I was reminded yesterday that sometimes it’s the things and acts and opinions that appear most reasonable that have the greatest potential to do harm. In an opinion piece on Jonty Bravery, Libby Purves wrote an article in the Times entitled: “Tate attack shows community care is in crisis”. In the article Purves argues for the continued institutionalisation of people with the most complex needs:
Scandals such as Winterbourne View are not inevitable. There are some well run, humane residential institutions especially small ones linked to relevant charities…
She goes onto suggest that if Jonty Bravery had been in such a humane institution, he probably wouldn’t have been given permission to go out into the community unsupervised.
At a certain level Purves’ article seems reasonable, especially when compared with some of the other coverage that Bravery’s actions have given rise to, and especially when we consider the horrific nature of those actions. But the reality is that the institutions needed to protect the community from people who pose a threat to it already exist, as does the legal framework needed to ensure that those institutions are used. Government initiatives to reduce the number of people in inpatient hospitals following Winterbourne View, have always recognised that some people need to be detained and were never about releasing people who pose a threat to the community.
Something went badly wrong in this case and none of us, including people like myself who campaign for the right of autistic people and people with learning disabilities to be a part of their communities, are currently in a position to answer the questions that need to be asked. Those questions must be asked, and all concerned must be ready to hear and act on the answers.
But what people should resist is the temptation to use the actions of an individual in order to justify depriving a group of people of their right to a place in their community. Purves’ central argument that the “Tate attack shows community care is in crisis” is not justifiable. Nevertheless, it is likely to be taken up by those who are uncomfortable with the presence of people who are different in their communities. We can also expect government ministers and some psychiatrists to use it to justify their lack of progress on Transforming Care.
The act of depriving people of their rights simply because they are identifiable as a member of a given community, is the kind of act that has underpinned untold numbers of human rights abuses. Too often societies have implemented legislation and maintained regressive social practices on the back of arguments made in response to crimes and tragic events. Ways of doing things that at first glance may appear reasonable, but which over time come to be seen for what they are, an expression of fear and prejudice. Such actions never do justice to the victims of crime, but they invariably serve a political purpose.
So, if recent articles in the media are any indication, over the coming months we can expect to hear the government justifying its failures in relation to autistic people and people with learning disabilities with phrases like “complex needs” and “protecting the public”, When in reality the only thing they are protecting is themselves.