HC Deb 25 July 1958 vol 592 cc841-51
Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)

I beg to move, in page 3, line 35, at the end, to insert: (3) On receipt of a notice under subsection (1) of this section it shall be the duty of the local authority to inquire whether there is any matter relating to the health of the person giving the notice or of any member of his household that would be detrimental to the child if received as the foster child of the person giving the notice. This Amendment seeks to insert a new subsection (3) placing upon the local authority the duty of making inquiries from foster parents in regard to the health, not only of the foster parents themselves, but also of any other members of the household. This arises out of a discussion which took place on an Amendment moved in Committee upstairs from my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Hastings) particularly relating to tuberculosis. My hon. Friend suggested that one of the factors that should be taken into account by a children authority in regard to the suitability of foster parents was the question whether or not they suffered from tuberculosis.

The hon. Lady the Joint Under-Secretary herself made two points which I think we agree were important points, carrying particular weight, in view of the hon. Lady's own Departmental experience in the Ministry of Health. The hon. Lady had been criticising the Amendment during the proceedings of the Committee, and she said that it— would be useless if somebody in the household oher than the foster parents had tuberculosis. That is the first point she made. The second point, and I am quoting from column 46, was: If we are going into medical grounds, we should consider a much wider field than has been considered in the Amendment. Later, at the foot of column 46, she gave an undertaking, saying: Would the hon. Member be content if I gave an undertaking to consider this matter again before Report to see whether we can meet the point that he has in mind?"[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A, 8th July, 1958; cols. 45–46.] Unfortunately, the hon. Lady apparently has not been able to reach any helpful conclusion on this matter, and I think we all feel very disappointed about it.

Therefore, in this Amendment, anxious as we are to be helpful, we have drawn on the rich mine of experience and information which the hon. Lady has to present in this new subsection a proposal based on her two points; namely, that the children's authority should direct its attention not only to the foster parents, but to other people in the family, and, secondly, that it should look not only into cases of tuberculosis but into any health grounds which would be detrimental to a child. That seems to me to be an absolutely necessary and reasonable proposal, and I hope that the hon. Lady will support it by saying so.

After all, I think she herself mentioned the question of epilepsy, which is a difficult thing sometimes to see immediately, and yet may arise in an older child in a family, which might be subject to severe epileptic attacks, which could cause injury to younger children, or it may even be found in the foster parents themselves. Obviously, I should have thought, the children's authority should ask about these things. The hon. Lady said that the people concerned might tell lies and that it would be very difficult to establish that they were lying, but I do not think that most foster parents would adopt that attitude. I think they feel that this is an important responsibility, and that they will want to co-operate with the children's authority and be prepared to take advice from it.

It may well be that, as a result of inquiries, it would not mean that the children's authority would decide that they were unsuitable but would give certain advice as a safeguard in these matters, or might arrange for the health visitor to call and give elementary instruction in hygiene, keeping dishes and knives and forks clean, or, possibly, deal with the problem of how to watch epileptic attacks and that sort of thing.

I am sorry to have continued to repeat the word "obviously," but so much of this argument is patent that I cannot understand why the hon. Lady has had any difficulty. I very much hope that she will see her way to meet us on this matter, because our proposals are entirely rooted in what she herself said in Committee.

12 noon.

Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

I beg to second the Amendment.

It will be noticed that our suggestion is simply that an inquiry should be made of the people concerned. This is the kind of inquiry which is made when one applies for a driving licence. One is asked to state whether one suffers from epilepsy or from other disabilities which are listed. Considering the tremendous importance of the matter we are now discussing, inquiries of that kind are the very minimum reasonable. We are not asking for any outside inquiry to be made. This is simply a matter of the household concerned. We regard this as a very moderate request to which we hope the Government will be able to accede.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I support the Amendment. My profession is more intimately concerned with these things than are many other people. It is essential that every pre- caution should be taken in the interests of the child concerned to see that the people in whose care the child is placed are suitable, especially in those respects to which the Amendment refers. If that is not done, not only is the child likely to be temporarily affected, but there is a possibility—and I have come across such cases—that the wrong kind of home will result in a child being affected for the rest of his life.

