HC Deb 22 April 1958 vol 586 cc913-22

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

10.11 p.m.

Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

I have great trepidation in bringing this case before the House, because I feel very personally perturbed and, I am afraid, rather emotional about it. I do not think one does justice to one's case when one is feeling emotional.

I raised this matter once before, when it was dealt with by the Lord Advocate. I am not really concerned about the Lord Advocate's department; I am concerned about the whole Scottish Office and the supervision which it exercises on boarded out children of Scotland.

I had wondered for five years what had happened to Dugald Johnstone. Only in the British Medical Journal did I read that a skull, loose teeth and 128 separate pieces of bone had been found on a Scottish hillside. Doctor Imrie and Professor Wyburn worked on this dreadful case, and after piecing the bits together, measuring, and so on, it was found that they tallied exactly with those of the missing boy. Dugald had run away twice before he disappeared. He had lived on shellfish and was starving when discovered in a burn on the second occasion. Shreds of clothing and a pair of black sand shoes were found near the skeleton and taken to Professor Wyburn's laboratory.

It is a shocking case. Why did it not receive publicity? Why had we to find it, eleven months later, in the British Medical Journal? Why the hush-hush? I recalled five years previously being approached by a foster mother, a broken-hearted mother in Bunessan who had done everything she could and then appealed to me, thinking that I, as a mother, would understand her plight.

There were two children, a boy and a girl. They were both removed at a few hours' notice. They were broken-hearted, and so was the foster mother. I probed the case here, and from an official at the top I got the Department's version. I had it read out to me in a Minister's Room downstairs from about a dozen pages of typescript. I was told that it had been the right thing to do.

Why were they removed? The reason given was that there were two fields to cross before the children could join the bus that took them to the school. That did not go down with me, because the woman had had these children since they were four years of age. They must have been going to this bus stop for five years and were much more able to go across the field tracks when they were ten than when they were six.

Then I got an awful "hush-hush" about it. I was told to tell it to no one, but that the little girl—and I got this confidentially as an M.P.—had been known to whisper in the school playground that on the night of the big storm "Mummy" had taken her and her brother in beside her into her own bed. This astonished the spinster lady official. The information went to Edinburgh and was given to me in the Minister's Room downstairs. What parent, at some time or another, has not heard a little voice during a storm saying "Mummy", or "Daddy, can I come in beside you?" It only led me to feel what affection there was between the woman and the children, and so I felt that there was some other reason.

When I read about it in the British Medical Journal, I put a question to the Lord Advocate. I wanted to know if it was Bunessan so I could be sure of my ground, and I got a misleading reply. I absolve the Front Bench entirely from blame for giving me that misleading reply, but it put me completely off the scent. It is dated the 6th March, and it states about this boy: He had previously been boarded out for almost a year with Mr. and Mrs. John Leach at Tayinloan and at Feorlin, Southend, Kintyre. He was transferred by the county council to Tollard House on medical advice. That sounds very good. Hon. Gentlemen opposite, reading a report like that, would think there was nothing wrong about it.

I have had a good deal of confidential information, and I asked the source of my information about the Bunessan boy, and I got the reply that it certainly was the Bunessan boy. This lady said she had been in contact with him every day, and said: "I found him likeable and very responsive to kindness and affection. I felt that he had not been treated with the sympathy and understanding that every child deserves and needs. He had been pushed around from one foster-home to another, and the awful thing about it is that the child is not the only one from Bunessan who has been pushed around and has run away."

I also have particulars of two whose names I will not mention. One started to steal, something which the child had never done before, and the other ran away. Yet, when I had the interview downstairs in the Minister's Room, I was told that they were settling in nicely. I said, "Are you aware that one has been stealing from a grocer's shop and that the other has run away?" The typewritten sheets were quickly perused, and it was admitted: "Yes, but they are settling in now."

Now, what happened to Dugald? Forty-four hours after he was removed from a loving father and mother and from a croft where he had his own sheep and his own cows and was a happy little lad, at twelve hours' notice he was shifted away to Kintyre, and he ran away. He was missing for forty-four hours, and was found in a barn cold and hungry. He was shifted again, this time to a group home at Toward. Again, he ran away, and sixty-six hours afterwards he was found by a gamekeeper and a shepherd who had organised a search and who found him cold and hungry. He had been living on berries and shellfish.

As for the third time, we all know what happened. It was an April evening when he disappeared. This was the third time that he was removed, and again he disappeared. I am told, and the newspapers are told, that he was just a boy in search of adventure. It is curious that it was only when he was moved that he made his disappearance.

