HC Deb 20 January 1942 vol 377 cc294-300

Order for Second Reading read.

The Minister of Pensions (Sir Walter Womersley)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Bill is designed to place on the Minister of Pensions the duty of providing for the care of any child suffering from neglect or want of proper care for whom a pension on account of the death of a parent in the present war is being paid by my Department under various instruments providing for compensation for disablement or death of members of the Forces, the Mercantile Marine, the Civil Defence Service, and the civilian population. The Bill covers children in the United Kingdom, but at a later stage I shall ask the leave of the Committee dealing with it to introduce an Amendment so that I can operate it also in the Isle of Man. It may be asked why it should be confined to the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man when, with the evacuation of children across the ocean, there will be some war orphans outside the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man. It is not possible to legislate on behalf of those children, but I can give the assurance to the House that I shall do everything I can to provide for the children living outside the United Kingdom.

A similar duty was imposed upon the Minister of Pensions under Section 9 of the War Pensions (Administrative Provisions) Act, 1918. That applied to the orphans of the last war, but only as regards the orphans of the men in the Armed Forces of the Crown. At the outbreak of the present war, Section 2 of the Pensions (Navy, Army, Air Force and Mercantile Marine) Act, 1939, was passed to revive this duty for children of the same classes where death occurred as the result of service in the war. I found, however, that this was not wide enough as it did not cover orphans of members of the Mercantile Marine or Civil Defence Service or of the civilian population killed as a result of enemy action. This Bill will cover the children of all classes of persons with whom I am concerned as Minister of Pensions. I think the House will agree—at least, I hope they will—that this is-a wise and proper step to take on behalf of the orphans of the present war; that I should not merely confine my duty to looking after those whose fathers were in the Services but extend it to the wider field covered by the various pension schemes which I administer.

I should like to say a further word or two about my duties. Like my predecessors, I have never regarded my duty towards orphans as fulfilled by the mere payment of pensions. I believe that in the case of orphans, disabled men or any others drawing pensions, money compensation is not enough, and that a Government Department should pay some consideration to its other duties. I regard it as my duty to see that a general oversight is exercised over all total orphans to ensure that they receive proper care and that their pensions are used for their benefit. Complete supervision by the Ministry of children living with a surviving parent would be, I submit, rather impracticable and possibly unnecessary. We look to the mother—or to the father if it is he who is left alive—to be responsible for the child, and to see that it is properly cared for. But where it is reported to me that a child is lacking proper care, then I intervene on behalf of that child. I am glad to say, however, that such instances are very rare, although the sources from which I draw my information are very wide. In some cases we find on investigation of complaints that there is not so much in a complaint as would appear on the surface, but where there has been definite neglect I say frankly that I do not hesitate to intervene.

Mr. Gordon Macdonald (Ince)

Will the Minister say what machinery he employs to find out these cases?

Sir W. Womersley

I am coming to the machinery later, because I am not only using old-time machinery but am hoping to improve it. We generally find that where the child is in charge of the surviving parent advice and warnings have the desired effect and bring about an improvement in the treatment of the child. In some cases the state pf affairs which has given rise to complaints has arisen from ignorance, because I am sorry to say there is still a little of that in the world; sometimes from ill health, and there have been cases where one can say it arises from laziness; but I want to make it clear that in my long experience cases of deliberate cruelty or wanton disregard of the child's interests are very few indeed, and that ought to be made known throughout the length and breadth of the land. But where it does appear to me that the neglect has been wilful, more serious than can be dealt with by the milder methods to which I have referred, other steps are taken. When I come to deal with these other cases I always seek the help and advice of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in England and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Scotland, and I want to pay a tribute to those two societies, because their help has been invaluable and it has always been readily offered. It is necessary sometimes to apply in the courts for an order committing a child to my care. I am glad to say that I get the support of those societies when I have to make such an application. We do not make such an application unless it is absolutely necessary.

From what I have already said it will be seen, I think, that it is absolutely necessary that I should have a statutory mandate from this House under which I can secure proper care for any war-pensioned orphan who may be suffering from neglect. I will tell the House the system we have adopted and I am glad to say that in formulating my schemes and in carrying them out I have had very valuable assistance from a lady Member of this House, the hon. Member for Dartford (Mrs. Adamson), a woman who has brought up a family herself and who has full understanding of family life and the position of these children. In addition, I have appointed specially selected women officers at each of my chief regional offices. It is their duty to keep in touch with every pensioned child in the area who has lost both parents and to ensure that the child is being properly treated. They also make immediate inquiries into any allegation of neglect which is brought to their notice, even though the child may be in the care of its own mother. If they find there is no substance in the complaint they report back to my Department and, of course, no action is taken. If they find there has been definite neglect then the steps I have already described can be taken and are taken. I want to say "Thank you" to my colleagues the Minister of Health, the President of the Board of Education and the Secretary of State for Scotland for the help which their Departments have given me in this matter. Their Departments and the children's officers serving under my Department are working together very well indeed, and there is no question of friction or difficulty.

