A long-awaited law that allows the Government to step in and protect seniors and people with disabilities from abuse and neglect was passed in Parliament yesterday.
The Vulnerable Adults Act will allow officials from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to enter private premises to assess a person's well-being.
It will also grant officials powers to temporarily relocate vulnerable adults to safe places such as shelters and disability homes.
Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee stressed that the law will be invoked only as a last resort in high-risk cases, where family and community interventions may not be effective.
"In cases like this, the Government must take a proactive approach and intervene early, as any delays may lead to further harm, or worse," he said, adding that the law must not replace the social work supporting vulnerable adults and their caregivers.
First mooted in October 2014, the Bill was more than three years in the making.
Yesterday, Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Workers' Party (WP) Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh asked why it took so long.
How the Bill protects the vulnerable
The Bill, passed in Parliament yesterday, defines a vulnerable adult as a person aged 18 years and above who is incapable of protecting himself from abuse, neglect or self-neglect due to physical or mental infirmity, disability or incapacity.
It will allow the Government to step in to protect a vulnerable adult by allowing officials from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to enter private premises and assess his mental and physical well-being.
The adult can be temporarily relocated to safe places such as shelters and disability homes.
Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee said the duration of stay should generally last no longer than six months, before longer-term arrangements are made.
The new law also lets officials apply for protection orders in court to prevent abusers from causing further harm. In extreme circumstances, the ministry can ask the courts to grant its officials powers to step in, even if the vulnerable person refuses help.
The Bill also accords protection to whistle-blowers. Individuals who make reports will be protected from legal liability under the law, as long as they had acted with reasonable care and in good faith.
This new law also protects professionals such as doctors, lawyers and counsellors.
Family members will be supported in protecting and caring for vulnerable adults. They can apply for protection orders on behalf of the vulnerable person, with his consent.
If the original care arrangements have broken down, MSF can appoint family members to care for the vulnerable adult.
With the vulnerable adult's consent, family members can also apply for a court order to restrict a third party's access to him.
Mr Lee said extensive consultations and studies were needed. "This Bill involves intrusive statutory intervention in the realm of family and personal matters, so we did not want to rush this."
The new law will accord protection to whistle-blowers and professionals, in a move to encourage people to help vulnerable adults.
Among other things, it also raises the penalties for offences committed against vulnerable adults, to deter abuse and neglect.
Mr Lee said the law will allow MSF to step in to protect individuals like intellectually disabled waitress Annie Ee, 26, who was abused to death by her flatmates. Her case had sparked widespread outrage due to the extent of abuse inflicted.
Twelve MPs spoke on the Bill in all. Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) asked how a balance would be struck between intervening and violating a vulnerable adult's autonomy, while WP chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) voiced concern about possible overreach.
Mr Lee said a qualified assessor will determine if the vulnerable adult is physically or mentally incapable of protecting himself. An adult will be removed only if his safety and well-being have been compromised or are at risk, he added.
Replying to Dr Lily Neo (Jalan Besar GRC) and Dr Goh on why the Bill did not cover financial abuse, Mr Lee said MSF can step in when such abuse occurs alongside other forms of abuse and neglect that are already covered under the law.
He added that there are already some other levers in place, such as other family members stepping forward to stop financial abuse. "For now, the Bill's focus is on physical and emotional abuse," he added.
Addressing Mr Seah Kian Peng's (Marine Parade GRC) suggestion of implementing a mandatory reporting system, Mr Lee said professionals were concerned such laws may prevent abusers from seeking help for themselves or their victims, as they fear being taken to task.
Mandatory reporting laws in other countries have led to overreporting, the minister added.
He emphasised that the new law will be effective only if everyone plays an active part. "Everyone... has a role to play to prevent vulnerable people from being abused, and to stop it if it happens."