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Death by Indifference / 30 January 2009

The health secretary, Alan Johnson, is setting up a confidential inquiry which will look at why at least six learning disabled people have died while under NHS care. The move is part of an overhaul of how the NHS treats learning disabled people after a government-commissioned independent inquiry last July uncovered evidence of serious failings in care. Led by Sir Jonathan Michael, it followed the publication of a report in 2007 by the charity Mencap, called ‘Death by Indifference’. It accused the NHS of ‘institutional discrimination’ against such people and highlighted six individuals who it claimed died after their health needs were ignored by NHS staff as a direct result of their learning difficulties (sic).

Accusing the NHS of breaking the law in relation to those with learning difficulties, Sir Michael added: ‘It was shocking to discover that the experiences of the families described in Mencap's report are by no means isolated, despite a clear framework of legislation against discrimination.’ (Imagine how shocked he’d be if he discovered that this so called ‘clear framework of legislation against discrimination’ also failed to protect most other Disabled people on a daily basis!)

The heath service ombudsman, Ann Abraham, will deliver her verdict in the next few weeks on the standard of care which the six people in the Mencap report received. The charity has also referred to her six other cases which it says illustrate scandalous treatment of, and attitudes by, NHS staff.

Other measures being unveiled include improved training for all NHS staff; annual health checks for anyone with a mental disability and also personal health action plans. This is to be funded by an extra £20m a year into family doctors' contracts.

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