Venture capitalists profiteer at expense of vulnerable in hospital scandal

Castlebeck Ltd and Winterbourne View Hospital are names that will not be familiar in this country. Nor will they be, given the very scant coverage in the Irish media of a shocking report published last week, into grotesque abuse by staff at that hospital of adult residents with intellectual disabilities including autism and severe learning difficulties.


Castlebeck Ltd are the owners of the now closed institution located in South Gloucestershire near Bristol. The abuse was chronicled in a BBC Panorama television documentary made last year after the station was contacted by Terry Bryan, a nurse at the hospital.

The abuse over a sustained period, included physical violence against patients, water based punishment and systematic psychological degradation by some staff, eleven of whom have now pleaded guilty in court.

Apart from the shocking nature of the abuse and the fact that cautionary lessons could be learned for application in Ireland, there is a compelling reason why this very sad story should be given widespread coverage here. It is that Castlebeck Ltd is owned by a venture capitalist company, Lydian Capital, that is controlled by a group of Irish millionaires and billionaires including former Kerry Group Chief Executive Denis Brosnan, financier Dermot Desmond and ‘horse racing magnates’ and billionaires JP McManus and John Magnier.

It is also that it raises again the rottenness of making the care of human beings, who are vulnerable in the extreme whether by virtue of age or intellectual disability, an occasion for speculators to rake in private profits.

This point is underlined by Margaret Flynn, the author of a ‘Serious Case Review’ into the Winterbourne scandal which was commissioned by South Gloucestershire Safeguarding Adults Board. In a searing indictment she says in page 144, ‘Castlebeck Ltd appears to have made decisions about profitability, including shareholder returns, over and above decisions about the effective and humane delivery of assessment, treatment and rehabilitation.’ She refers to how ‘Castlebeck Ltd commissioned market research into business opportunities in services for adults with learning difficulties’ and how the hospital was built by the company after ‘Castlebeck Ltd spotted a business opportunity’.

Profit is what venture (or vulture) capitalists are all about and their investment vehicles are designed to maximise their returns. Speculation on commodity prices lies easily alongside the exploitation of care for the elderly and vulnerable. The four Irish gentlemen who own Castlebeck Ltd also own Barchester Healthcare which runs about 180 nursing homes for the elderly in Britain and made an after tax profit of €35 million in 2010. Castlebeck Ltd has also been lucrative for its owners with profits of around £30 million Sterling in both 2009 and 2010.

One of the billionaire owners of Castlebeck Ltd, JP McManus threw a lavish party for 1,500 selected guests in County Limerick the weekend before last. We know because almost the whole of page 3 of last Sunday’s Independent told us in great detail about it and who was there.

Reminiscent of the lionisation and gushing reportage of the developer moguls during the property bubble, Niamh Horan told us that ‘All the strands of Irish society from politics, law, sport, business and the media were in conclave.’ Among these were Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Environment Minister Phil Hogan, unnamed members of the judiciary and broadcasters Pat Kenny and Gay Byrne. There also was fellow billionaire co-owner of Castlebeck Ltd, Dermot Desmond.

The Sunday Independent report had a banner headline, ‘JP has no time for losers as the great and good party in his two storey tent.’ This was in reference to the song by rock group Queen that was blaring as guests arrived. ‘We are the champions, no time for losers’ is repeated over and over.

Unlikely that any of the ‘losers’ of Winterbourne found their way to Mr McManus’s ‘exclusive party.’ They are the former residents of that institution traumatised by their experiences, as if the huge mental and medical issues that had them there in the first place were not enough to deal with. And their families who suffered also.
Did any of the ‘great and the good’ challenge Messrs McManus and Desmond about the morality of making the critical needs of the most vulnerable human beings the raw material for vulture capitalism in its profit seeking? Will they be challenged to publicly debate the issues raised and will they accept? Unlikely.

Unlikely also that this shameful scandal will be given much media attention over the next days. Media will be crowded out by talk of champions rather than losers against the background of the London Olympics. It should be remembered however that those most in need of protection, and therefore society in general, will be the big losers if we continue to allow care for our elderly and disabled to be at the mercy of venture capitalists in pursuit of maximum private profits.