The Simon Heng Column

Action on Elder Abuse recently issued an e-mail asking for comments and suggestions about the need for new adult protection legislation: is there a need for an all-encompassing act, covering health, social care and the criminal justice system?

As far as I can tell, sexual, financial, physical and psychological abuses are already crimes, and institutional abuse is a violation of human rights. But just because laws exist doesn’t mean that abuse is less likely to happen or that abusers are more likely to be called to account. To be effective, potential victims must feel they are safe to disclose, those responsible for them need to know what is abuse and how to report it and laws have to be vigorously enforced.

Since No Secrets, protecting vulnerable adults has been taken seriously – at least in my locality. Scarce resources have been  diverted, every organisation has taken the matter to heart and each round of publicity or training has led to further disclosures.

So do we need new legislation, or just improvements to the current arrangements – including ring-fenced funding from central government (currently, adult protection is funded from existing budgets) and a more effective Protection of Vulnerable Adults list?

But there are two issues that stand out.

The people most likely to be abused are those least likely to be effective witnesses. People with learning difficulties, dementia, mental health problems and degenerative diseases often have problems in recalling events clearly. They may not be able to stand witness in court, so perhaps the rules of evidence need to be changed, as they have been for abused children.

Also, when it’s clear a child is being abused, the safety of that child is paramount. Someone has the power to remove a child to a place of safety. A vulnerable adult doesn’t have this protection – unless the new Mental Capacity Act has some provision for this within it. Do we need some kind of statutory power for an authority – rather than an individual – to take control of  somebody’s safety if needed?

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