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Support and Protection for Elderly People and Adults at Risk of Abuse

Volume 518: debated on Wednesday 10 November 2010

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to promote awareness of abuse of elderly people and adults at risk, to promote training on how to recognise and respond to such abuse amongst those who are likely to encounter abuse in the course of their work, to promote greater awareness and understanding of the rights of victims of abuse amongst agencies with responsibilities for providing, arranging, commissioning, monitoring and inspecting care services, to promote the development of local strategies for preventing abuse of elderly people and adults at risk and for ensuring that victims are assisted in recovering from the effects of abuse.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to move this motion and introduce the Bill. The abuse of elderly people and adults at risk is a hidden problem, and I hope that by raising it in the House today I will help to focus attention on this matter which affects hundreds of thousands of people every year, and which a range of organisations, including Age UK and the Alzheimer’s Society, have already done much to highlight.

Issues of abuse are complex and much abuse goes unreported. The failure by abused elderly people and adults generally to report instances of abuse is down to a number of reasons: stigma, shame and even a feeling of guilt by the abused, wrongly but genuinely felt, for having provoked the abuse. Very often, the abused adult is dependent on the abuser. Isolation also plays a part, as does lack of contact with care providers or criminal justice agencies.

The complexity of the problem is illustrated by a piece of work recently carried out in Northern Ireland which showed that three quarters of incidents in which elderly adults were subjected to abuse involved a family member, including very close relatives. Often in such situations the abused person will want to maintain some kind of relationship with the abuser, and they might be threatened that if they report the abuse they will be denied access to other family members, such as grandchildren, thus reinforcing the feelings of loneliness and isolation. In such cases, the elderly person often decides to balance the abuse they are actually suffering against the fear of some future action that they believe would result in their being left in an even worse state.

As a country, we must do everything we can to protect people at risk, especially our senior citizens, from abuse that can take many different forms. Often these factors are combined, but generally abuse falls into the following categories: emotional, psychological, financial, physical, sexual and neglect. Although Members will be aware of extreme examples of abuse when they are reported in the press and other media, it is clear that much abuse happens almost unnoticed or is passed off and excused as “poor care”, or with the comment, “That’s just the way he or she”—the family member—“behaves.”

The issue of financial abuse is causing increasing concern. A 2008 Help the Aged report found that up to 2.5% of elderly people felt they had experienced some kind of financial abuse, exploitation or coercion, and in my constituency case load I have come across increasing numbers of specific issues involving the administration of the personal finances of vulnerable adults. That is now becoming a greater problem given the difficult economic times we are facing and pressures on family finances, yet public awareness of the issue is limited.

Many members of the public at large do not understand the nature of the different types of abuse. That was borne out by the work of a partnership project in Northern Ireland, Uniting Against Elder Abuse, which brought together Age Concern and Help the Aged—which are now united as Age NI—and the Alzheimer’s Society and Carers Northern Ireland. The project delivered a two-year strategic programme aimed at raising awareness of the problem generally, providing access to independent advocacy for frail older people and those with dementia, and developing a therapeutic response for those who experience abuse. I can say from the experience we had then in Northern Ireland that people were genuinely taken aback at the report’s findings and the extent of the problem.

The number of people affected is much greater than is sometimes realised. It is estimated that one in 25 of all older people living in the community is affected by some kind of abuse every single year. As the majority of cases occur in the older person’s home, agencies such as social services are not necessarily involved or aware. According to one survey, 62% reported that they had had no contact whatever with social services or any other support organisation, highlighting the fact that there is likely to be a considerable hidden minority of older people living in an abusive situation or subject to some kind of abuse without recourse to traditional forms of support or help.

There must therefore be greater commitment to educating and informing people about the support available to them. There are gaps in education, knowledge and training at the individual level and across the public and voluntary sectors. Those gaps must be plugged. It is vital that we have a single, common piece of legislation to reinforce existing policies designed to protect the elderly and adults at risk of abuse. Current safeguarding legislation is too complex and spread across many and various Acts and measures. It therefore offers only limited protection. No single professional, whether it be a social worker, a police officer or a nurse, could ever be expected to be aware of all the legislation that is out there. That is why overarching, comprehensive and consolidating legislation is needed.

There would be immense benefit in bringing existing provisions together, including principles, definitions, a duty to investigate, clarification of powers of entry, powers to remove a perpetrator or perpetrators of abuse, and a duty of co-operation. Legislation should not only be about responding to individual allegations of abuse, but should place a strong emphasis on prevention—and not just preventing an abusive situation arising for an individual. What is needed is a major shift towards understanding the circumstances and situations that contribute towards abuse or render people vulnerable to it, acknowledging the reality of its effect and how we as a society must move towards eradicating it.

Often, there appears to be little formal contact between agencies and services, and support can be unco-ordinated and fragmented. Let us compare that with the protection of children, which is a benchmark that we should seek to emulate. There is too much buck-passing over vulnerable adults and senior citizens, and only legislation will end that. Legislation would require suspected abuse to be investigated. Guidance is all well and good, but it applies differently to the various authorities and statutory agencies. The law should apply to all agencies involved in preventing and responding to abuse. Specific legislation would force better co-ordination of the various statutory agencies as they confront the silent offender of abuse. The same legislation could address the training and education deficit, which I have already mentioned, across the range of elderly support services, including the private, public and voluntary sectors.

Devolved Administrations are already taking steps, or have taken steps, to target elder abuse, with Scotland introducing the Adult Support and Protection (Scotland) Act 2007, Wales preparing to make recommendations by the end of this year, it is hoped, and Northern Ireland preparing a policy framework for consultation in early 2011.

The Department of Health opened up consultation on the “No secrets” guidance in 2009, but neither the previous Government nor this one—I acknowledge that they have been in office for only a short time—have responded to the findings of that consultation, including those on whether legislation is needed.

Legislation on the abuse of elderly people and adults at risk would facilitate a more comprehensive assessment, with a common benchmark standard across all support agencies. It would establish a more consistent and effective response by statutory providers, ensure better training and education, which would improve awareness, and consolidate local authority guidelines and offer enhanced guidance to the criminal justice system.

The day we set aside or neglect our responsibility to help and cater for the needs of our senior citizens and those who are open to and at risk of abuse within our society is the day that we lose our moral compass. I believe that this is an extremely important issue and hope that the presentation of the Bill leads to Government action. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr Nigel Dodds, Andrew Percy, Malcolm Wicks, Greg Mulholland, Dr William McCrea, Mr Jeffrey M Donaldson, Mr Gregory Campbell, Sammy Wilson, David Simpson, Ian Paisley and Jim Shannon present the Bill.

Mr Nigel Dodds accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 17 June 2011, and to be printed (Bill 105).