HC Deb 17 February 1966 vol 724 cc1689-700

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

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Oscar Murton (Poole)

When I asked for this debate, I had two objects in mind. The first was to urge the Home Secretary to order a full inquiry into the circumstances of the case which I want to discuss tonight. The second was to gain an assurance, which I hope that the right hon. Lady can give me, that her Department is satisfied with the administration of child care throughout the country is being carried out in strict conformity with Acts of Parliament and Home Office circulars governing this very important subject.

In part, my first object has already been achieved. The Secretary of State announced on 9th February that he would institute an inquiry into the case. I am given to understand, however, that the inquiry is being carried out by Home Office inspectors who will report their findings to the Secretary of State. While I am pleased that he has acted so promptly, I am frankly disappointed in the choice of method of inquiry. I would have preferred there to have been a judicial inquiry where evidence would be taken on oath, an inquiry at which the Press could be present.

My reason for this is the paramount importance that not only should justice be done, but that it should be seen patently to be done. Not only have we the fact that a young life has been damaged, perhaps irreparably, at the hands of the person subsequently convicted of this offence, but we have to establish exactly how this evil thing occurred and whether and in what way such an occurrence could have been prevented. Likewise, I would have thought that it was only fair to those officials whose duty is the task of child care in Dorset and who are concerned in this case that they should be able publicly to give their evidence on the supervision and reporting which was carried out.

The case of this little boy has aroused the public conscience. I seek an assurance from the right hon. Lady that when the inquiry is finished, the Secretary of State will publish the evidence in sufficient detail to make it quite clear that the inquiry has been both far reaching and conclusive. I think that I am entitled to ask for that assurance, for too much is at stake. The Secretary of State may also care to give the juvenile court's reasons why the offender was only placed on probation. The House and the public at large want to know the facts.

I should also like the right hon. Lady to bear in mind that since the facts of this tragic case were first made public, I have been informed of two other matters, affecting constituents of mine, which I should like her to investigate. I shall not mention names tonight, but I have already given the right hon. Lady the details.

The first is the case of a father who told me the tragic story of his daughter whom he asked to be placed in care because she was a difficult child, difficult to control, and because his wife was very ill at the time and in and out of hospital. I shall not go into all the details, except to say that she became pregnant. It is apparent to me that she would have been better protected at home than under the care of the Dorset County Council at its reception centre where this happened to her.

The second case concerns a private home styled "For boys in need of special care", which, until November last, existed in Poole, my constituency. This home, so I am informed, over a number of years took in children from the Dorset County Council and from local authorities from as far away as Berkshire and at least two London boroughs. Ironically enough, I believe that the responsibility for the supervision of this type of home lies entirely with the Home Office. If the duties were delegated, they would be to the Dorset County Council. It is certainly not the responsibility of Poole Borough Council. The home is certainly not registered, and it is my understanding that, as the law stands, it did not need to be registered.

The proprietor of this home approached three charities, known to me, one in Poole and two in Bournemouth, asking for financial and other assistance. As long ago as June, 1965, the proprietor is alleged to have said: We have only four boys in residence at present, but had nine during Easter and have, so far, not received a penny piece for their maintenance. The financial situation is that I have an overdraft of £80 and about sixpence in cash. No pocket money for the boys this week then, and their haircuts will have to be postponed yet again. Clothing and bedding are very welcome and naturally, toys too. In October last the proprietor asked for assistance with clothing from a welfare organisation in Poole. A considerable quantity was supplied. It was then discovered that it was the intention of the proprietor to sell the clothing to meet current debts and expenses. Subsequently the County Council on being informed of the facts, persuaded the proprietor to close down. I am not impugning the integrity of this man. He meant well and he was endeavouring to provide a service and he did his best. But is it right that such establishments should go unregistered and unvisited? If it was visited, why were these facts not discovered?

That brings me to the sheer physical size of this problem. The last published return available to hon. Members of the number of children in care was Cmd. 2240, which gave the figures up to March, 1963. At that date there were 64,807 children in care, of whom 31,208 were boarded out, with a further 1,803 in lodgings or residential accommodation. A further 19,405 were in local authority children's homes and the balance of 12,391 were in voluntary homes, special schools and other accommodation.