In some cases, it is not entirely the fault of those who were anxious to have the child. Far be it from me to say that in cases where the ultimate result is not as satisfactory as desired it is always the fault of those who were keen to have children in their care. On the contrary, in many cases they are very good-hearted people and anxious to do what they possibly can. If an investigation or inquiry on the lines suggested in the Amendment had been undertaken, it might have been found—and in many cases it would have been found—that the people concerned were not suitable for attending to the needs of the child.

I hope that the hon. Lady will consider the plea which has been made and will do her best to accede to it. This is only a small concession for which we are asking, and I hope, even if the Amendment is not accepted, that the hon. Lady will indicate to local authorities that they should make these inquiries, although I think that this should be the compulsory provision to deal with those cases where local authorities are not prepared to accept this serious obligation.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

As hon. Members know, Clause 1 lays a general duty on local authorities to ensure the well-being of foster children, and obviously any authority responsible for this work will take into consideration matters relating to the health of a person who proposes to maintain a foster child, or of any member of the household in which that child is to live.

It must be remembered that these authorities are not only the authorities responsible for the protection of children, but also the health authorities. Health is not the only consideration which they have to bear in mind. We feel that it would not be wise within the Bill to single out that one subject, with priority over the many other considerations which have to be taken into account, by making a special reference to health. Indeed, the hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger) made a singularly understanding speech—I do not wish to misinterpret her—about the necessity of keeping a sense of balance in judging defects in health which might not debar adults from being good foster parents.

However, I am in great sympathy with what hon. Members intend and I certainly endorse their desire that there should be an investigation. Indeed, I am sure that the very responsible and experienced authorities will undertake such an investigation in any case. I am authorised by my right hon. Friend to say that the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland will take administrative action to draw the attention of local authorities to the importance of the health of the household which a child is to join, and to the sources of information about it.

Mr. W. Wells

I am very glad that the hon. Lady concluded on that note. While I must agree with her that there are matters other than physical health which it is important for a local authority to take into account, the Amendment is worded in such a way that the authority shall have a duty to inquire only in to a state of health which would be detrimental to the children concerned.

Obviously, it is most important that when a child is placed with foster parents, other things being equal, it should remain where it is placed. There are many psychological factors which, with the best inspection in the world, might not be apparent at first sight; but physical health is something susceptible of objective treatment and it should receive it.

We should have preferred to have seen a provision of this kind written into the Bill, but, for myself, I feel that the undertaking which the hon. Lady is given is a very good second best, and in those circumstances my hon. Friends may not wish to proceed further with the Amendment.

Mr. MacColl

In those circumstances, I have no alternative but to ask the leave of the House to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. MacColl

I beg to move, in page 4, line 8, to leave out subsection (5) and to insert: (5) Where a foster child is removed for a period not to exceed one month from the care of the person maintaining him, such person need not give a notice under subsection (4) of this section but shall at the request of the local authority give them the same particulars as would have been required to be stated in the notice; should the foster child not have returned at the expiry of one month from the date of his removal the person previously maintaining him shall give a notice under subsection (4) of this section unless particulars have already been given to the local authority under this subsection, and should such person subsequently maintain or propose to maintain the child as a foster child he shall give a notice under subsection (1) of this section. I was a little hurt that the hon. Lady paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger) for being understanding: I had hoped that she would have felt that I, too, was understanding. Certainly I feel that the hon. Lady is doing her best to be helpful with this Bill, which we have very much at heart, and I hope that she will find that this proposal is a very good way of trying to meet some of the difficulties, which we discussed in Committee and which we all recognise, which arise with the temporary absence of children from foster homes.

