Social workers responding to a study on adult safeguarding practice in England expressed support for new legal powers to obtain access to adults at risk.
The majority of interviewees were in favour of both assessment orders and a power of entry to undertake a private interview, while many supported legal powers for banning a perpetrator. Almost half also said they would be in favour of an order to remove an adult at risk.
The study by the Social Care Workforce Research Unit interviewed 37 social workers and managers about the need for new legal powers where access to an adult at risk of abuse is obstructed by a third party.
Participants were asked about the legal powers currently available to social workers in Scotland, including the ‘power of entry’ to undertake a private interview with an adult at risk and protection orders to conduct an assessment in private, or to ban a perpetrator from living in the property.
Interviewees were also questioned on their views on allowing social workers to apply for any of the court orders without consent, if they were able to provide evidence that an adult at risk, who has capacity, was being unduly influenced by someone. Over half (20) were broadly in favour.
The power of entry was introduced in Scotland in 2008, and similar powers came into force in Wales in 2016. The coalition government undertook a consultation in 2012 specifically about introducing the same powers in England, to aid social workers who face obstructions in accessing an adult at risk. However, it opted not to include a power of entry in the Care Act 2014.
‘Obstruction is rare’
The study sought to understand how social workers respond when their attempts to gain access to an adult who may be at risk of abuse or neglect are obstructed, otherwise known as ‘hindering’.
It found that complex ‘hinder’ situations appeared to be rare, and social workers reported that they are usually resolved by good social work practice and multi-agency working.
However, it reported that in a small number of cases, gaining any access could prove difficult and sometimes impossible. These cases can take up additional time and resources, it said, and may also mean that adults at risk suffer abuse or neglect for long periods.
It was in these cases that interviewees most supported the introduction of new legal powers. The three other reasons given were to help where someone has capacity and there are strong concerns, to shorten the process, and to improve the legal basis for safeguarding.
Concerns over fit with values
Despite many respondents being in favour of the introduction of a power of entry, there were reservations, the report said. Social workers were concerned that the powers did not fit with social work values and could affect their relationships with individuals, while others said that existing legal powers were sufficient.
More than half (20) of participants also stressed that any power of entry would need to be closely managed to ensure it was only used as a last resort in high risk cases.
The study included interviews with older and disabled people and carers, who were given a scenario of a typical case and asked questions about it, including what approaches from professionals might overcome access problems and whether a power of entry would have helped.
It found that nine of the 11 interviewed were in favour of the introduction of a power of entry. This contrasted with findings from the government’s 2012 consultation, the report said, where members of the public were firmly against increasing social workers’ powers.
The research also surveyed adult safeguarding managers in England online. Of the 22 respondents, just over half were in favour of introducing a power of entry for private interview (14), assessment orders (15) and banning a perpetrator (14). Less than half (10) supported orders enabling councils to remove an adult at risk.
Support for power of entry
The study concluded that situations where social workers are completely obstructed from accessing an adult at risk are rare, but where these cases do exist, many practitioners appear to support the introduction of a power of entry, and some of the other powers available in Scotland.
“The similarities between these current findings and themes from the Department of Health consultation suggest that views have not altered substantially, despite the changes of the Care Act 2014,” the report said.
It listed recommendations for future changes to safeguarding policy including:
- Wait for data from the use of the legal powers in Wales and further data from Scotland before making firm policy decisions about further legal powers.
- A public consultation through, for example, the Law Commission to consider amendments to the Care Act 2014 and seek views on applying the Scottish approach in England.
- Data collection and research to assess the scale of ‘hindering’, which would need to include further development work to define when to count a problem as a ‘hinder situation.’
The Helping or Hindering study
The Helping or Hindering study was led by Martin Stevens at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, following the implementation of the Care Act 2014 in April 2015. It examined practice in three English councils in cases where adult safeguarding practitioners faced obstructive behaviour by a third party.
The research interviewed 37 social workers and safeguarding managers and 11 older or disabled people and family carers in the three councils were interviewed. It also surveyed online 22 adult safeguarding managers working across England.
The study also analysed responses to the 2012 government’s Safeguarding Power of Entry Consultation and serious case reviews where access to an adult at risk had been an issue.