- AN investigation by The Sunday Times into a local authority's failure to take action over serious allegations against an old people's home has been endorsed by the Press Council. In a ruling issued today, the council says such investigations are justified in the public interest.
Manchester city council threatened legal action and then complained to the Press Council after a report in this paper on May 26, 1985. An 11-month news blackout has followed, with city chiefs refusing to comment on our revelations, claiming the matter was "sub judice".
Publication this weekend of the ruling, however, is certain to reopen the issue. The minority Liberal group on the Labour-controlled city council is to call on the head of Manchester's social services committee, Kathleen Robinson, to explain an apparent attempt to deceive the Press Council.
Throughout the case, Robinson maintained that Sunday Times reporters had not checked the story with the city council. But evidence submitted by the paper, and accepted by the council, showed that we had made repeated efforts to discuss the allegations.
Our report centred on the Aranmore private rest home on the outskirts of Manchester, where residents were subjected to an inhumane regime, and on the failure of the city council to use its extensive powers under the 1984 Registered Homes Act to close the home or punish its owner. After detailed inquiries into the running of Aranmore, we revealed these allegations:
* Although the home is registered to take 28 people, up to 40 residents had been accepted, with some being kept in a locked attic, up steep narrow staircases and with no fire escape. To manage the secret extra workload, residents were sometimes put to bed at 5pm and at times some had to sleep in the dining room.
* Residents were routinely drugged to keep them from being a nuisance. Largactil, one of the most powerful tranquillisers, sometimes condemned as the "liquid cosh", were dispensed by staff in alarming quantities. In addition, injections of drugs were given by unqualified staff.
* So few staff were employed that during the day residents were sometimes tied to their chairs and others were locked upstairs. Part-time staff arriving at Aranmore in the mornings said residents were often soaked in urine and some covered in their own excreta.
Manchester city council knew of the allegations and received complaints from the association representing private rest home owners in the area. But it took no action until sworn statements from former staff at the home were delivered to the council offices by the association's solicitors.
Councillors then made an unannounced visit to the home, during which the proprietor was found in the attic dragging an unconscious and partially undressed old woman across the room in an apparent effort to conceal her.
The Press Council was told that Manchester had carried out "a thorough investigation" of the allegations. In addition to the unannounced visit by councillors, officials also made numerous calls at the home and their was a special four-hour meeting of the authority's rest homes committee.
But after efforts by city council officers, some of those who made complaints altered their statements to attack the secretary of the local rest homes association, the special meeting only issued a warning about overcrowding, and little effort was made to pursue the allegations.
Inquiries by The Sunday Times, however, established that those who made complaints had not wished to withdraw them and other staff members were found who confirmed the allegations. "Tell people outside and they wouldn't believe that their mother or father could end up in a place like that," one told us.
On publication of our report, the city council issued a statement that legal action against the paper was being considered. Inquiries from the local media were rejected and journalists abandoned the issue believing there were legal difficulties.
Later, a complaint was submitted to the Press Council alleging that our report was "grossly inaccurate and misleading", that we did not try to verify it with the city council, that we did not give the council the findings of our inquiries, and that The Sunday Times "failed to correct its misleading article."
None of these claims were accepted by the Press Council, although it did say the paper should have given Manchester's case more fully. "We accept this criticism, but it is difficult to give the case of a party when it refuses to comment," said Ivan Fallon, deputy editor of The Sunday Times last night.
Among the witnesses who attended the Press Council's hearing on our behalf was Audrey Jones, a Liberal councillor in Manchester, who had pressed for action against the home. She said last night that she had been amazed at the lack of action by Robinson and other Labour leaders. "They were afraid their administration would be seen as having fallen down on their duty," she said. "The last thing they wanted at the time was a scandal, so they tried to deflect criticism by saying nothing."
The Sunday Times again approached the city council last week to ascertain its position and its response to the Press Council's adjudication. Paul Brady, spokesman for Manchester, declined to comment, but a statement issued by Robinson said the adjudication was "a complete vindication of the city council's conduct."