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Learning disability task force criticises draft mental health bill

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 25 January 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:184
  1. Debashis Singh
  1. London

    The first annual report of the government appointed learning disability task force, published last week, is critical of the government on a number of counts but is most scathing on the draft mental health bill.

    The task force's criticisms of the bill are twofold. It opposes the bill's inclusion of learning disability in the category of “mental disorder” for the purposes of compulsory treatment, and it brings ministers to task for not increasing the involvement of people with learning disabilities in consultation on the bill.

    The report says: “We think it is wrong that the Government did not ask people what they thought about what was going to be in the law in a way that could be understood by people with learning disabilities. This meant they could not tell the government what they thought about it.”

    The 35 strong independent task force was set up in December 2001. Its remit was to monitor several initiatives affecting people with learning disabilities, including monitoring progress on the white paper Valuing People: A New Strategy for Learning Disability for the 21st Century, which was published in March 2001.

    Referring to Valuing People, Chris Davis, co-chairman of the task force, said: “People are very worried that there won't be enough money to make all those plans happen and really change things for the better.”

    One target set by Valuing People was to close the last long stay hospitals in England for people with learning disability by April 2004. At present 21 hospitals remain open, accommodating 1000 people, and the Valuing People support team fears that half these hospitals will still be open by the deadline.

    Another concern raised by the task force's report was the extent to which inclusion of people with learning disabilities in the new local partnership boards has been overlooked, in the haste to get the boards established.

    “Partnership boards have had to do things very quickly so they can keep up with the demands from the Government for new policies and plans. This has made it very difficult to really include people with learning disabilities in their work,” the report says.

    People with a learning disability are not a priority in mainstream government programmes, says the report. Although it acknowledges that the health department has championed the cause of people with a learning disability across Whitehall, it is doubtful whether the message “nothing about us without us” has permeated through the whole of government, rather than just among staff who work with disability, it says.

    The learning disability charity Mencap welcomes the task force's report and intends to use it to step up pressure for more government funding to implement the reforms outlined in Valuing People.

    The task force's report, Making Things Happen, is available at

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