Brutality claims at hospital upheld: Flood of civil claims expected after inquiry chairman concedes that special units 'may be beyond reform'

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The Independent Online
A POLICE inquiry is expected to be launched this month after allegations that patients at Ashworth top security hospital near Liverpool endured a decade of brutality and abuse by nursing staff.

Most of the 120 complaints of serious maltreatment considered by an independent committee of inquiry over the past year, are upheld in the report of its findings, the Independent has learnt.

Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, chairman of the Mental Health Act Commission, who headed the inquiry, is understood to have told Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, that Ashworth, along with Rampton and Broadmoor, the two other English special hospitals, may be beyond reform. Ashworth, the largest of the three, houses 650 mentally disordered patients. They include some of Britain's most dangerous murderers and rapists, sent there by the courts.

The report of the committee of inquiry is due out this week. Apart from the expected criminal investigation, publication of the committee's findings may trigger claims in the civil courts for compensation against the Special Hospitals Service Authority, which runs the three establishments.

About pounds 2m was paid out in May to 100 victims of the 'pin-down' regime of solitary confinement in Staffordshire council children's homes.

New procedures for ensuring patients' complaints are fully investigated, and a clampdown on control and restraint techniques, are among 90 recommendations in the committee of inquiry's report on Ashworth, well-placed sources have told the Independent.

The document, running to more than 1,000 pages, will urge the setting up of an independent patients' advocacy service on site to which all patients would have access. Full-time legal advisers should be at hand to ensure that complaints are fully investigated and that the perpetrators of abuse are appropriately disciplined, the report says.

None of the complaints heard by internal inquiries had been upheld until two staff members were found guilty of gross misconduct and dismissed a fortnight ago. The two, a ward manager and a nurse, used a pig's head to taunt female patients. The animal's head was dressed with a tie around the neck, and had a thermometer sticking out of its mouth, Moira Potier, a principal psychologist at Ashworth, told the committee of inquiry last March.

An overtime ban by 200 members of the Prison Officers' Association, which represents most of Ashworth's nursing staff, began last week in protest at the dismissals. Local POA officials wrote to patients asking for their 'support, patience and tolerance' while the industrial action persisted, and warned that some of the patients' activities might be affected by the ban.

The committee's report also concludes that seclusion of patients for long periods should be phased out by 1995 and that the control and restraint techniques be restricted to circumstances in which there are no alternatives for dealing with patients who are seen as threats to themselves or others.

One Ashworth patient, Sean Walton, 20, was allegedly beaten with a snooker cue and punched by staff before being found dead in a seclusion room four years ago. Another patient complained that she was denied sanitary towels while kept in seclusion.

The Independent understands that the police inquiry may involve up to 20 Ashworth staff members. Under the Mental Health Act of 1983, hospital employees convicted of ill-treating or wilfully neglecting a patient face up to two years in prison and unlimited fines.

The Blom-Cooper inquiry was established in April last year, a month after Channel 4 broadcast a programme titled A Special Hospital which claimed that more than 600 complaints of abuse by staff on patients had been received over a decade.

Similar allegations against staff at Rampton top-security hospital in Nottinghamshire were aired in 1979. Ten nursing staff were subsequently convicted of maltreating patients.

The findings will be published today of a year-long inquiry, headed by Lord Gareth Williams QC, chairman of the Bar Council, into allegations of abuse and cruelty at Ty Mawr children's home, near Abergavenny, Gwent.