A lame and toothless watchdog

Published by The i paper (17th June 2019)

Derek Fleming doted on his ‘funny, caring and loving’ daughter Margaret. But when the lawyer found he had terminal cancer, he feared his parents were too elderly to look after a young woman with learning disabilities. So he arranged for two friends to care for his precious teenager after his death. Yet when Margaret arrived in their home, the couple hacked off her hair, bound her hands and locked her in a room. After several days trapped in lonely torment and deprived of food, she was killed.

The 19-year-old was last seen in the closing days of the last century. Her killers, convicted last week, first stole her £4,000 inheritance and then claimed benefits worth £182,000 until their evil crime was rumbled after almost 17 years. Sadly this is a familiar story since there have been other sordid cases of people with learning disabilities milked and murdered for money. But once again we see in stark terms the isolation of people with learning disabilities in our nation, when a young woman can disappear with such indifference despite being a beneficiary of state support.

This chilling case underscores pervasive contempt towards people with learning disabilities shown by some. A cold-hearted couple saw only cash when they looked at a bereaved teenager, not a human being. This is part of the same process of dehumanisation shown by a state that shuts people with autism and learning disabilities in cruel detention – and by politicians that spout platitudes of compassion while doing nothing to halt hideous human rights abuses in secretive institutions. Then this same disturbing attitude lies behind bullying staff that terrorise patients inside too many of these places.

We see glimpses of such assaults in disturbing television documentaries. The most infamous was BBC Panorama’s 2011 expose of Winterbourne View, which led to six staff going to prison and pledges from politicians that people with autism and learning disabilities must be supported in safer communal environments. Yet they failed to fix the flawed system while allowing rapacious private firms to gobble up chunks of mental health services. Last month, we saw the inevitable legacy again on Panorama – more horrific abuse, this time at Whortlon Hall, a 17-bed hospital in Durham.

These frequent exposes, along with regular inquests into fatal failings at psychiatric units, demonstrate the need for an effective watchdog to protect vulnerable patients and distressed families seeking to navigate a dismal system. This can be, literally, a matter of life and death. Instead we witness a floundering Care Quality Commission (CQC), with its dire track record of ignoring whistleblowers and praising places that turn out to be torturing people. Then there are apologies, bureaucratic shake-ups, promises to learn lessons – until the pattern is repeated with the next scandal.

The CQC is one of our most important public bodies. It was created ten years ago by a money-serving merger of three disparate regulators: for the NHS, social care and mental health services. Yet its launch director was linked to one of the worst health safety scandals in modern times – the deaths of hundreds of patients at two mid-Staffordshire hospitals – and then it was rapidly condemned by MPs for lack of realism. The BBC exposed Winterbourne View only after a whistleblower’s concerns were brushed aside by the CQC.

This shocking failure was, said the CQC, ‘a watershed moment’. Yet now there is an even fouler stench swirling around this lame watchdog charged with protecting hundreds of thousands of old, sick and disabled citizens. After the Whorlton Hall documentary, I revealed that an inspector who led a seven-strong team into the hospital had resigned when his damning report raising bullying and dire care was mysteriously not published. Instead, after a complaint from the owner, a smaller team went in and wrote a more favourable report with a ‘good’ rating.

Last week CQC chiefs were summoned to explain these strange events by MPs on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which is investigating detention of people with autism and learning disabilities. Harriet Harman, the chair, displayed forensic savagery as she probed alleged suppression of a report highlighting abuse. ‘I have to put this bluntly,’ she said. ‘It looks like there was a diligent inspection in 2015. It looks like they discovered what we then saw to our horror on Panorama. It looks like the CQC didn’t publish that report…then a new team was sent in and they produced a report which was a whitewash.’

The CQC officials denied her analysis. Of course. Yet such was their evasion and shirking of responsibility that four expert and family members of its key review into restraint instantly resigned in disgust. They included the father of Beth, the teenage girl held in solitary whose case helped spark the inquiry after I wrote about it here. Sara Ryan, whose son drowned due to systemic failures, condemned ‘an exemplar in blame shifting.’ Certainly it was hard to be left with any confidence in a body already stained by the constancy of complaints from patients, families, staff, experts and now even a senior inspector that serious concerns are ignored.

Just like its political masters, this toothless watchdog seems either cack-handed or complacent in face of grotesque abuse. Patients and their families can only watch in fear as scandal piles on scandal and suffering carries on unabated. This shows again the urgent necessity to finally act to free people with autism and learning disabilities from detention, sort out dreadful failings in psychiatric care and restrain the worst private operators. Yet ultimately this all ties into the way a young woman on benefits could disappear for almost 17 years without anyone noticing. For they both display in different ways the value placed on people with learning disabilities in our society. Who really cares?

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