Covering up abuse: How Winterbourne View happened again

“These aren’t isolated instances. It’s cultural, and it’s grown out of what’s happened in the care sector."

Most of us will never forget the shocking footage that came out of the Winterbourne View care home. It was humanity at its worst: cruel, despicable and disgusting.

You probably don’t remember – or perhaps only dimly – but earlier this year two nursing home assistants, Susan Murphy, 44, and James Hinds, 59, were jailed for two years and nine months for a series of crimes against people with learning difficulties, physical impairments and high support needs that were every bit as atrocious. They bullied other members of staff into silence, and so the abuse went on for two years between January 2005 and March 2007 at the Solar Centre in Doncaster, until police were called in after a former member of staff complained about them.

Hinds apparently dragged one man across the floor by his hair and stabbed another with a needle on the arm and hand because he wouldn’t sit down; Murphy was said to have locked another patient in a cupboard, and the patients were said to have been repeatedly struck around the face and head. One patient who had severe burn scars she had incurred as a child was targeted by the pair and after hitting her Hinds “would laugh and say the marks could not be seen because of the scarring to her face”.   All in all, there were 25 charges of serious ill-treatment of disabled patients.

The case took a great deal longer to prosecute than Winterbourne View did: in fact, there was only successful prosecution because John Pring’s excellent Disability News Service (DNS) alerted the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, in 2011 following two failed investigations by South Yorkshire police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

But the delay in bringing the criminals to account and the fact the crimes weren’t shown on national TV aren’t the only difference between this case and what happened in Bristol. After Winterbourne View, a Serious Case Review (SCR) was ordered. The huge report, which you can read here, produced a huge number of recommendations for the police, health regulators and local services to act on to prevent such a case ever happening again.

It was clear that there had been a serious institutional breakdown. Never mind the six year delay in securing a prosecution: Murphy was even able to continue working in the care sector after she was suspended over the allegations in 2007. Families of the victims assumed that the Doncaster Safeguarding Adults Partnership Board – which has people on it from the council, NHS trusts and police among others – would do the same in this instance. Instead, Doncaster Safeguarding Adults Partnership Board (DSAPB) chair Roger Thompson said it wasn’t needed, but wouldn’t explain why.

He appeared to have local political support. Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat MP and former care services minister, who raised concerns about the case with civil servants in 2011 after it was brought to his attention by DNS, backed calls for an SCR, but the Labour MP Rosie Winterton, whose Doncaster Central constituency includes the Solar Centre, refused to comment on the case to journalists, despite numerous requests.

There was an overwhelming suspicion among the families that Doncaster’s authorities had something to hide. Why, for instance, did it appear that an internal report compiled by RDaSH (Rotherham Doncaster and South Humber Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the day centre) was watered-down before being given to the victims’ families in 2008? Burstow said that - as with the Winterbourne View case – there were senior people within the local NHS Foundation Trust who should have been held to account.

Alison Millar, a solicitor for Leigh Day who has represented the families of victims at Winterbourne View, tells me: “It can be hard to get convictions: you have vulnerable witnesses: it’s time-consuming and the police often don’t want to put them through the process. We were fortunate that Winterbourne View essentially happened in the public eye.

“But in both cases, the care workers are held to account and not the structures behind them: it’s very hard to secure convictions at a corporate level. It seems wrong there wasn’t going to be a SCR after this case. I don’t think there was a legal reason for it – it seems there may be a number of senior figures who are culpable and probably need to go, who don’t want their failures brought to light.

“These aren’t isolated instances. It’s cultural, and it’s grown out of what’s happened in the care sector. The Francis Report (into Mid Staffs) exposed what happens when targets are chased, and on top of that you have a private sector moving in and chasing profits. It leads to a high staff turnover, a lack of training and poor management.”

At the time of the decision, Adrian Milnes, whose step-son Richie was abused at the Solar Centre told Disability News Service: “It doesn’t surprise me, it saddens me. We have had this for six years and there is still an extreme reluctance to be transparent and accountable.”

Last week, the families finally won their battle. Days after lawyers acting for Milnes wrote to Doncaster council and threatened a judicial review of the decision not to hold a review, DSAPB backed down. Thompson told the DNS that he and his colleagues had decided they needed to “bring together in one place the lessons learned from the Solar Centre matter and believe that [an SCR] would provide the best vehicle to do that”. Milnes was rather unimpressed with the statement, telling the DNS the board had “not even had the backbone to say they got it wrong or admit the real reason they are having a serious case review.”

Burstow is pushing the coalition to introduce a new criminal offence of corporate neglect for cases like Winterbourne View, the private hospital near Bristol where people with learning difficulties were abused. He says such an offence could prove vital in preventing future scandals like the Solar Centre, by forcing directors of companies and NHS trusts to take a more active role in ensuring care standards were high.

Millar tells me: “Burstow’s right, but there actually are possibilities to prosecute under existing legislation – both the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Care Quality Commission (CQC) could do it, but both see it as going beyond their remit. So we either need a beefed up CQC or an extended duty of candour where managers are obliged to report at a corporate level.

