UK must end ‘evil practice’ of ‘locking up’ autistic people, Parliament told

The Government has been urged to end the “evil practice” of autistic people being confined to inpatient mental health hospitals.

Peers in Westminster have expressed disappointment that the King’s Speech did not include long-promised reforms to the Mental Health Act, including the removal of autism and learning disability as conditions for which a person can be subject to compulsory treatment.

Lord Touhig (pictured), who is a vice president of the National Autistic Society, questioned why these reforms were not a priority for the Government, as they were “an opportunity to end what I consider a most evil practice”.

The Labour peer, who was a minister in the Blair Government, said: “The King’s Speech was an opportunity for the Government to introduce the Mental Health Bill, ending the scandal of autistic people being locked up in mental health hospitals, sometimes for decades.

“By shelving the Bill, the Government has failed thousands of autistic people and their families, who are devastated that there continues to be no legal protection against unnecessary detentions, and I believe that’s an offence and an attack on their human rights.”

Health minister Lord Markham argued that many positive changes can be made without legislation.

He said: “The Government is committed to implementing those changes and is looking for opportunities when it can to introduce it.

“I do understand the disappointment that it wasn’t in the current legislation.

“What I am committed to doing is making sure as many of those features from the Bill or the Act are actually implemented in terms of action that’s happening on the ground today.”

He added: “This year we are investing £121 million in community support for autistic people and people with a learning disability.

“This will support reductions in numbers of autistic inpatients in mental health hospitals in line with the NHS long-term planned commitments.

“To ensure that autistic people receive quality care in these settings, we are rolling out a national autism training program and have published guidance on sensory adaptations in health environments.”

However, Baroness Hollins, a professor of the psychiatry of learning disability, argued that the code of practice in the 40-year-old Mental Health Act needs to be changed.

The independent crossbench peer, who earlier this month published a report on autistic people and those with learning disabilities being detained in mental health hospitals, pointed out that “so many of the recommendations were dependent on the code of practice in the current Mental Health Act being reopened.”

She branded the situation a “tragedy” and highlighted “failings in adult social care” as a major contributing factor.

Lord Markham vowed to try and make the necessary changes without legislation, because they were agreed on “the direction of travel”.

Dan Scorer, head of policy at learning disability charity Mencap, told PA: “With over 2,000 people with a learning disability and autistic people locked away in in-patient settings, the government itself has recognised that reforming the Mental Health Act is required to end this human rights scandal.

“What they are proposing short of legislative change is inadequate.

“We need reform of the Mental Health Act as a matter of urgency, as well as further investment in the right community support for autistic people and people with a learning disability, including the right social care and suitable housing.”

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