This week protests have been taking place across England. The #StrippedofHumanRights protests have been organised and attended by people with learning disabilities and autism, alongside their friends, families and supporters. People have gathered in town centres across the country to call for respect to their human rights and an end to the use of Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs). Please check out @7daysofaction7 on Twitter, who organised the week of action, for more information about the 7 days of action campaign and the #StripperofHumanRights protests. 

Throughout this week people have been calling for their rights to be respected and to be treated with dignity. The message is that too many people with a learning disability remain locked away in inpatient units, often many miles from home. Where some are subject to physical restraint, overmedication and being kept in isolation.

In this video, made by MediaSavvy CIC, protestors from the demo on 26th of June in Newcastle explain why they are there: 

This blog gives some background to the issues being highlighted by the protests.

What are ATUs?

Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) are a type of inpatient unit. They are designed to be short-term secure placements for people with learning disabilities to receive treatment before moving back into the community.

However, according to NHS figures, people with a learning disability and/or autism who are sent to inpatient units are there for an average of 5.4 years. The latest data shows that at least 2,250 people with a learning disability and/or autism are in inpatient units. The number of people under 18 with a learning disability and/or autism in inpatient units has increased from 110 in 2015 to 240 in May 2019.

Transforming Care?

Eight years ago, after a BBC Panorama documentary exposed the horrific abuse of patients in an assessment and treatment unit (ATU) at Winterbourne View Hospital, the Government introduced its Transforming Care programme. This programme promised to shift more care for people with learning disabilities into community settings and close down significant numbers of ATUs and other inpatient provision.

The government report Transforming care: A National response to Winterbourne View Hospital stated that:

“Children, young people and adults with learning disabilities or autism, who also have mental health conditions or behaviours described as challenging can be, and have a right to be, given the support and care they need in a community-based setting, near to family and friends. Closed institutions, with people far from home and family, deny people the right care and present the risk of poor care and abuse.”

However, the number above make clear that the central promise, to move people from ATUs to community settings such as supported housing, has not be fulfilled. Nor have human rights abuses in ATUs gone away.

Eight years on and another BBC Panorama documentary exposes the shocking treatment of people with a learning disability and/or autism in an ATU, this time in Whorlton Hall hospital. You can read our response to Whorlton Hall and the need for a human rights response to human rights abuses here.

Once again it was made painfully clear that the system is failing people with a learning disability and/or autism and enabling human rights abuses to take place. Winterbourne View and Whorlton Hall are not just examples of individual staff doing bad things, they are made possible by an institutional regime and organisational culture where people are not treated as individuals with equal dignity and respect, but rather are dehumanised.

The charity Skills for People has said "people should not be spending time in places like Whorlton Hall" and called for ring-fenced funding to make sure people with learning disabilities have services in the community.

As the Transforming Care report made clear eight years ago “closed institutions, with people far from home and family, deny people the right care and present the risk of poor care and abuse.” As the report also states, putting people into hospitals should only happen exceptionally and where there is good evidence that a hospital is the best setting to enable necessary assessment and treatment. People should never be left long-term in ATUs, and certainly not because there is not adequate support for them in a community setting.

Centring Human Rights

It is clear that if we do not put the legal duty to respect and protect human rights at the heart of services for people with learning disabilities and autism history will continue to repeat itself. Staff in services must receive practical human rights training and capacity-building which enables them to make their legal duty to respect and protect people’s human rights the underpinning driver of their everyday work. So too must regulators and others ensure they are monitoring and inspecting on human rights standards, and using their powers to ensure accountability.

Whilst people using services, their families and carers, must also know their rights, it isn’t good enough to leave the challenging of poor and dangerous practice to people who have already been placed in a vulnerable situation. A systemic approach is needed to make sure that people receiving treatment and care have their human rights respected and protected.

No one should be put into a situation which makes them vulnerable to having their rights to safety, choice, participation, well-being and non-discrimination breached.

Useful Human Rights Resources

At BIHR our goal is to help people know what human rights are and use them in practice. We aim to make our resources as accessible as possible so that everyone can find out about their human rights and how to use them.

On 3 July we will launch our new online advocacy tool: Know Your Human Rights, which supports people to know when their human rights may be at risk in mental health and mental capacity services, and how to use the law to resolve these issues in everyday discussions with staff.

 Other useful resources: