How can we ignore this cruelty?

Published by The i paper (11th March, 2019)

The abuse, the bullying, the cruelty were simply grotesque. One person is said to have been made to eat a pizza covered in mustard, then some yogurt with more mustard, which left them being sick – only for their vomit to be put in a glass of water they were forced to drink. Another terrified resident was slapped, ordered to eat chilli and repeatedly thrown in a swimming pool. A third had a ribbon put round their neck and was ridden ‘like a horse.’ Others had to crawl on all fours and had cake thrown at them.

This barbarity took place in a care home that was being controlled by a gang of abusive men – and the salaries of the brutes behind this torture of people with autism was funded by taxpayers. Staff were reportedly seen playing on computer games rather than doing their duties and failing to notice one woman had absconded. They even took money from residents to buy themselves meals. Yet last week it emerged the owners of this centre would not face prosecution for such disgusting failings. They were just asked to pay a £4,000 fixed penalty notice as if guilty of a traffic offence.

This news made few headlines – although such a risible fine was barely more than one week’s funding for one of those unfortunate residents. There have been no criminal prosecutions. Yet these events at Mendip House in Somerset were the most disturbing such abuse to emerge since the scandal of Winterbourne View was exposed eight years ago by the BBC’s Panorama expose. Yet again we see how people with autism and learning disabilities are taunted, teased and tormented in a society that has so little sympathy for its most excluded minority.

At least Winterbourne View led to six abusers ending up in jail and sparked national outcry, prompting promises of political action to prevent innocent people ending up incarcerated.

Unfortunately, there was little real change. Matt Hancock, the health secretary bizarrely being touted as a ‘progressive’ Tory candidate for prime minister, claimed to be shocked by recent revelations that hundreds of people with autism and learning disabilities were still being locked up for years, held in solitary confinement, fed through hatches like animals, violently restrained and forcibly injected. Then he kicked the issue contemptuously into the long grass by slowing down the timescale to empty the hideous holding pens filled with innocent people.

Now we have the sordid affair of Mendip House. Two issues make this case even more depressing. First, the dismal role of the Care Quality Commission, the official watchdog designed to prevent abuse that has a dreadful record of missing or downplaying incidents. Whistleblowers first raised concerns in 2014 yet once again state inspectors failed to stop grotesque bullying, savage staff or atrocious management flaws that allowed inhumane behaviour. Then last week the CQC claimed it was a police decision not to prosecute – only for it to emerge that the body’s bosses chose to only pursue the financial fraud rather than the violence.

Barbara Keeley, Labour’s dogged shadow minister for social care, has written to demand answers from the CQC for its ‘outrageous’ decision. ‘Questions will rightly be asked why a case involving such sustained and shocking cruelty to vulnerable people, with chilling parallels to Winterbourne View, has been met with such a derisory fine’ she told me ‘This inexplicable decision is an affront to residents and their families.’ Keeley wants an urgent review by ministers, which makes sense – although given the government’s dire record on tackling abuse, this would hardly offer much hope of real action.

hen there is the identity of the owner. For Mendip House was run by the National Autistic Society, which claims to be the country’s leading charity for people with autism and their families. Yes, it closed down the centre for six residents after the CQC raised concerns and apologised ‘without reservation’ for failing to prevent ‘appalling and cruel behaviour’. Yet this is an organisation that earns most of its income, more than £78m a year, from the state – and once again the case raises profound questions over charities that claim to speak for vulnerable people yet end up abusing them as they suck greedily at the teat of state funding.

Note how Mencap, a charity which also claims to speak for people with learning difficulties and their families, at an inquest attacked the parenting and actions of the devoted parents of Danny Tozer, a 36-year-old man who died in their ‘care’. This despite evidence of failures that included care workers leaving him alone for at least 30 minutes when he died. (The inquest concluded that Tozer died of natural causes.) Mencap poses as a campaign body yet the bulk of its £192m-a-year cash comes from running services as an offshoot of the state.

Such cases mirror the scandals seen recently among major aid charities such as Oxfam and Save The Children, which posed as the voices of poor and distressed people yet covered up hideous abuse in disaster zones and poor parts of the planet to protect their lucrative brands.

The Mendip House horror story shows again how people with autism and learning disabilities are treated with such crushing contempt by those claiming to protect them, speak for them and safeguard them. A teenager was jailed recently for cruelty to a kitten while a woman was imprisoned for failing to feed her dogs properly. But sustained and systemic abuse of human beings with autism by a gang of bullies is deemed worthy only of a fine similar in size to those handed out for speeding or being drunk in public. Unfortunately no-one really seems to care for such people, beyond their shattered families – and this is a sickening reflection on our society.

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