The inquiry into allegations of pornography and child abuse at Ashworth special hospital ended this week with a dramatic plea for the special hospitals to be closed.

Barrister Gillian Irving, representing Ashworth patients, said there had been 'startling deficiencies' in their care and treatment, and both patients and the public had been sold short.

'Special hospitals have had money thrown at them for years but somehow it never gets to where it is really needed - the patients,' she told the inquiry.

'The time for the special hospitals is over. They have to be closed and Ashworth in particular - the sooner the better.

'Hopefully things can only get better for patients at Ashworth. They certainly cannot get any worse.'

Demanding that 'treatability' should not be confused with 'curability', Ms Irving pointed out that the patients she represented had been sent to hospital because they were ill.

Had they been sent to prison, they would be out in the community, having served their sentence.

'Hospital is not a soft option,' she said. If society had reached the point where only people who could be cured were treated 'we have reached a very sorry state of affairs'.

The inquiry panel, which sat in public for 67 days after two preliminary hearings, is due to report to health secretary Frank Dobson by the end of November.

Oliver Thorrold, for the hospital, urged the panel to avoid the 'serious danger' of seeing Ashworth as it was when the allegations arose in 1996. There were now major differences, he said.

Children were not allowed to visit without prior checks with social services, none could visit a sex offender unless social services and the patient's care team agreed that it was in the child's interest, and such visits were now allowed only where there were strong family ties.

Security had been strengthened at the hospital, he said. People were searched before and after visits, mail was examined centrally and active consideration was being given to introducing random searches of staff.

Mr Thorrold said it took a lot of pressure to change the special hospital system and very little could be achieved in the short term.

There was now a serious and systematic attempt to get to grips with bed blocking at Ashworth, where 30-40 per cent of the patients ought not to be in a special hospital. Mr Thorrold said the number of patients in the five wards of the personality disorder unit, the scene of the alleged incidents, has dropped to 98 and is expected to fall further.

Patients with learning disabilities would be transferred elsewhere, probably within the next year or so. Specialist facilities would be provided in the medium to long term for women patients.

The PDU would be left with a diminishing number of men who were 'less dischargeable, less responsive to treatment', with advancing age and quite serious problems of physical incapacity.

Ashworth must be able to care for them with well trained and well motivated staff, he said.