The Healthcare Commission has published a damning report into the standard of residential care the NHS and private sector provide to people with learning difficulties.

The commission's first audit of services for those with learning difficulties found poor care and 'unacceptable' variations in quality.

Investigators found 'significant institutional failings' where people were being deprived of their human rights and dignity and said 'services operated off the radar of the healthcare system, with poor leadership, poor training and no framework to measure performance'.

Commission chief executive Anna Walker said services were 'too often old-fashioned and institutionalised'. 'This report does paint a bleak picture,' she commented.

'Too many people are not given choices and control over their lives. Care is not personalised, living environments are poor and activities are few.'

The audit identified a list of problems including:

  • insufficient attention paid to safeguarding vulnerable people;

  • poorly planned care that does not involve people with learning difficulties;

  • a lack of monitoring of services by the organisations that commission them;

  • a lack of leadership.

The commission inspected 68 of the 89 NHS and private sector organisations serving people with learning difficulties.

Although it did not find evidence of physical abuse, the commission did make six referrals of services to local authorities under protection of vulnerable adults protocols following concerns 'about the care of individuals or overall standards' (see below).

The commission said it would now conduct spot checks on the 21 organisations not inspected and would also start to carry out unannounced inspections of these services.

From 2008-09, the annual health check will include new goals for learning difficulty services.

Commenting on the report, care services minister Ivan Lewis said: 'It is totally unacceptable for anyone with a learning disability to be treated in a way that compromises their human rights.'

The DoH launched a consultation on Tuesday looking at reforming support for people with learning difficulties.

Mr Lewis said this would include proposals to transfer responsibility for commissioning services from the NHS to local government.

Referrals to councils

Organisation, Number of referrals

Bromley PCT, 2

Care Principles Ltd, Stafford, 1

Coventry and Warwickshire Partnership trust, 1

North Lincolnshire PCT, 1

Sandwell Mental Health and Social Care trust, 1

Source: Healthcare Commission