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04 October 2010

Help needed for Welsh people with learning disabilities

The discrimination faced by people in Wales with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system is ‘personal, systemic and routine’, according to a Prison Reform Trust report being launched at the Welsh Assembly by Health & Social Services Minister Edwina Hart.

The report calls for health, social services, criminal justice and other relevant services in Wales to come together to do more to prevent people with learning disabilities getting in trouble with the police and to encourage the effective rehabilitation of those in the justice system.

Read the report in English and in Welsh.

The Prison Reform Trust’s No One Knows report is based on its groundbreaking three year review of the criminal justice system across the UK which finds that, at worst, the absence of police safeguards and appropriate support increases the likelihood of vulnerable people experiencing miscarriages of justice; that once in court their lack of understanding grows as their lives are taken over by opaque court procedures and legalistic terminology, and in prison many are left to fend for themselves in a shadowy world of not quite knowing what is going on around them or what is expected of them.

Previous reports in the No One Knows research programme have estimated that 20-30 per cent of offenders have learning disabilities or difficulties that interfere with their ability to cope within the criminal justice system.

Although the research finds pockets of good practice the particular needs of people with learning disabilities are often not recognised let alone met.

The research concludes that those providing leadership in the criminal justice system throughout the UK are failing in their legal duty to eliminate disability discrimination and promote equality.  The research finds that:

at the police station:

  • Less than a third of vulnerable people received support from an appropriate adult during police interviews.
  • Half of those with learning disabilities said they didn’t know what would happen to them once they had been charged.
  • Some allege maltreatment by the police or felt they had been manipulated into agreeing to a police interview without support.

in court:

  • Over a fifth interviewed didn’t understand what was going on; some didn’t know why they were in court or what they had done wrong.
  • Most said the use of simpler language in court would have helped them.

in prison:

  • Over half said they had been scared in prison.
  • More than a third said they didn’t know what they would do if they felt unwell while in prison
  • They were five times as likely as other prisoners to have been subjected to control and restraint techniques and three times more likely to have spent time in segregation.
  • They were generally uncertain about where they would go for particular help as they prepared to leave prison and more than two thirds said they had worries about leaving prison.

The report calls for an end to the UK criminal justice system’s collective and unlawful failure to meet the minimum requirements of disability legislation. Its main recommendations are:

  • Health, social services, criminal justice and other relevant services should come together to develop local strategies for preventing offending and re-offending of people with learning disabilities.
  • Criminal justice agencies should comply with the Disability Discrimination Act (2005) and specifically the Disability Equality Duty.
  • Individual prisons should be brought into line with other public authorities and be required to produce their own Disability Equality Schemes.
  • All criminal justice information, letters and forms should be in ‘easy read’; all interventions should be accessible to offenders with learning disabilities or difficulties, or alternatives of the same quality provided.
  • Vulnerable people should be identified at the point of arrest so they can be supported and, where appropriate, the option to divert away from the criminal justice system considered.

The recommendations call for system-wide reform, from diversion away from the criminal justice system through to staff training, from proper assessment in police stations, courts and prisons through to support and advocacy.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

The Prison Reform Trust welcomes the Minister for Health & Social Services’ interest in this report. This is a harrowing account of what it is like to travel through the criminal justice system in a fog of anxiety and well founded fear of bullying, not understanding or half understanding what is happening to you. 

This report raises important questions about how these vulnerable people got caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place and whether those responsible for special education, health and social care and family support could have done more to prevent this happening.

Health Minister Edwina Hart said:

It is important that everybody receives the care and support they need, especially vulnerable individuals. This report highlights the importance of public sector organisations working together – this was a key driver in the NHS reforms that came into place last week and is also true of the services involved in the criminal justice system.

I will consider the recommendations and ask the new health boards to study the report carefully.


The research on prisoners is based on over 170 interviews with prisoners in nine prisons in England, one prison in Wales and four prisons in Scotland. Its recommendations are based on empirical research with prisoners and prison staff, reviews of relevant literature and policy and extensive consultation with policymakers and practitioners. Earlier reports in the programme focussed on the Police, Prison officers, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The No One Knows programme is supported by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. Mencap is a partner organisation of No One Knows.

The work of No One Knows is guided by an advisory group and a group of people with learning disabilities, called the Working for Justice Group.

The report will be launched at the National Assembly for Wales, Cardiff, on 6 October 2009. Speakers: Health & Social Services Minister Edwina Hart MBE AM; Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust; former Prisons Minister Baroness Joyce Quin;  Win Griffiths, Chair of Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University NHS Trust; Glyn Jones, No One Knows advisory group member, and consultant psychiatrist, ABM University NHS Trust;  Yvonnne Thomas, Director of Offender Management, NOMS Cymru; Danny McDowell, Working for Justice Group.

In a report published in March 2008,  the Westminster Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights said it was ‘deeply concerned’ about this issue and warned that such discrimination was clearly unlawful: “The evidence which we have received on the treatment of people with learning disabilities in prison and their inability to secure equal access to parole, raises one of the most serious issues in our inquiry. We are deeply concerned that this evidence indicates that, because of a failure to provide for their needs, people with learning disabilities may serve longer custodial sentences than others convicted of comparable crimes. This clearly engages Article 5 ECHR (right to liberty) and Article 14 (enjoyment of ECHR rights without discrimination). It is also an area that falls within the Prison Service’s responsibilities under the Disability Equality Duty.” (Joint Committee on Human Rights, Seventh report, 6 March 2008)