While no official Home Office figures have been published since 1963, the Daily Telegraph tells me that it has reason to believe that that total now stands at some 67,500, and that some 53 per cent. of these will be boarded out. I do not wish to weary the House with figures but in Dorset, which had 505 children in care in 1964–65 the statistics are interesting. Taking the average percentage of all counties in England and Wales, the figures among those boarded out were: all counties, 53 per cent.; Dorset, 61 per cent. That is 8 per cent. above the average. In local authority homes: all counties, 29 per cent.; Dorset, 11 per cent. That is 18 per cent. below the average. In voluntary homes: all counties, 10 per cent.; Dorset, 19 per cent. That is 9 per cent. above the average. In other residential accommodation: all counties, 8 per cent.; Dorset, 9 per cent. That is 1 per cent. above average.

At present there are 550 children in care in Dorset. I presume that the 8 per cent. above average boarded out and the 9 per cent. above average in voluntary homes arises because of the apparent shortage of places in local authority homes, which is 18 per cent. below average.

No doubt the right hon. Lady will look into this, and if she thinks that these figures are significant she will act upon them. I have had letters from all over the country on the subject of child care. They are thoughtful and helpful letters and out of them have come a number of questions I should now like to put to the right hon. Lady.

First, are there sufficient trained child care officers to do this vital work? Are sufficient applications coming forward? I had a letter from a male officer who is a university honours graduate, working a 45-hour week. His local authority is understaffed and he is paid £855 a year. Is this adequate? Secondly, are there too many internal postings of officers? I read of one child in a foster home who was seen by six different officers in as many months. This is surely wrong. Third, are there sufficient male officers employed? Older boys, in my opinion, are more likely to respond to male influence than to a woman officer.

Fourth, is the routine medical examination of a child over 2 years of age in a foster home too infrequent? I understand that the Regulation says that it should occur "at least once a year". As a father, I should not be happy with that. I would suggest that it should be twice a year at the very least.

Fifth, is the scale of charges paid to a foster parent adequate to ensure comfort for the child and, at the same time, a reasonable inducement to the foster parent to take the child? The figure must be above bare subsistence level. I know that the scale varies to meet individual circumstances, but I have heard criticisms that too little regard is paid to the differential between ages. A 15-year old boy eats more and, I dare say, causes more wear and tear to home and clothes than a 9-year old boy. Yet the differential can be as little as 15s. a week.

Sixth, is sufficient care taken in choosing foster homes? This is the most vital question of all. To revert to the tragic case being debated tonight, the foster home chosen was in a remote country district; yet this little fellow was born in the middle of Poole.

I want to quote from Home Office Memorandum on the Boarding out of Children, dated 12th December, 1946, paragraph 14: If boarding out in remote areas is contemplated…it is essential to ensure that the conditions in the foster home meet the requirements of that particular child… I wish to emphasise the following: …effective supervision is the more necessary, since any difficulties in the foster home may not come to notice from other sources. If ever there was a case where this warning was appropriate this is it.

Finally, in a short debate such as this I cannot hope to do more than draw attention to the problems involved. The statistics show that by far the larger part of the boarding out of children is caused by temporary domestic difficulties such as short-term illness or confinement of the mother. These children return home within six months. There is, however, a hard core of intractible cases occasioned by desertion by either parent, by illegitimacy, homelessness and, of course, fit person orders. The true figures are masked by an unknown number of parents who make private arrangements.

There should be a statutory duty on such parents to notify local authorities where a child is boarded out privately other than with a relative. I am sure the right answer lies in the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963, Section 1 of which states: It shall be the duty of every local authority to make available such advice, guidance and assistance as may promote the welfare of children by diminishing the need to receive children into or keep them in care…a local authority…may, if the local authority think fit, include provision for giving assistance in kind, or in exceptional circumstances, in cash. What is required is more preventive work. Is the right hon. Lady satisfied that children are only removed from their homes as a last resort? Is the old adage not true that a real mother, however ill, helpless or weary, is infinitely better than no mother? If we support and encourage the mother, are we not in reality doing more for the child than any foster or children's home could possibly do?

