Cumbria’s mental health services boss has assured the county that major improvements are round the corner, as inspectors today declare that “little progress” has been made.

Professor Stephen Eames, chief executive of the Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust - which provides mental health services across Cumbria - acknowledged that today’s Care Quality Commission (CQC) report highlighted “some deterioration” since the regulator’s last report in January 2018.

The report comes ahead of major changes to how mental health services are delivered in the county.

From next Tuesday, mental health services in Cumbria will be run by two specialist mental health trusts: Northumberland Tyne and Wear Trust will run services in north Cumbria and Lancashire Care Trust will run services in the south of the county.

Professor Eames said: “Cumbria Partnership’s mental health services have been one of the smallest groupings of mental health services in England, and therefore don’t have the critical mass to provide a modern mental health service.

“That’s why those transfers are being made, and that’s why there’s been the challenges that are reflected in this report.

Professor Eames said that despite downgrades in certain areas, other areas inspected by the CQC were given the same rating as last time, or were upgraded.

“There’s been some deterioration from last time. But that’s to do with the much bigger picture around recruitment, and challenges we’ve got across mental health services, which is why we’re putting those services in future in the hands of other providers who are better equipped to manage mental health than we are.”

Professor Eames stressed the report’s praise for trust staff, who were singled out in the CQC report for their caring attitude towards patients. He echoed this praise.

“The staff have gone way beyond the call of duty, all of which has been recognised [by the CQC] in terms of the kindness and passion that they show,” he said.

The overall rating received by the trust from the CQC was - for the third time -”requires improvement”.

However, as a focused inspection on only four areas, not all of the trust’s services were this time under review.

Today’s report looked at four areas of mental health care services across Cumbria, rating each on a range of criteria including safety, effectiveness of care and quality of leadership.

Several categories were downgraded to “requires improvement”, including effectiveness of service on wards for patients with a learning disability or autism - for one reason being that: “Only three out of the 24 staff on the ward had completed their mandatory mental health legislation training”.

Only one category, the leadership of mental health crisis services, was rated as “inadequate”.

Among other issues, one criticism from the CQC leading to the “inadequate” rating related to the fact that “staff did not feel able to raise concerns without fear of retribution”.

The report raised concerns that the role of the freedom to speak up guardian, established to encourage openness across the NHS, was not properly put in place.

The report said: “Staff said that the guardian was not independent as they reported direct to the chief executive.”

Professor Eames dismissed this claim.

“They operate independently of the chief executive and the board. I don’t think there’s any evidence that staff don’t speak up. We’ve got literally hundreds of people speaking up every month.”

Overall, today’s CQC report made a mixture of positive and negative observations about mental health care in Cumbria.

The report, based on an inspection carried out by the independent regulator between May and June this year, looked at four Cumbria Partnership services which deal with a range of issues related to mental health and learning disabilities.

While the independent health and social care watchdog praised the caring nature of the county’s mental health staff, the CQC’s head of hospital inspection Jenny Wilkes stressed that significant improvements had not been achieved since their previous inspection in 2018.

“It’s positive to see some improvements being made at the trust and staff continue to treat patients with kindness and compassion,” she said.

“However, this is the third time we have rated the trust Requires Improvement overall.

“At our previous inspection the trust was undergoing major change, due to the merger with North Cumbria University NHS Trust, and continues to do so.

“We have made our findings very clear to the trust, and we continue to keep the trust under observation and will return again to see whether improvements have been made and sustained.”

A CQC spokesman added: “Inspectors reported little progress had been made in the services they visited. “Inspectors also reported not all governance systems were effective in assessing, monitoring and improving care and treatment.

“A robust system was not in place to enable the board to have clear oversight of quantity and quality of supervision.

“The trust’s health-based places of safety did not always have dedicated staffing to observe patients.

“However, improvements were seen in the safety of wards for older people with mental health problems.

“ There was enough qualified and experienced nursing and medical staff to keep patients safe, and the ward had shown a good history of safety.

“Acute wards for adults of working age and psychiatric intensive care units also showed improvement. Inspectors saw there was a strong skill mix of staff to treat patients and care was recovery focused.”