HC Deb 20 March 1959 vol 602 cc870-82

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

4.4 p.m.

Mr. I. J. Pitman (Bath)

I raise the question of Mary Ford today because some Members of the House have been made anxious by a printed circular, signed by two councillors of Bath, which has been circulated to "all Members of Parliament", and because it ought to be, if anyone, the Member for the city who should respond to such an invitation or challenge. Previously, at my request, the Minister, using reserved powers, held inquiries not once but twice, and assured me that she could find no grounds which would justify an intervention.

The letter revives the controversy over the action which the Bath City Council took in removing Mary from the foster home in which she had been boarded by the children's committee for three and three-quarter years, and in making other arrangements for her future. There was much public indignation at the time. It must, however, he not so much the controversy and indignation as the welfare of the girl, her present and her future welfare, with which we ought all to be concerned; the past is not relevant at all, save only as it may enable a right present and future for the girl. I have approached my task with an open mind and a determination to be objective and conscientious. After all, it is well known that even natural parents can occasionally behave so badly towards their children that the local authority may need to remove the child from the care of the parents, and it might be that in this case the local authority ought no less rightly to have removed the child in the child's interest.

It is equally well known that even the best children's committee and local authority can sometimes maladminister, and it might have been that in this case such a mistake had been made. I have, therefore, travelled many miles accompanied by my wife to interview the children's officer, the child care officer, the chairman of the children committee, the headmaster of her school in Corsham, the Greenwoods, the town clerk of Bath, the head mistress of the fee-paying boarding school where the girl now is, and the only one, Mr. Reuben Brown, of those two councillors who signed the letter, who was available.

I spoke on the telephone to the senior mistress at the Corsham school and interviewed Councillor Mrs. Williams, a Governor of the Corsham school, also Mr. and Mrs. Ewart, the warden and matron of the Vinney Green Reception Home of the Bristol authority and the town clerk again, all in that order. I saw Mrs. Guest who knew Mary well and asked to see me; also later Councillors Mayer and Brown who asked to see me jointly.

I have here a full report. There is no time to read it but if any Member wishes to see it I will let him do so. I will also send a copy to the Minister. Meanwhile, I must confine myself to some of the higher lights. I visited first her headmaster to ask him about the co-operation of the Greenwoods with the local authority. This issue has been point No. 2 in the letter which reads: They consistently refused to co-operate with the local authority. His answer was that in 31 years' teaching experience, and 16 as headmaster, he had never met parents who so signally failed to co-operate with the school.

I next visited the Greenwoods. My first question was whether they had seen the letter in question. They had, and there were several hundred copies beside us as we spoke. I asked, was it written with their prior knowledge, consent and approval, and was it true in all its statements so far as they referred to them and Mary? The answer was yes, all such statements were true. So far as the others were concerned, they also were true because Mr. Brown had told them.

I asked about the suggested refusal by them to co-operate with the local authority over repeated requests that Mary be not threatened with a return to Bath. She and he replied that they did not co-operate because they had caned her and had found that threats of sending her away were effective whereas canings were not. They could not control Mary, who was an obstinate and difficult child, without the use of these very threats.

I then asked about the attempts by her headmaster and the visit of the senior mistress to seek their co-operation with the school in getting Mary to do at home the work which Mary had missed through truancy. They said that they had told Mary not to do the work required by the school because they thought it wrong to require it.

I asked them about the third point that they had continually threatened the child they would return her to the authority and the answer, which they said they had approved, True, but in jest; the family joke, never meant nor taken seriously. I asked how was it that Mary could fear the threats of being sent away more than she feared the canings, if Mary had been brought up to regard the threat as only a joke. It took a long time for the significance of this question to be comprehended, and when comprehended it was the first stage in a change of attitude— You are not on our side; you are not fair and so on. Moreover there was no answer except a dogged persistence that Mary treated it as a joke.

I asked questions on other points and finally, on leaving her house, Mrs. Greenwood pleaded with me to do what I could to find some solution which might allow Mary to return. I said that I would welcome any sensible reconciliation and suggested that if my inquiries led to it I would be willing to propose to the council that if Mary were found to be happy in her new boarding-out arrangements when the time came for her to leave she should return to the Greenwoods, but, of course, only if the council approved and if Mary expressed the desire to do so, and they, the Green-woods, still wished to have her. In that way she could again be the foster daughter they desired, who might even be regarded by them as their heir.

