The past five years have been hard times for many people with learning disabilities. The results of the recent Quality Checking of Government by the Learning Disability Alliance (LDA) England bore this out: overall, the coalition government’s performance since May 2010 was rated as just two out of 10.
The majority of the 2,000 people surveyed by LDA England – half of which were people with learning disabilities, 27% families and the remainder other people who support those with learning disabilities – said that many areas of their lives had become ‘much worse’ in the past five years.
Survey respondents were asked to score the government in 12 areas: rights, advocacy, family life, community, income, education, work, home, support, health, safety and justice.
The worst scores given were in the areas of income and taxes and work, with 69% saying it was a lot worse. One respondent said: “I have had benefits cut to a point where we are running up massive debts.” The government were also scored badly in the areas of rights, advocacy, family, education, home, support and justice.
Eighty percent said their family life was worse under this government. One respondent said: “Most support services are no longer there.”
While the government fared better in the areas of community life, health and safety, its performance was still “dismal”, according to the LDA England. Overall, the government scored three out of 10 in these areas, but with 52% saying community life was now a lot worse.
Five years of failure?
These figures will have made for grim reading for the government, as it displayed the strength of feeling in the learning disability community against a range of policies.
The past five years also saw the demise of the government’s specific learning disability strategy, Valuing People Now, which was curtailed in 2011, before the end of its three-year remit. Since then, there has been no national government-led learning disability strategy in England and Wales – although Scotland has its own, The Keys to Life – and there has been a feeling among some that learning disability issues have fallen down the political agenda.
This feeling was exacerbated by the government’s response to the Winterbourne View abuse scandal. Last year, the government missed its own self-imposed deadline to move all people inappropriately housed in assessment and treatment units (ATUs) back into the community. Currently, there are still more than 2,500 people living in ATUs, many of whom have no date for a move back into the community.
That said, there have been government initiatives in the past five years that have been geared to improving the lives of people with learning disabilities. For example, the special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) reforms in schools implemented last year provided a rethink on how children are supported. There is also the government’s on-going commitment to the personalisation agenda and people having more say over their care, support and lifestyle.
Learning disability policies
The election provides people with learning disabilities and their families and supporters to have their say on this government – and the other parties – and what they want them to do next. Their decisions could help to influence what happens in their lives for the next five years.
With this in mind, Learning Disability Today contacted each of the five main political parties – the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and UKIP – to find out what their policies for people with learning disabilities are. In the interests of fairness, each party were posed the same questions, which were:
1. If your party is elected, do you have any plans to put in place a specific strategy for people with learning disabilities, such as Valuing People Now? If yes, what will it contain? If no, why not?
2. Will your party seek to do more to address the discrepancy in lifespan between people with learning disabilities and the general population, as highlighted in 2013’s Confidential Inquiry into the premature deaths of people with learning disabilities?
3. What will your party do to address the issues that were highlighted by the Winterbourne View scandal and the numbers of people still stuck in assessment and treatment units?
4. Will there be more assistance for people with autism and/or learning disabilities to get jobs under your government? The majority of people with learning disabilities want to work, yet fewer than 10% have paid employment?
5. What will be your policy on welfare benefits? For instance, a long-standing criticism has been that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for Employment and Support Allowance does not adequately take into consideration conditions such as autism – will there be any plans to address such concerns?
6. Many people with mild to medium learning disabilities are now being pushed out of social care. While they may only miss out on a few hours of care a week, it can be the difference between living independently in the community and not. Will your government look to address this? While none of the parties were willing to put anyone forward for an interview, they did provide written answers to the questions or a statement:
A Conservative Party spokesman said:
1.The Conservative Party wants people with learning disabilities to fulfil their potential. We are committed to listening to people with learning difficulties, in order to better understand how to effectively support them and ensure that they are able to play a full role in society. That is why since 2010 we have been working to change attitudes toward those with learning disabilities, improve opportunities for work and improve the support available.
2. We want to see a culture change so that people with learning disabilities, autism and complex needs, as well as their family carers, are able to access the best possible quality care and support in the same way as anyone else can. We expect this to lead to better outcomes and fewer premature deaths.
3. The revelations at Winterbourne View were appalling. We are determined that people get looked after properly, with the care they deserve. We have strengthened the Care Quality Commission – the organisation that inspects care homes – it is now carrying out more unannounced inspections and listening to more whistle-blowers raising concerns, so when things go wrong we can put them right. We are also making the social care system fairer. From April 2016, there will be a cap on costs – protecting people from unlimited bills – and a lower means threshold, so thousands more people get help with the cost.
4. Helping people with learning disabilities needs to start at a young age. That is why we are taking action to improve support for people with learning difficulties in schools. We have made funding available for teachers and support staff to take new classes and qualifications and we are working with partners, including the teaching unions, to produce materials to help school staff. We are also providing schools with funding and assistance to tackle bullying of young people with learning difficulties. The government’s SEND reforms have extended rights and protection to young people and introduced a new education, health and care plan that reflects the aspirations of young people and the outcomes they want to achieve. It helps them prepare for adult life, including employment and independent living.
5. We are also committed to helping people with learning disabilities find work. We have launched a job-shadowing work-placement initiative for young disabled people, specifically involving individuals with autism and learning disabilities, while through the Disability Confident campaign the government is working with employers to remove barriers, increase understanding and ensure that disabled people have the opportunities to realise their aspirations. A number of adjustments are also made to help people with hidden impairments navigate the Jobcentre Plus system, including giving them more time to digest information and providing them with practical assistance. In the last year alone, there has been a 4.2% increase in the employment rate of people with learning difficulties.
