§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.4 a.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Dr. David Owen)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
A nation's children represent a nation's future. How society treats its own children is a good reflection of the overall health and stability of that society. There is much good evidence for concern at the present state of child care in Britain.
In 1964 there were just over 66,000 children in care. On 31st March 1974 there were about 96,000 children in care. Each year more than 50,000 children are received into care, but each year the number who go out of care is less than the number who come in. This is a worrying trend, for all research shows that institutional care, though necessary short term, and in some cases, regrettably inevitable long term, does not provide the warmth, affection and support for children that can be achieved within the care of a family.
Another aspect of child care of deep concern, is the clear evidence of a serious growth in the number of young people involved in crime in this country. It is a sombre picture. There can be no doubt that offending juveniles, those aged between 10 and 17, present one of our most serious current problems, in the field both of social control and of child care, and within this group there is a growing number of very difficult and disturbed children and young people who seem totally unresponsive to all the 1822 measures available to help and to protect them.
Increasingly we are having with extreme reluctance to place some of these children not just in community homes but in homes with special secure accommodation. Wherever one looks one sees problems which can affect a child's development and happiness. Far too many children grow up in housing conditions which are, by any standards, squalid and indefensible. Parents often struggle with financial problems, unemployment, physical disability, or purely an inability to cope with the stresses and strains of life and in many cases they cannot rely on the support from the social services that Social Service Departments themselves would like to provide.
In some areas the case load for social workers is overwhelming. Understandably, they feel frustrated at their inability to give sufficient time to problem families and to families who, with support, could deal much better with the difficulties they face. We know that far too many children, particularly in the age group 0–5, are placed with child minders with absolutely no experience or facilities.
To a considerable extent children are paying the price for social changes that adults make deliberately, though without foreseeing the consequences. Most couples now marry in their early twenties, and teenage marriages are quite common, but at any one time nearly one-tenth of all families with dependent children, involving 1 million children in all have only one parent. Marriage breakdown and events leading up to it are found almost inevitably to affect the upbringing of children.
In all industrialised countries technology has altered the age structure, the size of the family and the rôle of the parents, marriage partners and grandparents, and the function of the family has itself changed. In this country nearly one quarter of wives and mothers are economically active. All of these factors have placed new stresses on the family as a system for mutual support and for child raising. Adults can fight their own corner—for many of them our society is not so much permissive as indulgent—but children have no power.
Even adolescents who sometimes seem so menacing are in fact pathetically unequipped for life in our competitive 1823 society. It is, therefore, a welcome shift of public opinion that there appears now this strong strand of public concern about the developmental needs and the rights of children.
We should not, however, think just of the rights of children. We must also think of the duties of parents. Rights and duties go together. They cannot be separated. Nor can we sensibly separate policies for children from policies for families. We desperately need a coherent policy for family support in this country to help children to be brought up by their own parents, even if there is only one parent in the family. At a time when we face very severe financial restraints, it will not be easy to find money for new developments, let alone supporting existing developments. We shall have to choose, but in that difficult choice of priorities we should never forget that a nation that does not give priority to its children is destroying the seed corn of its future prosperity and stability.
The Bill does not pretend to remedy all the weaknesses in our children's legislation or to put right all that is wrong with our society or with our attitudes towards children and families in need. If it acts as a catalyst for a change in attitudes it will have achieved more than just the mere passage of legislation. If it stimulates us all to reassess existing attitudes, challenge our own priorities and think deeply on how to protect the best interests of the child, it will achieve much.
It will I hope make an important revision of adoption law and set adoption firmly within the personal social services for children and families. It provides also a much-needed legal alternative to adoption. It strengthens the discretionary—I stress discretionary—powers of local authorities to enable them to carry out more effectively their responsibilities for the long-term needs of the children in their care. It also provides for measures for ensuring the greater protection of children involved in certain court proceedings.
The Bill is based on three years' solid work and extensive consultation carried out by the Departmental Committee on the Adoption of Children, first under the chairmanship of Sir William Houghton, after whom it has come to be named, and, later, after Sir William's death, of Judge Stockdale. The Committee made 1824 92 recommendations when it reported late in 1972, and I am glad to say that, like my own Private Member's Bill, the present Bill gives effect to all the recommendations that require legislation. The Bill also takes account of relevant findings of the inquiry into the death of Maria Colwell.
I will explain the main themes of the Houghton Report, and of the Bill. The first is to provide a sound foundation for the nationwide organisation of a professional adoption service in which central and local government and voluntary agencies form a partnership. This appears in clauses 1 to 6.
The second is to make a number of changes in the law and procedure of adoption, including a new procedure to enable parents to give early final consent to adoption, thereby removing a source of uncertainty both to them and to the prospective adopters. These appear in Clauses 7 to 29 and in particular in Clause 13.
Thirdly, the Bill introduces a status midway between that of adopter and a foster parent. This appears in Part II, where the new order in England and Wales is described as a custodianship order. The fourth theme is to provide for a greater protection for children in care by the extension of the powers of local authorities. This appears in Part III.
Part III also includes provision which was not covered by the Houghton Report for independent representation of the child, to protect the interests of children in care proceedings. In this the Bill also takes account of the findings of the Maria Colwell inquiry.
The Government have carried out wide and detailed consultation, issuing four detailed consultation papers which I have put in the Library. The provisions now in the Bill therefore represent an attempt at forming a balanced judgment of those changes in the law that are desirable to help solve present-day problems of children in need of permanent substitute families and to help prevent or resolve conflicts between adults over their care.
The Bill extends, with certain variations, to Scotland as well as to England and Wales. For example, Part I extends 1825 to Scotland with only a few minor variations. This is in keeping with the fact that adoption law has been virtually the same there as in England and Wales for the past 25 years. The provisions relating to children in care, in Part III, are also closely analogous. There are separate provisions relating to custody in Part II.
Adoption law in Great Britain dates back to 1926. The last review of adoption law and procedure took place in the 1950s and led to the Adoption Act 1958. In the following ten years, the number of adoption orders registered in Great Britain rose from about 15,000 a year to nearly 27,000. It now appears to have settled at around 24,000 a year.
