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Ministers urged to launch inquiry into inpatient mental health services after ‘systemic abuse’ allegations

Exclusive: The development comes after The Independent revealed allegations by 22 patients of ‘systemic abuse’ within children’s mental health hospitals

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Friday 28 October 2022 20:47 BST
The Department of Health and Social Care says it has launched an inquiry into the allegations
The Department of Health and Social Care says it has launched an inquiry into the allegations (Getty)

Ministers have been urged to launch a public inquiry into the care of mental health patients after The Independent revealed allegations that patients had suffered “systemic abuse” in inpatient units.

A joint investigation with Sky News found that teenagers at facilities run by The Huntercombe Group had been left with post-traumatic stress disorder by their treatment despite hundreds of warnings to regulators and the NHS.

Now the government is facing calls to review all mental health care services over fears that these cases are “the tip of the iceberg”.

Labour’s shadow mental health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan has called for a “rapid review” by the government into inpatient mental health services, while Deborah Coles, the chief executive of charity Inquest, has called on the new health secretary Steve Barclay to launch a statutory public inquiry.

This week The Independent reported allegations by 22 patients of “systemic abuse” within children’s mental health hospitals run by The Huntercombe Group, which has run at least six children’s mental health hospitals, between 2012 and 2022.

The Department of Health and Social Care said it had launched an inquiry into the allegations put forward by the 22 young women. However, when asked by The Independent, it did not share any specific details of the investigation.

Following the announcement of the inquiry, more patients have come forward with allegations of poor care.

Ms Coles said: “The staggering and shocking thing about the investigation was the fact that all these warnings went unheard [and] didn’t trigger that response. It’s an absolutely horrific example of a systemic problem, and sadly, the tip of an iceberg.

“I think it requires a far broader public inquiry to ensure we actually uncover, once and for all, what is going on behind the closed doors of these institutions. They are acting almost with impunity, and they are not subjected to that robust monitoring and inspection.”

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan said the allegations uncovered by The Independent and Sky were ‘extremely distressing’ (PA Archive)

She added: “Rather than looking at this as isolated, having isolated reviews or inquiries, we need to have a statutory public inquiry into mental health services, deaths, and the serious harms that are going on within these places.”

The Centre for Mental Health has called for “reform” of the mental health care system, which it says “creates the conditions for abuse and mistreatment to happen in mental health inpatient services”.

Andy Bell, deputy chief executive at the charity, said: “Mental health inpatient services should be a safe, respectful and compassionate place for people of all ages when they are most unwell. Sadly that’s not always the case. We need to reform the system that creates the conditions for abuse and mistreatment to happen in mental health inpatient services.

“The government must continue to fund improvements to mental health services at a time when need is rising in the wake of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. It must modernise the Mental Health Act to ensure coercion is used as little and as fairly as possible. And the NHS locally must ensure that the services it pays for are safe and effective, and that no one is left for too long in hospitals or care homes for lack of appropriate support to go home to.”

In a letter to the new health secretary, shared with The Independent and Sky News, Dr Allin-Khan said: “As I am sure you will agree, yesterday’s Sky News and Independent report into the treatment of young women at inpatient units run by The Huntercombe Group was extremely distressing.

“Patients, and their families, rightly expect to be safe in inpatient settings. It is incredibly distressing to hear of the excessive use of restraint and the conditions in which patients were kept. With patients suffering from PTSD as a result of their treatment, the long-term impact of their experiences cannot be ignored.”

Health secretary Steve Barclay has taken over from Therese Coffey (PA Wire)

She said the investigation was particularly “alarming” coming weeks after an exposé by Panorama, which highlighted abuses in the Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust, and a Dispatches report into failings across Essex mental health hospitals.

Dr Allin-Khan has written to former health secretary Therese Coffey twice since the end of September about the issues, however she did not receive a response.

In her letters, she asked the government to outline whether it will conduct a rapid review of inpatient mental health services, writing: “There are clearly staff shortages in inpatient settings, with thousands of mental health vacancies across the country – can you set out what the government is doing to tackle this? There are also very clear concerns about the reporting mechanism for complaints – could you outline what the government is doing to ensure that patients’ complaints about their care are taken seriously?”

She told The Independent: “The government’s failure to learn from past failings, and implement recommendations on reducing restraint, segregation and seclusion, is costing people their lives and traumatising too many patients, as evidenced in these reports. They need to conduct a rapid review of mental health inpatient services now.

“Tory chaos over the summer has meant that the government has not engaged with abuse allegations in inpatient settings – for weeks there hasn’t been a functioning mental health minister. Labour has a preventative plan for mental health, ensuring that everyone can access the mental health treatment they need within four weeks, and for children and young people to access mental health support in schools and open-access hubs in their communities.”

NHS England was approached for comment.

Active Care Group took over the remaining Huntercombe hospitals in December 2021. In response to The Independent’s investigation, Dr Sylvia Tang, chief executive of Active Care Group, said most of the alleged incidents date from before the group took over ownership.

She added: “Even so, we are very saddened and concerned to hear about these patient experiences, as the wellbeing, health and safety of our patients has always been, and continues to be, our top priority. Our clinical teams are led by qualified and compassionate professionals.”

The former owners of The Huntercombe Group, now called Eli Investments, said: “We regret that these hospitals and specialist care services, which were owned and independently managed by The Huntercombe Group, failed to meet the expected standards for high-quality care.

“The Huntercombe Group was sold in March 2021 and the 12 hospitals and specialist care services that were the subject of that sale are now part of the Active Care Group. We wish Active Care Group well in their ongoing operations.”

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