HC Deb 19 June 1973 vol 858 cc576-84

Amendment made: No. 172, in page 241, line 35, leave out "local authority"' and insert: '"local highway authority within the meaning of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973"'.—[Mr. Younger.]

Mr. Younger

I beg to move Amendment No. 173, in page 244, line 23, after 'Rate', where first occurring, insert 'Rating Authority '.

This is another drafting amendment, which ensures that the definition of "rating authority" in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929 will remain in force.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Younger

I beg to move Amendment No. 174, in page 252, line 5, leave out 'Insurance' and insert 'Service'.

This is a drafting amendment to correct an error in the amendment made by the Schedule to Section 3 of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1958.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made:No. 175, in page 253, line 1, leave out '(7)' and insert '(8)'.—[Mr. Younger.]

No. 176, in page 256, line 32, leave out '(7)' and insert '(8)'.—[Mr. Gordon Campbell.]

Mr. Harry Ewing (Stirling and Falkirk Burghs)

I beg to move Amendment No. 368, in page 258, line 4, leave out paragraph 173.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

With this amendment we may discuss the following amendments:

No. 369, in page 258, line 24, leave out paragraph 174.

No. 370, in page 255, line 32, leave out paragraph 175.

No. 371, in page 258, line 35, leave out paragraph 176, and Government Amendment No. 177.

Mr. Ewing

It is a great pity that the amendments are being debated at this hour, because they are very important. They deal with the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968. It is something of a sharp practice to seek to amend that act under the guise of necessity because of the reorganisation of local government.

The first paragraph that we seek to leave out, paragraph 173, deals with the consent necessary from the Secretary of State for Scotland for children under the care of local authorities coming under emigration orders. I accept immediately that there are very few cases in which such circumstances apply, but it is essential that the final court of appeal, the Secretary of State's power to give or withhold authority, should be retained. Certainly in this respect that the Act should not be amended in this way.

I am not so emphatic about paragraph 174. Amendment No. 369 is really only a probing amendment. Here the Secretary of State might well be doing a service in relation to the appointment of a reporter to the Children's panel, where he seeks to take powers to define the qualifications of a reporter, as opposed to the old practice when the position had to be advertised and the list of applicants submitted to him. The Secretary of State gave his approval, the list was sent back to the local authority and the local authority chose the reporter. I should like to hear the Secretary of State's reasons for amending this section of the Act.

Mr. David Steel

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the requirement for the names to be submitted to the Secretary of State is being removed?

1.15 a.m.

Mr. Ewing

Yes. The requirement for the local authority—in this case the regional authority—to advertise the post and submit names to the Secretary of State is removed. Now the Secretary of State defines the qualifications of the reporter, and the regional council is authorised to appoint a person with those qualifications without the approval of the Secretary of State being necessary.

Amendment No. 370, which seeks to omit paragraph 175, is consequential upon the amendment to which I have just spoken.

Paragraph 176 of Schedule 25 bothers me because I cannot understand why it is necessary for children's panels advisory committees to set up sub-committees and remit to them the functions detailed in paragraph 5 of Schedule 3 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 which the advisory committees at present perform.

I hope that the House will not take the brevity of my submission as an indication that I do not regard the amendment as important. It is very important. We have pressed time and again for a complete review of the Social Work (Scotland) Act, and it should not be amended before that review is undertaken. If the Secretary of State cannot go all the way with me, I hope that he will make some concessions relating to the emigration of children under the control and in the care of the local authority.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown

I take a slightly different view from that expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Ewing). I consider that the reform of local government has something to do with relieving central Government of some of their functions. I am in favour of local authorities not having to come to the Secretary of State for consent for certain actions.

Mr. Ewing

My hon. Friend has misunderstood my argument. Amendments are being made to the Social Work (Scotland) Act as a consequence of the reform of the structure of local government, whereas they are matters of social concern. If changes are necessary they should be made by amendment of the Social Work (Scotland) Act.

Mr. Brown

Let us get clear the philosophy behind the amendments. I do not blame the Government if in the process of the reform of local government they take the opportunity of making changes—on which there is general agreement—in other legislation. What are we arguing about?

