Activist joins former Labour minister in backing call for national audit


A leading disabled activist has joined a former Labour minister in backing calls for a national audit to discover how many people with learning difficulties have been abandoned in institutions far from their original homes.

Disability News Service (DNS) called for an audit in the wake of this month’s publication of a serious case review (SCR) into the “appalling and systematically brutal” abuse that took place at Winterbourne View a private hospital for people with learning difficulties.

John Pring, editor of DNS, first suggested a national audit in 2003, and repeated the call last year in his book Longcare Survivors: The Biography of a Care Scandal, which details his 17-year investigation into the institutional abuse of adults with learning difficulties at the Longcare homes, near Slough.

Last week, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) backed the idea of an audit, and said too many people were living “in services away from their families and homes”.

Now Gavin Harding, co-chair of the National Forum of People with Learning Difficulties, has also backed the call for a national audit.

He said it was time the government started looking closely at how people with learning difficulties were supported.

He said: “Without a real commitment to change, Winterbourne View will happen all over again. I fear that only a death will prompt the government to take decisive action.”

He said the forum believed social services and health authorities often acted too quickly in sending people with learning difficulties to services outside their local area, particularly with young people.

Slough MP Fiona Mactaggart, a former Labour health minister, who played a leading role in securing an inquiry into the Longcare abuse scandal, has this week written to Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat care services minister, calling on him to act urgently.

She said: “For decades it has been clear that vulnerable people who are cared for a long way from family or responsible adults can be forgotten or ignored and thus be at far greater risk of abuse.”

She added: “I am very glad that the CQC has now added its voice to those of us who have called for action on this issue, but the government continues to find reasons to delay.

“It must act now. When people are in public care we the public must take responsibility for their well-being and safety, and unless someone knows where they are we are unlikely to be able properly to protect them.”

Steven Rose, chief executive of Choice Support, which provides support services for people with learning difficulties, said: “People are far more at risk in out-of-county placements because they are isolated from friends and family and far less likely to receive monitoring visits from local authority care managers.

“They often can’t speak up effectively for themselves and those who have their interests at heart are often hundreds of miles away.”

He said that, once people had been placed in such institutions by local authorities, it was often a case of “out of sight, out of mind”.

Rose, a leading campaigner for the rights of people with learning difficulties, added: “If we consider ourselves a civilised society where human rights are upheld then we need an audit of out-of-county placements now to establish the scale of the problem, followed by swift action that will lead to the closure of institutions where vulnerable people are inappropriately placed.”

Margaret Flynn and Vic Citarella, the authors of the Winterbourne View SCR, also backed the idea of a national audit, but said it must be as part of a “whole system check which leads to a clear plan to take action”.

They said it was time to look at the “imposed odysseys of young people and adults with learning disabilities and autism” and said there was a “compelling case for adopting a local model of commissioning [services]which is shaped by young people and adults with learning disabilities, their families and advocates”.

In his book, Pring raises concerns that over the last 30 years, thousands of people with learning difficulties appear to have been sent to live in institutions many miles from their original homes.

It is feared that many of them, often former patients of the old long-stay hospitals, have been abandoned in their new homes, without follow-up visits to check on their welfare, either from social workers or family members.

The Department of Health has suggested that it is considering the issue of out-of-area placements, but will not comment until its final report on Winterbourne View is published later this year.

23 August 2012