HC Deb 06 March 1964 vol 690 cc1784-95

3.29 p.m.

Miss Joan Vickers (Devonport)

I beg to move, That this House, in order to develop still further the service for children and young persons and to make it into a more comprehensive family service, requests that consideration be given to the extension of the provisions for better co-operation of the existing services and for the improvement in the facilities for training of social welfare workers. I should like to draw the attention of the House to the great opportunity provided by the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963, to bring about a comprehensive family service. My Motion is divided into two parts, but in view of the short time available I shall try to concentrate on the first part. My chief interest is to unite the family together. Provided that there is no actual cruelty in the home, everything should be done to keep a family together, and with the many services we now have, it should be possible to support the family. It was disappointing to me, therefore, to find that on 31st March, 1963, there were 64,807 children under care, an increase of 1,159 on 1962.

I realise that the figure includes many who were in short-term care because their parents were ill, but in view of the excellent Act that we now have I feel that we ought to see a decline in these figures of children under care. A special problem is the welfare of the unsupported mother and child. I should like to know whether all councils now have co-ordinating committees to avoid overlapping action and to seize the opportunity provided by the Act to keep a comprehensive record of cases.

My hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will recall that the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) and myself, with child care officers, formed a deputation to her Department. The deputation was worried about the future, particularly in connection with many of the new councils, of the question of who would be in charge of the children's department.

Some authorities delegate this work to the medical officer and some to the clerk of the council. I hope it will be ensured that it is the children's officer who will be the co-ordinator in future. The Ingleby Committee, in its fourth recommendation, said that attention should be directed to the family as a whole rather than to the individual child. The Children and Young Persons Act gives every opportunity for this to be done, if the Act is implemented as I think was the intention of the Home Secretary. There should be a unified family service and in it people who can help mould and strengthen the individual family.

The midwife, the health officer, the teacher, the school inquiry officer and the child care officer can help immensely, but I suggest that the National Assistance officer should also be brought in far more than has been the case up to the present, because so many of the difficulties of these families are financial, particularly during periods of unemployment. The Ingleby Committee also suggested that there should be research into the co-ordination of supporting services. I do not know whether this is being done, but the suggestion was that it should be planned nationally. I do not suggest another committee, because we have had too many already, but perhaps this could be done through a voluntary organisation like the Guild of Social Services. It would be excellent if we had some idea of the whole national situation.

In her excellent book Delinquency and Child Neglect, Harriet Wilson gives details of what has become known as the Seaport Survey. She gives details of the types of families who came before a co-ordination committee, and she divides them into categories under the headings of solvency, health and education. Among the cases in the first category was that of a family where the father had a bad work record and the mother was a bad manager. The father deprived the mother of part of his income. House-keeping money was short. There were rent arrears and other debts, and these included a fantastic number of court orders. Many families are found to have had these court orders made against them. In this case, where the earnings were under £9, there were 14 court orders in force. This, of course, put the family in an impossible position, and the result is that the home is scantily equipped.

It is amazing in these days that scanty home equipment should be a problem, but the family had one mattress upstairs and one downstairs, no chairs and only a few pots and pans. This was not because they had not been provided with help from time to time, but temptation had come and pieces of household equipment had been sold. This kind of family needs support through their difficulties. There are also a surprising number of cases where the children are short of clothes and shoes.

Under the health category, the author of this book puts children who are sent to school dirty, children who are verminous and nitty, the house dirty and smelly, and the mother either doing no cooking or very little. In many cases this was because there was neither electricity nor gas as a consequence of debts. In one cane a family was helped, through the children's department, to obtain Calor gas, since this meant that the supply could not be cut off.

In the third category were those children with a bad school attendance record.

It is fascinating and a little disturbing to find that if a child is a member of a large family the boy may be two inches shorter than the average height for a single child and a girl about one inch shorter. This was revealed in a recent London survey. This means that they are not getting proper nutrition. This is a point that has to be watched, particularly in this affluent society. There are families who, behind closed doors, are not able to manage properly, particularly those in the low income groups or who are on National Assistance, and in such cases there is a danger of the children suffering.

