Disability psychiatry expert Professor the Baroness Hollins used her maiden speech at the House of Lords today to outline a new European agreement to improve the welfare of children and young people with intellectual disabilities. She also discussed how good UK practice could help inform global efforts, but said the nation could still improve.

The 53 European members of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have signed a declaration to address what Baroness Hollins – who chaired the steering group that led to the agreement – today called the “discrimination, neglect and abuse” experienced by young people with intellectual disabilities across Europe.

Baroness Hollins, professor of the psychiatry of disability at St George’s, University of London, said, during a debate on international human rights abuses: “As many as 300,000 disabled children and young people still experience discrimination, neglect and abuse in institutions in Europe, as well as in other countries throughout the world. Most disabled children and young people, and their families, are poor, with little formal support being provided for them. Negative attitudes and stereotypes are the norm, and they experience barriers in gaining access to healthcare. These are human rights issues.”

The declaration was signed at the WHO European conference Better Health, Better Lives: Children and young people with intellectual disabilities and their families, held in Bucharest at the end of November 2010. The Bucharest declaration’s first priority is to protect children with intellectual disabilities from harm and abuse, and it recommends reviewing the countries’ legislation to ensure it meets human rights standards as set out in the United Nations’ (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons.

Baroness Hollins today told the Lords that the declaration partners should look to the UK for good practice: “The UK’s progress in planning for and meeting the needs of these children and their families offers some important lessons for elsewhere in Europe.”

She pointed to existing UK projects designed to improve the welfare of people with learning disabilities, including an independent inquiry set up at the instigation of learning disability charity Mencap about why people with learning disabilities are discriminated against in hospitals. Another project she discussed is the national Improving Health and Lives Learning Disabilities Observatory, set up to monitor the healthcare provision of people with learning disabilities.

Baroness Hollins also urged Lord Howell of Guildford – who heads a Foreign Office advisory group on human rights challenges – to consider how UK expertise can improve the human rights of children with intellectual disabilities around the world.

However, she acknowledged that the UK also needs to improve its treatment of adults with intellectual disabilities, and drew attention to the 2008 report A Life Like Any Other? by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, saying it “painted a shocking picture of the denial of fundamental human rights to adults living with intellectual disabilities in the UK.”

She concluded her maiden speech by telling the Lords: “If we can get it right for people with learning disabilities, we can get it right for other citizens. By putting disabled people at the centre of the human rights debate, I hope noble Lords will join me in promoting policy that makes a real difference in people’s lives.”