Burstow U-turn lowers proposed adult safeguarding threshold

Paul Burstow has reversed plans to limit adult protection interventions to people at risk of "significant harm", just days after they were announced and sparked concerns they would leave some adults unprotected.

Paul Burstow has reversed plans to limit adult protection interventions to people at risk of “significant harm”, just days after they were announced and sparked concerns they would leave some adults unprotected.

Instead, forthcoming legislation will propose setting a threshold of “at risk of harm”, the care services minister told delegates at last Friday’s Action on Elder Abuse annual conference.

The U-turn came just nine days after Department of Health official Robert Parsons said the government planned to set a “significant harm” threshold, in a speech to a Community Care conference. Though this would be in line with current guidance, it went against the proposed ‘harm’ threshold set out by the Law Commission in its review of adult social care law, and sparked concerns that the abuse of people with lower-level disabilities would be missed.

At last week’s conference, one delegate asked Burstow: “Are you in a position to reassure us that the legislation will talk of the risk of harm, not the risk of significant harm?”

“I can answer that in one word,” said Burstow. “Yes.”

Explaining Burstow’s comments, a Department of Health spokesperson said today: “The minister’s response to a delegate’s question indicated that legislation will not refer to “significant harm’. However, the current policy position is that adults at risk of significant harm should be the subject of safeguarding work, building on the No Secrets statutory guidance. 

“Of course how these terms are defined in the first ever adult safeguarding legislation in England will be critically important, and that is why we have been talking to people working in safeguarding to get their views on these issues.”

Powers of intervention

He also raised the possibility that social workers may get powers to intervene to protect people, something the government had previously indicated it opposed.

In a question to Burstow, Association of Directors of Social Work adult protection lead Val de Souza pointed to the success of the protection orders in the Adult Protection and Support (Scotland) Act 2007.

The act enables social workers to enter any place as part of adult protection inquiries and, with court approval, to remove an adult at risk for an assessment, remove them from a place of risk for seven days and ban alleged perpetrators from a specified place for up to six months.

While these orders should be made with the vulnerable adults’ consent, this can be overridden if the victim is under “undue influence” from the perpetrator.

Practitioners have teeth

“Prior to the act there was never the teeth for practitioners to say, ‘these are the decisions we can take if the situation doesn’t change’,” said de Souza. “[The orders] influence practice and they give practitioners strength in what they do.”

In response, Burstow said: “We’ll look again at the numbers [of orders made in Scotland] and the basis on which they have been applied. The key test is how effective these processes are in empowering individuals to make choices.”

Earlier the conference had heard that there had been just one assessment order, four removal orders and 42 banning orders in the two years since the Scottish legislation came into force, from October 2008 to September 2010. By comparison, there were 2,485 adult protection investigations from April 2008 to November 2009.

“These are absolutely powers of last resort,” said Action on Elder Abuse trustee and former West Lothian Council social work manager Ronnie Barnes, who disclosed the figures in a presentation to the conference.

Barnes said he knew of no legal challenges to the use of protection orders. Though there has been no Scottish government evaluation of the impact of the legislation, Barnes said he felt it had put adult protection on a par with child protection.

More on this issue

The case for a significant harm threshold for adult safeguarding

Will safeguarding threshold leave adults at risk?

Community Care Live

Adult safeguarding will be under discussion at this year’s Community Care Live, which takes place on 16 and 17 May. Register now for your free place.

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