Families’ fury as Government rejects call to hold statutory inquiry into Essex mental health deaths

The Government needs to listen to families whose loved ones have died while in care of the state if it is serious about mental health, a group of Essex families have said after being refused a statutory inquiry.

The families of 67 individuals who died or were severely mistreated while in the care of mental health services in Essex have had their most recent plea for a statutory inquiry dismissed by Nadine Dorries – Minister of State for Mental Health, Suicide Prevention and Patient Safety.

Lawyers on behalf of the families say the response “is not only profoundly disappointing, but also extremely insulting”.

The families – who have campaigned for years to find out why their loved ones died while in care – wrote a letter in February asking to overturn the decision for a non-statutory inquiry in favour of a full statutory inquiry.

A statutory inquiry would be in a public forum and said to be broad enough in scope to allow a sufficient level of scrutiny into the culture of current investigations into deaths in mental health settings. Non-statutory inquiries lack the legal powers to compel witnesses to attend to give evidence under oath.

The families also raised concern in their letter over Ms Dorries’ chosen chair for the inquiry – Doctor Geraldine Strathdee, who has held a leadership role in relation to NHS and CQC services provided across England, including Essex.

The families suggest that it is not appropriate to have the NHS investigating itself, nor is it independent of the NHS’ interests.

A letter from the Government’s head of public inquiries, reviews and litigation team to Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors, who represent the families, reads: “We are instructed that the Minister’s position is that she stands by her decision to hold a non-statutory inquiry.”

The Government also stands by Dr Strathdee conducting the inquiry. The letter adds: “The Minister does not consider that any of the matters raised in your correspondence give rise to any arguable appearance of bias.”

Melanie Leahy, whose son Matthew died while in the care of the Linden Centre in Chelmsford in 2012, described the response as an “insult and a dismissal”.

Mrs Leahy said: “The irony of Ms Dorries’ job title astounds me – I would laugh, if our situation wasn’t so horrific. She has no regard for patient safety whatsoever and it is a joke that she be tasked with looking after the nation’s wellbeing.

“Our loved ones lost their lives as a direct result of a catalogue of failings both in mental health hospitals and in the community in Essex, but the same failings and multiple deaths are happening all over the country, everywhere.

“If Nadine Dorries was even half the individual the UK needs to help tackle mental health, she would have pushed for a full public and statutory inquiry – that’s the only way we’re going to get to the bottom of what happened.

“As it is, the country has someone pushing the government’s ‘very important’ agenda on mental health who, actually, doesn’t care one bit.

“The limited inquiry she is calling is so irrelevant to the larger public health crisis, how on earth she expects it to establish patterns of failure and map them in order to preserve precious lives is beyond me.”

Mrs Leahy added: “My son died in 2012 and I still don’t know why.

“I’m not just one mother and this is not just a one-off, I am one of 67 families – this is a devastating trend across Essex which must be investigated and stopped.”

Priya Singh, a solicitor at Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors, said: “Ms Dorries’ response is not only profoundly disappointing but also extremely insulting, as she seems determined to completely ignore the wishes of the majority of the families and individuals affected.

“The families’ stories are heartbreaking and difficult to hear, no one who engages with them could fail to appreciate the truly awful situations they have been through.

“If we cannot get the Government to respond appropriately on mental health, something which is increasingly urgent across the nation, we will have to consider what our next step will be – namely, to make an application for a judicial review of Ms Dorries’ decision.”

A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Every death in a mental health facility is a tragedy, which is why we have launched an independent Inquiry into inpatient mental health deaths across the whole of Essex between 2000 and 2020.

“Dr Geraldine Strathdee CBE took up the role as chair of the independent inquiry in January and will work to set out the full terms of reference before formally beginning the inquiry in April.

“It is vitally important we learn from these events in order to benefit care across the wider NHS and protect patients in the future.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter