Long-term detainment of autistic people ‘national shame’ and must be banned, say MPs

The long-term detainment of autistic people and individuals with learning disabilities must be banned, a cross-party committee of MPs has said.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who chairs the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, said it is a “national shame” that “far too many” people are still being detained.

The committee said in a report published on Tuesday that individuals can be subjected to “intolerable treatment” at inpatient facilities, including “abusive restrictive practices”.

Autistic people and those with learning difficulties can be kept for “long periods of time in facilities that do not meet their needs” and kept long distances from family and friends, the MPs said.

The committee warned that the “fatal misunderstanding” that they are treated as if their conditions are illnesses rather than a fundamental part of their identity means they often then develop mental or physical illnesses which are then used to justify their detention.

The report says there is a “shocking” six-year average length of stay in assessment and treatment units.

All new long-term admissions of autistic people and individuals with learning disabilities to institutions should be banned except for forensic cases, the MPs said.

Instead they said the Trieste model of care to ensure quicker admissions and discharges from inpatient facilities should be adopted.

Their report highlights the Winterbourne View scandal, when in 2011 an undercover documentary team filmed abuse of patients with learning disabilities at the private hospital near Bristol.

In a statement, Mr Hunt (pictured) said: “It is a matter of national shame that 10 years on from the appalling practices uncovered at Winterbourne View, still far too many autistic people and individuals with learning disabilities are detained in secure units.

“Despite commitments by governments over the years, the totally inadequate level of community provision means that autistic people and people with learning disabilities are wrongfully admitted to inpatient facilities and detained for a shocking average of six years.

“With two thousand people remaining in such institutions it is time to recognise that a voluntary approach to reducing the numbers has failed and long-term admissions should now be banned with alternative community provision set up in their place.

“We also want to see immediate action on the use of restrictive practices by staff – we’ve heard harrowing descriptions of the use of physical restraint, long-term segregation and seclusion in inpatient facilities.”

Dan Scorer, the head of policy at the learning disability charity Mencap, said: “This important report provides yet further evidence that not enough has been done to stop this national scandal.

“Since the abuse of people with a learning disability and/or autism at Winterbourne View was exposed a decade ago, thousands more people have been admitted to these modern-day asylums where they are at increased risk of abuse and neglect.

“We welcome the Committee’s ambition to ban all long-term inpatient admissions, but this must go further by stopping all inappropriate admissions.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said it had put forward proposals in the Mental Health Act White Paper to limit the scope for people with autism and learning disabilities to be detained.

“Our priority is to ensure autistic people and people with learning disabilities are supported to live well in their communities, receive safe and high-quality care, and are treated with dignity and respect,” a spokesman said.

“The number of inpatients in mental health hospitals with autism and learning disabilities has reduced by around 30% in recent years, and we’re building on this with additional funding to cut admissions further and support the discharge of these patients back into the community.”

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