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'Be proud of the UK’s advances in learning disability care'

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In October 2015 NHS England announced a policy, Homes not Hospitals, aimed at ensuring people with  learning difficulties would be helped to live as independently as possible.

peter carter

peter carter

This is a welcome initiative and the government has pledged £45m to fund it. The shocking events at Winterbourne View were the catalyst for this.

It was poignant that in the same month of this new initiative Lord Geoffrey Howe died. Many readers might query why I should connect the two. At the time of Lord Howe’s death there was a stream of tributes to one of the iconic statesmen in British politics.

Many believe he will best be remembered for his budgets as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Thatcher Governments and his resignation speech that led to her downfall. However, little mention has been made of the Inquiry he chaired into the abuse of people at Ely hospital Cardiff in the mid 1960s.

Ely hospital was a large Victorian institution for people with a learning difficulty who in those days were called “sub-normal” or “mentally handicapped”.

A member of the nursing staff disclosed examples of ill treatment, neglect and theft at the hospital to a national newspaper, so a young Geoffrey Howe QC was appointed to chair an inquiry into the allegations. As a result of his investigation, far-reaching recommendations were made on how people with a “mental handicap” should be treated; it went far beyond the events at Ely.

His recommendations are as pertinent today as they were all those years ago.

It is not uncommon for some politicians to become obsessed with their legacy. Geoffrey Howe was not one of those. This quiet, thoughtful and sincere man has left a legacy from which thousands of people who live with a learning difficulty have benefitted. In this respect he truly was a visionary and his legacy should not be forgotten. In fact, it should be celebrated.

His approach to revealing abuse at Ely was innovative. He used the media in a way that had rarely been explored before. Advertising in the South Wales newspapers and via radio, he called for people who had knowledge of Ely hospital to come forward.

Howe’s report was sent to the then secretary of state for health, Richard Crossman. His findings of institutional cruelty, neglect, corrupt practice and lamentable leadership were so serious that it was discussed at a meeting of the Cabinet. Because the findings were considered so explosive, the Cabinet was spilt as to whether it should be published. The then medical establishment were very critical of the inquiry and railed against it. Richard Crossman, no shrinking violet, was ambivalent over its publication and it was the Prime minister of the day Harold Wilson who intervened, supported Geoffrey Howe and authorised its publication.

As a result of Howe’s findings the “closed institutions” were opened up to external scrutiny, therfore ending an era of isolation that had prevailed for over a century in Britain’s mental hospitals. The care of those with learning difficulties and the mentally ill were changed for the better.

I support the government’s latest initiative but it must have ongoing funding, and ideology must not propel us into believing that all residential care is poor care – far from it, some people with learning difficulties thrive much better in small communities where they develop friendships, have mutual support and are not isolated. We should also be proud of many of the advances in the care of those with a learning difficulty heralded in by a young free-thinking Geoffrey Howe over 40 years ago. Some legacy.

 Dr Peter Carter OBE is an independent management consultant, and the former general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing


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Readers' comments (1)

  • I have a 27 year old daughter with learning difficulties living just 5 miles from the former Winterbourne View and I can assure you that South Glos Clinical Commissioning Group have no intention of supporting anyone with a learning disability to live independently.
    There has been no progress in South Glos.

    They still want to put everyone into care homes.

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