HC Deb 09 May 1951 vol 487 cc2113-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Hannan.]

12 m.

Mr. Mathers (West Lothian)

I rise to bring before the House the question of the appointment of a children's officer in the County of West Lothian, which I have the honour to represent in this House, I asked a Question regarding this on 17th of last month, and I had a reply from the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland indicating that the point of view I endeavoured to express was not favoured by the Secretary of State for Scotland. I am making this further attempt to get the Secretary of State to approve the unanimous decision of the West Lothian County Council to appoint Mr. Kenneth Walker to this position.

I think I should say a word regarding my interest in this matter. I know this applicant for the position, and I gave him a recommendation to the county council when his application was submitted. To that extent I am an interested party, but I hope that it does not disqualify me in any way in putting my case forward tonight. The circumstances of the case are well known to my hon. Friend who is to reply to my appeal for a reconsideration of the decision of the Secretary of State for Scotland to disapprove the appointment of Mr. Walker.

The claim I make is that this man is by character and by native ability well able to undertake the duties that would fall upon him as a children's officer in the County of West Lothian. I have every confidence in saying that if he were appointed to that position he would give satisfaction. That is the unanimous opinion of the county council, who have asked for his appointment to be confirmed by the Secretary of State. The refusal by the Secretary of State to confirm the appointment seems to me to be on grounds that are not so sound as those of the county council in urging the appointment upon the Secretary of State.

Mr. Walker is well known to quite a number of the members of the county council, and they know what is required of the person who will hold this position. I want to say on behalf of the county council that they have an excellent record —as good a record as any county in Scotland—for their care of the kind of children who would come within the ambit of the attention of a children's officer when that appointment is made.

I regret very much that there should have been any difficulty at all raised about this appointment. It is perfectly true that Mr. Walker cannot produce documentary evidence of his ability to carry through these duties, but I am sure that all of us must agree that there are qualities other than those that can be put on paper that are required for a position of this kind, and I believe that in his native ability, in his kindly disposition and in his high character Mr. Walker does have the qualifications that are necessary to carry out these duties. I am not at all convinced that there are other qualifications that could take the place of these in providing a fit holder of this position.

I know that the matter has been well considered by the Secretary of State, and that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity, at her own request, of meeting a deputation from the county council to discuss this matter. Even so, the Secretary of State has held out against giving his approval to this appointment. I think that his refusal is based on grounds that are not so strong as those of the county council in urging the appointment.

I have already indicated that Mr. Walker is well known to quite a number of the members of the county council, but he is not known to the Secretary of State or to anyone connected with the Scottish Office. He has not been, interviewed by them. He has been interviewed by the county council, and it is a remarkable thing that in a county council where party differences prevail there is complete unanimity in favour of this appointment.

I am anxious to see this children's department set up. I am anxious to see a children's officer appointed in order to take over the duties. I have been wondering how it would be possible to overcome this difficulty, for the position at the moment is that we have reached a complete impasse. The county council has on two occasions reaffirmed its belief that the nomination of Mr. Walker is one that should be agreed to. The position is that the Secretary of State has no power to make the appointment; he has power only to approve or disapprove the recommendation of the county council. Unless there is some accommodation, one cannot see when this appointment can be made. I realise the difficulties, and I am not accusing anyone of bad faith in connection with the matter, but I wish to see this matter ended in an amicable way.

The suggestion that I make to my hon. Friend is that the appointment might be allowed to take place and the county council given authority to appoint Mr. Walker on their own responsibility, the Secretary of State meantime withholding complete approval for a period, say of six months, until it is seen whether Mr. Walker is, in truth, capable of carrying out the duties to the satisfaction of the county council and the Secretary of State. That would be a fair thing to do. There is no possibility of judging these things properly by documentary evidence. The practical way that I suggest would meet the point and would put the Secretary of State in a better position than he is at present to give a proper verdict upon this matter. I hope the plea I make will be listened to and will be approved by my hon. Friend.

12.12 a.m.

The Joint tinder-Secretary of State for Scotland (Miss Herbison)

I should first of all like to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Mathers) for the fair way in which he has put this case. He has put it in a most reasonable manner indeed. I should be the last to say that the West Lothian County Council have not always shown a very great interest in the care of children. I do not think there is a vestige of disagreement on that point. The Children Act was put upon the Statute Book after the Clyde Report for Scotland the Curtis Report for England were published. These Reports dealt with deprived children in both these countries, and the determination was taken that the children deprived of a normal home life should, as far as was humanly possible, have a home provided for them.