Whereas at the beginning of the 1950s three-quarters of the children were being adopted by strangers, this proportion has now fallen to less than a half, the vast majority of the remainder being adoptions by parents and step-parents jointly. More of the children being adopted by parents are legitimate children of the former marriage, this being a result of the increase in divorce and remarriage. While fewer babies are being offered for adoption, there is no shortage of suitable couples wishing to adopt. One of the more fortunate results of this is that it is becoming easier for adoption agencies to find suitable adopters for children who a few years ago were regarded as difficult to place, such as older or handicapped children, some very severely handicapped.
While we know that there are waiting lists of suitable couples willing to adopt, we also know that there are numbers of children who have been virtually abandoned by their parents living in the care of local authorities and voluntary child care organisations. It is estimated that there are about 7,000 children in care, mostly in residential homes, who, according to their social workers' assessments, needed permanent or long-term substitute families. About 2,000 of these need adoption. The other 5,000 need something short of adoption, either secure fostering or some form of substitute family care.
Clause 2 sets out the philosophy of the legislation. After very careful thought, and after considering all that has been said, the Government have decided not to amend this clause as now drafted. The 1826 noble Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said in another place that directing the court to give first consideration to the welfare of the childdirects the court, the welfare officer or local authority, to consider specifically the welfare of the child and to give its welfare greater weight than other considerations; but it does not say it must prevail over other considerations."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17th April 1975; Vol. 359, c. 544.1This interpretation of Clause 2 seems to embody both the Houghton recommendation and what many sensible people feel is most appropriate for adoption where the decision that has to be taken is irrevocable. On such an interpretation the interests of the child need—and here I stress "need"—not over-ride the reasonable withholding of a parent's agreement to adoption expressed in Clause 11(2)(b) or the wider interest of the child's family, or the local authority in administrative decisions under Clause 52.
The Association of Directors of Social Services, in its excellent commentary on the Bill, states that it is content with the wording "first consideration" in adoption and in care, and the Association of British Adoption Agencies has also confirmed to me that it is content with Clause 2 as it stands.
I readily accept that there is a very fine distinction between paramountcy and first consideration, but it will be for the court to decide the weighting of its decision. It is for this reason that we have done everything possible to try to ensure that when courts make decisions affecting the placement of children they make their decisions in the full knowledge of all the relevant facts, and weighing carefully the best professional advice that can be obtained from a variety of sources.
The essence of separate representation for children, introduced in Clause 54, is to help improve the decision-making process, to make sure that every aspect which could help to make more certain that the right decision is made, ensuring the long-term interests of the child is at all times before the court. Clause 2 also talks of the duty to promote the welfare of the child, and as far as practicable to ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child regarding any decision, and to give them due consideration having regard to the child's age and understanding. In weighing the evidence, the court will be able 1827 to consider the depth of the relationship that a child has formed and is likely to form with those who may be charged with the responsibility of looking after him.
I am sure that the House will not expect me to go through in detail each of the 76 clauses in this complex and detailed legislation. I think that it will help the House better if I concentrate at this stage on those items which are of special interest or have caused particular controversy.
§ Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)
Before my hon. Friend leaves Clause 2, will he comment on the addendum to the clause, which deals with taking into account the wishes and feelings of the child—a matter which was not dealt with by the Houghton Committee Report? The clause is important. as my hon. Friend has rightly stressed, but he has not brought that matter to the attention of the House.
§ Dr. Owen
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) was a member of the Houghton Committee. It is true that the committee did not attempt to draft a welfare clause. It uses the term "first consideration", which is used in the welfare clause. This is probably the first time that there has been mention of a child's age and understanding. The matter will be discussed in Committee.
I think that many people believe that a child's age is a factor that should be considered, first, in weighing his views. Obviously, more importance will be attached to a child's views when he is older—for example, if he is a teenager. Equally, the child's age is important in establishing his relationships to time-scale. For example, for a young baby six months is a long time. I shall discuss the whole question of time-scales later. I am sure that hon. Members will want to discuss this and many more aspects in Committee.
I am fully aware that on a subject as delicate as this it is very difficult to reach total agreement. We are trying to reach a compromise agreement, making no secret of the fact that it is possible to have different interpretations but still be warm supporters of the aims of the legislation.
The arrangements set out in Clauses 3 to 6, affecting voluntary adoption societies, make one significant change. 1828 Following the Houghton recommendation, responsibility for registration, referred to as "approval", in the Bill is transferred to the Secretary of State. Yet we felt it was necessary to have the views of the local authorities in whose areas the societies were likely mainly to operate, and to take these into account before the Secretary of State made any decision on approval.
The views of local authorities will, however, form only part of the information, for we shall also have available to us the advice of the Department's Social Work Service, which operates at both regional and at central level, and will, I hope, play an important part in advising and guiding local authorities and voluntary societies in reaching the standards expected of the new service. The criteria for approval are being worked out by the Personal Social Services Council.
At present there are 59 voluntary adoption societies in England and Wales and nine in Scotland. Many of these voluntary societies set extremely high standards. However, some societies suffer from very serious limitations. I am sure that the House will agree that it is vital, with the new powers being given to adoption agencies in the Bill, that we should not be satisfied with anything other than the highest standards for the new adoption agencies. I have no doubt that some societies which have made a valuable contribution in the past will disappear. Other societies may feel that by combining they are better able to offer a comprehensive adoption service.
Placing a child for adoption is a crucial decision, critically affecting the best interests and welfare of the child. For this reason the Bill makes it an offence for a person other than an adoption agency to place a child for the purpose of adoption with a person who is not a relative. A similar prohibition is placed in Clause 8 on persons who are not relatives from receiving a child for adoption, and this is intended primarily to prevent children from being adopted from overseas without the services of an approved agency.
The Bill recognises, however, that some children will come up for adoption who have not been placed through an adoption agency, but who through a series of events, some preventable, some accidental, have been looked after for some time 1829 possibly as the result of some private fostering agreement. A person who has looked after a child for 12 months or more can seek an adoption order if the child was not placed with him or her by an adoption agency. But the adoption court will want to know the circumstances in which the original placement was made.
Clause 11 of the Bill extends the existing grounds on which parental consent for adoption can be dispensed with. This covers some of the more tragic cases of baby battering. Where a child has been seriously ill-treated and his rehabilitation in the family is unlikely, under the present law the ill treatment has to be persistent before it can be considered as sufficient ground for dispensing with the parental consent. But the proposed change will enable a single instance of very severe ill treatment to provide grounds, provided that the court is satisfied that the child cannot be restored to the family.
