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Church Hill House Hospital, Bracknell

Volume 976: debated on Tuesday 20 November 1979

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Cope.]

11.38 pm

I greatly appreciate the courtesy of Mr. Speaker in allowing me to raise tonight briefly the question of the recently published report of the inquiry into Church Hill House Hospital, Bracknell. I am very obliged to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for his courtesy in being here at 20 minutes to 12 o'clock when I know that he has not only had a heavy day but wound up a major debate last night and therefore has had very great demands on his time.

It was on 3 November 1977 that there burst upon an astonished Berkshire world a major presentation in a local newspaper circulating in my constituency—the Wokingham and Bracknell Times—a sensational story containing allegations of matters going gravely wrong at this hospital. I hold in my hand a copy of the newspaper concerned, and the banner headline reads:
"Why this hospital must be probed."
This arose from representations made at that time by the Wokingham constituency Labour Party, which wrote to the Secretary of State an undated letter which was received in his office on 2 November 1977. The letter stated:
"we have reason to believe that there is strong evidence of victimisation of and discrimination against trade union members; and that there have been cases of the fabrication of documents for the purposes of discrimination and fraud; and that there have been incidents of violence involving both staff and patients at Church Hill House Hospital."
At that point in time, there was nothing in writing from the Wokingham constituency Labour Party other than the covering letter to which I have referrred. It was only on 22 December of that year that a written report was sent to the then Secretary of State. This is a matter of great importance, as I shall later show, in terms of the validity of the allegations made.

Placed behind that allegation was the full weight of the leader of the Labour group on Berkshire county council, who was also the prospective parliamentary candidate for the constituency which I have the honour to represent. He placed his full personal weight and responsibility behind these allegations. Of course, that by itself would not have been sufficient, but at the same time there appeared in this newspaper, to which I have already referred, a sensationally worded leader in emotive terms, which used phrases which could not be ignored. It wrote:
"This must not be allowed cloud the main issue—and that is the allegation of acts of violence of a most unpleasant nature against mentally handicapped patients."
By anybody's standards, those are very serious words to use, and the combined effect of the full weight of a person in local public life and a sensationally presented local newspaper item meant that an inquiry was inevitable. It took two years to complete, it has now reported, and it cost some £60,000. Good heavens, every one of us in Berkshire can think of other admirable causes which could use that £60,000. The inquiry has shown every single charge to be baseless.

In 20 years' experience of this House, I have never seen a more careful report—I have it all here and have read every word of it—or a more exhaustive report, in which every single allegation is gone into. With one minor exception—concerning a member of staff who left almost immediately afterwards and was not referred to in the initial allegations—it has shown that every single charge was baseless.

It just so happens, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you of your kindness were in the Chair rather more than two years ago when Mr. Speaker kindly allowed me to raise this matter before. I spoke in sharp terms in support of the staff at that time, before the inquiry had had a chance of reporting.

All these charges stem from three people—Miss Sharon Warwick, Mr. Tony Onyewa and Councillor Terry Pearce. I say nothing about Miss Warwick and Mr. Onyewa. I say nothing about them not because I do not feel very strongly about them both but because their appeals against dismissal are at present being heard, and it must be in accordance with our normal procedure of this House that we say nothing that might affect a quasi-judicial hearing.

However, I can act in the matter of Councillor Pearce, as nothing judicial is involved. He was revealed, as a result of the inquiry, although it was not known before, to be behind many of the allegations and to be the author of an article in the extreme Left-wing journal Militant, which contributed greatly to the troubles when they were originally launched upon the hospital.

Mr. Furley, the leader of the Labour Party on the county council, must live with his conscience. He never consulted, to the best of my knowledge, anyone concerned with the hospital. He did not consult any of the senior members of his own party who had links with that hospital. To the best of my knowledge, he has never at any time visited the hospital or seen conditions for himself.

This unpleasant episode would never have succeeded if it had not had active support from the editor of the Wokingham and Bracknell Times. Let me give you a taste of the kind of way in which this unfortunate hospital was presentd. The paper says:
"For weeks a team of reporters from this office has been investigating allegations of violence and other serious acts concerning patients and nursing staff."
The "team of reporters" is a figment of the editor's imagination. This is the Walter Mitty world in which this man lives. His belief is that he is the editor of some great West End newspaper instead of being a Fleet Street failure. The truth is that one moth-eaten lad investigated this matter, one David Williams. If the editor had been more perspicacious, he would have realised that there was a relationship, which needed inquiry, between this boy and the principal witness, which meant that he was not a reliable person upon whom to found a story of this kind.

