Health Secretary announces statutory public inquiry into mental health care failings in Essex

Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, has announced a statutory public inquiry into failings in Essex mental health care. The inquiry will take over from a previously announced non-statutory inquiry announced in January 2021, that families branded ‘toothless’.

The inquiry will investigate more than 1,500 deaths since 2000.

More than 80 families campaigning for answers about Essex mental health failings that left relatives dead or harmed have welcomed the announcement.

The Government announcement will see the non-statutory inquiry into failings at the Essex Partnership University Trust (EPUT), announced in January 2021, upgraded. The new statutory public inquiry will have the power to compel witnesses to give evidence, and they will be made to do so under oath.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Barclay stated that a statutory public inquiry was the only workable way forward. He stated his commitment to improving mental health care services across the country through lessons learned from the inquiry.

The announcement comes after a decade-long campaign for justice spearheaded by Melanie Leahy, who lost her son Matthew at Chelmsford’s Linden Centre in 2012.

The campaign attracted backers from across the spectrum, including Professor Simon Baron Cohen, Shadow Minister Rosena Allin-Khan, and more recently, local MPs Priti Patel and John Whittingdale.

However, in its previous format, the inquiry, set up to investigate 1,500 deaths on Essex mental health wards between 2000 and 2020, struggled to gain traction with families, with Mrs Leahy branding it ‘toothless’. In recent months, even the appointed chair, Dr Geraldine Strathdee expressed concerns that the inquiry could not go ahead in its non-statutory format.

Dr Strathdee will not continue to chair the inquiry in its new form and a new chair will be found.

Melanie Leahy said on Wednesday: “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. 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 Matthew 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.”

Nina Ali, Partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, which has been representing the families for more than four years, said: “Today’s government announcement is a testament to the fortitude of Melanie and the families in the campaign.

“Pressuring the government to change track is difficult, but the families have shown it is possible. It has long been clear that a statutory public inquiry is the only way to get to the bottom of the horrific standard of care provided to patients by mental health care services in Essex and we look forward to working with the inquiry team and our clients to ensure that the inquiry is effective.

“Inquiries such as these are the only way in which lessons can be learnt for the future to ensure that no other families have to suffer the same fate.”

Following Mr Barclay’s announcement to the Commons on Wednesday, John Baron CBE MP for Basildon and Billericay said: “I welcome the news today that this inquiry has been moved to a statutory basis. Families of those affected need answers and unfortunately the non-statutory basis of this inquiry to date has failed to deliver due to low response rates. This new statutory inquiry will now put this right.”

Mick Ferris

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