Clause 12 has all along been a controversial provision. The Houghton Committee recommended that it should no longer be possible for a parent's agreement to adoption to be subject to conditions as to the religion in which the child should be brought up. There were cases under the old provision where some children were impossible to place, because the religion stipulated was a minority religion and there were not people coming forward ready to adopt who subscribed to this particular religion. Yet it seems reasonable that anyone when placing a child with an adoption agency should be able to declare a preference and that the adoption agency should take all reasonable steps to meet that preference, but should never allow the interests of the child to be damaged because of an inability to fulfil the preference. People who feel strongly about the religious upbringing of their children will normally choose to place the child for adoption with an agency that has a specific religious background. This is why the provision as re-drafted has found considerable support with many people who wish to have built into the legislation as great a religious preference as can be justified.
The new relinquishment procedure is covered in Clauses 13 to 15. I think that 1830 this proposal is widely welcomed. The present procedure can be long drawn out and the result can be harrowing and confusing for the mother and cause anxiety for the adopting parents. The provision which is, however, controversial is that under Clause 13(2), which is designed for a situation where parents have placed the child in the care of an adoption agency and yet refuse to make up their mind about adoption, thus delaying the child's placement with adopters, or perhaps where a parent has virtually abandoned the child and there is no realistic prospect of the parent being able to resume care of the child.
These are some of the unfortunate children who wait in institutional care for adoption, children who on professional advice would benefit from adoption but who, because of the vagaries of the parent, are often committed to long-term care. This power to free a child without parental agreement for adoption is clearly one that should not be exercised without a great deal of care. It is a power which I think rightly causes perhaps the greatest anxiety of all the provisions in the present Bill.
The new procedure provides a means of settling conflict over parental rights before the child is placed with adopters and is put forward only in the belief that it will enable many children who might otherwise spend their entire childhood in care to be free for adoption. It is obviously necessary to have special safeguards to protect both the parents and the child in these cases.
First, the child must be in the care of the local authority or an approved adoption society. Secondly, parents must be given three months' notice of the hearing to give them time to decide whether they wish to dispute the application, and parents will be eligible for legal aid. As with the application made with parental consent, the court will appoint an adoption officer, unconnected with the agency making the application, to see the parents and to submit an independent report to the court. The grounds for dispensing parental agreement will be the same as the grounds set out in Clause 11. Once made, the order will be irrevocable but the parents will first have the right of appeal.
1831 I know that there is opposition to this clause, and I have tried to build in sufficient safeguards to satisfy some of the very reasonable anxieties. The Association of Directors of Social Services, who will have probably closest contact with these extremely difficult cases, support the provision, though I know that other social workers' organisations are not happy with the provisions.
I am considering some further amendments—for example, to ensure that the parents whose child is being freed from adoption without their agreement should be informed, if they wish, of the child's subsequent adoption. Furthermore, where the independent adoption officer is satisfied that the parent is ready to go to court and has been able to prepare an adequate case under the legal aid system, it will be possible for the court to arrange the hearing before the three months' notice has expired. Clause 13(3) makes provision for a new procedure for freeing a child for adoption where there is disagreement between parents.
Clause 25 provides that in England and Wales adopted persons aged 18 years or more may obtain a copy of their original birth certificate. Under the present law it is worth pointing out that adopted persons can obtain access to their original birth records, but it is difficult to do so. If they have a copy of their adoption order or if they obtain one, as court rules permit, from the court which made the order, there is already enough information on the order to enable them to trace their birth record. Alternatively, they can apply to the courts for an order requiring the Registrar General to furnish them with the information which will enable them to obtain a copy of their birth certificate.
The Houghton Report was clear in recommending that adopted persons ought to have access to information about their origins if they wanted it. The Committee saw this as a right. Adopted persons in Scotland have always been able to obtain their birth certificates, and there is no evidence to suggest that the exercise of this right has led to any complaints from natural parents who have been traced as a result. Some research has been carried out in Scotland which tells us that very few adopted persons trace their natural parents, and that those who seek their 1832 birth records are generally content just to know who they were.
Yet, understandably, some concern has been expressed about the distress that could come from parents who find that their children who have been adopted have traced them and visit them although they made the original adoption in the full expectation that they would never be traced. In fact, as I have shown, this expectation is misconceived and they always could have been traced, but we have to face the fact that we are making it easier for this possibility to occur, and no doubt—the House must face this frankly—there will be one or two cases which will cause distress.
This is a question of judgment and balance and will no doubt be discussed in Committee, but it is fair to point out that many people have made equally strong representations—including my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead)—that an adopted person has a right to know his or her true identity. Many people would be opposed to a provision in the Bill which gave the right to know only to those people who are adopted following the passage of the Bill and which excluded all those many people who have already been adopted.
I have looked very carefully into whether we can arrange for counselling to be offered to any adopted person who makes an application for his birth record. Scottish research showed that some of the people who went in search of their origins were unhappy, having trouble at home, or had found out about their adoption rather late—or even by chance. We intend to make rules of court to implement the Houghton proposal that the name of the agency which arranged the adoption should be inserted on the adoption order so that an adopted person should be advised to get in touch with that agency for any help or information he might require.
I come to Clause 27 which introduces the proposal that people who have looked after a child for five years or more should be able to apply to adopt without the fear that the parent or caring agency would remove the child before the hearing without leave of the court. This provision was suggested by the Houghton Committee in an attempt to help foster parents who would be otherwise unable 1833 to be sure that a court hearing for their application to adopt would take place with the child still in their care. At present if they do not obtain the parent's consent beforehand they risk, by making an application to adopt—which of course they can do at any time prior to five years—provoking the parents or the local authority into removing the child from their care and losing the opportunity for the courts to hear their reason for wanting to adopt.
This freeze is an attempt to reduce some of the distress of some of the rather rare, though very greatly publicised, tug-of-love situations. Some people believe that this will undermine confidence in the fostering system. I believe that they exaggerate. In five years of childhood a child develops more than it does in 20 years of adult life. One criticism of this legislation and indeed of all our legislation affecting children, is that we impose adult time scales—two years, three years, five years. In the life of a very young child, such periods of time are almost an eternity.
