Adults in care to receive legal protection

Paul Burstow, the Care minister, promises the most radical shake-up of the system in 60 years

Adults in care homes are to be given legal protection for the first time in the wake of the Gloucestershire abuse scandal, amid growing fears about the perilous financial state of the industry.

Paul Burstow, the Care minister, told The Independent on Sunday that the “absolutely appalling” systematic abuse of vulnerable adults at Winterbourne View residential hospital had moved him to act. He said the law on the care of adults was out of step with that for children and will be “strengthened” in legislation.

“It needs to be put on a proper statutory footing,” he said. “We will legislate to make it a requirement for every council with social care responsibilities to have an adult safeguarding board.”

In the most radical shake-up of adult social care for 60 years, new boards will bring together social services, the NHS and police to “co-ordinate and ensure there is a robust approach to protecting vulnerable adults”, the minister said.

Mr Burstow said the exposé by the BBC’s Panorama programme of the abuse at Winterbourne View had raised serious questions about the conduct of the owners as well as the state bodies charged with protecting people in their care. Police released four people on bail and 13 members of staff were suspended after secret filming showed people with learning difficulties being punched and slapped by carers.

The Care Quality Commission has faced fierce criticism after admitting it failed to act on two tip-offs. But Mr Burstow, who has ordered a review into what went wrong, added: “Unless we have an inspector sitting in the corner of every room of every home for every hour of every week we will never have a system that will prevent evil people doing evil things.

“We have to look at companies who provide these services, how they are set up, how they recruit staff, how they supervise staff and, frankly, whether they get rid of staff who have anything less than respect for people in their care.”

However, he hit out at the “corporate culture and management of Castlebeck” which ran Winterbourne View and was “responsible for protecting people in their care, for ensuring they employ staff who see their purpose as improving the quality of life of people, not tormenting them”.

“Ultimately, this is about making a home for people where they feel safe, happy and valued, not treated like numbers in a spreadsheet,” he added.

However, financial pressures in the care system have been exposed by the crisis engulfing Southern Cross, Britain’s biggest residential home operator, which has revealed losses of £311m in six months.

Yesterday, fresh claims emerged that senior executives earned £35m selling shares in the company before a collapse in their value in 2007. Downing Street has insisted that the 31,000 residents in Southern Cross’s 750 homes will be looked after in the event of the collapse of the firm. Mr Burstow said the case was further evidence of the “fragile system” underpinning social care, which has barely changed since 1948.

“It has never been well-resourced. It’s no longer the case that the majority of social care is provided by the public sector – it is charities and the private sector. The amount of resources going in from the state and the individual is not sufficient to sustain the current system for much longer.”