HC Deb 20 December 1967 vol 756 cc1437-48

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

11.41 p.m.

Mr. John Cordle (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

The matter which I wish to raise tonight is a far cry from the subject we have been discussing. It is a matter which is of particular relevance in my part of the country and I trust that it will be dealt with fully by the Minister. His remarks could bring much needed relief to a number of my constituents and to many other people. It concerns the health and welfare—indeed, the whole future—of a not inconsiderable number of children throughout Britain.

We apparently live in a permissive age and society. Many people have burned much midnight oil in seeking to make all sorts of activities much easier or legal. It is not my purpose to comment on their purpose, but I know that if but a fraction of this effort had been applied to solving a very real problem which occurs time and again with foster children, much unhappiness and many personal tragedies would have been avoided.

I admit that the problem is not an easy one to solve. Indeed, one is reminded of Solomon when faced with a similar situation. In essence, it is that a child's parents, through neglect, caused by perhaps fecklessness, ignorance, poverty, or some other reason, are no longer fit and responsible to have care of the child. The child is first put in the care of the local authority, which may then board it out to foster parents. Perhaps "board out" is the wrong term because in many cases the foster parents provide love, security and a home which has been lacking in the child's previous environment.

The natural parents may, and often do, take no interest in the child's welfare or progress, sometimes for years on end, yet after such a period they can, and do, claim their children back—and back they go to a parent or parents whose claim seems to rest largely on the thesis that blood is thicker than water. The effect on the foster parents in each case can be appalling, but this is not my concern tonight. I am concerned with the effect on the child, and that can be shattering.

The national Press has done great service by detailing some case histories, and many hon. Members must be aware of cases in their constituencies in which it is difficult in any circumstances to justify that the return of the child to its natural parents is in the best interests of that child.

In the first instance, when the child is boarded out by a local authority to foster parents, full responsibility for the welfare of the child remains with the local authority, which, therefore, has the duty to remove the child if the foster parents prove unsatisfactory. Similarly, the boarding-out arrangements may be terminated at any time by the foster parents, who may ask the local authority for the child's removal. Although these provisions are not ideal, since the child could be shuttled backwards and forwards, I would not quarrel with them. Both children and foster parents must obviously be suitable for each other, and square pegs in round holes do not help anyone.

The real problem arises where the foster parents are able, willing and want to accept the natural parents' right to possession of the child, and the natural parents' responsibilities. In these circumstances, my understanding is that the foster parents, if eligible under the Adoption Act, 1958, may apply to the court for an adoption order. The natural parents' consent is normally required, although the court has discretion to dispense with that consent if the parents have abandoned the child, or in certain other circumstances.

If a local authority has received a child into care without a court order originally under Section 1 of the Children Act, 1948, it may, under Section 2 of that Act, assume rights of a natural parent, subject to confirmation of the court if either parent objects, if the parent has abandoned the child, or suffers from physical or mental disability which would make him incapable of caring for the child, or if he is of such habits or mode of life, or has persistently failed to discharge the obligations of a parent.

The Children Act, 1948, as enlarged by the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963, would thus seem to give adequate safeguard to enable the child to be retained in care against the wishes of a parent where the court judges the parent to be unfit to have care of the child. However, from experience of cases in my constituency, and from reports I have read of other cases, I am sure that this is where the system is breaking down.

I am not a lawyer, and I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I make my suggestions in common English rather than in legal gobbledygook.

In essence, the vast majority of "heartbreak" cases that have arisen are where a child has been looked after for a period of years by foster parents who provide all the love and home life previously lacking. During this time, the natural parents have shown no interest in the child whatever yet, when the foster parents wish to proceed with adoption, the child can be severed from its home and the people who love it because, somewhat belatedly, its natural parents believe they can, must or should carry out their responsibilities.

Since, all too often, although the law may be satisfied the needs of the child certainly are not, could not provision be made that where children have been completely ignored by their natural parents for a period of, say, 18 months, the onus would be on the natural parents to prove to a court of law that they were more suitable to have the child than were its foster parents? In other words, the local authority could exercise its powers under Section 2 of the 1948 Act after such a period of neglect. If a natural parent makes no move whatsoever to interest himself—or herself—in the child's welfare for such a period, most reasonable people would need a lot of convincing that that parent should ever have parental responsibility for that child again.

