§ 3. Mrs. Barbara Castle
asked the Secretary of State for Social Services whether he will now institute a Government inquiry into the events surrounding the death of a patient in South Ockenden Mental Hospital.
§ The Secretary of State for Social Services (Sir Keith Joseph)
The death mentioned in recent Press reports occurred early in 1969, and has already been very fully investigated by the police. However, following the death of a patient earlier this year, on whom an inquest is expected to be held shortly, some specific complaints about nursing standards were made by a former member of the staff. The hospital management committee has now set up an inquiry into these complaints and I will inform the right hon. Lady of the outcome.
§ Mrs. Castle
Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to leave the matter there? Is he not aware that the killer of Robert Robertson has still not been found, that there were several unsatisfactory features about the trial of David Burles, who was most unfairly treated before being found not guilty, that earlier there had been a case of severe injury through beating without a charge having been brought and that there has been this curious coincidence of a subsequent death at the hospital?
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, as a result of all these disturbing 1003 features, a number of questions have been put to the police by the organisation A.E.G.I.S. but have never been answered? Will he please reconsider the need for an inquiry, and may I assure him that if there is an inquiry there are former and present charge nurses at the hospital who will be willing to give evidence?
§ Sir K. Joseph
The first two cases to which the right hon. Lady refers and on which she lays great emphasis occurred respectively four and three years ago. The second case, the death, was subject to a police inquiry and, on the repeated application of A.E.G.I.S. renewed police inquiries were reopened last year and have just been concluded.
None of those inquiries shows any case for a further inquiry. The acquittal of the accused fellow patient of the deceased was, as far as I am aware, not on the ground whether he was the killer but, I understand, on the ground that he was not fit to plead. There is no evidence known to me to justify reopening, on the ground that further evidence would now be made available, these long-passed episodes.
The fact is, however, that, regrettably, a further death in this hospital occurred earlier this year, and this is now the subject of an inquest and is therefore sub judice. This has caused the management committee, with my entire approval, to set up a new inquiry and I shall, of course, be very watchful so that, if it discloses any need for a further inquiry in the light of the complaints made by a recently engaged nurse in the hospital, I can take any necessary action.
§ Mr. Delargy
Although this hospital is in my constituency, no notice was given to me about this Question, which was extremely discourteous. It might also explain why the name of the place as it appears in the Question on the Order Paper is wrongly spelt.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that members of the staff have nothing to fear from an inquiry and that they want to know when all this will end? Is he aware that there have been several inquiries into these matters; that two official police investigations have been conducted in the last three years; and that inquiries have been made by the regional hospital board, the hospital in- 1004 quiry service and by the then Department of Health and Social Security?
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this prolonged investigation, lasting over three years, is bound to cause grave disquiet not only among the staff, who are doing an extremely difficult job in a worthwhile manner, but among the relatives of patients in the hospital?
§ Sir K. Joseph
I am particularly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. I am sure that my predecessor was right to take into account in reaching his decision the need not to over-investigate any particular hospital—a hospital in which it was found that, despite the over-crowding and lack of staff, there were a number of excellent features and that the staff were vigorous and conscientious in dealing with the problems which they faced.
§ Mr. Driberg
Will the right hon. Gentleman consider with his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who knows all about it, the case of a constituent of mine, John Meter, a 16-year-old autistic boy who should not be in this hospital at all? While sharing fully what my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) says about the dedication of the staff, may I remind the right hon. Gentleman that there are far too few of them to deal with this sort of case?
Is he aware that the condition of this boy is deteriorating rapidly and that day after day his mother finds him lying naked in his own filth on the floor of a locked side room? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this hospital is quite unsuitable for autistic children because there is not enough staff to deal with them?
§ Sir K. Joseph
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has, of course, told me about this case and about the hon. Gentleman's concern for this patient, who is, I understand, the subject not of any ill-treatment but of lack of staff, something from which the whole of the service is suffering. Despite the Government's increased injection of resources, the fact remains that it will be some years before we are able to provide enough facilities and staff to treat properly all the patients in public care.