‘Toothless’ Linden Centre inquiry won’t address broader failings in Essex mental health services claims campaigner

A proposed independent inquiry into events spanning a 20-year period at a mental health unit in Chelmsford has been described as “toothless”.

For the past eight years, Melanie Leahy has been campaigning for a statutory public inquiry after her 20-year-old son Matthew died at the Linden Centre in November 2012.

A report from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman in 2019, seven years after Matthew’s death, found that there had been “significant failings” in key elements of his care while under the North Essex Partnership Trust (NEP).

Since the start of her campaign, Mrs Leahy has been joined by more than 50 other families who say they have been failed by NHS Mental Health Services in Essex.

The inquiry was announced on Monday, November 30 at the end of a Westminster Hall debate held in response to a successful petition organised by Mrs Leahy, which attracted more than 105,000 signatures.

But the independent inquiry is said to stop far short of calls from families for a full statutory public inquiry into failings of mental health care in Essex,

The proposed inquiry’s focus into the Linden Centre alone has also been criticised as lacking in scope.

Families argue it will not have the mandate to investigate broader failings in Essex mental health services.

Mrs Leahy is among those to have written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, health secretary Matt Hancock, home secretary Priti Patel, and Nadine Dorries, minister of state for mental health, suicide prevention and Patient Safety, expressing disappointment with the offer of an independent inquiry.

Mrs Leahy said: “The proposed inquiry is toothless.

“It will not have the power to compel witnesses to give evidence under oath, like a statutory public inquiry would and will be chaired by a Government-picked ‘expert’.

“Having campaigned for so long to get a parliamentary debate, I refuse to be fobbed off by this half-hearted response.

“All along, the other families and I have stated that a full statutory public inquiry is the only way to get answers – it is shameful that the Government should offer anything less in an attempt to sweep this under the carpet.

“Not only are we all upset by the proposed inquiry, but we are also concerned that it is being packaged up like a Trojan horse to make it look like something else, and to fool families into welcoming it. This attitude will not work.

“The minister suggested this was the best way to investigate as it was the quickest – not the most effective, just the quickest.

“We demand answers that will not just provide justice for our loved ones, but also provide vital learning to make sure no other families go through our pain. We will not be ignored.

“In writing to Boris Johnson, I hope he will hear our calls, understand the importance and critical need for a statutory public inquiry.

“The Government has a real chance to change their course and commit to improving mental health services, not just within the Linden Centre but across the county of Essex.

“We question again as to why they can’t see that?”

Mrs Leahy is supported by her legal team Nina Ali and Priya Singh of Hodge Jones & Allen.

Nina Ali, partner at Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors, emphasised the importance of a statutory public inquiry, saying: “Melanie and other families have fought too hard to be fobbed off with yet another investigation that we all know will simply be a repeat of all it’s pointless predecessors.”

Priya Singh, associate at HJA, added: “We are calling on the Government to make the right choice, and establish a proper statutory inquiry. If they are serious about improving mental health care, then the starting point must be to ensure that those responsible are obliged to attend and compelled to give their evidence on oath, and the only way to do that is via a statutory public inquiry.”

INQUEST, a charity that provides expert advice and information following state-related deaths, is also supporting Mrs Leahy’s campaign.

Deborah Coles, director of INQUEST said: “Essex mental health services ignored dangerous practices that led to preventable deaths.

“If it were not for the dedication and persistence of bereaved families to get to the truth, these failings would never have come to light.

“The minister owes it to these families, who have already been repeatedly failed by the state, to meet their calls for proper scrutiny though a statutory public inquiry.

“Anything less will be viewed as another attempt to deflect accountability.”

Paul Scott, chief executive of Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (EPUT), said: “We note the further details of the independent inquiry announced by the health minister Nadine Dorries and are extremely sorry for the ongoing pain and distress to the families involved.

“Safety is our absolute priority and our ambition is to provide the best and safest care possible for our patients.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter