Long-stay hospitals for people with severe learning disabilities are to be abolished and replaced by homes in the community under a national strategy unveiled yesterday.

Long-stay hospitals for people with severe learning disabilities are to be abolished and replaced by homes in the community under a national strategy unveiled yesterday.

The first White Paper on learning disabilities for 30 years said that the remaining 1,500 long-stay hospital beds would be phased out by 2004. The move, which has echoes of the controversial care in the community policy for the mentally ill, was welcomed by charities for the learning impaired.

Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, said it was part of a "revolution in care" for 1.2 million people with learning difficulties who for too long had been marginalised and "had their needs ignored".

He said the proposals for improved day care, more job opportunities and better support services would give the group the chance to live more independent lives.

"People with learning disabilities have for too long had their needs ignored," he said. "We want people with learning disabilities to have as much choice and control as possible over their lives and the services and support they receive."

The plan includes £100m to modernise day centres, provide more small-scale housing in the community and specialist services for people with severely challenging behaviour.

Another £6m will fund a new information centre and a helpline, to be run by Mencap, to give individuals more support and help carers who often make a lifelong commitment to look after a family member.

The proposals aim to overcome inadequate NHS services and exclusion from treatment by giving people with learning difficulties greater priority through individual care plans.

To increase the one in 10 adults with learning disabilities who are currently in work, employers will be encouraged to create jobs.

For the first time, councils will have to meet national standards for the services they provide and people with learning disabilities will have a voice through a new national forum.

There are 1.2 million children and adults with learning difficulties, including 210,000 with severe disabilities.

About 40 per cent of the total live with family carers over the age of 60 and an estimated 27,000 will need ordinary homes in the community in the next five years.

Lord Rix, president of Mencap, said he hoped services for people with learning disabilities would be "transformed".

Comments