A SOUTHAMPTON psychiatric unit has today found itself at the centre of controversy over its security.

Mentally-ill patients have regularly been escaping from the controversial Department of Psychiatry by scaling a 20ft security fence, an undercover programme will claim tonight.

The vulnerable patients, many of whom have been sectioned at the unit, have been filmed climbing the wire fencing outside the Royal South Hants Hospital.

Tonight, an undercover report by BBC South's Inside Out programme will show the patients trying to escape and will describe how a total of 26 psychiatric patients have absconded without challenge in the past four years, the Daily Echo understands.

Hampshire Partnership NHS Trust chief executive Martin Barkley, who was interviewed following the revelations, will vow that security will now be improved, bosses of the show said.

He told reporters: "The facts of the matter are that on average it has been one patient every two months since 2002, except in July and August of this year when there has been an escalation in that behaviour.

"It is not a secure hospital that is geared up to keep patients in hospital who are determined by whatever means to leave."

The DOP has found itself at the centre of criticism for several years, with a number of patients killing themselves on the premises.

One mother tells the programme how her son has absconded more than 50 times in a couple of months.

She said: "My son is very low, I don't know if he's headed to the nearest bridge to jump. I don't know what he has in his mind and I don't want to think about what other patients may have in their head."

Inside Out chiefs say they have showed the footage to the man responsible for safeguarding sectioned patients in England.

Chris Heginbotham, chief executive of the Mental Health Act Commission, has said he will be sending one of his commissioners to talk to the health trust about security.

"It is really very surprising that a patient was able to climb out in broad daylight.

"The suicide rate is very high for patients who abscond, so with any patient who is able to climb out in that way there is clearly a danger of self harm, possibly suicide."

Presenter Chris Packham said he was shocked by how easy it was for patients to abscond from the DOP.

"Many of the patients have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act because they are a danger to themselves or others.

"But they were climbing out in broad daylight, in full view of the hospital and the CCTV cameras, and nobody made any effort to stop them," he added.

Inside Out will be screened at 7.30pm tonight on BBC1.