HC Deb 11 May 1970 vol 801 cc946-58

(1) It shall be the duty of every local authority to promote social welfare my making available advice, guidance, assistance to persons in need and the provision of facilities appropriate to their area for the prevention, treatment and relief of social problems.

(2) Nothing in this section shall be taken as conferring any new power on a local authority.—[Mr. Maurice Macmillan.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Maurice Macmillan (Farnham)

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

The intention of the Clause is fundamentally not dissimilar from that of new Clause 1. The wording of it, which might seem a little contradictory, is dictated at least partially by the necessity to keep in order; and by the fact that there is no Financial Memorandum. I think it will be seen on reflection that the wording of the Clause expresses our intention with some precision, because it deals with the manner rather than the matter of local authority activities. The use of the word " scope " refers to the development of their policies, rather than to the total range of them, or to an increase in those activities.

The hon. Lady referred to matrimony. I do not think that the Clause tries to introduce the romance or the courtship into the marriage contract, but it does at least imply that there is an obligation on the couple to live together as man and wife, and not merely to share the same house. We feel that local authorities can effectively discharge their duties only by bringing together in reality as well as in structure and organisation that which is now separated. In other words, the powers of local authorities cannot be discharged effectively without a true marriage. It is only by accepting what we propose that the changes proposed in the Bill will benefit the users of the social welfare system in the way the Bill intends.

As far as I can see, there is no obligation on local authorities to act in the way intended. The existence of one committee and one director of welfare may mean that there will be a comprehensive policy, and that they will look at the problems as a whole rather than separate them between two committees, but in acting rather than in thinking and planning there is nothing to stop local authorities operating through sections so far separated, from the point of view of the user or customer, as the present committees are.

In considering this argument one might imagine that the Health Service and Public Health Act, 1968, will to some extent remedy this situation, because wide powers and certain duties are imposed on local authorities. But it also imposes limitations on the way in which local authorities approach these powers. They will have to categorise the users of the social services they provide according to the powers which, in the Health Services and Public Health Act, 1968, are related to categories as defined in previous legislation. It is that previous legislation which gives local authorities the power to act and, in some cases, places on them an obligation to do so.

I fear that there will be a tendency to deal with the problems under the Health Services and Public Health Act, 1968, in a manner which is contradictory to the purposes of the Bill. This would be counteracted to some extent by a general Clause of the nature which we propose, which would at least show that, despite any limitation such as that which I described, there would and could be no statutory reason for local authorities to restrict the scope of their activities but that if there were restrictions or failures to live up to Seebohm standards or the spirit rather than the letter of the Bill it would be the fault, policy or intention of the local authorities concerned and would in no sense follow from anything imposed on them by Statute.

Apart from clarifying the position for local authorities, our proposal would have the effect of putting a little pressure on the Government by making it plain that they must will the means as well as the end, and in the event of problems of payment, remedy them through the rate support grant.

Even when both the Health Services and the Public Health Act and the Bill are in force, which presumably will not be very long, there will still be some gaps. Some people are not fully covered, and they could be dealt with by a general Clause such as that which we propose. I list three examples. First, there are families with difficult relationships which are emotionally damaging to children, which do not come into the category of creating or being likely to create a need to take a child to court or put a child in care and so fall outside Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963. In dealing with this sort of problem, I do not think we should try to find too many specific remedies. We do not wish to take away the responsibilities of parents. We wish to try to help them to discharge those responsibilities. Where the provisions of Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act are too precise, there is a need, instead of taking a child to court or into care, to help the family to cope with the problem.

A second problem which is not covered concerns people when they cease to be young persons. We can help children up to the age of 21—or is it 18 now? As soon as they reach whatever age it is, they are outside this legislation, with certain exceptions in respect of apprenticeship and further education. In many cases this is an age when they are most needing guidance and help and are, perhaps, facing problems of their own marriage. Under the present situation there is, as far as I can see, no method of continuing after the end age, ac it were, the same sort of help as they have had before.

9.30 p.m.

Thirdly, there are certain conditions which, perhaps, need help although they might not yet have reached the size or seriousness where they come under the law or other places where people can be guided into help after getting into serious trouble, nor where children are involved. I refer to problems such as alcoholism, drug addiction, vagrancy and the difficulties frequently in bereavement when a widow living on her own may be suffering far more than a widow with children. In that case, too, the existing provisions in many cases, effective though they are, tend to require almost too deep an interference in people's personal problems because it comes at a stage when nothing more general or less precise can be effective.

If we are to put the emphasis, which the hon. Lady and hon. Members, on both sides, have put during the passage of the Bill, on helping people to help themselves rather than seek to usurp their own personalities, authorities and responsibilities, it is important to be able to give that help at a time and in a way which does not impinge too sharply and which does not do too much for people as opposed to guiding and helping them to do it themselves. In this type of situation we need to think not only of individuals or families but also, perhaps, other groups—the problems of streets, areas and tenants of a tall block, for example, where a general approach could be more effective.

For these reasons as well as, as the hon. Lady said in our earlier debate, to try to get some of the general spirit of Seebohm into what is admittedly primarily a machinery Bill, I move the new Clause.

Mr. Tim Fortescue (Liverpool, Garston)

I support the new Clause with some diffidence, not having been a member of the Standing Committee which considered the Bill so carefully. I do so with great pleasure, however, in being able to give to the House some of the conclusions recently reached by an investigation made in Liverpool by the Merseyside branch of the Child Poverty Action Group. I know that the views of that ground are not particularly popular with the Government just now on many points, but this piece of market research investigation in Liverpool is so exactly relevant to the new Clause and is so recent —it was published this month—that I feel that the House would be interested in it.

In this piece of research, the group took two smallish districts in Liverpool, one, as it was described, predominantly working class and one predominantly middle class. The group asked a sample of people in those districts whether they had heard of four separate welfare rights, the four rights being rate rebates, school maintenance grants, essential school clothing grants and family allowances. The first three are administered by the local authority and the fourth by the central Government.

The results were quite remarkable. In the working class district only 51 per cent. of people had ever heard of a rate rebate, whereas in the middle class district 89 per cent. had, exactly the opposite of what is really necessary. In the working class district 31 per cent. had heard of school maintenance grants and in the middle class district 44 per cent. Of the essential school clothing grants, 32 per cent. of people in the working class district had heard of them, and in the middle class district the figure was exactly the same—32 per cent.—showing that this benefit is hardly known at all.

The next category was family allowances—the one class of allowance administered by the central Government. In the working class district 97 per cent. had heard of them and in the middle-class district 100 per cent. had heard of them.

This is clear evidence that the benefits administered by local authorities are not as well known or as well publicised as they should be, and for that reason I find the new Clause exactly to fit the needs of social services in local authority districts, and I hope that the Government will give it sympathetic consideration.

Much other valuable information is contained in the report, although I will not weary the House with it now. It concludes with the recommendation of the need of a clear policy: to reinforce these developments, local councils should pass resolutions making full ' take-up' of benefits they administer a prime and stated objective of council policy, and departments responsible for the administration of benefits should have to report on their progress with this objective at regular intervals ". It would throw a new light on local authority social services if the local authorities concerned were encouraged to state as part of their policy that full take-up of benefits is their objective. There is a suspicion in some districts—I do not say this about Liverpool, where the social services are excellently administered—that local authorities do not press far a full take-up because failing to do so can save them money. If the new Clause were accepted, we could go forward on a new line of march with the social services in local authority areas and the Bill would be greatly strengthened thereby.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

I would first respond to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Fortescue) before moving to the speech of the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Maurice Macmillan). I wanted to say " Amen " throughout almost all the remarks of the hon. Member for Garston because everything he said is absolutely true. The greatest single barrier to people getting their full rights under legislation which Parliament has passed is a failure to know what is available to them.

