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Locked away no more!’ VoiceAbility hosts first party conference events

2 November 2023

Voice and rights charity VoiceAbility has hosted events at political party conferences for the first time – focusing on the continuing scandal of over 2,000 people with learning disabilities and autistic people being detained for many years in unsuitable mental health hospitals. 

Titled Locked away no more!’, the events at both Labour and the Liberal Democrats conferences asked: How do we prevent people with a learning disability and autistic people from being detained in places like Winterbourne View?’

Each session had a panel of speakers, with Health Service Journal journalist Emily Townsend chairing the Labour conference event and Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Tyler chairing at her own party’s conference.

The panel for VoiceAbility’s Locked away no more!’ event at the Labour Party Conference. Left to right: Bethany’s dad, Jeremy; Alison Hume, Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Scarborough and Whitby; Emily Townsend, Health Service Journal journalist, and Jonathan Senker, Chief Executive for VoiceAbility.

Bethany’s story

Both events started with the story of Bethany, told by her dad Jeremy.

Jeremy explained how his 22-year-old autistic daughter was failed by public services from a young age and was told as a teenager that she was going to be admitted to a mental health hospital for assessment and treatment.

What we found instead were healthcare assistants with no training in autism at all, no understanding of how to support my daughter,” said Jeremy.

Bethany’s dad, Jeremy, speaking at the Labour event.

There’s no individualised care. It’s blanket care, blanket restrictions. What that led to was even more of an increase in Beth’s distressed behaviour. Beth learnt in that environment how to self-harm.

That led to the use of seclusion – placing someone in a sterile environment’, an empty room, a cell. It’s designed for the short-term management of distressed behaviour.

The contact with my daughter was kneeling at a hatch they fed her through, the hatch they gave her medication through. Two years she spent in that room. For two years that was my contact.

Where Beth is now is wonderful. She has a team of people who totally understand her autism. The environment is right – it’s very low stimulus. She goes out and about in the community every day.

Anything Beth wants to do, she can do it – because she’s supported properly.

Seven years in secure hospitals – it’s done nothing for Beth. It’s not changed her diagnosis; it’s not changed her autism. What it’s done is damage her.

What can we do about this?

Jonathan Senker, Chief Executive of VoiceAbility, said: We’ve got to deal with financial disincentives, we’ve got to give families proper respect, we’ve got to plan ahead and co-ordinate, we’ve got to make sure people have a voice. We’ve known all this for decades […], but it’s not happening.

Jonathan Senker pictured alongside Baroness Tyler (left) and Baroness Barker (centre) at the Liberal Democrats event.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights have said the biggest barrier to progress is a lack of political focus and accountability to drive change’.

We know what needs to happen, but there isn’t the push to make it happen. So we’re demanding there is that political will.

There was legislation that was passed in 2022 that gives the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care the power to direct the NHS to do the things that we’ve known for getting on for 30 years to stop people having to live in the kinds of conditions that my colleagues have described.

While we continue to tolerate this, more and more of our children, our loved ones are going to be next – we cannot and we will not tolerate this.

We’re calling on you to support us to ask the Secretary of State – and to ask the next Secretary of State, whoever they are – to commit to using their powers to make the change which is desperately needed.

VoiceAbility is calling on the government, and all political parties, to commit to using their new power to direct NHS England to improve community support and urgently reduce the number of people in hospital. The Conservatives declined to host a fringe event, but we welcome continued engagement with all MPs across the political spectrum.

If you would like to show your support for our campaign, called Use your Power!’, please email Stephen Hinchley: