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Professional discretion in the construction of adult safeguarding concerns

2014 Conference Presentation

Safeguarding EnglandUnited Kingdom

1 September 2014

Professional discretion in the construction of adult safeguarding concerns

Martin Stevens, King’s College London, United Kingdom
Katherine Graham, King’s College London, United Kingdom
Caroline Norrie, King’s College London, United Kingdom
Jo Moriarty, King’s College London, United Kingdom
Jill Manthorpe, King’s College London, United Kingdom
Shereen Hussein, King’s College London, United Kingdom


Objective: Safeguarding adults at risk has become an increasingly important element within social work and social care practice. The forthcoming Care Bill will for the first time create a statutory responsibility for councils. Adult safeguarding involves a particular, often procedurally driven response to concerns about the safety of an adult at risk, ‘who is or may be in need of community care services by reason of mental or other disability, age or illness’; and who is or may be unable to take care of him or herself, or unable to protect him or herself against significant harm or exploitation’ (SCIE web resource). However there are a number of other ways in which concerns can be addressed, including assessment of need, commissioning new services, investigation by contract compliance staff. This paper aims to explore how social workers and managers construct concerns as requiring a safeguarding response.

Data and methods: This proposed paper reports data from interviews (n=23) with senior safeguarding managers in different local authorities across England. These interviews were undertaken as part of a larger study, funded by the School for Social Care Research, exploring Models of Safeguarding study.

Results: Many different avenues for response were mentioned in the interviews, including: Risk Enablement Panels, Complex Persons Panels and Self Neglect and Hoarders Panels. The article examines processes for making decisions about how to respond to concerns raised, how risk is established, and who makes decisions and is accountable for them. It is at the points of sequential decision making about the appropriate response to a concern that individual professionals have a central role in implementation of policy. The nature of discretion in social work can be examined using Ellis’ (2011) two dimensional typology, which combines the relative influence of managerialism or bureaucracy with the formality or informality of the discretion exercised. Using this typology and building on the work of Ash in Wales, the article will conclude with a discussion of the degrees and types of discretion being exercised in the construction of a safeguarding concern and link with debates about the future of safeguarding in adult social care.

Policy implications: Different ways of constructing concerns can lead to very different organisational responses and outcomes for the adults at risk. Different responses are underpinned by different policy areas. Considering the roles of key professionals in deciding which response routes are taken for particular kinds of concerns and identifying factors that are taken into account, will generate understanding of the interactions between national policy initiatives at a local level.