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Elder Abuse

Volume 648: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Iain Stewart.)

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for my first Adjournment debate, Mr Deputy Speaker, as you were for my maiden speech. Long may this tradition continue.

I want to raise the increasingly important issue of elder abuse, a terrible and perhaps poorly understood crime. At its heart is the trust that an older person may rightly expect to establish with another person for reasons of care, but sadly that trust is frequently violated, leading to physical, financial, psychological and even sexual abuse and to some deeply troubling outcomes for victims.

I want to express my disappointment that, to my mind at least, the issue is too often overlooked at national level. Here in Parliament there have been only a handful of mentions of elder abuse in recent years, even though it is a real and growing problem that can occur in an institutional care setting or a private home. Despite elder abuse being such a widespread concern, it does not dominate our discourse in the way that such a despicable act should. That is disappointing, and perhaps some newspapers are right when they accuse us here in Parliament of marginalising a forgotten generation.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am sure he is aware as I am that families have often had to hide cameras in care homes to film the abuse going on there—we have seen documentaries about that. I agree with him that something should be done about the problem, because elderly people have made a major contribution to this country. Does he agree that there should be better training and better pay for carers, and that the law should be tightened up?

I agree that there should be financial support, and I also agree about CCTV—I shall come on to those points a little later.

We clearly have a lot to make up for in Parliament, and I hope that today’s debate will prompt some constructive action and, at the very least, go some way towards raising awareness at national level.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the need to raise the issue. I, too, have had constituents who have experienced elder abuse. As people grow older they become more isolated, so the risk of abuse increases. Does he agree that safeguarding adults boards should have a specific focus on older people, and should assess the risk to them and come up with prevention plans?

I could not agree more. Those boards should have a key role in ensuring that our older people are safe and secure—that is what this is all about.

I am the MP for a constituency where more than 32% of residents are aged over 65—including me, incidentally. That is the highest percentage of any constituency in the country, so it is hardly surprising that I am leading this debate.

I thank my hon. Friend kindly for giving way; he is being very generous. He is portraying this as a British problem, but does he agree that it is not just a British problem? The World Health Organisation has published material that shows that this is happening all around the world. It is a generational problem that we have to deal with, as he rightly points out.

I absolutely take my hon. Friend’s point that this happens all over the world, but we must clean up our own act first and make sure that we are far ahead of the game, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Where we lead, others follow.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Each of us in the House tonight has experience of this issue from our constituencies and it is very important. We are absolutely disgusted by the abuse of elderly people in homes across the UK. Is he aware of the recent poll by the charity Action on Elder Abuse, which found that nearly one in 10 older people had experienced serious physical, mental or financial abuse in homes? That would indicate that 23,000 older people have been affected in Northern Ireland and nearly 1 million across the UK. Does he agree that one way of tackling this is to ensure that adequate safeguarding is in place, for example, in care homes, to ensure that older people do not suffer at the hands of those who are there to care for and not abuse them?

I could not agree more, and I have seen those statistics. We have to remember that this happens not only in care homes, but in private homes where carers come to look after elderly people.

I must admit that since my election last year, elder abuse has not been as prominent in my mind as perhaps it should have been. In fact, it was a meeting with some of our local pensioners who formed the very good group TenPAG—the Tendring Pensioners’ Action Group—in August this year that made me fully appreciate the need to tackle this problem. Having gone away from that meeting and investigated the matter further, I was deeply disturbed by what I found. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the statistics are truly shocking. There are 1 million victims of elder abuse every year in the UK, but here is another statistic: only 0.3% of the reported incidents result in a successful criminal conviction. That is not good enough. Convicted abusers often escape with flimsy sentences and trivial fines.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and being generous with his time, which I appreciate is limited. I have also had experience of constituents raising such matters, and particularly financial abuse of the elderly. To declare an interest, I also used to prosecute for Oxfordshire trading standards and came across many people who had been abused in that sense.

There is one category that my hon. Friend has not mentioned: sometimes in their own homes, people can be befriended by strangers for the precise purpose of exploiting and abusing them. Does he condemn that as much as I do—I am sure he does—and will he commend and encourage the volunteer support groups who do so much to ensure that people are not isolated and that such problems are uncovered?

