Health minister Paul Burstow has hinted the government may seek to introduce legislative changes allowing it to directly intervene in any future cases similar to the collapse of Southern Cross.

Speaking at the Liberal Democrats autumn conference in Birmingham, he also pledged that adult safeguarding would be put on the same legal footing as for children, and called in his party to show the same passion for delivering social care reform as it has done for intervening in NHS policy.

The government is aiming to publish a social care white paper next spring, to be followed by a bill. Last week it launched an “engagement exercise” on social care along similar lines as the listening exercise carried out by NHS future forum.  

Mr Burstow addressed the Liberal Democrat conference in support of a motion on adult social care, brought by MP John Pugh, co-chair of the parliamentary party committee on health and care.

The motion, which was passed, called on the government to use the publication of the Dilnot Commission’s recommendations as a basis for “implementing long overdue reform of the social care system” and to implement the main recommendations made in the Law Commission’s report.

An amendment to the motion, calling for a legal framework to “confer comparable rights to adults at risk of abuse as those afforded children”, and “steps to improve the inspection regime for care homes to Monitor for abuse”, was also passed.

Speaking on the need to improve the law around safeguarding, Mr Burstow said: “At the moment there are not the same safeguards in law as there are when it comes to child protection and, indeed, the protection and welfare of animals.

“I can tell you conference, this government will do what Labour never did, we will put on a statutory basis adult safeguarding during the lifetime of this parliament,” he told delegates.

Mr Burstow added: “We also must never again leave a minister in the situation of facing the collapse of a major care provider with no means to actually intervene in law to ensure continuity of care and safeguard the welfare of some of the most vulnerable people in our country.”

He also called on the Liberal Democrats to “show the same passion, the same energy, the same commitment to deliver change in social care” as it has done for “making sure the NHS reforms are right”.

“I hope you will hold my feet to the fire, and the whole government’s feet to the fire, just as you have on the NHS, because we should be the engine for reform in social care not the breaks,” he said.

Speaking in support of the original motion, Mr Pugh said: “Many of our elderly actually prefer to live in the past. But whatever one’s preference one is actually doomed to live in the present, and the present for many of the most vulnerable adults in this country is a lot more anxious than it ought to be.”

Speaking in support of the amendment, Liberal Democrat MEP Liz Lynn said: “In the UK we have protection for children, animals and victims of domestic violence covered by legislation. This is not the case for vulnerable adults at risk of abuse.

“We need to make sure the rights of older people to quality care and to be free from abuse are legally recognised and supported,” she said.

“Above all, older people should be listened to and their views taken into account. Where abuse is identified it has to be stamped out. We can expect no less from a civilised society.”