In Clause 49 of the Bill we implement protection for the child who has been in care 12 months or more by requiring parents to give the care authority up to 28 days notice of an intention to remove the child from care. This is so as to allow time for the parents, the child and any foster parents to adjust to a new situation and to plan the transfer of the child back to the parental home in a sensible way. I look on this provision as being in the best interests of the child, not the foster parent or the natural parent.
I share the reluctance of many people to introduce time limits, but as in so many things, one is forced to make a compromise or a balanced decision. We are taking power to alter by regulation—which would have to come to the House for an affirmative decision—all the time limits. They could be increased or decreased, though I personally hope that they would be decreased, but we can judge this in the light of experience.
Part II of the Bill deals with the award of legal custody to relatives, stepparents and other persons. Relatives and foster parents who have made a home for a child hold no legal status in relation to the child, and there is at present no way short of adoption that they may 1834 secure it. The making of an adoption order is, however, an irreversible step, which has the effect of severing completely the link between the child and his natural parents. The Houghton Committee considered that in most cases where relatives and foster parents sought legal security for their relationship with a child in their care, the transfer of legal custody would provide a more realistic and acceptable solution than adoption.
Legal custody is not, of course, a new concept. The law on this matter has, however, hitherto been of importance mainly where there has been a matrimonial breakdown, and a court has accordingly been called upon, either in divorce proceedings, or in matrimonial proceedings before the magistrates, or in proceedings under the Guardianship of Minors Act 1971, to decide with which parent the child should live, and therefore to give that parent sole custody.
Part II of the Bill puts the concept of legal custody to a new use, not hitherto envisaged in the law relating to the custody of children. It provides for the transfer of legal custody in the situation where a child has been living away from his parents, either with relatives or with foster parents, on a more or less permanent basis, and the relative or foster parent wishes to obtain some legal recognition of the relationship and some security against disturbance of it by the parents in future.
The existing law on custody in Scotland differs in certain respects from the corresponding law in England and Wales. For example, powers are already vested in the appropriate Scottish courts, under the common law applying in Scotland, to entertain custody applications for persons other than the natural parents of the child. The circumstances in which this can happen depend, however, on specific case law, and this does not provide the general right of application which the Committee recommended.
The Secretary of State for Scotland, after wide consultations on this and other matters arising under the Bill, wishes to see such a right introduced under statute. He does not, however, feel that there would be proper justifications for wider adjustment of the law on custody at present, given that the Scottish Law Commission is already engaged on a study of the subject.
1835 Custodianship orders will, in the great majority of cases, be made where the parent consents. The Bill enables a relative, step-parent or foster parent in such a case to apply for a custodianship order where the parent does not consent only if the child has had his home with the applicant for a period amounting to at least three years.
We have again reluctantly been forced to keep some time limit because, if there were no such limit, we think there would he a danger that parents would be unwilling to agree to their children being fostered. If this were to occur, it would he against the interests of the children, since temporary fostering is frequently the best solution where parents are unable to look after their children themselves because of some temporary obstacle such as sickness but otherwise would be willing and able to do so.
We must at all cost preserve the present free and open way is which parents can put a child voluntarily in care short term certain in the knowledge that the return of the child is not being put in jeopardy. The Houghton Committee recommended a period of five years, both in the adoption and the custody contexts. The Government prefer a shorter time limit on custody applications than on adoption applications, not only because a decision on custody is reversible, whereas a decision on adoption is not, but also because we believe that there could be positive advantages in having a shorter time limit for applications for custody than for adoption applications, since this would encourage foster parents to apply for custody more frequently, and not later feel forced to apply for adoption.
For the court to be able to take a decision as to where the child's best interests lie, it is of course imperative that it should have adequate information. For this reason, the Bill provides, in Clause 36, that the applicant for a custodianship order must give notice to the local authority where he lives, and the local authority must, on receiving such a notice, investigate the application and submit a report to the court on relevant matters, including, in particular, the welfare of the child, the means and suitability of the applicant, and the wishes regarding the application and the means of the mother and father of the child.
1836 If the court wants further information during the course of the hearing, it has power, under Clause 35, to call for a report from a probation officer or a local authority on any matters specified by the court as being relevant to the application.
The proposals in Clause 50 do not command unanimous support. There are some who think that the proposals constitute a threat to the rights of parents, and that it is wrong in principle to link the loss of parental rights solely with the passage of time without also being required to show inadequacy on the part of the parents to provide reasonable parental care. Others consider that the proposals do not go far enough, and that voluntary organisations should have the same powers to assume parental rights that local authorities have. The House will wish to know that we are carefully studying suggestions related to this put forward by the National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations.
Clause 54, which introduced independent representation of the child, has aroused a great deal of interest, starting with my own Private Member's Bill and since then by the Maria Colwell inquiry, which drew attention to the need to strengthen the machinery for representation of children in courts in cases where there is a risk that the child's interests may become subordinate to those of the parents.
We circulated a consultative document on independent representation last year, setting out a number of proposals. From the very helpful and constructive comments received, we concluded that the most urgent need for the child to be separately represented lay in care proceedings—that is, proceedings under Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969—and proceedings of the type which led to the return of Maria Colwell to her mother.
The clause which we proposed limited the scope of the new provision to proceedings of this type, not only because it is here that we consider the child to be most at risk but because to extend it further would have had very serious implications indeed on resources—on the limited number of experienced people who will be available to implement the new provision—and would have placed 1837 a heavy additional financial burden on the legal aid fund.
The House will be aware that, following consideration of the Government's clause in another place, that clause has been removed from the Bill and replaced by the existing Clause 54, which extends the scope of the proposals toany proceedings relating to a minor in any court".The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum which accompanies the Bill makes it clear that to implement this open-ended commitment could be very expensive indeed, and could cost anything up to £13 million a year. It could also place a heavy additional workload on lawyers and local authority social workers at a time when the latter—and we are drawing particularly on the most experienced of them—are already hardpressed enough to contain existing workloads.
This prospect has given rise to great concern on the part of local authority associations and many others with experience who are anxious that limited funds and the services of skilled social workers should be concentrated where the need is greatest. I share their concern. It is no use this House willing the end but failing to provide the means.