Another point about which I feel strongly is the question of eviction Some councils issue an eviction notice as soon as a family begins to fall behind in the payment of rent. There should, of course, be an absolute obligation on people to pay their rent. There is no excuse for not doing so. On the other hand, I feel that if a council tenant falls behind in his payment for two weeks the children's department should be notified at once.

I should also like the private landlord to be informed of this possibility. Once a family has missed paying the rent for one week and then a second week goes by, it is becoming impossible for that family to pay, because they have not got the money to do it and the amount of rent due becomes enormous. The other day I read of a family of 10 who were evicted because they owed £25 in rent. To keep the mother and children for one week cost £10. I should have thought that, to put it no higher, it would be much more economical to keep the family together, to pay the rent and the arrears week by week as and when this was possible, rather than divide the family and put the mother and children into care at such great cost. In the London area it costs £7 10s. a week to keep a mother and two children, and £10 to keep a child. I should have thought that it was not beyond the wit of people to see that the children's department is notified and suitable action taken.

The private landlord should also be pleased if this step were taken, because all he can do at the moment is to take the person to court. The landlord is never able to get his money back because he has not got the pull over a tenant that a council has if it agrees to rehouse a person. If my suggestion were adopted, it would be cheaper for the local authority and the State and much less damaging to the family.

It has been demonstrated that problem families breed problem families and that children of broken homes in turn make bad marriages. Therefore, it is fundamental in the interests of the mental health and stability of the community that every effort should be made to keep families together. Sending neglectful mothers and fathers to prison achieves absolutely nothing. The children are often fond of them, and the fullest inquiry should be made by the probation service and a psychiatrist before this is done.

I learned from a social worker with three years' experience of close col- laboration with a hospital that the treatment of gross personal disorders was a great help in keeping families together. Time and time again this social worker came across children who had spent time either in a large impersonal home or with a family which had already been disintegrated. Therefore, before taking the drastic step of sending the father to prison, every consideration should be given to bringing the family together and ascertaining why he has neglected the family, unless, of course, he has been cruel to the children.

Therefore, I recommend the employment of more family service units by the local authorities. They function in a marvellous way in such cases as where the mother has left the father with the children or where the father has left the mother with the children. This represents a tremendous advance, and I hope my hon. Friend will press on the various authorities the desirability of employing more of this type of person with this experience.

The problem of the unsupported mother is growing. There are 55,000 illegitimate children in this country, a figure which gives some idea of the problem. I am interested in the Denmark scheme for mothers' day centres. This began as a voluntary organisation but was taken over by the State. These centres deal with not only unmarried but married mothers, with widows, divorced and separated women, and are able to provide personal, legal, social and medical help. They also help with family planning. The great thing about such a centre is that the unmarried mother is not singled out, but goes with others for help and advice and does not become a social outcast.

The last report which I saw on this work showed that of 18,700 new cases 60 per cent. were married and 40 per cent. unmarried women. There were 5,950 children born out of wedlock out of a total of 76,000 live births, and the organisation managed to contact 92 per cent. of that country's unmarried mothers. Under this scheme, the unmarried girl is placed in a private home when she is pregnant. Much good work along these lines has been done in this country by Dr. Napier. Unsupported women, who may be deserted or widowed, are given similar help, and the unmarried girl in particular is helped to keep her child with her.

In this country we need not set up another organisation, but the Marriage Guidance Council might take some action. It has some excellent men counsellors who might act as a sort of stepfather to help the unmarried mother with her child in the way that the married woman would be able to expect her husband to help. But we shall always have families who do not react to any lead and who will be entirely on their own.

I should like to return to what I was saying about sub-standard houses into which people can go and be helped, having the reward, when they have managed to work out their lives and balance their budget and so on, of going to a better house. I have tried this experiment in Plymouth, where it has not been altogether successful. I gave a house to the Council of Social Service. It was divided into two, and we have two families in it. They make their payments satisfactorily and have got themselves out of financial difficulties, but more than a year has gone past and they have not come up to the standard at which the local authority will accept them. However, I am encouraged by the fact that Oxford's children's department has eight substandard houses in different localities which are used to rehouse homeless families. Intensive case-work to help is provided by the children's department. This authority has a nursery school which is no longer used as such and which has become a rehabilitation centre. This is an example of cooperation between the housing department and the children's department for the future of these families. In other words, when these families are on their feet they are able to get better accommodation.

