Now ain’t the Time for your Tears


It wasn’t the abuse at Whorlton Hall that made us cry. It was the footage of it. High definition images secretly filmed and brilliant audio technology that enabled us to hear the piercing screams right in the heart of our living rooms. Very 21st century. The abuse is significantly older. But really, what were we expecting?

We are the great and the good. All of us. Especially us in professional jobs in health and social care. We are the Mr Bumble & Mrs Corneys of our day. We know abuse goes on. Whorlton Hall is not new. Ely Hospital Inquiry, 1969. Normansfield Inquiry, 1978. Cornwall, 2006. Winterbourne View, 2012. Veilstone, 2017. Mendip House 2018. Whorlton Hall, 2019.

And we are in the thick of it, the administrators, greasing the wheels, occasional apologists for it, secret exponents of it, beneficiaries of it. All of us. Especially us. Because if we weren’t, we would stop it from happening again, and again and again.

Our Big Bed Time audit found that 7 out of 10 learning disabled people living in the modern version of workhouse, the group home (see Goffman’s definition of a total institution) were in bed by 8 o’clock on a evening. Not due to exhaustion of a week of activity but due to the banality of the unit’s staffing rota. How does totalitarianism start? Hannah Ardent will tell you, it starts with banality, boredom. The bored care workers, flicking through their mobile phones, rocking back on their chairs, rolling their eyes as they casually dished out abuse was when the cruelty on display led to calls on social media that this was beyond cruel, it was willful torture of one human being by another. It makes the days goes quicker. It makes the staff night out anecdotes funnier. It makes the flirting easier. Industrial organisational culture. The people on the receiving end just happen to be people. They could be sheets of metal or customers to cold call, or buses to drive. And really, even if the people are accepted as people they aren’t people like us. The very fact that they are living and breathing seems to be reward enough given the contempt they are held in. As Mr Bumble says of those in the poor house, “What have paupers to do with soul or spirit either? It’s quite enough that we let ’em have bodies”.

Our learning from the Bedtime Audit wasn’t what we thought. When we went out to ‘disrupt’ care providers, we naively thought we would be highlighting problems with providers. But, the truth is that we knew people were going to be in bed at 8pm on a Friday night before we even went out. It’s why we went out at 8pm. We knew what we’d find. I knew it when I was a social worker and I was involved in helping people move to those places. I knew it as a team manager encouraging social workers to help move people to those places. I knew it as a senior manager rubber-stamping the support plans in panel that enabled people to move into those places. I knew it as a strategist sitting down with with planners, commissioner and financiers that enabled design and build of the system which moves people into those places. We couldn’t pretend to be shocked when we knocked on doors at 8pm on a Friday night and found people in bed. The challenge is ours, those who broker and commission and support plan people into settings where their lives are no longer their own, where people who love them can no longer ensure their happiness and their safety. We are not only in on it, we are it. We know what we are exposing people to when we move learning disabled and autistic people into “secure hospitals”. And yet still we do so. We are the architects, the Bumbles and Corneys of this age.

So when we cried watching Panorama on that night of the 22nd May 2019, did we really cry in anguish and distress as we watched Panorama, as we would if the footage was of our own family and loved ones suffering? Is it honest to say that we could empathise with learning disabled people watching in fear or with parent’s like Sara and Mark who have lived horror of their child being abused whilst in state care? Or, in our more honest moments did we really cry out against Whorlton Hall because we were made to watch the impact on human beings of our Monday to Friday jobs. Did we see the outcomes from all our panels, assessments, funding conversations between NHS Specialist Commissioning with CCGs and LAs, our pink papers and tribunal reports, our contracts and invoicing, our posturing over risk being conflated with danger, our satisfaction at negotiating funding splits and our big talk. Did we really cry with embarrassment at having to face what it looks like when it’s exposed bare and beamed back into our living rooms after we’ve clocked off. Did we watch till the end in fascinated horror, or did we avoid/switch off, did we choose to not watch as it was outside of work hours and we didn’t want to bring work home with us? After all, once our work is done, the placement brokered and the person is in the transport and whisked away to the care home, residential school/college or specialist hospital unit, we rarely have to face the consequences. They become someone else’s issue. Passed along the conveyor belt of social care to the next stage in machine.

This time we were forced to bare witness to our truth and that makes us cry – we are human, the great and the good. As we listened to the cries from people who have been dehumanised, stripped of their right to be seen as a citizen, who has a right to be loved, a right to be protected in law and right to have their inherent dignity and freedom protected by the very State that arbitrarily detained them in Whorlton Hall. Are we really as outraged as we like to think we are, or is it faux outrage which will lead to nothing really changing as we find ourselves moving on, sliding into business as usual, calming reassuring ourselves that Whorlton Hall is a problem and that if we plan properly we can eventually wipe all those rogue providers away?

So can it be different? Can we turn this around? Given that we have centuries of history that indicates the failure of the great and the good the solutions aren’t likely to come from us. We’ve no track record on sorting things for people with disabilities. However in realising this, in realising that we are an integral part of the problem we can actually aid the solution. The solution is with people with learning disabilities and those who love them, not those who are paid to process them like us. People who are rightly angry about what they saw when they watched Panorama.

Instead of leaping into action with another round of committees, reports, programme plans, we could choose to stand in solidarity with self advocates, advocates, families, the thousands of genuinely outraged people. Having spectacularly failed to transform care, the state must evidence some humility and respectfully accept that history is against it, it cannot deliver change, but those with love in their hearts can. And for those who argue it won’t be quick, I would respond with reminding them that Ely Hospital was 1969, 50 years ago. The great and good have had 50 years.

So let’s kick it off with a quick and easy win and devolve power to the genuinely outraged whose tears are genuine, driven by love. Instead of the great and the good doing the planning, integrating everything under us, let’s get on with trusting learning disabled people and their families to be the people doing the doing.

  • Imagine if for every £1 spent detaining people in ATUs, a matched £1 was put into a pot managed by learning disabled people and their families who were charged with getting the person home from the ATU.
  • What if all the ATUs, regardless of who runs them (private or public) were opened up to a group of local learning disabled people and their families who went in every day to monitor progress in closing the ATU down and reported into the group holding the funds?
  • What if every bed emptied was closed so it could never be used again and the capital receipt from sale of the former hospital was also pooled into the fund for learning disabled and autistic people and their families to invest in advocacy to safeguard justice for their peers in the future?

Anyway, panel will start again on Tuesday. We all have our jobs to do.

‘And you who philosophise disgrace

And criticise all fears

Take the rag away from your face

Now ain’t the time for your tears’

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