Norman Lamb writes… Lessons from Winterbourne View

On Friday last week, eleven former members of staff at Winterbourne View private hospital were sentenced for the shocking neglect and abuse of their former patients. Six have been jailed, and five others given suspended sentences. I hope that these sentences will send a clear message that such criminal behaviour will not be tolerated and that there will be real consequences for the perpetrators. It was abuse of power of the worst sort.

The case should reinforce to everyone, from frontline workers, to regulators, service commissioners, managers and board members, that they have a shared responsibility in preventing abuse of people in highly vulnerable circumstances.

But this case also led to a wider review which revealed poor standards of care in many institutions. Further, the most shocking revelation is the fact that most of the 1500 people with learning disabilities who are in ‘assessment and treatment’ centres, often for years, should not be there. Large sums of public money are being spent on inappropriate care. And this has gone on for years.

Too often people are placed long distances away from home. If the care is poor, whoever gets to know? If abuse takes place, it may never come to light. A national scandal has been revealed. We have a responsibility to bring this to an end.

People often end up in these facilities due to crises which are preventable or could be managed if people are given the right support in their homes or in community settings. Best practice and Department of Health guidance on this matter are clear – people with learning disabilities or autism and behaviour which challenges should benefit from local personalised services and should be supported to live in the community wherever possible. Only in very limited cases should inpatient services be used.

This case has also revealed another concern. Regulation focuses on the individual hospital or care home: does it meet acceptable standards? But what about the accountability of the owners? If a company owns several hospitals or care homes the board has to take responsibility. If it wilfully neglects to properly supervise their staff then there must be consequences.

The final report of the Winterbourne View review will be published shortly, alongside an agreement setting out the responsibilities of government, commissioners, providers, professional bodies and regulators and the timetabled actions that each body commits to deliver.  I believe that protecting society’s most vulnerable individuals is a fundamental responsibility of any Government. That protection was proven sadly inadequate by what took place at Winterbourne View. I am determined that we do everything we can to prevent anything like it happening again in future.

* Norman Lamb is MP for North Norfolk and was Liberal Democrat Minister of State at the Department of Health until May 2015

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