Social workers have the powers they need to protect vulnerable adults being abused in their homes and must improve their “legal literacy” in order to successfully do so, a minister has said.
Earl Howe made the comment in rejecting campaigners’ latest efforts to give social workers the power to enter premises to access vulnerable adults at risk of abuse, when this is being prevented by a third party.
The House of Lords defeated an amendment to insert such a power of access into the Care Bill by 143 votes to 72 this week, in a debate at the report stage of the legislation. A similar amendment was moved at the committee stage of the bill but was withdrawn before a vote.
Gap in the law
Adult safeguarding campaigners and social work leaders say such a power is necessary to fill a gap in the law to help practitioners protect adults who are being coerced into silence by their abusers.
The latest amendment was devised by Action on Elder Abuse and moved by its patron, crossbench peer Baroness Sally Greengross.
It would enable a social worker to apply for a court order to access an adult at risk, which would only be granted if the practitioner reasonably suspected the person was being abused, needed the court order to assess risk and could show that such an order would not increase risk.
Greengross said safeguarding agencies needed to “seek out abuse rather than passively wait for victims to appear”, particularly when people were being abused by family members. Greengross was backed by the Labour Party frontbench and other peers with a background in social care, including former social worker Baroness Meacher and former social services director and health minister Lord Warner.
‘Imprisoned in their homes’
“There are situations where victims of abuse are imprisoned in their homes by a perpetrator who subsequently denies access to adult safeguarding staff,” Greengross told fellow peers. “In such circumstances there are no current legal means by which access can be achieved.”
However, this was strongly rejected by Howe, who said the issue was not the availability of powers for social workers to protect people, but their knowledge of the law.
Howe quoted an advice note for adult directors published by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and Local Government Association, which said existing protection powers were underused because of practitioners’ lack of legal knowledge.
“What is needed is greater knowledge of existing legislative options,” he said. “If they have that professionals will be fully equipped to support people to be safe.”
Existing provisions include powers for the police to enter premises to protect life or limb, under section 17 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984; seek an occupation order, excluding abusers from the family home, under domestic violence legislation; or remove a person with a mental illness from their home to a place of safety if they are suspected of being abused, under section 135 of the Mental Health Act 1983.
Councils can apply to the Court of Protection to move a person receiving care at home to a new setting if they lack the mental capacity to decide on where they should live and it is deemed to be in their best interests.
They can also apply to a High Court to use its “inherent jurisdiction” to intervene to protect adults who face suspected abuse, possess relevant decision-making capacity but are being coerced by a third-party, typically a family member.
This latter provision comes closest to the power being sought by Greengross and others; however Action on Elder Abuse, among others, have warned that applying to the High Court in such cases would be lengthy and expensive for councils, in making their case for a new power.
Professionals in favour; public against
The government originally rejected a power of access in May, following a consultation that found health and social care professionals were largely in favour of the change, and most members of the public who responded were opposed.
Howe said the consultation revealed “no clear consensus”, and also warned that the introduction of such a power would have adverse consequences.
“A power such as this might well ensure access but the central issue will remain – how will the professionals then work with the situation to achieve the best outcomes,” he said. “Trust will have been compromised and, short of a power of removal, which we certainly would not want to see, the options for action seem pretty limited.”
Improve your safeguarding practice
Community Care is holding a conference on safeguarding adults in care homes and hospitals on 4 December in Birmingham. Book now for a discounted place.
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