‘We must not look away’ – call to end ‘horrific’ detention of young people with learning disabilities

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Mental health legislation must be overhauled to stop the “horrific” and inappropriate detention of young people with autism or learning disabilities, MPs have said.

The human rights of many young people are being breached in mental health hospitals, causing their lives to be “needlessly blighted” and their families to suffer, a new report found.

Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights said it has “lost confidence that the system is doing what it says it is doing and the regulator’s method of checking is not working”.

It is calling for the criteria for detention under the Mental Health Act to be narrowed to protect people from the “horrific reality” of conditions and treatment.

Harriet Harman Speaker bid
Harriet Harman is chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which produced the report (Niall Carson/PA)

Labour MP Harriet Harman, chair of the committee, said: “This inquiry has shown with stark clarity the urgent change that is needed and we’ve set out simple proposals for exactly that. They must now be driven forward, urgently.

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“It has been left to the media and desperate, anguished parents to expose the brutal reality of our system of detention of people with learning disabilities or autism. We must not look away.

“The horrific reality is of whole lives needlessly blighted, and families in despair. What we saw does not fit our society’s image of itself as one which cares for the vulnerable and respects everyone’s human rights. It must not be allowed to continue.”

The committee launched an inquiry in January into the often long-term detention of young people with learning disabilities or autism.

It said it has no confidence in the Government’s target to reduce the numbers of people with these conditions in mental health facilities.

In relation to the Care Quality Commission, it said that “a regulator which gets it wrong is worse than no regulator at all”, after it failed to detect potential human rights abuses at Whorlton Hall and other hospitals.

Whorlton Hall in County Durham, where staff were revealed to be mocking, taunting, intimidating and repeatedly restraining patients (BBC/PA)

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “We are committed to ensuring people with a learning disability and autistic people have the best possible quality of life.

“Above all, human rights must be protected and where people do require inpatient care it must be of the highest quality, close to home and for the shortest possible time.

“The number of inpatients with learning disabilities or autism in mental health settings is falling but there is still more to do. The NHS Long Term Plan will reduce numbers even further by improving specialist services and community crisis care, reducing avoidable admissions and shortening stays in hospital.

“We will consider these recommendations carefully and respond to them in due course.”

The committee laid out a “predictable” pathway to detention in which a child’s condition worsens, their under-supported family struggles to cope and they are then are taken away.

Isolated and without familiarity, their condition further deteriorates, plans to return home are shelved and concerned parents are treated with hostility.

Some parents are excluded from decisions around their child, while others told the inquiry they had been “gagged” from speaking out.

One mother said her son, whose arm was snapped after being wrenched up behind his back, had to wait 24 hours before being taken to A&E.

Another parent described how their son, kept in seclusion for hours at a time, would bite the wood in the doorframe “out of desperation”.

Some young people are not receiving appropriate medical treatment but are subject to physical and medical restraint, such as psychotropic medication, which is intended for those with a serious mental health illness, the committee said.

The MPs believe the biggest barrier to progress is a “lack of political focus and accountability”.

They are calling for a unit within Number 10 led by Cabinet members to drive forward reform.

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