Government accused of ‘total apathy’ & ‘abject failure’ in addressing risk of abuse to autistic people

The Government appears to have entered a “phase of total apathy” after “abject failure” in addressing the risk of abuse to autistic people and those with learning disabilities who are inpatients in mental health hospitals, a Labour MP has said.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) was joined by Conservative former cabinet minister Sir Robert Buckland in telling the Commons that the Government is off target in reducing the number of people with autism or learning disabilities in inpatient settings.

They were speaking during an adjournment debate in the House of Commons.

Sir Robert said: “The Government had set itself a target to reduce the number of people in mental health detention – let’s call it that – by half by March of next year. At current progress they are not going to hit that target until 2028.”

Ms Keeley (pictured) referenced the abuse scandal at the former Winterbourne View private hospital near Bristol, which was exposed in an undercover BBC Panorama documentary in 2011.

She said: “There was a feeling then something might change. I remind the minister that the coalition government actually committed to closing all inappropriate inpatient beds for autistic people and people with learning disabilities by 2014.”

She said attention on the issue “gave rise to the hope of change”, but warned: “Despite the relentless efforts of journalists, charities and activists, the criticisms reported in CQC’s (Care Quality Commission) inquiry into Winterbourne View all that time ago are as true today as they were 12 years ago, that there is a systemic failure to protect people or to investigate allegations of abuse.

“More recently we seem to have entered a phase of total apathy. Each scandal that hits national TV or the press results in a more muted and defensive response from the Government.

“And as calls to address repeated failed targets grow more desperate, less and less appears to be happening to rectify the situation.

“I could go on listing the repeated failures of successive Conservative governments to do anything about this matter.

“The fact is that well over 2,000 autistic people and people with learning disabilities are still held in inappropriate inpatient units.

“Around one in 12 are being held in units rated by the CQC as inadequate. Forty percent have been there for more than 10 years. Fewer than ever have a planned date of discharge.

“Many people have been detained far from home and the risk of abuse is shockingly high.

“At every turn Government ministers have lacked any humility, or made any apology for their abject failure to get a grip on this national scandal.”

She said a “succession of watered-down targets have been announced over the years” but none have been met.

She added: “Now the goal is to close 50% of inpatient beds by March next year. But it is looking impossible for the Government to meet even this much-delayed target.

“The latest data indicates that bed numbers will reduce not by a half, but only by around a quarter in 2023 compared with the 2015 benchmark.

“Over the last three years even the meagre (progress) made earlier has stagnated. The number of autistic people and people with learning disabilities in mental health hospitals has actually increased since the publication last July of the Government’s… action plan.”

Health minister Maria Caulfield said “abuse cannot and will not be tolerated”.

She said: “We are by no means being complacent about this issue.

“It is appalling when we see some of the reports of the care and treatment that some autistic people have experienced and absolutely take that very, very seriously.

“As the minister responsible for patient safety I have made it clear to the House that everyone in an inpatient mental health facility is entitled to high-quality care and treatment and they should be safe from harm.

“As announced in January, the Government has commissioned an independently chaired rapid review into mental health care inpatient settings.

“The rapid review, which will be reporting back very, very soon, does not stop us investigating further particular concerns about particular inpatient units and we will come back to the House once the rapid review is published to update members.

“At the end of February this year the number of people with a learning disability and autistic people in a mental health inpatient setting was 2,045 and so we are seeing a reduction.

“That’s a net decrease of 860 people or 30% since March 2015.”

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