VULNERABLE disabled people in NHS care homes in East Lancashire were the victims of "disturbing and systematic" abuse by carers, a shock report has found.

A five-month investigation by an independent team found that clients were being physically restrained and controlled with tranquillisers far too often.

They also discovered that some of the vulnerable people were being locked in their rooms and being monitored by CCTV, whlie some windows had bars on them.

Under modern guidelines, the restraint, medication and security measures were all classified as abusive and contrary to civil rights.

Distressed clients had no choice over who they lived with, leading to fights and self-harm, the report said.

An MP said the treatment of the vulnerable people had been "shocking", learning disability charity Mencap slammed the staff for using "out of date" methods, while a health watchdog said the situation was "appalling".

The service had been run by the now-defunct Hyndburn and Ribble Valley Primary Care Trust.

Bosses of the replacement East Lancashire PCT ordered the probe as they were concerned about a number of allegations of abuse at one of the houses.

Police had investigated an alleged incident in 2004 but did not take any action.

As a result of the independent team's findings, a number of staff have faced internal disciplinary action, although bosses have refused to reveal any further details.

In the past year, the PCT has re-trained staff and put new policies in place to ensure physical restraint and medications are minimal, while CCTV and window bars have been removed.

New management structures, auditors and review procedures have been put in place.

Last month, East Lancs PCT announced a recommissioning of the service, possibly selling it off to a private provider, in a bid to improve standards.

A spokesman for East Lanc PCT said: "East Lancashire PCT is the successor organisation to Hyndburn and Ribble Valley PCT for providing the service and commissioning a proportion of the service.

"As the successor organisation we are the legally-accountable body for providing the service.

"We took action immediately we became aware of this issue.

"The PCT focussed on the issues that were apparent to it when it formed in October 2006.

"The PCT took immediate action in relation to those issues as soon we became aware of them.

"We continued to take action since October 2006, and consequently are continuing to take action in response to the recommendations of the review as they have arisen, to safeguard service users."

The Chief Executive of the Hyndburn and Ribble Valley PCT was Mark Wilkinson who is now the head the newly formed Central Lancashire PCT.

He was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Bridget Hilton was director of nursing and service provision at Hyndburn and Ribble Valley PCT until her retirement last year, when East Lancashire took over.

Mrs Hilton, who is now a Conservative councilor for the Waddington and West Bradford ward of Ribble Valley Council, declined to comment on the report, and refused offers by the Lancashire Telegraph to show her a copy of it.

She said: "I have not been involved in the service for 14 months and I was not contacted as part of it.

"Under no circumstances must the report be delivered to me.

"I do not want to see it and I will not make any comment about it."

The report has just been published by the East Lancs PCT, although it was written last month.

A total of 83 people with learning disabilities lived in 19 shared homes as paying tenants, with 24-hour NHS care under the "supported living" scheme, introduced in the 1980s.

The scheme was brought in to try to give clients as much of a "normal" life as possible, but East Lancashire PCT found that care had not moved on from practices common in the institutions that the scheme replaced.

The report said: "Records present compelling evidence of disturbing and systematic abuse practices across the scheme.

"Linked to the use of physical restraint, the widespread use of medication to control behaviour raises serious concerns about the direction and operation of the current service.

"Care staff with the responsibility of dealing with challenging behaviour were poorly supported by resources and professional expertise and often had to 'do their best' to manage the behaviour".

The report said that although there were many examples of good care and dedicated staff in the service, bad management had led to big failures.

The service is now run by the East Lancs PCT in partnership with commissioners in Social Services, Blackburn with Darwen PCT and Blackburn Adult Social care.

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