Prison research project is throttled by red tape

Mental-health services study abandoned after a 14-month bureaucratic nightmare. John Gill reports

February 19, 2009

A doctoral student has detailed how she was forced to abandon her studies after getting stuck in a "quagmire" of red tape, warning that over-regulation is crippling health research.

Dina Gojkovic, a PhD student at the University of Lincoln, described her efforts over 14 months to navigate "burdensome and obstructive" National Health Service governance and ethics procedures.

This labyrinthine system, she said, was hitting universities in the pocket and ultimately leading to valuable research being abandoned.

Ms Gojkovic, whose aim was to assess mental-health services at six UK prisons, detailed a litany of setbacks and administrative cock-ups that beset her.

The ill-fated project got off to a bad start, she said, when first the system for securing approval was changed and then an ethics council ruled that all prisoners she interviewed would have to be assessed using a "four-point test" to ensure that they were capable of giving consent.

Although a mental-health lawyer told Ms Gojkovic that the ruling was "wrong in law", the extra burden forced her to cut the number of prisons involved and led her to apply to Lincoln for an extension to complete her project.

Her next hurdle was dealing with the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and NHS research and development offices, neither of which could tell her whether she needed an honorary contract with the NHS or a "research passport" to conduct the research.

Eventually she was told that either designation would do, provided that she had undergone Criminal Records Bureau and occupational-health checks.

Two months later, however, this advice was retracted by an NHS trust that said she would need a research passport, but that it could not issue her with one as it had no links with Lincoln.

The delays continued when staff at the NOMS lost her papers on three occasions before finally telling her that she did not need their permission after all.

Ms Gojkovic then applied directly to HM Prison Service for approval. Her case was passed from its health to its policy department to the National Research Committee.

At this stage she was told to wait three months. When she tried to speed the process up, she was informed that the area psychologist, whose approval was also required, was about to take a long period of leave, threatening further delays.

The project deadline was extended yet again, and a further scholarship was awarded by the university to cover Ms Gojkovic's costs.

By now the application for ethical and governance procedures had taken 14 months, and when one of the mental-health trusts involved withdrew its prison from the study, the project was abandoned.

Ms Gojkovic said that the future of research in prisons, which had been a mainstay of mental-health research over the past 50 years, was being put at risk by an overly complex system.

"The Government is perfectly right in trying to set up strict procedures for evaluating research. Strict, however, should not be confused with disjointed and chaotic."

The Department of Health guidance, she said, states that "the NHS is expected to manage risk, minimise bureaucracy and facilitate research".

"It has spectacularly failed to achieve the last two of these three aims," Ms Gojkovic said.

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