I hope that the Minister will be able to bring us up to date on his Department's thinking. I trust that he will be able to give some hope to those who believe that the present position, and the results that flow from it, are not acceptable to a civilised society. In the past the Home Office has retired behind a blank wall of legality and inflexibility. This is basically a human, not a legal, problem. I hope that the new Home Secretary will find time to look at it again, because this is the best Christmas present that he could give to many hundreds, if not thousands, of children all over the country.

11.50 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dick Taverne)

The problem to which the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) has referred, that of providing for the welfare of children who are deprived of a normal way of life, is a very difficult one and which certainly deserves the best attention of the House, the Government, and local authorities. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this subject and for giving me a chance to say something about certain aspects of it.

The hon. Gentleman has drawn particular attention to the position of the child who has lived with foster parents and who then returns to his natural parents. In discussing this subject, I am hampered by the rules governing Adjournment debates, because I cannot discuss changes in the law. Obviously this limits me in discussing how far we can look at the present system and cure whatever may be wrong with it. I am, therefore, in a sense limited to stating what the present law is and what the position is and drawing attention to certain aspects of it which may perhaps be neglected, in the view of some people.

There are three main types of case in which a child may be placed with foster parents. The child's parents may make a private arrangement with foster parents to care for the child; a child may be placed with foster parents for the purpose of adoption; or the child may be in the care of a local authority which boards him out with foster parents under Section 13 of the 1948 Act and the Boarding Out Regulations made by the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman has concentrated on the third category-children who are boarded out by local authorities—and I shall do the same.

We have to consider the position of the local authority, the position of the natural parents, the position of the foster parents, and perhaps to some extent the position of the Secretary of State. The position of the local authority depends to some extent on how the child comes into its care. If the child is committed to the care of the local authority by a court order after the child has been found guilty of an offence or in need of care, protection, or control, then the child stays in the care of the authority, despite any claim by a parent or any other person, so long as the order remains in force.

If there is no court order—that is, if the authority receives the child from his parents by voluntary arrangement under Section 1 of the 1948 Act—this does not in itself empower the local authority to keep the child against the parents' wishes; but if there is one of the specified grounds on which the local authority is empowered by Statute to assume parental rights, a resolution may be passed assuming such rights. Notice must be given to the parent and, if the parent objects to the assumption of his or her rights by the local authority, the authority may apply to the juvenile court to decide whether the resolution is to be kept in force.

The grounds on which a local authority may assume parental rights were set out in Section 2 of the 1948 Act and extended by Section 48 of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963. They are, briefly, that the parent has abandoned the child, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned—that is, has left the authority in ignorance of the parent's whereabouts for not less than 12 months; or that the parent is incapable, by reason of physical or mental disability, of caring for the child; or that the parent is unfit, by reason of his habits or mode of life, to care for the child; or it may be that the parent has persistently failed, without reasonable cause, to discharge his parental obligations so as to be unfit to have the care of the child.

In all cases, however, so long as the child is in the care of the local authority, it is that authority which is fully responsible for the child's welfare. It is this feature which governs the position of any foster parent with whom the local authority may board a child out. Boarding out must be on the express understanding that the foster parents will allow the child to be removed when the authority asks for this to be done. On no other basis would boarding out be consistent with the ultimate responsibility which the authority has for the welfare of the child.

Equally, if at any time or for any reason the foster parent wishes to discontinue the arrangement, he is free to call on the authority to remove the child. If a foster parent wants to adopt a child—the hon. Gentleman referred to this possibility—the matter is governed by the adoption law and practice. In a recent Adjournment debate, on 6th November, I described the various inquiries which were being made into the working of the present adoption arrangements.

Under the present system, many thousands of people act as foster parents for local authorities, doing so with a great deal of good will and with admirable public spirit and personal sympathy. They have a very difficult task. It is not only that bringing up other people's children calls for special qualities of patience and unselfishness but, in most cases, there is some prospect that the child will sooner or later have to go back to its parents, and this prospect the perceptive foster parent will try to hasten by every means for the child's sake.

