Defining moment

A chance in a generation, for once, a politician’s prediction
was not hyperbole. Last October, when health minister John Hutton
spoke about the importance of the then forthcoming white paper on
learning difficulty services, he was right. It is exactly 30 years
since Barbara Castle, then Labour’s health and social services
secretary, made her mark with Better Services for the Mentally

Will a future generation look at Valuing People with
the same regard as the Castle white paper is now viewed? A
qualified “yes”. The new white paper starts from the principles
that have long been sought but have often proved elusive since the
closure of the long-stay hospitals began – the very virtues which
health secretary Alan Milburn states: civil rights, independence,
choice and inclusion. In short, the right to an ordinary life that
includes meaningful employment and housing, and access to services
like health care. Too often a life in the community (and there is
now, importantly, a generation that has never seen a long-stay
hospital) has meant institutional housing, and uninspired day care
offered by underpaid and untrained staff.

No one will question what Fred Heddell, Mencap’s chief
executive, has called the white paper’s “aspirations”. Certainly,
the £2.3 million to fund citizen advocacy is welcome. As is
the creation for every person of a specialist health facilitator
and individual health plans, given that access to health care is
particularly obstructed for people with learning difficulties.

There are fine words about modernising services and resettlement
from still-existing hospitals to allow individual choice, and
person-centred planning for a more rights-based approach to
services. But these and other aspirations will remain just that,
unless more significant sums than the £108 million a year
specified so far are found, and unless there are mechanisms to
ensure action.

If these requirements are met, what better monument could there
be to Labour’s modernisation agenda than to bring 1.5 million
socially excluded fellow citizens in from the cold?

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