Politicians – and Their Responses

All the local politicians, whatever their political affiliation, know how bad the mental health services are in north Wales. Yet very few of them have commented publicly on this, although some of them such as Darren Millar (Conservative) and Llyr Huws Gruffydd (Plaid Cymru), have been very vocal in the local media regarding the failings in other NHS services provided by the Betsi. Just before the 2016 Welsh Assembly elections, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies, maintained that the sorry state of the NHS in Wales was entirely the fault of the Welsh (Labour) Government, on the grounds that they have now been the party in power ever since devolution. As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, it is certainly true that the Welsh Gov’t have failed to dismiss and prosecute people even when they were given sufficient evidence to do this. But the current mess in north Wales began long before devolution and the Welsh Gov’t.

When I first encountered serious malpractice in the mental health services in north Wales in the 1980s, the NHS was not devolved and was the responsibility of Westminster – at the time Margaret Thatcher was PM, leading a Conservative government. The first politician that I approached about the mental health services was Keith Best, Conservative MP for Ynys Mon. Keith could not have been less interested – I must have been in his office for no more than four minutes. He routinely passed my concerns onto Sir Wyn Roberts (Conservative) who was at that time Welsh Minister of State for Thatcher’s administration. Wyn Roberts went through the motions and replied to my specific enquiry (regarding me being denied access to my medical records by Gwynedd Health Authority) but was utterly unhelpful. It is inconceivable that Keith Best and Wyn Roberts had not heard of some of the serious problems concerning the mental health services which in those days were centred around the notorious North Wales Hospital Denbigh. So the problems in the mental health services started long before devolution and the Welsh Gov’t.

Following Best’s and Roberts’ lack of enthusiasm I continued to battle with the mental health services. In the early 1990s I was told by a number of people that Dafydd Wigley (Plaid Cymru) was very concerned at what was going on in the North Wales Hospital Denbigh and eventually I wrote to him. He sent me an incredibly supportive reply, offering to help at a Parliamentary level if he could. But the horrors of north Wales psychiatry continued. There was much made of the North Wales Hospital being closed down but the practitioners and managers were simply moved out into the new units and into the (very inadequate) community services – the service remained highly punitive with staff attitudes pretty much the same as had prevailed at Denbigh.

Much more recently, with the mental health services not getting any better, I wrote to a few more politicians, including Peter Hain ( Labour), who was Secretary of State for Wales between 2002-2005 and again in 2007-2008. A few more people obviously wrote to Peter Hain too, because I had sight of an extraordinary document written by Keith Thomson the former CEO of the North West Wales NHS Trust, who was very angry with ‘attention seekers’ (plural) complaining about the Trust, some of whom had ‘even’ written to the Secretary of State. So there were obviously some very concerned people out there. The chaos and negligence continued.

I wrote to Dr Brian Gibbons (Labour) the Minister for Health in the Welsh Gov’t between 2005 and 2007. I gave him extensive details of the gross abuses and malpractice to which I had been subjected by the mental health services, particularly at the Hergest Unit. Gibbons could not have been more unhelpful, even though by now there had been a number of deaths at the Unit, numerous complaints – hardly any of which had been properly investigated – and it was becoming obvious that the Unit was very troubled and indeed unsafe. I continued to write to Gibbons, trying to get an appropriate response to the very serious matters that I was raising. Gibbons was arrogant and rude and eventually wrote me a letter telling me that our correspondence was over. And that was our glorious Health Minister – a medical practitioner himself, so I presume that he did know that the Hergest Unit should not have been killing their patients.

During the 2005 general election campaign I was in Tesco in Bangor when I came across Betty Williams (Labour) campaigning. I asked her if I could talk to her about the NHS and she enthusiastically welcomed the conversation. Until I told her that I had first hand experience of the malpractice in the local mental health services, specifically the Hergest Unit in Bangor – at that point she stopped the conversation and tried to have me thrown out of Tesco. I told this story to a number of people and one of them replied that she had written to Betty Williams about her dreadful experiences at the Hergest Unit but Betty didn’t want to know.

I also approached Mark Isherwood (Conservative). Mark Isherwood was incredibly helpful, spent a long time with me and subsequently made a speech in the Senedd (the debating chamber in the Welsh Assembly) about the serious problems in the mental health services in north Wales, detailing my case and that of another patient who had raised concerns with him.

I wrote to Edwina Hart (Labour) who between 2007 and 2010 was the Health Minister in Wales. I got the impression that Edwina really did try and change things – in 2009 she reorganised the NHS in Wales and abolished the three dysfunctional scandal ridden Trusts in north Wales and created the new Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. Unfortunately, although she did this, there was an arrangement in which no managers would be made redundant and they would be re-employed in the new Health Board at their previous salary levels. So the north Wales NHS continued to be lumbered with the same appalling managers. Nonetheless, Edwina was subjected to an absolute hate campaign conducted through the local media in north Wales which seemed to be largely driven by the British Medical Association. (The BMA wrote me a nasty aggressive e mail as well.) Darren Millar (Conservative) went through a phase at this time of sharing platforms with various members of the BMA, complaining about Labour’s alleged mismanagement of the NHS in north Wales. I had not ever noticed him publicly complaining about the previous mismanagement in the NHS Trusts in north Wales which all the local politicians knew about. I also subsequently corresponded with Lesley Griffiths (Labour) and Mark Drakeford (Labour) in their capacity as Health Ministers.

