Health Secretary orders probe into autistic youngsters locked in NHS 'hell holes' across the UK... as mother reveals her son is 'so drugged he can hardly move' in care unit

  • Matt Hancock has ordered an urgent investigation into children being locked up
  • Children as young as 13 are said to be being incarcerated for years in NHS units
  • Barbaric treatment includes patients being kept in isolation in padded cells  

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has ordered an urgent investigation into why youngsters are being locked up like criminals because they have autism or learning difficulties, just days after The Mail on Sunday revealed their appalling plight.

Mr Hancock was ‘deeply shocked’ by this newspaper’s account last week of children as young as 13 being incarcerated, sometimes for years, in NHS-funded assessment and treatment units, known as ATUs.

Our exposé, based on numerous detailed interviews with distraught individuals and families, found evidence of routine abuse of children and young people kept in the secretive facilities.

Leo Andrade (centre) with sons Stephen (right) and 11-year old Josh (left)

Leo Andrade (centre) with sons Stephen (right) and 11-year old Josh (left)

My son is so drugged he can hardly move  

Stephen Andrade has been held in secure units all his adult life, first going into an ATU when he was 17.

The 23-year-old was a fit teenager and used to enjoy going on long walks, but his mother Leo, a carer from North London, said he was now so drugged that ‘he drags his feet along the ground and can hardly move’.

She said: ‘I didn’t know someone could be locked up for having autism.’

She added that she felt Stephen had been ‘badly let down’. At one unit, Leo said, Stephen did not go outside for more than a year and was left unwashed for months.

She said he had taken to self-harming, smashing his head against walls and punching himself – signs of extreme stress.

Leo’s other son, Josh, 11, is also autistic, and she is terrified that the same thing will happen to him. ‘I’m so scared he’ll end up the same way,’ she said.

Leo is now working with Islington Council to try to secure Stephen’s release. 


The barbaric treatment included patients being kept in isolation in padded cells, fed like animals through hatches, and injected with powerful drugs to make them easier to control. Tales of forcible restraint were also common, with some young people being subdued by up to six adults at a time.

Last night, Mr Hancock stepped in and ordered the Care Quality Commission to launch an in-depth review of the use of hugely expensive ATUs, where places cost taxpayers up to £13,000 a week.

The units are meant to be for short-term use only – but some people have been held for 18 years.

Mr Hancock said swift action was needed to stamp out bad practices.

In a letter to the CQC, Mr Hancock said he had ‘become increasingly concerned about the use of seclusion settings for those with autism and learning disabilities’.

He continued: ‘We are requesting that you immediately initiate a Care Quality Commission thematic review into the practice of prolonged seclusion and long-term segregation for children and adults with a mental illness, learning disability or autism in secondary care and social care settings. I request this review be expedited and completed as quickly as is feasible.’

He added: ‘I look forward to seeing the findings of this work to ensure that we can eliminate inappropriate restrictive practices and ensure that vulnerable people supported by health and social care are accorded the best possible care.’

Mr Hancock’s intervention will be greeted with scepticism by campaigners who argue that similar promises have been made by consecutive Health Secretaries – but nothing has changed.

Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is ‘actively considering’ taking action, while a growing chorus of voices, including the Children’s Commissioner and leading MPs, are also calling for investigations.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured) has ordered a probe into autistic youngsters locked in NHS 'hell holes' 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured) has ordered a probe into autistic youngsters locked in NHS 'hell holes' 

Amid their concern, a devastating Government-commissioned report is to be published tomorrow that will report that people with learning difficulties die nearly 20 years sooner than the general population.

The report, by University College London’s Institute for Health Equity, concludes: ‘As a society, we are not supporting this vulnerable group as well as we should.’

EHRC chairman David Isaac said: ‘The current in-patient care system for people with learning disabilities has led to some horrific situations at a number of assessment and treatment units where people’s human rights are being disregarded.’

The Children's Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield (pictured) has also weighed in on the issue

The Children's Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield (pictured) has also weighed in on the issue

He said the EHRC was ‘actively considering’ which of its formal enforcement powers could be used to ‘fix the current system’. These could include a major inquiry into human rights concerns or even an investigation into institutional prejudice and unlawful discrimination, similar to the landmark probe it carried out into victimisation of Metropolitan Police staff, published two years ago.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, who has statutory responsibility for children in care, has also stepped in. She has written to NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens asking him to launch his own review.

Ms Longfield said: ‘How children are treated says so much about a society, and by any measure these shocking stories show a system that is failing to look after some of our most vulnerable.’

Sir David Nicholson (pictured) had raised concerns in 2012 when he was the chief executive of the NHS

Sir David Nicholson (pictured) had raised concerns in 2012 when he was the chief executive of the NHS

Yet concerns about ATUs were raised at the highest levels of the NHS six years ago. This newspaper has obtained a letter sent to local authorities in June 2012 by Sir David Nicholson, the then NHS chief executive, and Sir David Behan, director-general of social care, admitting ‘this model of care has no place in the 21st Century’.

Official figures show more than 2,500 people with autism and learning disabilities were held in ATUs last year, including 230 children. The number of under-18s detained in ATUs has more than doubled in just three years.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with autism have trouble with social, emotional and communication skills that usually develop before the age of three and last throughout a person’s life. 

Specific signs of autism include: 

  • Reactions to smell, taste, look, feel or sound are unusual
  • Difficulty adapting to changes in routine
  • Unable to repeat or echo what is said to them
  • Difficulty expressing desires using words or motions
  • Unable to discuss their own feelings or other people’s
  • Difficulty with acts of affection like hugging
  • Prefer to be alone and avoid eye contact
  • Difficulty relating to other people
  • Unable to point at objects or look at objects when others point to them

The NHS spent £477.4 million on ATUs for people with autism and learning disabilities in 2016, with families saying places cost up to £13,000 a week.

While the NHS used to operate most units, private firms now run half the beds available – making hundreds of millions from doing so. Barbara Keeley, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Mental Health and Social Care, said Mr Hancock must explain ‘why companies with a vested interest in keeping vulnerable people in these Bedlam-like conditions are permitted to do so when they could be in community care for a fraction of the cost’.

The National Autistic Society has urged Mr Hancock to intervene by visiting an ATU without warning.

UCL’s report found that those with learning difficulties account for a quarter of young people in custody – even though they make up just 2.9 per cent of the total population.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ‘The use of long-term seclusion is unacceptable, and we are clear that restraint should only ever be used as an absolute last resort.

‘We are committed to ensuring adult social care in England is high quality, safe and compassionate. To protect the public and hold providers to account we set up the CQC and invested it with enforcement powers to crack down on poor quality care or abuse.’

Responding to the UCL report, the spokesman said: ‘Improving the lives of people with learning disabilities will be a key part of the NHS long-term plan and we will be consulting on mandatory awareness training for health and care staff to help end unacceptable differences in life expectancy.’

I can't even get into my daughter's room   

Whenever Lee Mead is visited by her mother Gillian, she repeats the same phrase: ‘I want to come home. I want to come home.’

Lee went into The Priory unit in Pontypridd, South Wales – 80 miles from home in Wiltshire – last year and in April was sectioned for the first time in her life. Gillian says she is now frequently restrained, and that she is no longer allowed into her daughter’s room. She said: ‘There’s one medication they haven’t got and have never, ever had – and that’s tender loving care.’ Gillian has launched an internet petition hoping to secure Lee’s release.

A spokesman for The Priory Group said it kept parents ‘informed and consulted’.

Health Secretary orders probe into autistic youngsters locked in NHS 'hell holes' across the UK 

The comments below have been moderated in advance.

The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.