I have often criticised Governments who put through legislation to develop new services or improve old ones without providing field authorities with the necessary resources. We are determined not to fall into this trap. If we were to legislate for a lawyer or a social worker to act for children in every case where their interests are concerned, we should simply be misleading the public, and the only result would be to disillusion everybody with the whole idea of special representation for children. With these considerations in mind, we shall be asking the House to restore the Government's original proposals, with certain minor amendments, and they will be improvements. I attach great importance to this, and I hope that the clause will then command acceptance.
Before and since the Maria Colwell report was published the Government have issued circulars to local authorities drawing particular attention to the need for effective communication between the education, health and welfare services and with the police and voluntary agencies concerned with children. These steps, 1838 together with publicity given to cases of child abuse, have made local authorities and those concerned with children more aware than ever before of the importance of effective communications. Having regard to the existing statutory and administrative arrangements, therefore, the Government are not entirely satisfied with Clause 53 as now drafted and will be considering what amendments may be necessary to make its more effective.
The House knows that I and other Ministers concerned are engaged in a review of the operation of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, because of the increase in juvenile offences that I mentioned earlier and the difficulties that have been experienced in dealing with the increasing number of difficult children and young people in the care of local authorities.
We are taking this very seriously as is a Select Committee studying the question. One thing that it very clear is that local authorities are facing great financial difficulties in building the secure accommodation that is needed if seriously disturbed children are to be contained and treated in the community homes system. I intend bringing forward a new clause to enable us to make some of the loan capital already allocated to local authorities for the purpose of building this very expensive accommodation available in the form of direct grants. We shall be discussing the details with the local authority associations and regional planning committees. I emphasise that we do not see this as a solution to the whole problem, but I think few who have seriously studied the present situation doubt the need for more secure accommodation both for short-term use in observation and assessment centres—it is lack of this that leads to children being sent to prison or remand—and for longer-term care and treatment.
Clause 75 sets out transitional and commencement provisions which will enable different parts of the Bill to take effect on different appointed days. I have promised that we shall implement only after full consultation with the local authority association on exactly how implementation might be phased in relation to the availability of resources, and it will therefore be necessary to amend this clause and Schedule 2 to provide for full flexibility in bringing the various provisions into operation on different dates.
1839 It is crucial that we do not implement the revelant parts of the Bill until the necessary high professional standards have been attained. Speed of implementation will therefore depend on the availability of resources. We shall first have to propose rules of court, and so implementation will probably start six months after Royal Assent is given, at which time I am hopeful that we shall have consolidated all adoption law. That will be very helpful to people out in the field. Some of these provisions will not incur additional costs.
§ Mr. James Tinn (Redcar)
May I draw attention to a clause that was in my hon. Friends own Private Member's Bill dealing with cases in which a court had referred a child to the care of a public authority. His Bill provided that the courts could stipulate a period within which it would not be possible for social service workers to return that child to the police. The present Bill contains no such provision. I know it is the view of the NSPCC that there should be some such provision. Could my hon Friend give us an indication of the Government's thinking on this aspect?
§ Dr. Owen
Our feeling is that this Bill ought not to be used as a vehicle for making major changes in the Children and Young Persons Act. I have introduced this Bill because I think that it is very urgent for local authorities to be given some financial help with direct grants. I would be reluctant to come to any conclusions about legislation in the area mentioned until we have had the conclusions of the Select Committee that is discussing the subject at the moment, and until the Government's review which I have already mentioned is completed. I know that the NSPCC holds that view, and I certainly felt that is was worth discussing when I was concerned with my Private Member's Bill. I think that it should be part of a general review and that we should leave this Bill as it is. There is enough in it already without adding to it.
This Bill does not offer instant solutions to any of our child care problems. It is a limited, modest measure covering only part of our problems. My responsibilities for the health, personal social services and childrens' departments make me, perhaps of all people, only too well 1840 aware of how partial is the cover of this legislation. I believe, however, that it will help bring greater happiness to many of our children, and it is in this spirit that I bring forward the Bill.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)
We are now accustomed to talking about the choice of priorities in social services, and with an ever-deepening economic crisis it is likely to become more and more a feature of our debates. In our area the choice of priority is not only difficult; it is sometimes agonising. We all know of areas at present starved of resources. We all know of yawning gaps in our social services—of people in real and sometimes desperate need. We all know that it is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to bring realistic help in the next two years.
But let us, even as the economic clouds grow darker, resolve one thing—that in any scale of priorities the interests of children come at the top. For we are dealing here with the future, and mistakes and omissions made at the stage of childhood can permanently damage and scar the adult life. That is why it is so desperately important that the legislation that this House passes lives up to the heavy responsibility.
In the Social Services Department we are dealing with many of the children who are most at risk. We rarely deal with the children from secure homes and simple, straight-forward backgrounds—it is much more the children who need constructive help in order to develop. That is the generality of the problem we face today. The Bill raises a number of the most pressing particular questions that we must tackle.
The Opposition not only welcome this Bill; we regard it as one of the most important pieces of legislation that this Government have brought forward, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman for the quite outstanding part he has played in bringing it to the House. But let me say, at the risk of introducing a sour note—and my remarks are directed at the Government business managers rather than the Minister himself—that I find it extraordinary that it should be so late in the Session that the House has had the first opportunity to debate the Bill. This is now a Bill of 75 clauses and four 1841 schedules. It is only the second time in 50 years that we have had the opportunity of radically changing the adoption laws, and yet it seems that we are going to be forced to take the Bill through Committee in little over four weeks.
Some people think that our rather strange, gutteral noises, now relayed daily by the BBC, must establish us as a pretty strange lot to the public. I think we are far more open to criticism when we allow a Bill of this importance so little time for proper discussion. That is even more true when we remember the vast number of representations made to Members on both sides of the House by people throughout the country on this question. I enter that complaint basically because of the fundamental importance of this legislation.
Adoption is a relatively recent legal development. The first Adoption Act was passed in 1926. The next major Act was passed in 1958. The latest figures show that about 23,000 adoptions are now registered in Great Britain each year, which is considerably more than in 1958, although some way below the absolute peak. I do not think that anyone would disagree with the findings of the Houghton Committee that there will be a continuing need for adoption.
