Mental health services which were the centre of a high-profile patient abuse scandal have made huge leaps to involve patients in their management, local service users have declared.

Claims that elderly patients at Carlisle's former Garlands Psychiatric Hospital, part of North Lakeland Healthcare trust, had been the subject of emotional, verbal and physical abuse - with patients being tied to commodes - dated back to 1996.

Last year, the Commission for Health Improvement investigated North Lakeland Healthcare trust, which ran Garlands' services, and, following a visit in May 2000, warned that it still 'could not be confident. . . that abuse and malpractice would be reported'.

The trust became part of North Cumbria Mental Health and Learning Disabilities trust in April this year.

In a bid to restore public confidence earlier this month, it staged a conference at which service users, carers and other interested parties thrashed out a fresh set of management priorities.

The meeting heard that service users were now more involved in managing the trust.Anne Dawson, director of Carlisle Mind and herself an 'occasional user of the service, ' revealed that she was invited to join the selection panel which recently appointed the chief executive of the new North Cumbria trust.

Managers now routinely invited former patients to join selection panels appointing senior clinical and managerial staff.

Miss Dawson said: 'There is been a huge change in the trust since CHI. It is quite symbolic that staff at the trust headquarters no longer lock the front door, which was something that routinely happened in the past. Perhaps they were afraid a service user would get in.

'They've also opened up the staff canteen to service users. There is a huge amount of good will, so hopefully we can put the past behind us.'

Laurie Bryant, who leads a patient-led research group called Impact, described the trust's new approach as 'groundbreaking'.

Trust chief executive Nigel Woodcock confirmed that former patients had helped appoint senior trust staff since CHI published its report last November.