The report goes on:
"I have read all the allegations which were brought to Alan Furley and I share his anxiety."
We now know from the independent inquiry that that statement is not true. He had not read the allegations as there were no written statements at that time. The statements were produced only later, namely, on 22 December. I fastened upon this point at once. I gave him every opportunity to retract, but he sought to maintain his position.

The essential point here is that he gave the impression that there were two independent sources of complaint—one had gone to the local Labour Party and one to him, separately. They were independent and separate. In measured terms, the inquiry, to which I have already referred, censored the editor for the way in which he presented this matter.

I took the matter higher than that, for I am a determined person when the rights of my constituents are concerned. I took it to a Mr. Howard Green, who was then the managing director of Thames Valley Newspapers. I assumed that if I went to a higher authority, I might find a bigger mind on the matter. Little did I realise. He wrote back to me saying that the editor was an experienced journalist with a fine sense of fair play and a deep sense of responsibility to the people in the community that he and his newspaper served.

I shall have great pleasure, before long, in telling Lord Thompson of Fleet how his family name and the name of the group of newspapers which he heads were smeared by these two men. They both showed that they were more concerned with circulation than with compassion and more concerned with profits than with patients.

The result was that they did untold harm and caused untold hurt to the administrative, nursing and medical staff of a hospital, all of whom have now been totally cleared of every allegation made against them, in measured terms after a most exhaustive inquiry.

If a certain note of bitterness is detected in my voice, it has been correctly detected, because I feel very deeply when it comes to my own constituents and their being unfairly attacked.

Before I pass on to what I finally want to say, I add a postscript. It is the habit of this particular editor to add the following at the end of his columns:
This is what he added at the end of the column on the particular occasion of which I have complained:
"It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place."
That was the postscript that he sought to put at the end of that column when he slandered the unfortunate staff of this innocent hospital.

It may be that many people will feel that this episode is now closed and for the sake of Church Hill House hospital I trust and think that it is. I am deeply obliged to Mr. Speaker for having given me the opportunity to place firmly upon the record the innocence of these admirable servants of the National Health Service. But the point I make is well illustrated by what has appeared in our newspapers this morning.

Exactly the same treatment, in principle, is now being applied to other constituents of mine at Broadmoor hospital, which is in the immediate vicinity. Two young nurses have given a public account of allegations that they have made, and this time it is being done with the support of an organisation called MIND. MIND is an admirable example of an organisation with a full-time agitator in charge. It is an admirable example of the new generation of—I use the words in inverted commas—"civil servant" who moves from organisation to organisation, dependent on noise for his success and his salary.

When I had dealings with Mr. Tony Smythe, when I was proud to serve at the Northern Ireland Office and he was in the National Council for Civil Liberties, I had no doubts whatever that all his interests lay on the side of the Irish Republican Army. He is now applying precisely the same agitation in the MIND organisation. It pays, of course. An allegation is made and then one asks the person to prove his innocence.

What I seek to draw out in my concluding sentences is that the truth is that those who care for the mentally ill and mentally handicapped are especially vulnerable to accusations of this nature. Even when one cares for people who are mentally handicapped or mentally ill, there are times when some restraint is necessary, as I observed when I visited Church Hill House again last Monday.

I believe that the House should say that the accused are entitled to be assumed innocent and not be assumed to be guilty as they were in the case about which I complained, and as I suspect they are at Broadmoor hospital.

They are entitled to assume that those of responsibility who have complaints to make against them will make those complaints responsibly. Of course, they must then be looked into, but it is unreasonable and unfair that publicity should be given to them first. I asserted, rightly, that they deserved the support of the House and the public. That is why I am obliged for the opportunity to raise this matter and grateful to my hon. Friend for being here to answer me.

11.56 pm

I am most grateful to my hon Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) for raising this debate on the matter of Church Hill House hospital and the report of the inquiry chaired by Mr. Christopher Beaumont, Q.C. As a Berkshire resident, I share my hon. Friend's unease about the way in which this matter was handled.

My hon. Friend's concern at the grave allegations—allegations which, as they developed, extended to include cruelty, violence to patients, lack of proper control of drugs, misappropriation of patients' money, the acceptance of bribes and the victimisation of members of staff—has been well known from the time when the allegations were first reported in the Wokingham and Bracknell Times on 3 November 1977. While others were loud in their demands for instant public inquiry, my hon. Friend was quietly counselling caution and warnings of the dangers of premature assumptions. Not only had he—as he has made evident tonight—reservations about the editorial style of the Wokingham and Bracknell Times, but he rightly warned against the way in which a smear campaign can develop.

