Published: 27/05/2004, Volume II4, No. 5907 Page 5

A 'toughening up' of the inspection regime for psychiatric hospitals has been criticised by some mental health organisations.

The Mental Health Act Commission says it has strengthened the role of its commissioners and reorganised the way it carries out visits to hospitals and mental health units, following an internal review. But some organisations have warned that the overhaul could in fact hamper the commission's ability to effectively inspect patient care.

Under the new system, visits will be more frequent and often unannounced or at short notice. The number of inspectors will be reduced from three or four to one.

An area commissioner will be appointed for each of the 28 strategic health authorities, and although the total number of inspectors will be reduced by 60, they will receive more training.

Commission chair Professor Kamlesh Patel said: 'We want to ensure that there are more frequent, unannounced visits by commissioners and that more patients are seen on these visits.'

Mind policy director Sophie Corlett welcomed the changes, but said she would like to see the commission 'given more teeth to enforce changes where they are needed, rather than simply making recommendations'.

The Royal College of Nursing warned that some of the changes could in fact reduce the quality of inspections, and its mental health practice forum chair David Harding-Price said one advantage of having visits by three or four commissioners is that they would be more difficult to sway than one.

He added: 'The requirement for all commissioners to spend at least 30 days on visits may mean that fewer commissioners are in clinical practice and that more retired people apply for the posts, which would mean they are not as grounded in current practice.'