The importance of safeguarding in adult social care

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The provision of ‘regulated activities’, including adult social care, carries legal safeguarding obligations. We consider how care providers can embed safeguarding within their organisations. 

While people generally associate ‘safeguarding’ with protecting the welfare of children and young people, this is not the full picture. If, according to the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, an activity is defined as a ‘regulated activity’, then there are associated legal safeguarding obligations. If these obligations are not met, the penalties can be serious.

A regulated activity is defined by its nature, not by the setting in which takes place or by its duration. Broadly speaking, regulated activities in relation to vulnerable adults sit within one of the following categories: 

  • providing health care
  • providing personal care
  • providing social work
  • assistance with general household matters
  • assisting in the conduct of a person’s own affairs; and 
  • conveying (i.e. transporting a person from one place to another).

Providing physical assistance with eating, drinking, bathing or dressing would all be considered a regulated activity because the adult at that time would be considered vulnerable.

The complexity of this area means it is best not to make assumptions and seek advice where possible. As well as registering their activity, those undertaking regulated activity are required to undertake a check from the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS). Failure to do so can result in fines and potentially prosecution. 

Safeguarding protects human rights

Rather than just ‘red tape’, these requirements seek to make sure the adult social care sector provides the best quality care possible, an issue that has come under scrutiny in recent times.

Even prior to Covid, the sector was in crisis. High-profile inquiries and reports revealed systemic issues in multiple forms of care provision. Most of which stemmed from a lack of staff, under-funding and poor leadership. In 2022 an undercover Panorama investigation into the Edenfield Centre, one of the UK’s biggest mental health hospitals, revealed what one expert described as a “toxic culture” of “corruption, perversion, aggression, hostility” and a “lack of boundaries”.

Implementing a robust approach to safeguarding aims to prevent such incidents, through policies and procedures, regular staff training, and a clearly defined system of reporting and accountability. According to NHS England, safeguarding is intended to protect the “health, wellbeing and human rights” of vulnerable people, enabling them to “live free from harm, abuse and neglect”.

To be successful, safeguarding needs to start at the top. Leadership must understand and support the role of safeguarding within its organisation and define how this will be approached and enforced. Too often, poor leadership is identified as the root of safeguarding issues. An inquiry by Robert Francis KC, for example, traced systemic failings in patient care – including ensuring adequate nutrition and hygiene – to a management that had prioritised cost savings and status above service provision.

So what does safeguarding best practice look like?

As a minimum, regulated activity providers must ensure all employees (both existing and potential) undergo a DBS check. It is a criminal offence for a barred individual to undertake regulated activity, but it is also an offence for employers or voluntary organisations to knowingly allow such an individual to do so. 

Regulated activity providers must also refer individuals to the DBS if they withdraw permission from a person to engage in regulated activity, whether by reason of suspected or known inappropriate conduct.

It is important to remember that safeguarding doesn’t just mean sifting out individuals with relevant criminal convictions. It is about providing the best quality of life to vulnerable people, while ensuring that staff or volunteers are also well looked after.

It cannot be ignored that Covid has created additional funding and staffing problems within the sector. As a regulated activity, however, adult social care providers have a duty to bounce back and embed safeguarding across their organisations, from the CEO to the agency staff.

Reworked from an article first published in The Carer.

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