The first question we should settle is the standard we seek to meet in approaching this Bill. My own feelings are clear. We are seeking, above all, to legislate for the children. We are seeking, above all, to safeguard their interests, and we are seeking to ensure a happy childhood leading to a secure future. I do not think that there will be any great disagreement in the House on that. I also think that we should remember that we are seeking to draft legislation, to express our agreed criteria in the exact terms of the law, for we are making laws which others must interpret.
I am conscious that Clause 2 has already given a great deal of trouble. I do not want to spend much time on it today. It is clearly something to which we shall need to return in Committee.
The Houghton Committee said thatthe long-term welfare of the child should be the first and paramount consideration".However, the legal advice of both the present Lord Chancellor and the former 1842 Lord Chancellor—Lord Hailsham—is against the term "paramountcy".
The House would do well to listen to their views. It is true that in questions of care and control, custody and guardianship, the interests of the child are paramount, even when they conflict with the interests of the parent or parents. But the effect of adoption is surely different. It is a change which permanently and completely breaks the natural link with parents. It is because of the permanence of that change that the law gives parents the right to withhold consent.
It seems that here the Lord Chancellor and Lord Hailsham are correct when they say that the use of the word "paramountcy" is not appropriate here, certainly as long as we continue with other clauses of the Bill which seeks to safeguard the rights of parents. Nor should anyone be under any illusion about the difficulties we face. A most difficult case was heard recently in the Court of Appeal. It concerned a 25-year-old Indian mother of a 14-month-old baby. The mother was unmarried and had a good job in this country. Since birth the baby had gone to a foster mother and then to prospective adopters in Liverpool. By common consent the prospective adopters were excellent. Howeveic, the mother decided that she wanted to return to India, taking her baby with her. She did not give her final consent to adoption and the issue to be decided was whether she had unreasonably withheld her consent.
The Court of Appeal held that the mother had not unreasonably withheld her consent and the child was returned. It is possible to argue that the best interests of the child would have been secured by her remaining with the prospective adopters. Equally clearly, there was the proper interest of the mother to be considered. Had the child been with the prospective adopters for a number of years the outcome might have been different. Even on this evidence it could be argued that the courts could have come to a different conclusion.
I do not seek to come to a judgment. All I seek to do is to point out the acute difficulties that can arise—the terribly difficult human problems—and to suggest that anyone who seeks to paint the picture in black and white is at best mistaken and at worst downright foolish.
§ Mr. Abse
The hon. Member has said that the Houghton Committee emphasised the question of paramountcy. He is in error. As someone who sat for three years on that Committee, I direct his attention to Recommendation 51 of the report, which, in effect, does not introduce the question of paramountcy. As the Minister has rightly said, the Bill is implementing the intentions of the Houghton Committee. What he and Lord Hailsham are suggesting is contrary to that.
§ Mr. Fowler
I am grateful to the hon. Member. I shall look at that point again. I am not seeking to disagree with what the Government are proposing. I would like to consider the point which the hon. Gentleman makes. If I have misquoted the Houghton Committee in any way I shall seek to correct the matter. We shall return to it in Committee.
For the purpose of this debate I suggest that one of the best working criteria that has been put forward comes from the Association of British Adoption Agencies. It suggests that the standard test should be that:the children's welfare is the first and most important consideration, but it is not the only consideration".I do not think that there is too much disagreement between us on that. That states in broad terms what our general intention is. I would now like to apply that criterion to deal with a number of specific issues in the Bill.
First, it is clearly in the interests of the child, the parent and the would-be adopter that the adoption service should cover the whole country and meet the highest standards we can ensure. The present position is not satisfactory. In some areas a good service has been provided by voluntary societies or by local authorities. Unhappily that is not true in all areas. Gaps exist and it is right that the Government should be planning to fill them. But let us be clear what we are doing and hoping to achieve.
The national service which it is the aim to provide becomes a duty of the local authorities. But in carrying out that duty they have, in my view, a responsibility to work in partnership with the many excellent voluntary agencies which have developed. It is these agencies which have often acted as the pioneers. They have 1844 carried out an invaluable rôle in the past and have a continuing rôle to play in the future. Our aim must be to provide for a partnership. It is true that some voluntary agencies do not provide every service required under this legislation. Even in that situation, and I believe that I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly on this, there is no reason why they should not continue, with the local authority providing the services which are lacking. It would be a tragedy if good voluntary agencies were forced to close.
That is one side of the picture. 'The other side is the new responsibility placed upon local authorities and the new standards they are expected to meet. For example, the first clause in this Bill foresees counselling services for people considering having their children adopted, with the aim of helping them consider other ways in which their problems might be solved. It suggests that those who have been adopted have a right to advice and guidance. These are new responsibilities added to substantial extra duties. The Bill sets new standards, which we welcome. We must remember that duties are not discharged and standards are not met simply by passing legislation. We shall need money.
This point was made by the directors of social services in their excellent commentary on the Bill. Speaking for many social workers in this country they said:We are very much committed to the principles behind this Bill and feel sure that no local authority would, from choice, wish to run an inadequate service. We see the crucial issue here as one of money. Additional resources of both finance and skilled manpower will be required to implement this Bill.Yet we all know that all too often this does not happen. It was 15 years ago that we decided to run down the big mental hospitals. That was a policy which all men of good will applauded. They assumed that the community provision would automatically follow. What has happened? Community provision has been inadequate, and many of the patients discharged live on social security benefits in boarding houses and hotels while others cannot be discharged because there is simply nowhere for them to go.
1845 Nearer to home, in terms of this Bill, is the Children and Young Persons Act. We have there a serious position, in which there are too few places to which children in care can go. There is particularly a lack of secure places. The result is that there has been no option but to send some children home, whereupon they have promptly committed further offences. We welcome what the Minister has had to say about the new clause which he will seek to introduce.
I am a realist. I recognise that this is a bad time to ask for resources. I do hope that even within the context of reduced budgets children will be given priority. I urge the Government to be frank and fair about the position. The Minister was both frank and fair. The greatest temptation is to claim that a new Act will solve a social problem. It rarely does. Even more rarely does it achieve this when success depends upon financial support which we know will be extremely doubtful over the next two years.
I turn now to the need to protect the interests of the child in the legal and administrative rules we make. This must be axiomatic in a Bill of this kind. I shall listen with particular interest to what the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) has to say on this. In adoption cases Clause 19 provides for the appointment of a guardian ad litem to safeguard the interests of the child and for an adoption officer to witness parental agreement. Clause 71 provides for a panel of experienced social workers from whom both are drawn.
