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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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.