Where are we now? 10 years since BBC Panorama exposed abuse of individuals with learning disabilities, autism or both at Winterbourne View Hospital

Statement from ARC England Director Clive Parry

On 31st May 2011, when the BBC Panorama programme used undercover filming to expose the abuse of people with a learning disability, autism or both at Winterbourne View hospital, the public and the vast majority of us working in the social care system were shocked that other human beings could still be treated in this way.

Many of us knew that people who were unable to protect themselves from abuse had been badly treated in the past, but our mental images placed the abuse in old Victorian institutions, hidden away behind tall walls. (See VODG – A time for Action – ending the reliance on long stay inpatient units for the history and how we arrived at where we are today).

What the BBC Panorama programme did was to explode the idea that, because the old fashioned long-stay hospitals had closed down, the abuse had stopped. The programme exposed the truth that people living in modern, purpose-built buildings like Winterbourne View were still subject to degrading and abusive treatment. The setting had changed but the abuse of people with learning disabilities, autism or both carried on.

The Government responded to Winterbourne View with the Transforming Care initiative, intended to transform the care of people in locked settings once and for all. However, in 2019, after eight years of Transforming Care, the abuses at Whorlton Hall were exposed, again by the BBC’s Panorama programme.  The sector knew then that the necessary changes to guarantee that everyone with a learning disability, autism or both was supported to live their best possible life had not been made.

In 2021, as we reflect on what has been achieved over the last ten years, we still cannot say that care has been transformed for the 2000 people who remain in a locked setting that feels more like a hospital or a prison than a home.

However, that is not to say that there has been no progress at all; During my time at VoiceAbility, a man who had lived in a locked setting for 40 years was supported by our managers, advocacy team and his multi-disciplinary team to able to understand his treatment plan, make progress and eventually leave the locked setting to move into a home of his own. Trauma-informed approaches are not new but they represent a relatively recent shift in the way multi-disciplinary teams work with people who have a learning disability, autism or both, and whose behaviour is risky for them and / or others. Trauma-informed approaches are powerful because they help to make the person’s treatment plan relevant and easier for them to engage with and because they provide the basis for the different and varied disciplines involved in people’s lives to come together and agree plans that are focused on the person leaving the locked setting.

It would also be wrong to say we don’t know what good looks like in relation to how to support someone who has needed high staff ratios and is subject to frequent restraints when they are in an institution. With the right provider, those same people can and do live safely and without physical intervention in their own home in the community – here is one example from ARC member Macintyre: Sam’s Journey.

Transforming Care was renamed Building the Right Support, but it isn’t just a new name. There is a genuine attempt here to find a different way to reach the point where there can’t be another Winterbourne View or Whorlton Hall. There can be no doubt that after ten years we need to do things differently; to reset, refresh and renew.

ARC England are part of the Building the Right Support Delivery Board, chaired by Minister for Care Helen Whately MP. Along with Learning Disability England, Care England and VODG, our role is to ensure that the provider perspective is contributed and included in the work of the Board.

We must not lose sight of the knowledge, experience, skills and commitment from the last ten years which resides with the families and loved ones of the 2000 people still in locked settings, the advocates who speak up every day for people who can’t do that for themselves, providers that have proved that they can support people to live in their communities safely and well, and the Commissioners that have successfully shifted resources to the right kinds of provision.

ARC England  will continue to contribute to the Building the Right Support Delivery Board to remove systemic barriers to success so that as many people as possible can live happy, fulfilling lives in the community and those who need to remain in a locked setting can do so in a safe environment where compassionate care and support is paramount.