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Health Secretary faces legal challenge for failing patients with disabilities and autism

Equality and Human Rights Commission

3 min read Partner content

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care faces legal challenge for consistently failing patients with learning disabilities and autism.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has launched a legal challenge against the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care over the repeated failure to move people with learning disabilities and autism into appropriate accommodation.

The EHRC has longstanding concerns about the rights of more than 2,000 people with learning disabilities and autism being detained in secure hospitals, often far away from home and for many years. These concerns increased significantly following the BBC’s exposure of the shocking violation of patients’ human rights at Whorlton Hall, where patients suffered horrific physical and psychological abuse.

The human rights body has now sent a pre-action letter to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, arguing that the Department of Health and Social Care has breached the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) for failing to meet the targets set in the Transforming Care program and Building the Right Support program. These targets included moving patients from inappropriate inpatient care to community-based settings, and reducing the reliance on inpatient care for people with learning disabilities and autism.

Following discussions with the DHSC and NHS England, the EHRC is also not satisfied that new deadlines set in the NHS Long Term Plan and Planning Guidance, will be met. This suggests a systemic failure to protect the right to a private and family life, and right to live free from inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “We cannot afford to miss more deadlines. We cannot afford any more Winterbourne Views or Whorlton Halls. We cannot afford to risk further abuse being inflicted on even a single more person at the distressing and horrific levels we have seen. We need the DHSC to act now.

“These are people who deserve our support and compassion, not abuse and brutality.  Inhumane and degrading treatment in place of adequate healthcare cannot be the hallmark of our society. One scandal should have been one too many.”

The DHSC has 14 days to respond to the EHRC’s pre-action letter. Alternatively, the EHRC has offered to suspend the legal process for three months if DHSC agrees to produce a timetabled action plan detailing how it will address issues such as housing and workforce shortages at both national and regional levels. The EHRC is also calling for the immediate implementation of recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and Rightful Lives 8 point plan.

Alongside its discussions with DHSC, CQC and NHS England, the EHRC has been calling for an enforceable right to independent living and has developed a legal model to incorporate it into domestic law. This would protect the right of disabled people to live independently and as part of the community, and it would also strengthen the law that put a presumption in favour of living in the community and the views of individuals at the heart of decision-making.


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