I should like to comment on the neighbourhoods in which these problem families can be found. In America they have what are called saturation areas. Areas of this kind must be known to many hon. Members. In America special attention, including day nurseries and the training of the child before it goes to primary school, is provided. Even in this age many children go to primary school not trained and at the age of five probably still having a bottle each night. They are antisocial, because they have never had the opportunity of meeting other young people. I know that they are expensive, but in these areas, which are known to everybody—most constituencies have one area like this—we should have some nursery schools and a high proportion of health and social workers.

I have been told that the unattached worker can do a great deal with what is known as the young gangs. They are much better at getting in with the young gangs than the known social workers. They co-operate in saturation areas in this respect In these centres, whether they are nursery schools or play centres, the parents are asked actively to cooperate and to involve themselves with the retraining of the children and to help themselves at the same time.

I turn to the other category which I mentioned, namely, children who fail at school because they are dirty, verminous or are truants and do badly in class because they are so continually sent home and, therefore, become socially inadequate and emotionally disturbed. These are not educationally subnormal but just maladjusted children, and they need smaller classes and especially regularly staffed classes. Because they feel themselves so inadequate for future life because of their lack of education, they are host likely to become delinquents. When they leave school there is very little for that type of child to do in adolescence.

I realise that this does not come under my hon. Friend's Department, but I feel that many more youth clubs are needed with better attraction s, such as rolling the ten pin, which has proved a tremendous attraction to young people in some areas and keeps them occupied in very healthy exercise.

I should like to see a general inquiry conducted into the system of National Assistance. Again, I realise that my hon. Friend cannot answer this question, but I wish to point out to her that 55,000 families out of the 2 million households or National Assistance are receiving reduced allowances. There is the wage stop and the cases—I believe that there are 31,000 of them—in which the National Assistance Board refuses to pay the full rent. It is very difficult for these people on National Assistance, if the Board refuses to pay the full rent, if they have to keep up hire-purchase commitments, feed their children and pay their rent. The 25,000 people on the wage stop are particularly hit. It is not their fault if they are unemployed. One in eight of these families is on National Assistance because of unemployment.

I will not go into the difficulties of getting another job, but in the minute or so which remains to me I should like to say a word about training. The Younghusband Report, an excellent document, was published in 1959 but was never really discussed. At page 230, that Committee dealt with the existing facilities and made some further suggestions. There is, I understand, some difficulty because the Home Office has to work under Treasury restriction in regard to training. Naturally, I should very much like to see the parental cost of contributions to training removed.

The removal of the current discouraging trends would mean a better understanding of the realisation of the needs of the family service. It is essential to have co-ordination of training in a service if one type of social worker is to be balanced with the other. I know that new courses are being arranged by the Council for Training in Social Service.

As I should very much like my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to reply to at least some of the points which I have raised, I will conclude my speech at this stage and ask her if she would be good enough to reply to the first part of my Motion. I am grateful for the opportunity of saying a few words on a service which could be of real benefit to the families concerned.

3.50 p.m.

Mr. Alan Brown (Tottenham)

I shall be very brief. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides will join me in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) on her choice of subject. It is a matter of great complexity. Many of the points which my hon. Friend has raised, such as the eviction of parents and parents in debt, are concerned only partially with children as such, but that they affect the children is not in dispute. In the main, the children who need the assistance which is suggested in the Motion are, as my hon. Friend has said, children in need of care and protection. They may or may not be delinquent.

I end this brief speech by saying that, whatever we have or have not achieved, we can at least take a grain of comfort from the fact that, at long last, the ever-increasing incidence of juvenile delinquency which has plagued us since 1955 seems to be held in check. The latest figures which I have show that in 1961, the number of delinquent boys under the age of 14 was 11,372 and that the number of those aged between 14 and 17 was 27,259. In 1962, these figures had fallen to 10,773 and 26,994, representing a reduction of 5.3 per cent. and 1 per cent., respectively.

In 1961, the figure for girls under the age of 14 was 453. In 1962, strangely, the figure was exactly the same. For girls between the ages of 14 and 17, the 1961 figure was 1,675. It fell in 1962 to 1,638, a reduction of 2.2 per cent. So at least we can congratulate ourselves on achieving something of importance.

