The chairwoman of an inquiry looking into the deaths of 2,000 mental health patients is asking for legal powers to force more staff to give evidence.
Dr Geraldine Strathdee, chairwoman of the Essex mental health independent inquiry, has previously described the number of responses she has seen as “hugely disappointing”.
Just 11 staff members out of 14,000 who were contacted by the inquiry said they would attend an evidence session, a parliamentary debate was told earlier this year.
“In my assessment, I cannot properly investigate matters with this level of engagement," Dr Strathdee wrote in a letter to Health Secretary Steve Barclay.
The Department of Health and Social Care said it was considering the request and would respond "in due course".
The Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry is looking at mental health inpatient deaths in the county over the last 20 years - either on a mental health ward or within three months of being discharged between 2000 and 2020.
Dr Strathdee has now asked the health secretary to give the inquiry statutory status in order to gather more evidence from employees.
A statutory inquiry would provide legal powers to compel witnesses to give evidence.
In a letter to Mr Barclay, Dr Strathdee wrote that she “cannot effectively meet the terms of reference if the inquiry remains on a non-statutory footing.
“I am requesting that the inquiry is converted to a statutory inquiry under the 2005 Inquiries Act," she added.
She said that following a previous meeting with Mr Barclay, in January, “considerable efforts have been made to encourage staff participation in the inquiry”.
“As a result, more staff have come forward,” said Dr Strathdee.
“However, this group is not representative: 75% are senior managers; similarly, 75% do not work directly with patients; only a small number are patient-facing staff.
“I am grateful to all of those who have expressed a desire to assist the inquiry and recognise their commitment to improving inpatient services.
“My greatest concern with staff engagement is that less than 30% of named staff, those essential witnesses involved in deaths we are investigating, have agreed to attend evidence sessions."
An initial figure of 1,500 deaths was based on information from Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (EPUT) and announced last year.
In January this year, it was announced that the figure had been revised upwards to around 2,000 deaths following an update from the trust.
Dr Strathdee said that the inquiry “must adequately address the concerns raised by families of deceased mental health inpatients, and former inpatients”.
She added: “Conversion of this inquiry will provide me and those who provide evidence with the necessary framework, protections, and clarity around evidence and disclosure.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’re grateful to all those who have participated in the inquiry to help improve patient safety.
“It’s disappointing, however, that some current and former staff have not engaged to the extent expected and the inquiry hasn’t been able to access all the information it has requested.
“We are carefully considering the inquiry’s next steps and will update in due course.”
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