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Vulnerable Adults

Volume 690: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they intend to bring forward legislation specifically to protect vulnerable adults.

My Lords, the Government have jointly commissioned research with Comic Relief looking at the nature and prevalence of abuse of older people living in the community. These data will help to inform decisions about the need for new legislation.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. The lack of overarching legislation on this issue means that some local authorities are not counting financial abuse as “harm”. Does she consider financial abuse to be harm, both when the individual has the capacity to be aware of it and, perhaps even more important, when the individual lacks such capacity? Would she be willing to issue a statement to local authorities clarifying the position?

My Lords, we indeed believe that financial abuse constitutes harm. As to whether the Government will release a statement to local authorities, I shall certainly ask my colleagues in the other place. However, I suggest that, while we often talk about the need for new legislation, perhaps what we must look at more closely is whether the legislation that already exists is properly implemented and therefore effective.

My Lords, the dreadful instances of the physical and sexual abuse of vulnerable old people both in institutions and in the community are to be regretted. Does the noble Baroness agree that legislation alone will not stop it unless we train the staff who look after vulnerable adults far more comprehensively, with agreed qualifications being essential? Are the Government prepared to do something about this as soon as possible?

My Lords, we absolutely deplore any physical or social abuse of vulnerable adults, and training is crucial to good care, as is leadership. The regulations are clear and there are national minimum standards to back them up. The Commission for Social Care Inspection considers training in its inspections and can close down a home if the training is not felt to be adequate. Training is the responsibility of care home owners and employers. However, as the noble Baroness says, legislation is not enough. We have to ensure that it is fully implemented and that employers are properly fulfilling their obligations. Again, training is crucial.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of another area of uncertainty in the current law? When an investigation takes place in a case where a vulnerable adult is believed to be suffering abuse, there is no definition of what a “satisfactory outcome” might amount to. For example, apart from ensuring that the abuse has stopped, it is not clear what the responsibilities of the statutory authorities are to provide help to enable people to overcome the effects of abuse. Will the Government look at that?

My Lords, I understand that there are variations in how local authorities and their partners deal with reports of abuse of older people. No Secrets, the statutory guidance for local authorities, sets out the parameters for dealing with individual cases of abuse and defines a vulnerable adult, which provides a trigger for the involvement of multi-agency adult protection arrangements. It was not the intention of No Secrets that local authority adult protection arrangements should deal only with older people receiving social care services. We will look at this to ensure that the definition is adequate and properly interpreted at all times.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that vulnerable adults need not necessarily be old, as all the questions seem to be implying? Many parents—for example, parents of autistic children—are reluctant, once their children become adults and, in many cases, difficult to handle, to consign them to care organisations because they are not sure of the treatment that their children will get. Have Her Majesty’s Government given any consideration to helping such people?

My Lords, I must declare an interest as the patron of Autism Cymru. Of course vulnerable adults are not always old; autistic people and any people with learning disabilities are vulnerable adults. Autism seems to be increasing in our society, and the Governments in England, Wales and Scotland are giving it great attention.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us about the progress on implementing the safeguarding vulnerable groups legislation that was passed last year?

My Lords, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act will start to be implemented in 2008. It will be gradually introduced.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that on certain occasions Wales takes the lead and has its moment of triumph, not only on the rugby field but also with, for example, the establishment of the Commissioner for Older People in Wales. Are the Government considering such an appointment for England?

My Lords, as a Welsh woman, I am proud to say that Wales quite often takes the lead. Where the older people’s commissioner is concerned, however, the situation has not changed in the past two weeks. Two weeks ago, my noble friend Lord Hunt suggested that as we have an older people’s champion—I cannot remember the exact phrase—in England who is responsible for older people. We believe that that is enough and that we do not need to appoint a commissioner for older people in England.

My Lords, will my noble friend consider the reality of the situation, which is that anyone who fears that someone, whether it be a neighbour, a friend or even their bank manager, is suffering from abuse in any form has not the foggiest idea to whom they should go to have some inquiries made?

Yes, my Lords, advocacy, information and communication of information are crucial. The Government are mindful of that, and local authorities should be as well. These days, more information is available in doctors’ surgeries, in local hospitals and on the internet, but we all could and should do more to ensure that more people are aware of their rights when it comes to social care and the abuse of vulnerable people.