Learning Disabilities & Autism Opinion

Winterbourne View – 10 years on

Edel Harris, Chief Executive, Mencap

On 31st May 2011, the appalling abuse of people with a learning disability and/or autism at Winterbourne View hospital was exposed by BBC Panorama. Undercover filming at the hospital exposed a regime of physical and psychological abuse carried out at the hands of the people paid to care. Like everyone who tuned in, I felt anger, disbelief and disgust. Shockingly, ten years on, people with a learning disability and/or autism are still being mistreated in modern-day asylums.

Families of people who were abused at Winterbourne View have come together to mark 10 years since the scandal was exposed and to remind decision-makers that the abusive system that left their loved ones traumatised, remains much the same as a decade ago. Mencap and the Challenging Behaviour Foundation (CBF) are joining them in calling for the Government to finally deliver on its promises and put an end to this scandal.

An abuse scandal that shocked the nation…

BBC Panorama’s undercover investigation into the NHS-funded private hospital, on the outskirts of Bristol, broadcast footage of people with a learning disability and/or autism being slapped, pinned down under chairs and being force-fed medication.

The documentary shocked the nation. Eleven care workers were charged over the abuse, six went to prison, and the Government promised to prevent anything like this ever happening again.

The Government aimed to get everyone out of these hospitals no later than 1st June 2014. But this deadline passed, and this still has not happened.

In 2015, the Government and NHS England launched the ‘Transforming Care’ programme, committing to closing 35-50% inpatient beds by March 2019 and supporting people to return home.

A decade of broken Government promises, and more abuse scandals uncovered…

Despite these promises, today more than 2,000 people with a learning disability and/or autism remain locked away due to a lack of the right support in the community; 355 of them have been locked away for 10 years or more.

These modern-day asylums are damaging environments for people with a learning disability and/or autism. The hospitals are often hundreds of miles away from the family home and we know that living in such places, leaves people at an increased risk of abuse and neglect. Many families say that their loved ones become a shell of themselves while locked away, suffering in a restrictive environment that doesn’t take into account sensory needs and only intensifies negative behaviours and trauma. This is simply the wrong model of care.

New analysis by Mencap and CBF reveals that restrictive interventions – like physical restraint, chemical cosh and solitary confinement – are used against people with a learning disability and/or autism at least once every 12 minutes in these units. This is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg due to low numbers of hospitals providing data despite it being a mandatory requirement.

Since Winterbourne View, there have been other abuse scandals, most notably another BBC Panorama undercover investigation into Whorlton Hall hospital. The CQC has also taken enforcement action against some inpatient units for not being safe.

Despite the knowledge that these units are dangerous, the Government continues to miss its own targets; meanwhile, thousands more people have entered the system. New analysis by Mencap and CBF shows that since the start of the Government’s Transforming Care programme there have been 9,490 admissions – equivalent to four a day – and the average length of stay is more than five and a half years.

Government must act now to stop further abuse and deliver its broken promises…

This is not just about the ‘Winterbourne View scandal’ but an ongoing system-wide failure. People with a learning disability and/or autism continue to be placed at increased risk because there simply isn’t the right accommodation or support in the community to prevent admission or support people to return home.

The ongoing consequences of getting this wrong are catastrophic. The survivors of Winterbourne View continue to suffer from trauma. Due to an underfunded social care sector, the fragility of their current support also leaves them at risk of readmission, leaving families terrified about the future. It is highly likely that there is abuse happening in inpatient units up and down the country today.

The legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic risks more people reaching crisis point and in danger of admission.

The families of those abused at Winterbourne View have written a letter to the Prime Minister urging him to act now. The Government must publish its cross-government strategy immediately and properly fund the right support in the community to prevent further lives from being destroyed.

For further information and to support the #HomesNotHospitals campaign, visit www.mencap.org.uk.





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