Mental health service providers have been put on notice they will be prosecuted if they fail to protect patients’ human rights or operate a substandard service.
While there have been no prosecutions to date, John Farrelly, chief executive of the Mental Health Commission (MHC), advised “that will change”.
“Where there is a risk to service users, we will intervene robustly, without fear or favour,” he said.
The Commission would show “lower tolerance” where standards were not being met and would apply the law where there were “significant offences”.
The Commission oversees the registration of inpatient mental health services and can prosecute those that fail to comply with regulations.
Mr Farrelly’s stark warning coincided with the launch yesterday of the Commission’s new four-year strategy Protecting People’s Rights.
He said it remained the case that some inpatient wards were “smelly and dirty”.
There had been improvements, he said, in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHs), with fewer children inappropriately placed on adult wards.
Centres that placed children inappropriately would have conditions attached to their registration, he said.
The Commission’s annual report 2017 shows 82 child admissions to 19 adult units, compared to 68 in 2016.
Commission chair, John Saunders, said they had consulted widely in devising the new strategy and that "individual's human rights will be at the heart of our work and functions over the next four years”.
The strategy outlines the challenge of establishing a best-in-class Decision Support Service (DSS), a new function that will extend the Commission’s remit beyond mental health services to people who may require support to make decisions about their welfare, property and finances.
Mr Farrelly said they are hopeful the DSS will be in place in the final quarter of next year.
Áine Flynn, DSS director, said human rights are “clearly at the heart of the new service, which, when operational, will play a key role in delivering the much needed and long-awaited reforms introduced by the Assisted-Decision-Making (Capacity) Act of 2015”. The Act gives greater autonomy to people requiring support to make decisions that affect them.
The strategy has five strategic objectives, each of which the Commission is committed to delivering on by the end of 2022. The first of four business plans sets out how it will deliver in 2019. This includes a review of the regulatory framework, an enhanced corporate governance structure, support for the Office of the Inspector of Mental Health, and a recruitment, selection and training process for new Mental Health Tribunal members.
Mr Farrelly said the Commission believes “there is a shared agenda and consensus amongst us all to deliver better mental health and decision support services”.
Mental Health Reform (MHR), the national coalition on mental health, said it “welcomed the human rights emphasis” in the new strategy.
MHR director Shari McDaid said they were particularly supportive of the objective to pursue the expansion of the Commission’s remit to regulate residential community mental health services, as recommended by the Expert Group on review of the Mental Health Act in 2015.
Dr McDaid said the legislation for a full reform of the Mental Health Act “needs to be urgently published to give effect to important changes that will protect people’s fundamental rights".