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Why are they closing our home?

Author: John Burton

Last month I went to visit Benamy House, a small care home for five men, in Seaham, County Durham. I spent an evening and the whole of the next day with them.

A double-fronted house on the corner of an ordinary street, the building is outdated but clean and homely, and, above all, it has been these residents’ home for many years. One man has been there for nineteen years, ever since Gail and Russell Smith opened it, and the newest resident has been there nine years. The eldest is 76 and the youngest is 49. So, you can imagine, this is a settled, mutually supportive “family” that is very much part of its neighbourhood.

Like a family, the residents go out together, eat together, play their music, dance and sing together, and each has the privacy of his own room. I’ve no doubt they sometimes quarrel - just like any family.

I went to the pub with them for a meal to celebrate Alistair’s birthday. Peter laid the table and served his friends their drinks. We ate and chatted, and the landlady came over and, knowing everyone by name - they’re regulars - wished Alistair happy birthday. When we got home, Alistair gave Graham an affectionate hug and they sat on the sofa together. Later three of them went into the back room to play along and dance to Alistair’s new CD on the guitars and drum kit.

The men have had their problems - physical and mental ill-health - and do need the close support they are given. Creating and sustaining this caring community is no accident; it takes commitment, skill, knowledge, love and kindness, and hard work.

But apparently that is not enough for the commissioners from the county council or for the Care Quality Commission (CQC) who have rated the home “inadequate” and now intend to close it. The Smiths readily admit that they aren’t good at the paperwork and the building’s outdated. There’s no office, nor should there be. The very small team of staff spend all their time with the residents, even when they are writing up their notes. The sort of administration suited to a larger care home is simply not needed here. But the inspectors want a “robust quality assurance system” and “goal planning”, whatever that is.

The Winterbourne effect

Five years ago Panorama exposed serious systemic abuse at Winterbourne View private hospital for people with learning disabilities. CQC had been inspecting the hospital, finding that it was “compliant”, and ignoring whistleblowers.

The outcry following the Panorama revelations kicked government, the regulator, local authorities and a succession of well intentioned reform committees into action . . . or should I say, it provoked a succession of grand promises of action. Yet, there are still thousands of people stuck in institutions with no suitable alternative community care and accommodation.

As one of the prime culprits in their failure to identify abuse at Winterbourne View and to respond to whistleblowers, CQC set up a new inspection regime and began rating every learning disability service in England on a scale of outstanding, good, requires improvement or inadequate. At the same time, commissioners of care, responsible for placing people in these unsuitable institutions, reviewed all the provision they were using.

Unintended consequences

In 1997, Gail and Russell Smith set up Benamy. For seventeen years, the local authority was pleased to keep these men at this lovely home, and inspectors found it met all the standards. Then, in July 2014, CQC inspected, and although their report wasn’t published until six months later, the home was suddenly “inadequate”, and the local authority cut their funding of residents and threatened to move them elsewhere.

CQC inspectors have returned twice since and, despite the Smiths’ efforts to update records, procedures, risk assessments, care plans etc. in line with CQC’s requirements, each time the home was found to be inadequate. Now, CQC are taking away Russell’s registration as manager, and soon the home will be closed.

The experience of inspection has been cold and humiliating: two inspectors sitting at the dining room table examining the paperwork, interrogating Gail and Russell, waving away residents who ask to speak to them . . . searching for faults and adding them up.

It seems that the inspectors’ hands are tied by their own self-imposed rules, so they can’t reach out, acknowledge how brilliant the home is for the residents, and how “devastating” (the word used by one of the elderly parents) it will be for them if the home closes. And neither CQC nor Durham County Council has tried to support the home and the residents to improve in the ways that they have demanded.

Is the destruction of such a good, caring home really what was intended as a result of Winterbourne View and CQC’s new inspection regime?


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Why are they closing our home? © John Burton 2016.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.