HC Deb 15 July 1963 vol 681 cc262-8
Miss Bacon

I beg to move, in page 5, line 7, to leave out paragraph (a).

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Robert Grimston)

With this Amendment we can discuss the Amendment in page 5, line 17, to eave out subsection (2), and the Amendment in line 38, to leave out paragraph (b).

Miss Bacon

Yes, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Since 1933 local authorities have had the power to apply to the courts for so-called refractory children who are in their care to be transferred to approved schools. We were told by the right hon. Gentleman and we see in the annual statistical report about approved schools and remand homes—that about 30 children a year are so transferred. Until the Bill came before us this power did not apply to children who were under care under the terms of the Matrimonial Proceedings (Children) Act, 1958, or the Matrimonial Proceedings (Magistrates' Courts) Act, 1960. This Clause extends the power of removal from a children's home to an approved school to those children who are in the care of an authority under those two Acts.

We had a discussion in Committee about the extension to children who were there under the terms of those two Acts. I felt that it was quite reasonable of the hon. Lady the Joint Under-Secretary to say that we could not treat children who were in the same home in different ways. We agreed with that argument. Whereas the Government propose to extend this power to these children, we propose to do away with it altogether.

We had some discussion in Committee as to what the word "refractory" meant. Everybody has his own definition of "refractory". According to one definition it means "stubborn" or "awkward". If all stubborn or awkward people were put into approved schools a great many of us in this House would not have escaped being in an approved school at some time or another. So it is very difficult to define what this word "refractory" means.

However, it was not so much the choice of the word we objected to as the whole system of committing children to approved schools in this way—children who had not committed any crime, who had not done wrong, but just children who were just stubborn or awkward, or in the care of the children's committee.

I would remind hon. Members of the kind of children with whom we are dealing. These are children in the care of the local authority for some particular reason, often deprived children, children who have had an upheaval in their lives. I have here a report of my own city's care of children committee and the reasons why the various children are in that committee's care. These are some of the reasons: the death of the mother, and the father not living with the family, or unable to care for the children; deserted by the mother and the father not living with the family, or unable to care for the children; no parent or guardian; need for care temporarily because the mother is ill or is certified as a mental defective, or receiving treatment for mental illness; or tuberculosis. The child may be there because he is illegitimate and the mother is unable to provide a home; the parent or guardian may be in prison or remanded in custody; the family may be homeless because of eviction; or there may be unsatisfactory home conditions.

There are many other reasons, but we are dealing with children who are particularly unfortunate, children who are deprived, and children who have had one upheaval already in their lives. Even normal children can become refractory, stubborn or awkward, but we are dealing with children who have not been living a normal home life, and it is for that reason they are in the care of the children's authority. If we do not accept these Amendments that will mean that we are still giving power to children's committees to take such children, if they are refractory, straight to the courts to be sent to an approved school.

Children go to approved schools who are not in the care of the children's authority either because they have committed an offence or because they are in need of care, protection or control, but even if children are brought before the courts as in need of care, protection or control it does not automatically follow that they are sent to an approved school. I am talking of children living a normal home life at home. They may be under a supervision order. They may be dealt within a variety of ways, but these children brought before the courts because they are refractory in a children's home are almost automatically—the hon. Lady shakes her head, but at any rate these thirty children go to an approved school. Perhaps the hon. Lady will explain what else happens to them, and how many were brought before the courts as being refractory are dealt with in some other way than of going to an approved school. It is not automatic for a child who is not in a children's home. All we ask is that children who are in care should be treated in the same way as others. If anything, they should be treated more leniently because of their circumstances. If they have been neglected by their parents, if the mother has run away and left the child, if the father is in prison and the mother cannot look after the child, if the mother is in a mental hospital and that is why the child is in care, this may be the reason for the children being refractory in the children's home.

This affects 30 children in any year in the children's homes of 145 local authorities. Surely it would be worthwhile for the Minister to decide to do away with this process to taking refractory children out of a children's home and sending them to an approved school. They have suffered one upheaval in their lives and we are to inflict another. This procedure would be reasonable if the child had committed a crime or had done the kind of things which mean that he is in need of care, protection and control. But it is not reasonable to commit to an approved school children who have done no wrong but are, in the terms of the Bill, refractory. As there are only 30, surely we can deal with them in some other way. But it is 30 every year, and for those children it means a change in their whole future lives. We think of a child being neglected or abandoned and going into a children's home, and then after a time being committed to an approved school. I cannot see that child living a normal life for the rest of its life.

Since this is only a small problem in character but a big problem for the child, I hope that the Amendment will be accepted.

2.30 a.m.

Miss Pike

As the hon. Lady the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon) said, and as most hon. Members know, she and I tend to look at these problems in the same way and come to the same general conclusions about the things which we are trying to do and the general picture of the problem of the care of children and the prevention of delinquency. But she must not think that when I come to different conclusions from those which she reaches, I do so reluctantly. On the contrary, having looked at the problem and seen the same general picture, I quite often but sincerely come to contrary conclusions to those of her hon. Friends and herself. Possibly the basis of this is that my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friends and I are more prepared to be flexible in our outlook to these problems.

I want to see, as I know she and her hon. Friends want to see, the greatest innovation, training, introduction of new methods, new ideas and new people into this field. We are anxious never to tie down too closely the people working in this field. As far as possible we want to give them the widest scope to find new ways in preventing delinquency.

The Amendment deals with only a small handful of refractory children. None of us like that word, but we do not know an alternative to use. They are children of very difficult traits in behaviour who in one way or another are difficult to control. They have behaviour tendencies which make their life and development difficult. At the same time, they have behaviour tendencies which often infect and mislead the children around them.

Our problem is how, in the interests of the children, in the interests of the children with whom they associate, and in the interests of society as a whole, we can help them by training, discipline and control to come to a better understanding of their own conduct and of the requirements of society. That is why we would not agree to get rid of this reserve power. It is a reserve power. It is not an automatic power. All these children who come before courts do not automatically go to approved schools. Having looked at the problem, having looked at the child, and having looked at the alternatives—the alternatives are opening up the whole time; I sincerely believe that the number of children in this category will decrease as the Bill comes into operation and new channels are open to us—the court decides what is the best possible solution in the interests of the child.

It is because of the wellbeing of the child that I believe it is absolutely essential to keep this reserve power for the courts in the case of those children who need the type of training and discipline that can be given in approved schools. We all want to see the curriculum in approved schools change and widen. I believe that it will. We all want to see great changes here. At a time when we are doing so much for the welfare of children and so much for the prevention of these difficulties and problems, it would be very unwise to kick away the ladder before we are absolutely certain that we have another and better answer for this small residue of children whose behaviour is extremely difficult.

I do not say that this is the correct answer. I do not say that this is the ultimate answer. I do say that at this moment of time, when we are experimenting so much in all the ways of dealing with this problem, we must keep this reserve power, in the best interests of the children as much as for anything else.

Mrs. Slater

The problem centres round the term "refractory children". In the House tonight are one or two Members who have been teachers. We have all had refractory children in our classes. I shudder to think how we would have reacted if there had been power to send those children to an approved school just because they were refractory. A child should be sent to an approvad school only if he is more than refractory. I am thinking of a case which has occurred in my local authority. The child is a beautiful girl to look at and is a brilliant child. I have read her case history. Her mother and father were not bad parents but they were mentally unstable. They died because of their mental instability, and right from her early days the child grew up with a chip on her shoulder and the belief in her mind—sub-consciously until she reached adolescence, when she persuaded herself of it—that she would end up that way. She became one of the most refractory children we have ever had to deal with. She went to a grammar school. She was refractory there. She eventually took on quite a responsible job. If somebody, because she was under the care of the local authority, had had the power to send her to an approved school because she was awkward—she was indeed refractory—I shudder to think what would have happened to her in later life. She could have gone either the way of her parents or she could have improved, as she did. Because we did not use that kind of power we saved that girl's future.

I could give many other examples, particularly of boys in our care. In any case, who is prepared to say that a boy should not be a bit stubborn and refractory on occasions? Boys must have a bit of kick in them. It depends on the way in which one considers these matters. People with children in their care might say, "Let us get them out of our care and send them to an approved school." Considering the small number of children involved—about 30, we are told—we should reconsider this matter in the light of new ideas, new methods of handling children and more thought to the atmosphere in which the sort of child we have in mind is living.

Often by moving a child from its environment, the atmosphere in which it is living—perhapsto a new family—much good can be done. This business of children being refractory may be taken too far. How many hon. Members are not a little awkward? Most of us would not be here if we were not a bit stubborn. I hope we will remain that way on certain issues. Children in care may have all sorts of fears and feelings. They may feel that society has become responsible for them rather than their own parents. That might influence their outlook.

Amendment negatived.