Abuse at Whorlton Hall – Time for Substantive Change?

05 Jun 2019

Eight years after the BBC’s Panorama programme exposed the shocking abuse of vulnerable adults at the Winterbourne View private hospital run by Castlebeck (Care) (Teesdale) Limited, Panorama has again highlighted similar catastrophic failings in caring for vulnerable adults, this time at the Whorlton Hall private hospital in County Durham.

Whorlton Hall has been closed down, certain members of staff may face criminal prosecution and the future of the service provider, Cygnet (OE) Limited and its associated companies in the UK appears challenging.

In the wake of the Winterbourne View scandal, there followed significant soul-searching, with a wave of multi-agency enquiries and reports. These included Transforming Care – A National Response to Winterbourne View Final Report (Department of Health, December 2012) which anticipated a “fundamental change” in the provision of such services, with a commitment to reprovide such care in a community-based setting.

These good intentions were further underlined by the signing of a Concordat by various healthcare agencies, outlining a joint commitment to transform care for people with learning disabilities and autism.

In a further report, Winterbourne View – Time for Change (NHS England, November 2014), its author, Sir Stephen Bubb, called for the closure of inappropriate institutions and the ramping up of community provision, together with legislation for a Charter of Rights for people with learning disabilities and their families.

In response to Winterbourne View and in the light of the Francis Report, which followed the equally abject failings at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, statutory change arose. The Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) Regulations 2014 (Regulations) introduced a fit and proper persons test to certain health service professionals in a position of control and a legal duty of candour on healthcare professionals to act in an open and transparent way to service users in certain circumstances.

Whorlton Hall and Winterbourne View are, tragically, further examples of a litany of failure in the care of vulnerable adults with learning difficulties and autism. Twenty-one years ago, the Longcare Inquiry was held into abuse at two homes for adults with learning disabilities in Buckinghamshire. Less high profile but more recent cases have included Mendip House in Somerset (which closed in 2016) and the abuse that occurred in 2010/2011 at the Veilstone and Gatooma homes run by Atlas Project Team Limited.

It must be emphasised that the vast majority of care providers and staff are carrying out an incredible job, often in the most challenging of circumstances. They have systems in place to ensure standards of care are maintained and improved upon, where necessary.

Catastrophic failure is fortunately very rare. However, when it arises, the shock waves are felt throughout the health and care industry.

The NHS – the public’s most cherished benefit

In current opinion polls, the NHS ranks second to Brexit in the Electorate’s hearts and minds. Indeed when asked what members of the public cherish most about Britain, the NHS comes top.

Following the appointment of a new Prime Minister and the inescapable ministerial reshuffle, in the few moments that are not directed at focusing upon the UK’s future relationship with the EU, attention is likely to focus upon health and social care and the horror show that was Whorlton Hall.

The health and care industry should be braced for a Government backlash.

Beyond the inevitable NHS-led inquiry, there is likely to be renewed pressure to deliver upon the pledge set out in Transforming Care – A National Response to Winterbourne View Final Report and to end the practice of “too many people with learning disabilities or autism staying too long in hospital or residential homes..”

In the aftermath of Winterbourne View, a regime of inspection was implemented for all providers of adult learning disability services and more unannounced visits at homes by the CQC took place.

A similar reaction, supported by civil and criminal enforcement action where appropriate cannot be ruled out, now.

However, the spotlight is also likely to turn on the CQC, who had rated Whorlton Hall “good” following an inspection in 2017 and on Cygnet, whose reputation in the UK lies damaged (even though they only took over Whorlton Hall in January 2019).

A further review of the safeguarding system and the regulatory regime could well arise, with the whole health and care industry likely to be left reeling from the tremors of such action.
The implementation of any additional governance and safeguarding measures may well have adverse financial consequences for providers, not least with the increased resource that this is likely to require.

At Trethowans, we have an experienced healthcare team comprising regulatory, employment, property and corporate law experts, who can give healthcare providers guidance, particularly on the challenges that lie ahead.

Qualified since 1997, Guy Morgan worked in the City for over 10 years and is a commercial property solicitor at leading regional law firm, Trethowans, where he is a partner. Guy acts for a wide variety of private and public sector clients. He is recognised nationally for his property healthcare work and has acted for many care providers across the country. Contact Guy today on 01722 426931.