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Undercover documentary exposed cruel attitude to vulnerable patients, court told

An undercover BBC documentary exposed the “cruel and abusive” attitude staff at a specialist hospital showed towards extremely vulnerable patients with learning difficulties, a court heard.

Nine members of staff were charged with a total of 27 offences after a reporter used a hidden camera at Whorlton Hall, a 17-bed independent unit for people with complex needs, near Barnard Castle, County Durham.

Teesside Crown Court heard patients who were detained under the Mental Health Act, and who required 24-hour care, were distressed as they were verbally abused, mocked and wound up by some of the staff at the hospital.

Anne Richardson, prosecuting, said: “It would appear that there was something of a culture of inappropriate behaviour within Whorlton Hall at the relevant time.”

The BBC sent reporter Olivia Davies undercover to work at the unit in 2019, using a hidden camera for a Panorama documentary, to show the care offered by staff.

One defendant said on camera he had invented an imaginary “man button” to summon male staff for a female patient who had clearly said she did not want men to look after her.

Crown court
The case is being heard at Teesside Crown Court (Owen Humphreys/PA)

The Crown alleged Peter Bennett, 53, showed off to colleagues and used the threat of the “man button” to wind up the patient and to make her comply.

He was also alleged to have said he would issue staff with balloons, as he knew the patient did not like them.

Niall Mellor, 26, was heard to call the same patient “a retard” and said that residents did not need good treatment, jurors were told.

Miss Richardson said Ryan Fuller, 27, was heard to call a different resident a “bitch”, and when he heard of more patients coming to the unit he spoke of “how much fun he would have with them, and said ‘more abuse’.”

John Sanderson, 25, said he had repeatedly unplugged a patient’s phone while the resident was speaking to his sister, resulting in the patient becoming so agitated he smashed up the phone.

Sabah Mahmoud, 27, was said to have told a resident that her family were “f****** poison”, despite knowing the patient blamed herself for the death of a relative.

Staff nurse Karen McGhee, 54, was alleged not to have protected a patient from ill-treatment during a period of restraint by other care workers.

Miss Richardson said: “The Crown does not suggest that the defendants were ill-treating all of the residents all of the time – caring for those within Whorlton Hall was not an easy job.

“Nonetheless, you will hear from witnesses, in conjunction with the BBC footage, that at times the defendants’ attitude and care to certain residents was cruel and abusive.”

She said the counts of ill treatment or wilful neglect of a person in care related to victims who were unable, due to their mental and physical capacity, to protect themselves.

Miss Richardson said the defendants have “largely indicated that they received minimal training, that the hall was understaffed and that those they cared for were extremely challenging”.

The defendants are: John Sanderson, 25, of Cambridge Avenue, Willington, who faces two charges of ill-treatment of a person in care; Darren Mark Lawton, 47, of Miners Crescent, Darlington, who faces two counts of ill-treatment of a person in care; Niall Mellor, 26, of Lingmell Dene, Coundon, Bishop Auckland, is accused of two counts of ill-treatment of a patient; Sarah Banner, 33, from Faulkner Road, Newton Aycliffe, is accused of three counts of ill-treatment of a patient; her husband Matthew Banner, 43, of the same address, is charged with six counts of ill-treatment of a patient; Ryan Fuller, 26, from of Deerbolt Bank, Barnard Castle, faces ten charges of ill-treatment of a patient; Sabah Mahmood, 27, of Woodland Crescent, Kelloe, is charged with one count of ill-treatment of a patient; Peter Bennett, 52, of Redworth Road, Billingham, faces three counts of ill-treatment of a patient; Karen McGhee, 54, from Wildair Close, Darlington, faces two counts of ill-treatment of a patient and one of wilful neglect.

The case was adjourned until Thursday when footage from the documentary will be shown to the jury.