First, vague allegations are made—disturbing and distressing allegations—then it is asserted that "there is no smoke without fire" and then follow demands for a public inquiry. A public inquiry is a major and costly undertaking and it is also traumatic for those whose reputations are placed at risk. Any responsible authority must inevitably demand, before embarking on such a major undertaking, that at least a prima facie case of need be established. But when passions and anxieties have been aroused, as they were in this instance, the reasonable request of an authority that it be shown some evidence that something is wrong is taken as either prevarication or, even worse, deliberate evasion and an attempt to sweep the matter under the carpet.

All this my hon. Friend knew and said at the time when the first accusations were being bandied about in the late autumn of 1977. Now, two years later, he has been proved absolutely right. His warnings were timely, his fears were justified and we have only now, at considerable cost in time and money, laid to rest the rumours which were generated and given currency, as the report indicates, by a tiny group of individuals wilfully abusing their positions of trust as trades union representatives and as employees of the Berkshire area health authority.

My hon. Friend is completely vindicated on this point and the House is entitled to know something more of the background to these events, to hear how the inquiry came about and what were its principal findings, and to consider what may be the lessons for the future.

I have referred already to the publication of allegations about Church Hill House hospital on 3 November 1977 in the Wokingham and Bracknell Times. I do not propose to dwell on the part played by this newspaper in the whole affair. My hon. Friend has taken appropriate action in referring the matter to the Press Council but I should like to repeat and endorse the remarks made by my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) during the debate in December 1977. He said that there was a need for the press:
"to check out stories as far as possible before going to print on matters which are certain to give rise to public disquiet. Credibility is the journalist's stock-in-trade, and credibility suffers irreparable harm when readers are asked to give credence to reports of smoke without showing at least some clear evidence of fire".—[Official Report, 1 December 1977; Vol. 940, c. 880.]
Church Hill House hospital is a hospital in Bracknell for the mentally handicapped and has been used as such since 1930. Over the years since then it has progressively been upgraded and modernised and currently it cares for some 270 profoundly handicapped patients. It is situated in the east district of the Berkshire area health authority with which responsibility for management rests.

The Wokingham and Bracknell Times article of 3 November 1977 reported the allegations as being based on inquiries by its own staff and on statements made by Mr. Alan Furley, then prospective Labour candidate for the Wokingham constituency. Mr. Furley qualified his allegations and expressed horror:
"that these things might be happening on our doorsteps in a mental hospital in Bracknell".
He referred to a letter which the constituency Labour Party had written to the then Secretary of State for Social Services, the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals), asking him to set up an independent inquiry. The allegations were brought to Mr. Furley's attention by two Labour Party members who worked at the hospital, said the report, and Wokingham and Bracknell Times reporters had been checking "worrying rumours" some weeks earlier.

I find it extremely regrettable that at no stage did anyone making such allegations see fit to use the recognised procedure for the investigations of complaints. Had anyone done so, a very great deal of time and money would have been saved and loyal and hard-working staff at Church Hill House would have been spared the tremendous strain and anxiety unfairly imposed upon them by subsequent events.

The newspaper report was the first intimation the area health authority had had that anything was alleged to be amiss at Church Hill House hospital. It is important, because I wish it to be clear that the health authority acted throughout with commendable expedition. The same day the area administrator wrote to the then Secretary of State to ask that the authority be informed of the allegations contained in the reported letter from the constituency Labour Party to the Secretary of State. The then Minister of State replied to the area administrator on 16 November 1977 enclosing a copy of the letter from the constituency Labour Party to the Secretary of State, but on investigation it was found to be completely general in its allegations. It said simply that there was reason to believe that there was strong evidence of victimisation, of discrimination against union members, of fraud, falsification of records and violence involving both staff and patients. No specific evidence that the authority could investigate was contained in that letter.

Not until 12 December was there any evidence whatsoever to substantiate the allegations sent to the area health authority, and then it was submitted by the constituency Labour Party. The area health authority responded by announcing on 6 January 1978 the setting up of a panel of members, with an observer from the community health council, to investigate all the allegations, except those of violence to patients. These latter the authority had asked the police to investigate as early as 11 November 1977, even though no evidence on which an investigation might be founded had then been available. By January 1978, with some specific allegations now available, the area health authority decided to postpone the proposed panel of inquiry because the police had extended their investigation to cover all the allegations, with the exception only of those concerning victimisation of union members.

Over the next few weeks the pressure for a public inquiry grew more intense, and on 9 February 1978 the Bracknell Times, submitted its own evidence to the authority.