Where as formerly the care of the children was one of the local authorities' functions under the Poor Law, it became a special function for a separate committee under the Children Act. Parliament was in no doubt as to the importance of all local authority functions in relation to these children. The enthusiasm we have seen on the part of my right hon. Friend for something that is very near to his heart is very rarely shown in what I might call the colourless language of legislation, but if we look at Section 12 of the Children Act we find a real attempt made to convey the warmth and sentiment of the House in regard to these children. I should like to quote the words of that Section: Where a child is in the care of a local authority, it shall be the duty of that authority to exercise their powers with respect to him so as to further his best interests, and to afford him opportunity for the proper development of his character and abilities. That is certainly not an easy duty that has been imposed on local authorities. To enable the local authority to carry out this duty, and also all the other duties under the Act, a children's officer must be appointed and there must be an adequate staff to do the work.

The Children Act, as my right hon. Friend has said, does not lay down the qualifications which a children's officer must have. Indeed, I would suggest that it would be almost impossible to lay down the qualifications for an employment in which the personality of the person concerned is so important—the possible qualifications are so varied. In any case, it was desired to give to the local authorities the greatest choice possible in the appointment of these officers.

The Act did, however, require the local authority to consult the Secretary of State before making an appointment, and to send to him, in the words of the Act, particulars showing the name, age, experience, and qualifications of the persons from whom they propose to make a selection. Power was given to the Secretary of State to prohibit the selection of any person not a fit person to be a children's officer of the authority. The Secretary of State does not approve the appointment of the children's officer. His power is restricted to prohibiting the appointment of anyone whose name is among those submitted to him if he does not consider that person to be a fit person for the job. The actual appointment is made by the local authority. The power given to the Secretary of State to prohibit an appointment was clearly intended as a safeguard against the appointment of a person not considered fit to be entrusted with the welfare of a large number of deprived children.

I should like, in the short time which is available, to give the history of a case in West Lothian. In October, 1948, the county council proposed in the first instance, that the welfare officer under the National Assistance Act should also carry out the duties of the children's officer in the county. The Secretary of State has consistently, and I think rightly, taken the view that the functions of welfare work with aged and infirm people, and work among deprived children, should not be undertaken by the same person. Such an arrangement is undesirable, I think, for two reasons. In the first place, it seems too much like a continuation of the old Poor Law work, with the danger of the children's work taking second place to the work among the aged. Secondly, it is not to be expected that an officer who has the qualities necessary for efficient welfare work among old people will also be fitted for work among young and adolescent children.

The county council, after discussion, agreed in December last to appoint a separate children's officer. This decision gave great pleasure to the Secretary of State. After advertising the post, the county council submitted to the Secretary of State, for the purpose of the consultation arranged for in the Act, a list of the persons from whom it proposed to make a selection. The list consisted of the names of only two men. Neither of the two, so far as the Secretary of State could judge on the basis of their applications and testimonials, had the kind of qualifications and experience which would fit him to be a children's officer. One of the two had had a certain amount of administrative experience, but no experience in the care of children or, indeed, in any other field of social work.

The other had taken part for a number of years in youth work organisation, but he was no longer active even in that sphere; and no information was furnished to show that he had had any experience in the care of children, or any real experience in clerical or administrative work. I do not think it will be disputed that a person appointed as a children's officer must be able to conduct his own department, and to be able to do that a certain degree of administrative capacity should certainly be looked for.

In bringing these considerations to the notice of the local authority, the Secretary of State, in a letter dated 25th January, asked the Council to review the position in the light of the comments-made in the letter and to let him have its observations. In a letter dated the 2nd February, it was intimated that the two persons whose names were submitted to the Secretary of State had been interviewed by the county council on 13th January.

The council unanimously decided to offer the appointment, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State, to Mr. Kenneth Walker. I understand that the two names submitted to the Secretary of State were those of the only two male candidates who submitted applications, although there were some 16 or 18 candidates in all. I therefore discussed the whole position very fully with representatives of the county council at a meeting which lasted for an hour and a half. I gathered that the county council representatives took the view that in formally nominating Mr. Kenneth Walker for the-post the council were, in effect, giving the Secretary of State the observations he-had asked for. No further relevant information as to Mr. Walker's qualifications or experience was produced at that meeting, and no additional information has been produced since, and my right hon. Friend did not add any tonight.

The purported appointment of Mr. Walker was invalid, as the requirements of the Children Act had not been complied with. After the fullest considerations of the representations made by the county council, the Secretary of State directed on 1st March that neither of the two persons whose names had been submitted could be appointed. But, notwithstanding the Secretary of State's direction, the county council on 27th March again proposed to appoint Mr. Walker, and in asking that the Secretary of State should withdraw his earlier direction prohibiting the appointment said that they considered Mr. Walker to be the most suitable candidate and a fit person for the post.

