Last night an undercover investigation by the BBC’s Panorama revealed abuse and mistreatment of vulnerable adults at the hands of care staff at Whorlton Hall, an NHS-funded private hospital in County Durham.
In shocking footage, patients with autism and learning difficulties were filmed being deliberately provoked by staff who then physically restrained them.
It comes eight years after similar atrocities were uncovered at Winterbourne View, a private hospital in South Gloucestershire, by the same programme.
Delegates at the Royal College of Nursing Congress today passed an emergency resolution asking the college to lobby government organisations in the UK to ensure the human rights of people with learning disabilities and autism were being protected.
“We are appalled that this could happen again and again and again”
It was the only motion at congress this year to receive unanimous support.
Jonathan Beebee, a member of the RCN’s learning disabilities forum who presented the motion, said: “Not only are we outraged on behalf of the people who have been affected by abuse and their families, we are appalled that this could happen again and again and again.”
He said a national programme implemented after Winterbourne View to transform the care of people with learning disabilities and autism had not worked.
“I would like to stress that the abuse that has been uncovered by Panorama is a tiny dark corner of learning disabilities support, most support for people with learning disabilities is carried out by caring and compassionate people,” said Mr Beebee.
“However, it’s an all too common dark corner that I’m pleased that reports like these are shedding a light on,” he added.
“A society is only judged by how we support and look after each other”
Paul Watson, an RCN member from the Humber branch, called for a public enquiry into failures by the Care Quality Commission to spot the issues at the hospital.
The CQC last inspected the hospital in March 2018 in response to concerns raised by whistle-blowers and has today apologised for missing “what was really going on at Whorlton Hall”.
Belfast branch member Anne Campbell highlighted how the findings had brought a dark cloud over the centenary of learning disability nursing.
“Learning disabilities nurses are celebrating 100 years as part of the nursing family but this has not been a good week,” she told congress.
She added: “We are appalled and shocked that once again abuse and inhuman treatment of people with learning disabilities has been uncovered.”
Ms Campbell said the human rights of learning disabilities and autism were not being upheld and that people with these conditions remained a “very marginalised and vulnerable group in our society”.
“The nursing profession needs to work in partnership with others to generate the change and support and protection of the human rights on people with learning disabilities,” urged Ms Campbell.
High-profile learning disabilities nurse Jim Blair said the resolution was about “health, human rights and justice”.
“When you lose the freedom and the rights for one individual you water it down for everybody,” he added.
“A society is only judged by how we support and look after each other,” said Mr Blair. “We are all going to need support at some point.”
“Human rights are applicable to everyone and anyone”
RCN mental health forum member Vicky Keir, whose son has a learning disability, said the best way to safeguard this group of people was to liaise with those who knew them best such parents and carers.
Norfolk branch member, Gemma Rafferty, posed the powerful question: “How many people have to die before we do something?”
Learning disabilities student nurse Francesca Mallardo added: “Human rights are applicable to everyone and anyone.
“You and I are the same, we both have a brain and we both breathe the same and our hearts beat,” she said.
Ms Mallardo said: “So why do we discriminate against those with a learning disability? They should not be defined by their disability.”
Whorlton Hall Hospital
Whorlton Hall – which featured on Wednesday in the Panorama episode titled Undercover Hospital Abuse Scandal – has since been closed with all patients being transferred to different hospitals.
A police investigation has been launched and 16 staff suspended by the hospital’s owner, Cygnet, which only took over running it at the turn of the year.
The scandal uncovered by Panorama also comes in the same week as other major publications laying bare inequalities in the care of people with learning disabilities and autism.
On Monday, a report by Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, found too many children were being admitted to secure hospitals unnecessarily – in some cases are spending months and years of in institutions when they should be in their community.
The following day, the CQC called for action to fix the “broken system” that leads to people with learning disabilities or autism being segregated in hospital.
Also on Tuesday, latest results from the Learning Disabilities Mortality Review programme revealed ongoing concerns about the premature deaths of people with learning disabilities.