“Another problem we face in private facilities (like Winterbourne View) is that quite often the abuse comes to light after the homes have shut down, and the insurers won’t pay out, because they won’t insure deliberate acts. We’re involved in an inquest regarding the death of two patients. A recent SCR exposed the fact the company looking after them was opening and closing businesses in private care at a furious rate. It can be very difficult to gauge where responsibility lies in a case like that.”

The families of the vulnerable residents, that were abused at the Winterbourne View private hospital, at Hambrook, South Gloucestershire, react as Beverley Dawkins from Mencap gives a statement outside Bristol Crown Court. Image: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Where are the moderate Tories condemning Zac Goldsmith’s campaign?

Conservative MPs are reluctant to criticise the London mayoral candidate’s dogwhistle rhetoric.

Very few Conservative politicians have criticised Zac Goldsmith’s campaign to be elected London mayor. And, amid repeated accusations of racial profiling, Islamophobic undertones, and patronising London’s Indian communities, there has been plenty to criticise.

Ever since describing his rival, Sadiq Khan, as having “radical politics” at the end of last year, Goldsmith’s campaign has come under fire for attempting to sound a dogwhistle to voters for whom racial politics – and divisions – are a priority.

You may feel it’s naïve of me to expect Tory MPs to join in the criticism. Presumably most Tory MPs want their party’s candidate to win the mayoralty. So it is unlikely that they would condemn his methods.

But I’d argue that, in this case, we can’t excuse dodged questions and studied silence as good clean tribalism. Granted, Conservatives only want to see their party make electoral gains. And that is understandable. But trickier to explain away is how willing all of the party’s MPs – many of whom are as moderate and “cotton-wool Tory” (in the words of one Labour adviser) as we once assumed Goldsmith was – are to ignore the campaign’s nastier side.

Why aren’t the Cameroons (or neo-Cameroons) who wish to further “detoxify” the party speaking out? There are plenty of them. There is more enthusiasm on the Tory benches for David Cameron than is generally assumed. Many of the 2015 intake are grateful to him; those in marginal seats in particular see him as the reason they won last year. And in spite of the grumbling nature of the 2010-ers, a number of them are keener than appears on Cameron. After all, plenty wouldn’t be in parliament without his A-list and open primaries (a time when the party was supposed to be opening up to candidates of different backgrounds, something Goldsmith’s rhetoric could threaten).

And we know it’s not just Labour whining about Goldsmith’s campaign. It makes Tories uncomfortable too. For example, the Conservative Group Leader at Watford Council Binita Mehta, former Conservative candidate Shazia Awan, and Tory peer and former minister Sayeeda Warsi have spoken out.

And it’s not just non-MPs who are riled by Goldsmith’s rhetoric. Behind the scenes, Conservative MPs have been muttering for weeks about feeling uncomfortable about the campaign.

“There has been a sense that this is a bad dogwhistle, and it’s a bit of a smear,” one Tory MP tells me. “I don’t think Sadiq Khan’s a bad man at all – I think his problem is, which happens to all politicians, is some of the platforms in the past and the people he shared them with, and maybe he didn’t know – I mean, the number of times David Cameron or Gordon Brown or Tony Blair were shown at some fundraising thing, or just visiting somewhere, shaking hands with somebody who turns out to be a crook; that’s the nature of mass politics.”

There is also a mixed view among London’s Tory MPs about the tone of Goldsmith’s campaign generally. Some, who were frustrated in the beginning by his “laidback, slightly disengaged” style, are simply pleased that he finally decided to play dirty with the more energetic Khan. Others saw his initial lighter touch as an asset, and lament that he is trying to emulate Boris Johnson by being outrageous – but, unlike the current London mayor, doesn’t have the personality to get away with it.

One Tory MP describes it as a “cold, Lynton Crosby calculation of the dogwhistle variety”, and reveals that, a couple of weeks ago, there was a sense among some that it was “too much” and had “gone too far and is counterproductive”.

But this sense has apparently dissipated. Since Labour’s antisemitism crisis unfolded last week, moderate Conservative MPs feel more comfortable keeping their mouths shut about Goldsmith’s campaign. This is because racism in Labour has been exposed, even if Khan is not involved. Ironic really, considering they were (rightly) so quick to condemn Ken Livingstone’s comments and call on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MPs to speak out against such sentiments. It’s worth noting that Labour’s moderates have been significantly less reluctant than their Tory counterparts to call out such problems in their own party.

There is also the EU referendum to consider. Tory MPs see division and infighting ahead, and don’t want to war more than is necessary. One source close to a Tory MP tells me: “[Goldsmith’s campaign] is uncomfortable for all of us – it’s not even considered a Conservative campaign, it’s considered a Zac Goldsmith campaign. But [we can’t complain because] we have to concentrate on Europe.”

So it makes sense politically, in the short term, for Tory moderates to keep quiet. But I expect they know that they have shirked a moral duty to call out such nasty campaign methods. Their calls for Labour’s response to antisemitism, and David Cameron’s outrage about Jeremy Corbyn’s “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah, are simply hollow attack lines if they can’t hold their own party to higher standards.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.