Old people 'in need of legal protection'

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CIVIL liberties must be ignored if the Government is to tackle the problem of abuse of elderly people at the hands of their families and carers, a leading campaigner said yesterday.

Lady Sally Greengross, director of Age Concern, said that if the 2 million elderly people estimated to be at risk were to be protected, legislation similar to that covering children needed to be introduced.

'I think you should be slightly less worried about civil liberties in these cases,' she said. 'I think it is better to err on the side of interfering than allowing someone to suffer.'

The difficulty with abuse of elderly people is that as they have adults' legal rights: agencies have limited powers to intervene unless a complaint is made, something they are often reluctant or even incapable of doing.

Last week the the Law Commission issued a consultation paper, Mentally Incapacitated and Other Vulnerable Adults: Public Law Protection, containing measures designed to redress the balance.

It recommends that the law should be changed to lay a duty on social services to investigate cases where elderly people are believed to be at risk of abuse.

In these circumstances the investigators would be given the power to enter premises and it would become an offence to attempt to obstruct entry. Place of safety orders for the elderly person at risk could be obtained and social services would have the power to remove them for up to seven days.

But Dr Jonathan Fisk, speaking at a Royal College of Psychiatrists' seminar, said that the measures, while welcome, would not be enough in themselves. Health authorities and social services need to develop comprehensive policies which would include the training of staff to enable them to recognise the signs of those at risk, he said.