The existing proposal in the Bill is that if a child leaves its foster home and does not go to another foster home, the obligation to report that it has gone is removed. In Committee the Joint Parliamentary Secretary mentioned the case where … the child goes off for a week to a scout camp, or into hospital to have its tonsils out, or to spend a week-end or so with an aunt known to have a good family and who has offered to give the child a few days' holiday with her own children … and said: It is not reasonable to expect that in that type of circumstance the individual would think it necessary to notify the local authority of the circumstances, and, indeed, in such cases notice would not be necessary for the welfare of the child."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A, 8th July, 1958; c. 30–31.] That is the common ground from which we start. But we think that the way in which the Bill tries to overcome the difficulty is not the best way. It places emphasis on the question whether or not there is to be any reward for the people to whom the child is going, but there is no question as to how long the absence is to be, and the proposal contained in the Amendment would seem to us to be a more sensible way of dealing with the problem.

It says, first, that if the child is removed for a period not exceeding one month the exemptions that we are discussing are to apply, but if the removal is for more than one month they are not to apply. In such a case the full obligation will remain upon the foster parents. That will cover the whole question of short absences to go to hospital to have tonsils removed, or to go to a scouts' camp or to an aunt. In the case of more permanent removal the Measure will continue in full operation. That covers the first point, of notifying the absence.

The second point is the question of notifying the return. The suggested subsection says that if the foster child has not returned at the end of a month notice shall be given under the provisions of subsection (4). Then, if the child does return, notice is given under subsection (1). That is a very neat way of meeting the difficulty. If it is a short absence the exemption under the proposed subsection will apply; if it returns at the end of a longer absence notice is given under subsection (1) and if there is no return notice is given under subsection (4).

I know that this is a complicated and difficult matter to explain, but it is an important one. It all links up with the general problem of keeping track of children. I do not think that we can over-emphasise the importance of that. The Amendment seeks to deal with cases where children seem to slide from home to home and the authorities have very great difficulty in following their movements. It can happen that children are pushed out on one day, when it is thought that the children's inspector may be coming along, and then find their way back again after two or three days. It is difficult to keep track of what is happening.

I am not suggesting that the Amendment would tie up all the ends, but it would provide a foundation upon which children's authorities could follow the movements of the children. This is a point which was generally agreed in principle upstairs and I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to help us now by accepting the Amendment.

Mr. Janner

I beg to second the Amendment.

I ask the Minister once again, in the interests of the child, to say that this is an appropriate way of dealing with the matter which my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) has so clearly put before her. I agree that in an Amendment of this sort it is difficult not to include references, and the Amendment contains references to various subsections, which are not easily understandable except to those who know the Bill well.

The short point is that if a child is to have the full benefit of adoption, and to have a happy and proper upbringing which will ultimately help to ensure that it has a happy life, and which will not interfere in a psychological or any other sense with its welfare when it grows into adolescence or becomes an adult, some such provision as this is necessary. It is important not only that the foster parents themselves shall be the right kind of people, but that if at any time the child goes out of the actual custody of the foster parents, no matter for how short a time, it should not be brought under adverse influences.

12.15 p.m.

That is all that the Amendment seeks to do. We are trying to put the matter as reasonably as we can, so as to ensure that the welfare of the child shall not be damaged by a temporary absence from the foster parents. Even a short absence may have a very damaging effect upon the future life of a child. In the course of a few weeks a child who has got into the wrong hands may develop tendencies which will last all through its life. We know that on occasions even one simple incident may make a world of difference to the future of a person. We are taking more and more notice of psychological examinations in these days, and we know that when a person is brought before the criminal courts it is sometimes found that an incident which took place in the past has so affected him that he commits a certain crime.

I am sure that the hon. Lady is anxious to do everything she can to avoid, as far as is humanly possible, any interference with the proper welfare of the child, and I hope that in all the circumstances she will accept the Amendment.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

May I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker? I had hoped that, as they apply to the same Clause and deal with the same topic, we would have been able to discuss with this Amendment the following one, in page 4, line 15 leave out "six" and insert "three".