On that April evening, there were no gamekeepers or shepherds, nor any of the visitors who frequent Dunoon in the summer time, to take part. Not one of them was asked to take part in a search. Challenged about it, the official said that everything possible was done.

There were organised search parties by police, foster parents who banded together, and even by children from the home. If one examines those words, one notices that there was a careful selection of people. Where did she get the foster parents? I do not know. She must personally have selected them. Of course, the children from the home from which he had disappeared would naturally come to the rescue.

Some months ago, just a little distance from where I live, a little boy went a-missing. Thousands of people went out to search for him. In the hills above Kilmacolm, where the Secretary of State lives, there were 200. Further down, where I live, in the hills above where I live, there were many more. Next morning, I saw five buses at my front gate, and there were 200 people on the hills above my house, five miles from the Secretary of State's house. That was an organised search.

In Dunoon, there were the foster parents. We are told that the police were informed. What police? My confidential correspondent blames herself for not doing something more about this business. She says that: If a widespread local search had been organised in the right manner, Dugald might still have been alive". Two days ago, his foster mother, still with a broken heart and still saying she loves his memory, let the cat out of the bag. She had first been told that it was because of her age that the boy was removed. She now reveals that there was an official decision to remove the children from the island because it was too remote, and to place them on the mainland. I have pleaded for children of 10 living in outlandish places like the Isle of Mull and asked that they be kept until they are 14 or 15. I pleaded that downstairs, and I had a refusal. Yet we should remember that, at 14 or 15, boys in the Islands begin to want to spread their wings, or, perhaps, it may be necessary to transfer them for secondary education.

Many people may ask wonder what there is to it. Do not children of ten, they may ask, go to boarding school? Indeed they do, but there is for them still a link with their fathers and mothers. The father and mother of a boy going to boarding school see him safely in. There are parcels and trips home at Christmas time. In these cases, the children are cut off and there is no communication again. There is a new father and a new mother. What redress has a little boy of ten, in a home with a hundred other little boys, against torture of that description? What future or what past has he to look to?

I said that I think I know the reason now. It was not that these foster parents were too old. Another four years would not have mattered to a woman of 58. It was not that the bus stop was too far away. These things were done surreptitiously, one child after another. If it had been done in a mass, probably the Argyll County Council or the Home Office would have seen it and put a foot down, saying, "Not until they are fourteen," if the policy is not to take them from Mull and bring them to the mainland until they are fourteen. But that was the policy. It was not that the foster mother was too old, but that the official of the children's department was getting too old to walk along the cart tracks and up the mountain side to visit these children.

This is one of the worst blots on our Scottish history. I think that our boarded out system in Scotland is well nigh perfect. I have done ten years boarded-out visting. Officials, on the whole, are dedicated men and women and 90 per cent. of the children are exceedingly happy. But I plead for an inquiry into this affair so that the same sort of thing will never happen again.

10.26 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Niall Macpherson)

I do not think that anybody could blame the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann) for feeling emotional on this subject. She has been talking tonight about one great tragedy and has made reference at the same time to another incident, but I must make it clear at the Outset that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is not responsible for the action taken by a child care authority in a case of this kind. However, he does have a general responsibility for the boarding-out arrangements made by local authorities, and the child care inspectorate makes it its business to know how each county council sets about its task. The inspectorate has to satisfy my right hon. Friend that policy and practice alike are in the best interests of the children in its care.

The hon. Lady has said that she has some information in her possession. I am bound to tell her that not all the information she has is in accordance with the facts. Perhaps I should briefly recount the facts. This boy was born in May, 1941. In January, 1947, his mother died in Islay. He then came into the care of the Argyll County Council, and with his elder brother and sister, he was boarded out at a farm at Bunessan, in Mull, under the old Poor Law code.

As the hon. Lady will know, the Children Act, 1948, decidedly switched the emphasis on to the interests of the children. When the Children Act, 1948, came into force the county council appointed a children's officer. Almost immediately, that newly appointed children's officer visited the household, first, in September, 1949, and then on two further occasions in January and April, 1950. I understand that on her third visit, after inquiries had been made from responsible persons in the district, she came to the conclusion that the children would be better cared for elsewhere.

I do not in any way wish to affect the memories that the foster mother in question may have of these children, but I can only record that the inspector of the Home Department has also investigated the facts fully and has agreed with the findings of the children's officer. I should add that the Home Department inspector has investigated the facts on the spot. The children's officer reported to the children's committee of the County Council, which subsequently asked her to find a more suitable home for the children.