We are not just dealing with the rights of the child in adoption cases. We are also dealing with the question of care. Generally speaking, the assumption in proceedings before the courts is that the child's parents can represent the child's interests either himself or through a solicitor. That assumption holds good even when the issue before the court is whether the parents' care is adequate. Clearly that would seem to be an anomaly, for what happens when there is a conflict of interest between the child and the parent?
A number of solutions to this problem have been advanced. Clause 54 advances one of them, namely, the appointment of 1846 a lawyer to guard the interests of the child. It would be his duty to represent the child and to ensure that the child's interest was put first. I would regard that as an advance on the present situation. We shall need to examine very carefully what the hon. Gentleman has said on the limitations he is seeking to provide.
But not everyone is happy with that solution. The directors of social services argue that a lawyer is not the appropriate person. Lawyers, they say, do not have the experience or training necessary for this kind of work, and they argue for the appointment of an independent social worker.
I personally wonder whether we should give more thought to the proposal put forward by Dr. Mia Kelmer Pringle, the director of the National Children's Bureau. Dr. Pringle took the example—the tragic example—of the Maria Colwell case. The House will listen with particular attention to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) on this subject if he should catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Put shortly, the facts of the case were that Maria's father left her mother shortly after the birth and died soon afterwards. Maria went, as a baby of four months, to live with her uncle and aunt, who had been approved as foster parents. Naturally, she thought of her foster parents as her parents. Maria's five other brothers and sisters had been taken into care because the mother had consistently neglected them. Having remarried, however, Maria's mother decided that she wanted Maria back. She succeeded in getting the care order revoked. Maria came back and 15 months later was killed by her stepfather. She was seven years nine months old.
It was an appalling tragedy and the question which Dr. Pringle asks is whether it could have been prevented had there been a spokesman for Maria—a spokesman for children. Such a spokesman might have achieved a number of things. I put it no higher than that, and I have no intention of ascribing blame in this tragedy. But a children's spokesman could perhaps have established contact with Maria when she was with her foster parents and have known of her happy life there compared with all the signs of 1847 distress which she showed when made to stay overnight with her mother and stepfather. A children's spokesman could have briefed a lawyer when the question of care was being decided in court and could have kept contact with the child once she was transplanted from one family to another, and seen the significant deterioration in those unhappy and tragic last 15 months.
There are problems even in this solution, but I am bound to say that the scheme, on the face of it, seems to provide more assurance than most which have been advanced. I say to the Minister without commitment at this stage that we shall want to explore this matter deeply in Committee.
The third and last area that I wish briefly to mention is the custody section of the Bill. In spite of the name—and let us hope that even now we can find a better name for it—it provides a recognition that adoption is not the only solution which is in the interests of the child. The aim is sensible enough. It seeks to provide a compromise. The custody order seeks to allow foster parents some security but at the same time to allow the natural parent to continue links with his child. In its application, however, it has been criticised from two different standpoints.
The directors of social services make this case that the order has at least partly developed because of the concern about the tug-of-love situation between the natural parent and the foster parent. Yet, they say, it is difficult to see how this order solves that problem. Custodianship is not, by definition, a permanent arrangement; it can be revoked by the courts. It is true that the foster parent would be protected from repeated applications, but he cannot be protected from an application to revoke the order. Thus, the foster parent is not given any substantial increase in security, while the child can also suffer if the custodian applies for revocation.
A further fear is put by the British Association of Social Workers, which has also done extremely valuable work on the Bill. It fears that parents will take more note of the appearance than the reality and, as a result, will be reluctant to see children placed in foster homes, except in the most temporary circum- 1848 stances, for fear of losing them permanently to foster parents.
These are substantial difficulties. Perhaps we shall be able to overcome them, but we shall want to examine the matter very closely in Committee.
This is a very important Bill. Yet, long as it is, it omits much which is of importance concerning children. A comprehensive Bill would seek to make changes in the Children and Young Persons Act and might even seek to bring control to child minding, which gives so much concern to social workers throughout the country. But it is deficient even within its own terms on one particular area, namely, in its provision on child abuse.
Nothing has caused more public concern, and rightly so, than the question of child abuse. It would not do if we were to allow this Bill to pass without making further attempts to improve the position. I do not claim that legislation would eliminate the problem, but we should certainly examine the possibility of having legislative backing for registers of child abuse and also consider whether our law even now offers sufficient protection.
I give an example which has been brought to my attention. One director of social services is at present concerned with a situation in which a man imprisoned following the death of a child intends, on his release, to make his home with a family containing young children. The children are thought to be at risk, but he says that no action can be taken because the children at risk were never part of the household of which the dead child was a member. Ironically, action could have been taken under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, but he says that the present law is inadequate in this respect. If the Minister can help us on that point, it will be of great value. If not, we shall wish to return to it in Committee.
We support the general principles of the Bill, although there are many points which we shall want to raise in Committee. However, our intention, first and foremost, is to improve the legislation which is before us, because no one on the Opposition side of the House does not believe that the interests of children must be surely protected.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)
On the assumption that the winding-up speeches will begin at about three o'clock, there remain just under three hours for the 15 hon. Members who have indicated their intention to take part in the debate. I appreciate that this is a very important Bill, but a lot can be said in 10-minute speeches. If hon. Members will show a spirit of co-operation and will limit their speeches to that period, I am sure that we shall be able to accommodate all Members who are anxious to speak.
§ 12.08 p.m.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)
Having served for eight years on a local authority children's committee, and having the care of a foster child myself, I am particularly keen to speak in this debate, although I fear that the more one knows about the subject the harder it is to outline in 10 minutes the points about which one is particularly concerned.
I welcome the Minister's announcement, this morning, of extra money for secure accommodation. This is an extremely important matter. I only hope that the amount is adequate to meet the requirements.
It has been suggested that the Bill is basically non-controversial. Last Sunday, the Obeserver charted the parentage of the Bill over the last 10 years and pleaded that it be passed quickly. I have had many letters from constituents similarly pressing that the Bill be implemented quickly to help them in what they fear might become "tug-of-love" situations.
