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Equalities watchdog in legal action against Health Secretary over accommodation for people with learning disabilities and autism

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has launched a legal challenge against the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care over what it claims is a repeated failure to move people with learning disabilities and autism into appropriate accommodation.

The EHRC said: “We have longstanding concerns about the rights of more than 2,000 people with learning disabilities and autism being detained in secure hospitals, often far away from home and for many years.

“These concerns increased significantly following the BBC’s exposure of the shocking violation of patients’ human rights at Whorlton Hall, where patients suffered horrific physical and psychological abuse.”

The Commission has sent a pre-action letter to Secretary of State Matt Hancock, arguing that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has breached the European Convention of Human Rights for failing to meet the targets set in the Transforming Care program and Building the Right Support program.

The EHRC said these targets included moving patients from inappropriate inpatient care to community-based settings, and reducing the reliance on inpatient care for people with learning disabilities and autism.

It added that, following discussions with the DHSC and NHS England, it was also not satisfied that new deadlines set in the NHS Long Term Plan and Planning Guidance would be met.

“This suggests a systemic failure to protect the right to a private and family life, and right to live free from inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” the EHRC argued.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC Chief Executive, said: “We cannot afford to miss more deadlines. We cannot afford any more Winterbourne Views or Whorlton Halls. We cannot afford to risk further abuse being inflicted on even a single more person at the distressing and horrific levels we have seen. We need the DHSC to act now.

“These are people who deserve our support and compassion, not abuse and brutality. Inhumane and degrading treatment in place of adequate healthcare cannot be the hallmark of our society. One scandal should have been one too many.”

The DHSC has 14 days to respond to the Commission’s pre-action letter. Alternatively, the EHRC has offered to suspend the legal process for three months if the Department agrees to produce a timetabled action plan detailing how it will address issues such as housing and workforce shortages at both national and regional levels.

The EHRC has called for the immediate implementation of recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and Rightful Lives 8 point plan.

The Commission wants to see an enforceable right to independent living and has developed a legal model to incorporate it into domestic law.

This would protect the right of disabled people to live independently and as part of the community, and it would also strengthen the law that put a presumption in favour of living in the community and the views of individuals at the heart of decision-making, it said.