HC Deb 21 June 1956 vol 554 cc1774-84

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

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Frank Bowles (Nuneaton)

On 25th April of this year I received a letter from a lady doctor in my constituency of Nuneaton, Dr. Blakeway, which she started by saying: A case has recently occurred in this town in which a girl aged eleven who is under the case of the local authority was returned home and very shortly afterwards was raped by her father. I propose—and I think that the Minister will probably agree with me—to mention no names at all. He knows the cases to which I am referring, and if I refer to the people by giving initials I think it might be better for them when they grow up.

On receipt of that letter I saw the Secretary of State for the Home Department personally, and I said, "In view of this very serious allegation which has been made in this letter, will you kindly look into it yourself so that I can write to this lady doctor and say that the Home Secretary himself is looking into the matter?" After a little while, on 7th June, I got a letter from the Home Secretary, at the end of which he said: I can only say that my inquiries do not lead me to suppose that the child care services in Warwickshire are deficient on the whole… I propose to give the case history as told to me by the local representative of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. This is a family, a father and mother, a girl aged 12 now. a boy aged 13, a girl aged 9, another girl aged 7 and a boy aged 5. I will read this statement quickly, as I know that the hon. Member for Heeley (Sir P. Roberts) wishes to speak. It says: This family first came under the supervision of the Society in 1946. There were then three children, and found under the most appalling living conditions, and being grossly neglected, were taken on a Justices Order to a place of safety. Both parents were prosecuted, and at Nuneaton Magistrates' Court on 27th September, 1946, were sent to prison for two months' hard labour. The children were subsequently returned to the parents. On June 17th, 1949, the father was prosecuted by the Society for wilfully ill-treating the child M. He was then placed on probation for two years. I was again called into the case of alleged failing to allow the child J to attend for convalescent treatment. This was in August, 1951. The family were kept under supervision from 2nd August, as I was not at all satisfied that all was well with the family. In October of the same year, the mother made allegations that her husband was associating with other women, and there was a female lodger at the house. On the night of the 3rd. I was informed that the children were alone in the house. The following day I interviewed the father. He told me his wife had left him, and he was now co-habiting with the lodger, a woman known then to me only as Rose. It was then that a pretty dreadful state of affairs came to light. The man admitted he had brought this woman to the house some days before and that this woman, his wife and himself were sleeping in the same bed, and that he had had intercourse with Rose in the presence of his wife. I then warned him that the set-up was all wrong, and that the children knew perfectly well what was happening, and warned him that they could not be allowed to remain under these conditions I then learned that the woman lodger was a Mrs. R.Z., the mother of three children living at Glasgow, and she was due to surrender her bail at Glasgow on the 5th, on a charge of abandonment of her children. The man and this woman left the house to go to Glasgow, and the mother, who had been staying with a Mrs. W of Church Street, Nuneaton (and who had had a child of which this man admitted being the father) returned home to look after the children. At this time the police were having considerable trouble with the child M… This child was then put under the supervision of the probation officer for three years— Both the probation officer and myself had within the next few weeks to warn the mother about having women of known bad moral character in the house. On the 15th February, 1952, the man returned home again with the woman Z and the man admitted that the two women and he were again sleeping together. On the 20th the man and Z left the house and I continued to supervise… On 29th June. 1952, the man came to the local office and alleged that his wife was keeping a bad house. He admitted that he was still having immoral associations with Z and he intended taking the children to London. I warned him about this. By this time I had formed the opinion that neither parent was at all fit to have the care of these children. The man had now a very bad police record and the woman had without doubt been encouraging women of known bad character to her home, and the young boy, M, told me that he knew his mother had been sleeping with petty officers from H.M.S. `Gamecock,' a Naval Shore Base at Bramcote. The man had returned to live at home, and I was convinced that the home was not fit for these children. Both parents used the most vile language in the presence of the children. I spoke to the probation officer about the set-up, and on 9th July, 1952, M was brought back to court and