Former NHS England clinical director appointed to lead investigation amid concerns over her independence
Dozens of families whose loved ones died under the care of North Essex Partnership University Trust held a protest rally outside the offices of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in London on Wednesday.
There are almost 70 families supporting the campaign who want the government to set up a full public inquiry, with the power to compel witnesses to give evidence on oath.
Mental health minister Nadine Dorries has rejected that and instead commissioned an investigation that will only be able to rely on the goodwill of witnesses with no formal powers.
The government has also appointed Dr Geraldine Strathdee, a consultant psychiatrist and former national clinical director for mental health at NHS England until 2016, to lead the inquiry. She was given the role without families being consulted.
The families say they will not cooperate with the investigation and do not believe Dr Strathdee can be truly independent.
The review will also only consider deaths and treatment of patients who were in hospital and will not consider the care for patients in the community where many families believe their relatives were let down.
Teacher Emily Harley was in London to campaign in memory of her brother, 36-year-old Terry White, who died in April 2019 after being discharged with no community support.
She told The Independent: “They were so quick to discharge him and I repeatedly told them what had been going on and questioning why he wasn’t sectioned. He ticked every box for being at the highest risk of suicide but they ignored all the warnings.
“I begged them not to discharge him. There was no community support at all.”
She added: “The long list of failures is so shocking and the only way for families to get the truth they need is through a comprehensive and in depth public inquiry where those responsible will be held to account. That is the only way change will happen and people will receive the proper care they need in the future.
“Geraldine Strathdee was part of the system. I don’t see how it can work with her leading the inquiry.”
The campaign has been led by Melanie Leahy, whose son Matthew died at The Linden Centre, in Chelmsford, Essex, in 2012. She has received the backing of numerous MPs and charities and secured a debate in parliament last November.
Matthew was admitted to the Linden Centre in November 2012, but within days he contacted Essex Police begging for help and claimed he had been raped.
Just seven days later Matthew was found hanged in his room.
An inquest revealed there had been multiple failings in the care by the North Essex Partnership University Trust and recorded an open verdict.
Speaking to The Independent, Ms Leahy said the families had wanted to demonstrate their strength of feeling in a protest in London, marching from Westminster Tube to the offices of the Department of Health and Social Care nearby.
She said: “Appointing Geraldine Strathdee is an absolute joke, she is someone with such strong ties to NHS England and she is on record praising Essex mental health services. She is not independent at all, her bias will be towards NHS England, the circles she moves in.”
The families are being represented by lawyers from Hodge Jones and Allen Solicitors who wrote to the government warning that NHS staff and key witnesses could avoid giving evidence to the investigation. They said: “It is not a tenable position to rely on a ‘moral obligation’ – individuals who seek to avoid assisting an inquiry in order to protect their own position are of course those most likely to act without regard to any such moral obligation.”
They added: “Dr Strathdee is on record as having praised mental health services in Essex (at the South East Essex Mental Health Summit in 2015), which gives rise to further concerns about her appropriateness to act as chair.”
In response the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The minister’s position is that she stands by her decision to hold a non-statutory inquiry.
“With respect to the concern raised in relation to the appointment of Dr Geraldine Strathdee as chair, the minister…does not consider that any of the matters raised in your correspondence give rise to any arguable appearance of bias.”