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House of Commons Hansard

Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust

10 December 2015
Volume 603

  • (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the report of the investigation into deaths at Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust.

  • The whole House will be profoundly shocked by this morning’s allegations of a failure by Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust to investigate over 1,000 unexpected deaths. Following the tragic death of 18-year-old Connor Sparrowhawk at Southern’s short-term assessment and treatment unit in Oxfordshire in July 2013, NHS England commissioned a report from audit providers Mazars on unexpected deaths between April 2011 and March 2015.

    The draft report, submitted to NHS England in September, found a lack of leadership, focus and sufficient time spent in the trust on carefully reporting and investigating unexpected deaths of mental health and learning disability service users. Of 1,454 deaths reported, only 272 were investigated as critical incidents, and only 195 of those were reported as serious incidents requiring investigation. The report found that there had been no effective, systematic management and oversight of the reporting of deaths and the investigations that follow.

    Prior to publication, or indeed showing the report to me, NHS England rightly asked the trust for its comments. It accepted failures in its reporting and investigations into unexpected deaths, but challenged the methodology, in particular pointing out that a number of the deaths were of out-patients for whom it was not the primary care provider. However, NHS England has assured me this morning that the report will be published before Christmas, and it is our intention to accept the vast majority, if not all, of the recommendations it makes.

    Our hearts go out to the families of those affected. More than anything, they want to know that the NHS learns from tragedies such as what happened to Connor Sparrowhawk, and that is something we patently fail to do on too many occasions at the moment. Nor should we pretend that this is a result of the wrong culture at just one NHS trust. There is an urgent need to improve the investigation of, and learning from, the estimated 200 avoidable deaths we have every week across the system.

    I will give the House more details about the report and recommendations when I have had a chance to read the final version and understand its recommendations, but I can tell the House about three important steps that will help to create the change in culture that we need. First, it is totally and utterly unacceptable that, according to the leaked report, only 1% of the unexpected deaths of patients with learning disabilities were investigated, so from next June, we will publish independently assured, Ofsted-style ratings of the quality of care offered to people with learning disabilities for all 209 clinical commissioning group areas. That will ensure that we shine a spotlight on the variations in care, allowing rapid action to be taken when standards fall short.

    Secondly, NHS England has commissioned the University of Bristol to do an independent study of the mortality rates of people with learning disabilities in NHS care. This is a very important moment at which to step back and consider the way in which we look after that particular highly vulnerable group.

    Thirdly, I have previously given the House a commitment to publishing the number of avoidable deaths, broken down by NHS trust, next year. Professor Sir Bruce Keogh has worked hard to develop a methodology to do this. He will write to medical directors at all trusts in the next week explaining how it works, and asking them to supply estimated figures that can be published in the spring. Central to that will be establishing a no-blame reporting culture across the NHS, with people being rewarded, not penalised, for speaking openly and transparently about mistakes.

    Finally, I pay tribute to Connor’s mother, Sara Ryan, who has campaigned tirelessly to get to the bottom of these issues. Her determination to make sure the right lessons are learned from Connor’s unexpected and wholly preventable, tragic death is an inspiration to us all. Today, I would like to offer her and all other families affected by similar tragedies a heartfelt apology on behalf of the Government and the NHS.

  • These are truly shocking revelations that, if proven, reveal deep failures at Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust. The BBC has reported that the investigation found that more than 10,000 people died between April 2011 and March 2015. Of those 10,000 deaths, 1,454 were not expected. Only 195 of those unexpected deaths—just 13%—were treated by the trust as a serious incident requiring investigation. Perhaps most worryingly, it appears that the likelihood of an unexpected death being investigated depended hugely on the patient: for those with a learning disability, just 1% of unexpected deaths were investigated, and for older people with a mental health problem, just 0.3%.

    We obviously await a full response from the Government when the report of the investigation is published, but a number of immediate questions need answers today. First, does the Health Secretary judge services at the trust to be safe? A recent Care Quality Commission report found that

    “inadequate staffing levels in community health services was impacting on the delivery of safe care.”

    What advice can he give patients, and the families of patients, currently in the care of Southern Health?

    Secondly, the Health Secretary confirmed in his reply that NHS England received the report in September, but can he explain why it still has not been published, and can he provide a specific date on which the final report will be made publicly available?

    Thirdly, when was the Health Secretary first made aware of concerns about Southern Health, and what action did he take at that time? What does he have to say to the relatives and friends of people who have unexpectedly died in the care of the trust and who, today, will be reliving their grief with a new anxiety?

