Mandatory adult safeguarding boards on the cards

No money identified to run adult safeguarding boards and legislative time is running out this parliament

The government last week announced plans to make multi-agency adult safeguarding boards mandatory by putting them on a statutory footing.

The move, which is designed to strengthen local safeguarding leadership and address inconsistencies in the current operation of boards, came as part of the Department of Health’s response to its review of the 2000 No Secrets guidance.

Other proposals include the establishment of an inter-ministerial group to provide cross-government leadership on the issue and the publication of new multi-agency guidance to replace No Secrets this autumn.

However, the government has come under fire for a 12-month delay in responding to the consultation on the review of No Secrets, while several questions remain about the potential effectiveness of its plans and whether they will come to fruition at all.

Funding of boards

No funding has been announced to support the implementation of the proposed legislation, despite the fact that campaigners for legislation on adult safeguarding have long seen it as a way of attracting more money into what they consider to be an underfunded service.

The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services’ adult safeguarding lead, Adi Cooper, says ministers should bear in mind the resource implications of any legislation.

She says: “If there’s a recommendation that there should be independent chairs [of boards] that will have a cost.”

Pete Morgan, chair of the Practitioners Alliance Against Abuse of Vulnerable Adults (PAAVA), points out that No Secrets was supposed to be cost neutral but was not. He says that putting safeguarding infrastructure in place will inevitably lead to extra costs.

However, Richard Crompton, vulnerable adults lead for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), says the lack of any funding is not surprising, adding: “No agency would expect in the current climate to be given new money.”

Local safeguarding children boards set an unhelpful precedent as they have faced funding difficulties since their establishment under the Children Act 2004.

Powers of intervention

The government did not announce plans to give agencies new powers of intervention in cases of suspected abuse, although this received the backing of most respondents to the No Secrets review consultation.

Morgan thinks the power to enter a home to do an assessment of a vulnerable adult is necessary, but says this should be overseen by a magistrate. He says: “The only time you would use that is when another person could deny access.”

The potential for powers of intervention to undermine service users’ freedoms has long concerned mental health charity Mind.

Policy and campaigns manager Anna Bird says: “It’s really important to weigh up people’s right to live safely with their right to live freely. The powers already exist to intervene in the worst cases.”

Steve Shrubb, director of the NHS Confederation’s mental health network, thinks it is too soon to talk about it. “I think to say [boards] need this power or that power now is too fast,” he says.

Duty to co-operate

While the proposed legislation would make the safeguarding adults boards mandatory, there is no guarantee this would make attendance compulsory for all agencies.

Cooper says Adass would welcome a duty to co-operate on agencies, akin to that in the Children Act 2004, but it “doesn’t look like it’s currently in the proposal”.

Some agencies may need to be compelled more than others. Bird says: “Our experience is that there is a problem with low referrals from the NHS to safeguarding adults boards. If there’s violence within a mental health ward, that might well be investigated internally [and not referred to the safeguarding board].”

Shrubb says internal investigations do not preclude referrals to adult safeguarding boards as the two processes are distinct, but says he strongly supports a duty on organisations to co-operate.

Will legislation happen?

With an election expected in May there is scant time in this parliamentary session for legislation to become a reality.

The DH has said that legislation will be drawn up “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.

Bird is optimistic that legislation can proceed before the election. She says: “I would hope that they are at a stage now where they can move to make the legislation happen.”

However, Crompton, of Acpo, says civil servants are not optimistic. “The people we have spoken to have a realistic expectation of the limitations of government because of the amount of time.”

The Conservatives have not committed to backing legislation on safeguarding adults boards, whether a bill emerges before polling day or should they win power at the election.

Despite this, shadow health minister Stephen O’Brien criticised the government for making its announcement so close to an election, saying it “raises grave doubts about ministers’ motivations”.

Bird worries that a lack of party political agreement could prove damaging. She says: “I think what this should not be is a political issue; this is about vulnerable people who need agencies to ensure they are protected from abuse.”

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