Published: 18/04/2002, Volume II2, No. 5801 Page 9

An activist group which carried out a raid on a Sussex psychiatric unit in an attempt to expose poor security and conditions says police investigations into the matter have been dropped.

The group - which calls itself West Sussex Mental Health Information Project - told HSJ that it accessed confidential patient records before removing blank medical forms and office files on two occasions around the start of this month.

Group leader David Northmore - himself a mental health service user - said the raids were carried out in order to expose the 'humiliating regime of neglect' suffered by patients at the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath, Sussex.

He said he had been dismayed by the level of care which he claimed had meant patients in Villa block were going hungry, as well as being denied occupational therapy and basic laundry facilities. He also claimed the ward - classified as an open ward - was being locked to contain patients under the Mental Health Act because of a lack of psychiatric facilities in the area.

Mr Northmore said: 'What we did was justified. It is standard journalist practice - like reporters taking replica arms through airport security - and I think this shows up the slack protocols at the hospital.'

This week, police told Mr Northmore the investigations had been dropped because the group had always made clear its intention to return the documents.HSJ could not confirm details of the police investigation because the group would not say when it carried out the raids.

Mr Northmore described the conditions on the ward as 'like something out of the Victorian age' and is now calling on West Sussex Health and Social Care trust, which runs the Princess Royal Hospital, to take action.

Trust chief executive Lisa Rodrigues told HSJ: 'This was a serious breach of confidentiality'.

She admitted that Villa block was in 'urgent need of replacement' and its facilities did not 'support the best care in the 21st century'. The trust is working with the local management team to develop a business case to replace the facility as soon as possible.

'We would also agree there needs to be improvements in occupational therapy and other activities for patients in the acute ward at the Villa, ' she added.

The trust said action was already being taken, but it strongly denied that patients were suffering under a 'humiliating regime', as claimed by Mr Northmore.

Carolyn Nurse, acting chief officer at Mid Downs community health council, said the trust had carried out a review of conditions.

'The findings of the review acknowledged that the current [occupational therapy] service was ineffective, with no measurable outcomes or perceived benefits for patients. The department was felt to be inadequately resourced and the environment was judged unsuitable for group work.

'It was therefore acknowledged that it was untenable to continue to provide the inpatient occupational therapy service in its current form.'

She said the CHC had 'retained' its concern about the welfare of patients, 'particularly those who may be on the ward for considerable periods of time without any therapeutic occupational therapy or meaningful activity'.