How can a Labour MP block flats for people with learning disabilities?
Published by The i paper (13th November, 2023)
In a Westminster world stuffed with ambitious party hacks and entitled creeps who see compassion as a dirty word, the arrival of Paulette Hamilton in a by-election last year was a cause for celebration. Here was a woman in her late fifties who overcame the racism of a school teacher saying she was “only destined for having babies” to become a senior nurse, the councillor in charge of health and social care in Birmingham and the city’s first black member of parliament. She was portrayed as “an active equality campaigner” in local media. And she has spoken with passion in the Commons about the need for more housing, the crisis in social care and the shortage of mental health services.
Yet now she has exposed her own bigotry – and tellingly, was so unaware of her prejudice that she boasted about it on social media. Hamilton, a member of the influential health and social care committee, went on X (formerly Twitter) to brag about her success in stopping a plan to convert a home in her Erdington constituency into five self-contained flats for people with learning disabilities. She shared her letter of opposition alleging such a scheme would have “adverse effect on the amenity” of the neighbourhood, paying brief lip service to concern for the welfare of ‘vulnerable’ people who would live in the flats while saying residents shared her concerns about a “non-residential property impacting the character and appearance of the area that would erode the sense of cohesion to their community.”
Such blatant Nimbyism shows the scale of Sir Keir Starmer’s challenge if elected in seeking to boost housing supply. Yet the real horror of this Labour MP’s letter – and gloating tweet saying five flats for people with learning disabilities would have “negatively affected the area” – lies in the disturbing attitude it exposes towards one of the nation’s most excluded communities, citizens with as much right as any others to live in decent homes.
If this is the chilling stance of an MP with such personal, political and professional experience, what hope is there of seeing people with learning disabilities ever embraced in the heart of our society?
Do we really need to underline that this building would have remained a residential property even if inhabited by people with learning disabilities, let alone how given half a chance – and support from local politicians – such citizens can enhance any community? Inclusion aids cohesion; exclusion is highly corrosive.
But no wonder there is such chronic shortage of housing and support for people with learning disabilities when they are seen as having “adverse effect” on neighbourhoods. Such attitudes leave them often forced to live in the worst areas, where they are more likely to become victims of abuse or exploitation. It fuels isolation and loneliness. Others end up on the streets – and not as a lifestyle choice, whatever a vituperative home secretary might claim.
It is worth recalling a speech by Eleanor Roosevelt to the United Nations. “Where do universal human rights begin?” asked the former US first lady, key figure in the body’s landmark declaration enshrining such rights and freedoms. “In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works.
‘Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
Her profound words underline the significance of daily interactions upon which we depend and the importance of recognising our shared humanity. Yet many citizens with learning disabilities and autism remain frozen out.
These are our most disempowered and impoverished minorities, often struggling to access homes, education, transport and work. Yet their cause is routinely ignored, even by those who say they believe in social justice. Imagine the outcry if a Labour MP showed hostility towards any other minority seeking homes in her constituency. Indeed, would any other protected characteristic be singled out in a planning application?
This comes as we see yet more evidence of how little our country cares about such citizens. Reports in the Health Service Journal suggest local leaders have been told they can cut spending on autism and learning disability services to help fund costs of medical strikes. Yet last week also saw release of another disturbing report into “inhumane” use of solitary confinement to hold such people in psychiatric hospitals for up to 20 years due to the dearth of community facilities. A four-year inquiry by Baroness Hollins exposed again the Government’s failure to end this shameful abuse, which sees hundreds of people “warehoused” behind bars – a grotesque policy almost everyone accepts is medically and morally wrong.
This is just the latest expose of how the health service incarcerates people with autism and learning disabilities in expensive psychiatric hellholes, holding even teenagers in long-term seclusion and feeding some through hatches like wild animals.
This cruel and foolish policy wastes resources and – accompanied by overuse of physical and pharmaceutical restraint – intensifies distress. One woman said she threw herself against the wall to feel pain to ensure she was still alive. Hollins found scores of such heartbreaking stories and sought urgent action. But the Government’s blasé response was simply insulting in face of state-sanctioned barbarity. Not even agreeing to minimum standards such as a clock and toilet.
There is a vicious circle that starts with inadequate social care and continues through lack of proper housing. Sadly, there seems little hope things will be any better under Labour when one of their MPs publicly delights in efforts to block five flats for people with learning disabilities on the basis they would undermine rather than enrich the community.