11.39 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Alice Bacon)

I thank the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Murton) for giving me prior notice of some of the questions he has raised this evening, but the House will appreciate the difficulty in which I find myself in answering the whole of the questions put to me by the hon. Member. If I were to say nothing, I would be accused of evading the issue about the occurrence in Dorset. On the other hand, if I gave the facts as I already know them, I might be accused of prejudging an inquiry which is only just beginning. In this case, however, I think that the House would prefer to await the result of the inquiry, and I will say only a little about the basic facts of the Dorset case.

I agree very much with the hon. Member when he said towards the end of his remarks that it is important to apply the principles of Section 1 of the 1963 Act, which places upon local authorities the duty of taking preventive measures to avoid children being taken into care. As the hon. Member has said, local authorities now have the power to take any action they think necessary, including the giving of cash assistance, to prevent children being taken into care.

The boy in the case raised by the hon. Member tonight was one of a family of a man and his wife and five children who were evicted—I do not know why; it may have been for good reasons—by the Poole Council. I think perhaps that Section 1 of the 1963 Act might have been applied in Poole to prevent these children from going into care and to keep a roof over their heads.

As the hon. Member has said, the distressing occurrence that gave rise to this debate was a serious injury caused to a boy by an older youth who was lodged with the same foster-parents. The facts of the assault were carefully investigated by the police in 1964 following a complaint by the boy after he had returned to his own family. As a result of the police inquiries, the youth was charged with causing grievous bodily harm and was brought before the Wimborne magistrates. He pleaded guilty and was placed on probation for two years on 23rd June, 1964.

The hon. Member has asked me to say why the court only placed the youth on probation, but he will, I think, realise that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has no power to make inquiries demanding reasons of the court in any of these cases. It is for the court, hearing the facts, to give what sentence it thinks fit.

While the boy was in the foster-home, he apparently made no complaint and the county council's officers who visited him discovered nothing to arouse suspicion. Neither did the doctor who examined him after the incident report anything amiss to the children's department. After the complaint in 1964, the county council removed the foster-parents from its list. Whether in all this anyone was at fault and whether more could, or should, have been done are questions which greatly concern my right hon. Friend.

My right hon. Friend and I met representatives of the Dorset County Council on 9th February. The council welcomed my right hon. Friend's suggestion that Home Office inspectors should carry out a thorough inquiry into the work of the county children's department. This is now under way. It will be an inquiry by Home Office inspectors into all aspects of the county council's children administration to see whether they call for changes in the interests of the welfare of the children.

The facts known to the police and the children's department about this case and the records relating to the boarding out of the boy will be available to the inspectors with all the other records of the children's department. The inspectors' object will be, not to duplicate the police investigations, but to determine whether there are any failings or weaknesses in the council's administration and arrangements for supervising boarding-out, to propose remedies for any faults they may find and to draw from this lamentable affair any needful lessons for Dorset or, indeed, for the children's service throughout the country.

I emphasise that the inspection will not be a hearing simply in one room but it will necessitate the inspectors visiting many places in Dorset. To that extent, it cannot be a public inquiry.

The inspection may take up to three weeks, and I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that my right hon. Friend will make all the facts known to the House and the country as soon as possible afterwards.

The hon. Gentleman has raised the case of the 16½-year old girl who was put into the care of the Dorset County Council at the request of her parents. As the hon. Gentleman has said, she was a rather difficult girl. I understand that her uncle, who was a doctor, had tried but had not succeeded in doing anything with her. The girl went into a home and became friendly with the superintendent's family circle. Her association with the superintendent's son appears to have been fully accepted by her own parents and, indeed, the son visited their home and stayed there when the girl returned to her parents' home for weekends.

If the girl's parents considered that there was any danger to her in the relationship, it was entirely open to them to remove her from the care of the council at any time.

It is some years ago now, but there was a full inquiry at the time by a subcommittee of the children's committee, which held a special meeting to discuss the whole matter with the girl's father. But, after the birth of the child, the parents still kept the girl in the care of the council for some months, until she reached the age of 18. The council could not have retained her in care had the parents wished otherwise, and that suggests to me that the parents accepted that the council was doing its best for her. I am making further inquiries about it, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman when they are complete.

