My Lords, before speaking to my Amendment 157 in this group, I want to express my strong support for my noble friend Lady Lister in her Amendment 149, which she has argued for so persuasively just now. My amendment is concerned with family abuse, particularly that suffered by elderly people and disabled victims. I am glad to have the strong support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt, Lady Mansoor and Lady Greengross. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, has been an extraordinary campaigner for older people and years ago was bringing the problem of abuse being suffered by older people to national and international attention. The noble Baroness, Lady Mansoor, cannot be with us today because of a pressing engagement, but she is a strong and enthusiastic supporter of the amendment.
Our concern is that when it comes to domestic abuse, family victims are repeatedly, even continually, being forgotten. The only explanation I can think of is that elderly and disabled victims of family abuse who are dependent on their abusers are in general unable or afraid to speak out. To my mind, this should make the coverage of family abuse by Section 76 a high legislative priority. The offence of controlling or coercive behaviour under Section 76 covers such behaviour by a family member, including financial abuse, but only when they are living with their victim. According to research, most perpetuators of financial abuse against elderly people were family members rather than partners, and only 25% actually live with their victims. I believe that the UK criminal law must afford victims equal protection, irrespective of their place of residence. As Gary FitzGerald, the former CEO of Action on Elder Abuse for 18 years, has stated:
“Older women can have a higher level of physical, emotional and particularly financial dependence on perpetrators, and will often have experienced the abuse for a much greater period of time. It is those psychological and emotional relationships that are crucial in considering coercive control, much more so than whether or not the victim is living with the perpetrator.”
Material published by Action on Elder Abuse shows that financial abuse can involve victims’ houses being sold or taken without their consent, or victims giving their property away under pressure or without full awareness.
The outcome of financial abuse on older people can be devastating. Many lose large sums of money, lose property that they have lived in for years, do not receive benefits to which they are entitled, incur large debts, or simply do not have enough money to live on. Many of the alleged perpetrators of large-scale financial abuse do not deny having access to or spending large amounts of money belonging to a particular older person. They merely contend that the older person gave them permission to spend the money in question, but the vulnerability of the victims means that they are often unable to categorically deny that such permission was given. The likelihood of such cases being progressed through to a satisfactory outcome, full recovery of assets and a criminal prosecution of the perpetrator remains low. Caroline Abrahams, the charity director of Age UK, has urged the Government,
“to give serious consideration to any amendment that will improve outcomes for older victims and survivors.”
Becki Meakin, general manager of Shaping Our Lives, the national user-led organisation for disabled people, has said:
“The high incidence of violence and abuse among disabled people is related to being dependent on their family and informal networks for care and support. These caring relationships provide additional opportunities for perpetrators to abuse and coercively control. The perpetrator can coercively control the disabled person by withholding essential support such as food, medication or prevent them going out independently. This type of abuse can be done by a family member wherever they live and this type of coercive control would not be easily recognised by the legislation around stalking” and harassment.
In her opening speech, my noble friend Lady Lister argued that it is wrong to say that post-separation economic abuse can be covered by stalking and harassment legislation, as the Government have done both in Committee in the Commons and at Second Reading. I agree with my noble friend that this is by no means sufficient.
We really need to take action on this now. Controlling or coercive behaviour, including financial abuse, does not become stalking or harassment simply because the victim does not live with their abuser.