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Assisted suicide could be excuse to kill burdensome elderly, says police chief

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7th September 2009

The Daily Telegraph, Saturday 29th August 2009

The relaxation of assisted suicide laws could be exploited by families to kill burdensome elderly relatives, Britain's most senior policewoman has warned.

Barbara Wilding, the longest serving female chief constable, said that a growing rift between young and old generations, combined with the pressures of an ageing population, is a significant challenge for police.

“Elderly abuse is something that we have yet to really grasp,” she said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph. “It is one of the things that I think will be the next social explosion.”

She drew comparisons with the first discovery of widespread child abuse in Britain in the 1970s, and said that the abuse of the elderly was “the same sort of social issue - it can be covered up and the victims do not have a voice.”

Asked about the potential impact of changing the law of assisted suicide, which is currently illegal, Miss Wilding replied: “From a policing perspective we need to be very careful on this to make sure it does not become a way of getting rid of a burden. I will be watching any change in legislation very carefully”.

Keir Starmer, QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is drawing up a detailed policy to clarify whether people should be prosecuted for aiding a suicide after a landmark ruling by the Law Lords.

Debbie Purdy, 46, from Bradford, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, brought a case against the head of the Crown Prosecution Service because she wanted to know whether her husband would be charged if he helped her commit suicide at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich.

The Daily Telegraph disclosed earlier this month that Mr Starmer's guidelines, due to be published in an interim report within weeks, will apply to people who help their loved ones die in Britain as well as to those who help them die abroad.

Miss Wilding, 59, head of South Wales police, is the first senior officer to comment publicly on the debate.

The chief constable, who retires in December after a 42-year career in policing, also spoke out about what she says is a dangerous wedge that has been driven between different generations - in part caused by Government policy - with drastic consequences at both extremes.

“There is this rift between people under 25 and people over 50, who only have to see young people on the street and they call it anti-social behaviour,” she said.

“This growing intolerance and fear of young people has not been helped by the 'tough on crime' political views. Every party has been 'tougher' than the last one and young people seem to be the butt of it.

“The way which we as a society are treating young people is I think hugely worrying.”

Miss Wilding said that a Government target for police forces on the issuing of Anti-social Behaviour Orders had the effect of the criminalisation of young people going up in some areas by 60 per cent in a year.

Miss Wilding agreed that some youths were “louts and thugs” who needed to be punished – or ideally targeted by earlier police intervention.

But she said that too often just a group of children walking down the street is reported to police as anti-social behaviour.

“They have just as much right to be there as three elderly people going to collect their pension.

The senior officer said that the other side of the rift was that the intolerance and lack of respect for younger generations' changed their opinion of their elders.

Tensions will be exacerbated by the ageing population.

Figures released this week from the Office for National Statistics revealed that there are a record 1.3 million people over 85 in Britain, making up two per cent of the total.

“There are so many statistics around about the viability of being able to maintain an older generation and the number of young people in work having to bear the taxes,” Miss Wilding said.

“I think that's a real cause of concern because we will see it perceived as a burden.

“The more there is a rift between older and younger people, the more that could potentially grow”.

Asked to define what she described as a potential explosion of elderly abuse, she said: “It can range from the violent through to the psychological - not providing the medical care at the right time, looking after people to their needs and recognising that they are valuable members of society.

“I worry about some of the infrastructures to cope with older people who need caring for and who monitors them if they are cared for at home.”

Miss Wilding said there were other practical issues to grasp with an ageing population as well.

“We are starting to see people of an older age becoming suspects,” she said. “People in their 50s, 60s. Certainly around fraud, but also in other areas, some in violence.”

She said it created a new set of questions for the criminal justice system.

“As suspects, do we let them have more sleep, because we know they are likely to be more confused before we interview them?

“When do we get them into court? Do they need an appropriate adult – like you would with a child?

“There are not the policies on this, and we have to start from scratch and we need to start looking at it.”

Miss Wilding says that over the past decade it has become clear to her as chief constable that “policing cannot just do enforcing on its own, it has to get involved in social engineering”.

(Richard Edwards, Crime Correspondent)

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