How partnerships boards are changing lives of people with learning disabilites

It wasn’t so very unusual: a woman with learning disabilities on a London bus rang the bell to get off at her stop, but the driver carried on past it, ignoring her frantic protestations. It was the sort of casual disregard that people with learning disabilities encounter all their lives. But for once, the experience led to change.

The woman was Patricia O’Connell. By chance, her advocacy worker was filming the incident. The film was shown to Westminster Partnership Board, where service users are the main voice. They invited a Transport for London (TfL) representative to their next meeting to hear their views on local transport and how it could be improved. A TfL rep duly attended and the result was a leaflet on travel for people with learning disabilities more importantly, the service users also took part in a special training programme for bus drivers.

It’s an example of a partnership board working as intended, but the picture across all 150 boards in England is patchy. There are examples of good practice but some boards are useless.

Partnership boards were introduced as a means of turning the fine ideals in the Valuing People white paper into reality. By that measure, they still have a long way to go. In fact, the government is looking at the role of partnership boards as part of its refreshing Valuing People exercise. The question is, what’s to be done with them?

According to Rob Greig, the Department of Health co-national director for learning disabilities, the challenge for partnership boards is getting the balance right between involving people properly and making things happen.

“A minority spend too much time focusing on involvement and ensuring people are included, and they forget they are there to drive forward changes that improve people’s lives,” Greig says. “Having meetings is not the main reason for the existence of partnership boards. It’s about how you include people every day in between those meetings.”

Greig also believes a lot of work needs to be done to gain wider recognition for partnership boards among outside organisations. “For example, say a further education college wants to make changes to courses for people with learning disabilities: they should be doing it in negotiation with the partnership board. We must find a way to drive home the message that the boards are the government’s recognised vehicle for ensuring we get services right for people with learning disabilities.”

For John Higgins, joint commissioning manager with Westminster Learning Disability Partnership, part of the problem is that the Department of Health is the only government department that has signed up to Valuing People.

“We don’t have cross-departmental sign-up for joint targets,” he says. “That’s a problem as enabling people with learning disabilities to have a good quality of life is often about mainstream stuff rather than just what health and social care can do.

He adds: “So far the boards’ role has been about influencing rather than demanding, but I see us moving toward becoming more of a decision-making body.”

One way that partnership boards could increase their clout is by raising their profile. In 2003, Mencap produced a report, Out of Sight Out of Mind, which found that only 27% of partnership boards met in public and many people were unaware of their work.

Things have improved since and more partnership boards hold meetings in public. But Mencap’s campaigns manager, Carol Herrity, believes there is still much to be done. “It’s important to ensure the meetings and practices are truly open and inclusive and not just tokenistic tick-box exercises, which I’m afraid is still the case in some areas,” she says.

Andrew Holman, director of Inspired Services, agrees that boards too often simply rubber-stamp decisions already made elsewhere. “Real decision-making about services comes with money and the power to spend it,” he says. “And while some authorities have given the Learning Disability Development Fund cash to partnership boards to spend, many haven’t. Indeed, some are spending it on completely unrelated areas.”

Despite the problems, Greig remains optimistic about Valuing People and the ability of partnership boards to make it happen.

“For all their shortcomings, partnership boards are the best vehicle we have and people with learning disabilities are more involved now than they ever were without them,” he says.

Good practice (back)

We asked all 150 partnership boards in England to give examples of how they had made a difference to people with learning disabilities. Here are some of the responses:

Oxfordshire has a range of projects, including a flexible respite pilot scheme.
Boards in North Yorkshire focus on bullying and have helped set up hate crime reporting centres.
Kingston is supporting a new bill of rights for people with learning disabilities.
Torbay ran a money matters event involving banks after people with learning disabilities said they had little control over their money.
Service users on the Isle of Wight have pushed for funding for a dating agency and the partnership board has now agreed.
Service users on the Buckinghamshire board highlighted problems with finding care managers. This led to the system being made more accessible and easier to navigate.
Nottinghamshire’s board produced a Smile No Bullying pack with vouchers for free training.
In East Sussex self-advocates asked the board to intervene over their concerns about special needs transport.
Cumbria has drawn up a multi-agency commissioning strategy setting out its intentions, such as “improving housing choices” (with details of how it is going to do it).

➔ For more from partnership boards who want to share good practice, go to

The service user experience

“You get to the meeting and most of the time it’s all cut and dried. And they put too much on the agenda. There’s just not enough time to get through it.”

Anthony Mitchell, Waltham Forest People First

“With the last board I was on, the professionals and carers got more say than we did. But now I’m on a new board and it’s much better. They are going to have public meetings – we didn’t do that before.”

Gavin Harding, York People First

“We need to meet more regionally as well as locally to achieve things with partnership boards. This will help exchange ideas and good practice. There are some good partnership boards out there – these may be good to support those who are struggling.”

Gary Boulet, founder member, People First

Further information
Search under “partnerships” at

Contact the author
 Janet Snell

This article appeared in the 26th July issue under the headline “Shifting up a gear”

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