‘Dramatic increase’ in staff co-operation urged for inquiry into 2,000 mental health deaths
Staff will be compelled to give evidence to an inquiry examining around 2,000 mental health patient deaths if there is not a “quantum leap” in co-operation, according to the Government.
Health minister Neil O’Brien (pictured) said the Government will “not hesitate” to put the Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry on a statutory footing if it does not see a “dramatic increase in the level of co-operation” from current and former employees.
His remarks came as Essex MPs used a parliamentary debate to raise concerns about the “shockingly low” level of responses from Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (EPUT) staff.
Dr Geraldine Strathdee, chairwoman of the Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry, is gathering evidence about mental health inpatient deaths in the county over a 21-year period.
An initial figure of 1,500 deaths was based on information from EPUT and announced in March 2022.
All of the 1,500 people died while they were a patient on a mental health ward in Essex, or within three months of being discharged, between 2000 and 2020.
It was confirmed this month that the number of deaths under investigation is now closer to 2,000.
Dr Strathdee also described the number of responses to the inquiry from current and former staff as “hugely disappointing”.
Conservative former minister Vicky Ford, MP for Chelmsford, told a Westminster Hall debate: “It is incredibly disappointing that, of the 14,000 members of EPUT staff whom the inquiry had written to, only 11 had agreed to give evidence.
“In the specific cases the inquiry is investigating, only one in four responded. This is a shockingly low figure and it is abundantly clear that, with this extremely small pool of staff witnesses, it is highly unlikely that the full truth would be heard.”
Ms Ford added: “I want to put it on the parliamentary record that I join calls for this to be converted into a statutory inquiry, which will compel witnesses to give evidence to ensure full transparency and greater public scrutiny of its progress.”
Conservative former minister Sir James Duddridge, MP for Rochford and Southend East, said the approach taken “simply hasn’t worked”, adding: “Unless the department and EPUT transform miraculously over the next four weeks, the only real option is a statutory inquiry, and she has our full support.”
The debate heard EPUT’s chief executive wrote to MPs on January 19 and noted a public inquiry could bring “consequent delays and costs, and the trust needs to be focused on continued improvement to services at a time of rising demand, both in numbers and in complexity of cases”.
Conservative former cabinet minister Sir John Whittingdale, MP for Maldon, said the families “were right and we were wrong” in their initial calls for a statutory inquiry, adding: “We have reached the point where, unless in a very short space of time we receive co-operation, there does need to be statutory powers given.
“We need to get to the bottom of this. We need to find out – of this 2,000 figure of deaths which has mysteriously and suddenly appeared from the trust – what happened to those people.”
Mr O’Brien, replying for the Government, said: “Our view was and is that a non-statutory inquiry, if it is possible, remains the most effective way to get to the truth of what happens.
“It is quicker, and potentially involves not having to drag clinicians through the public processes of a statutory inquiry.”
He added: “Although statutory inquiries can compel witnesses to give evidence under oath, that does not necessarily mean that it will be easier to obtain the evidence we want.
“However, all that turns on people co-operating with a non-statutory inquiry, and what we need to now see is a quantum leap in the level of co-operation.
“We will not hesitate to move to a statutory inquiry if we don’t see a dramatic increase in the level of co-operation.
“Given how long this has gone on, we cannot wait for a long period for a transformation in the level of engagement.
“While for now the approach remains a non-statutory inquiry, we will not hesitate to change that approach if we do not see the change we need over a rapid period of time.”
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