    The issue raises broader questions about the care of people with learning disabilities or mental health problems. Just because some individuals have less ability to communicate concerns about their care, that must never mean that any less attention is paid to their treatment or their death. That would be the ultimate abrogation of responsibility, and one which should shame us all. The priority now must be to understand how this was allowed to happen, and to ensure this is put right so it can never happen again.

  • I agree with what the shadow Health Secretary says. She is absolutely right in both the tone of what she says, and in the seriousness with which she points to what has happened. It is important to say that this is only a draft report. To put the hon. Lady’s mind at rest, I am completely satisfied that NHS England took this extremely seriously from the moment we understood that there was an issue about the tragic death of Connor Sparrowhawk. David Nicholson, the then chief executive of NHS England, and Jane Cummings, the chief nurse, met the family and ordered the independent investigation. It is a very thorough investigation.

    As the hon. Lady will understand, when there is an investigation about something as serious as avoidable mortality, we have to give the trust the chance to correct any factual inaccuracies and challenge the methodologies. It has taken from September until now to get to the point in the process where the report is ready to be published. I have been assured by Jane Cummings this morning that it will be published before Christmas. We will not allow any further arguments about methodologies to stand in the way of the report being published before Christmas, as was always planned.

    On the hon. Lady’s very important question about whether services are safe at Southern Health, we have the expert view on that, because we set up a new chief inspector of hospitals and a new inspection regime. There was an inspection of Southern Health, and it got a “requires improvement”. The inspectors were not saying that its services were as safe as they should be, but that its services, along with those of many other trusts in the NHS, needed to become safer. She was right to draw attention to some of the failings alluded to in the report.

    The hon. Lady can draw comfort from the fact that this matter has been taken seriously. NHS England commissioned a report, which is, by all accounts, hard-hitting. I have been following the situation since we first understood the issues around Connor Sparrowhawk’s tragic death, and so has NHS England. That is why we have a report that I think will lead to important changes.

    The fundamental question on which we all need to reflect is why we do not have the right reporting culture in the NHS when it comes to unexpected deaths. We have to step back, be honest and say that there are reasons, good and bad, for that. People are extremely busy, and there is a huge amount of pressure on the frontline. People have an understandable desire to spend clinical time dealing with the patients who are standing in front of them, rather than going over medical notes and trying to understand something that went wrong. Sometimes, there will be prejudice and discrimination. The whole House will unite in saying that we must stamp that out. Sometimes, people do not speak out because they are worried that they will be fired or penalised. We have to move away from a blame culture in the NHS to a culture in which doctors and nurses are supported if they speak out, which too often is not the case.

    The whole House will want to unite in supporting the leaders of the NHS who want to change that culture. It is unfinished business from Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust; it is important to get it right, and I know that the NHS is determined to do just that.

  • The allegations in the draft report about Southern Health are deeply disturbing, and I welcome the steps that the Secretary of State has announced. In particular, I am pleased that he will not treat this as an isolated incident. The key findings of the draft report show that in nearly two thirds of the investigations, there was no family involvement. Will he immediately send the message out to all trusts that it is vital to involve family members, particularly when we are talking about those who cannot speak for themselves?

  • I will do that, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to do so. We see this situation all too often. There was a story in the Sunday newspapers about a family being shut out of a very important decision about the unexpected death of a baby. It is incredibly important to involve families, even more so in the case of people with mental health problems or learning disabilities. The family may be the best possible advocates for someone’s needs.

    We need to change the assumption that things will become more difficult if we involve families. More often than not, something like litigation will melt away if the family is involved properly from the outset of a problem. It is when families feel that the door is being slammed in their face that they think they have to resort to the courts, which is in no one’s interests.

  • I echo what the Secretary of State said about family involvement, which should be routine in investigating an adverse event. It definitely takes the heat out of the situation.

    There are two issues here. One is the shocking difference between 30% of adult deaths being investigated, and just 1% of deaths of people with learning disabilities, and Connor represents the human face of that, which is frightening. The second issue is about individual trusts being left to decide what and how much they investigate, and what they produce, because a much more systematic consideration of the data is required. NHS England publishes annual mortality figures. Strikingly, 16 trusts that were identified with higher than expected mortality levels also had higher than expected mortality the year before, yet it appears that no action was taken. The benchmark appears to be “average”, but if we have poor performance, that average is lower. We should set our aspirations higher than that.

  • The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The 30% figure was for people with mental health conditions, not for all adults, but I question why we are investigating only 30%—the highest figure at Southern Health NHS Trust—of unexpected deaths. These were not just deaths; they were unexpected deaths, and it is the duty of medical directors in every trust to satisfy themselves that they have thought about every unexpected death. We must reflect on these serious matters.

    The hon. Lady is right about the need to systematise processes when there is an unexpected death, so that we do not have a big variation between trusts. The exercise that Sir Bruce Keogh is doing, going around all the trusts, is about trying to establish a standardised way of understanding when a death is or is not preventable. The hon. Lady has been a practising clinician, so I am sure she will understand that at the heart of this issue is the need to get the culture right. Clinicians should not feel that a trust will take the easy route and blame it all on them, rather than trying to understand the system-wide problems that may have caused a clinician to make a mistake in an individual instance, and that is what we must think about.

  • Behind each statistic is a person and a family, and the Secretary of State is right to say that finger-pointing should not be directed at clinicians alone; it is more important to consider the whole system and the culture in a trust. Will he encourage all trusts, and all medical and nursing schools, to make the Francis report on Mid Staffordshire compulsory reading? There is so much in there that could prevent such occurrences in future.

  • No one knows more about the Francis report than my hon. Friend, because of the direct impact that it had on his local hospital, and he is right to talk about that culture change. There is an interesting comparison with the airline industry: when it investigates accidents, the vast majority of times, those investigations point to systemic failure. When the NHS investigates clinical accidents, the vast majority of times we point to individual failure. It is therefore not surprising that clinicians feel somewhat intimidated about speaking out. People become a doctor or nurse because they want to do the right thing for patients, and we must support them in making that possible.

  • The coalition Government rightly established a public inquiry to look into the appalling care at Stafford hospital, and the Secretary of State has pointed to the challenge to the culture that the Francis report engendered following that scandal. Is this the moment to consider something similar for people with learning disabilities, or those with severe and enduring mental ill health, who too often continue to be treated as second-class citizens in our NHS? Sara Ryan, Connor Sparrowhawk’s mother, has called for a public inquiry. Will the Secretary of State consider that? It seems that it is time to shine a light on what is going on.

  • I am happy to consider that. The right hon. Gentleman and I are completely on the same page on these issues. My only hesitation is that a public inquiry will take two, three or four years, and I want to ensure that we take action now. I hope I can reassure him and the House that by, for example, publishing Ofsted-style ratings for the quality of care for people with learning disabilities across every clinical commissioning group, we will shine a spotlight on poor care in the way that the Francis report tells us that we must. I do not see the treatment of people with learning difficulties as distinct from the broader lessons in the Francis report, but if we fail to make progress, I know that the right hon. Gentleman will come back to me, and rightly so.

  • Many of my constituents are service users of Southern Health, or the family members of service users. They are looking for reassurance from the Secretary of State that there will not simply be an immediate intense spotlight but an ongoing one, so that they can have confidence that the scrutiny and oversight, particularly for young people with learning difficulties, will be ongoing.

  • I can absolutely give that assurance to my hon. Friend’s constituents. I hope they will consider the tone of my earlier remarks and realise that we are not looking at this simply as an issue for Southern Health. Clearly, important changes must happen there and must happen quickly, and we will do everything we can to make sure that they happen. I also think, however, that there is a systemic issue in relation to the low reporting of avoidable and preventable deaths and harm, and the failure to develop a true learning culture in the NHS, which in the end is what doctors, nurses and patients all want and need.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and congratulate NHS England on what sounds like a very thorough report. I remind him that challenging the methodology was exactly the same first line of defence used by the now disgraced management at Mid Staffs hospital. Will he answer the specific question my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) asked as to when Ministers first knew about problems in the trust, which we hear go back to 2011, and what action they took as a result?

  • I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I hope I did address that by saying that the first time was when we realised there were issues around the tragic death of Connor Sparrowhawk. That is what started the process and led to the independent investigation. Because NHS England wanted it to be very thorough, that investigation went right back to 2011 and up to 2015. It looked at all unexpected deaths in that period, and at the reporting culture and lessons that had or had not been learned as a result. A lot of action has been taken. I can also reassure the right hon. Gentleman that during that period we have been implementing the recommendations of the Francis report, which has meant that throughout the NHS there is a much greater focus on, and transparency in, patient safety.

    It is important to give the NHS credit. During the past three years, we have actually seen a 25% increase in the number of reported incidents. I think people are treating this much more seriously than in the past, but there is much more to do.

  • I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the news that he plans to accept the recommendations of this very sobering report. Will he reassure the House that anyone found to have been deliberately contributing to patient neglect or failing to investigate avoidable deaths will be held to account both by the professional regulators and the full weight of the law?

  • I can of course give my right hon. Friend that assurance, but there is a note of hesitation in my response. That is partly because professional standards, as my right hon. Friend knows, are not a matter for politicians—they have to be set independently by the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council—and partly because if we are going to improve the reporting culture, which in the end is what the report is about, we have to change the fear that many doctors and nurses have that if they are open and transparent about mistakes they have made or seen, they will get dumped on. That is a real worry for many people. Part of this is about creating a supportive culture, so that when people take the brave decision to be open about something that has gone wrong they get the support that they deserve.

  • As well as asking the Secretary of State how the learning on this very important issue will be shared with the devolved Administrations, may I ask whether all other trusts are being advised that they will now probably receive approaches from families —no doubt Members may be contacted in this regard, too—who have questions about their own experiences? Will he ensure that they will be sensitive to such approaches about possible historical cases?

  • I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. Trusts understand that that is already happening and has been happening. All trusts will have families that have been in touch with them with concerns about potentially avoidable or preventable deaths. I hope that this will be a reminder to all trusts that they need to take those concerns very seriously indeed.

  • The disparity in excess deaths between vulnerable groups at Southern Health is truly shocking, but of course responsibility for looking after the people in question spans health and social care. Is my right hon. Friend content that we have in place the informatics that will allow outliers to be identified, and therefore rectification to be under way? One assumes that that could easily be done by NHS England, but at the moment the informatics seem to be problematic in this respect.

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why Professor Sir Bruce Keogh is developing a methodology to help us understand the number of avoidable deaths and the reporting culture at a trust level. We have a good methodology for understanding the number of avoidable deaths on a national level. The Hogan and Black analysis says that about 3.6% of deaths have a 50% or more chance of being avoidable. However, we will not get real local action until we localise it, and that is the next step.

  • Is the Secretary of State satisfied that families seeking truth and justice for their loved ones are having to rely on pro bono lawyers for advice and representation, and on crowdsourcing to get legal advice?

  • I am afraid that that probably does happen. We all, in all parts of the House, passionately believe in and support the NHS. It should never come down to lawyers. When there is a problem, we need a culture where the NHS is totally open and as keen as the families are themselves to understand what happened, whether it could be avoided, and what lessons can be learned. If nothing else, that is the big lesson that we need to make sure we act on as a result of today’s leaked report.

  • It is clear from my right hon. Friend’s statement that there is a cultural problem in Southern Health and across the NHS. Does he agree that far too often NHS management and clinicians are far too defensive and end up arguing about the data rather than addressing the underlying causes, which would fix the problem in the first place?

  • My hon. Friend is right. It is quite heartbreaking that when these things happen we seem to end up having an argument about methodology and statistics, and whether it is this many thousand or that many thousand, rather than looking at the underlying causes. We have to ask ourselves why people feel that they need to be defensive in these situations. We have to recognise that everyone is human, but, uniquely, doctors are in a profession where when they make mistakes, as we all do in our own worlds, people sometimes die. The result of that should not automatically be to say that the doctor was clinically negligent. Ninety-nine times out of 100, we should deduce from the mistake what can be learned to avoid it happening in future. Of course, where there is gross negligence, due process should take its course, but that is only on a minority of occasions. That is where things have gone wrong.

  • Not many people are as grateful to the NHS as I am, having just returned to full health thanks to the intervention of the wonderful team at Guy’s hospital, so any criticism I make of the NHS is in the generality. Many of us have known for a long time that there is a problem with access to full NHS treatment for people with learning difficulties. In particular, speaking as a member of the newly formed Autism Commission I can say that many people on the autism spectrum have poor communication skills and finish up with inadequate access to the health service. I do not particularly want a public inquiry; I want fast action to change the culture now. The Secretary of State is absolutely right about that.

  • I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman was looked after by Guy’s and St Thomas’s, where my mother was a nurse and where I was born, so I have connections to that trust as well. He is right about making sure that we get the culture right. It is about creating a more supportive environment for people who do a very, very tough job every day of the week. When we have a conversation along those lines with patients and with our constituents, they understand that as well. More than anything else, they want to know that lessons are going to be learned and acted on.

  • Was it necessary to delay the report’s publication for two or three months—a week or two I could understand—and will it now be published not in a fortnight’s time, before Christmas, but next week, when we will be here?

  • I hope the report will be published next week. The commitment I have from NHS England is that it will be published before Christmas. I am confident that, whenever it is published, it will generate huge media interest, rightly so and partly thanks to the shadow Health Secretary’s urgent question. When the draft report was sent to the trust, it came back with 300 individual items of concern, and it was right for NHS England, in the interests of accuracy and justice, to consider fully all those concerns. It has given me an assurance, however, that, whether or not it can reach an agreement with the trust about its contents, the report will be published before Christmas.