Mr. Ewing

We are dealing with children under the control and care of the local authority and when a family applies to adopt or foster a child. In these circumstances, it is very important to utilise every court of appeal which at present exists, every avenue of responsibility that exists, in giving an ultimate decision to transfer a child out of the country. Surely as a safeguard this provision should be reframed, which is the purpose of my amendment.

Mr. Brown

We are getting into a narrow technical point in dealing with the case of a child emigrating, because presumably it would depend on the circumstances in which the local authority took care of the child in the first place. I do not have the Social Work Act here, but my recollection is that there was probably some kind of proviso in previous Acts involving the care of children which may have covered this point.

We now have a new situation. We are creating different social work authorities and not leaving it to the smaller authorities, which may not have the resources, argument and discussion which would take into account the proper responsibilities that should be exercised in protecting a child.

I hope—perhaps unduly optimistically—that we can move away from having almost everything done by local authorities requiring the approval of the Secretary of State. I think that the new authorities will be competent and honourable and responsible enough to discharge functions which at the moment require the Secretary of State's approval. They are big enough and responsible enough to consult their own ratepayers without having to get his approval. There is a fundamental principle here.

My question relates to Amendment No. 177. Again, in this instance the Government are to be complimented on recognising the Strathclyde region by at least doubling the number comprising the advisory committee. What concerns me is the provision enabling such committees to have sub-committees and, in certain circumstances, non-members deciding certain things. The hon. Gentleman should give his reasons for this new departure. Is it because the advisory committees will be too small to do without the help of outside people? I do not deny the wisdom of bringing in people with special knowledge as occasion demands, and I agree with the doubling of the size of the Strathclyde committee, which should help to meet the situation there. A tremendous amount of work is involved in this and we should make no apology for raising the matter even at this stage.

Mr. Monro

I have listened carefully to the speeches of the hon. Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Ewing) and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown). One nearly swayed me from the course which I intend to take.

First, I shall explain, in relation to Amendment No. 368, the reasons for the change in the Bill from the Social Work (Scotland) Act, 1968. Fortunately, there are comparatively few children in the care of voluntary associations or local authorities who wish to emigrate during each year to, for example, relatives abroad or foster parents. Until now the Secretary of State has had to give final approval to any application from a local authority or voluntary organisation. If the amendment were accepted the status quo would remain, with the Secretary of State making the final decision.

Having listened to the hon. Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs and having thought about the amendment beforehand, I consider that we are still treading on new ground in relation to the Social Work Act. As we are dealing with children in care and without parents, I think that the Secretary of State should continue to retain the ultimate decision. I accept the amendment as it stands, and that will be deleted at a further stage.

Amendments Nos. 369 and 370 relate to reporters. My right hon. Friend and I, now that we have had a few years' experience of the working of the appointment of reporters, think that it has gone well. By 1975 the regional authorities might well take over this important responsibility. The Secretary of State is taking power in the schedule to prescribe qualifications, should he wish to do so, such as a legal qualification or experience in social work. It is within the powers of the regional authorities to make the final appointment of a reporter and we should no longer have to go through the present system of appointment through the Secretary of State and recommending back to the local authority. Perhaps on reflection the hon. Gentleman will see that there is a good case for what my right hon. Friend wishes to do.

Mr. David Steel

Has the Association of Reporters a view about this matter?

Mr. Monro

My professional services group is always in close touch with the Association of Reporters. I should be surprised if the point has not been discussed. [Interruption.] I am being attacked by a wasp.

Mr. Dalyell

Without the Under-Secretary feeling that he has been attacked by two wasps, may I ask him what the qualifications are to which he referred?

1.30 a.m.

Mr. Monro

These will have to be prescribed in regulations. I hold to what I said to the House, that this might include a legal qualification or an experience in social work, which is reasonable for the basic requirements for a reporter. There is nothing particularly obscure in that.

Amendment No. 371 would simply remove any doubt about whether the children's panel advisory committee would have the right to set up a sub-committee which could make recommendations to the main committee. But the sub-committee would be only advisory. In view of the large number of men and women who are giving most valuable time to the children's panels, particularly in the west region, it is not unreasonable to enable the main committee to ask the sub-committee to look at various recommendations and report back. This is complementary to Amendment No. 177, which I shall be moving.

Mr. Ewing

The Minister said that the sub-committees could make recommendations to the main committee. In view of the fact that all the powers conferred under Schedule 3(5) of the 1968 Act could be passed to the sub-committees and one of the powers is that they can make recommendations to the Secretary of State, does this not mean that the subcommittees can make recommendations and representations to the Secretary of State without going to the main committee at all?

Mr. Monro

I am prepared to write to the hon. Member and to withdraw if I am wrong, but my advice is that the sub-committee will have the power only to advise the main committee—an assurance that I am sure the hon. Member will accept. The powers are advisory only and not for a firm appointment.

Amendment No. 177, which increases the number on the advisory committee in the Strathclyde region from five to 10, is complementary to Amendment No. 371. There are at the moment about 700 members of panels in what will be the Strathclyde region. It is only reasonable that we should have a larger number of the main committee to advise on the appointment of the new members of the panel. The panels throughout Scotland are doing an exceptional job and the system is working very well. Hon. Members will agree that in the very large Strathclyde region it is right to double the size of the advisory committee.

I hope that I have covered all the points in hon. Members' minds. I believe that acceptance of the amendment will benefit the children who may have to emigrate for a particular reason.

Mr. David Steel

We should all be grateful to the hon. Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Ewing) on scoring a triumph at the last minute—a last-minute try just before the whistle is blown. He raised a serious point. The heading on page 237 is "Minor and consequential amendments". It is under that heading that these changes are taking place. There is a case for inclusion of sections of the Social Work Act, and if one started putting in these sections there is a good deal that one could take the opportunity of inserting here, but one should not pretend that these changes are inconsequential. The Bill would be watertight and valid without them. The criticism raised is valid and I am grateful that the Under-Secretary has recognised that and will withdraw paragraph 173 from the Schedule.

I should like to ask two points about paragraphs 174 and 176. I have not had an opportunity to consult the reporter for Selkirkshire whom I see from time to time. I am not sure whether, in these days of women's lib, it is right to declare an interest on the grounds of one's wife's employment, but if so, I do.

I do not know whether the Association of Reporters has a view on the method of appointment but there is a serious difficulty here. The position of a reporter at present is that of appointment by a local authority, but subject to approval by the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State confirms the appointment. That means that the reporter is in a different position from the director of social work or other social workers in an area and the relationship between a reporter and the professional side of social work and the local authority social work committee is different, and an exploratory one, under the 1968 Act.

In three quarters of my constituency this has worked well so that I am not making a comment on the local area, but because of the nature of the relationship it could give rise to difficulties.

I want to be sure that the Association of Reporters has considered this matter in the light of collective experience, because if one gets a situation where this function of making the appointment is taken away from the Secretary of State, the reporter becomes an employee of the local authority, with social workers and other professional people with whom the reporter has to deal. This is not a minor but a significant change which should be dealt with on its merits.

On paragraph 176, I would have thought I agreed with the Under-Secretary that the system is working well because there is a good deal of ill-informed criticism of the children's panel system as it operates in Scotland, although it has been in operation for a considerable length of time.

I would have thought that the children's panel advisory committee was the one weak point in the set-up, but I do not know whether that is true in other parts of Scotland. Having a layer of appointment, there is a filter against extension of knowledge from central Government down to the panels. If it is the intention of the schedule to elaborate the function of the children's panel advisory committee through the appointment of subcommittees, I am not certain that in the light of experience this is necessary or desirable.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 177, in page 258, line 35, after '3', insert: '(children's panels), the following amendments shall be made— (a) in paragraph 3, after the words "consisting of" there shall be inserted the words—

  1. "(i) in the case of the committee for the Strathclyde region, four members nominated by the local authority and six 584 members nominated by the Secretary of State;
  2. (ii) in any other case,";
and the words after "Secretary of State" shall cease to have effect; (b)'—[Mr. Monro.]

No. 178, in page 260, line 8, at end add:

The Fire Precautions Act 1971

In section 43 (interpretation), in subsection (1), in the definition of "local authority", in paragraph (b), for the words from "the council" onwards there shall be substituted the words "except in section 17, the islands or district council.".'—[Mr. Younger.]

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