People with learning disabilities need ministers’ support

Published by The Times (30th April, 2024)

There is a valid debate to be had over disability benefits after a sudden surge in claimants with anxiety and depression. But this discussion will inevitably turn a spotlight on chronic mismanagement of mental health, with 1.9 million people on NHS waiting lists.

Community services have been hollowed out, shark-like private firms exploit gaps and there is over-reliance on pharmaceutical and physical restraint. One psychiatrist told me that even severely ill patients must be “waving an axe” before they can access help.

Yesterday the work and pensions secretary Mel Stride set a new hare running by saying it is an “open question” whether people with learning disabilities should receive cash benefits, “given they come in all sorts of different forms of scales or severity” — a statement that will fuel fear in many homes.

Life with learning disabilities can be a needless struggle. At best, citizens and their families face endless form-filling and barrages of repeated questions to obtain essential support; at worst, gruelling fights against a cash-strapped and floundering system. Ministers witter on about “big challenges” facing social care, having failed to tackle deficiencies that cause misery after 14 years in power.

Coming now, Stride’s suggestion sounds like a prelude to pre-election scapegoating of our most disadvantaged community by a party whose failures on this front have just helped drive out one of its MPs. Dan Poulter, who works also as a psychiatrist, pointed to the ditching of reform to the outdated Mental Health Act — which defines autism and learning disabilities as disorders permitting detention — as a factor in his defection to Labour.

Is it any wonder the government has failed to meet its pledge to halve the number of people with such conditions locked up in costly and inappropriate mental health settings between 2015 and the end of last month? Many others end up stuffed in mini-institutions masquerading as supported living, while community support has corroded in the local government funding crisis.

The pandemic exposed disturbing societal attitudes, with shocking impositions of blanket “do not resuscitate” notices. Given such blinkered attitudes, it is no surprise only one in 20 people with learning disabilities have jobs — although workplaces are among the best places to overcome prejudice and foster integration while reducing reliance on the state.

If only pontificating ministers would see people with learning disabilities as citizens who deserve the best support for the benefit of all society, not simply as drains on their budgets and as political footballs.

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