Vulnerable people are still falling through the cracks in our society

Councillor Eileen Wragg in Exmouth Journal

Shocking details were given in a recent court case by the parents of a man who has been locked away for 21 years. Yet he has committed no crime. The reason? He is autistic, and his name, Tony Hickmott, was allowed to be known following an appeal by his parents.

His distressed, elderly mother 78, and father, 81, brought the case before a judge, in despair at having to continue to drive 100 miles each week to visit him in a secure hospital, despite a ruling in 2013 which said that he was fit to be discharged. His parents say that the situation has ruined their lives, and they don’t smile any more. Ironically, he has been incarcerated for as long as a paedophile was sentenced to for heinous offences, following his conviction In a recent jury trial. Yet Tony is entirely innocent. He has done nothing wrong.

I recently attended a service of celebration for the life of Geoffrey Folland, who had spent his working life helping people with learning disabilities and complex needs. After retirement, Geoff was elected to Devon County Council (DCC) where he continued his work, becoming Vice Chair of Social Services. I recall that when I became a County Councillor, Geoff told me how disappointed and troubled he was that the Doyle Centre in Exmouth had closed, along with other daycare centres in Devon, where many of the people he had helped care for were able to work and socialise with each other. It provided respite for the carers and enabled their charges to enjoy friendships with others, giving them a semblance of normal life.

That was denied them when the centres closed, and Geoff and his wife, Maureen, also a retired care worker, were clearly distressed to witness their former clients wandering around the town feeling quite bereft at losing their work and more importantly, their friends.

In 2009, a Task Group to investigate Services to People with Learning Disabilities was set up at DCC consisting of three Labour, three Conservative Councillors, and myself as the only Liberal Democrat. I was nominated by those colleagues to be Chair of the Task Group. The work was extensive and thorough, lasting seven months, during which we visited residential and shared homes, and called in over 50 witnesses, including GPs, Consultants, Social Workers and Carers, and we eventually produced a report making 37 recommendations for improvements. We called back senior officers to agree with our findings, which they did. However, days before the report was due to be published, attempts were made to prevent publication. As chair, I went through each recommendation with the very professional Scrutiny Officer, and apart from one minor amendment, my colleagues in the Task Group unanimously approved that the recommendations should be released into the public domain, which then went ahead. Clearly, this had been opposed for some unexplained reason. [Report can be found here – Owl]

It is shameful that vulnerable people with learning and other disabilities, as well as mental health issues are still at the bottom of the pile when they need to be addressed and help and funding provided.

When I was made Honorary Alderman of the County of Devon in 2017, I gave a speech, asking for the Task Group’s report to be followed up. I have heard nothing since then. If there were more Maureen and Geoff Follands in the system, I believe that actions would have been taken. Sadly, until there are more caring people, there will always be the Tony Hickmotts in the world, being denied the rights to which they should be entitled under the European Human Rights Act, which has been recently disgracefully denounced by Justice Minister Dominic Raab.