A number of charities have expressed deep concerns following the catalogue of alleged abuse at a residential hospital for people with learning disabilities shown on BBC’s Panorama programme last night.

The investigative documentary – centred on Winterbourne View in Bristol – found that patients, many of whom had autism or learning disabilities, were repeatedly pinned down, slapped, taunted, teased and dragged into showers while fully clothed. Since the programme aired, Bristol and Avon Constabulary confirmed they had made a number of arrests, and Castlebeck, which owns the hospital, has suspended 13 employees. A number of charities have expressed their horror at the findings.

For example, Mencap’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, said: “The catalogue of abuse that Panorama has uncovered at Winterbourne View is appalling. People with a learning disability should be treated with the same dignity and respect as anyone else in our society and it is truly harrowing to see vulnerable people suffer at the hands of those who are supposed to care for them. “Unfortunately this is not a one-off case. There is a history of abuse scandals that have been made public, such as those in Sutton and Merton, and Cornwall in 2007. Institutional care means that quite often people with a learning disability live far away from friends and family who care for them, so there is no one to notice any disturbing behaviour. People who need specialist care must be better protected, instead of being kept out of sight and out of mind. “The people in Winterbourne View may have been failed by agencies, such as the Primary Care Trust and the Care Quality Commission, but it is the staff and managers who have shown an unforgivable lack of humanity. Those who choose to work in this environment should want to take care of the disadvantaged, value the lives of their patients and treat them with the respect they deserve. It is a poisonous culture that needs to change.”

Meanwhile, The English Community Care Association, a representative body for independent care providers, said the programme showed unacceptable levels of abuse and that it has lessons for everyone.

It’s chief executive, Martin Green, said: “There is absolutely no excuse for the abuse of vulnerable people and Panorama had messages for every part of the care system. Care providers, staff and regulators must all work together to ensure that services are of a high quality and free from abuse." “Last night’s programme will have undermined the confidence of the public in care services and will be of great concern to the majority of care staff who provide high quality services. I hope that the Panorama programme will start a debate about how we can improve the provision, commissioning and regulation of care services.”

Alison Giraud-Saunders, co-director of the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, said that the scenes highlighted that the institutional care model is "fundamentally flawed. She said: It is this model that failed to support and protect the people in its care, with a serious lack of skilled staff unable to engage people in a purposeful way, with clinicians failing to use professional judgement and with higher management being absent. “Enclosed institutions, such as the privately-run learning disability hospital featured in the programme, will always put people with learning disabilities at risk of abuse and neglect, regardless of how diligent the particular organisation running them may or may not be. Banning parents and other family members from visiting living areas is part of a seriously unethical and alarming framework for care. “Perhaps the most perverse aspect of this situation is that public money is still being used to support the running of these institutions in the private sector, a decade after the Department of Health’s Valuing People strategy directed the closure of their NHS equivalents on the grounds that they fostered environments where abuse was a high risk. “Inspection and monitoring  by the CQC and care managers needs re-designing, as the current processes allows too much scope for abuse to go undetected, and for people in care to lack the protection they need. A local citizen-led service to support change and to challenge these services where necessary may bring local people closer to those who need support. However, the institutional model will always carry risks and personalised support should be arranged instead. “The additional problem now is that, due to cuts in NHS and local authority budgets, we are losing many of the skilled NHS and local authority commissioners who might be able to direct people with learning disabilities to more appropriate, lower risk services.”