Countdown to the White paper

Despite stories in the press about delays to the White Paper, as far as we can tell, it remains on track for publishing in ‘the Spring’. ‘Spring’ in civil service speak lasts well into June, of course. We’ve got a fair idea of what’s going to be in it, because the government involved lots of people from the sector in drafting the early ideas and strongly welcomed the ideas we came up with around prevention and the help which people and communities need to tackle problems like isolation, which services cannot fix.

As well as setting the tone for the whole sector for years to come, a good White Paper needs one or two eye-catching initiatives, which capture the imagination as well as the spirit of the policy changes. The impact of complex policy changes can be difficult to grasp by those not immersed in how social care legislation and regulations work, but who nevertheless have strong views on what good care, support and inclusion looks like. Sometimes relatively small-scale changes can exemplify the broader intentions.

So whilst I could take a good guess at the range of policy shifts we’re likely to see in the White Paper and I’m not expecting to be surprised by its ‘narrative’, here’s a rather specific idea which I’ve no reason to think is anywhere in it, but which I think should be considered:

Close as many as humanly possible of the remaining 100+ ‘hospitals’ for people with learning disabilities.

These are the institutions, often ostensibly used for assessment of people considered ‘challenging’, which were made infamous by the BBC Panorama expose of Winterbourne View. The recent CQC inspections of these institutions which followed that exposé  are not finding that all are havens for abuse –far from it. There will be many dedicated and skilled staff working in such places – I used to be a care assistant in a residential home for people considered challenging and I came across no abusive staff and plenty of entirely lovely people working long hours for little money.

But CQC has been finding a significant number of places which are completely unacceptable: buildings which smell of urine; services which lack the proper safeguarding procedure and protection for people’s rights; people with no care plans; worryingly lax use of restraint. The reason such places should not exist is not, however, that they are places where abuse is more likely, although I believe that the risk of abuse increases when people are managed as part of a large group and spend little time outside of an institution. The reason such places should not exist is that, even if they are run brilliantly, a 20 or 30 bed ‘hospital’ in a non-residential area with locked doors and the conflicting support needs of large numbers of ‘challenging’ people, may be able to deliver warmth, food and shelter, but can never deliver the basic quality of life which we take as read: real relationships with people who aren’t paid to be with you. The chance to be a part of a community. ‘Ordinary’ home and family life. You’re much more likely to learn the skills and attitudes you need to take part in ordinary life when you’re living in an ordinary family home. Although the stated purpose of care offered in these ‘hospitals’ is to assess people’s needs, in reality, some people spend months or even years living there because no alternative has been found.

But Shared Lives and other community-based forms of support are in almost every area and have a track record of supporting people considered challenging (see Alan’s story). They are not even more expensive than these institutions – commissioners often make huge savings through helping someone switch to Shared Lives. The heavy lifting of closing long stay institutions has already been done for us. There aren’t many left: let’s make this White Paper an opportunity to close that chapter of history for good.

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