Perhaps the House would be interested to hear a few figures concerning the orphans of the present war. The present number of total orphans on my books is just over 1,500, two-thirds of whom are the children of Civil Defence personnel or civilians. One can well understand why we may have more total orphans from the civilian population than from the Services. There is the case of the child who has been evacuated to a safe area in the country. Its parents have remained in London or in some other big industrial centre and both of them have been killed, perhaps, in the same night, leaving the child without parents. The method we have adopted so far is this: Where there is a relative or a close friend of the family willing to take the child, we say that that is the best home into which to put it—subject, of course, to supervision by my women visitors and to making sure that the child is in happy surroundings. Or, if one of these evacuated children who has become a total orphan is already in a suitable home—as one person describes it "Happily placed in their billets"—secured by the local authority, we leave it there for the time being. We think it better to keep the child in a safe area under the care of the people already looking after it.

The question of foster-parents is an important one, because there we are dealing not merely with the present but with the future of the child. It has been the practice of the Ministry when taking a neglected child into its care to place it in a private home with foster-parents, who, we hope and trust, will help it to forget its past unhappiness. In this connection I should like to pay a tribute to the hundreds of kindly folk who have opened their homes to orphans of the war. A lot of people have written to me asking me to allow them to adopt one of these orphans, and many more have written to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford. They are anxious to take the orphan, not for the sake of the pension money, but because they would like to take the child and bring it up as they would one of their own. I want to thank them for their offers. Some have complained that their offers have not been accepted, but we have actually received more offers than we have available children at the present time. The system of placing them with near relatives or with immediate friends is the best method, and means that we have not so many children available to take advantage of those offers to provide homes for them in other directions. So far, I have been able to accept only one or two of those offers, but it helps me considerably to know that there are so many people to whom I can turn for help. I thank them, and say that they should not feel upset because they are not getting their desire satisfied at the moment. There may be a time when we shall be able to do something to fulfil their wishes.

Great care is taken in the selection of foster homes and in the subsequent supervision of the children. The success of the boarding-out system is shown by the high proportion of cases of children who suffered from early neglect in the last war but were taken away and put in other homes, and who have become healthy and useful citizens. In numerous cases these children have formed lasting ties of affection with their foster-parents. I pay tribute to the officers of my Department who dealt with those cases. A large number of the orphans of the last war have grown up in these foster homes, been educated just as well as the foster-parents would have educated their own children and have qualified for learned professions. Many are serving in His Majesty's Forces. I do not know a single case where such orphans have not been a credit to the parents who brought them up. This is a source of satisfaction to the people in my Department who played a little part in giving such children a fair chance in life.

I am sure the House would not expect a long speech from me in support of the Bill, which, I feel certain, commends itself to all. It has always been my aim to minimise the adverse effect upon these children of their tragic loss and to secure for them the care which they would have had if their parents had survived. The provisions of the Bill will materially assist me in that effort.

Mr. Ammon (Camberwell, North)

I am sure the House would like to join me in congratulating the right hon. Gentleman upon bringing in the Bill. I am sure the House will congratulate him also upon having had the practical assistance of the hon. Member for Dartford (Mrs. Adamson). I gather that the Bill extends the provisions of the Pensions Administration Act to take in persons concerned in Civil Defence, such as in the Fire Service, and who may be injured in the course of their duties. I gather also that the Minister takes power to himself to act in loco parentis to children who are being neglected or ill-treated. He instanced that he uses the valuable machinery of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and similar societies which operate in Scotland.

One wonders how far this power extends into the lives of the children. Some of us who have experience upon local authorities are aware that when children attain school-leaving age a parent, who has had no concern with, and who may even have neglected, a child suddenly finds there is now value in the child being at an age to earn money, and such parents step in and upset what has been done by the local authority. Has the Minister any power in that matter? Perhaps he will set our minds at rest on the point. These are points of detail on which the Minister may be able to give us some assurance. I thank him sincerely, and congratulate him for having brought in a piece of legislation which will be of great benefit to the rising generation.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for the next Sitting Day.—[Mr. Munro.]