No safe place: The disgraceful state of Britain’s homes for the most vulnerable should speed a transition to community care


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It is cruelly apt that the report from Sir Stephen Bubb urging the immediate closure of “Winterbourne View-style” institutions for people with learning disabilities should coincide with newspaper headlines reporting yet another scandal involving a 25-year-old woman with severe autism, who died in a padded room in a private unit that had been her home for seven years.

Stephanie Bincliffe’s weight ballooned to 25 stone during her stay at Linden House, run by the Huntercombe Group in East  Yorkshire, which was sharply censured by the Care Quality Commission in 2013. She died of heart failure and sleep apnoea (respiratory blockage) due to morbid obesity, according to a coroner’s report.

It is another in the litany of cases of appalling neglect of the most vulnerable members of society stretching back at least a decade. It lends added urgency to Sir Stephen’s demand that the Government act and avoid promising “another false dawn”. But after repeated broken pledges, why should families have faith in this one?

More than three years ago, the nation was outraged by images of the sadistic abuse of residents of Winterbourne View, a private institution for people with learning disabilities, secretly filmed and broadcast on the BBC Panorama programme. 

In response, the Government promised to move up to 3,000 people living in similar units into the community. But in May this year, Norman Lamb, a health minister, was forced to admit failure, complaining that the task was “utterly hopeless”. Worse, the policy has gone into reverse. More people are being moved into institutional care today than moved into the community. Part of the reason is the lack of suitable places in the community for people with profound disabilities sometimes accompanied by challenging behaviour. But there is also a lack of enthusiasm for community care among the staff responsible. As Sir Stephen said in a recent interview: “We seem to have clung to the idea that it is OK for people with learning disabilities to be stuck in hospital for years, often at huge distances from their families. It is scandalous.”

It is indeed. The average cost of care in a private residential institution is £3,500 a week. For that you might expect a modicum of dignity, humanity and compassion. Instead, scandal has been piled on scandal. It adds to the injustice that, according a report published by the Association for Supported Living, community services are cheaper in the end than institutional care.

In 2004, Mencap exposed poor standards in homes for the learning disabled and called for a “culture change”. In 2007 the same charity published details of six patients who died in NHS care as a result of “indifference and neglect”. That led to a government inquiry which concluded in 2008 that the deaths  were “not isolated incidents”. In 2011, the Winterbourne View scandal was exposed and in 2014 the death of Stephanie Bincliffe capped a grim decade, prompting the question: what has changed?

Mr Lamb, already bruised by past failures, said he would consult on changing the law to “speed up delivery of the Winterbourne View commitments.” He must do so without delay.