Absolutely, and I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I could not agree more that elder abuse in people’s homes is, in some way, even more chilling, and I will come to that shortly.

This is not just an appalling failure of justice; the lax approach to punishment fails to deter would-be abusers, who see older people as a soft target, as my hon. Friend pointed out. We must do more to protect older people. We would not fail the victims of child, domestic or sexual abuse in this way, so why are we seemingly happy to fail the victims of elder abuse? Why are we happy for there to be a lower conviction rate for the abuse of older people than for racially motivated crimes, homophobic or transphobic crimes, domestic abuse and disability hate crime? It is simply unacceptable, and I propose that we put elder abuse in its own category in line with these other appalling crimes to improve the justice outcome for victims.

As we have said, elder abuse can take place in a care setting or in a private home, and chillingly the abuser is often well known to the person being abused. They may be a partner, a child or relative, a friend or neighbour, a care worker, a health or social worker or another professional. Older people may even be abused by the person who cares for them—that sounds like an oxymoron, but there it is—and this abuse is potentially very easy to carry out. I remember being put in charge of my late mother’s affairs following the death of my father. I was astonished at the sweeping powers that the enduring power of attorney gave me—powers that could so easily be abused. Fortunately, my mother had a devoted son who saw her live out her days in comfort and security, but sadly that is not always the case, and when that trust is abused the penalties should be severe.

Abuse can be perpetrated anywhere and by anyone, and that has led to some truly awful situations. In Sussex recently, £10 million was stolen from vulnerable fraud victims in just one year. Some 89% of the victims were aged over 60 and 63% were living alone. In Cheshire, as we all may recall, care home workers were filmed abusing an elderly, blind dementia victim. Those abusers were spared jail, despite the public outcry. In Cambridgeshire, a pensioner aged 105 was assaulted—the oldest known victim of elder abuse so far. These incidents, all of which have taken place within the last 18 months, should never have occurred, and I feel for those people who have had to live through these harrowing experiences in what are supposed to be the golden years of their lives. These are people who have done so much to make our country what it is today.

I wish it were not so, but in Clacton we are not immune to these crimes either. In 2016, a resident in my constituency was defrauded out of £57,000 by his carer, who was sentenced to just 15 months in prison, and in 2013, 16 people were arrested for financially abusing 39 people. All the victims were from the Clacton area and were aged between 65 and 99. I have no doubt that many colleagues will have similar stories in their own constituencies.

I also have no doubt that colleagues will have heard about abusive situations in care homes. Unfortunately, these incidents are becoming more common. In fact, researchers at University College London found that 99% of carers across 92 care homes had witnessed or taken part in troubling behaviour. That is an appalling statistic. It is absolutely shocking and a good enough reason, I think, to install CCTV cameras in communal areas. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) is pushing for that outcome, and I give him my full support.

We would be naive to think, however, that elder abuse only occurs in the care home. As we have said, it can be just as common when care is taking place in the home, where standards can slip, corners can be cut and monitoring can become a side issue, thanks to pressures that mean keeping the system going becomes more important than safeguarding. Domiciliary care, or care in the home, is our most common and important form of care, and we need urgently to address long-term social care funding issues in this sector before we see quality suffer.

One way to do that is to secure the future of the adult social care precept, which has been temporarily lifted over the past three years to allow councils to raise additional funds. In my view, that is a good thing. I hope, then, to see the adult social care precept become a permanent resource for local councils, not just to give a funding boost, but to provide a clear long-term funding model outside of general council tax. However, although I am pleased that the Government have also announced a £240 million increase in this sector, I would also point out that it is not just about money.

To make that point further, I should mentioned Guide at Broomfield, a nursing home in Braintree. It decided to close earlier this year and attributed that closure to financial difficulty. If one consults the Care Quality Commission report, however, one will see that the home’s basic failings had nothing to do with funding. Residents were being left in soiled clothing, and that is a basic standard failing, not a financial one. We could compare that with Beaumont House in Walton-on-the-Naze, in my constituency, which I had the pleasure of visiting recently. It is like a five-star hotel, with all the comforts of a house, where guests are treated like human beings, not just clients. It is not a bad place. I thought I would go there once the good people of Clacton were done with me.