Quick flashed back the answer, No. She must be back by Easter or I will have nothing to do with her. Little did she realise the potential implication of this answer on the possibility that her affection for Mary, as Mary, might be suspected and that it might be suggested that she thought first, in wounded pride, of a self-vindication which needed to be immediate.

The next day my wife and I visited the fee-paying boarding school at which Mary Ford is now a pupil. It is a lovely school. We saw everything. We saw Mary Ford in her classroom. She appeared bright and happy, healthy and alert, indistinguishable in her smart school uniform from the others. I learnt that she was happy, doing well and becoming friendly with the very girls whom the headmistress would have chosen. She liked boarding school and was alert and indefatigable in her efforts to behave and be just as other girls around her.

I asked about letters: to whom was she writing her Sunday letter? Did she write to the Greenwoods? The answer was that "home" to her had effectively become Vinney Green and Mr. and Mrs. Ewart, the warden and matron, and their two young boys. My wife and I were later that day to see a sheaf of her letters to Mr. and Mrs. Ewart and to each of the children, the typical happy letters of any happy schoolgirl.

From Councillor Brown I hoped to obtain information of the sources upon which he based the many statements in the letter to which he put his signature. All the others we interviewed were welcoming, friendly and fully co-operative, but he was reluctant, evasive and, in declining to disclose one of the sources which he claimed, not forthcoming. The contrast between his attitude and cooperation and that of the Children's Officer and the Child Care Officer was most noticeable. The latter were anxious to be helpful and supplied records axiomatically wherever such confirmation was desirable.

We next visited Mr. and Mrs. Ewart at Vinney Green. They are warden and matron, under the Bristol City Authority, of that Children's Reception Home. They are well known to the hon. Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman) who has permitted me to say that no praise could be too high for the experience, devotion and integrity of these two. The hon. Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) has also authorised me to join her in this assessment.

Here again we saw everything to do with Mary Ford. I asked how Mary seemed when she arrived. They said that she had been observed by them, by their staff and by the specialist medical officers, and that all of them had agreed that they had never seen a girl of that age who appeared more deprived of affection, of the ability to receive it or to give it, and this, be it noted, from those in a home specialising in receiving children from homes with a bad history of lack of affection; that so soon as any sense of security had been restored Mary became over-demonstrative. I was to learn later from Mrs. Guest, of Corsham, that any little affectionate action or remark addressed to Mary would reduce her to tears.

I asked how it came that Mary had returned to the Greenwood's after six days. They replied that the continual threats by the Greenwoods of eviction from their home had caused in the girl a most strong sense of insecurity and forged an unnatural linkage of security with, and only with, the Greenwood home. She was free at Vinney Green to come or go, and on her way to school had gone on impulse to Woodlands where alone she supposed that security could be enjoyed.

I finally interviewed the town clerk and asked to be furnished with a copy of a letter dated 23rd February, 1955, from the Wiltshire County Council's Children's Officer—which I will mention later—and to ask whether Councillors Brown and Mayer had been given facilities to study the records in the Guildhall and what steps they had so taken. I learned that Councillor Brown had been invited early in December to do so, but that he did not take advantage of the offer and was questioned at the Children's Committee for his reasons for declining—it was not until 11th February that he studied the record—and that Councillor Mayer had not attempted to look at them. Mr. Mayer later denied this, answering me that he had asked for access and been refused.

My conclusions and those of my wife are that 10th November was the best day yet in the life of poor Mary Ford; that Mrs. Greenwood, who is aged 61, and has had no children of her own, has indeed—with casings and threats of eviction from her home—behaved to Mary so badly that the question is not whether she was rightly taken away, but rather whether the city had taken a risk in putting her there in the first place and may not have remained for too long overoptimistic in supposing that the elderly couple would or could mend the error of their ways. By their own lights they are good foster parents, but the lights have been the wrong lights. The city council was right, I believe, when it thanked them for what they had "tried" to do for Mary.

