Don’t just blame staff - companies must be 'accountable' for care home failings

Minister pledges new rules to ensure firms which fail vulnerable patients are punished

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The Independent Online

Private companies which get public money to run care homes will be made “corporately accountable” for poor standards, the Care Services minister has pledged.

Norman Lamb said he would address regulatory gaps to ensure there were consequences for firms which failed vulnerable patients in hospitals or care homes. At present, care home staff and managers are more likely to be held accountable for abuse than the companies, executives and investors that actually profit from failing homes.

Mr Lamb, a Liberal Democrat, pledged to end the “national scandal” which allowed people with learning difficulties to be abused at the Winterbourne View home, near Bristol. “We have to address corporate accountability,” he told The Independent.

“There is a gap in the system of regulation… it has tended to focus on an individual care home or hospital without thinking about who is controlling it or profiting from it. I have no difficulty with a private company providing care in homes or hospitals – [but] people have to recognise that if they are providing care for people in highly vulnerable circumstances, they have a responsibility and must be held to account.”

The minister’s pledge comes the week after a series of articles about private care home owners in The Independent which revealed major gaps in regulation – despite ever increasing amounts of public money going to private providers.

Mr Lamb said the Government response to the Winterbourne View scandal, in which vulnerable people were left to be abused and assaulted in an unsuitable private care home, must be “absolutely credible and robust”.

“It is a national scandal spending public money putting people into care settings, which are completely inappropriate and then, all too often, experiencing poor quality care. We would never tolerate someone with cancer being given totally inappropriate care, so why do we tolerate this happening for people with learning difficulties? I’m clear it’s got to end.”

Opposition MPs, unions and voluntary sector organisations are among those pressing the Government to demonstrate it has learnt the lessons of Winterbourne View and the collapse of Southern Cross by introducing tougher regulation.

“Poor care or abuses cannot be tolerated anywhere. Whoever is provider – state, voluntary or private – there have to be consequences when care has fallen down and there is clear culpability for what has happened,” said Mr Lamb.

He added: “Unsustainable financial arrangements can ultimately result in poor quality care so we have to address that as well. New regulation will be introduced; it is not a long way off.”

The elephant in the room is, as always, the expanding funding gap for adult social care, with Mr Lamb – who is clear it must be resolved before the next General Election – apparently at odds with his new boss, Jeremy Hunt, who recently said the Dilnot recommendations to introduce a £30,000 cap for elderly care were unaffordable.

“It’s the highest-profile issue in my in-box. We must do Dilnot. We can have a debate about where to set the level and when to implement it, but we have to set the principle and get on with it,” said Mr Lamb.

Since being promoted in the autumn reshuffle, Mr Lamb has not shied away from controversial issues, notably adding his support for a change to assisted suicide laws and ordering an investigation into allegations about inappropriate end-of-life care.

Mental health issues have affected his extended family, and he admits that this personal experience makes him “impatient for change”. 

Lamb has long spoken out against the “asymmetrical” approach by government to mental and physical health and it is one of his top-three priorities he wants to be judged on at the next General Election. He received a Royal College of Psychiatrists President’s medal while in opposition for his work on equality for mental health. 

He said: “I am pleased Ed Miliband talked about mental health but over the last decade it was excluded from the access entitlement of the 18-weeks target, the tariff system and the very powerful idea introduced by Labour that patients should have choice.

“If there is any area of health where you want to empower people, surely it’s mental health but they get what’s given to them and that has got to change in my view.”