Health secretary launches national investigation into NHS mental health scandals after Independent exposés

The health secretary has launched an investigation into mental health scandals across the country – prompted by The Independent’s reporting on deaths and abuse of vulnerable patients.

Announcing the move with a “wide-ranging” brief on mental health care, Steve Barclay praised The Independent for “raising awareness” of horrific treatment at units across the country.

The cabinet minister said that the Health and Safety Investigation Branch would look into the care of young people, examine staffing levels, and scrutinise the quality of care within units.

He also said an investigation into 2,000 mental health deaths in Essex would be converted into a full public inquiry.

The Independent has published several investigations exposing “systemic abuse” of children within private mental health hospitals run by the former Huntercombe Group, with more than 50 patients speaking out about treatment spanning a decade.

The hospital owner has since been forced to close one of its children’s services in Maidenhead after this website’s reporting led to scrutiny by the Care Quality Commission and NHS England.

In December, The Independent revealed patients in NHS mental health hospitals were dying due to failings in basic physical health care, despite multiple warnings from coroners.

This publication has also repeatedly reported on the scandal of deaths linked to NHS mental health services in Essex.

Writing for The Independent Mr Barclay said: “To the mums and dads with teenage children in mental health units, to the patients across the country seeking support close to where they live, and to those worried about the way such facilities are staffed – I can tell you I’m taking action on a national level.

“I will task a new investigative body with launching an investigation into our country’s mental health inpatient care facilities.

“This investigation will be wide-ranging and will help us tackle inappropriate out-of-area placements, improve care for young people with mental health needs, develop safer staffing models, and learn from tragic deaths.”

“I’d like to thank The Independent for raising awareness of this important issue. We listened to the concerns and launched a rapid review into how we can improve the way data, complaints, feedback, and whistleblowing alerts are used to identify safety risks in mental health inpatient settings.”

In 2021, the government commissioned an independent review of the deaths of mental health patients across Essex following several reports from the parliamentary health service ombudsman and campaigns by bereaved families.

However, bereaved families repeatedly called for the investigation to be turned into a public inquiry and last month the review chair Dr Geraldine Strathdee also urged the government to launch a statutory public inquiry after just a handful of staff came forward to give evidence.

The public inquiry will now have powers to compel former staff of the Essex mental health trust to come forward with evidence.

Melanie Leahy, whose son Matthew died in 2012 whilst an inpatient in an Essex mental health hospital, said: “Today’s announcement marks the start of the next chapter in our mission to find out how our loved ones could be so badly failed by those who were meant to care for them.

Melanie Leahy with her son Matthew, who was found dead at the Linden Centre in Chelmsford in 2012 (Melanie Leahy)
Melanie Leahy with her son Matthew, who was found dead at the Linden Centre in Chelmsford in 2012 (Melanie Leahy)

“I welcome today’s long overdue government announcement, and I look forward to working with the inquiry team as they look to shape their terms of reference.

“I would like to thank all of those who have supported and joined our campaign over the years, from the other families who have shown bravery in sharing their stories, to the other campaigners and politicians who have backed us, and my legal team at Hodge Jones & Allen.

“In the more than 10 years since Mathew died, I have never given up hope that I will get him justice, and in his name, fight to improve the woeful mental health provision that impacts countless families each day.”

Speaking about the public inquiry, Mr Barclay said:Everyone receiving care in a mental health facility should feel safe and be confident they’re receiving world-class treatment.

“We take any failure to do so seriously and that’s why the Essex inquiry was launched and I’m now taking further action to give it the necessary legal powers, to help improve inpatient safety and learn the lessons of the past.

“I’d like to thank all those involved for their work on this inquiry so far, particularly Dr Strathdee for chairing it. I remain determined to transform and improve mental health care and will continue working to ensure people right across the country receive the care they need.”

Dr Strathdee will not continue as chair of the public inquiry.