Eight years after the UK government and the care industry said ‘never again’ following the Winterbourne View scandal, another BBC Panorama investigation – this time exposing the horrific abuse at Whorlton Hall hospital in County Durham, England – has shown that ‘never again’ seems a long way off. Zoe Richards, Acting Chief Executive of Learning Disability Wales, reflects on the lessons we should take from last night’s programme.


For many the prospect of re-living the Winterbourne View scandal on our TV screens last night was too much. For those who did watch, no amount of pre-programme warnings of “scenes of an upsetting nature” could prepare you for the horrors that were exposed by undercover journalist Olivia Davies.

Thousands took to social media, maybe for the comfort of knowing that others were as shocked and appalled as they were. Many talked about the programme in the context of loved ones. Families were interviewed as part of the programme, and to see their utter distress was heartbreaking.

Before the programme was aired I was of the thinking that the issues would be because there would be non-professional, untrained and low-paid staff. However, it was clear that many levels of regulation were failing the patients. We saw care staff, a registered nurse, ward managers and training providers all fail on an internal level.

The Care Quality Commission, who are the inspectorate in England, missed all vital signs and gave a ‘good’ rating. Parents who visited – when able, because of the huge distances between home and placement – also missed it. It was missed because what we saw was not a case of ‘bad care’. It was abuse. And with abuse comes ‘cover up’.

We know what needs to be put in place. No long stay hospitals, people living in their own community, professionalising the care workforce, mandatory independent advocacy, and so on. The bigger picture is how society reacts as a whole.

We still have children and young people growing up, never having had a friendship with other children who have a disability. The seclusion of disabled children begins at a young age and we need to change this.

Where was the voice of individuals themselves?

Last night’s programme exposed horrific abuse that will damage people forever. We heard what professionals, families, and the media thought about it. But the voice of the person was missing. Therefore the notion of people with a learning disability and/or autism as purely recipients of care, unable themselves to contribute to society, was reinforced.

Fundamental system change is needed and can be achieved. However, the societal change needed to put people with a learning disability and/or autism in control of their lives is something we must understand and commit to, in order to underpin the systems that are so badly letting people down.

Whorlton Hall hospital, the subject of the latest undercover Panorama investigation, is an English hospital with different policies and regulatory bodies in place to Wales. We will be urgently asking questions of the current situation in Wales.

Zoe Richards
Acting Chief Executive, Learning Disability Wales