The chair of a newly-relaunched inquiry into the deaths of thousands of mental health inpatients in the East of England has encouraged any staff with knowledge of cases to come forward.
Speaking to Nursing Times, Baroness Kate Lampard urged nurses to engage openly with her inquiry into around 2,000 mental health inpatient deaths in Essex and promised they would receive support.
She also stressed that she would not hesitate to compel people to give evidence if required in order to give families they answers they need.
“Evidence from staff, management, and organisations will be gathered in a proportionate, fair, and appropriate manner”
Baroness Lampard made the comments today, as the formerly named Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry relaunched as the Lampard Inquiry with new statutory status.
The inquiry was first called in 2021 to investigate the circumstances surrounding the inpatient deaths, which happened between January 2000 and December 2020.
The upgrading of the inquiry comes partly in response to difficulties faced by the previous chair to get staff and former staff to volunteer to share their experiences.
Today’s relaunch asserted that it would now look at deaths between 2000 and December 2023, with the intention to “make recommendations on [how] to improve the provision of mental health inpatient care”.
The draft terms of reference, which will be finalised in the coming months, set out that the new inquiry will look into how the patients died; the communication with families; any “serious failings” in care; the culture, management and governance of the relevant NHS trusts in Essex; and the quality of previous investigations into deaths and the response to them.
Now as a statutory inquiry, it can use legal powers to compel people to give evidence.
Baroness Lampard told Nursing Times that the exact focus of the inquiry would be decided likely early next year.
She said she hoped nurses, and other healthcare staff, with knowledge about any of the inpatient deaths in Essex during the time period would come forward voluntarily.
“The message I’d want to give is that we would invite any and all staff who have evidence relevant, and have experience of matters relevant, to the deaths of inpatients in mental health services in Essex, or have experience of other serious failings in the provision of services, to come forward,” said Baroness Lampard.
“We would welcome them to engage with us, and talk to us on a voluntary basis because I think many of them have been nervous about doing that.
“We really do urge them to do so, and we will ensure that they are offered the support to engage with us they are entitled to.”
An open letter published in January 2023, from former inquiry chair Dr Geraldine Strathdee, described the number of voluntary responses to the call for evidence as “hugely disappointing”.
More than 14,000 staff were approached by the inquiry, but only 11 said they would attend an evidence session, Dr Strathdee claimed.
Baroness Lampard urged mental health care staff to come forward, but said the inquiry would make full use of its new statutory powers to compel them if they did not.
She said: “But, failing people coming forward voluntarily, we will have to move to using our legal powers to compel them to.
“If they are compelled they will still be entitled to appropriate support and we will endeavour to make sure it won’t be necessarily a negative experience if they do come and help with our work.”
“[I want the inquiry to] ensure change takes place to prevent other patients taking their own lives while in a place of safety”
The experienced inquiry chair, who has previously overseen other high-profile inquiries including one into Jimmy Savile’s abuse in the NHS, added: “I can give you my assurance that I’ll do my very best to conduct a rigorous inquiry which does lead to an answer.
“And I have some experience of those processes from the past which I’m sure I’ll be able to [use].”
She added: “I very much hope families of those who have died will continue to engage with the inquiry. To be clear from the outset, I will not be compelling families to give evidence.
“Evidence from staff, management and organisations will be gathered in a proportionate, fair, and appropriate manner.”
Supporting the launch of the inquiry were the families of some patients who died at NHS mental health trusts in Essex.
Della Innocent, whose brother Barry Sargent died in 2010 while under the care of The Lakes Mental Health Hospital, Colchester, said she wanted “lessons to be learned” as a result of the inquiry.
Mr Sargent was known to the county’s mental health services when he was admitted to hospital in March 2010, having experienced a bad period.
He was identified as high risk, due to feeling suicidal, and expressed suicidal thoughts and a wish to take his own life to mental health staff at The Lakes.
On the morning of his death on 6 April 2010, Mr Sargent was told he would be discharged the next day; shortly after, the 39-year-old walked out from the hospital grounds without the knowledge of staff and took his own life.
Speaking via specialist law firm Crest Advisory on the day of the inquiry’s relaunch, Ms Innocent said: “[I want the inquiry to] ensure change takes place to prevent other patients taking their own lives while in a place of safety.
“For our voices to be heard on behalf of Barry who no longer has a voice. For the public to know that inpatient suicide should never be acceptable and should never happen.
“To ensure other families never have to experience the loss of a loved one through suicide whilst in an acute hospital setting. For transparency when things go wrong. An apology and recognition that Barry’s death was avoidable. To this date, we have never received an apology for what happened to Barry.”
The draft terms of reference for the inquiry are subject to a consultation period lasting four weeks ending 28 November 2023.