committed to the care of the Warwickshire County Council. I informed Miss Bowkett, the County Children's Officer of the whole facts of the case. I had also discussed the matter with Miss Baker, the Children's Visitor for the area. On 14th July, 1952, I removed the four remaining children under Section 67 and at the juvenile court on 23rd July, 1952, the children were committed to the care of the Warwickshire County Council. In March, 1955, an application for the revocation of the court order was granted. Four of the children had been at home some time before this and I had stressed to Miss Bowkett and also particularly to Miss Baker that I felt that in view of the father's bad record and the fact that the living accommodation was so inadequate, that serious thought should be given to the matter before the Children's Department agreed to the order being made"— That is the order for revocation. I was told by the Children's Visitor that J was in a foster home and was very happy. In December of last year I was informed by Miss Cooper, the Children's Visitor, that J was to be returned home. I pointed out very strongly that the home had only two bedrooms— remember I said that there were five children in the family, a man and three other people— and one living room, and that on those grounds alone if no other, serious consideration should be given to the advisability of J returning. I also expressed my grave doubts about the wisdom of having a girl of this age in the care of her father, and said that at any time I would not be surprised to learn that he had done one of the girls some serious damage as I had become convinced that the man was not at all rational regarding the matter of sex. The child however was returned, and within a month the police had charged the father with the rape of this girl, and at Warwick Assizes, in March, he was sent to prison for five years. I am in no doubt at all that had my advice been taken this could not have happened. Miss Bowkett and the Children's Visitor have been left in no doubt about the character of these parents. Since the case against the father has been known, it is true to say that a wave of indignation has swept the town … That is one letter. There is another letter from the head of the Welfare Department at the Council House, Nuneaton. I will not read the whole of it, but in this letter it is stated: The father, in my opinion, is a sexual maniac from whom no female from the age of six to sixty can be considered safe. I want the House to remember that this is a case in which the Home Secretary does not feel there is any reason to interfere. He has to my knowledge consorted with almost every prostitute in Nuneaton and was the instigator of a brothel at— such-and-such a street, the address of which I have-— which was raided by the police some three years ago. The woman a Mrs. W, the proprietor of the brothel, has had a child by T and to my own knowledge had lived and slept with T at his own house with the knowledge of his wife and children. At this particular time he had three women at his house, Mrs. W in a bedroom upstairs, Mrs. T slept in a bed downstairs, and a Mrs. B—she had been evicted from a house in Stockingford—living in a large fowl pen in a small garden in the front of the house. I may say that my knowledge of this man, and it is confirmed by every welfare worker in this town, makes it definite to me that he was not and never will be trustworthy where any female is concerned. I say this having known him since he was a boy at school. The letter goes on: From the point of view of morals the mother is little better than her husband. She has been a noted prostitute in this town for some years. She has freely consorted with her husband's concubines and to my knowledge has been quite content to have them in her house. She is a very plausible liar, and from my experience of dealing with her I can say that I would not trust her an inch. It has been her habit in the past to condone any of her husband's offences, morally or otherwise, and then on falling out with him to run down to the police and inform against him. I have a very strong suspicion that she was aware of the offences against the child and made no complaint until she had a disagreement with him. I have been present at meetings of various welfare officers at Riversley Park Clinic when the family has been a subject of discussion, and I have heard Inspector Riley— of the N.S.P.C.C.— stress the point to the Children's Visitor that in his opinion neither parents or the house were fit for the children to be returned to. On being advised by the Children's Visitor in November that she was bringing home J the following day I stressed most strongly my opinion that the place was unsuitable and that the parents were not be trusted to look after this child if she came home. As a result of my representations the Children's Visitor went up and inspected the house, but in spite of this the child was returned. I should like to point out that the Home Secretary's Children's Department has had this correspondence in its possession since 2nd May this year. The N.S.P.C.C. director tells me that he has had no letter at all from the Department, although he had an hour's conference with the people concerned in the Department.

