Disabled campaigners have welcomed the human rights watchdog’s decision to begin legal action against the government over its repeated failure to address the “distressing and horrific” treatment of people with learning difficulties and autistic people in mental health hospitals.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has lost patience with the failure of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to move disabled people out of “inappropriate and unlawful” inpatient care and into homes in the community.
It said this suggested “a systemic failure” to protect the right to a private and family life, and the right to live free from inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
It has now begun a legal challenge against health and social care secretary Matt Hancock (pictured, right), more than seven years after the government first promised to provide personalised care and support to all those in inappropriate inpatient assessment and treatment units (ATUs).
EHRC also repeated its call for a new legal right to independent living, which would protect the ability of disabled people to live independently and as part of the community.
Kat Humble, director of Autistic UK, which is run by and for autistic people, said: “Autistic UK has been working behind the scenes for years in an effort to stop these atrocities and we are heartened to see the EHRC take action to bring the responsible parties to account.
“We remain, as ever, ready to assist in any way we can.”
Andrew Lee, director of People First (Self Advocacy), which is run by and for people with learning difficulties, said it was “a scandal” that so many autistic people and people with learning difficulties were still in mental health assessment and treatment units, often “a long way from home and for long periods of time with little or no contact with family and friends”.
He said it was a “sorry state of affairs” when legal action was needed to pressure the government to do what it had committed to do through targets set in the Transforming Care and Building the Right Support programmes.
People First’s #CloseATUs campaign calls for the closure of mental health ATUs for autistic people and people with learning difficulties and for people to have the advocacy and support they need in their local communities.
Lee said: “We know that with community advocacy and local services being cut back over the last few years there just isn’t the alternatives and provisions there should be locally.
“Also, self-advocacy groups continue to close across the country due to loss of funding.”
Inclusion London also welcomed the legal action and said it was “easier for the government to stick disabled people in institutions than support us to live in the community”.
The pan-London disabled people’s organisation said it was “great” to see EHRC “challenging this systemic and persistent violation of our human rights”.
EHRC said it had “longstanding concerns” about the rights of more than 2,000 people with learning difficulties and autistic people who were being detained in secure hospitals, often far from home and for many years.
These concerns “increased significantly” after the BBC’s exposure of “shocking violation of patients’ human rights” at the private Whorlton Hall hospital last May.
In November, Disability News Service revealed that measures introduced by Hancock to address the treatment of autistic people and people with learning difficulties in ATUs were strikingly similar to failed government measures announced in December 2012, following the Winterbourne View abuse scandal.
EHRC has now sent a pre-action legal letter to Hancock, arguing that his department has breached the convention by failing to meet targets set in Transforming Care and Building the Right Support.
Following discussions with DHSC and NHS England, the watchdog said it was not satisfied they would meet new deadlines for reducing the number of inpatient admissions set out in the NHS Long Term Plan.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, said: “We cannot afford to miss more deadlines. We cannot afford any more Winterbourne Views or Whorlton Halls.
“We cannot afford to risk further abuse being inflicted on even a single more person at the distressing and horrific levels we have seen. We need the DHSC to act now.
“These are people who deserve our support and compassion, not abuse and brutality.
“Inhumane and degrading treatment in place of adequate healthcare cannot be the hallmark of our society. One scandal should have been one too many.”
A DHSC spokesperson said: “We are committed to protecting the rights of everyone with a learning disability or autism, and are determined to continue reducing the number of people with these conditions in mental health hospitals.
“Abuse of any kind against patients in care is abhorrent and we take any allegations very seriously.
“We have received the pre-action letter from the EHRC today and will respond in due course.”
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