Social workers to be given guidance on using safeguarding powers due to ‘lack of awareness’

Practitioners need more knowledge of existing powers, says minister, as government retains opposition to power of entry in safeguarding cases

Older woman at door
Picture credit: Action Press/Rex Features

Social workers will receive guidance on using existing legal powers to safeguard adults from abuse to tackle an apparent lack of awareness among practitioners, care minister Norman Lamb has said.

Lamb made the pledge as he reiterated his opposition to any new power for practitioners to enter homes to assess vulnerable adults at perceived risk of abuse where entry is barred by a third party, often the alleged abuser.

The committee of MPs scrutinising the Care Bill is due to vote shortly on a new clause introducing an ‘adult safeguarding access order’, proposed by Lamb’s predecessor, Paul Burstow. This would enable social workers to apply to a magistrate for the authority to enter a home where there is suspected abuse or neglect, all reasonable steps have been taken to contact the alleged victim and entry to the home is necessary to pursue a safeguarding enquiry.

However, in a Care Bill debate last week, Lamb said this would be unnecessary, as sufficient powers existed already.

“I suspect that many social workers out there in the field are not aware of what powers are available to them,” he added.

Lamb said guidance on the relevant powers would be developed by the Department of Health, the Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. It would include “case studies and possible scenarios illustrating the powers”.

Existing powers

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 conduct a mental capacity assessment on a vulnerable adult suspected of being abused.

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.

Negotiation ‘the essence of social work’

Lamb also said that negotiating solutions to problems, rather than using force, was “the essence of social work” and what practitioners had been trained to do. A power of entry could undermine social workers’ ability to build effective relationships with families in these circumstances, he added.

In response, Burstow said existing powers had been “weighed in the balance and found wanting because they have not been used regularly, routinely or, it would seem, more than rarely”.

He said he had been told of cases by The College of Social Work, which backs a new power, where practitioners had been unable to take action to protect people for want of legal provisions. These included a case of an older man whose daughter prevented him from seeing care or social workers and was later convicted of his murder, and a son who was stealing from his mother but prevented her from seeing social workers, until he had an accident that enabled practitioners to contact her.

Wilful neglect offence may be applied to social care providers

During the same debate, Lamb revealed that the government was considering applying a new offence of wilful neglect of ill-treatment of service users by staff and organisations to social care, as well as NHS settings. The government has already committed to introduce such an offence in the NHS, on the recommendation of Don Berwick, former adviser to President Obama, in a report for the DH on patient safety last year.

“Professor Berwick’s remit extended only to NHS services,” said Lamb. “We are considering carefully whether it is sensible to limit the offence in that way or whether it should apply more widely across both the health and care sectors. We have committed to consulting on our proposals for the new offence, which is the right way to proceed.”

Lamb also voiced his opposition to an amendment from Labour MP Nick Smith to introduce an offence of corporate responsibility for neglect, which could see directors of care providers jailed for up to five years if their management of a service led to abuse or neglect.

The care minister pointed out that the Care Quality Commission would in future be able to prosecute providers for breaches of new fundamental standards of care, without having to issue a warning notice first. This would include cases of abuse of neglect, and directors, as well as organisations, would be liable for prosecution, though not imprisonment.

“Directors could be subject to personal prosecution and to unlimited fines, not to jail, under these provisions,” he added. Smith declined to press his amendment to a vote but asked Lamb to examine how directors could be subject to imprisonment in corporate neglect cases.

Meanwhile Lamb said the Westminster government and the devolved administrations would set out “understandings in principle” on cross-border continuity of home and community-based care should care recipients move between the nations of the UK. He said he wanted to have the principles in place by November but, if it did not happen by that date, he would write to shadow care minister Liz Kendall to explain why and with an amended schedule.

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