At that time the area health authority came to accept the need for an inquiry that was more far reaching and demonstrably independent than that ini- tially proposed. It therefore decided that an independent legally qualified person should chair the panel of inquiry. On 11 April 1978 the Director of Public Prosecutions informed the chairman of the area health authority that, following the extensive police investigations, no proceedings were to be instituted under section 126 of the Mental Health Act 1959, but one former employee would be prosecuted for obtaining money by false pretences—a charge of which that employee was subsequently, on the direction of the judge at his trial, found not guilty. That decision freed the panel, to commence its investigation.

Within a few days it became apparent that the members of the authority who were to have served on the panel of inquiry would not be able to devote the sufficient number of consecutive days to working at the pace which Mr. Christopher Beaumont proposed. The arrangements were therefore amended and two outside, independent assessors, sat with and assisted Mr. Beaumont throughout the period of the inquiry.

The terms of reference were: "To investigate and report upon allegations made in respect of Church Hill House hospital."

The inquiry was expected to last about eight days and it commenced on 15 May 1978. In the event, the inquiry heard evidence on 65 days, the last one in June 1979, and the final report was published on 19 November 1979.

The cost to the health authority of the inquiry was approximately £60,000, and this sum roughly approximates to the entire allocation of general growth money to the Berkshire health authority for the current year. To the extent that the health district may have to make economies affecting the level of services available to patients, the cost of this inquiry will have exacerbated the authority's problems and reduced the services available for caring for patients.

The report uncovered a general picture of a very few people who abused their responsible positions as employees of the authority and manipulated their union positions, initially to gain members at the expense of another union, but largely for purposes, and I quote Mr. Beaumont:
"which appeared neither to be in accordance with the wishes of the vast majority of NUPE members in Church Hill House, nor in accordance with the general policies of NUPE. Things were done purporting to be on behalf of NUPE which in reality had nothing whatever to do with trade union matters."
The allegations made by the local NUPE representatives are far too numerous to chronicle for the House, and they tended to shift and vary as the inquiry proceeded. None the less, in his summary Mr. Beaumont touches on between 80 and 90 separate allegations made at one time or another which were found to be untrue, unjustified and without foundation. The only exceptions were one allegation of rough handling of a patient involving a nursing sister which was properly investigated at the time, and malpractice in allowing three unqualified nurses to hold drug keys. There is, how ever, no evidence that the keys or drugs were misused.

Turning to the future, two people named in the report remain suspended on full pay. It is for the Berkshire area health authority to determine what action it will take, but the House will wish to know that, in the light of Mr. Beaumont's report, the authority convened on 27 November 1979 a disciplinary tribunal which recommended that both should be immediately dismissed. Both employees subsequently exercised the normal right of appeal.

What are the lessons to be taken from this sorry episode? One lesson to be learnt is that hospitals—especially hospitals caring for the mentally ill or the mentally handicapped—canbe gravely damaged by unjust and unfounded criticism. I should like to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the dedication and devotion of the staff of Church Hill House. They carried on with their duties while reckless rumours and allegations were circulating and later while they were investigated.

Staff in such hospitals undertake work which is demanding and difficult, and to build up constructive relationships between staff, patients and the community is a task that takes time, skill and devotion. Such relationships and reputations are of the utmost value. The public must have confidence in our hospitals and the staff need the reassurance that they enjoy public confidence and understanding. Those who, while posturing as guardians of the public weal, make public allegations which are completely without foundation can do lasting damage to the morale of the whole institution.

One lesson to be learnt from this sorry episode is that a fresh look is needed at industrial relations in respect of the NHSNo management structure, guidance from the centre or new procedure can ensure that difficulties will never arise. But I believe that we have taken three substantial steps towards ensuring that staff are in future better able to work together against a stable background for the better care of patients, and there is no place in the NHS for those for whom the care of patients is not a first priority.

We have for a start, made it clear in our consultative paper "Patients First" that a management structure at amore local level should be established. Some of the benefits we see flowing from such a structure are greater team spirit among NHS staff, less feeling of remoteness and alienation from management and a closer involvement in the raison ďetre of the NHS—the care of patients. We have issued a circular on health service management if industrial relations break down

It is important that both staff and management should know where they stand in the event of industrial disputes, and I am sure that a more open and honest relationship will have beneficial effects on NHS industrial relations generally. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Government believe that it is an urgent necessity to establish workable guidelines for local disputes procedures in the NHS. Proposals are now with the—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eight minutes past Twelve o'clock.