Mother challenges Virgin Care takeover of mental health service

  • A mother is going to the high court on behalf of her two children to challenge Sir Richard Branson's planned takeover of children's health and social care services in Devon.

    The mother's lawyers argue that the council and NHS trust failed to comply with equalities legislation and their own equality policy. They say Virgin Care failed to carry out a comprehensive equality impact assessment

    The action is the first of its kind and raises questions about the way NHS and social services are contracted out to private companies. More than 4,000 children will be affected by the change, many of whom are extremely vulnerable.

    The mother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, says her two children, aged nine and 13, both of whom receive treatment for mental health problems, could be adversely affected by the planned takeover by Branson's company Virgin Care.

    The children have been receiving specialist mental health assistance after being exposed to violence and abuse from their father, who is reported to be drug dependent. The family were forced to escape to safety and the effect on the children has been severe.

    The mother said:

    This is a dangerous experiment with our children and their future. If children don't get the proper care and support at the time when they need it, it could cause all kinds of problems later on which will be more expensive to sort out.

    Last month Devon county council and Devon primary care trust confirmed they had selected Virgin Care to take over the running of services for children with disabilities, the children's mental health service, and school nurses and health visitors, from 1 April next year. The contract, worth more than £100m, has not yet been signed. Bids by the NHS and charities with expertise in children's services were rejected. It has not been disclosed what changes, if any, Virgin Care plans to make to the services.

    The mother's lawyers argue that the council and NHS trust failed to comply with equalities legislation and their own equality policy, including by not conducting an equality impact assessment. They say Virgin Care failed to carry out a timely and comprehensive equality impact assessment. The lawyers are asking the court to declare the decision to give Virgin Care preferred bidder status unlawful.

    The mother's solicitor, Adam Hundt, at Deighton Pierce Glynn, said:

    [The handover] involves management changes, transfer of assets from the public to the private sector, and introduction of a profit motive.

    The impact on accountability is not neutral. Where vulnerable children are involved even greater care must be taken.

    Rebecca Harriott, director of commissioning development for NHS Devon, Plymouth and Torbay, said:

    We firmly believe that there is no case to answer and will strongly defend the action. Both authorities are continuing to progress the current process to award a final contract and transfer staff by 31 March 2013.

    The decision to work with Virgin follows an exhaustive tendering process that has involved a large number of parents, carers, professionals and young people themselves as well as affected staff.

    A Virgin Care spokesman said:

    We have a very strong track record of providing NHS care to vulnerable groups including children for many years now., strengthened with extensive expertise through our contract to provide community services in Surrey.

    Source: The Guardian

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