Deliberate or reckless behaviour towards patients punishable by up to five years in prison and hefty fine

Care staff who willfully neglect patients under their supervision could face time in jail and expensive fines from 2015.

The proposals were outlined yesterday (Thursday 12 June) by the Department of Health (DoH) as part of its response to the findings of the National Advisory Group on the Safety of Patients in England in 2013.

After receiving more than 130 responses to the consultation, the Department of Health proposed that a new crime of ‘wilful neglect’ should be introduced, backed up with £5,000 fines, applicable to any one of the 1.53 million employees working in the NHS in England.

According to the government, the new offence is backed by 98 per cent organisations and individuals, and is needed to close a legal loophole that currently allows mistreatment of patients in settings such as mental institutions where they lack mental capacity.

“It is emphatically not about punishing healthcare staff who make honest mistakes, but ensuring there are robust sanctions for deliberate or reckless actions, or failures to act,” said a DoH spokesperson.

The Royal College of Physicians said it backed the proposals, arguing “in the rare instances where a practitioner is aware of the risk to their patient, but shows willful disregard of the risk, they should face criminal sanction.”

Its spokesperson added: “Such conduct goes against the fundamental tenets of medical professionalism and the ethical duty of care that all healthcare professionals have towards their patients.”

The Medical Defence Union, which represent doctors accused of wrongdoing, rejected the proposals and argued that the scope of existing law is already wide enough.

Dr Christine Tomkins, CEO, MDU said: “No one would disagree with the premise that doctors who willfully or recklessly mistreat a patient should face consequences. However, there is no evidence doctors are neglecting patients in such a way, and even if there are doctors could be erased from the medical register by the General Medical Council.

“Our concern is that the police would be bound to investigate cases were allegations were made. There will be an increase in the numbers of doctors investigated, but few, if any, would be found guilty of something as serious as wilful neglect. The danger is that it would encourage a culture of blame and fear rather than of learning an openness,” she added.

As part of the ongoing changes to the organisation, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has said hospital patients in England should know the name of the doctor responsible for overseeing their care.

The academy was asked to draw up guidelines as part of the response to the Francis Report highlighting neglect at hospitals in Mid-Staffordshire.

Jonny Marshall, director of policy at the NHS Confederation said: “It is important that patients know who is ultimately responsible for their care. Displaying the names of the accountable doctor and nurse is a good building block to developing positive, trusting relationships between clinicians and their patients.”