A commissioner is urgently needed to protect the rights of people with learning disabilities, according to a new report into the Winterbourne View scandal.
The independent review into the care of people with learning disabilities, Winterbourne View – Time for Change, was commissioned following the 2011 scandal, when the BBC’s Panorama programme uncovered shocking abuse of vulnerable patients at the private hospital near Bristol.
The review made 10 recommendations which included the introduction of a legal Charter of Rights to empower the learning disabled and their families, and the closure of all inappropriate in-patient care institutions in favour of better community provision.
But five years on from the program, the system is still failing to care for vulnerable patients according to the author of the report, Sir Stephen Bubb, Chief Executive of the UK charity leaders’ representative body, the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO).
Sir Stephen’s final Winterbourne View report, published last week, recommends the appointment of a commissioner to “protect and promote” the rights of people with learning disabilities in England.
"Just as a children's commissioner was established following the Victoria Climbie inquiry, there is a firm argument for establishing this post. It would have a statutory duty to promote and protect the rights of all people with learning disabilities and their families.
"I have spoken directly to people whose experience of these services goes back far beyond 2011 and Winterbourne View. So this report expresses the views and experiences of the people most affected by change.
"I am still shocked by the way we as a society have condoned poor or abusive treatment of some of the most vulnerable people in our society."
Despite a programme to halve the number of inpatient beds by 2019 and repeated promises to move care from institutions to the community following the Winterbourne View scandal, research suggests that there are still around 3,500 vulnerable patients housed in hospital-based settings.
Bubb says the sheer scale of the problem has been vastly underestimated and that up to 10,000 specially trained staff will be needed to support people with learning disabilities in their own communities.
However, according to a report by the Royal College of Nursing, the number of learning disability nurses has been cut by 1,700 since 2010, and specialist training courses have fallen by 30 per cent over the last 10 years.
The horrors of Winterbourne View exposed serious failures in the care of vulnerable patients in England, and this report illustrates very clearly just how urgently essential services need to improve.
It is unacceptable for people with learning disabilities to receive substandard care or to be left in institutions if there is the possibility they can instead live safely in their own homes and access the care and support they need in their own communities. But with limited available funding amid ongoing cuts to community services, care for those with learning difficulties will continue to be compromised along with the ability of councils to identify and provide services to the most vulnerable in society.
Liz Perry is a lawyer in the Court of Protection department at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Manchester.