Joanna Perry is a project leader at Values Into Action.
She has a particular interest in hate crime against people with
learning difficulties and people’s understanding of and access to
their rights under the Human Rights Act 1998. She works on how
“mainstream policy” can be properly designed to incorporate the
needs of all without ghettoising groups under institutional
Gordon Rowe raped, kicked, punched, drugged, starved and
neglected adults with learning difficulties in his two residential
homes in Buckinghamshire for 10 years before authorities decided
anything was amiss. This was despite the efforts of whistle-blowers
and multiple visits from authorities.
Rowe killed himself in 1996 just hours before he was to be charged
with sexual assaults, ill-treatment and neglect. Three others,
including his wife Angela, were later convicted of neglect. But the
54 victims could win proper redress only through the civil courts
where they received damages totalling £781,000.
The subsequent independent Longcare Inquiry ordered by the
government made a recommendation in 1998 that activists had been
seeking for years: “The criminal law should be amended to provide
for a specific, arrestable offence of causing the harm or
exploitation of a vulnerable adult with a maximum penalty of 10
Campaigners maintain that, without such an amendment, there is
little to stem “the scourge of abuse” in care settings – a phrase
selected by the then National Care Standards Commission’s own head
of adult services – and, on the rare occasions that a case is
brought to trial, perpetrators will attract nothing more than the
reprimands of a civil court.
However, the inquiry recommendation has yet to be implemented. More
importantly, there has been little attempt to seize the best chance
yet to do so by amending the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims
Bill, now going through parliament.
In the cosmopolitan and diverse society that is Britain today, home
is simply the place a person lives, whether it be a house in the
country, a city apartment, registered care, supported living or a
tenancy. Without key changes to the bill, however, people living in
settings that do not conform to the traditional view of a
“household” risk being left out of mainstream, well supported and
publicised criminal justice policy. Again.
Introducing the bill, Lady Scotland, the minister responsible for
seeing it through parliament, heralded its provisions as the
long-awaited opportunity to “put positive policing policies into
action” in situations involving domestic violence. While certainly
a goal to be applauded, it is imperative that such “positive
policing” – the active intervention of the police in situations of
suspected domestic violence – should be invoked to protect
residents of any home, whether it is the conventional or the
The Association of Chief Police Officers, Values into Action (VIA),
Voice UK and Respond have all called for the bill to incorporate a
specific, arrestable offence of causing the harm or exploitation of
a vulnerable adult. The government has so far declined. According
to the Home Office, any attempt to incorporate such an offence is
fraught with problems. Thus people in a range of settings cannot
benefit from the most comprehensive domestic violence legislation
in 30 years.
Should the bill become law, police are confident that related
problems, such as the under-reporting of violent offences in the
home and repeat victimisation, will be ameliorated. The bill also
establishes common assault as an arrestable offence (clause 7) and
provides for a commissioner for victims and witnesses (clause 12).
Perhaps most importantly from the point of view of campaigners such
as VIA, the bill creates the offence of causing or allowing the
death of a vulnerable adult (clause 5).
But in order to be covered by the bill’s provisions, a victim will
need to live in a “household”. This term is at risk of being
narrowly defined in a court of law. Furthermore, to the extent that
residential homes have been defined in law, this is as places of
work and regulated accordingly by care standards, unions and
employment law. As VIA director Jean Collins points out: “There is
plenty of evidence that legislation and standards designed around
the ‘professional’ nature of the care home do not succeed in
protecting the people who live there.”
The government’s response to efforts to amend the bill is evidence
that the principles of inclusion, community living and independence
set out in its own white paper, Valuing People, are not guiding
principles in the implementation of its criminal justice policy. As
a result, assault and rape in settings that are home for thousands
of people remain issues of professional conduct to be dealt with by
inspectors and managers, rather than violent crimes investigated by
Take Longcare. The independent inquiry found: “December 1992-April
1993: The evidence of abuse increased and the inspectors accepted
that there was a serious case to be answered. But no assessment of
the risk to residents was undertaken, nor were the police called in
The law clearly specifies that a rape is a rape, assault is assault
and murder is murder. However, incidents such as those that
happened at Longcare make clear that for some settings these basic
facts of law need to be reiterated.
There is no place for care standards inspectors to make judgements
otherwise the preserve of the police. Similarly, there is no reason
for police to shy from intervention where there is a suspicion of
violence. Indeed, this is exactly the criticism levelled at police
in their effort – and sometimes their lack of effort – to address
domestic violence in private households.
Those opposed to amending the bill to meet the recommendations of
the Longcare Inquiry argue that the criminal law already tackles
the issue of crime against vulnerable adults. However, a closer
look at such measures reveals patchy protection for those who call
a care setting home. Section 127 of the Mental Health Act 1983, as
amended by the Care Standards Act 2000, criminalises the
ill-treatment of patients by staff in NHS and independent hospitals
or a “care home setting”. However, no proceedings may be taken to
charge a person with this offence without the permission of the
director of public prosecutions, and any punishment may not exceed
The Mental Capacity Bill proposes a similar offence of the
ill-treatment or neglect of an adult who is deemed within the terms
of the bill to lack capacity. Again, however, the penalty is low.
It is not an arrestable offence and the bill does not apply to the
victim of a violent abuse of power where that victim is not deemed
to lack mental capacity – even if otherwise vulnerable.
The ambiguity on the protection of vulnerable adults is well
illustrated by the frequent reference by officials to local
authorities’ compliance with the government’s No Secrets guidance.
So, a local, patchily implemented policy of how the abuse of
vulnerable adults will be identified and responded to within each
area of the country has been cast in the role of an
all-encompassing criminal justice system for vulnerable adults.
However, as the academic Hilary Brown puts it: “No Secrets is meant
as a gateway to the criminal justice system for vulnerable people,
not a substitute for it.”
A recent straw poll of front-line police officers revealed that all
had a working knowledge of section 1 of the Children and Young
Persons Act 1933, which makes the assault, neglect or ill-treatment
of a child an arrestable offence with a maximum sentence of 10
years. However, few were aware of section 127 of the Mental Health
Act relating to adults. As the former is an arrestable offence it
is thereby immediately linked to officers’ essential guide to
policing, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 – the
equivalent, as one Metropolitan Police officer put it, “of the
[taxi drivers’] Knowledge”. But when a vulnerable adult is being
abused, section 127 of the Mental Health Act applies, giving the
police no powers for immediate action to protect the victim.
Isn’t it time the government makes sure that their vision of
positive policing is put into action for everyone?
Abstract: This article argues that the Domestic
Violence, Crime and Victims Bill provides the best opportunity yet
to establish in law the offence of causing the harm or exploitation
of a vulnerable adult, as recommended by the findings of the
independent inquiry into the Longcare scandal published in 1998.
While police, campaigners and victims are demanding the chance be
seized, it appears too radical a step for this government.
Further Information: John Pring, Silent Voices:
the abuse in the Longcare case, Gibson Square Books, 2004, price
Contact: Joanna Perry can be contacted by
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org