I do not think that the whole answer lies in what we can do in the House. A great deal lies in the spirit of new Clause 1—that is, that people should have easily accessible to them a social services office which makes no fine distinction whether people fall under one Act or another.

If the Bill is passed and administered in the spirit in which we all intend, there is no doubt that it should go a long way to meeting the perplexities to which the hon. Member for Garston referred and to reducing the very disturbing figures of ignorance which he quoted. He gave them for Liverpool, and yet we all know that Liverpool is an outstandingly good council in respect of social services, from which we can only conclude that there are other areas in which the figures would be even more disturbing.

I recall two occasions—I hope that the hon. Member will not mind my remembering them—which made the point. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) was Minister of Pensions, she made a great effort on television to advertise the existence of supplementary benefits, and within a matter of weeks she was almost overwhelmed and with new applications. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Gordon Walker) was Secretary of State for Education, he sent a letter to the primary and secondary schools and as a result was overwhelmed with applications for free school dinners. Both are examples of effective publicity, but they also both revealed that there must be areas in which the publicity is still not effective.

As I promised, I went to considerable effort, as did my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, to see whether it were possible to accept this new Clause, which I wanted, as did the hon. Members for Farnham and Chelsea (Mr. Worsley). I therefore owe it to the Committee to explain why we have not been able to accept it, although we made a great effort to see whether it was possible to do so. First and foremost, we have been advised that the new Clause is outside the scope of the Bill. That does not mean that it cannot be put down—

Mr. Worsley

It has been selected by the Chair, and it cannot be outside the scope of the Bill in that context.

Mrs. Williams

I was going on to say that it is outside the scope of the Bill if it means that there are to be any additional functions given to local authorities, or if any of those functions were to involve a money Clause which is not in the Bill. It is in that sense that the Amendment can refer only to what is embodied in the Bill, and fundamentally those functions are set out in the Schedules.

First, the Clause makes it clear that it will be the general duty of any local authority to promote social welfare, and describes this duty. I explained in Committee that there is a problem about this because in some respects, broad though those powers are, the phrase " social welfare " limits the powers of the personal social services committee of the local authority to a greater extent than they are limited under existing legislation. There would therefore be an overlap between the Clause, if it were accepted, and the powers in existing legislation.

I promised the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Maurice Macmillan) that I would indicate the scope of that legislation when I replied to the debate. I have also indicated the considerable problems that would arise from the Clause if we were not to go on to recast a great deal of existing law.

Under the Children Act, 1948, and the Children and Young Persons Acts, 1933–1969, and specifically the 1963 Act, there is a duty to promote the welfare of children. I understand that that is interpreted to cover the welfare of a family in which children are involved. For example, not so long ago a local authority bought a bicycle for the father of a house to enable him to go to work and keep his family together, which is a fairly extended concept of the welfare of the child.

Under the National Assistance Act, 1948, the duty to provide accommodation for elderly, infirm, disabled or homeless people carries with it permissive powers to provide accommodation in other circumstances. This goes as wide as, and possibly wider than, the duty suggested in the Clause, because that would not normally be interpreted as covering accommodation. It does not normally come under the heading of social welfare.

Under the National Assistance Act and the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act, 1958, and a Bill being discussed in another place, there is power to promote the welfare of the chronic sick and disabled, expressed in the widest terms and not limited even by the addition of the word " social " to " welfare ".

Under the Health Services and Public Health Act, 1968, which is only coming into operation in the autumn, there is a general power to promote the welfare of the elderly. This can be converted into a mandatory requirement by the Secretary of State, and because it is potentially mandatory it is stronger than the Clause. Under Section 13 of that Act there can be mandatory provision of home help. Section 12 governs the prevention of illness, the care of persons suffering from illness, and the after-care of persons who have suffered from illness, and it includes the power to provide accommodation for those who are and have been ill. That is wider than the Clause. It has already been converted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services into a duty in the case of mentally-disordered persons. That is a mandatory provision going further than the Clause.

