25 November 2016
Article by Stephen Boyce, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
Are new and stronger laws needed to protect older people? The Older People’s Commissioner for Wales thinks so. She is concerned about the vulnerability of older people to crime, discrimination and abuse. Her Impact and Reach Report 2015-16, which is being debated in the Senedd on Tuesday, highlights some of the difficulties facing older people in Wales.
Some of these concern abuse and neglect. The Commissioner says domestic abuse affects more than 40,000 older people every year. She has been running events to raise awareness of domestic abuse experienced by older people which she has described as a ‘hidden epidemic’.
In recent years investigations into care services have revealed poor quality care and neglect in some care homes. The Commissioner’s own 2014 review of residential care A Place to Call Home? found that too many older people living in care homes had an unacceptable quality of life. The Commissioner also found examples of good person centred care in Welsh care homes and she has been organising seminars to share good practice with care providers.
The Commissioner will be doing a follow up review next year to check progress on implementing the necessary improvements to residential care. She is calling for the law to be strengthened to offer better protection for older people who are victims of substandard care, abuse or neglect.
Recent Assembly legislation has sought to offer greater protection against abuse. The Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014, which came into force in April this year, provides a new framework for adult protection which should help to strengthen protection for vulnerable older people.
However, some threats require vigilance as well as legislation. The Commissioner has been involved with Age Cymru in setting up the Wales Against Scams Partnership (WASP) whose partners include the Police and Trading Standards. The partnership aims to strengthen protection from scams and to ‘make Wales a hostile place for the criminals who operate them’.
The Commissioner is also calling for changes to the law to deal with what she sees as inequality in the criminal justice system. She says that the number of convictions for crimes against older people is disproportionately lower than for the population as a whole. This may reflect flaws in the evidential test, a lack of willingness to prosecute for crimes against older people, or weaknesses in the law itself. She is currently working with the Law Commission to identify specific areas in which the current law is deficient and has outlined her concerns to the Justice Secretary and the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The Commissioner has also been undertaking work to raise awareness of and tackle age discrimination. Being treated unfairly due to age, she says, undermines self-esteem, self-confidence and quality of life and can mean older people are treated like second class citizens. She has sought to challenge stereotypes of older people through her ‘Say No To Ageism’ campaign, and to emphasise their contribution to communities in Wales which is worth over £1bn a year to the economy.
Much of the Commissioner’s work is concerned with campaigning, awareness raising and promoting good practice in public services, but she believes that this needs to be underpinned by a strong rights-based approach to promoting the interests of older people. She has proposed legislation for Wales that will;
protect and promote the rights of older people so they can live free of abuse, neglect, ageism, and discrimination, participate fully in their communities and thrive in older age.
The legislation would create specific duties for public bodies around the rights of older people. The proposal has received a generally favourable reaction, and the Welsh Government has indicated its support for the principles of a Bill. The Commissioner has established an expert advisory group to look at what might be included in the legislation and how it would work in practice.
The Commissioner’s Impact and Reach Report 2015-16, which is available on her website, also describes the range of other work her office has carried out, much of it concerned with improving public services for older people. The focus recently has been on older people who are vulnerable or at risk of exclusion, including those with dementia.
The Assembly’s Health, Social Care and Sport Committee will also be hearing from the Commissioner on Thursday, and next year will be looking at some of the issues affecting older people, including dementia, loneliness and isolation and the misuse of anti-psychotic medication.