms containing equipment worth millions of pounds, or medical records lying on desks, were routinely kept unlocked and unattended.

Homeless people were living in hospital basements, undiscovered for days on end. Codes for access to some nurses' homes had been given to pizza delivery men and, in one case, pinned to the dartboard of a nearby pub.

Procedures for reporting and recording crimes were 'ineffectual' partly because lines of managerial responsibility for security were blurred and no-one was held accountable, according to the report. Hospital executives do not know exactly what equipment they have since they are not required to keep inventory records of items worth less than pounds 1,000.

The Department for Health plans to raise that threshold to pounds 5,000. One manager conceded: 'If I were called out on a burglary in the middle of the night, and the police asked me what had been taken, I wouldn't have the first idea how to answer.'

The report added: 'In some hospitals, literally every individual interviewed had recent experience, either directly or through one of their close colleagues of a (criminal) incident. The conclusion must be that an effective reporting system would show up many, many times more than the current number of incidents.'

The inquiry team found that violent attacks on staff in hospitals were common, particularly in accident and emergency departments and on maternity wards. But 'a great deal of buck-passing by managers' ensured that statistics on violence in the NHS were non-existent or unreliable.

Senior managers and hospital consultants tended to play down security problems in discussions with the report's authors. But 'staff at the sharp end view the problem much more seriously, and consider that management have little understanding of the reality of the situation'.

Pinderfields Hospital, in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, is one of the few hospitals bucking the trend. The murder of two doctors by a paranoid schizophrenic three years ago led to closed-circuit television, a constant police presence on site - and fewer crimes.

Baroness Cumberlege, Under-Secretary for Health, acknowledged that losses in the NHS outstripped those in most retailing organisations. Hospital staff too often turned a blind eye to crime by insiders and intruders. 'Fiddles, frauds, thefts, vandalism, absenteeism, are all leaking away resources needed to look after patients,' she told the conference.

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, said security of patients, staff and property was clearly not a priority under the market-oriented NHS reorganisation. 'We need national standards on security, and the means to enforce and fund them.'