Straight Talk

Richard Robinson from the charity, Hourglass, shares details of the proposed amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill and explains the barriers that older victims of domestic abuse face.

The Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-21 is a landmark Bill with much to commend it. But there is still a long way to go to strengthen protection for older victims.

The Bill is currently undergoing scrutiny at Committee in the House of Lords, the line-by-line debate considering almost 200 amendments.

Currently, the Bill defines domestic abuse as occurring between two parties that are ‘personally connected’. We were pleased by the inclusion of ‘relatives’ as well as intimate partners and ex-partners within this definition – however, this view on personal connection does not go far enough. The Bill needs to be more realistic about how people organise their life and personal relationships.

We know that older people live among a wide range of personal connections: family, friends, community. We also know that there are times when these different types of relationships are tragically violated.

In the first six months of 2020, 24% of calls to our Helpline concerned neither a professional nor a relative or (ex-)partner, but identified ‘friend’, ‘neighbour’ or ‘other’ as the perpetrator of abuse. We suspect COVID-19 restrictions have intensified personal connection with neighbours and others in the community, more than relatives. A shift in the proportion of abuse follows: in comparing January-April 2019 and the same period in 2020, the Helpline saw calls relating to abuse perpetrated by a neighbour double.

The second major barrier that older victims of domestic abuse face stems from a perception that, for older people, domestic abuse is primarily a social care issue. This perception stems from ageist attitudes and the effect is to channel abuse through adult safeguarding avenues, as opposed to a criminal justice response.

The crossbench peer and our charity Patron, Baroness Greengross, submitted two amendments that seek to join up adult safeguarding and criminal justice mechanisms, such that older victims are not confined to the former. All victims have a right to justice as well
as safeguarding.

The first – a new local authority duty to report suspected abuse – would ensure that where any local authority employee suspects, in the course of carrying out a financial assessment for adult social care, that a person is the victim of domestic abuse, they must report the suspected abuse to a relevant social worker or the police.

The second would introduce new powers of entry. These powers would apply to registered social workers, who, through an application to the magistrate’s courts, would be able to enter the premises of a person if abuse or risk of abuse were suspected. The power of entry was introduced in Scotland in 2008 and similar powers came into force in Wales in 2016. In England, similar powers were considered in scrutiny of The Care Act (2014), but ultimately did not make it into the Bill.

There is a broader consideration regarding how this new legislation will sit with existing law passed by the devolved legislatures. Scotland has had a Domestic Abuse Act since 2018 but the definition is limited to relationships between partners and ex-partners and does not protect victims from family abuse. Recently, the Northern Ireland Assembly completed the final stage of the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill, which was broadened to family members but does not include caring relationships. The final stages and the implementation of the Westminster Bill may see the definitions for England and Wales vary once again. The whole of the UK should be striving for a shared definition of domestic abuse.

There is also poor public understanding of the nature of abuse experienced by older people. Public perceptions polling we conducted in June 2020 found that 34.4% of respondents in our survey did not consider ‘domestic abuse or domestic violence directed towards an older person’ as a form of abuse. Survey respondents also strongly associated abuse of older people with a care home – rather than domestic – setting. Sadly, we find that the vast majority of abuse is perpetrated in the older person’s own home those closest to them.

For legislation in all four nations to work, messaging about domestic abuse needs to resonate with the experiences of all victims. We have written to the Home Office regarding two of its projects. The #YouAreNotAlone initiative and the ‘Ask for ANI’ pharmacy schemes both seek to respond to the spike in domestic abuse that has been seen since the start of the pandemic. Messaging must steer away from reinforcing a narrow view of domestic abuse, one that excludes older people by focusing on partner abuse and younger victims.

The UK has come a long way in bringing domestic abuse out of the shadows and onto the Government agenda. However, older people must not be left behind and must be considered at every stage. Abuse does not stop in older age and we cannot allow these victims to be hidden from sight.

Richard Robinson is the Chief Executive Officer of Hourglass. Email: Twitter: @wearehourglass_


About Richard Robinson

Richard Robinson is the Chief Executive Officer of Hourglass, the only UK charity focused on ending the abuse of older people and pursuing a safer agenda. From an early career in journalism and fundraising, he was previously CEO of a variety of cultural, arts and international development charities. His own family’s issues with age-related neglect led him to refocus his efforts with Action on Elder Abuse (rebranded to Hourglass in March 2020).

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