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Tuesday, May 11, 1999 Published at 18:48 GMT 19:48 UK


Health

Ashworth: No easy answer

The reforms at Ashworth may not be enough

By BBC Social Affairs Editor Niall Dickson

When Health Secretary Frank Dobson decided to keep Ashworth open, he linked his own fate to that of the high-security mental hospital.

Were it to go seriously wrong again, his own position could be untenable.

But despite Mr Dobson's apparent confidence over Ashworth's future, some of those closely involved with the troubled institution do not hold out much hope.


[ image: Frank Dobson: Risking his job]
Frank Dobson: Risking his job
One senior official at Ashworth, who wanted to remain anonymous, said that despite the Fallon report, little at Ashworth had changed.

"There was such a sense of empowerment after the government chose not to close the place down that in some quarters there was a rapid return to old practices. I know of a number of cases where individuals have been put at risk by colleagues," he said.

Prevailing culture

He added that those who challenged the prevailing culture found life hard at Ashworth, and still do.

He recalled how one member of staff found himself isolated after objecting to the "systematic" mistreatment of a patient. In other incidents, people's vehicles were tampered with and children threatened.

Some of those who have left Ashworth are willing to speak openly. Mike Bateson was a principal social worker.

Although he was criticised as part of the hospital's social work team, the Fallon inquiry said he had taken appropriate action to protect a little girl after finding out she was visiting a ward full of paedophiles and child killers.

His experience shows the difficulty reformers face and he does not believe Ashworth can be turned around.

"You have to remember that the people carrying out new policies and procedures are the same people that have been there many years and have got an awful lot invested in Ashworth," he said.

And there lies the challenge. New top managers may be brought in but, until now, all have always been unable to change the underlying culture.

One current staff member said that, after the inquiry, wards were still autonomous fiefdoms doing their own thing where unsafe practices continued.

Short-term future

Yet at one level, reform is being taken onboard. The action plan points to new search procedures for staff and visitors.


[ image: Prisons like Broadmoor should become a thing of the past]
Prisons like Broadmoor should become a thing of the past
New policies to protect children. More investment to recruit more and better staff.

Professor Brian Edwards, a member of the inquiry team that wanted to close the hospital, accepted that in many ways, the government has responded well. But he added, in practice, Ashworth has only been granted a temporary reprieve.

"I am clear where we will end up: With a better service but without three large state high-security hospitals.

"You need a small number of well-ordered high security facilities in the United Kingdom. You don't need Rampton, Broadmoor and Ashworth, " he said.

Authorities at Ashworth have said that everything the inquiry demanded has been done, or is being done. All except one: That the institution should be closed. If Professor Edwards is right, even that could be a matter of time.



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