6. We want to ensure equal opportunities for people with learning disabilities in all aspects of their lives, changing attitudes and supporting families throughout Britain. A majority Conservative government will continue to work hard towards that goal.
The Labour party did not respond directly to the questions, but did provide a statement: Labour is determined to support people with learning disabilities to fulfil their potential and to live independently. Our education system must develop every individual’s potential and enable them to achieve their ambitions, and those with learning disabilities should also have access to good careers advice and support. We will reform the failing Work Capability Assessment and appoint an independent group of disabled people to review its operation. We will ensure our reforms to replace the failing Work Programme with a dedicated programme of Work Support, contracted locally and provided by specialist providers, which meets the needs of those with learning disabilities. And we will legislate to introduce a specific offence of disability hate crime to protect those with learning disabilities from disgraceful and criminal abuse.
The latest report on Winterbourne View shows that 2,600 people are still stuck in ATUs, far away from their families and friends. The Department [of Health]’s own data shows that more people are entering these units than leaving them. Labour believes that the government should ensure that people are moved out of hospital and into the community as swiftly as possible. People with learning disabilities coming out of ATUs and their families should also be guaranteed the right to have a personal budget for their care, backed up with high quality advocacy and support. This would fundamentally shift power into their hands.
The Greens’ disability spokesperson Mags Lewis responded to the questions:
1. The Green Party’s Equality and Diversity Committee is currently working up specific strategies for people with
learning disabilities, and, as part of this work, the charity Living Autism are running diversity training courses at our Spring Conference in March. The aim of the training is to learn how to engage more positively with all members, and those with learning disabilities in particular. Our policy sets out: “The Green Party is committed to the maxim adopted by the Disability movement ‘nothing about us without us’.”
2. Yes. Inequality in this area is something we would want to eradicate, and this is underlined in our policies. For example, “The Green Party would extend present UK legislation to ensure that disabled people are treated as full citizens with protection against any discrimination.”
3. We are currently working on a draft Green Party Manifesto for Disability Rights, and as part of this we are looking at whether the government should close all NHS and private assessment and treatment units, presently used to assess people with complex learning and mental health disabilities, with the exception of a small number. We are looking at whether those that remain should accommodate people for no more than a month to enable people’s care and support to be reviewed. In addition, our policy states that: “Public awareness of the level of oppression of disabled people must be raised through a public awareness campaign to be devised jointly with disabled peoples’ groups.”
4. The Green Party believes passionately in enabling everyone to contribute to, and be part of society. This is outlined further in the following policies:
“DY406 Disabled people have a right to services and supports that enable them to participate as full members of our democratic society, particularly elected office.”
“DY500 The Green Party recognises that the majority of disabled people live in poverty and will work towards ensuring that this is addressed through its income policies and by ensuring effective equality of opportunity in education, training and employment.”
5. We feel the current Work Capability Assessment is not fit for purpose. We also feel that contracting out assessments to the private sector is unhelpful. We believe government policy should not be based on the advice of private sector companies which will profit from the advice they give.
6. Absolutely! We all know that we all suffer in the long-term if short-term cuts and decisions are made in isolation. We appreciate what a lifeline one or two hours of support can be to individuals, and argue that cutting such services makes neither financial nor moral sense. Our policy is that disabled people should be guaranteed the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination.
A Liberal Democrat spokesperson said:
1.If elected, the Liberal Democrats would want to consult with the learning disability sector to identify the key areas of improvement to target following on from Valuing People Now and seek to develop a further strategy to deliver those. Our policy would focus on further reform following the Winterbourne View scandal, increasing the use of personal health and care budgets and a strategy to tackle premature mortality among people with learning disabilities.
2. As a party we will set ambitious goals to target premature mortality so that average life expectancy in the UK is improved. As part of this strategy we will focus on those groups who have dramatically lower life expectancy, including people with mental health problems and those with learning disabilities. This is because we believe in a fairer society, but also by focusing on these groups we will improve the performance of the NHS as a whole.
3. The Liberal Democrats are committed to consulting on using legislative changes to speed up the Winterbourne
4. Many groups, whether they have disabilities, mental health problems or learning disabilities are underrepresented in areas of the UK’s labour market. Liberal Democrats are committed to working towards equality of opportunity for all and to breaking down the barriers that prevent these groups from entering into, and successfully staying in, employment. We would ensure people with mental and physical health conditions get the right support to get back to work through closer working between the NHS and employment support providers recognising the link between employment and mental and physical wellbeing.
5. Liberal Democrats have done much to improve support for people with disabilities – uprating disability benefits at a higher rate than others, making improvements to the Personal Independence Payment and improving the WCA – introduced under Labour. Yet we understand the challenges faced by people with disabilities, and that there is much more we must do to ensure the support they receive is in a way that is fair. The WCA was introduced to test whether those claiming ESA are able to work. While it is right that we should ensure that those who receive disability related benefits are those who need it, it is absolutely vital that the assessments are fair and perceived to be so, as highlighted by the independent review of the WCA25.
6. The Liberal Democrats want to integrate support better between the Department for Work and Pensions, social care and health so that people are identified earlier and given the help they need to live fulfilling lives. We want to aim for one assessment and one budget for disabled and sick people to give them more choice and control over their support.
UKIP were approached to contribute to this feature, but could not provide comment before the magazine went to press.
On April 2, LDA England will measure how well each political party is going to defend the rights of people with learning disabilities in the future. It will publish the results and encourage people to use this information to decide how they should vote in the election