Disabled people’s organisations and charities have sent a legal letter to the care watchdog, warning that its decision to halt its regular programme of inspections has put many disabled and older people at “heightened risk” of harm.
They say that service-users are already at greater risk of exploitation, violence, abuse, inappropriate medication, restraint and seclusion during the pandemic because they cannot receive visits from family, friends and advocates.
And they say the Care Quality Commission (CQC) decision means the watchdog is unable to fulfil its core aim of preventing torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
They also point out that the UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, said in March that limiting contact with visitors such as family and friends during the pandemic risks leaving patients and residents “totally unprotected from any form of abuse or neglect in institutions”.
CQC announced it was halting regular inspections on 16 March, except for “in a very small number of cases” where there were “concerns of harm, such as allegations of abuse”.
The 11 organisations that have sent the letter say the decision by CQC has caused it to breach its duties under the Human Rights Act, the Equality Act and the Health and Social Care Act, and leaves the UK in breach of both the UN Convention against Torture and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The organisations taking the action include the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, Inclusion London, People First (Self Advocacy), Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living, Respond, Learning Disability England and Rightful Lives.
Among their suggestions for how CQC could improve the safety of residents of care homes, they say it could prioritise inspections of services where people are most at risk, such as those 2,500-plus care homes already rated “inadequate” or “requires improvement”.
It could also provide training on social distancing and secure personal protective equipment for its inspectors.
And they say the watchdog could ask care homes and hospitals to explain how they are helping residents and patients to stay in contact with family members.
The letter – which was copied to Matt Hancock, the health and social care secretary – was sent on behalf of the 11 organisations by Merry Varney and Beatrice Morgan at solicitors Leigh Day, who are working with barrister Oliver Lewis at Doughty Street chambers on a pro bono basis.
The 11 organisations say they will consider taking legal action if CQC fails to provide a satisfactory response to their letter by 5pm on Monday (11 May).
But CQC appeared yesterday (Wednesday) to dismiss the concerns laid out in the letter.
Ian Trenholm, its chief executive, told Disability News Service (DNS) that its regulatory role of keeping people safe had not changed and that it was still using its powers to “inspect and respond to whistleblowing concerns”.
He said: “We expect services to continue to do everything in their power to keep people safe and we will continue to inspect where we see evidence of risk of harm, deliberate abuse, systematic neglect or a significant breakdown in leadership.
“We will use our powers, or work with the relevant system partners, to take action against those responsible where we find unsafe or poor care.”
A CQC spokesperson had declined to say by noon today whether Trenholm’s statement meant the watchdog would not be making any changes to its policy in response to the letter.
The grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) said it was “very disappointed by the dismissive initial response” to DNS and hoped the watchdog would issue a more detailed response to their legal team and “engage with the concerns raised and take action”.
BRIL warned that the CQC’s halt on inspections was “a scandal waiting to happen”.
Mark Williams (pictured), from BRIL, said: “Although BRIL understands how much pressure the CQC and adult care departments are under, we have major concerns over the lack of inspections.
Caroline Miles, a BRIL member, said: “The inspections are being stopped at the same time that any external visiting is also being stopped, so there is no external scrutiny at all.
“The placing of sole responsibility of reporting problems on whistleblowers is immensely worrying.”
A BRIL spokesperson added: “Things will be missed, at a time when people’s human rights are more at risk than ever.
“Disabled people, older people and mental health service users/survivors are already facing reduced support under ‘emergency legislation’.
“The government’s response to coronavirus is putting people more at risk of harm, abuse and detention.
“People need more support, services need more attention and greater care, not less.”
Andrew Lee, director of People First said he was angry that CQC appeared to have brushed aside their concerns.
He said: “This statement is not good enough. Isolation is having a major impact on people with learning difficulties.
“Brushing aside our worries and concerns like they don’t matter is not what we would expect.
“Ian Trenholm has a responsibility to do better. We need an explanation of why they refuse to change their policy.”
He said he wanted CQC to explain the reasons for the decision in great detail, and added: “His approach comes from experience of talking to others about us rather than talking to us about our lived experiences.
“Have they not learnt the lessons from Winterbourne View and Whorlton Hall?”
*Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
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