I have no doubt that funding is important, but no amount of money will make up for poor standards, and if we are really to really elder abuse, we need to talk about, and rigorously maintain, standards within the adult social care sector. I was interested to read the suggestion from Age UK about how national guidance should be developed on how conversations about abuse can be started and effectively supported by family members, professionals and the older people themselves. I would certainly back this proposal, and I hope the Minister will meet with Age UK to discuss it. I would also like a statutory definition of a crime against an older person and specific elder-protecting legislation to be introduced, as neither currently exists.

What I really want, however, is to see elder abuse become an aggravated offence, although in calling for that change I recognise the steps that the Government have taken to tackle it. For instance, in 2015 domestic abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour became specific offences under the Serious Crime Act. In the same year, a wilful neglect offence was introduced under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act, so there is now criminal liability when a person has been placed under the care of a medical professional. According to the Government’s impact assessment, the new offence was designed to

“ensure that those responsible for the worst failures in care can be held accountable”,

and to

“act as a deterrent, moderating the conduct of individuals who might otherwise be disposed to behave in ways that would constitute an offence.”

Those are laudable aims, but that has not happened. Perpetrators are not being held to account with firm punishments, and the new offence has failed to prevent any further abuses in care. The example from Cheshire that I gave earlier, and the research carried out by UCL, both took place after its introduction. What is more, the new wilful neglect offence, by its very nature, fails to prevent the abuse of older people who are living in their own homes outside a traditional care setting. They are the forgotten victims of elder abuse, and we must not forget them as we seek to address this issue. To protect those who are still living in their own homes, as well as older people in care who may be vulnerable, we must introduce a new offence that punishes elder abuse properly, regardless of its location. Making elder abuse an aggravated offence will do that, which means that there will be harsher sentences for perpetrators.

A mandatory sentencing uplift is already in place for hate crimes motivated by prejudice based on someone’s race, sexual orientation, religion, or disability. I ask, quite simply, why not age? An anomaly in the law needs to be addressed, and that is a change that we can deliver now. As part of the Government’s efforts to update the hate crime action plan, the Law Commission is currently undertaking a review of hate crime legislation, and I am sending it a letter today. The Government have committed themselves to acting on the commission’s specific proposals, and during the review it will consider whether to make elder abuse an aggravated offence. I hope that it, and the Government, will agree with me that this change is needed now.

Thank you for calling me, Sir Deputy Speaker! I did not have a chance to say that the other day.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) on securing a debate on a matter that is of immense importance to all of us. He has done a great deal to represent his constituents in relation to policing and community safety issues. I understand that a further 12 officers will be sworn in soon in Tendring district, and I thank him for the important contribution that he is making to the House in this regard.

No older person in the United Kingdom should have to suffer abuse or exploitation at the hands of those who prey on the vulnerable. Criminals should not have the opportunity to target the elderly, but those who do should know that they will not get away with it. Older people should not have to fear being targeted, but those who are should receive the right support. It is a fundamental Government responsibility to keep people safe, and never does that responsibility carry greater weight than when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable in our society. That is why the Government take a multi-pronged approach to tackling this issue, working with local government, the police, and the private and voluntary sectors.

First, we need to ensure that we have the right legislative powers to deter and tackle criminals who target the elderly. Secondly, we need to ensure that all older people are connected to the fabric of society. While society as a whole becomes ever more interconnected, older people across the country still suffer loneliness and social isolation—themes that my hon. Friend drew out so cogently. Thirdly, when older people do suffer abuse, we need to ensure that the justice system treats them appropriately, and that they have ready access to the right support.

The all-party parliamentary group for ageing and older people carried out an inquiry recently with a view to establishing a commission for the rights of older people, so that they can have a voice and an agency in society. Would the Minister support such a proposal?

I am most interested to hear of that work by the all-party group. If plans are drawn up, I will of course look at them with great care, as will other Ministers across Government who have responsibility for helping to look after older people, because although I am answering as Home Office Minister, clearly this issue has huge impact across the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and other Departments.

