Northern Ireland

Department of Health says public inquiry into Muckamore scandal 'not in public interest'

Glynn Brown is campaigning for a public inquiry into the abuse scandal at Muckamore Abbey Hospital. Picture by Mal McCann<br />&nbsp;
Glynn Brown is campaigning for a public inquiry into the abuse scandal at Muckamore Abbey Hospital. Picture by Mal McCann

THE Department of Health does not believe "it is in the public interest" to have a public inquiry into an unprecedented abuse scandal at Muckamore Abbey Hospital.

Private correspondence seen by The Irish News reveals that the department's legal team advised that the establishment of a judge-led inquiry is not "necessary at this time".

The Co Antrim facility is at the centre of the biggest criminal adult safeguarding investigation of its kind in Northern Ireland, with a specialist team of PSNI detectives probing 300 allegations of ill-treatment of vulnerable adults with severe learning disabilities.

To date, a total of 19 staff - mainly nurses - have been suspended after physical and emotional abuse of patients was reportedly captured on CCTV cameras over a six-month period in 2017.

The leaked correspondence - written on Good Friday by the department's director of litigation, Mona McRoberts - notes that the scale of the investigation has led to police being assisted by the National Crime Agency (NCA) since December, "in particular (the) review of CCTV footage", which is in excess of 420,000 hours.

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Issues also flagged by Ms McRoberts include:

- Delays in the Belfast trust first alerting the department about suspected abuse - with it learning about scandal from a phone call on August 30 from MP Gavin Robinson on behalf of a constituent.

- Alarm over trust chiefs initially wanting to review only a quarter of CCTV footage. This led to the department "requesting" that 100 per cent be viewed.

- Safeguarding concerns have led to ongoing viewing of CCTV footage "in all wards, the day centre and swimming pool" on a "weekly basis" over a range of randomly selected shifts.

- The PSNI probe is "unlikely to conclude in short term" due to the complexity of allegations.

- Suspected abuse of patients in other wards, not just the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit.

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Up until now, the department has insisted it does not have the legal powers to order an inquiry in the absence of a minister and it would be a matter for Secretary of State Karen Bradley.

However, in her six-page letter, Ms McRoberts concludes: "The department will keep under review the desirability or necessity of a public inquiry into these events."

The correspondence was sent on Monday in response to a formal written request made two months ago by solicitor Claire McKeegan of Phoenix Law, who is acting on behalf of Muckamore families.

Read More: Timeline of Muckamore abuse investigation

She had asked the department to set up a public inquiry under the 2005 Inquiries Act - stating that it is "not just a requirement of the overwhelming public concern relating to this case, it is a requirement of the Human Rights Act 1998".

In her reply, Ms McRoberts rejects suggestions it is breaching human rights legislation.

She also cites the ongoing police probe and NCA involvement as reasons why an inquiry shouldn't currently be ordered.

"While the department remains deeply concerned about the evidence which has emerged and continues to emerge about events at Muckamore Abbey Hospital, investigations into those events are currently ongoing," she writes.

"These include a major criminal investigation which is being undertaken by PSNI, with assistance from the National Crime Agency. The department intends to keep under review the progress of those investigations and does not consider that it is currently subject to a legal obligation to establish a public inquiry.

"Similarly, it does not consider that a public inquiry is in the public interest or is necessary at this time. However, the issues will be kept under review and it has not ruled out the possibility of an inquiry in the future."

Ms McKeegan last night dismissed the department's stance and said she may mount a legal challenge, in the form of a judicial review.

"The department has refused to hold an inquiry despite strong evidence of systemic failures," she said.

"They have side-stepped their responsibility under the Human Right Act to effectively investigate abuses perpetrated on the vulnerable.

"I am investigating a potential legal challenge."

Read more:How the Irish News broke the story