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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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage