An inquiry examining the deaths of about 2,000 mental health patient will be given statutory powers in a bid improve the investigation, Health Secretary Steve Barclay has said.
The Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry, chaired by Dr Geraldine Strathdee, is gathering evidence about mental health inpatient deaths in the county over a 21-year period.
She had called for the extra powers after revealing that just 11 staff members out of 14,000 who were contacted by the inquiry said they would attend an evidence session.
Families of those who died welcomed the move, describing it as “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, whose son Matthew died in the care of the trust in Chelmsford in 2012, said:
“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,” she said, thanking “all of those who have supported and joined our campaign over the years”.
“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.”
Mr Barclay said “progress has already been made to learn lessons and improve inpatient mental health care” by the Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (Eput) staff.
“In a letter to me in March, she said to me, ‘30% of named staff, those essential witnesses involved in deaths we are investigating have agreed to attend evidence sessions. In my assessment, I cannot properly investigate matters with this level of engagement’.
“She has also raised with me concerns about ongoing safety issues at the trust and to quote her letter once again, she said, ‘I’m very concerned that there are serious ongoing risks to patient safety’.”
MPs were told there are concerns those issues also cannot be “properly investigated by the inquiry without statutory powers”.
Of the lack of engagement with the inquiry from current and former Eput staff, Mr Barclay: “I have listened to Dr Strathdee’s concerns that the inquiry needs further staff engagement to get victims’ families the answers they deserve.”
He told MPs: “I agree with Dr Strathdee that we have now reached the point where the only appropriate course of action is to give this inquiry statutory powers.”
He acknowledged that a statutory public inquiry would take longer but “this doesn’t mean we start from scratch”.
He said Dr Strathdee had told him that “due to personal reasons” she would not be continuing as the inquiry’s chairwoman, and work had begun to find a replacement.
Dr Strathdee said she “wholeheartedly” welcomed the news the Essex inquiry would have statutory status, adding: “I am confident that statutory status will allow the inquiry to deliver a full and robust report and make recommendations that will lead to much-needed improvements.
“While I remain dedicated to the cause of the inquiry, I have taken the very difficult decision to hand over the role of chair. In my view the next stage of the inquiry’s work requires a chair who is available for the entire forward duration of a statutory inquiry.
“Due to personal health reasons, I have decided with my family, that this cannot be me.”
Shadow minister for mental health Rosena Allin-Khan said she welcomed the announcement that the inquiry would “be given vital statutory powers”.
She said: “It beggars belief that it has taken the government so long to address the House on this matter. It seems that every month there are new scandals regarding needless loss of life and dehumanising behaviour in in-patient mental health settings and this must be stamped out now. These are people’s lives.
She added: “I welcome the announcement today that the inquiry will be given vital statutory powers. Over the past several years families who have lost loved ones at (Eput) have been calling for the inquiry to be given these vital statutory powers.
“The grieving families I have been speaking to told me about the pain and anguish that they have felt during their fight for answers and this has only been compounded by an inquiry that lacks the necessary powers to seek the truth.”