Under current hate crime legislation, targeting an elderly person because they are vulnerable is already an aggravating factor in sentencing. The sentencing guidelines make it clear that these offences should result in a more severe sentence, but we want to look at whether this goes far enough. Last week, we launched the Government’s refreshed hate crime action plan, and as part of that have asked the Law Commission to carry out an independent and wide-ranging review of hate crime legislation. The review will explore whether current legislation is effective and if new hate crime strands should be introduced, such as crimes against the elderly. While we would not wish to prejudge the outcomes of the review, we will study the findings with great interest and will not hesitate to act if there are ways to improve our response. While these are complex issues that deserve proper consideration, all crimes against the elderly are utterly unacceptable, and we will always treat them as such.

But there is more to tackling abuse against older people than making sure we have appropriate legislation in place. Last week the Prime Minister announced the Government’s new loneliness strategy—with cross-party support, I hasten to add. Some 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. Loneliness is linked to a range of damaging health impacts such as heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s, and lonely people are more likely to visit a GP or A&E.

Loneliness can cause people to feel detached from their neighbours and neighbourhoods, which may increase their vulnerability to becoming victims of crime, and then being even further isolated if they fall victim to crime. As part of the Home Office’s contribution to the loneliness strategy, we are working with Royal Mail, local authorities and other partners to trial a scheme called “safe and connected”. This involves post workers checking on vulnerable older people twice a week, and reporting any problems to local authorities and voluntary sector organisations. We are investing over £450,000 in this scheme this year, and we are delighted that it has already been rolled out in New Malden, Liverpool and Whitby.

We know, however, that those who are isolated might be more likely to be victims of fraud, and, likewise, being a victim of fraud itself can be an isolating experience. We have therefore also provided support to National Trading Standards for the expansion of its scam marshals scheme. Scam marshals share their own experiences, help others to report and recognise scams, and send any scam mail to the National Trading Standards scam team so it can be used in future investigations and trials.

It is also important to ensure that when older people are victims of abuse and exploitation, the justice system treats them appropriately and they have ready access to the right support services. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton mentioned the ability of older people, perhaps those suffering from dementia, to give evidence in trials. I used to prosecute fraud, and some cases involved fraud committed against the NHS or social care. One of our greatest difficulties was in getting statements from elderly people who perhaps lacked legal capacity because of their conditions; without their evidence it is difficult to prove cases. We have asked Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services to lead a joint thematic inspection into older people’s experience of the justice system. We will be looking closely at the findings and what we might do to make improvements.

Understandably, Members raised the issue of care, and one Member asked whether the care of elderly people could be included in the safeguarding adults boards. I am told that their purpose is to help and safeguard adults with care and support needs, which includes older people as well.

Through the skills for care programme, which is a piece of work by the Department of Health and Social Care, we are looking to provide services with help and guidance on recruiting people with the right values and skills, and implementing a care certificate for frontline staff to ensure that older and vulnerable people receive the high quality care that they need. In addition, the Government have introduced a fit and proper person test to hold directors to account for care, and brought in new criminal offences of ill treatment and wilful neglect by care workers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton mentioned domestic abuse, and he will know that the Government are hoping to introduce a landmark piece of draft legislation on that by the end of this year. Through my work on that Bill, I have learned, sadly, that domestic abuse can be committed against older people in the home, sometimes by carers, sometimes by members of their own family and, on occasion, by their own children. It is particularly difficult for parents to admit to people outside the family circle that they are victims of abuse at the hands of their children.

We have funded specific services to provide targeted support to hard-to-reach groups, and this is something that we will be looking at carefully across the House during the passage of the Bill. For example, we have provided funding to a charity called Jacksons Lane in north London to engage older people in community-based activities in order to increase their understanding of wellbeing, harassment and domestic abuse and of the support services available to tackle these issues. When it comes to the most heinous crimes against older people, such as domestic and sexual violence, we are determined to ensure that victims get the right support. We know that elderly people can face particular challenges in disclosing abuse, and we are looking at options to provide them with more support, through the draft domestic abuse Bill and through a package of non-legislative measures.

In whatever form abuse takes place, we are working to ensure that we have the right levers in place to protect older people, and that they have access to the right support when they need it. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the important issue of how we can better protect older people from abuse, and of course we are always open to new ideas and suggestions, and to new circumstances of abuse being brought to our attention. We will continue to look for innovative ways for national and local government, agencies and charities to support the services that help older people to protect themselves from, and recover from, all forms of abuse.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.