All parties are responsible for the disgrace of Winterbourne View

by Peter Watt

Sometimes you read something so depressing and so disheartening that it ruins your day.  I have just had that experience as I read the report from South Gloucestershire Safeguarding Adults Board into the appalling events that took place at Winterbourne View hospital.

You will remember the case; Winterbourne View was a hospital based in Bristol for adults with learning disabilities and autism.  A BBC Panorama undercover journalist secured a job there following a whistle-blower contacting them with concerns about the abuse of patients.  The resulting programme shocked all who saw it and has resulted in eleven former workers pleading guilty to almost 40 charges of abuse and Winterbourne View, owned by Castlebeck Ltd, being closed.

I should declare an interest here.  Two of my children have special needs and may very well need some form of supervised accommodation as adults.  I also have a brother in his early thirties who is in a smallish supervised accommodation unit.  Worrying about what happens when they are older and you aren’t there to protect them is something that all parents worry about.  To be honest, as a parent of children with special needs, the fear is debilitating.

Reading the report into events at Winterbourne View is like reading an account of some of my very worst nightmares.

Remember that we are talking about some of our most vulnerable fellow human beings here who are least able to defend themselves.   The quality of their lives really is in the hands of those entrusted with their care; if bad things happen when noone else is looking then nobody may ever know.

And at Winterbourne View there was certainly abuse (I personally would call it torture) with patients being humiliated, physically restrained, covered in cold water and left outside, hurt and over-prescribed sedatives.

There is heart-breaking testimony of the way that people were treated before they were even admitted and the appalling on-going impact of the abuse:

“Families acknowledged that their relatives had been traumatised by their experiences at Winterbourne View hospital. For example, Tom was admitted to the hospital directly from his Family home. Although he had been distressed by bullying at college, he had secured employment where he did well until he was promoted. The stress of this became too great and following a “big bust” he was permanently excluded from his workplace. When Tom took an overdose his family acknowledged that he required more help than they could offer or could be provided by local services and he was admitted to Winterbourne View hospital for assessment. He was transported by two uniformed men in a security van with darkened windows. His family were informed that they should not visit for a month.  Since Tom attempted to abscond – to return to his family – he was detained for treatment.

The family became attuned to Tom’s distress during his placement at Winterbourne View hospital.  He told them about abuses that he experienced and witnessed.  They reported these to the manager who dismissed their concerns with  the suggestion that Tom would say “anything” to return home. Since the transmission of Undercover care: the abuse exposed, Tom’s behaviour has deteriorated.  He has burned the clothes he wore at the hospital and because he recalled the cruelties and fear associated with entering toilets and bathrooms, he began to urinate in cups and his hygiene deteriorated.  Since the home he was placed in after Winterbourne View hospital could not manage Tom’s distress and suicidal gestures, he has been transferred to a secure unit.”

A culture developed where one set of human beings with power over some others abused that power.  The powerless stopped being “human” and became objects.

But the abuse began earlier than any decision by any family.  It started with the commissioning process.  The local health authority commissioned a service that met their institutional need rather than the needs of the patients.

Instead of worrying what services would best meet the needs of the patients, they were offered a solution that for £3500 a week put up to 24 “difficult” patients out-of-sight and out of mind.  It wasn’t a therapeutic or caring environment focused on outcomes for patients; it was a no better than a prison camp with nice paint and curtains.  Being out-of-sight meant that the patients were not listened to and nor were their families.  Countless complaints and even visits by the police were ignored.  And “Tom” and his fellow patients and their families are now living with the consequences.

I do not believe that this is a private versus public issue.  Right now, in hospitals and care settings across the country there will sadly be vulnerable adults who are receiving sub-standard care or worse.  Some will be public and some will be private.

The issue is threefold: firstly the commissioning process has to be patient-needs lead.

It’s supposed to be but certainly isn’t always.  Walk-in centres and day-surgical units are great because those who use them will generally complain if the service is poor.  But the same is not true for services for more vulnerable groups and commissioners need to do more than play lip-service to this.

Secondly the system of checks and regulation is weak and leaves the vulnerable exposed to the dangers of abuse.  The system of inspection and the way that complaints and concerns are dealt with needs significantly tightening.

And thirdly: people.  There is a dangerous assumption that people who choose to work in the caring professions are all basically good.  Well this clearly is not true!  There will always be a small minority of people who given a chance will harm others and pretending otherwise is allowing people to be harmed behind closed doors and curtains.

Abusing vulnerable adults who are in your care should be specifically criminalised in the same way that abusing children is.

As the conclusion to the report into the events at Winterbourne View says:

“The origins of Winterbourne View hospital were not based on a local population needs assessment.  Castlebeck Ltd spotted a business opportunity and were not discouraged by NHS commissioners.  They had indicated their willingness to buy its services irrespective of national policy and guidance.  The Review confirms that the apparatus of oversight across sectors was unequal to the task of uncovering the fact and extent of abuses and crimes at the hospital.”

Surely to god we can do better than this?

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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3 Responses to “All parties are responsible for the disgrace of Winterbourne View”

  1. Fascinating, albeit very depressing piece, but the problem is that it is a public vs private issue.

    The point of transferring services like this to the private sector is to save money (and make lots for corporations who lobby for these services to be outsourced). When cutting costs becomes the objective situations like the one at Winterbourne View become more likely.

    The public sector wasn’t, isn’t and won’t be perfect but at least there is the possibility of a bit more accountability and oversight.

  2. Tris says:

    We can.

    and do.

    Everybody in care knows that personalisation and giving those who need care more control over how money is spent on them are good agendas to pursue. The problem is how you make that work within an institutionalised setting where workers have to complete tasks within 15 minute segments. The alternative is refreshingly simple.

    There are around 10,000 Shared Lives carers in the UK, caring for people within their own home and family.

    It’s a shameless plug for the organisation I work for, but it is a powerful and uplifting moment when you hear from our members about vulnerable adults who go on holiday for the first time, cook a meal for the first time – get boyfriends, girlfriends, jobs for the first time. All because they are cared for within a family (and community) setting. It’s also a lot cheaper than £3,500 a week!

    If you were planning the future of care in the UK – would you want more hospitals and care homes, or more families?

    Check us out – you’ll be amazed!

  3. StevieWonderBoy says:

    @representing the mambo

    Question:- In what way would a private care home provider be under any less of a requirement for inspection and subsequent oversight? If so, could you qualify your statement with some factual information?

    Your statement seems to imply that there is less oversight and inspections in the private sector?

    Also could you provide statistics on publicly run care homes that have actually been shutdown due to poor inspections vs. private ones?

    @Tris – Your charity sounds like a brilliant idea.

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