The same is true of guardianship, adoption and the provision of homes. Virtually all the powers I have described carry with them ancillary powers to acquire land, undertake research and purchase buildings. Therefore, in almost every case they go wider than the Clause.

9.45 p.m.

The difficulty, therefore, is that this Clause either overlaps existing legislation in a way that I am advised might be interpreted as restricting the powers un- der existing legislation, or it carries with it an obligation for a major recasting of the law, which has happened in the case of the Scottish social work Bill, in order to make quite clear what the powers are and what they are not.

I stress that a number of the powers I have described, some of them mandatory, are already agreed by Parliament but are not yet in force. These substantial powers with regard to the promotion of the welfare of the elderly and the mentally disordered, and of children, in certain circumstances, up to the age of 17, all become law, as Parliament has decided, this autumn, and, broadly speaking, they greatly extend the powers that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Farnham is attempting to cover by the new Clause.

Our problem, therefore, is quite directly one in which I am advised that to accept the new Clause without the recasting of existing law would involve an uncertainty about the legal interpretation of the powers that Parliament has given under previous Acts; or, to avoid that, we would be obliged to make the law absolutely clear, which is an obligation upon Parliament, by undertaking major amendment of some existing laws.

As I mentioned in Committee, and as I must now repeat, the Maud Report suggests, as the House knows, a general power to spend money for the benefit of an area and of its inhabitants. The Government indicated when that report was submitted to the House that this power would be discussed with local authorities. It is a subject which comes very close to what the new Clause seeks. It would be to some extent in breach of our obligation to discuss the matter with the local authorities before submitting the legislation to Parliament if we were now to accept the Clause.

That, however, is a minor point, if I may say so, because obviously what Parliament wills must be so. On the major point, I must ask the House to accept the fact that I have looked at this question as carefully as possible, but, sharing the intention of trying to get this provision in if we could, I have had to come to the conclusion that it is, quite simply, too difficult in law at this time to try to tack such a clause on to a Bill which fundamentally deals with the machinery of the social services.

Mr. Frederick Silvester (Walthamstow, West)

I accept the hon. Lady's good intentions, but I am a little confused by what she has said. If various powers already exist under the law as it currently stands—and the Minister of State mentioned quite wide powers, such as the acquisition of land—unless the Bill specifically repeals those powers they will continue to exist. They would not continue to exist only if what we propose was in conflict with them, but nothing that the hon. Lady says indicates such a conflict.

We have experience of other laws, such as the 1944 Education Act, in which a declaratory section has been of immense importance in stimulating the discussion of the way in which local authorities operate in that sphere. The purpose of the new Clause is clearly to provide for the bringing together of all these many existing powers which the local authorities can hang on to and operate.

All the hon. Lady's arguments seem to be immensely technical. I do not criticise her for that—I appreciate the work she has done—but I am still somewhat unconvinced. Unless she can say that our proposal would remove those existing powers, I do not see what is lost by introducing such a declaratory Clause.

The hon. Lady made great play, as she did in Committee, with the question of the inclusion of the word " social " in " social welfare " and said that this might weaken the powers in relation to old people. There will be an opportunity in another place, if it cannot be done now, to draft a Clause to achieve the same objectives as this Clause and to meet that objection. The hon. Lady sought to show that this Clause is so way out and not possible to amend by the Government's draftsmen that they cannot introduce a declaratory Clause with this scope to meet our requirements. I do not understand how the proposal would remove existing powers. It would merely bring them together and provide them with an objective which the Bill currently lacks. That point the hon. Lady has not tackled.

Mr. Maddan

I am perplexed because I know of the hon. Lady's good intentions. She told us in Committee that she would press hard for this reform and I am certain that she meant it.