There is another family to whom I would like to refer. The initial here is N. The family have been discussed, as a problem family, at several meetings of the various Welfare Officers held in the Nuneaton School Clinic, and I was present on one occasion when it was agreed that it would never be advisable to return the children to their parents only for very short holiday periods. Early last month I was attending the juvenile court when an application was made by Mr. and Mrs. N for the revocation of the Order, it was stated in court that the application was supported by the Children's Officer. This is a person who seems to have tremendous influence in Warwick. I was asked by the justices if, as the person who brought the children before the court originally, I would give evidence on the application and I, on oath, informed the justices that in my opinion it would be blatant cruelty to return the children to their parents in view of their mental condition. The justices decided that they could not, on the evidence before them, revoke the order and so refused the application. Within 14 days I was informed by Mrs. N that the children were being returned to her for good and that Miss Bowkett said I was to find a school for them— It seems that this woman has the power to over-rule the magistrates in this area. Whether that is the position generally I do not know— It would appear that in the case of the court refusing to revoke a court order, it is because they are satisfied that the parents are unfit to exercise care and guardianship, but the Children's Officer takes no notice. The result of all this is that the Society is striving to care for children in this area, and many hours of work to safeguard the child's welfare is being frustrated… There is a good deal more.

There is another case, details of which I could quote, but I know that the Minister wants time in which to reply. I should like to demand, not only that the Home Secretary should order an inquiry into the administration of this kind of service in the County of Warwick, but that he also looks into his own Children's Department, who obviously drafted the letter to which I have referred, in which the writer says that he finds the situation such that he does not feel called upon to interfere. I believe that he has been misled by the local information that he has obtained. In a supplementary question last week to the Home Secretary, I asked whether, when there was integration between the voluntary organisations and the Children's Department of the Home Office, he had not been mis- informed by information having been kept from him by his own Children's Department.

In view of the terrible story which I have put before the House, I think the House will agree that the Home Secretary has been misled by his Department, and that the Home Department has been misled by local people. The information which I have put before the House has been before the Home Office for the last seven weeks, and I think that the House should register some protest at the way the Home Secretary has been misled.

Sir Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Heeley)

I wish to intervene only briefly because I have the honour to be a member of the Executive Committee of the N.S.P.C.C. I should like the Minister to know that in this particular case the Society is very worried about the co-operation it has been receiving from the children's officer, Miss Bowkett. In the country generally we get the most helpful cooperation from children's officers of the Ministry and I should not like it to be thought that there was generally any dis-satisfaction, but in this case I feel it is necessary to draw the attention of the Minister to the facts. I am very glad that the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) has raised this matter tonight.

The thing which seems to impress me more than anything else is that there have been cases of lack of co-operation by this particular officer before; it has been going on for a number of years. Secondly, in this case the children's officer must have known well the conditions of the house to which the child was being returned. I do not believe that my hon. Friend can be happy about this case. I do not think that he should necessarily support his own officials if they are obviously wrong.

I should like to emphasise that it is not merely an isolated case of taking a chance where something went wrong; that is not so. There was absolute and abundant evidence, yet against that—not for the first time, but on a number of occasions—this officer has taken her own line. I must say that, having done so, she must be responsible to some extent for what she has done and cannot expect the Minister to shield her when, obviously, it is a bad decision.

From the point of view of the Society, whereas we appreciate the co-operation we get, this is one case into which the Minister should look and, if he is not satisfied with the facts as given by the hon. Member for Nuneaton, he should call for an inquiry to find what the facts are.

10.46 p.m.

The Joint Under Secretary of State to the Home Department (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

This is a shocking affair. I do not think that it is in anybody's interest to gloss over the particulars which the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) has given or to pretend otherwise. I do not dispute the right of the hon. Member to have and to express strong feelings about it. No one can know the facts of these cases and not feel strongly about it.

I must add that, as the hon. Member knows, my right hon. and gallant Friend is not responsible for action by a local authority in a particular case. Therefore, it would not be appropriate for me to pass judgment in detail on actions of this sort locally and I am not going to do so. It is very easy to have hindsight in cases of this sort. What I must begin by saying to the hon. Member is that no one, certainly not my right hon. and gallant Friend, has been misled. What the hon. Member does not know is that we have had a very long and most comprehensive report from one of our inspectors following discussions with officials of the county council and everyone else and access to records. I have read every word of it and I can assure the hon. Member that there is no glossing of the facts in the report. We are proposing to follow this up and I propose to acquaint myself with the results.

I would prefer to keep an open mind about an inquiry, for which the hon. Member and my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley (Sir P. Roberts) have asked because, for reasons which I shall give, my feeling is that an inquiry would not give us what we want. I think the hon. Member will accept that the truth is that there is nothing hidden in this case—the facts are only too well known. What matters is that on the experience in this case and one other—

Mr. Bowles

Two others.

Mr. Deedes

Two others—I think the question to be answered is: does this reflect on the working of the Children Act in the place which interests the hon. Member and elsewhere? No one broke the law, no one acted ultra vires, I speak having read the comprehensive report. Nor was there neglect—misjudgment, perhaps serious misjudgment, but not neglect, as a record of the visits proves.

