ALLEGATIONS of sexual exploitation, modern slavery, neglect and cruelty were at the heart of more than 35,000 safeguarding concerns raised about vulnerable adults last year, The Northern Echo can reveal.

Disturbing NHS figures suggest that North-East councils investigated such concerns at almost twice the national rate in 2018/19.

The rate of safeguarding enquiries made under Section 42 of the Care Act was higher in the region than anywhere else, prompting experts to call for a “zero tolerance” approach to the abuse of vulnerable people.

Almost ten thousand adults – most of them women – were the subject of Section 42 enquiries last year, with the majority of those affected having physical or learning difficulties, memory problems or mental health needs.

Echo analysis of concluded investigations shows that more than a quarter of cases resolved last year were linked to reports of physical abuse, one in five to neglect and 15 per cent to psychological cruelty.

More than 800 related to sexual abuse or exploitation and 60 cases were linked to allegations of modern slavery.

Most safeguarding concerns related to the person being at risk in their own home, from someone known to them but one in five were linked to residential care homes and hundreds were linked to mental health or other hospital facilities.

One high profile case tackled by Durham County Council involved concerns raised about the alleged abuse of people with learning disabilities and autism at Whorlton Hall, a private hospital near Barnard Castle.

Ten arrests were made, staff suspended and the facility closed after an undercover investigation revealed evidence of staff abusing their charges.

The authority has now launched a safeguarding adults review in a bid to prevent such incidents reoccurring.

Lee Alexander, the council’s head of adult care, said a “great deal of work” had been done to encourage people to report concerns and that the authority’s rate of safeguarding enquiries – the ninth highest in the country – reflected a commitment to “root out abuse”.

In response to the Echo’s findings, the Care Quality Commission urged those using adult social care services to “speak up” about their experiences.

Kate Terroni, the CQC’s chief inspector of adult social care, added: “People deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and for their human rights to be protected.

“We know that most people working in caring professions are dedicated and passionate, but we also know that this is not always the case.

“It is not acceptable for people in vulnerable situations to experience poor care.”

The North-East also had the highest rate of concerns raised over those aged 60 to 84, prompting Caroline Abrahams, the charity director at Age UK, to say: “These numbers are disturbing.

“Any abuse of older people is intolerable and there must be zero tolerance of any abuse, whether through neglect, financial manipulation, physical or mental cruelty.”

She said increased awareness of abuse may have contributed to a rise in concerns dealt with by councils and safeguarding boards, adding: “These cases concern some of the most vulnerable members of our society, many of whom feel that they have no one to turn to for help.”

Around two thirds of the investigations resolved in the region throughout 2018/19 ended with identified risks being reduced or removed.

However, in ten per cent of cases where a risk was identified, it remained when the case was concluded.