Foster parents who place the interest of the child first, as almost all of them do, must in these cases where there is a prospect of return, care for the child without supplanting the child's own parents in its affections, and must make the parents welcome to visit the child and consult about its upbringing. It speaks a great deal for the unselfishness and insight of foster parents that in so many cases boarding out is not only successful in itself, but it does, in fact, lead to a successful reunion with the child's own family. One cannot too highly praise the part which foster parents play in caring for deprived children.

I have indicated that the law confers wide powers on local authorities to safeguard children in care against the risk of return in cases where parents are in capable of caring for them or are unfit to care for them. Among these powers is one of particular relevance to the discussion raised by the hon. Gentleman. This is the power given under the 1963 Act to the local authority to assume parental rights where the parent has so persistently failed, without reasonable cause, to discharge his obligations as a parent as to be unfit to care for the child.

On 31st March this year, local authorities were exercising parental rights over more than 1,000 children in their care by virtue of this provision alone. This shows that that provision is useful and that in many of the cases which the hon. Gentleman has in mind the local authority can and does retain the child in its care. But the law stops short of enabling a local authority to retain a child against the parent's wishes on the sole ground that foster parents have been found who appear to be more suitable than the child's own parents.

In discussing the present position, as I said, I am hampered by the rules governing an Adjournment debate. It would be out of order for me to discuss the arguments for or against the present law, but perhaps I may mention that discussions have been going on and will continue with the local authority associations. There have been several representations, including a set of representations recently from one London borough. All I can say, without going out of order, is that they are being carefully considered and that all the information is being collected so that one may review the present position of fostering and the allied problem of adoption. I should have said more about it if it had been in order.

Meanwhile, against the background of the law as it stands, I should like to draw attention to some considerations which are sometimes overlooked. First, it must not be too readily assumed that if a child has been for some time settled with foster parents, it is always contrary to the child's best interest for him to return to parents of his own who are in a position to give him a home or wish to do so. The risk, to a child's welfare, of removing him from foster parents to whom he is attached is very much one side of the picture. The other side is the risk that if his return is prevented, the child may come to resent the decision which prevented him, as he sees it, from being brought up in a normal way. It is impossible to generalise about cases of this kind.

To judge the prospects in any individual case calls for the most careful exercise of professional judgment by those who are in close touch with the child, with his foster parents and with his own parents and their other children.

A further point to bear in mind is the part which can be played by the social services, particularly since the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963, laid on local authorities a duty, in Section 1, 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". Since 1963, local authorities have expanded their staff of whole-time child care officers from about 1,500 to about 2,700. Much of this effort is devoted to social work with families of children who are, or have been, in care of children—this is very important—who are at risk of having to be received into care. I am sure that this is making an impact, in three ways, on the problems of children who return from foster parents with whom they may have formed strong ties to parents who may be unfamiliar. Measures are being developed to keep families together and thus to avoid the situation which we have been discussing.

Increasing effort is being given to the maintenance of contact between children in care and their parents and to develop three-cornered relationships between parents, foster parents and children. Finally, when children in care return to their parents, the local authority and voluntary services pay special attention to the continuing needs of the child and help parents and children to re-establish the secure and stable relationships of a good family home.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I should like to put two points to the Under-Secretary, one repeating a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle): the essential need for children in care to be reunited with a close family at Christmas time, if possible. Secondly, I appreciate the careful way in which the Minister has skated round the rules of order, which very much restrict us tonight, but in any consideration which the hon. and learned Gentleman might have —not necessarily on future legislation, about which I cannot speak on the Adjournment, but in any thoughts which go through his mind—can he direct his thoughts to the great problems of adoption as it affects adoptive parents who are not residents of this country?

A number of specific problems have been known to many hon. Members when adoptive parents have gone to live in South Africa, Canada and other Commonwealth countries, where great difficulties have arisen. I am asking the Under-Secretary not to look for new legislation, but to direct his thoughts at this Christmas season to these specific problems.

Mr. Taverne

Certainly, I will direct my thoughts to those considerations. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning them. Perhaps I can say, about the problems of adoptive parents who go overseas, or, for that matter, parents in this country who adopt a child from overseas, that if it were in order I would refer the hon. Gentleman to the pending legislation a private Member is about to bring before the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Twelve o'clock.