A council that came under fire for not assessing vulnerable people who may have been unlawfully deprived of their liberty is not aware of anyone in Staffordshire coming to harm as a result, senior members have been told.
Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DOLS) are put in place to provide protection for the most vulnerable people living in residential homes, nursing homes or hospital environments, who lack the ability to give informed consent to the arrangements made for their treatment or care.
But following changes to the system brought about by a legal test case Staffordshire County Council has seen a surge of more than 1,000% in DOLS applications in recent years.
In 2016 the authority decided to triage applications into high, medium and low priority cases – and focus its limited resources on carrying out full assessments only for those classed as high priority.
The council has said that the triage system is similar to the approach taken by other local authorities and it currently has a backlog of full assessments to be carried out.
But earlier this year Staffordshire County Council’s approach was criticised in an investigation by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman. The watchdog said thousands of people had been deprived of their liberty without proper assessment.
The council has now been ordered to produce an action plan detailing how it is going to deal with incoming DOLS requests and its backlog of unassessed cases.
On Thursday senior councillors agreed to produce the action plan and amend its approach to DOLS “to complete full assessments on medium and low priority cases if resources allow”.
One-off additional funding of £50,000 was also approved towards new full assessments and reducing the backlog. But this will not cover the cost of clearing all the cases including medium and low priority.
As of March 2019 the backlog of full DOLS assessments was 3,571, with 88 high, 656 medium and 2,827 low priority cases, a report to Thurssday’s cabinet meeting said.
It added: “The additional cost of completing full assessments for all new DOLS applications would be £1.5m to £2m annually, and the additional cost of completing full assessments for the backlog of medium and low priority applications would be in the range of £1.50m to £2m as a one-off sum.
“The council does not consider that this is a priority for use of limited resources and will therefore continue with an approach of focusing full assessments on those applications considered high priority.
“Currently available funding for DOLS of £250,000 for Best Interests assessors (BIA) annually will be maintained and the recommendation is that if resources allow then full assessments will be extended to medium and low priority applications.”
Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Councillor Mark Sutton asked: “Are we happy that we are doing enough to safeguard the people that fall into that medium or low risk? There are quite a lot of those people according to these figures.”
Councillor Mark Winnington said: “The people affected by DOLS are some our most vulnerable in society. There are older people in (hospital) who don’t know where they are and they still think they are in a house. I think this is so important to those people.
“How can you assure us that no-one has come to harm up until this point? It’s important that we not only look forward but look back and say is there anything we can learn from what has gone on in the past.”
Councillor Gill Burnett, Cabinet Support Member for Adult Safeguarding, responded: “All these individuals are residing in either hospitals or care homes and the primary responsibility for caring for the individual sits with either the hospital or care home.
“All referrals have been triaged by a social care professional. The referrer is informed that should circumstances change for an individual to contact the local authority, who will re-prioritise the amended referral.
“All these individuals in which the criteria indicates they are high priority will be assessed in compliance with the DOLS process.
“Staffordshire County Council has not had any complaints relating to this decision to triage DOLS referrals and we are not aware of anybody that has come to harm within Staffordshire.”