UK: Govt idles on report of women's rape, sexual assault & harassment in NHS mental health units Print E-mail
 London -- Monday July 10 2006

100 women raped or assaulted in hospital

By Sam Lister, Health Correspondent

Health ministers sit on damaging report for months

WOMEN were the victims of more than 100 incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment in NHS mental health units over two years, according to a confidential report being held by the Government.

The Times has learnt that the report, which gives details of more than ten rapes and, in a single year, three unwanted pregnancies, has yet to be published eight months after it was received by the Department of Health.

The findings bring into question the Government’s claim to have set up single-sex wards that are safe and ensure personal dignity across the health service. The pledge, made by Tony Blair in 1996, was supposed to have been met by the end of 2002.

Mental health campaigners said the report confirmed growing fears that the Government was compromising patient safety in some of the country’s mental health trusts and psychiatric wards in district general hospitals.

Ministers are accused of not tackling the problem as a matter of urgency despite having the information to alert them. Incidents in mental health settings appeared to be a far lesser concern than those in other hospital environments such as cancer wards, campaigners said, even though psychiatric patients were likely to be the worst affected by such experiences.

Details of the report, leaked to The Times by Whitehall sources, come from data collected by the National Learning and Reporting System, a monitoring programme set up in November 2003 by the National Patient Safety Agency (NPSA).

All healthcare organisations were linked to the system by the end of 2004, including the country’s 84 mental health trusts, and the first national report was published in July last year. However, such was the concern over sexual assault in mental health settings that a separate study ­ the Mental Health Observatory Report ­ was commissioned.

Most of the recorded incidents took place in the 12 months to October 2005 as most mental health trusts were among the last organisations to join the reporting programme. It is understood to include both patient-on-patient and staff-on-patient incidents and ranges from men exposing themselves to women, physically assaulting them and committing rape.

The report’s findings reached the Department of Health last November. It is understood that the hold-up has occurred at the NHS “gateway”, a system set up to disseminate inspection information efficiently throughout the service.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, the leading mental health charity, described the data as “extremely concerning”. With an estimated 22 per cent of safety incidents in the NHS going unreported, the full picture could be even worse, he said. “We are talking about the care of some of the most vulnerable patients. I think people will rightly be appalled by these findings.”

Spending on mental health has increased by £600 million since 2000, with funding for extra nurses, teams in the community and high-security units. But concerns remain that inpatient services ­ which care for a range of conditions, from severe depression to self-harm and suicidal tendencies ­ have been overlooked and are likely to suffer further.

Health leaders say that the recent deficits are having a severe effect on mental healthcare, with cuts in staff and bed numbers adding to the problems of providing single-sex wards. Estimates from the Conservatives suggest that more than half of NHS trusts have been forced to close wards. The Government says that only 11 trusts have been affected.

Asked about the Mental Health Observatory Report in the House of Lords last month, Lord Warner, the Health Minister, said in a written answer that it would be released later this year. A Freedom of Information request, submitted by Mind in April, was rejected by the NPSA on the grounds that the material was in the process of being published. The agency accepted that it had had the information since the previous November and said it had the “definite intention to publish in the near future”.

The Department of Health said yesterday that it did not comment on leaked documents. A spokesperson said that some data needed further analysis before the report could be published.