Borders progresses with a number of firsts for Scotland

Vulnerable people with learning difficulties are benefiting from an overhaul of services in a Scottish council in the wake of a serious sex abuse case, according to an inspection report published this week, writes Maria Ahmed.

A follow-up joint inspection of Scottish Borders Council and NHS Borders by the Social Work Inspection Agency and the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland found that the agencies were making good progress in implementing 33 recommendations for improvement.


In 2002, the serious abuse of four people with learning difficulties came to light including a women referred to at the time as ‘Miss X’ who was admitted to hospital having suffered extreme levels of physical and sexual abuse.

Miss X’s carer, James Mercer, and two other men tortured and sexually abused her for several months.

Mercer, 35, Ross Douglas, 26, and Alexander Maben, 39, were jailed for a total of 24 years in 2002.

Peter Peacock, minister for education and young people, said he had never come across “a more appalling and harrowing case”.

Two separate reports by the Social Work Services Inspectorate and the Mental Welfare Commission concluded that failures at every level allowed the abuse to go on over a period of 30 years.

Peacock said the case marked a “watershed” in the way social work was viewed in Scotland, and pledged immediate action.


The inspection report published this week found that advances had been made “on every level” in Scottish Borders Council and NHS Borders in delivering improved care for vulnerable adults with learning difficulties.

As part of its action plan, the council has set up Scotland’s first vulnerable adult protection unit and critical services oversight group.

The report found:

• Good leadership and management in the Scottish Borders Council, the social work department and NHS Borders

• People with learning difficulties were move involved in the planning and delivery of services

• Nearly all staff had multi-agency training on protecting vulnerable adults

• Social workers’ record-keeping had improved

• Joint working had improved

Brian Rose, Mary Anderson, who both have learning disabilities and who were on the inspection team and Ursula Coker, a family carer who was also on the inspection team,  welcomed the report with the support of service user group People First Scotland and concluded that it was “unlikely” that long-term abuse of people with learning difficulties would happen again.

Scottish Borders Council Social Work Portfolio Holder Councillor Carolyn Riddell-Carre said:  “I am extremely pleased by the findings of this very thorough joint inspection.  Of course there is always more to do and we are not complacent, but I am confident that people in the Scottish Borders can once more be assured that services to our most vulnerable residents are back in good order.”

Areas of concern

The report also raised areas of concern including:

• Higher level management needed to give more attention to what was going on. Social work senior managers needed to look at more protection of vulnerable adults case files and staff supervision records

• Team leaders had not looked regularly at and signed off case files in one in four protection of vulnerable adults case records

• Some social workers didn’t visit vulnerable people with learning difficulties often enough. Social workers visited less than once a month in one in three cases of adults with learning difficulties who were at risk of abuse, neglect or exploitation

• Scottish Borders Council and NHS Borders managers needed to do more to weigh up the usefulness of training for professional practice

• Staff from all agencies needed to do more to support people with learning disabilities to go to their own case conferences and reviews

The report also found that the vulnerable adult’s protection unit was “not fully up and running” by the time of the inspection in May and pointed out that education and people with learning difficulties were not represented on the adult protection committee.

The council has since fully established the vulnerable adult’s protection unit and is giving “careful consideration” to the representation of people with learning difficulties and education.

While it acknowledged the “huge” amount of work that had been down on the protection of vulnerable adults, the report questioned whether the organisations would be able to keep up the progress.

A question of resources

Andrew Lowe, director of social work at Scottish Borders Council, said that while the report highlighted the “considerable additional investment” made available by the council and NHS borders, this needed to be sustained.

“We do need constantly to recognise the commitment which is required in terms of both staff and money resources to make protection a reality.”

Lowe added that he hoped that the that the 21st century review of social work in Scotland, due to report in December, would help to ensure that appropriate resources were provided.

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