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Government gives Essex mental health deaths inquiry legal powers

An inquiry investigating deaths of mental health patients in Essex has been given extra powers, in a victory for campaigners.

Health secretary, Steve Barclay, said that the inquiry will be placed on a statutory footing which means it will be able to force witnesses to give evidence, including former staff who have previously worked for services within the county.

Mr Barclay added that under the new powers anyone refusing to give evidence could be fined.

Melanie Leahy, whose son Matthew died while an inpatient at the Linden Centre, Chelmsford in 2012, is among those who have long campaigned for the inquiry to be upgraded.

She said: "I welcome today's long overdue government announcement and look forward to working with the inquiry team. This marks the start of the next chapter in our mission to find out how our loved ones could be so badly failed by those who were meant to care for them.”

The independent inquiry was launched in 2021 to examine the deaths of people who had been patients of Essex's mental health services between 2000 and 2020.

Last December, inquiry chair, Dr Geraldine Strathdee, said she had received information identifying up to 2,000 people who may have died, a figure disputed by the current provider of mental health services, the Essex Partnership University NHS Trust (EPUT).

Dr Strathdee wrote to the health secretary earlier this year calling for more powers because fewer than 30% of those she described as "essential witnesses" had agreed to attend evidence sessions.

She said: "I am confident that statutory status will allow the inquiry to deliver a full and robust report and make recommendations that will lead to much needed improvements."

Dr Strathdee also announced she was stepping down as chair due to health reasons.

Chief executive of mental health charity SANE, Marjorie Wallace, said the alleged failings that led to the inquiry were not confined to Essex.

She said: "This inquiry is the country's largest investigation into mental health services and the findings will not be unique to Essex. It should act as a catalyst in improving mental health care and propel a revolution in culture."

Chief executive of Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (EPUT), Paul Scott, said: "We remain committed to supporting the inquiry, whatever form it takes, now and in the future so that families, carers and service users receive the answers they rightly deserve."