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People with learning disabilities and autism are being failed by government inaction

People with learning disabilities and autism are being failed by government inaction

(Alamy)

4 min read

Across the country there are more than 2,000 autistic people and people with learning disabilities who are being detained in inpatient settings.

Many have been there for several years and have no planned route of discharge. Solitary confinement, physical restraint and over-medication are common practice. And this abuse is all being funded by the NHS in placements that can cost as much as £1m per year.

It is disturbing that this issue of inappropriate detention has gained very little attention in Parliament. This is despite the fact that many MPs will have constituents who are locked away for years due to being autistic in a system that does not adequately support that diagnosis.

But if we are to see a reduction in the detention of autistic people and people with learning disabilities, it is political will that is needed to drive progress.

Not a single target to reduce the number of inpatient beds has been achieved since the Building the Right Support plan was first published in 2015

That is why I led a debate in the House of Commons calling on the Conservative government to stop choosing to ignore this scandal and to take urgent action.

It is clear what needs to be done.

The evidence has been built across more than a decade of reviews, inquiries and investigative journalism. It shows that in order to stop the detention of autistic people and people with learning disabilities who are detained in inpatient settings the government must do two things. Firstly, it must stop paying vast sums for abusive treatment in inappropriate hospital inpatient units and invest instead in social care and community services. The government must address the flow of people into inpatient services by improving support services in the community to prevent the need for admissions to inpatient units.

When I was a member of the Health and Social Care Committee, I worked on an inquiry into the treatment of autistic people and people with learning disabilities in inpatient units. The final report recommended that the government ban the admission of autistic people and people with learning disabilities to inpatient units, unless there is an urgent health need which is not related to their autism or learning disability. This would mean they could get help for mental health conditions without being inappropriately forced into a clinical environment.

The government chose to reject this recommendation. Instead of funding social care, it recently announced its intention to halve the already inadequate £500m extra investment in the social care workforce which it had previously announced for the next three years. This will have devastating consequences for a workforce that is already overstretched and operating at a vacancy rate of 11 per cent.

Then there is the falling funding for community services, which was cut from £62m in 2021/22 to £51m in 2022/23, according to the Department of Health and Social Care’s own data. Funding to support the discharge of autistic people and people with learning disabilities in the community remained frozen between 2021/22 and 2022/23, despite rocketing inflation and soaring costs to providers.

Meanwhile, progress to reduce the flow of people into inpatient settings is glacial. Although the draft Mental Health Bill has the potential to improve things, this will take years to come into force. Charities have also raised concerns that the bill must be significantly strengthened if it is to achieve its aims, and they have said that the new legislation will not end this scandal alone without urgent investment into both social care and mental health services.

What needs to be understood by ministers and MPs is that this issue is urgent. In my speech in the House of Commons, I described the experiences of Amy and Danielle, two young autistic women who faced abuse in inpatient units where they were detained. It took great bravery for Amy and for Danielle’s mother to tell their stories to Channel 4 Dispatches: ‘Locked Away: Our Autism Scandal’.

The appalling mistreatment described by Amy and by Danielle’s mother highlights the disconnect between the government’s rhetoric and the reality faced by too many autistic people and people with learning disabilities. To address the core of this issue there must be political leadership and accountability.

Not a single target to reduce the number of inpatient beds has been achieved since the Building the Right Support plan was first published in 2015. That is a damning indictment of the government’s apathy and unwillingness to act.

The government must start getting a grip on this national scandal. Otherwise, it will continue to be people like Amy and Danielle, their families and the 2,000 other autistic people and people with learning disabilities who pay the price.

 

Barbara Keeley, Labour MP for Worsley and Eccles South and chair of the APPG on the Inappropriate Institutional Care of Autistic People and People with Learning Disabilities

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