24 September 2013

S4M-07787 New Learning Disabilities Strategy

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-07787, in the name of Michael Matheson, on the new learning disabilities strategy, “The keys to life”.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I apologise for my absence towards the end of the opening speeches. I was called away unexpectedly, but I am glad to be back and to participate in this important debate.

When the debate is led by the Minister for Public Health and key speakers are people who have a long-standing engagement in health, the matter is in danger of being viewed as a health issue. It is, of course, nothing of the sort. It is a quality-of-life issue. Health is an issue within that, as are access to culture and recreation, and the emotional life of those who are disadvantaged. Dennis Robertson in particular focused on the issue of generating respect for people whom we may regard as different to ourselves. However, people with learning difficulties see themselves as normal and us as deviating from their normality. We should never forget that that is the case. To the people who are the subject of the debate, we are the oddballs, not them.

Nearly 50 years ago—in 1964—I spent the time between school and university working in a locked ward in Stratheden hospital in Fife. I was 17. We had 32 beds there. As members of staff, we worked a 108-hour fortnight. We used to work double shifts Saturday and Sunday and then get the other weekend off.

We were chronically understaffed. We should have had six members of staff but there was one weekend when there were two of us. From time to time, I was in charge of the ward. I was 17 years old and had had not a single day of formal training.

What kind of people did we used to have in ward M2 in Stratheden hospital? We had a couple of people who were former Carstairs patients. We had people suffering catatonia. We had people suffering the general paralysis of the insane from alcohol or tertiary syphilis. We had severely paranoid people. We had a gentleman from Poland who had spent time in a gulag in the Soviet Union and his mental ill health came from that.

In that environment, we also had people who are the subject of the debate. It was an environment as far removed from what would be suitable to meet their needs as it is possible to imagine.

I will speak about one of them in particular. I will call him Willie—that was his name, but I am sure he is no longer with us so I can speak about him. He was quite competent. He could go to the shop and buy things for us. He could interact with visitors in the hospital grounds. However, 50 years ago, Willie and the likes of him and his friends throughout Scotland were in locked wards in psychiatric hospitals.

Things have got better. Let us not kid ourselves about that.

Dennis Robertson: Does the member accept that there is a vast difference between mental ill health and learning disabilities? We must be careful that we do not stray into mental health issues rather than focusing on learning disabilities.

Stewart Stevenson: The member makes my point for me. In the past, we treated something that is very far from a mental ill health problem as if it was one, and I hope that we never return to those days.

In the seven months in which I worked in that 32-bed ward, we had a single visitor. People were entirely isolated from the world.

How many people with learning disabilities do we have? We have heard various numbers. We have heard that it is one in 100 and that it might be one in 40.

What kind of things are accessible to almost everyone in our society, including people with learning disabilities? That is the interesting question.

When I was a minister, I filled in for one of my colleagues at a GIRFEC event in Aberdeen. Before I went on to do my little bit, we saw a film of a one-hour-old infant responding to music—waving its hand in time with the beat of music. Others might have seen this miracle, but I am not a dad, so I have not, and I was fascinated by it. It reminded me that, when I have been with people with learning disability, I have seen that music is one of the things to which they can respond and contribute in a decisive and important way. We must not forget the importance of access to culture and the opportunities to contribute to culture.

On the related issue of autism, we have the autism strategy, which was launched nearly two years ago. It is interesting, because it has something that I do not clearly see in what is before us today. Yes, the new learning disabilities strategy has around 52 recommendations, but it does not have the sort of single, cohesive, integrated aim that the autism strategy has.

I propose that our aim should be to deliver to people with learning disabilities the best available quality of life that is attainable with their individual needs and opportunities, to do so in a way that does not require support, where possible, and to provide support when it is required. Rather than having everybody who is engaged in this issue having to remember 52 recommendations, let us get to a position in which everybody has a single thing on their mind that they can carry forward.

Today’s debate is part of a continuity of effort that has gone on from the very resumption of this Parliament in 1999. Our predecessors in office did a lot, and we build on that. That is as it should be.

My wife frequently goes to the Boyndie centre in my constituency for afternoon coffee. It is an excellent venue and provides employment and opportunities to socialise for many people with learning difficulties. I am sure that all members have similar good examples in their constituencies.

This has been an excellent debate. I congratulate the minister on giving us this opportunity to discuss these issues.


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