At the point of Edwina Hart abolishing the dreadful North West Wales NHS Trust, Hywel Williams (Plaid Cymru) and Alun Ffred Jones (Plaid Cymru), participated in a truly bizarre photocall in the local press. They were pictured along with Elfed Roberts, the outgoing Chairman of the failed Trust, ‘congratulating’ him on his sterling work. Elfed Roberts and his wrongdoing feature on this blog – and his activities had become very public by the time of this photocall. I later e mailed Hywel Williams regarding the sorry state of the mental health services and I received a reply that I still have – it simply read ‘You have your opinion, I have mine’. And this is a man who claimed to have an interest in mental health. One of my friends who also suffered at the hands of the Hergest Unit tried to speak to Hywel at a conference – when he realised that she was a patient not a social worker she maintained that he just walked away. I was also told that Hywel held one of his post-election victory parties at the house of one of the nurses who worked at the Hergest Unit – her husband is involved with Plaid. Hywel will know all about the mental health services in north Wales – before he was an MP he was a mental health social worker.

Another Plaid politician, Llyr Huws Gruffydd, also did his bit to support some very poor mental health provision. In one election campaign he was featured in the press mourning the closure of Ty Gwyn, a ‘nursing home’ for people suffering from PTSD owned and run by the notoriously unscrupulous Dr Dafydd Alun Jones. Llyr maintained that Ty Gwyn had been a ‘beacon of excellence’. One of my friends had actually stayed at Ty Gwyn. Despite the enormous fees, my friend described Ty Gwyn as ‘a mediocre boarding house’ in which he had to share a room. My friend is a vegetarian but providing vegetarian options was beyond the beacon of excellence and he was told to go into Llandudno and buy takeaways. The only time he actually saw Dafydd Alun Jones was when he signed himself out after realising that he was being ripped off – Jones turned up to try and persuade him to stay ‘at least another three weeks’. That would have been a few more thousand quid into the pockets of the beacon of excellence.

I encountered Llyr again about four years ago when the friend who had stayed in the beacon of excellence was having further trouble with the mental health services. He was suicidal and like so many was being refused treatment by the Hergest Unit. He was eventually admitted to the Heddfan Unit in Wrexham Maelor Hospital but had noticed some very odd dynamics – he was being largely ignored and excluded by the staff. I had been writing to Llyr about this friend’s mistreatment and Llyr sent me an e mail in which he said that he’d spoken to the ward nurse about this man and had been reassured that this man was ‘in the best place’. The next day my friend was refused treatment and discharged. I wrote to Llyr again but never heard another word from him. My friend ended up paying many thousands of pounds for private treatment – but not at another facility owned by DA Jones – because the NHS continued to flatly refuse to treat him.

I had another encounter with the local politicians at a public meeting held by the Betsi at which Llyr, Darren Millar and Ann Jones (Labour) were present. The meeting was regarding the possible treatment of neonates at a hospital in Liverpool rather than north Wales on the grounds that the provision in Liverpool for this was much better. There was a huge angry mob there which I noticed had been largely co-ordinated by one very aggressive man. I had arrived early and had watched this man boast to everyone how he was going to force the newly appointed CEO Mary Burrows to resign in public – he was also there to greet several coachloads of protestors whom he seemed to know. The meeting got very nasty and very out of hand very quickly. People screamed abuse and hurled threats at Mary Burrows throughout the meeting. All the politicians present witnessed this and did not say a word – none of them even appealed for calm. At one point, most of the mob walked out maintaining that they would ‘get’ Mary Burrows. Only a few people were left, including myself, the aggressive man and the politicians. Mary Burrows ended the meeting and the aggressive man went nuts, screaming and hurling abuse and throwing chairs around. By this time I was sitting next to Darren Millar (who had been very rude to me earlier on, then later apologised, probably because he realised he’d been offensive to someone in public and had no idea who they might be) and I asked ‘who is that awful man’. No-one actually told me but Darren commented ‘he just cares about the service’. As if the rest of us don’t…

So the Tories are trying to pretend that the chaos in the north Wales NHS is entirely the fault of the Welsh Gov’t, ignoring their own historical contribution to this mess. The Welsh Govt’t have indeed also failed to deal appropriately with serious misconduct and criminal behaviour when they were given the chance. And apart from Dafydd Wigley, Plaid just seem to be shameless opportunists.

It takes a brave politician to take on a highly manipulative, complacent, corrupt medical establishment and most just aren’t up to it. Last week, after writing to the current Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, I received a reply saying that it will take time and effort to transform the mental health services in north Wales. It certainly will having reached this catastrophic state but it will never happen at all if you refuse to ever remove anyone no matter how great their wrongdoing.


Author: Sally Baker

I am a writer and a sociologist, originally from Somerset, but I’ve been based in Wales for most of my life. I had my first encounter with a mental health professional in 1984 at the age of 21. My GP described this man to my then partner – who also became a sociologist – as someone who had experienced ‘considerable success’. My meeting with this psychiatrist was a disaster and we attempted to complain about his insensitivity and highly inappropriate behaviour. That was the first time we were threatened and pressurised to withdraw a complaint against a mental health professional. This man is long dead – he was a retired psychiatrist from the North Wales Hospital Denbigh, T. Gwynne Williams, who was working shifts in the student health centre at University College of North Wales (now Bangor University). We discovered years later that this ‘successful man’ was notorious – he had been an enthusiastic lobotomist…

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