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Author of damning report into autism services criticises police response, praises council and health services

Sir Stephen Bubb speaks to the Cable about the response to his independent report, which last week exposed serious failings of people with autism and learning disabilities by multiple agencies in Bristol.

Photo: Third Sector

The author of the independent report into serious failings of autistic people and those with learning disabilities in Bristol has praised the response from the local council and NHS services, but criticised the “defensiveness” of the police.

‘Building Rights’, the review written by Sir Stephen Bubb, who is best known for his report into the Winterbourne View abuse scandal, was published last week. It told the story of three families and the experiences of their sons who are autistic or have learning disabilities.

In interviews with the Cable, two of the three families decided to speak out about how their sons have been left scarred after years of being failed by different support services and the criminal justice system. One of them was Gaby Gillespie, who said her son Luke, who has learning disabilities, has been subjected to abuse and neglect during inappropriate placements. He is currently in prison, although he has the mental age of a 6 to 9-year-old, and continues to be exploited, she stressed.

Gaby Gillespie. Credit: Aphra Evans

Sir Stephen Bubb has nonetheless told the Cable he feels “optimistic” that his recommendations will be acted on to improve local services. 

“The key agencies, the local council, mental health trust and clinical commissioning group (CCG) have all welcomed the report and said it made uncomfortable reading, but they recognised there had been failings and actually they need to get better and accept the recommendations. I’ve been very pleased about that.”

“There’s a feeling that I get from Bristol that they realised they’ve been pretty awful and it’s all a bit embarrassing calling themselves an autism-friendly city, and they better bloody well do something about it,” he added. 

“In contrast, the police were defensive and I was very surprised, really. I think it says a lot more about the police than my report. 

While working on the report, Bubb said he had a positive meeting with Chief Constable Andy Marsh, who was “very cooperative”, and the force’s lead autism officer, which was reflected in the report. “What is sad is that they couldn’t accept the way I wrote the report.”

“I thought this report could do a lot of good by holding up to the agencies the stories of how the families see what happened. The police have got a lot to do if they can’t recognise that simple fact.”

Avon and Somerset Police said last week the force had accepted their failings and carried out a significant amount of work since the incidents. A spokesperson said this included introducing an autism lead, delivering training to officers on autism, mental health and de-escalation techniques, as well as making sure an appropriate adult is present when an autistic person is taken into custody.

With a new chief constable starting in July, who will be appointed by the newly elected police and crime commissioner Mark Shelford, Bubb said this was a “new opportunity to do it differently”. 

Bubb said he’d had a good meeting with the governor of HMP Bristol as well. “They have made significant changes since the incidents in my report,” he said. “I went and met people there and there’s a particular official who is tasked with checking on and understanding people with autism and learning disabilities.”

Time to act on the recommendations

The first of the three main recommendations in Bubb’s report is a Charter of Rights for people with learning disabilities and autism and their families, which should underpin commissioning and services. This is to help people understand what rights they have and make sure local services respect them, because too often their families “feel powerless and that their rights are unclear, misunderstood or ignored”. 

Second is a right to challenge any clinical decision about treatment – for example being admitted to an inpatient facility. Challenges should also be accompanied by free support by an independent advisor, the report said.

The third main recommendation is an Independent Commissioner for autistic people and those with learning disabilities who would “promote, enhance and protect” their rights, and aim to broker system-wide consensus on how to improve services. Bubb said this role would be an important part of redressing the power imbalance between families and services.

Last Monday, Bubb presented his report and recommendations to the Keeping Bristol Safe Partnership, which has representatives from Bristol City Council, the police and local CCG. 

The Partnership released a statement saying it welcomed Bubb’s findings and agreed with his recommendations and would now “work closely with the council and partners across the city to address the recommendations, and take action where needed”.

Bubb described the meetings with KBSP on Monday as “very positive”. “I didn’t hear a single criticism. I spoke about my approach and the importance of telling family stories. There was a feeling that this was uncomfortable but actually this is how it’s like for families and we ought to do something about it.”

Another of Bubb’s recommendations was to invest more in community care instead of institutional placements, which he sees as abusive in their nature. He said he had spoken to the CCG about developing their community provision. 

“I think they do want to stop making placements in institutions,” he told the Cable. “The CCG said they recognise it is the best way. It’s bloody expensive and often well out of county, and usually abusive. The problem is often the lack of community provision and crisis intervention.”

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He added that wide consultation with experts, the third sector and families with lived experience was crucial to getting these recommendations right.

He also praised the approach of Helen Holland, Bristol City Council’s cabinet member for adult social care. “I thought she was very good. She’s not a member of the KBSP, but came along. She gave a positive response, accepting these are problems and we need to do something about it.

“I think the families have a high level of cynicism about if anything will happen, but there are plenty of reasons for that,” he added. “I don’t share that, I think they may make improvements.

“We’ll see, it’s quite a big set of recommendations, but I got the impression they want to do it. We’ll judge them in five years time.”

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