Disabled activists are asking why so little has been done to secure the rights of people with learning difficulties and autistic people in the 10 years since the Winterbourne View abuse scandal was exposed.
Monday (31 May) marks the 10th anniversary of the airing of the BBC Panorama documentary that uncovered serious allegations of abuse at the private hospital for people with learning difficulties and autistic people near Bristol.
In the years following Winterbourne View, the government made repeated pledges to drastically reduce the number of people facing seclusion and segregation in similar settings.
But those pledges were broken, and further abuse scandals were uncovered, including at Whorlton Hall in County Durham.
Now, more than 70 years after concerns were first raised by civil rights campaigners*, disabled activists say that too little has been done in the decade since Winterbourne View.
Andrew Lee, director of People First (Self Advocacy), who was one of the disabled campaigners to speak out about Winterbourne View 10 years ago, said this week that he believed there had been “no change” in those 10 years.
He told Disability News Service (DNS) that people with learning difficulties had rights “on paper”, but regulators “have not got the courage to use the teeth that parliament gave them”.
He said: “What it looks like is that we are having to fight for ourselves.”
The grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL), whose members live near Winterbourne View, said the 2011 documentary had been “one of the most harrowing Panorama episodes ever”.
One BRIL member said that it had “showed the most horrendous physical and emotional abuse of people, who were being assaulted by staff who were employed to care for them”.
A BRIL spokesperson said: “Since the Ely Hospital scandal over 50 years ago and the Longcare inquiry in 1998, governments have said ‘lessons have been learned’ and things would change for people with learning difficulties and autistic people.
“However, as an NHS report shows, over 2,000 people are still in these ‘hospitals’.
“Clinical commissioning groups are still spending vast amounts of money, on average £3,500 per week, on locking up disabled people in assessment and treatment units, rather than supporting them.
“This is despite the evidence that having support in the community saves money, and more importantly, it means people living a life with choices and rights.”
A second BRIL member said: “When a government that promises to keep people close to their families – without having to travel, in some cases, hundreds of miles to visit their loved ones – only provide one sentence on social care in the 2021 Queen’s speech, what hope do disabled people have in improving our quality of life?”
The BRIL spokesperson added: “Until autistic people and people with learning difficulties are truly valued, until survivors are listened to, and until disabled people themselves are making the decisions, nothing will change.”
It also emerged this week that two of the business people who ran Castlebeck, the company that owned Winterbourne View, are now directors of Kedleston Group, which runs a series of independent special schools and care homes for disabled children.
Paul Brosnan resigned as chair of Castlebeck in July 2011, in the wake of the scandal, while his father Denis founded Lydian Capital, the private equity group which was the majority owner of Castlebeck.
The BBC this week reported concerns from current and former staff and parents that one of Kedleston’s special schools, Leaways School in east London – which charges day pupils more than £50,000 a year to attend, and is currently rated “good” by Ofsted – was prioritising profits over the support needs of the disabled children who attended.
Lee said: “I am wondering how the hell it is that the people that allowed the abuse at Winterbourne View could be allowed to run a special educational needs school as a director.
“People with learning difficulties and autism should not be let down in this way.”
In Transforming Care (PDF), the Department of Health’s response to Winterbourne View, published in December 2012, the government said that the “primary responsibility for the quality of care rests with the providers of that care”, including owners, directors and senior managers.
It added: “There can be no excuse for Directors or managers allowing bullying or the sort of abusive culture seen in Winterbourne View.
“Individuals should not profit from others’ misery.”
An Ofsted inspection on 18 March this year found that the school met all the standards that were checked.
Kedleston declined to answer questions about the Brosnans’ links with Castlebeck and Winterbourne View, or their suitability to be directors of a company that runs special schools and care homes for disabled children.
But a spokesperson said that “the vast majority of families are happy with our school and they see their children doing very well here” and that the “majority of the claims raised have been made by members of staff who have not worked within the school since 2019 and by a parent whose child also left in that year”.
She added: “Those claims are contradicted by the school’s Ofsted ratings which have seen Leaways judged to be consistently Good or Outstanding since opening almost 10 years ago.
“There are absolutely no safeguarding or welfare concerns which have been raised about the school and therefore it is not appropriate to draw direct comparisons between it and Winterbourne View in any way.”
An Ofsted spokesperson said: “The Department for Education (DfE) are the regulatory body for all independent schools in England.
“We carried out an emergency inspection of Leaways School, which is an independent school, on the 18 March as commissioned by the DfE.
“As part of the scope of the inspection, the department asked us to look specifically at the independent school standards relating to safeguarding, toilet facilities, health and safety, risk assessments, behaviour and supervision.
“We were also asked to check that the quality of leadership and management of the school met the standards.
“Ofsted’s role in regulating individual company directors is limited within legislation.
“We hope that the Care Review addresses the issue of financial and market oversight of the children’s care home sector as we have been raising this gap in regulatory scrutiny for a number of years.”
DfE declined to comment on the Brosnans’ links with Castlebeck and Winterbourne View.
*Calls to address the scandal of people with learning difficulties living inappropriately in long-stay institutions date back more than 70 years to when the National Council for Civil Liberties launched a campaign against eugenicist laws that led at their peak to the institutionalisation of more than 50,000 people in long-stay hospitals.
A series of scandals through the late 1960s and 1970s highlighted concerns similar to those uncovered by Panorama, with inquiries reporting cruel ill-treatment, inhumane and threatening behaviour towards patients (at Ely Hospital), the “harmful over-use of drugs” (Farleigh Hospital) and the use of tranquilisers and “side-rooms” – or solitary confinement facilities – at South Ockendon Hospital.
They were followed by the Longcare abuse scandal, exposed by journalists including DNS editor John Pring in 1994, and others such as allegations of neglect at Fieldhead Hospital in Wakefield in 2004, and of abuse at Cornwall Partnership NHS Trust in 2006, the Solar Centre in Doncaster in 2010, Winterbourne View, the National Autistic Society’s Mendip House, and Atlas Project Team in 2017.
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