Directors and owners of companies which run care and nursing homes face being held criminally liable for any abuses that take place there, the Government has announced.
The new plans, due to be published in the New Year, could lead to fines – or even prison sentences – for directors who fail to safeguard vulnerable patients in homes which they run.
The move comes as a response to the scandal at Winterbourne View – where dozens of patients with learning disabilities suffered years of abuse at the hands of violent carers in the privately run home.
The abuse only came to light after Panorama reporter secretly recorded residents being slapped, soaked in water, trapped under chairs, taunted, sworn at and having their hair pulled and eyes poked. Almost all of the patients at Winterbourne had been sent there by the NHS.
Six members of staff were jail for their part in what a judge condemned as a ‘scandalous culture of cruelty’ but the directors of Castlebeck, owners of the 26-bed unit, that was paid an average of £3,500 a week for each patient were not criminally sanctioned.
The Health Minister Norman Lamb said his department was drawing up new plans to strengthen corporate accountability of similar care homes – including nursing homes for the elderly.
“When you look at Winterbourne View the people who committed the abuse and the assaults were convicted but what about the people who were making the money from that company and the board who were representing that company?” he said.
“We need to have a situation where people who run the care homes in the public sector or private sector know that they are accountable for the services that the provide and that there are consequences if they don’t.
“So next spring we will announce proposals to address the gap in the law on effective corporate accountability.”
He added that they would be looking at both changes to criminal law and ensuring that directors of companies that had been censured in the past could be banned from running similar companies in the future.
The minister's remarks were made as the Government unveiled plans to move every person with a learning disability such as autism out of long stay hospital care and into residential settings.
Under the plans, the cases of all patients in current placements will be reviewed by June next year with a view to placing anyone being treated “inappropriately” in hospital into community-based support by June 2014.
There are currently 3,400 people in NHS-funded learning disability inpatient beds of which around 1,200 are in assessment and treatment units.
“A moment has come in my view when one has to recognise that we need a complete culture change,” Mr Lamb said.
“I want this to be seen as a moment when there is a collective view that there needs to be a substantial culture change in society, that people with learning disabilities have the same rights as anybody else, and that we cannot any longer tolerate inappropriate care or treatment for these people
“I take the view that there is a national imperative that things have to change.”
Mr Lamb said that he did not believe this was a case where getting the system right required additional money.
He pointed out that the cost of placing patients in Winterbourne View was no cheaper than looking after them more effectively and safely either in their own homes or the local community.