You can download this Explainer as a PDF here.

On 12 June 2020, the UK parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report on the impact the government’s response to Covid-19 (Coronavirus) is having on young people with learning disabilities and/or Autism of young people who are detained. You can read the full report here.

The report finds that the Covid-19 crisis has resulted in human rights abuses. Young people's rights are at risk through unlawful blanket bans on visits, the suspension of routine inspections, increased use of restraint and solitary confinement, and the vulnerability of those in detention to infection with Covid-19.

What is the Joint Committee on Human Rights?  

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) consists of twelve members, appointed from both the House of Commons (MPs) and the House of Lords (peers). Their role is to examine matters relating to human rights within the United Kingdom. Last year the JCHR looked into the detention of young with learning disabilities and/ or Autism. They published a report which condemned the “horrific reality” of conditions and treatment under which many young people with learning disabilities and Autism are detained in mental health hospitals. They found this is “inflicting terrible suffering on those detained and causing anguish to their distraught families”. You can read our Explainer on that report here.

On 19 March 2020 the JCHR announced they would be conducting an inquiry into the implications for human rights of the Government’s Covid-19 response. As part of this inquiry we took evidence on 18 May from parents of young people who are Autistic or have a learning disability. After hearing their evidence, the Committee published their report of findings and recommendations.

Why did the inquiry take place?

In response to Covid-19, the UK Government introduced emergency legislation giving it new powers which are intended to help in containing and coping with the pandemic in the UK. Many of these changes have the potential to impact people’s human rights. You can read our BIHR Explainers on the changes to law and policy here.

On 19 March, the JCHR announced that they would be conducting an inquiry which will seek to examine the Government’s actions to ensure that its approach is compliant with human rights.

 

What issues does the report look at?

The JCHR inquiry into the implications for human rights of the Government’s Covid-19 response is looking at many different issues such as the impact on care homes, technology and privacy and prisons. However, this report is focused on the impact the Government’s response to Covid-19 is having on younger people with who are Autistic or have a learning disability and are currently detained under the Mental Health Act 1983.

What does the report say about impact of the Government’s response to Covid-19 on young people with learning disabilities and/or Autism who are detained?

The report finds that the Covid-19 crisis, and the responses of different bodies and organisations to the pandemic, has resulted in human rights abuses for young people with learning disabilities and/or autism. The report refers to last year’s report on the detention of young people with learning disabilities and/ or autism which called for an overhaul of inspections and changes to the Mental Health Act 1983 to protect those detained from breaches of their human rights. It also recommended the Government creates a Number 10 unit with Cabinet level leadership to urgently drive forward reform. The Government’s response to the report was expected in February but has been delayed due to Covid-19.

The current report finds that the already existing risks to young people’s human rights have been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. The evidence has shown that there are unlawful blanket bans on visits, the suspension of routine inspections, the increased use of restraint and solitary confinement, and the vulnerability of those in detention to infection with Covid-19 (due to underlying health conditions and  social distancing not being practical in such hospitals and units). All this means that “the situation is now a severe crisis”. The JCHR finds that claims of progress from those overseeing the detention system are not backed up by the evidence from parents. Rather the situation has worsened for many young people.

Evidence heard by the JCHR has shown that blanket visiting bans are in place in some mental health hospitals. The report states that this is a breach of the right to private and family life (Article 8 HRA) for both patients and their families. The failure to adopt an individualised approach to the safety of visits is also contrary to the Code of Practice to the Mental Health Act 1983 and NHS England guidance.

The report has also found an increased use of restrictive practices which can create conditions that amount to a violation of the right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3 HRA). Examples that parents told the JCHR about included their children being subjected to increased use of restraint; seclusion (possibly amounting to solitary confinement); and overmedication, during the period of the Covid-19 outbreak.

The report also raises concerns around the Care Quality Commission’s decision to suspend routine inspections in order to reduce the pressure on health and social care services. The report notes that by not carrying out routine inspections, these institutions are even more closed than before, and those in them are even more vulnerable to abuse.

The JCHR voices concern about inappropriate detention and failure to discharge people from hospitals and units, back into the community. Stating that “now, more than ever, rapidly progressing the discharge of young people to safe homes in the community must be a top priority for the Government.”

Finally, the report highlights the need for comprehensive and accessible data about the number of people who are Autistic and/or learning disabled who have contracted and died of Covid-19. Currently the data is not adequate to understand what is happening, and inform what further steps need to be made.

What recommendations does the report make? 

The report makes a series of recommendations which the JCHR says must be urgently acted on in order to put a stop to these human rights abuses. These include:

  • NHS England must write immediately to all hospitals, including private ones in which it commissions placements, stating that they must allow families to visit their loved ones, unless a risk assessment has been carried out about the individual’s circumstances which shows clear reasons specific to that person about why it would not be safe to do so.
  • Figures on the use of restrictive practices, including physical and medical restraint and any form of segregation, detailing any times where this goes beyond 22 hours per day and amounts to solitary confinement, must be published weekly by the institutions. These figures must be provided to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and reported to Parliament.
  • The Care Quality Commission (CQC) should carry out all their inspections unannounced; this is particularly important where any allegation of abuse is reported by a young person, parent, or whistle-blower.
  • The CQC must prioritise in-person inspections at institutions with a history of abuse/malpractice, and those which have been rated inadequate/requires improvement.
  • The CQC should set up a telephone hotline to enable all patients, families, and staff to report concerns or complaints during this period.
  • Now, more than ever, rapidly progressing the discharge of young people to safe homes in the community must be a top priority for the Government. The recommendations from the Committee’s 2019 report must be implemented in full.
  • Comprehensive and accessible data about the number of those who are Autistic and/or learning disabled who have contracted and died of Covid-19 must be made available and include a focus on those in detention, for whom the state has heightened responsibility for their right to life.


What happens now?

The Committee is now awaiting the government's response to the report. 

Where can I find more information?

The rights of young people with learning disabilities and/or Autism is central to our work here at BIHR. Human Rights should be the framework for all decision making. They are too often only discussed when addressing failures in services, but human rights based decision making means that better quality decision making happens from the outset. 

Below are some links to our previous blog posts and resources that you may find useful.