3.52 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Mervyn Pike)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. A. Brown) for making his remarks brief so that I might have an opportunity to reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers). We are grateful to her for bringing forward the Motion and we accept both the spirit in which she raised it and the substance of what she has brought out in her remarks. Like my hon. Friend, I regret that she did not have longer to go more fully into the important aspect of training.

In the few minutes at my disposal, I should like, first, to answer my hon. Friend's questions. She was, quite rightly, concerned with the rôle of coordination in this service. As we all know, in the initial phases of our work in the post-war years we concentrated on trying to keep the family together, on trying to ensure that the large children's homes were broken down into smaller units and that more children were boarded out; and as far as possible, we had children returned to their parents and to the family background.

From the beginning, however, it has been obvious to everyone that the preventive work is most important. That is why the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963, was one of the most important landmarks in this work, because it gave the opportunity and, indeed, the duty to local authorities to carry out-the preventive work.

Since the inception of the work in the post-war years, we have concentrated to a great extent upon co-ordination. As my hon. Friend knows, the first circular went out in 1950 asking local authorities to designate an officer who would be in charge of co-ordinating the services and to hold regular meetings. Out of 145 local authorities concerned, 132 have designated officers who call regular meetings, and in 62 cases out of those 132 it is the children's officer who is the designated officer.

The hon. Lady asked how the powers were being used now under the 1963 Act to keep the home together in exceptional cases. She will recognise, of course, that the Act came into force only in October, 1963, and these are early days yet, but we do know already that local authorities are using their powers. We know that in some cases they are using their powers to clear arrears of rent, and we know that at least one local authority has paid the gas bill, which had been outstanding for several years. So I can assure my hon. Friend that already, even in the beginning of this service, these powers are being used.

I am confident, and I am sure that everybody who is interested in this work feels the same confidence, that with the greater publicity being brought to bear at present on the important aspects of preventive work, local authorities will not only review their arrangements which they have at present, but will seek to develop all those services we rich will enable them to play an important part in this work.

As for co-ordination, my hon. Friend said that this is very much a question for the local authorities to work upon in the light of their own need: and requirements. It is not possible realistically to lay down hard and fast ruses about what should be done. With every district in the country the nature of the problem changes, and so do the statutory services and also the voluntary services. All of us, I am sure, feel that the voluntary services are most important and that we should not only have regard to extending and developing the statutory services but should at the same time not forget the tremendous importance of voluntary service in this field.

I must say One word on this, because it is most essential. The root of this problem lies in the strength of society. It lies in the reality of the care and compassion of society, which will make certain that these people who, for one reason or-another, are in some way inadequate have all the forces of society to help them. These are not things which can be done just by legislation. These are not things that can be done only by statutory arrangements. It is the wealth of voluntary effort, the strength of voluntary effort, which, I believe, will enable us really to meet the problems.

Of course, we need, too, a great number of trained social workers, because it is on the backs of the trained social workers that so much of the burden of an extended service lies, and my hon. Friend is quite right in saying that we must look urgently at the requirements of training in this field, and at the numbers.

I can give my hon. Friend some figures. I think that I have just got time to do so. The progress we have made since 1959, when the Home Secretary's Central Training Council in Child Care, in collaboration with the universities, started exploring ways of extending, developing and publicising the facilities for training welfare officers, has made a good advance. In 1960, there were 52 students who qualified; in 1961, the number rose to 68; in 1962 it went to 124; by 1963, to 171: this year we hope to have about 190; and the present target is 250 a year.

My right hon. Friend is in consultation with the people concerned to make certain how we can raise our target in the light of the needs of the present time. I can assure my hon. Friend that we do take this extremely seriously. We do realise that it is upon the training and qualifications of these people in this field that the strength and the development of the service depend.

I would say to the House, in saying why we welcome this Motion at this time, and why we are grateful to my hon. Friend for having brought it forward, let us remember that we cannot just leave it at that, for the responsibility lies upon each one of us, as individuals in our different communities, in our local authorities, in our local areas, to make sure that the people do recognise the value of this service.

We shall not be able to get the trained people we require unless the people generally recognise that this service is something which brings tremendous reward—not, I mean, in monetary and material terms only, but in the strengthening of society. It is upon us—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.