Mrs. Mann

Did that also apply to the other children, to the Grant children?

Mr. Macpherson

I was coming to that. The hon. Lady has in the course of her speech perhaps a little confused the House in regard to these two cases. The correspondence that she had before was in regard to the Grant children. I think reference was made by the foster mother to the Grant children also to the case of Dugald Johnstone, but the case to which the hon. Lady was referring early in her speech was that of the Grant children and not that of Dugald Johnstone.

Mrs. Mann

Has the hon. Gentleman the full facts of how many children there were altogether, of how many more, apart from Dugald Johnstone and the Grant children, were moved in a similar manner from Bunessan? Has he been told?

Mr. Macpherson

I have not got those facts, but I think it is extremely unlikely that, in a small place like Bunessan there would be many children in the care of foster mothers.

Mrs. Mann

Are all the foster mothers bad?

Mr. Macpherson

In June, 1950, the boys were placed with a farmer and his wife at Tayinloan—which is in Mull, not Kintyre—who moved in November to Southend in Kintyre. At the time the boys seemed happy in that home. I may say that when the hon. Lady wrote to my right hon. Friend, a short time ago, she asked specifically from what home the children had been removed, and she got that reply, and the reply was certainly in no way misleading. It was a direct reply to the particular question which she had put.

Mrs. Mann

But it did not state that he had run away.

Mr. Macpherson

I am coming to that point. The hon. Lady did not ask that. She asked three specific questions and got three specific answers.

One evening in April, 1951, Dugald disappeared and was eventually found almost two days later in a barn three miles from his home. Again, on 10th May, he disappeared, this time for almost three days, and when he was discovered on this occasion he was taken to hospital, although he was not seriously ill. He was examined by the medical superintendent of the mental hospital at Lochgilphead who strongly advised that he and his brother should be removed preferably to a home where they could be observed over a period in order to assess their stability. Accordingly, the boys were placed in the County Council's children's home at Toward.

They did well there, and the elder brother was found a job on a farm, first near Dumfries and later near Oban. After four years in the home, during which there is no record of his having run away—when he was nearly 14 years of age—Dugald was boarded out in a group foster home at Dunoon along with not 100 children, as the hon. Lady has imagined, but six or seven other children. The purpose was that he might more easily attend school there.

Mrs. Mann

Is the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Macpherson

Will the hon. Lady forgive me if I do not give way? There is not very much time, and I should like to give all the answers to the questions which she has asked.

Dugald Johnstone seemed to settle down and be quite happy, but after three weeks he left home for school one day and was not seen again. The hon. Lady suggests that insufficient publicity was given; but the police were informed and a very thorough search was made without success, notices were sent to the Press, and a message was broadcast by the B.B.C. Eleven months later bones were found in Glen Masson, which, as the hon. Lady says, medical evidence has identified as all that remains of the boy.

I have recounted these facts in some detail because they seem to me to show that considerable care was taken by the County Council to place this unfortunate boy in the environment most suitable for him at every stage. I understand that the children's officer herself took a particularly close interest in him. For example, when the boys were separated she arranged for them to spend holidays together with her own mother and father, and Dugald used to call her mother "Granny". She did this partly because Dugald seemed to be a rather unusual child. He was not particularly bright, and he had a tendency to keep to himself even in the children's home.

Of course, his tendency to wander, which, his brother says, was characteristic even at Bunessan, increased the difficulties of those responsible for making sure that he was looked after properly. Until he disappeared, however, there seemed to be good hope that they were succeeding. I might add that the children's officer herself spent a good deal of her holidays in that year looking for the boy.

The Children Act places a very heavy responsibility on local authorities, on their children's committees, and on their children's officers. It is no small task to discharge a parent's duties towards children of many differing natures and abilities. I am sure that the best chance of success lies in finding them a home with good foster parents, but it must be—and it must be by regulation—a suitable home. It is most important that the foster parents should be carefully chosen, but no matter how careful a local authority may be in its choice, things may not turn out as well as expected.

The foster parents with whom these children were originally placed were old, and at that time not in very good health. I have a medical certificate to that effect. The children themselves had to do much of the work of the croft. In this case remedial action was certainly taken as soon as possible, and I am sure that no blame for Dugald's disappearance and death can be laid at the door of the County Council. After very careful consideration of all aspects of the matter, I am quite certain that the action that was taken was in the best interests of the children. I would add that since then—and even lately—the older boy goes for holidays to the parents of the children's officer. He has not been back to Bunessan.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock.