In the wake of the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal, the government is set to introduce new criminal offences. The Department of Health stated that criminalising neglectful behaviours will send out a very strong message that poor standards of care in NHS hospitals will no longer be tolerated.
According to the government, if a new criminal offence were to be introduced in England after the Mid Staffs scandal, there could be as many as 240 prosecutions a year for wilfully neglecting or ill-treating patients.
Healthcare professionals convicted of these new offences could expect a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a £5,000 fine, or both. A consultation paper on the proposed new offences also outlines far more severe financial punishments for organisations which employ negligent workers.
It is intended that criminalising poor care would act as a deterrent. Similar penalties are already on the statute book for carers who neglect and ill-treat patients who do not have full mental capacity. The Department of Health issued a statement saying that the new offences would send a very clear message that poor levels of care will not be tolerated, and would also make sure than if neglect or ill-treatment does occur, there will be legal consequences for those held responsible.
Implementing this new legislation will cost the legal system an estimated £2.2 million annually. In a few cases, defendants will be expected to pay their own legal costs of around £400. Further, harder to quantify costs, will be the costs of Police and other organisations implementing processes to reduce the risk of prosecution, and the cost of any damage to an organisation’s reputation.
In the aftermath of the scathing verdict on North Staffs by the Francis enquiry, an advisory group led by an expert on patient safety, Don Berwick, recommended introducing new criminal offences. Ministers want to go further than the advisory group’s recommendations and criminalise neglect in all hospitals and nursing homes, whether they be privately run, run by volunteers, or NHS establishments.
Many experts feel that 240 prosecutions annually is a conservative estimate, if the numbers of prosecutions currently brought against workers in the mental health sector is anything to go by. However, with approximately 10.8 million of us accessing health and social care each year, the Department of Health estimate that any new offence would be at the rate of 1 per 45,000. This contrasts with 1 per 3,800 patients under current mental health legislation.
The Department of Health reassured healthcare professionals that genuine mistakes or accidents should never end up in court, but would be used as a way of learning and improving the service instead. The new legislation was welcomed by campaigning hospital safety group Action Against Medical Accidents (AVMA), with particular support given to criminal offences relating to organisations.
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