Subsection (2) of the new Clause says: Nothing in this section shall be taken as conferring any new power on a local authority. As my hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Mr. Maurice Macmillan) said, that is necessary because the Bill does not operate under a Money Resolution. Nevertheless, there are many welfare powers which local authorities have and which are only permissive. They have no duty nor obligation to use them. In varying services the quality of the service is like a patchwork quilt; some are good and some are bad. Even with no Money Resolution this Clause would make a positive improvement.

The hon. Lady said that in some respects subsection (1) overlaps other powers and in other respects it goes further. In so far as it overlaps powers, she suggested that it may constrain those powers. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Silvester) was right, but even if he was not, how often have we seen the phrase " without prejudice " used with reference to this, that and the other in a Bill? I am still convinced of the desirability of such a Clause and I am unconvinced of the difficulties to which the hon. Lady referred.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Test)

There is great force in the argument used by the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan). As he said, quite a lot of the legislation referred to in the Bill is of a permissive character. I should like a Home Office investigation into the various ways in which the Children Act has been operated by different local authorities. That information should be available from the Home Office Inspectorate.

Various local authorities have interpreted the legislation concerning what they should do in different ways and largely according to how much money they wish to spend at a particular time. The hon. Lady spoke about a bicycle being purchased to enable a man to go to work. That would not happen in many local authorities I know of although it might be justified. I do not see any argument which would preclude a declaratory Clause of this kind. I do not see the conflict in the argument. Perhaps it was my fault that I was net able to follow the argument.

Mr. Worsley

I confess to disappointment in the contribution made by the hon. Lady. Like us, she wishes to make the Bill effective, but she rested her case on technicalities and produced all sorts of legalistic difficulties which have not convinced hon. Members who have contributed to the debate from either side of the House. Indeed, although I accept that the hon. Lady has done her homework carefully, she gave us no hope that there would ever be such a Clause, certainly not in this Bill. All she could offer is future legislation on the Maud Report. Goodness knows when that will be. We have been discussing local government reform since the 1940s, to my knowledge.

Even if, when we reform local government, we put in the sort of general power that the Maud Commission suggested, this will not be what we are suggesting in the Clause. What Maud suggests is a permissive general power on local authorities to do things not covered by Statute. We seek to include a general Clause which includes the word " duty ". As various hon. Members have said, there is an enormous variation in what local authorities do. We want to write into the Bill a duty upon local authorities to look at the whole field. That is the first and absolutely critical point.

The second is that I do not think that the hon. Lady answered all the detailed points that my hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Mr. Maurice Macmillan) made about gaps, problems of adolescents and drug addiction, and so on. It may be that the gaps do not exist, but the hon. Lady has not convinced us, or even sought to argue, that they do not. The Standing Conference of Social Workers and the children's officers feel that there are gaps that need to be filled.

The hon. Lady quoted some of the general powers. I realise that the powers of local authorities are enormously wide. However, this is not our central point. It was thought necessary to put a general power into the Scottish Act, which I accept went wider than the Bill goes.

However, this Bill and last year's Children and Young Persons Act cover just about everything that the Scottish Act included.

If it was necessary in Scotland, we have never had an answer as to why it is not necessary in England and why in some curious way it is out of order and technically difficult in England where it was possible in Scotland. It cannot be that the lawyers at the Home Office are so much inferior to those in Scotland. It was thought necessary to put such a general power into the Health Services and Public Health Act, 1968 and the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963: the whole breadth of the working of each of those Acts was summarised in one Section in each Act.

Even if there were no gaps, and even if it were true that every need that might arise is covered by this legislation, there is still a need for a general Clause to bring firmly to the attention of local authorities their general duty. We hold this view strongly. We wish to give the House a chance to write a general Clause into the Bill. We do not say that this is the best general Clause that could be devised, but, in that case, it is up to the House to pass it and cause the Government to write a better one into the Bill in another place.

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