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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."

New Statesman
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

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.”