Put people with learning difficulties at the core of society

Published in The Observer (December 2nd, 2012)

Another day, another outbreak of hand-wringing over how to protect vulnerable people from abuse in so-called care homes. Yesterday, it was the government’s turn, saying regulation of residential institutions was inadequate and launching yet another consultation. A few days earlier, the official watchdog revealed risks of poor care were rising, with hundreds of homes not meeting required standards.

Since last year, when Panorama exposed the casual brutality meted out to people with learning difficulties, there have been calls for more reviews, more regulations, more resources. We have seen arguments over accountability, heard debates over private versus public provision. Yet many miss the central point: we should not be locking up people with learning difficulties in this outdated manner.

Little wonder Britain remains stuck in a state of apartheid when it comes to people with disabilities if we accept a system that confines tens of thousands of people to places that give them fewer rights then convicted prisoners. I recently heard of a man stuck in a so-called assessment centre for 17 years; this is longer than life sentences served for murder – and with no parole.

People capable of living independent lives with the right support are consigned to units where they are locked up at night, subject to surveillance and bound by petty rules over what they can drink, when they can watch television and whether they can have relatives visit them in their rooms. Even in some better institutions, well-meaning staff ban staples of modern life enjoyed by the rest of us such as social media, trashy magazines or the occasional burger.

Such practices are not just demeaning – they fail to add up economically. The average cost of those residents being bullied so horribly at Winterbourne View was £3,500 per person per week. These are not unusual fees; full-time residential care is extremely expensive. There are more than 6,000 homes registered for people with learning difficulties, the numbers rising all the time as incidence of disability rises and firms see the potential profits.

Panorama showed we have not moved on so far as we thought from the days of Bedlam. Nor was it an isolated case; 19 of the 51 former patients were subjected to safeguarding alerts in their new homes, including one at an NHS hospital. This victim is now in her fourth home in two years, her parents forced to endure an eight-hour round trip to see her.

We should stop paying huge sums to lock away people with learning difficulties. Far better to create a system of independent living that places people back in their communities, which is what they and their families fervently desire and where they are so much safer. Put three people together in a flat and there is half a million pounds to spend annually on a real home with support staff.

There are some fine examples emerging of people with even quite profound learning difficulties holding mortgages and managing their own budgets. Sadly, such is the myopia towards those with disabilities these are sometimes opposed by residents complaining of “paedos”. One social housing manager told me this problem was at its worst in middle-class areas.

The only way to change these antediluvian attitudes that bedevil Britain is by spending the billions spent caring for those with learning difficulties in a more humane manner. These people should be at the heart of our society, not hidden away as they are all too often at present.

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