Wednesday, December 10, 2003

UK: Broadmoor lets out woman, 94, after 40 years

Broadmoor high-security hospital

Commission criticises media exposure of mentally ill

A woman of 94 has been released from Broadmoor high-security hospital after being kept there for 40 years, it is disclosed today.

By the end of her detention, the woman was so frail that she was capable of very little movement. She is now in a care facility with no security provision.

The case is being highlighted by the government's Mental Health Act Commission to show the continuing problem of people held inappropriately in the high-security hospitals at Broadmoor in Berkshire, Rampton in Nottinghamshire and Ashworth on Merseyside.

The commission says that two other recent discharges from the hospitals have been a teenager who uses a wheelchair and a blind patient with severely restricted mobility.

It costs about £2,300 a week to keep a patient in a high-security hospital. Yet an official report three years ago estimated that as many as one in three of the hospitals' 1,600 patients did not need such a level of security and called for their transfer to other facilities.

In its biennial report, the commission - which oversees the welfare and treatment of people detained under mental health law - says that progress in effecting such transfers remains too slow and that the three hospitals "have continued to contain patients who cannot possibly require such conditions of security, including patients with reduced mobility and frail, elderly patients, many of whom have needed ground-floor accommodation because they are unable to use stairs".

Further details of the woman discharged from Broadmoor are being kept confidential to protect her identity. [? to stop reporting the truth?] A spokesman for the hospital said her case was exceptional, though he conceded that some other patients did have ground-floor rooms because they were unable to use stairs.

Transferring the woman had presented particular difficulties because of her frailty and because the hospital had been her life for so long, the spokesman said.

Chris Heginbotham, chief executive of the Mental Health Act Commission, said the woman's case raised further questions about the blanket security clampdown that had been imposed in the three hospitals since 2000. "It clearly shows the need to assess the individual needs of patients, rather than apply a high level of permanent security across the board."

Under plans announced this year to reorganise the three hospitals, all women patients are to be moved out of Broadmoor and Ashworth - a strategy backed by the commission, though it is concerned that some women will simply be transferred to Rampton, which will be unable to cope.

The commission's report calls on the government to consider making it a criminal offence to handle and publish the medical records of mental health patients.

This follows a court of appeal judgment earlier this year, overturning a ruling that a journalist should disclose his source for an article based on the records of Ian Brady, the Moors murderer who is detained at Ashworth.

The judgment was hailed by some as an important endorsement of journalists' rights to protect their sources. Robin Ackroyd, the freelance journalist in the case, admitted being the intermediary from whom the Daily Mirror had obtained details of Mr Brady's clinical records, held on a computer system at Ashworth, but refused to name any Ashworth worker who had passed the details.

The commission says it is "disappointed at the behaviour of those tabloids that pay for personal health records that are leaked". It adds: "We recognise that media vilification of this group of patients presents a challenging environment for government policy-makers and hospital managers alike."

The government should investigate ways of protecting mental patients from theft and publication of their records, the commission says, including consideration of creating specific offences under mental health law that would apply to "persons responsible for the unauthorised disclosure of personal medical records and any persons involved in their publication".

The commission's report deplores press coverage of high-security hospitals that presents patients as "somehow undeserving of decent healthcare, rehabilitation or recreation facilities".

By David Brindle 10 December 03