Sentences handed to staff who admitted abusing people with learning difficulties at a private hospital near Bristol have been branded “woefully inadequate” by leading members of the self-advocacy movement.
Six of the former employees of Winterbourne View were given prison sentences ranging from six months to two years, while another five were handed suspended sentences.
The convictions followed last year’s screening of an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama, which exposed a regime of “appalling and systematically brutal” abuse.
But Andrew Lee, director of People First Self Advocacy, said his reaction on hearing of the sentences was one of “rage”, while he said the sentence of just two years in prison for Wayne Rogers, recognised as the ring-leader of the abusers, was “woefully inadequate”.
Lee said: “I think it sends out the message that crime against a disabled person, even though bad, is seen as less bad because of the weak sentencing that we get… I think that that stinks.”
Gavin Harding, co-chair of the National Forum of People with Learning Difficulties, said he did not think that such light sentences would act as a deterrent to other abusers, while he had been flooded with emails from other people with learning difficulties who were “disappointed and annoyed” with the sentences.
Both Lee and Harding have now called on the government to introduce new laws to protect people with learning difficulties from further abuse.
Lee called for far tougher sentencing for offenders – he suggested life sentences for the worst abusers.
But he said he also wanted to see companies like Castlebeck – which ran Winterbourne View – facing criminal charges which would mean that the companies, and their bosses, would be forced to quit the industry.
Lee also called for a wider debate about the type of people employed to support people with learning difficulties, and highlighted the need for improved training.
He said: “There needs to be a better calibre of person supporting people with learning difficulties. Some people think it’s an easy job, but it’s not.”
This week, Norman Lamb, the new Liberal Democrat care services minister, admitted to MPs that of the 48 former Winterbourne View patients, there had been concerns raised about the safety of 19 of them when a government review checked on their progress in March, while two months ago there were still “safeguarding alerts” relating to six former patients.
The September follow-up review also revealed that only 16 of the former patients were still living in hospital settings.
Harding said he wanted to see new laws that would ensure staff working for councils and other public bodies who ignore reports of abuse face criminal charges.
He said that social services care managers often did not believe people with learning difficulties when they reported abuse.
He said: “We are not just talking about physical abuse, we are talking about all types of abuse, and most of them do not look into it.
“They just come back and say ‘this didn’t happen’, and they are quite satisfied with what the providers tell them.”
He added: “Are they waiting for a death before they change the law?”
He also called for the government to close all institutions like Winterbourne View – one of many so-called assessment and treatment centres, which often take in patients from other parts of the country – and bring service-users back to homes within their own communities.
Harding urged people with learning difficulties to write to Lamb and health secretary Jeremy Hunt to demand changes in the law.
Lamb is due to publish the government’s response to Winterbourne View later this month.
To read a blog on Winterbourne View by John Pring, editor of Disability News Service and author of a book on the institutional abuse of people with learning difficulties, visit the DNS website.
30 October 2012