Dan Parton cutThe learning disability sector needs to keep pushing if more people with learning disabilities are to move out of assessment and treatment units before another abuse scandal occurs.

This week brought an unwelcome reminder of why the programme to move people with learning disabilities, wherever possible, out of assessment and treatment units and back into the community, needs to be pushed – and pushed harder. A year after they were first arrested, 7 people have been charged by Devon and Cornwall Police with conspiracy to falsely imprison and conspiracy to ill-treat vulnerable adults at three former care homes run by Atlas Project Team Ltd – Veilstone, Gatooma and Teignmead..

When the 7 were first arrested, Alison Millar a specialist lawyer in abuse claims from law firm Leigh Day, said: “The allegations we have heard make us believe this could be one of the worst incidents of abuse towards vulnerable adults in residential care and, moreover, that the abuse at Winterbourne View… was not just an isolated occurrence but a symptom of a more systematic problem in the care sector.”

The Veilstone case relates to actions that allegedly happened in 2010, the same year as the Winterbourne View scandal broke. But since then, it is difficult to see what, if anything, has really changed for people with learning disabilities who are placed in these institutions, and what has been done to address the systemic problems that exist.

Tragedies continue to happen, such as the death of Connor Sparrowhawk in an assessment and treatment unit last year. There are other similar cases across the country, as various #justicefor campaigns on Twitter attest. Reports by the Care Quality Commission have also found institutions not meeting all of their minimum care standards.

Despite the raft of inquiries and reports, as well as the establishment of such things as the Winterbourne View Joint Improvement Partnership and, more recently, the Sir Stephen Bubb-led NHS England steering group, the latest statistics – from March 31 to June 30 – show that more people were moved to an assessment and treatment unit than were moved out. 

The number of people in assessment and treatment units seems to be stubbornly stuck at about 2,500, with only 20% of those having a date to move back into the community.

While there are dedicated people out there doing great work to try and move people with learning disabilities into the community, they often find it a hugely difficult task, for a myriad of reasons – from red tape to a lack of appropriate community settings.

Of course, the situation is enormously complex and requires action in a number of areas for things to change sustainably for the better. It is not just about closing assessment and treatment units – that is pointless unless there is the support in place to enable people with learning disabilities, who often have complex needs and behaviour that challenges, to live successfully in the community.

As the Ideas Collective, a group of learning disability experts including Fiona Ritchie, managing director of learning disabilities at Turning Point and Rob Greig, chief executive of the National Development Team for Inclusion, said in August there needs to be person-centred individualised support put in place. That should be allied to a raft of other measures, such as greater training for the workforce and the creation of levers and sanctions for commissioners to follow to ensure the implementation of policy and the establishment of good practice – to name just two.

There are numerous examples of good practice out there, which show what can be done. Other areas need to learn from them. Just because things might be difficult – or cost money – to implement doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken forward. 

Without such measures, it is inevitable that another abuse scandal such as Winterbourne will occur. This is why the reform agenda needs to be continually pushed, and those in charge held to account. It may sound like repetition, but until things change, that’s how it has to be because if those in the sector don’t speak up, the need for improvement will fall down the list of priorities and nothing will change.