Troubled Essex mental health unit to be probed in independent inquiry

Matthew Leahy died within seven days of entering the Chelmsford mental health unit in 2012. Credit: ITV News Anglia

  • Inquiry will span 2000 - 2020, to ensure 'all tragic events in that time frame are investigated fully.'

  • Health Minister Nadine Dorries MP has announced an 'independent inquiry', as opposed to the 'statutory public inquiry' bereaved families were calling for.

  • Melanie Leahy, whose son died at the Linden Centre, rejects the inquiry, saying she and other families won't engage in it.

  • 11 inpatients died by similar means under the care of the North Essex Partnership Trust, the former mental health trust responsible for The Linden Centre, between 2004 and 2015.

Mental health unit, The Linden Centre, is to be the focus of an independent inquiry spanning 20 years.

Unlike previous investigations, it means both the current mental health trust and its predecessor will come under scrutiny.

Health Minister and Mid Bedfordshire MP Nadine Dorries made the announcement during a parliamentary debate into mental health patient deaths this afternoon.

The debate was triggered by a petition started by bereaved mother and campaigner Melanie Leahy.

Last year she gathered 105,580 signatures to secure a debate, into her call for a public inquiry into the death of her son Matthew at The Linden Centre.

Melanie Leahy's son Matthew was found dead in his room in the Linden Centre in 2012. Credit: Melanie Leahy

Since, having been joined by a further 55 bereaved families, she has widened her campaign, now calling for a statutory public inquiry into deaths of mental health patients in Essex.

Instead, an independent inquiry into the Linden Centre has been commissioned.

Speaking in Westminster Hall at the conclusion of the debate, Nadine Dorries MP said she had been deeply moved by Melanie's story, and confirmed, "there will be an independent inquiry into the events of the Linden Centre covering the period from 2000 to the present day."

Nadine Dorries MP Credit: ITV Anglia

"As requested in Mrs Leahy’s petition, this will ensure that all of the tragic events are given the attention they deserve to ensure that lessons are learned. The scope will not go earlier than 2000, or after 2020, in order to keep this inquiry focussed and report in a timely manner. And I consider that 20 years is a more than adequate time frame to enable us to understand what has happened at the Linden Centre and to learn from it."

Melanie Leahy petitioned outside parliament in 2019 to get enough signatures to secure today's debate. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Reacting to the announcement, Melanie says she feels failed and 'fobbed off', saying she and many of the other families, aren't interested in an independent inquiry.

  • Statement from EPUT - safety is 'absolute priority'

Chief Executive of Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (EPUT), Paul Scott 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.”

  • The Linden Centre

The Linden Centre has been the focus of much criticism for the past decade.

Run by mental health trust, North Essex Partnership Trust, it merged with the South Essex Trust in 2017, to form the current Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (EPUT).

In 2016, Essex Police began an investigation into the deaths of 25 mental health patients from 2000 onwards, who had taken their own lives, under the care of North Essex Partnership Trust.

The 25 included Melanie's son Matthew, Ben Morris and Richard Wade; all three men died by similar means at The Linden Centre.

In 2018, detectives told the families there were no corporate manslaughter charges for the Trust to answer. 

But earlier this month, EPUT pleaded guilty to historic safety failings, following the deaths of 11 inpatients between 2004 and 2015. These deaths again include Matthew, Ben and Richard.

The Trust accepted its predecessor, the North Essex Trust, had failed to properly manage fixed ligature points in its inpatient units, at seven of its sites, including The Linden Centre.

Whilst welcome, many of the families involved believe none of these investigations have given them the truth and accountability they need.

The Linden Centre in Chelmsford was one of seven sites investigated by the Health & Safety Executive. Credit: ITV News

  • Independent inquiry vs public statutory inquiry

Unlike independent inquiries, public inquiries can compel witnesses to give evdience under oath, an important difference for Melanie Leahy and other campaigners.

But, Nadine Dorries MP has defended her decision to commission the independent inquiry.

Stating, that during The Paterson Inquiry, (another independent inquiry, commissioned by the Department of Health and published earlier this year) two doctors who refused to give evidence were referred to the General Medical Council, and are being investigated.

"So it is not the case, that if someone in a professional capacity refuses to give evidence at an independent inquiry that they are not held accountable."

Ms Dorries also reassured families the independent inquiry would take into account their considerations, unlike a public inquiry.

But, said one of her main reasons for choosing an independent inquiry is "so that we can move quickly."

Richard Wade died within 12 hours of being admitted to the Linden Centre in 2015. Credit: The Wade Family

South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge also spoke in support of the independent inquiry.

He has been pushing for an inquiry on behalf of his constituents Robert and Linda Wade whose son died at The Linden Centre in 2015.

But, for Melanie and other families who have been campaigning for years, they'd be willing to wait longer for what they want.

Melanie told ITV News Anglia, "Ms Dorries was unable to give any real reason for wanting a general inquiry rather than a statutory inquiry. When challenged on this front she stated that a statutory inquiry would take longer to set up (leaving aside the question of why it would take longer). Why is Ms Dorries in such a rush? I have worked for 8 years to get here, I don’t want a rushed, botched job –  we want a statutory inquiry and if that takes a few more months to set up so be it."

  • When could the inquiry begin

Ms Dorries told politicians at today's debate she was in the process of appointing an independent chair for the inquiry.

But, whether she will continue to do this now Melanie Leahy and other families have expressed their unwillingness to engage with the inquiry, is yet to be seen.

Ms Dorries had said, she wanted to announce the chair and the 'terms of reference' for the investigation by next month, before parliament's Christmas recess begins.

She hopes the inquiry itself will commence on the second week of February 2021, and will be completed within two years.

If this can be done without the support and backing of the families involved though, is another question.

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