Former justice secretary calls law change to help autistic people trapped in system against their will

A former justice secretary has called on the Government to grant his “abiding” wish by reforming the law to help autistic people who are kept in mental health units against their will.

Conservative MP for South Swindon, Sir Robert Buckland, said the UK is spending money on “harming people rather than saving them” – and appealed to the Government to finish reforms he started as justice secretary.

He told MPs there were 2,085 people with autism or a learning disability in inpatient units at the end of November last year, including 1,235 with autism and 200 children.

He said: “The average length of stay is 5.4 years, with some having been detained for more than 20 years.

“In September of last year, there were 3,620 incidents reported of restrictive interventions, with 595 involving children. These interventions involve physical restraint and, very often, chemical restraint.”

Sir Robert (pictured) told the tale of one man, detained at a young age, who is in a “descending spiral of deterioration in his health” and has experienced “over medication” and “more restrictions”.

“We are spending money on harming people rather than saving them,” he added.

Sir Robert said he did not want to “single out” NHS or care staff but to target the system.

He called on the Government to change the law so people with autism or learning disabilities are initially treated in the community instead of being kept in hospital against their will.

Appealing to ministers, the current backbencher said: “Prior to the onset of Covid, I collaborated directly with the then-health secretary (Matt Hancock) in order to jointly pursue the Mental Health Act reform agenda.

“My abiding regret is that I wasn’t able to do more, and I want to say that I am sorry I wasn’t able to do more.

“But, here I am, in my place, asking my friends to carry on the work – to pick up the ball and take it further for all the people who we represent and their families.

“By calling this debate and by making this direct request for the Government to act, I hope that, together, we can make the necessary changes and save lives.”

Health minister Gillian Keegan said: “The Government wants to make sure that, wherever possible, autistic people and people with a learning disability are able to lead full lives in the community, close to their families and with the right support in place to prevent crises.

“We committed in the Long Term Plan – the NHS Long Term Plan – to reduce the number of autistic people and people with a learning disability who are inpatients of mental health hospitals by 50% by the end of March 2024.

“So, since 2015, we have achieved a 29% reduction. This is equivalent of the reduction of about 800 inpatient beds – 800 people.

“It means we need to close around about 600 more to meet that target and I am firmly committed to achieving this.”

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