(Delivered in Parliament on 18 May 2018)
Deputy Speaker Sir, there is broad support for this proposed law from the social services sector and the public and I would like to echo the support. It is an important instrument of last resort to be used to safeguard the wellbeing of vulnerable individuals facing abuse.
I have personally witnessed a case where multiple government and social service agencies were scrambling to intervene to safeguard an elderly woman’s wellbeing after community and family interventions have failed to rescue the mentally incapacitated lady from self-neglect. The crux of the problem was who had the power to compel the lady to accept assessment and assistance. It took years to finally get help to the lady in need, which had in the meantime caused much distress to the family and the neighbours.
Why the Delay in Introducing the Act?
I have three points to raise about the bill. But before I raise these points, I would like to ask an important question of clarification. The Ministry of Social and Family Development first mooted the Vulnerable Adults Act in 2014 and it was said that the VAA would likely be enacted in 2015. That did not happen and the public consultation on the Bill took place in 2016. Almost two years have passed since, and we are here at the second reading of the Bill. This is a wait of three years.
Every year we see about 200 reported cases of abuse of seniors and people with disabilities. This is sufficient reason in itself for the urgency of the VAA.
The FAQs accompanying the public consultation documents for the Bill stress that the rate of abuse of vulnerable adults is relatively low and that the VAA is important to keep this rate low as Singapore society ages and the number of senior citizens increases to 900,000. The ageing society is also stated as the impetus for the Bill in the other documents.
While the ageing society is a crucial context, I believe the central motivation of the Bill should not be about keeping rates low as society ages. It should be about reducing abuse to the minimal and safeguarding vulnerable adults in all cases of abuse regardless of the societal context because one abuse is one too many and should be stopped. In other words, the motivation and the spirit of this law should be more humanistic and less bureaucratic in the sense of measuring abuse in terms of a KPI.
Therefore, this wait of three years for the Bill to be tabled needs to be accounted for. There must be a good reason or good reasons for the delay. The Minister said that we should not rush this bill in his speech. I hope the Minister could elaborate.
Let me move on to the three points I would like to raise about the Bill.
Gaps in the Definitions: Older Youths and Financial Abuse
The first point is about the definitions and the scope of the VAA. It is very good that the principle in Clause 4 stating that, “in all matters relating to the administration or application of this Act, the welfare and best interests of the vulnerable adult must be the first and paramount consideration”, has been added to the Bill after public consultation. This is the most important principle. It signals that the main motivation for the Act is not about keeping abuse rates low but in protecting the basic human dignity of the weakest members of our society.
However, there appears to be two gaps in the definitions. A vulnerable adult is defined in the Bill as an individual aged 18 and above who is incapable of protecting himself from abuse, neglect or self-neglect due to physical or mental incapacity. Our young persons aged between 16 and 17 are left in no man’s land in terms of protection from abuse or neglect. This means that close to 200,000 individuals each year, entering what is arguably a very emotionally volatile phase of growth as late teens, would neither be protected under the Vulnerable Adults Act nor under the Children and Young Persons Act which defines young persons as under 16 years of age.
The second gap is that the definition of abuse does not include financial abuse, where the vulnerable adult’s resources are being exploited by perpetrators for their own financial gain or personal benefit. While financial abuse is not as physically apparent as other forms, it is equally harmful to the vulnerable adult’s wellbeing and best interests.
Feedback during the public consultation phase highlighted these two gaps. MSF responded to the feedback by implying that the two gaps are covered by other laws. Regarding older young persons, MSF stated that the Women’s Charter provides protection for victims of family violence of all ages and that there are many services and programmes on the ground catering to older youths. However, the whole point of having the VAA is precisely to give MSF Protectors the powers to intervene to stop the abuse when family and community interventions have failed. The Women’s Charter does not provide for these important powers of last resort.
It would be tragic if, because of this definitional handicap, MSF Protectors would have to wait for two years to intervene to rescue a young person aged 16 facing abuse by reason of physical or mental incapacity. Would the Minister consider either amending the definition of vulnerable adults to lower the age to 16 years or amending the Children and Young Persons Act to cover young persons up to 17 years of age?
Regarding financial abuse, MSF stated that the Police can investigate financial offences under the Penal Code and the Office of the Public Guardian can apply to Court to suspend or revoke the powers of a vulnerable adult’s donee or deputy. However, financial abuse is much more insidious and hidden and it often involves elements of psychological and emotional abuse.
With all due respect to the abilities of the Police and the Office of the Public Guardian, they are not as well equipped as the MSF Protectors empowered under the VAA to investigate, detect and assess the incidence of financial abuse. Again, the whole point of having the VAA is to enable the MSF Protectors to intervene to stop the abuse and the harm caused to the vulnerable adults, which is something the Police and the Office of the Public Guardian cannot do.