I regret very much that it is necessary at this juncture to make some references of a personal nature about Mr. Walker. By the council's action in nominating him for the post while the whole question was still at the stage of consultation with the Secretary of State, and again after the Secretary of State had prohibited the appointment, a great deal of what must be distasteful publicity to Mr. Walker has been given to his application. Let me say at once that the Secretary of State's decision had nothing at all to do with Mr. Walker's personal qualities. It is clear from the testimonials that he submitted along with his application that he is, and very rightly, held in the highest regard in the community and that he has himself willingly shouldered social responsibilities.

If personal qualities alone were sufficient for the proper carrying out of the post of a children's officer, Mr. Walker would commend himself to everybody. But personal qualities are not, by themselves, enough. Responsibility for the care and welfare of something like 100 deprived children cannot be handed over to someone whose only qualifications are love of children and the desire to help them. These are basic requirements to be looked for in any children's officer; but more than the basic requirements have to be looked for. Much harm can be done in this specialised field by enthusiasm that is not guided by training or experience.

The view of the county council, I understand, is that Mr. Walker is a fit person for the post because he is keen on this kind of work; he has been active in the Boys' Brigade for a good many years—although he has ceased to take an active part; he has taken part in church social activities; in 1945 he took a short summer course organised by the Scottish Council for Health Education, with child psychology as a subject, and he took "social study" in his Army education course. These activities all point to his interest in children, but the admirable work done by the Boys' Brigade is not the kind of work in which experience in the care of children without parents is likely to be acquired.

Children in the care of a local authority are, in the majority, healthy and intelligent children, but they have behind them deeply disturbing experiences—the death of one or both parents, abandonment or desertion, or a long period of gross neglect, or even of ill-treatment. They require more than sympathy. They require understanding and skilled care, particularly when first received into care and when subsequently placed in suitable foster-homes. A child may be under care from a few weeks old until he reaches 18 years of age. It is a children's officer's job to see that that child grows up under conditions as similar as possible to those in which an ordinary child lives with his own parents, in which the natural unfolding of his talents and capacities will be encouraged and attachments formed so that his personality may freely develop.

Every child received into care is a new and individual problem. The careful selection of foster-homes, the supervision of the child while in the foster-home and later when he leaves to take up employment, call for more than enthusiastic interest. Not all children are fit for boarding-out: for one reason or another some have to be kept in children's homes, and the problems of these children are sometimes ever more difficult of solution.

The children's officer of West Lothian will have to take entire charge of about 100 children immediately on appointment. That means that some experience or training is required right from the start. The alternative is for experience to be gained after appointment through trial and error methods. I do not think anyone could regard that alternative as one to be adopted where the wellbeing of children is concerned. No information has been given to the Secretary of State at any time about Mr. Walker's employment since 1945. We understand that before the war he was an engineer, but we have no further official information—except from a Press report that since retirement from the Services he has been employed as a night watchman.

My right hon. Friend has expressed a fear that we are placing too much stress on paper qualifications. I wish to remove that fear from his mind and from the minds of the representatives on the local authorities. I think the particulars I have given about the appointments already made by other local authorities in Scotland will show that his fears are groundless. Thirty-four full-time children's officers have been appointed by 40 local authorities. Twenty-seven of those officers have had actual experience, in the service of a local authority, of work with deprived children. Eighteen of the 27 did not possess any paper qualifications in child care, but had proved through experience their suitability for the work.

I know how interested my right hon. Friend is in child welfare work, and I can understand his fears lest local responsibility for deprived children should seem to be impaired by reason of too much direction from, or interference by, the Central Department. The Secretary of State's statutory power to prohibit an appointment has not been exercised in any other case in Scotland, though in one or two instances he has asked local authorities to give further consideration to the suitability of particular candidates. It is the Secretary of State's desire that local authorities should have the keenest sense of their local responsibility for the children's service.

I think my time is almost up, but there is one further point I wish to make. The appointment of a suitable children's officer is fundamental to the creation of an efficient local children service, and under the Act the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the person appointed is fitted for the work. For the reasons I have given he is not satisfied that the person appointed by the West Lothian County Council would be able to carry out efficiently the duties of children's officer for the county. Although I fully appreciate all that my right hon. Friend has said tonight, I do not think he has brought out any new facts or considerations that would justify the Secretary of State in withdrawing the direction he has given.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Twelve o'Clock.