On this page we discuss current issues around safeguarding in care work. From here, you can navigate to tables in which we identify relevant laws in EnglandScotland and Wales.

There are many policy and legal frameworks in play when it comes to safeguarding. Alongside the relevant laws in place in EnglandScotland and Wales, adult safeguarding is also discussed and impacted by safeguarding boards, and numerous charities such as Age UK and Mind. That said, it is important to recognise that a great deal of the enforcement of these frameworks comes down to individual care workers’ actions, decisions and behaviours. Over a million people in the UK are care workers, meaning care workers are at the heart of safeguarding for older and disabled adults. In this section we explore the ways safeguarding is defined across these different legal landscapes, and examine how this impacts care work.

There has been £7bn reduction in adult social care funding since 2010, with social care services having been chronically underfunded for many years (Hayes 2020). Austerity measures introduced following 2008’s global financial crisis have significantly cut spending on public services, with adult social care having been found to be most severely affected. This impacts many areas of care work, including pay, staffing levels and workload. A perhaps unanticipated consequence of these cuts is the impact they have upon safeguarding, and some have pointed to a ‘disturbing rise‘ in safeguarding reports. As researchers have pointed out, the cost cutting measures enacted as a consequences of underfunding can lead to workplace cultures where cutting corners becomes the norm (Hayes 2020). Examples of this can be using hoists singlehandedly or not at all, such as in the case of the death of Iris Teale in 2011. It important to consider the ways these cuts to the care sector impact upon the quality of care, and safeguarding provides a powerful lens through which to view these issues.

What is safeguarding?

The term “safeguarding” refers to processes and policies that exist to protect adults and children from harm, including breach of their human rights.  The guidance under the Care Act 2014 describes adult safeguarding as “protecting an adult’s right to live in safety, free from abuse and neglect.” “Harm” can relate to physical, mental, emotional or financial damage, and can be the result of intentional or unintentional harm or neglect, including harm that arises from the actions of the person at risk.

In practice, safeguarding is a process which swings into action if there are concerns or suspicions that someone who has support or care needs may be experiencing abuse or neglect.  In England and Wales safeguarding duties arise when there are concerns about an adult who:

  • has needs for care and support (whether or not the local authority is meeting any of those needs);
  • is experiencing, or at risk of, abuse or neglect; and
  • as a result of those care and support needs is unable to protect themselves from either the risk of, or the experience of abuse or neglect.

In Scotland, ‘adults at risk’ are defined as those who:

  • are unable to safeguard their own well-being, property, rights or other interests;
  • are at risk of harm as a result of their own actions, or those of someone else; and
  • because they are affected by disability, mental disorder, illness or physical or mental infirmity, are more vulnerable to being harmed than adults who are not so affected.

Safeguarding is intrinsically connected to care. Safeguarding duties only arise in relation to individuals  who have needs for care and support (in England and Wales) or who have certain conditions which are likely to result in a need for support (in Scotland).  Wherever care and/or support relationships exist there is potential for safeguarding issues to arise. Carework involves, by its nature, close or intimate contact with people who may not be able to defend themselves from – or even recognise – abusive behaviour. Careworkers, more than almost any other group, are in a unique position to be able to harm, or to neglect – or to identify and prevent any harm and neglect caused by others.

As a result, care workers are at the heart of safeguarding. To ensure that their own behaviour towards individuals is not abusive, coercive or controlling, care workers need to understand, for example, matters of consent and dignity, how people communicate, whether and how to support someone who may be resisting support, and issues relating to a person’s mental capacity.  Care workers also need to be alert to signs of abuse or neglect caused by others, such as colleagues or family members, or harm caused by the individual’s own behaviours, and what to do if they see such signs.


Whistleblowing – or raising safeguarding concerns with an employer or a relevant authority – is an important aspect of safeguarding. Employment laws provides some limited protection to whistle-blowers and research demonstrates that care workers often feel whistleblowing to be risky (Jones and Kelly 2014). The researchers found that in response, care workers developed alternative informal strategies to raise safeguarding concerns. For whistleblowing to be effective, staff need to feel secure and supported at work, regular supervision is vital, workplaces need to avoid ‘blame culture’ and instead show a commitment to openness and shared learning from mistakes.

Hayes, L.J.B., (2020). Criminalizing Care Workers. A Critique of Prosecution for Ill-treatment or Wilful Neglect. In: Bogg, A., Collins, J., Freedland, M. and Herring, J. eds. Criminality at Work. Oxford University Press.

Jones, A. and Kelly, D. (2014) Whistle‐blowing and workplace culture in older peoples’ care: qualitative insights from the healthcare and social care workforce. Sociology of Health & Illness. 36(7): 986–1002

If you use any material from these web pages, we suggest this is cited as follows: 

Hayes, L., Tarrant, A. and Walters, H. (2020) Social Care Regulation at Work: Safeguarding. University of Kent. [Viewed date]. Available at: <https://research.kent.ac.uk/social-care-regulation-at-work/safeguarding/>

This website is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute any form of legal advice and should not be treated as or relied upon for legal advice. If you require legal advice you should contact a qualified legal practitioner.