The human rights watchdog has failed to follow through on threats to take legal action against the government over its efforts to cut the number of disabled people inappropriately detained in secure hospitals in England.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has not taken any legal action against the government despite the number of people with learning difficulties and autistic people in inpatient mental health settings falling by only a small amount since it issued the threat more than 15 months ago.
EHRC said in July 2022 that it was “exploring how best to use its legal powers to help patients and their families” and that this could include “action in the courts”.
It pointed out at the time that it was “unacceptable” that hundreds of autistic people and people with learning difficulties were “still being kept as in-patients when they could be receiving community care”, more than a decade after government action was first promised.
But last month’s figures show almost no progress has been made by the government in the last 15 months.
The government’s target is to cut the number of people with learning difficulties and autistic people in specialist inpatient care by 50 per cent by March 2024 compared with March 2015, when there were 2,900.
But NHS figures show there were 2,240 autistic people and people with learning difficulties in specialist mental health inpatient settings in March 2022, and that that had fallen by less than 200 to 2,045 by the end of September 2023.
This also means that the number has fallen by only 230 (from 2,275) since March 2020 – more than three-and-a-half years ago.
Asked why EHRC had done nothing to follow through on its legal threat, despite the new figures, the commission said it was “continuing to monitor progress” on the “complex issue”.
Its failure to act echoes its refusal to follow through on a threat to take legal action against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over the discrimination faced by disabled benefit claimants.
The commission said in May 2022 that it expected DWP to sign a section 23 legal agreement – under the Equality Act 2006 – by the summer of 2022, which would commit the department to addressing this discrimination.
That agreement has still not been signed, 18 months on.
Asked why it was not using its legal powers to act on the government’s lack of progress in reducing the number of disabled people inappropriately detained in secure hospitals, an EHRC spokesperson said: “We are continuing to monitor progress of this complex issue, including considering Baroness Hollins’ final report into people placed in long-term segregation and any new data.
“We are examining how well integrated care boards evidence their compliance with the public sector equality duty on a number of health inequalities, including the inappropriate detention of learning disabled and autistic people.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We remain committed to achieving our ambition set out in the NHS Long Term Plan to reduce by half the number of autistic people and people with a learning disability in mental health hospitals, by March 2024, through investment in community support.
“This year, we are investing an additional £121 million to improve community support, including funding for children and young people’s keyworkers.
“The number of people with a learning disability and autistic people in specialist mental health inpatient settings at the end of September 2023 was 2,045 – a 30 per cent net reduction since March 2015.”
Picture: The government office block where EHRC has its London headquarters. Picture by Google
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