A BBC undercover investigation, which filmed abusive behaviour towards patients with learning disabilities and was broadcast on the Panorama programme, has resulted in the closure of Whorlton Hall hospital, patients being moved to other services and 16 staff being suspended.

The programme comes eight years after a similar Panorama documentary uncovered abuse at Winterbourne View hospital, near Bristol. This led to a government programme, “Transforming Care”, to end all inappropriate placements in hospitals for people with learning disabilities or autism by 2014, replacing them with effective community support.

An investigation has now been launched by Durham Constabulary into Whorlton Hall hospital that was run by Cygnet Healthcare, who acquired the previous provider The Danshell Group last year. Panorama revealed vulnerable patients at the secure hospital continually taunted, restrained and treated with violence.

Currently, there are an estimated 2245 patients in such hospitals, a figure that NHS England is aiming to halve.

Care Minister Caroline Dinenage apologised on behalf of the health and care system to victims of the abuse and their families, saying: “The actions revealed by this programme are quite simply appalling … and I absolutely condemn any abuse of this kind, completely and utterly”.

She set out the actions that had been taken after the Government, NHS England, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and Cygnet were informed about the Panorama revelations. She said that, while the hospital was open, safe staffing levels were maintained following the suspension of “a significant number of staff”. An incident co-ordination team had been established including Durham Council, the local clinical commissioning group (CCG), NHS England, NHS Improvement and the CQC’s regional head of inspection.

Caroline Dinenage said questions now need to be answered including whether the behaviour revealed was criminal; whether the inspection and regulatory framework for these types of services was working; whether the oversight of commissioners by NHS England and the CQC was fit for purpose; and whether such provision was ever appropriate for this group of service users.

Former Care Minister Norman Lamb criticised the persistence of an institutional model of care and asked, in response, whether there would be a criminal prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the provider.

The CQC, which last inspected Whorlton Hall in March 2018 and rated it as “good” in 2017, has apologised for failing to uncover the abuse on its last visit.

A Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG) spokesperson said: “A failure in the ‘market’ where these services operate means that secure hospitals are keeping people locked up for years. Some are places where abuse is too easy. These environments cannot offer an ordinary life to people who need support to live their lives. The ongoing commissioning of secure inpatient provision is a national scandal that must be brought to a halt.”

A CQC interim report, published on 21 May as part of a review into restraint, prolonged seclusion and segregation commissioned by Matt Hancock, found that many were living “highly restricted lives”. It stated that the care of every hospital patient in long-term seclusion or segregation will be reviewed to tackle a system it found “not fit for purpose”. Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock accepted this and four other recommendations issued by the CQC, saying the report revealed a “broken system”. He confirmed that specialist advocates would be funded as part of the reviews to support people to move into the least restrictive care, and then into the community.

The CQC will report on its full findings next year. More information on the CQC review is available at cqc.org.uk.

Last reviewed 28 May 2019