Millions spent on keeping adults with learning disabilities locked up, ITV News reveals

An ITV News investigation with the charity Mencap has uncovered it is costing over half a billion pounds a year to lock people up in mental health hospitals, ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith reports

Words by Reshma Rumsey, ITV News Specialist Producer

Sarah’s daughter loves being outdoors, she loves gardening, swimming and learning new songs.

But for the last decade she has been locked up in a mental health hospital because she has a learning disability.

She was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and although she has been well enough to live in the community for the past two years, she can’t because there is nowhere for her to go.

Due to the lack of funds, there is no adequate community provision for her to live the independent life she longs for, so she has no choice but to stay locked away.

ITV News' Peter Smith talks about what needs to happen for change to arise

Her mother says she has become institutionalised.

"She is a 35 year old who should be able to go shopping, enjoy her hobbies and live independently," Sarah told ITV News.

"Instead she is stuck inside a mental health hospital totally inappropriate for her needs."

Sarah’s daughter is one of 2,045 adults with learning disabilities and autism who are currently locked up in inpatient units.

An ITV News investigation with learning disability charity Mencap has uncovered it’s costing more than half a billion pounds a year to lock people like Sarah’s daughter up in mental health hospitals.

Freedom of information responses analysed by ITV News and Mencap for the financial year covering 22/23 show it’s costing £534 million a year, but it is likely to be much higher as that figure is for the basic costs and not additional needs.

Due to the lack of funds, there is no adequate community provision for her to live the independent life. Credit: ITV News

Our analysis has revealed it costs the NHS around £237,000 to detain one person in a mental health unit and with the average stay at almost five years, that rises to £1.1 million per person.

The Safe and Wellbeing Review published by NHS England in February last year revealed that 41% of people locked away don’t even need to be there.

Based on our freedom of information requests that would mean around £18 million a month is being spent from the NHS budget, locking people up whose needs could be met in the community.

Every month, 10% of patients have their discharge delayed and for more than half of them, it’s because there is a lack of housing provision.

Wendy Ewins is responsible for commissioning the right health support for people with learning disabilities and autism in the Black Country.

Her Integrated Care Board wasn’t meeting any of its targets to reduce the number of patients with learning disabilities and autism in mental health hospitals.

It was at the bottom of the table but she and the team have been able to turn things around.

When we visited Wendy, she explained how they are now able to provide a service that is having a huge impact on the lives of people with learning disabilities and autism.

"Our focus should always be on providing the right support at the right time to prevent people from experiencing crisis," she told ITV News.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know…

"Our dynamic approach is preventing people being admitted to hospital for crises that historically would have led to admission, and it makes financial sense too.

Wendy highlighted that this isn't just a financial issue.

"This is about recognising that our citizens have the best chance of leading happier, healthier lives, with secure connections and a firm sense of belonging, if they are able to remain at home, or very close by when they are distressed or unwell."

Wendy and her colleagues have set up an emergency response team. Last year they were able to prevent 53 people from being admitted into hospital.

The cost of running the six-person unit for that year was the same as the cost of keeping one person in a mental hospital for 12 months.

Wendy and her team are not only working to prevent inappropriate hospital admissions but they also help and support people to live independent and fulfilled lives in the community.

Daisy is one of them. She is 19 and autistic.

When we met her she told us her experience as an inpatient had been very traumatic, but she was keen to show us how her life has been transformed now that she is living independently.

"A lot of the time no, you can't shower by yourself, someone has to be supervising you ... It makes you feel very undignified," she said.

"I felt very distressed a lot of the time and isolated and lost because there just wasn't the staff there to support me and make me feel better.

"I was having a meltdown and they didn't understand, so instead they just sedated me."

Daisy described her experience as an inpatient as "very undignified". Credit: ITV News

Now, she says she is able to be herself.

"I'm just me, I'm just being myself. I don't feel like just a number here, I feel like me, I feel like who I am."

For more than a decade successive governments have pledged to reduced the numbers of people with learning disabilities and autism in mental health hospitals by half.

Not a single target has been met, including the most recent, which was missed this month.

Our analysis has revealed that the government is still six years away from meeting it.

Marie Caulfield, parliamentary under-secretary at the Department of Health, told ITV News that people in the system have often been in hospital "for many, many years".

"Just simply discharging them into the community is not a simple process," she said.

"For each and every one of those patients we have plans in place on how to get them discharged."

Black Country is held up as an example of good practice when it comes to including vulnerable people in the community, such as in this cafe. Credit: ITV News

NHS England told us that staff are working hard to ensure patients are discharged safely into community settings.

"National investment of £121 million this year included additional community staff, extra key workers to support children and young people in crisis and the delivery of care and treatment reviews for people at risk of being admitted at mental health inpatient settings.”

But the disability charity Mencap say this is just not good enough.

Jackie O'Sullivan, acting CEO at Mencap, said the findings show "an appalling waste of public money on the wrong type of care" and that the failure to invest in the right kind of support is "morally reprehensible".

"The scandal of locking people up and destroying lives must end," she said.

"It’s crucial the government says what they will do after March to free people and end this human rights scandal once and for all."

Sarah is angry that her daughter is being denied the chance to improve her quality of life.

"It’s been so upsetting seeing her want to live her life but instead she is trapped behind locked doors," she told ITV News.

But until there is radical change and more dedicated funds and resources, for Sarah, her daughter and many others like them, the wait goes on.

Have you heard our new podcast Talking Politics? Every week Tom, Robert and Anushka dig into the biggest issues dominating the political agenda…