Release them all

Published by The Mail on Sunday (3rd November, 2019)

The Government will demand an urgent discharge review for every person with autism and learning disabilities held in secure hospital units in a bid to force the release of hundreds of people who are wrongly detained.

Ministers will also publish incarceration rates showing the worst offending single area – Lancashire and South Cumbria – locks up people at more than four times the rate of Worcestershire, the best performing region.

Matt Hancock, the Health Minister, has also asked officials to detach autism and learning disabilities from mental health legislation. Current laws define autism as a mental disorder, making it easier for doctors to dispatch patients to secure units.

The moves, to be announced on Tuesday, mark a significant triumph for the year-long campaign by The Mail on Sunday that has exposed the scandal of people with autism and learning disabilities locked in abusive detention after seeking help and support.

‘The system has failed in the past and I am determined to ensure the most vulnerable in our society are not failed in the future,’ said Hancock yesterday.

‘I am demanding far more transparency and ensuring that every case has a plan for discharge where possible. Some of the cases I’ve heard about people incarcerated in mental health hospitals have been shocking and unacceptable.’

Our disturbing revelations that vulnerable young people are being held in solitary confinement, forcibly drugged, physically abused by teams of adults and fed through hatches like animals have sparked a series of official inquiries and reviews.

Private firms and charities charge up to £730,000 a year to lock people in secure units – yet supported living in homes and community facilities often provides cheaper, kinder and far more effective treatment.

Last week this newspaper’s disclosures were praised in a devastating report by Parliament’s influential Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) which condemned ‘terrible suffering’ inflicted on patients and ‘anguish’ caused to distressed families.

The MPs were scathing about the Care Quality Commission watchdog, saying if it had not been for the media ‘we would still be unaware of the extent to which those with learning disabilities and/or autism are being abused while being detained by the State’.

Hancock will order National Health Service chiefs to review every case within 12 months setting out a discharge plan, a date for release and explanations for any continuing incarcerations.

His department’s internal inquiries into 2,250 current cases found 130 inpatients could not be discharged due to lack of community facilities or funding while fewer than one-third were not considered ‘dischargeable’ for health or legal reasons. He wants to see 400 inpatients freed by the end of March as a first step.

Julie Newcombe from Rightful Lives, a family campaign group, said they welcomed the moves but remained cautious given past Government failures.

‘The key to ending the abuse is leadership from the top and fully ring-fenced funding combined with transparency and accountability from commissioners, many of whom fail to provide decent local services,’ she said.

Hancock plans to put pressure on local officials by publishing the data today on rates of incarceration. The information is based on regions in the Transforming Care programme, which aimed to stop the suffering of such inappropriate placements. It was launched after a BBC documentary in 2011 exposed criminal abuse at Winterbourne View care home.

The figures show Worcestershire sends people with autism and learning disabilities to inpatient units at a rate of 17 per million residents – compared with 74 in Lancashire and South Cumbria and 67 in both Sussex and the Black Country.

Critics claim some cash-strapped councils prefer to send people into secure units, since the NHS then picks up the bills.

Hancock will also tell health bosses to use statutory powers of intervention – similar to those used with poor schools – against local commissioners that fail to fix services.

Harriet Harman, chair of the JCHR, welcomed the initiative last night. ‘These are good steps forward but it is crucial to ensure they work this time. There is a consensus now these human rights abuses are morally and medically flawed.

‘The next Prime Minister must act to stop this suffering by getting people out rapidly from these hellholes and ensuring more people don’t go inside them.’

Among the Black Country cases is Beth, the teenager whose atrocious ‘care’ led to a landmark legal battle that last month forced an apology and damages from the NHS, local authority and mental health charity that held her in hideous conditions.

Walsall Council even went to court in a failed bid to stop her father, Jeremy, from speaking publicly about his daughter’s awful plight.

The local authority later told a newspaper that it had only been trying to restrict information which could identify Beth.

‘These discharge plans and the separation of autism under mental health legislation could make a big difference,’ Jeremy said last night. 

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