THE UK's largest union is calling for an independent inquiry into allegations of serious sexual abuse of women patients at Broadmoor hospital, in Crowthorne.

The call comes after the health workers' union UNISON claimed senior managers at the hospital had been aggressive towards Julia Wassell after she blew the whistle over the claims, which included the alleged rape of a patient.

On Thursday UNISON demanded an investigation into the rights of vulnerable patients and whether they were taken seriously enough at Broadmoor and other hospitals.

Ms Wassell, an award-winning Women's Services Director at Broadmoor, took the hospital to an employment tribunal alleging constructive dismissal but the health authority made a cash payment out-of-court settlement which prevented the case from going ahead.

A UNISON spokesman said when Ms Wassell revealed her concerns about assaults on patients, her complaints were not dealt with seriously or quickly enough, leaving women vulnerable to further abuse.

"In March 2001 Julia brought a series of serious sexual abuse complaints by women to the attention of her senior managers under the hospital's whistleblowing policy," said the spokesman.

"In May Julia was invited by women patients to a meeting about their safety. They repeated the allegations and Julia recommended to management an immediate stop to all mixed activities pending an inquiry.

"The management response to Julia's complaints was aggressive and led to a string of petty disciplinary issues. She eventually resigned from her post in April 2002, claiming constructive dismissal."

David Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, added: "It is hard not to listen to details of this case and not be shocked.

"There is no doubt that Julia was a high-flyer in the NHS and a very promising career was cut short because she blew the whistle on unsafe practices at the hospital.

"What sort of message does this send out to other NHS staff who feel that patients are at risk in some way? We want to promote a culture in the NHS which welcomes the whistleblower, not one that ostracises them."

A spokesman for the West London Mental Health NHS Trust, which governs Broadmoor, said that a review had been conducted since Ms Wassell had made her complaints and mixed gender activities would not be re-introduced.

"Allegations made by patients have to be investigated to determine as far as possible exactly what happened, as patients may give accurate accounts or accounts which are affected by their mental health problems."

The spokesman said that after Ms Wassell resigned in April 2002 her constructive dismissal claim was settled with no admission of liability by the Trust.

"Julia was involved by the Trust in seeking an agreed way forward on all the issues she raised and these were dealt with in an open and public way," said the spokesman.

"Serious allegations made by patients were referred to police for investigation and no charges were brought in any case."