HC Deb 17 July 1968 vol 768 cc1449-52

The Children Act 1958 shall have effect subject to the amendments set out in Schedule (Amendment of Children Act 1958) to this Act. —[Mr. Ross.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

I apologise to hon. Members for the belated appearance of the new Clause upon the Notice Paper It was a fairly natural human error, but the importance of the Clause and its length together with the Amendment must have caused considerable inconvenience and trouble to hon. Members.

The purpose of the new Clause and the associated Schedule is to close a gap which exists under present legislation in the arrangements to control places in which children are looked after temporarily by persons other than their parents or guardians. Part I of the Children Act 1958 gives local authorities a duty to supervise children not in the care of local authorities who are living away from their parents or guardians under privately made arrangements.

Briefly, notice must be given to the local authority by people who intend to take in for payment and for more than one month a child of school age or below. There is parallel provision in the Nurseries and Child-minders Regula- tion Act 1948 in respect of children who are taken in during the daytime only or for short periods not exceeding six days. So there is a gap between the 28 day minimum period of the one and the six day maximum of the other.

Apart from this, there has been considerable public concern, I admit more so in England and Wales than in Scotland, about the evasion of the provisions of the two Acts, and the consequent danger to children placed with unregistered and unsupervised minders and foster parents where parents have found it impossible to make other arrangements for their children. The opportunity has been taken of the Health Services and Public Health Bill to strengthen the provisions of the Nurseries and Child-minders Regulation Act 1948. The changes apply to Scotland, and responsibility for the administration of the amended Act will be taken over from the Health Authorities where it lies now by our new social work departments.

On the children protection side, the Minister of State, Home Office, Lord Stonham, announced in another place on 14th May that it is hoped to introduce legislation to strengthen the Children Act 1958. That legislation will introduce some important changes of policy, and may also carry out a great many detailed changes to improve the administration of the Act.

We have considered what should be done in Scotland. I think that it is desirable to introduce the policy changes, but, as the difficulties with the present Acts are not so great as they are in England, there is not the same need to carry out the more detailed amendments. At the same time, the introduction of the social work departments will mean that the same local authority department will in Scotland be responsible for working both codes, and there may well be advantage in letting this happen for a year or two to see how best the two codes can be improved and assimilated in Scottish conditions. We have, therefore, decided that the best course is to take advantage of the opportunity given by the Social Work (Scotland) Bill to introduce the main changes and to allow our authorities to have experience of working both codes through one department before deciding what further detailed changes should be introduced.

The changes are set out in the new Schedule. They are, first, the Amendment of Section 2(1), which closes the gap that I have already mentioned. It extends the scope of the Children Act 1958 to cover periods of care exceeding six days. It also extends it to cases where there is no question of reward. The interpretation of the words "for reward" has given rise to difficulty in proving whether it is "for reward" or not, thereby allowing people to opt out of the conditions and regulations for the safety and well being of children. Furthermore, fostering without reward has been exempt from supervision in cases where this was clearly desirable. The Amendment, therefore, will mean that foster parents will in future also be subject to supervision if they take care of children without payment, or contend that they do so.

It is appreciated that these changes could add considerably to the work of local authorities, and the new Section 1A is intended to relieve this. At present, Section 1 of the 1958 Act puts upon local authorities a duty to arrange for all foster children within the meaning of the Act to be visited from time to time by their officers. This is unnecessarily and may even be undesirably inflexible, since a local authority may be well aware that individual foster parents provide good care and need no regular advice or guidance. The new Clause 1A substitutes, therefore, a general duty on the local authority to secure the welfare of children within its area who are foster children within the meaning of the Act and empowers the local authority to arrange for the children to be visited and advice to be given if the local authority considers this necessary or expedient.

It is recognised that there may be a number of cases where parents make arrangements for their children and where there is no call for local authority supervision. A simple example is that of a child who may be looked after by lelatives or neighbours during school holidays. New paragraph (f) of Clause 2(3) is intended to exempt such cases from the need to notify the local authority. Its terms ensure that no one who takes in children regularly and continuously escapes notification, however. Clauses 2(6) and 2(7) are being omitted because there will be no requirement for a definition of "reward", although the term must be retained in Clause 9 for the purposes of the Life Assurance Act, 1774.

Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)

The Secretary of State was good enough to apologise because the new Clause and Amendment No. 191 are starred, which means that they appeared on the Notice Paper for the first time today. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that my hon. Friends and I have not had time to consider them adequately.

In passing, I must say that I am surprised that it is only at this last moment that the Government should have found the need for the new Clause and Amendment No. 191. They are of substantial consequence, as the right hon. Gentleman has said. We have previously protested about last-minute Amendments being put down. In Committee, on 26th June, there were 17 starred Amendments on the Notice Paper; on the 23rd Tune, there were 23. This Bill received its Second Reading in another place in March and went through all its stages there before getting its Second Reading here and being in Committee for 13 sittings. It is, therefore, all the more surprising that we should still be confronted with starred Amendments to it.

Having said that by way of protest, I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman has apologised to the House for this oversight and I do not propose to make any more of it than that. I accept the explanation given by the right hon. Gentleman of the purpose of the new Clause and the Amendment. I believe that they are necessary even at this late stage and that, without them, there would almost certainly have been need for amending legislation later on. I hope that the House will accept the new Clause and Amendment.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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