Abuse of vulnerable adults should be criminalised

by Peter Watt

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home… Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere”.

So said Eleanor Roosevelt at the united nations in New York on 27 March 1958. It is a powerful message and one that is used to open an important report from the equalities and human rights commission (EHRC) “Close to home, an inquiry into older people and human rights in home care”. The report was launched last week. It followed a year long inquiry looking at the protection and promotion of human rights of older people in England who require or receive home-based care.

What is so so depressing is that once again a report comes out that details a litany of abusive behaviour towards vulnerable older people. In this case the abuse is taking place in people’s own homes when they are in receipt of home-based care. The report says that around half of those giving evidence to the inquiry were satisfied or happy with the care that they or a relative received. Great; but that leaves the other half where there was plenty of evidence of:

  • financial abuse, for example money being systematically stolen over a period of time
  • chronic disregard for older people’s privacy and dignity when carrying out intimate tasks
  • talking over older people (sometimes on mobile phones) or patronising them
  • some physical abuse, such as rough handling or using unnecessary physical force.

Oh well, we’ve heard it all before I suppose. But just imagine for a minute that someone, possibly a stranger, came to your home and you were alone. You couldn’t stop them coming in as they were physically stronger than you and you were scared. They humiliated you, roughed you up a bit and then nicked a fiver from your purse.

And then they did it again the next day. And the next. And you were too scared and too embarrassed to tell anyone what was happening to you.

That is what the terrifying reality is for thousands of people right now in this country.  There are over 500,000 older people in receipt of care in their own home wholly or partly paid for by the local council. More who pay for their care themselves. So there is a pretty good chance that someone in your street is suffering this kind of abuse.

But this is just the latest report of many that lists the appalling treatment that some older people get in the health and social care sectors. I wrote about some other examples in May of this year. People being abused in our hospitals, in residential homes and now in their own homes. People being humiliated, left in soiled clothes and worse. Report after report after shaming report.

And we can say that resources play a part; that staff have low morale and are de-motivated and under-valued; that the cuts are affecting quality and that more should be spent. They may well be true. But none of that excuses cruel and inhumane treatment, and that is what this is. That is not a resource issue; it is an attitude issue. An attitude that somehow dehumanises people and reduces them to a mere object that hears and feels nothing and deserves less. An object that should do as it is told or suffer the consequences. And an object that is unable to tell.

The EHRC recommends a series of steps that could be taken, including the tightening and use of existing human rights legislation. Liz Kendall MP, Labour’s shadow minister for care and older people, has been doing a brilliant job at trying to raise the profile of this issue. She has welcomed the report and I am sure will support the recommendations. But I would ask her to go further.

We rightly have child protection legislation. Anyone who abuses, hurts or is cruel to a child in a work setting could not claim innocence on the basis that the cuts made them do it. If a teacher hurt or systematically humiliated a child behind a closed classroom door then they would risk being prosecuted. It wouldn’t be a defence that their morale was low. Or a low paid sessional worker at a nursery who is cruel to the children and stole some petty cash. Would a defence of feeling undervalued at work be successful? Of course not. In fact not only would they be prosecuted but the system would stop them working with children again. Then why do we accept this sort of thing for older people?

The answer is that it is unseen, silent and all too often unreported. Older people or other vulnerable adults are sadly less valued by society as a whole – and that means all of us.  But it is a disgrace that we allow this to happen and effectively go unchallenged. The same was said of the abuse of children not so long ago. So we similarly need to make it clear that the abuse of vulnerable adults is unacceptable in our society.

We are currently trying to answer the question of “what does a Labour government do when money is scarce”? How do we deliver social justice in ways that don’t cost a fortune? Well here is one way: Labour should commit to making the abuse of vulnerable adults a specific criminal offence as a part of a legislative framework that protects vulnerable adults. And we should make it clear that people will be prosecuted. No excuses accepted.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.

Tags: , , , ,

5 Responses to “Abuse of vulnerable adults should be criminalised”

  1. Jane says:

    What is to be done? For years we have known and reported on abuse of the vulnerable elderly person be it is hospital, in residential care and now within the home. What a damning indictment of our society that we treat people in this way. I believe that a number of people are currently being prosecuted relating to adults with learning difficulties. There was clear evidence of assault and abuse in this case. How do we legislate for roughness, unkindness and treating people improperly but not illegally?

    Many years ago I had a second job as a then Nursing Assistant. I can recall even now the attitudes of many trained staff as they dealt with elderly patients. The job was hard and physically demanding and the lesser or unpopular qualified staff were placed on such wards. I cared because I was brought up to respect the elderly and I paid the price with some awful remarks from hardened staff because of this. We have not changed much since that time.

    As a society, we pay a dreadful rate of pay to those involved in home care. Add to this the abysmal amount of time that is permitted to do the job. We need to professionalise the service with training, higher rates of pay and to value those who do the work on our behalf.

    As to hospitals and residential homes I do feel that we need more volunteers in these setting. Scotland are experimenting with volunteers in hospitals with geriatric patients for routine tasks such as feeding and toiletting. We have gone down the road of degree level education for nursing staff and have ended up with a situation where many want to work in high technology units and not in geriatric care. We should have considered the consequences of this. Maybe we should now have a separate course for geriatric nursing be it in the community or hospital and pay a higher rate of pay?

    How much longer will we tolerate the continuing reports of abuse of our elderly? Being of mature years, I fear for my future if I require hospitalisation or care. Already, I feel angry when dim younger people make an assumption that because I am older I do not have a brain. We need to change the culture and my goodness us baby boomers will never accept what generations before us did in putting up with shoddy services or being treated with disrespect. Change will come but probably from my age group.

  2. Peter Watt says:

    Thanks Jane, I agree with much of what you say, it is terribly sad. I think, in answer to your question, that we should have a legislative fraimework that protects adults in the same way that we do for children. That would set out clearly what constitites abuse.


  3. AnneJGP says:

    Does the human rights legislation apply to elderly people in residential care homes now? I understood, some years ago, that for some reason those places had an exemption.

    Thank you, Peter. Another excellent and timely article.

  4. Scott Cleaveland says:

    Autistic people can be some of the most vulnerable dependent adults in the universe. Mainly, because they are at the mercy of others who care for them and can take advantage of them by blaming abuse on the autistic person themselves. You have to be a seriously sadistic, cruel coward to prey upon defenseless, non verbal, severely-autistic adult child OR adult. The two caregivers caught on tape here are monsters. According to media reports, video evidence shows Michael Garritson and Matthew McDuffie, two trusted caregivers who worked on different shifts, punching, kicking, shoving and pulling the hair of the vulnerable autistic patient. Two sadistic men who preyed upon a defenseless autistic person. Two cowards. Two like minded losers whose personal failures in life were taken out on their patient. Just disgusting. And the losers don’t even have the courage to admit what they did. They plead not guilty, even though video shows them clearly abusing the patient.


    These caregivers better get the maximum sentence! nhttp://iwidk.com/2012/09/21/horrible-caregivers-caught-on-video-beating-autistic-man-hundreds-of-times-video/

  5. Aspiegalie says:

    Nurse is seen eye gouging his autistic patient! What the hell is wrong with people?

Leave a Reply