Young people detained in hospitals vulnerable to abuse, report finds

Human Rights Committee chair Harriet Harman MP

Coronavirus has left the human rights of young people in detention who are autistic or have learning disabilities vulnerable to abuse.

A report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights found young people’s rights were at risk through unlawful blanket bans on visits, the suspension of routine inspections, increased use of restraint and solitary confinement, and the vulnerability of those in detention to infection with Covid-19.

In November, the committee published a report on the detention of young people who are autistic or have learning disabilities in assessment and treatment units and other mental health hospitals. It concluded people were being detained unlawfully, subjected to solitary confinement, and deprived of the right to family life.

The committee decided to revisit the issue, looking at the effect of coronavirus lockdown measures on young people who are detained.

On 18 May, it heard from parents of young people detained under the Mental Health Act 1983, as well as the Care Quality Commission (CQC), NHS England and NHS Improvement.

Mothers raised serious concerns about treatment of their children during the evidence session. Adele Green, mother of Eddie, a young man with a learning disability, told the committee: ‘When the lockdown came, it was quite quick in the sense that the hospital placed a blanket ban on anybody going in and anybody going out. Within a week, with the fear and anxiety, he tried to take his own life, which really blew us away…’

She said her son had been ‘subject to restraint and seclusion’ and ‘overmedicated’.

The latest report, Human Rights and the Government’s response to COVID-19: the detention of young people who are autistic and/or have learning disabilities, found the pandemic had resulted in human rights abuses.

It made a series of recommendations, including publication of figures relating to the use of restrictive practice; for hospitals to allow family visits; for the CQC to carry out all their inspections unannounced; and set up a telephone hotline so patients, families, and staff can report concerns or complaints.

It also said the government must prioritise the discharge of young people to safe homes in the community.

Committee chair Harriet Harman MP said: ‘There’s always a danger to vulnerable people in closed institutions. The Covid-19 lockdown increases that danger and the government must recognise it and take action.’

Dr Kevin Cleary, deputy chief inspector of hospitals and lead for mental health at the CQC, said: ‘Many of the recommendations that relate to CQC are already in place or under way. However, we are clear that there is still more work to do with people who use services, families and others, to improve the services available to people with a learning disability and/or autism.

‘We temporarily paused routine inspections at the start of the pandemic however, we have and we will go into services where there are whistleblowing concerns or other evidence that people might be at risk of harm of human rights breaches.

‘Family visits with young people in hospitals may have been challenging during the pandemic but we are encouraging providers to avoid applying blanket restrictions and to support people to maintain contact with their loved ones, including visits, during this time and at all times.’

The government has been contacted for comment.