Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Vulnerable Adults Bill [Bill No. 20/2018]
Sir, the Vulnerable Adults Bill has been a long time in the making, with the public consultation on a draft Bill having been conducted nearly two years ago.
The Bill is a welcomed piece of legislation to protect some of the most vulnerable in society, but also raises difficult questions of the role the state should play in intervening in the most intimate of relationships, and in interfering with decisions and preferences of an adult on matters of their own care.
The long period of gestation for the Bill reflects the delicate process of balancing protection and respect for individual autonomy and freedom.
I stand in support of the Bill and the principles set out under Section 4, which articulates the restraint and proportionality that should guide the exercise of the extensive powers under this Bill.
I have a few points of clarification on the scope of protection offered by the Bill, the mechanisms for checks on the exercise of power, and measures for protecting vulnerable adults beyond those set out under the Bill.
Why did it take so long to introduce this Bill?
My first point is really what I started this speech with. Why did it take so long to introduce this Bill? What were the various considerations or challenges MSF faced in introducing this important Bill.
Definition of a vulnerable adult
Next, under the Bill, a vulnerable adult is defined as an individual who is 18 years old or older.
Can the Minister clarify the rationale for setting 18 years old as the lower age limit for a vulnerable adult?
The Children and Young Persons Act protects individuals who are under 16 years old. What are the forms of equivalent legal protection and recourse available to those who are between 16 to 18 years old?
Protection against sexual abuse
Next, sexual abuse is not listed as a type of abuse under Section 2(1). Instead, “physical abuse” is defined to include coercion or attempts at coercing an individual to engage in sexual activity.
This definition of sexual abuse as being a subset of physical abuse is too narrow because not all sexual harassment is physical.
For instance, vulnerable adults may be subject to verbal sexual harassment not amounting to coercion to engage in sexual activity.
Can the Minister clarify the rationale for subsuming sexual abuse under physical abuse, and also clarify how verbal sexual harassment will be dealt with under the Bill?
Further, would the Minister consider including sexual abuse as an independent head of abuse?
Protection against financial abuse
Similarly, the definition of “abuse” under Section 2(1) does not include financial abuse. There is also a lack of provisions in the Bill that address financial abuse of vulnerable adults.
Financial abuse such as financial exploitation is significant problem faced by vulnerable adults and is a form of elder abuse recognised by MSF.
A 2014 survey conducted by TRANS Family found that 29% of elderly mistreatment in Singapore involves financial exploitation.
There appears to be a gap in the current legal framework for addressing financial abuse and exploitation of vulnerable adults.
For instance, finance-related offences under the Penal Code such as theft, extortion, and cheating may not be sufficiently nuanced to address financial exploitation in the context of an existing relationship of trust or dependency.
Protection orders under the Women’s Charter does not extend to financial abuse.
The definition of ill-treatment under the Mental Capacity Act, which protects mentally-incapacitated elders from ill-treatment by their caregiver or donee or deputy does not include financial abuse.
Will the Minister consider extending the ambit of the Bill to protection against financial abuse in the future? What are the current legal protections available to vulnerable adults subject to financial abuse?
Checks on the Director’s and protectors’ powers
Next, the Director and protectors have extensive discretion and powers under the Bill.
Caregivers may legitimately worry about disruption and interference in their lives such as the possibility of entry into their homes and premises.
Excessive intervention may also further strain relationships between elderly parents and their children.
This would include the powers to remove an individual for assessment without consent, to enter premises, to remove a vulnerable adult from their place of residence and to require medical treatment.
Can the Minister also clarify the instances where the Director or protector need not seek a donee or deputy’s consent before assessing or removing a vulnerable adult under Section 6(2) and Section 10(2)?
Channels for identifying and reporting abuse
Given that cases of abuse, neglect, or self-neglect often occur outside of the public eye, effectiveness of the Bill is contingent on detection and reporting of such cases.
Will training be provided to front-line staff to sensitise them to indicators of abuse, neglect, or self-neglect?
I understand that Social Services Offices and other community partners can call MSF to report cases of vulnerable adult abuse, but vulnerable adults who are not in contact with community partners may fall through the cracks.
Would the Minister consider setting up a public hotline under the Adult Protective Services for reporting of vulnerable adult abuse as has been done with the MSF Child Protective Services Helpline?
Further, can the Minister clarify the ways in which the Adult Protective Services are similar or different from the Child Protective Services? Will every case of vulnerable adult abuse be reported to the police?
There is an existing mechanism under Section 8 of the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act that allows a Magistrate to investigate a report from any person or police officer that a mentally disordered person is not under proper care and control or is ill-treated or neglected.
Can the Minister clarify how this provision will operate in relation to the Bill?
Providing for reintegration
Lastly, can the Minister also share plans for ensuring successful reintegration and adequate care of vulnerable adults when they are returned to their homes from place of temporary care and protection?
Sir, clarifications and suggestions for Ministry’s consideration notwithstanding, I support the Bill.