  • What will the Secretary of State do about whistleblowers? As most Members know, we have had problems over the years with whistleblowing and people being victimised by the NHS after raising concerns.

  • Sir Robert Francis’s report “Freedom To Speak Up”, which I received and presented to Parliament just before the election, looked specifically at this issue and the difficult problems people face when they speak out about a problem in their trust. Sadly, on occasions, not only are they hounded out of that trust but they find it difficult to find a job anywhere else in the NHS, because word gets round on the old boys’ network. I think, however, that if we need whistleblowing at all, we have failed. We need a culture where, when people raise concerns, they are confident they will be listened to. That is a big statement to make, but other industries have managed it, including the airline, nuclear and oil industries. I do not think any health care service in any other country has managed to get this right. Individual hospitals—Salford Royal in this country, Virginia Mason in Seattle—have fantastic learning cultures, but I want the NHS to be the first whole health economy to get that culture right.

  • I welcome the Secretary of State’s answer to the urgent question. I speak as a Member with a hospital in special measures that had the seventh-highest mortality rate in the country in 2005-06. Does he agree that to address this problem we need tough CQC inspections, good local leadership—Medway hospital now has an excellent chief executive—and the right support from the Government?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It seems wrong to draw any crumbs of comfort from the awful things in the draft report, but we can draw some comfort from the fact that the NHS itself is commissioning hard-hitting reports that do not pull any punches—the new CQC inspection regime does exactly that. I commend all the staff at Medway hospital who have worked so hard to raise the standard of care over the last few years. I know it has not been easy for them.

  • The Secretary of State has not yet mentioned the role of the medical examiner. Does this latest tragedy not illustrate that the introduction of a national system of medical examiners, as recommended by the Shipman, Mid Staffs and Morecambe Bay public inquiries and supported by the Royal College of Pathologists, is now long overdue?

  • I agree with the hon. Lady. It was also a recommendation of the Francis report that the coalition Government committed to implementing. We will tell the House shortly what our plans are on this front.

  • People will be both saddened and dismayed that after Mid Staffs and the new CQC inspection regime such problems can still arise. Does the Secretary of State agree that, although there is no simple solution, the solution certainly does not lie in trusts adopting and relying on a tick-box approach to safety?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is worth saying that the tragedy that sparked this report happened before the new CQC inspection regime had got under way. The old CQC regime was rather a tick-box approach, partly because the people doing the inspections were often not doctors who could make peer-review judgments about the quality of services. If someone is not a doctor, there is a tendency to want to tick yes or no in reply to a question rather than to deal with the underlying issues. Having judgment in our inspections will be a very important step forward.

  • This investigation would not have happened if it had not been for the tenacity and work of Sara Ryan, Connor Sparrowhawk’s mother. Is it right that the family’s legal representation was funded by crowdsourcing?

  • I think it is tragic when anyone has to resort to the courts to get justice. Sara Ryan is one of many who have had to go to huge out-of-pocket expenses to get justice and the truth with respect to their loved ones. Last week, I went to the launch of James Titcombe’s book. He campaigned for years and years to get justice and the truth about the death of his son, Joshua. That is exactly what we have to change.

  • Will the Secretary of State confirm that the draft report also covers the Southern Health Foundation community-based mental health services for adults? That received a “good” in the CQC report published in February 2015. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the CQC report was rigorous enough?

  • I believe it does cover the mental health services for adults, but I will check and write to my hon. Friend. When the CQC does its inspections, it is important for it to inspect individual elements of what a trust does, and it gives different ratings to different parts. We need to recognise that even within one trust it is possible to have big variations in the quality of care. As I say, I will look further into this and write to my hon. Friend.

  • The Secretary of State rightly mentions the fact that the culture needs to change so that people can be more uninhibited about talking about the problems they face within trusts and hospitals. May I remind him that the culture is set from the top? I therefore invite him to come to the Dispatch Box again and inform the families and the House when Ministers first knew that there were problems in this trust.

  • I think this is now the third time I have said it, but the answer is that Connor Sparrowhawk’s tragic death happened in July 2013. Sara Ryan then campaigned bravely. As always on these occasions, it started with a local process where concerns were raised with the trust. The matter was escalated to NHS England in early 2014 when David Nicholson, the chief executive, and Jane Cummings, the chief nurse, got involved. Ministers were kept informed throughout, and that was the point at which Mazars—[Interruption.] I have just said that Ministers were kept informed of what NHS England was doing throughout, but that was the point at which the report by Mazars was commissioned. It is a very thorough report, and we will see it when it is published before Christmas.