Mr. Speaker

That would be quite proper.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am very happy to add to the list of understanding Members the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl). Hon. Members have been very understanding in trying to arrive at a balance between what we all know to be two different sets of problems. We want to protect the child, but, at the same time, we want to avoid imposing the unnecessary burden of the multiplication of notices for trivial absences, sometimes where a child is obviously going to receive the best possible care—as in cases where it goes to hospital. We also want to avoid so framing the provisions of the Bill that people unwittingly commit quite grave offences, as they would do if we made the limitation too sharp. They would be committing offences which could bring upon them a penalty of six months' imprisonment or a f100 fine, when anyone would realise that in the view of the foster parent the child was remaining in good and adequate care.

It is a question of balance as to whether six months is too long or one month is too short a period. Hon. Members opposite will see that there is an Amendment down in the name of my right hon. Friend. We feel that there is some substance in the view that the period of six months is too long. On the other hand, we feel that a month is particularly short. For instance, every time a child went back to its boarding school at the beginning of the term, notice would have to be sent to the local authority, or a stay in hospital, or a holiday might well run over the month.

We accept that six months is probably too long, and feel that a compromise of three months would more adequately provide for the protection of the child and would, at the same time, prevent people being put in peril of committing an offence in circumstances in which the ordinary person would be quite unlikely to realise that any offence had been com- mitted at all. It would relieve those looking after foster children of the duty of giving unnecessary notices; and the local authority of receiving them.

I think that the time is the only point at issue here. We have given the matter very great consideration, and feel that the qualifying period of one month is too short, but that three months would operate in the best interests of both sides. Further, it does not appear to us that a qualifying period of three months involves any risk of danger to the wellbeing of the child which would be avoided by reducing the period to one month because, while the child is away, it is not, and cannot be, subject to supervision, as the subsection ceases to apply if the child ceases to be a foster child.

It is this which justifies the Government's view that these provisions deal only with machinery, and dispense with unnecessary notices about which the local authority could take no action under the Bill even if it did not receive them because, as I say, this applies to children who cease, for that period, to be foster children. I therefore hope that hon. Members will agree that we have, in part at least, met them.

Mr. W. Wells

I agree that this is a question of machinery, and also of degree. The hon. Lady says that one month is too short, and we say, in effect, that three months is too long. A month is quite a long time in the life of a child. Much may happen, and there is always the danger of the child being lost sight of during that period. It is not a very great danger, but it could happen. I agree that it is a very difficult balance to strike.

We are grateful to the hon. Lady for the Amendment that has been put down, in page 4, line 15, in the name of the Home Secretary, and which, no doubt, will be moved after this present Amendment has been disposed of, While it is certainly a real improvement, one must draw attention to the fact that it does not deal at all with the problem outlined in the first limb of this subsection—the question of the child going away. It deals only with the question of the child coming back.

I think that the hon. Lady is being a bit too sensitive about the fear of documentation at the beginning of school terms. If she had my experience of being the father of children at boarding school, she would know that the beginning of terms is made hideous for the child by the imminence of returning studies; and for the father, certainly by the necessity of paying the school fees but also by the formidable documentation that modern schools require, as to whom the children have been seeing during the holidays, whether or not they have had chicken pox and the like.

One brought up as a lawyer is a bit diffident about perjuring oneself—if one is not, then, of course, one does not mind—so one plods away. However, in a rather serious matter like this, too much attention should not be paid to the fact that a certain number of people have to fill up a certain number of forms. Filling up forms is one of the joys of modern life, and I do not see why foster parents should be denied it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) for his kindly references to the drafting of this Amendment. For my part, I should like to say that I am very grateful to him for explaining it so much better than I could myself. It is a difficult matter on which to come to a conclusion. Nevertheless, I feel that the Government have gone some way towards meeting us. We want to make progress with this Bill, and in the circumstances, I hope that, perhaps—and certainly without any directive on my part—my hon. Friend may feel disposed to withdraw this Amendment in order that we can get the modest and limited improvement that the hon. Lady has promised.

Mr. MacColl

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: In page 4, line 15, leave out "six" and insert "three".[Miss Hornsby-Smith.]