I have not time to deal fully with the case of the home which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It was not a home in the proper sense of the word. Had it persisted in asking for charitable contributions, it would have come under the inspection of the Home Office. But the people are not receiving children into their care now, and it has been closed down.

On the subject of boarding-out, as the hon. Gentleman recognises, there are unfortunately a great many deprived and neglected children who have to be cared for and others who, for various reasons, such as the temporary illness or confinement of their mothers, need to spend a period away from home. Such children are the responsibility of the children's committees of county councils, county boroughs and London boroughs.

Years ago, most of those children were accommodated in big homes and institutions where they felt apart from the rest of the children in the community. However good an institution, it is not the same as normal home surroundings, and, over the years, local authorities have been encouraged to get away from the big institutions and to provide accommodation in small family homes for less than 12 children and foster-homes. Their aim is to provide a normal home life, for it is best for a child that he should grow up as a member of a family.

The Children Act, 1948, says that local authorities shall discharge their duties and provide accommodation and maintenance for a child by boarding out or, where it is not practical or desirable for the time being to make arrangements for boarding out, by maintaining the child in a local authority or voluntary home.

As recently as 1963, the House of Commons Select Committee on Estimates considered all these matters in relation to child care as part of an investigation into the Home Office as a whole. It urged the Home Office to encourage local authorities to extend boarding out.

But, of course, there must be very careful selection of foster-parents. The safeguards are contained in Regulations made by the Home Secretary—very strict Regulations which I have not time to go into in detail at the moment.

This case in Dorset has aroused great interest, and a great deal of publicity, and it is right that in a case of this sort that should be so. But we must also remember the thousands of foster-parents all over the country who, for no material reward, are providing love and affection for children who have been denied it. We have all heard of cases in which such a great bond of affection has developed between children and their foster-parents, who have lavished love and care on them, that they are unwilling to leave when their parents are ready to take them home. Only today I have had representations from my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) on such a case.

Foster-parents all over the country are rendering a great service to the community, and there are thousands of children who for the first time, thanks to foster-parents, have known the security and affection of a family home. The promise which every foster-parent makes to bring up the child as his own is, with rare exceptions, carried out in the letter and in the spirit. Indeed, in many cases foster-parents are called on to meet, and do meet, much greater demands than those which the average parent has to face, because the children for whom they have to care are sometimes of a most difficult kind. They come from broken homes; they have been neglected, and in some cases even ill-treated.

I should also like to draw attention to the heavy responsibility on some foster-parents who, in order to keep brothers and sisters together, cheerfully accept three or four extra children. We must also remember the many foster-parents who, long after a child has ceased to be their formal responsibility on attaining the age of 18, continue to watch over and support them as young men and women.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the number of child care officers, and about their training. There is a shortage of child care officers, as indeed there is a shortage of all trained social workers in health, education and most welfare work, but the reports of this have been grossly exaggerated. At the date of the last annual return, which was 31st March, 1965, there were 2,010 child care officers, 237 more than a year before, and 461 more than two years before. There are, of course, many vacancies, but, strangely enough, none in Dorset. At 31st March, 1965, Dorset showed an establishment of 21 posts, all filled, but I cannot say what the position was in 1961 at the time of this occurrence.

Great provision is being made for the training of additional child care officers. Throughout the 'fifties and up to 1961 the annual output fluctuated between 40 and 60. Expansion then began, and in 1965 the output was 235. It is expected that 273 students will qualify in 1966, and the target for 1967 is 400. Further expansion is under consideration, and I think that this is striking progress, for which we are greatly indebted to all those concerned with training.

I cannot sit down without paying tribute to child care officers. I have seen them at work during the last year or so, and I have greatly admired the work which they have been doing. I have attended their conferences, and seen them up and down the country. What has struck me particularly is that when they meet at their conference they do not talk so much about their salaries and conditions of employment as about the children who are their responsibility.

I should like to thank the hon. Gentleman for raising these matters tonight. We are not complacent about this, but it is important not to exaggerate the position as a whole. It is also important to pay tribute to the child care officers, the foster-parents, and everybody who works in this important field.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Twelve o'clock.