I think there are three separate issues in this case. Should there be stricter control by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary? Should there be better co-ordination between the bodies concerned—the local authority and the N.S.P.C.C.? Should there be stricter control by the courts? On the question of greater control by the Home Secretary I would say this. The general principle now readily accepted is that where statutory powers and duties are entrusted to local authorities they should be treated as responsible and competent bodies and allowed to proceed with as little detailed control from above as possible. It is quite natural that a case of this kind will throw doubts upon that, but I am sure that it is right and that there must be local responsibility. It avoids delay and it helps to get the personal touch, and it is essential to the fundamental problems that are involved.

Secondly, there is the co-ordination between the different bodies concerned. Lately, there has been much dissatisfaction expressed about the lack of coordination between the multiplicity of bodies concerned with welfare, and particularly with child welfare. My right hon. Friend shares that concern and has already made it clear, on two separate occasions, that he and other Ministers are looking closely into the possibility of improving the arrangements for local co-ordination.

I must, however, add that whatever system of co-ordination Whitehall proposes it will, in the end, come down, as it has done here, to a question of personalities; that is, on personal relations between the different people concerned. It is quite clear, and I have made no attempt to conceal it, that such relationships in this case were not good, and that is greatly to be regretted. But I think that we should all be making a great mistake, when learning the lesson to be drawn from this case, to expect co-ordination alone, imposed from above, to do the trick.

I doubt whether it would have done it here. In the end, it is human relations that count for the most, and in this work of child care a willingness to compromise and to try to see the other person's point of view. It is nearly always the case that co-operation works far better than co-ordination, and cooperation demands mutual respect between the bodies concerned. That was lacking here.

Finally, I deal with the power of the courts which, I am inclined to think, is the most important aspect in these matters. I am particularly concerned about it because tomorrow—and I shall not pursue this point—we shall be discussing, in another context, further provision for allowing children committed by the courts to the care of a local authority to return home for a trial period. Broadly speaking, I think that all experience and all human instinct shows that this idea is a sound one and, indeed, is in the best interests of the children. I should, of course, be out of order in taking up time to elaborate this, but I think it will be accepted that the trial period, subject to proper safeguards, may be an indispensable factor in the rehabilitation of a home and in restoring something which is the desire and right of every young child.

Relations between the court and the local authority, as in this case, where a child has been committed to the care of a local authority is a difficult and a delicate question. I have no doubt that the Departmental Committee, the chairman for which was announced today by my right hon. Friend, will consider this particular matter. I absolutely accept, however, that there must be no question of an authority or an individual being able to flout the decision of the court.

If we may just touch on the details of the case for a moment, let us consider what happened here. The children—who, I agree, should remain anonymous—were committed to the care of the county council by the juvenile court sometime in 1952. In July, 1953, the court revoked orders, on the application of the county council, in respect of three of the children. In May, 1954, the county council allowed a fourth child to return home for a trial period. In March, 1955, the court revoked the order corm- mitting that fourth child to the care of the local authority. At the same time, as the hon. Gentleman said, it refused to revoke the order in respect of the fifth child, then happily boarded out. In November, 1955, the fifth child was allowed to return to its own home for a trial period.

The House will be aware that the court's authority is required to revoke an order, but not to permit the return of a child for a trial period. It is obviously most important that decisions taken to return children for a trial period should be thoroughly weighed and made with the knowledge and authority of the children's committee. It is possible—and I admit this—that immediately after a court has refused to revoke an order, a children's officer may, nevertheless, return the child home for a trial period.

I have no hesitation in putting it on record that that would be absolutely wrong and should not be possible. It is fair to add that in this case the committee gave authority in respect of that fifth child and the clerk to the Nuneaton justices was informed of the decision. The fact is that in a great many of these cases—there are 60,000 children now in care—the local authority has a difficult decision to make. I am not trying to gloss over this case, but I want to put it somewhat in perspective.

The local authority has to strike a balance between conflicting considerations—bad homes and bad records of parents, on the one hand, and, on the other, affection, maybe, between mother and daughter, which exists very often in the most unlikely conditions, and the affection of children for each other. The choice is often difficult and anxious, and it may turn out, as it certainly did in this case, to be an unfortunate one.

All I would say at the end of this, and reminding the hon. Gentleman the Member for Nuneaton that we have not finished with this case, is that one mistake or more, or even three in one case, should not be held to condemn a system which has already undergone considerable trial and, on balance, has shown itself to be overwhelmingly in the interest of children and family life.

Sir P. Roberts

I think that the main gravamen of the charge of the hon. Gentleman opposite was that in this case it was not the system which broke down, but the operation of the system by one particular person.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Eleven o'clock.