In such a situation of conflicting judgment and of evidence upon which to judge, the Minister will, I suggest, have only two choices; either, as the circular letter is in effect suggesting, that there has been organised by the Children's Officer of Bath a conspiracy, in which that official, single handed, had persuaded the Child Care Officer, the Corsham headmaster and senior mistress, the warden and matron of Vinney Green—which, after all, is a Bristol and not a Bath Child Reception Home—her headmistress of the new school, and the Children's Department of the Wilts County Council, all to band together to cover up the local authority in a wrongful exercise of its parental rights; or that the councillors have been misguided and have been thus wrong in their statements and the Greenwoods wrong in theirs.

Certainly, my wife and I left the Greenwood home each pitying poor Mary, confident that in no circumstances should any other child be boarded out with that elderly couple as Mary was. We hope that the Minister will be able to confirm and accept this recommendation. At this point, the letter of 23rd February, 1955, is significant since it concerned another little girl who spent a trial day with the Greenwoods. It was written four years ago, before Mary was boarded out with the Greenwoods: My Child Care Officer did introduce a little girl of thirteen to Mrs. Greenwood and we did not feel very satisfied with the result. The girl was rather a shy, quiet child, but was very excited to be spending an afternoon and evening with an 'Aunty'. However, when she returned to the Children's Home it came out that she had not enjoyed herself. Mrs. Greenwood had taken her to spend the afternoon with an old lady which the child found rather boring, and had given her a lecture about the importance of washing her hands frequently, and always looking nice in order to be a credit to Mrs. Greenwood. In fact, it seems that Mrs. Greenwood had rather looked down on the child coming from a Home. Mr. Greenwood was apparently much nicer. My Child Care Officer also felt Mrs. Greenwood was very tactless about what she said in front of the girl in spite of being well warned beforehand. We did not feel this visit was a very auspicious beginning to a good foster home relationship, and therefore decided not to make use of this home. The Greenwoods are, no doubt, in all other respects, a meritorious couple even if as foster parents they were misguided, inexperienced, conceited and self-deceiving. After all, there are others of whom this might be true if they, having had no children themselves, were to embark in the near sixties upon the difficult adventure in parental relationship which foster-parenthood is. However, I believe that the Minister will find that it has not been they who have been solely, or even greatly, to blame in what appears to have been a misdirection of the Press and a hoax upon the maternal and paternal sympathies of the British people. There seems to be no escape from the conclusion that Councillor Reuben Brown, as the Councillor in the minority of one, has judged wrongly, acted misguidedly and misled the others.

Incidentally, this is not a political issue on the Bath Council. Indeed, in the Children's Committee where the voting was 12 to 1 Councillor Brown was voting against all three members of his own party, all the Liberals, and all the co-opted members as well as all the majority party.

I suspect that the Minister will find that Mr. Brown, in his poor judgment, has done much harm to the Children's Service and to foster children generally. Those who might become foster parents will have been deterred, and those who are already foster parents will have been disturbed in their relations with children's officers. Those engaged in serving the children will have found much more difficulty in their dealings with foster parents.

Perhaps we may have learned a lesson from this case—to leave supervision and special inquiry to the Minister and to have respect for his findings. To do so would save much controversy and suffering. After all, why ask my hon. Friend to inquire and pay no attention or respect? For my part, I have made inquiries, because it appeared that this House would wish to be informed, but for me it has been an invidious and thankless task to attempt to clear up this unhappy episode. It has been a sad story. Mary is, however, happy and doing well.

At any rate, the House has provided an opportunity to undo some of the mischief which has been done and to set at rest the sympathies of those who have been thus needlessly harrowed. I hope and, indeed, confidently expect that the Minister's inquiries will have led her to conclusions comparable with those of my wife and myself, and I trust that she, in being able publicly to assure the House and the nation, will put an end to this most regrettable squabble.

4.19 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Pitman) for the public spirited manner in which he has approached this difficult problem. I am sure that the House appreciates the infinite trouble he has taken to interview all the people concerned in an endeavour to arrive at the facts.

First, I want to make the position of the local authority clear. Mary Ford, an orphan, has been in the care of the Bath City Council since 1946. That Council, and that Council alone, is vested with parental rights and powers in respect of the child by virtue of a resolution passed in 1947. It has a statutory duty imposed upon it to further her best interests.

There are, unhappily, a considerable number of children deprived of their natural parents who come into care. On an average there are at any one time about 110 children in the care of the Bath City Council for varying reasons. Its Children's Committee is, therefore, experienced. Several of its members have families of their own and, like all local authorities charged with these duties, it takes a very close and special interest in those children likely to be in care throughout their childhood and whose entire future depends on the manner in which the authority discharges its duties.

It is not enough to be satisfied that a child is boarded out. Local authorities are concerned to see that the child is in a happy and helpful environment and that, at the time of passing from their charge—in the case of a normal child it may be at any age up to 18—that child shall have some basis of security resulting from an education and training that will enable it to stand on its own feet when the time comes.

A local authority may board a child out with foster parents, as, in these circumstances, the Bath City Council, in 1955, boarded Mary Ford out with Mr. and Mrs. Greenwood. But, and this is, unfortunately, something that Mrs. Greenwood could not or would not recognise, boarding out in no way relieves the local authority of its direct and statutory duty to look after the child's interests. If it considers that the interests of the child would be better served by other arrangements, it is under an obligation to remove the child.

Thus the responsibility rests on the local authority, and suggestions that an appeal could be made to the Secretary of State are ill-founded, as the Home Secretary is not a court of appeal in any dispute between the authority and foster parents from whom a child has been removed.

It is true that the Home Secretary exercises a general oversight over the local authority child care service, including the general boarding out arrangements of individual authorities, and he gives general guidance to them. He has no power to give directions to a local authority as to the accommodation and care of an individual child. But he would wish to make his views known to an authority in an individual case if he considered that it had failed in or exceeded its duty, or acted contrary to the interests of the child.

Now may I deal with one or two specific items which have contributed to the removal of Mary Ford from the home of Mr. and Mrs. Greenwood? From the outset Mrs. Greenwood, both verbally and in writing, has shown that she resented advice as to Mary's upbringing tendered by the child care officer, and failed to appreciate that the local authority had not and could not abdicate its responsibilities merely by boarding Mary out.

Here, may I refer to the allegation that Mrs. Greenwood had no knowledge of the reasons leading up to the council's decision and the further allegation and criticism that the Children's Officer visited only three times. The Children's Officer, who is a very senior and experienced member of the Bath City Council staff, obviously cannot do all the routine child care visiting, but, as well as his visits to the Greenwood's, experienced and fully qualified child care officers visited the home 26 times. Their reports, culled over four years, show very clearly the close and human interest taken in the child by the local authority.

I should like to give a few examples which answer the allegations in the pamphlet. I want particularly to confirm a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath. Child care officers—and this is borne out by their reports over the years—repeatedly asked Mrs. Greenwood not to threaten the child that "she would be returned to Bath" as a method of disciplining her. Not only the child care officers, but the doctor is on record also as tendering his advice and asking Mrs. Greenwood not to use this threat.

Here we have a child, with no parents or family of her own, and for whom the local authority sought to find the security of a family home. It seems to me that to threaten the child that she would be "sent back" was cruel and unsettling. Time and again Mrs. Greenwood was asked to abandon this practice, but she contended that it was an effective way of dealing with Mary when she was naughty. In the pamphlet, it is said that it was a joke. It is not a joke to an orphan child and it destroys any sense of newly-found security that she may have had. If it was a joke, why use it at all? From the frequency with which this complaint has figured in reports of more than one responsible officer, I have no doubt whatever that it was meant and accepted as a threat.

Then we come to the question of the medical examination. Here again, I challenge the statement in the pamphlet. Here is a woman, Mrs. Greenwood, claiming to be a devoted foster-parent, wholly concerned with the girl's upbringing and well-being. Here, too, is a young orphan girl of 14, adolescent, possibly even a little apprehensive about her medical examination. To help the foster-parent in caring for a child, it is necessary and desirable that the foster-mother should be present at the periodical medical examinations to discuss the child's progress with the doctor, but Mrs. Greenwood persistently refuses to attend.

