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.
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.
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.
Children hurt and drugged
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.
Earlier this year, a BBC Panorama programme uncovered staff mocking, taunting, intimidating and repeatedly restraining patients at Whorlton Hall in County Durham.
Durham Constabulary launched an investigation and the 17-bed hospital was closed, with 16 staff suspended and patients transferred.
In undercover footage recorded by BBC reporter Olivia Davies, one staff member called a patient a “fat c***” and another described the hospital as “house of mongs”.
Another patient is told by her care worker her family are “f****** poison”.
Panorama went undercover between last December and February. Hospital staff were secretly filmed “torturing” patients with learning disabilities and autism during the BBC investigation.
The Government apologised in May for the treatment of patients with autism and learning disabilities at Whorlton Hall, branded “tantamount to psychological torture” by Labour.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock reacted: “I’m deeply sorry on behalf of the whole health and care system for what’s happened.
“Some of the scenes that were seen on Panorama last night were awful, they need to be dealt with.”
He added that action would be taken to ensure every case across the system is reviewed.
Shadow health minister Barbara Keeley said units like Whorlton Hall should be shut, and patients should be looked after in their communities.
Ms Keeley said at the time: “The abuse shown on the BBC Panorama programme last night was appalling. It should never have been allowed to happen.
“The fact it is eight years since the Winterbourne View scandal and nothing has changed should be a source of shame for this Government.
“Rather than warm words, the Government seems to be getting good at warm words these days and little else. Will you take personal responsibility and say what you are doing to ensure this never happens again?
“The abuse was tantamount to psychological torture, with residents sworn at, threatened and intimidated. Other residents were violently restrained or deliberately hurt by care staff.”
Ms Keeley said this was not an isolated incident, rather “part of a pattern of cruel and callous behaviour” in care institutions.
She called for such care facilities to be closed down, and for people to be moved into “supported placements” in the community.
‘The horrific reality is of whole lives needlessly blighted, and families in despair’
Labour MP Harriet Harman, chair of Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, this week 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.
“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.”
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.”