The second point I would like to raise about the Bill is that while the statutory powers of intervention should generally be deemed as powers of last resort compared to family and community interventions, there is scope and justification for some of the powers to be deemed as intermediate powers. What I mean by this is that MSF Protectors should be allowed to exercise some powers of the VAA while family and community interventions are ongoing, so that the latter, the family and community interventions, could be supported and enhanced. This pertains to the powers of getting information about suspected vulnerable adults, entering private premises to assess well-being and compelling vulnerable adults to receive medical or dental treatment.
Of course, these powers have to be exercised judiciously so as not to compromise family and community interventions and the power to remove and relocate a vulnerable adult should remain a power of last resort. Would the Minister comment on how these powers would be operationalized and exercised vis-à-vis the family and community interventions on the ground?
At this point I would like to go back to the question of financial abuse. If in the course of investigations and ongoing family and community interventions, it is discovered that a vulnerable adult is facing financial abuse in having his or her resources exploited for the perpetrator’s personal benefit, what recourse does the MSF Protector have to intervene to protect the vulnerable adult? Can the MSF Protector refer the case to the Police or the Office of Public Guardian? Would the evidence be sufficient to bring charges against the perpetrators for fraud or dishonesty offences and the process be quick enough to stop the harm being done to the vulnerable adult? I am asking this because the Office of Public Guardian can only apply to Court to suspend the powers of a donee or deputy if the donee or deputy has been charged for a financial offence.
There is one more issue I would like to raise with regards to intermediate powers. This is regarding situations where vulnerable adults face economic abuse in not having their needs being met because of the lack of financial support from family members. The power to remove and relocate the individual under VAA may actually be not in the best interest of the vulnerable adult, as she may benefit more in residing and receiving care in her own home. It appears that an intermediate power is needed here. I am not keen to suggest that the MSF Protector be empowered to apply on behalf of the vulnerable adult for maintenance from his or her children under the Maintenance of Parents Act, as I am instinctively wary of creeping state intrusion into the prerogatives of the family. But what other intermediate recourse is available to MSF officers?
Victims of Family Violence as Vulnerable Adults
The third and last point I would like to raise about the Bill is the connection to and potential overlap with the provisions in the Women’s Charter catering to the protection of victims of family violence. While this Bill appears to be motivated by the need to especially protect vulnerable elderly from the risk of abuse in an ageing society, the definition of vulnerable adult is broad enough to encompass victims of family violence, particularly family violence of the most egregious kind. While spousal victims of family violence are most likely not in the first instance be mentally or physically incapacitated, in many cases of egregious abuse, spousal victims, and most of them being women, become mentally incapacitated because of sustained abuse and are incapable of protecting themselves from further abuse.
I would like to seek the Minister’s clarification therefore on whether the Act does in fact cover victims of family violence and whether the MSF Protectors are effectively empowered to intervene in cases of family violence under this Act.
If in fact it does, then I would like to ask the Minister what the division of labour and powers would be like between the provisions in the Women’s Charter and in the VAA. I am asking this because there could be quite a lot of confusion on the ground after the enactment of the VAA. Social service agencies and concerned whistleblowers may choose to report incidences of family violence to MSF for more immediate intervention under the VAA instead of the more labourious route of helping victims to apply for Personal Protection Orders from Court.
I am personally in favour that the option be open for spousal victims of family violence who have become mentally incapacitated by abuse to be deemed as vulnerable adults so that they can receive the needed assistance from MSF. On the other hand, I am concerned that MSF resources would be stretched and overwhelmed if MSF officers have to investigate even a proportion of family violence cases to determine whether intervention under the VAA is warranted.
One compromise could be for the law to be amended to allow immediate family members of victims of family violence and perhaps selected social services agencies, the Police and MSF Protectors to apply for Personal Protection Orders on behalf of victims. The idea is to avoid concerned family members and friends of victims of spousal abuse expecting and going for the nuclear option of removing the victims from their homes unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.
Deputy Speaker Sir, I believe the Vulnerable Adults Act will become a landmark law in our legislative history. It has far greater ramifications than the expressed intention to keep abuse rates low in an ageing society. In fact, the Bill has raised, and the Act will continue to raise, many issues regarding human dignity and human rights and the role the state plays to protect and provide for the more vulnerable members of our society.
The conversations and debates should be welcomed and embraced, because I think they will push us forward as a people grappling together with the issues of human vulnerability. Already, a number of tragic cases of abuse, neglect and self-neglect have made headlines recently and sparked intense discussions. This Bill is timely and, actually, somewhat delayed.
Nevertheless, I support the Bill and look forward to tracking closely the effectiveness of its implementation on the ground. Thank you.