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Older People: Abuse

Volume 706: debated on Tuesday 9 December 2008


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will introduce legislation to alter the guidance on safeguarding vulnerable older people from abuse.

My Lords, we already have legislation that covers protecting older people from abuse, including the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. However, a revision of the key guidance No Secrets is currently under way. The consultation asked a number of questions about whether new legislation to help protect vulnerable adults is needed. This consultation will close on 31 January. The impact of enabling and strengthening local safeguarding boards and the role of safeguarding leads are also being considered.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Given the Government’s immediate and very welcome response that they might introduce further legislation, as well as reviewing child protection mechanisms following the recent tragedy, will she commit them to treat elder abuse with the same urgency and introduce quickly a legislative framework to strengthen the measures to safeguard the 4 per cent or so of vulnerable old people who experience abuse, mainly in their own homes, which is equally unacceptable?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is indeed correct; any case of abuse is serious and unacceptable. However, there is no doubt that there are some profound and quite complex differences between the issues surrounding adult protection and children. For example, it is neither possible nor appropriate to scoop up an adult and place them in a care system as one would wish a child in jeopardy to be. The debate about how to deal with this issue is wider than just legislation, but we are very committed to getting this right. People have been telling us that No Secrets has done a good job in raising the profile of adult protection, and we know that there are many examples of good practice. We have learnt a lot in the eight years since the publication of No Secrets, and we feel that it is time to build on that learning and use it to strengthen our systems. We are not ruling out new legislation.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the best ways of preventing abuse of elderly people is to provide adequate support for their carers? Does she further agree that it is important to give carers choice, so that caring is not imposed on an already abusive relationship? For example, where a woman has been sexually abused by her father, surely it is not acceptable that she should then be expected to become his carer in later life.

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. As she was partly responsible for the Government’s commitment to and support for carers, she will be aware that that is very important; but, of course, the caring services, when they go into elderly adults’ homes, absolutely depend on the support of local social services departments.

My Lords, is it not a fact, however, that all this abuse is not necessarily in one’s home? I have dealt with cases in hospitals where people have been abused by care assistants; unfortunately, we were told that there were no grounds for dismissal—they were simply moved to some other part of the hospital. This happened not when I was chairman of a hospital, but when I was regional vice-chairman. If this abuse has occurred, it should be taken seriously and it should be grounds for dismissal. Can anything be done through the health service to produce a code of practice to ensure that people cannot get away with that sort of treatment of vulnerable elderly people?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely correct. It is completely unacceptable for staff, whether in hospitals, domiciliary care or care homes, not to treat older people in a safe environment where their rights and dignity are respected. The inspection regimes for hospitals and care homes have powers to take swift and decisive action where abuse occurs. They can serve notices, they can close services down and they can insist that people are removed from the positions that they hold. The new vetting and barring system, which will replace the protection of vulnerable adults scheme in October 2009, also extends a wide range of powers to social care and the NHS.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept the view of the Law Commission, expressed in July 2008, that adult social care law is inadequate, often incomprehensible and outdated? Does she also accept the findings of Action on Elder Abuse that there is no consistency whatever among social services departments as to what merits a serious case review when an older person is abused? In view of those findings, and as the adult social care group paper is on its way, does she not concede that there is a case for legislation to bring about consistency in the treatment of abused older people?

My Lords, we are indeed looking at serious case reviews, which are locally commissioned and reviewed. Hitherto, the department has not routinely reviewed serious local case reviews but we have commissioned research on this. We expect to have that research this winter, which I shall share with the noble Baroness, and we think that we may need to take action on precisely that point.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is a deep, cultural issue behind all this and that right across our society attitudes towards vulnerable elderly people need to be moved forward into ones of respect for their dignity and status in society? Public services right across the board may have a lot to do in helping to shift public attitudes, not only if carers are to be helped but if vulnerable adults are to be better protected in our society.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is completely correct. The idea behind publishing No Secrets and making it part of the monitoring process for care services was partly to raise awareness of this whole issue. However, the right reverend Prelate is completely correct that this is also about a cultural shift in attitudes towards elderly people, who need and deserve our care and protection.