I have gone in great detail into the reports of the last incident relevant to this complaint. As Mrs. Greenwood had not bothered to attend previously, a particular request was made to her to attend in August, 1958. Mary arrived alone, stating that the Greenwoods had brought her to Bath, but had gone to the cinema. She was asked to meet them outside the cinema and invite them to attend. By the time they emerged, it was too late for the examination to take place.

The child care officer visited Mrs. Greenwood to explain the great importance of her attending and a second appointment was fixed at a time suitable to the Greenwoods. This was confirmed by letter, but on 9th September Mrs. Greenwood telephoned to say that she had no intention of bringing Mary to the medical examination. Again, the officer patiently explained and another appointment was made the following day. A letter from Mrs. Greenwood arrived saying that she refused to be present, with the ultimate result that it was necessary for Dr. Mack to go to the foster-home to examine the child. There are also repeated examples of non-co-operation with the school authorities, some of them trivial as individual items, but adding up to a situation in which Mary was made to appear the odd child out and was not enabled to co-operate as readily as other children.

I come now to the manner in which the Council has considered the case. I wish particularly to draw the attention of the House to the highly tendentious statement circulated by Councillors Brown and Mayer to this effect: He"— that is, the Children's Officer— reported the matter to the Children's Sub-Committee, who, having full confidence in their officer, without further check, agreed that the child be removed from their care. Having been party to a dispute, he became the judge and the cause was lost because these two rôles are incompatible. The Children's Officer did not make the decision. He has no authority to do so. He rightly reported to the case subcommittee of the Children's Committee that he had been asked by the Green-woods to take Mary away and her subsequent removal was witnessed by a child care officer who was with him in the car at the time. This followed a dispute over some extra school work— not 500 lines—which Mary had been told she must make up after being absent from school.

Having given his report to the case sub-committee, the Children's Officer sought instructions. I hope that the House will bear with me if I give the detailed list of meetings that the council held on this case. On 6th November, the case sub-committee unanimously decided to remove Mary Ford from the Greenwoods. At this stage, that committee was doing no more than implementing the request which had been made by the Greenwoods.

The action thus far taken was confirmed by 12 votes to one at the Children's Committee on 17th November, but it was agreed to accede to the Greenwoods' request for an interview, to which they wished to bring their solicitor. On 24th November, a specially appointed sub-committee interviewed the Green-woods and their solicitor, and after that interview unanimously confirmed the Children's Committee's decision to remove Mary Ford.

On 9th December, at a special meeting of the Children's Committee, the decision was again approved by 12 votes to one. On 6th January, at a full meeting of the Bath City Council, the Children's Committee's report was received and approved by 38 votes to seven and a vote of confidence in the Committee was passed by 39 votes to six. Thus, Councillors Brown and Mayer, fully aware of the exhaustive manner in which the Council have investigated and considered the case, make a totally unwarranted attack on their Children's Officer, to which he cannot reply, and yet themselves deny the democratic processes of an elected Council, whose decisions have been taken with overwhelming majorities.

I mentioned earlier that if the Home Secretary considered that an authority had failed or exceeded its duty, he would wish to make his views known to it. I have to inform the House that in the case of Mary Ford, after considering very carefully the Council's reasons for terminating the boarding out, and the representations made by and on behalf of the foster-parents, the Home Secretary can find no ground whatsoever for any such approach to the Council on his part.

Mary Ford has been placed in an independent boarding school recognised by the Ministry of Education. It is not a school for maladjusted or delinquent children. Although the facts of the case afford no ground for intervention by the Secretary of State, at the request of the local authority he arranged for the Chief Inspector of the Home Office Children's Department, a woman of thirty years' experience in this field, to visit the girl at school without notice. The Chief Inspector's report, which I have studied most carefully, confirms that Mary Ford is happy and is making good progress. The worst thing that could happen now would be that she should continue to be the centre of controversy and publicity which would make her feel insecure and prevent her from taking full advantage of the opportunities she has in a very good school. She is settling down happily, making progress in her education, and benefiting from the regular school life and the companionship of girls of her own age.

I can only hope that in the child's interest she will be allowed to settle down in her present surroundings and live a normal life without further publicity.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.