It has been suggested that the Bill will do a great deal of good and that it will cost very little. Whether we take it on the basis of the original Government estimate of £4 million, their revised estimate of £8 million, or the local authorities' estimate of £12 million, I suggest that it will cost very much more than that if it is not to be a Bill that does far more harm than good.
I welcome the proposals on adoption, which are non-controversial, but much of the rest of the Bill is highly controversial. The Part of the Bill dealing with children in care and fostering might be all right if children came into care solely because of the absence of parents, the total in- 1850 adequacy of their parents or, perhaps, because of the unacceptable behaviour of their parents. But the majority of children who come into care do so for other reasons. They have parents who are perfectly capable of caring adequately for them. Their parents are not emotionally inadequate or handicapped, nor are they wicked or blameworthy. Because of that, much of the Bill is about reallocating children from the poor to the better-off.
The vast majority of children coming into care have parents who are living difficult lives because of illness, inadequate, unsuitable or non-existent housing, poverty, matrimonial strife, misfortune or isolation. These parents are already the most disadvantaged and the most discriminated against within our society. If the Bill goes through, we must ensure that children no longer come into care because of poverty, homelessness, lack of day-care facilities or inadequate or non-existent social work. The joint statement made by the British Association of Social Workers, the Child Poverty Action Group, Gingerbread, Mind and the National Council for One-Parent Families stresses that children should not come into care because of poverty, homelessness, lack of day-care facilities or inadequate social work.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
With respect to my hon. Friend, the sad fact is that all too often they do. The Bill deals with what happens when they have come into care.
§ Mr. Bennett
I accept that, but I am suggesting that if they have come into care for those reasons we should be looking at the reasons and not patching up the present arrangements. There is an analogy here with the plate that falls off the table. If the plate is stuck back together with glue it will always be inadequate. We should place emphasis on not allowing the plate to fall off the table in the first place.
In 1973, 2,700 children came into care because their parents were homeless. In 1945 there were about 67,000 places for day care. By 1974 that number had dropped to 24,000. The Finer Report shows the problems of the lone parent, and 60 per cent. of children in long-term 1851 care come from single-parent families. Many local authorities still encourage the father who is on his own to put his children into care rather than help him with day care facilities.
I turn to the social services. After a children's service was established in 1948, it was soon realised that far too many children come into care who need never come into care at all. During the 1950s and the early 1960s, many local authorities set out to pioneer what was termed prevention work. In 1963, the Children and Young Persons Act gave all local authorities the duty to do prevention work. Prevention work steadily improved and by 1968–69 there began to be a fall-off in the number of young children coming into care. Unfortunately, this was counteracted by the larger number of much older and disturbed children coming into care, but we had made considerable progress in keeping young children out of care. Unfortunately, the improvements have not continued.
The Children and Young Persons Act 1969 added to the work load of the social services departments and, increasingly, the Seebohm reorganisation added to their problems. The children's services come into direct competition with the rest of the social services and the prevention side suffered most.
In the new set-up, the all-purpose social worker has too much work to do. He has to respond to crises and to pressure from the community to help the elderly and the handicapped. The result is that he cannot do all he needs to do to prevent children coming into care, and that is the area that is most important and most neglected.
The reorganisation and expansion of the social services has produced a career structure. That is excellent, in that the social worker now has a better chance of getting a fair salary. It also means that social workers have the chance to change their jobs fairly regularly on promotion. My foster son has had four child care officers in the last five years, and that is about the national average.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) suggested that there should be a person who is responsible for the child's interests. The child care officer should be that person, but the key requirement is continuity, so that the person who 1852 has this responsibility is able to see the difference between a child in circumstances A and in circumstances B. There is no point in it if there is no continuity and the person responsible is changed regularly. If extra resources are available, it is far better to ensure that a child care officer stays with a particular child for a long time. If some other type of person is given that responsibility we must guarantee continuity.
This sort of turn-over is bad for the client and makes the work of the social worker harder. If he is over-loaded with casework at the start and has to take on a completely new case load he is in extreme difficulty. Social workers must have the chance of salary increases and promotion, but they should be able to maintain their case load over a period without having to change suddenly to a completely different one.
At present, children come into care because of poverty, homelessness, lack of day care facilities and inadequate social work. We should remember the old saying that a stitch in time saves nine. We should remember that the child in care is extremely expensive, costing £20 or £30 a week in an institution and rather less in a foster home.
Once a child is in care, the pressure on the social worker often means that the stay of the child in care is far too long before positive steps are taken to try to get him back with his parents. Crises develop, and the social worker spends four or five days first working with the family and then searching desperately to find accommodation for the child. When accommodation is found, for a couple of days the social worker checks to see that the child is all right, and then goes back to the bottom of the pile and other crises overtake it. The result is that the child stays in care for a long time before the process of rehabilitation is started.
I come now to foster parents. Again because of the inadequacy of social work, rarely is a foster parent trained for the job. Too many become foster parents for the wrong reasons. Very often they do so because they want children of their own and they see fostering as permanently acquiring children of their own. There is a sense that the foster parent is expected almost to become a parent and to become proprietorial, investing love and often 1853 money in a child. In a sense, the foster parent almost seeks the repayment of love and affection from the child, either now or in the future. Social workers give no guidance to foster parents to make clear that that is the completely wrong approach. Foster parents are rarely encouraged to see their work as caring for the child now and getting satisfaction from doing the job well now. Their ultimate goal should be to ensure that a happy child is reunited with his natural parents—in a sense becoming the uncle, aunt or grandparent to the natural family, supporting not only the child but the natural family.
We need long-stay foster homes as well as short-stay homes. It seems to me that we do not place enough emphasis on the need for short-stay foster homes, on what the community requires, and on the satisfaction that short-stay parents can receive from the job they do.
Many social workers are afraid that the Bill will discourage the hard-pressed parent from allowing their children to go temporarily into care. They have a fear that their child will never come back. I received a letter from one of my constituents who was recently admitted to a psychiatric ward. Her stay in that ward may well be prolonged, as she is continually worrying about getting her children out of care. The longer she stays there the chances of her getting her children back and out of care will become less and less. She fears that she will lose her children for ever.
This Bill has an important job to do, especially in reforming the law on adoption. To the extent that it changes the law on fostering, it must be modified in Committee. It must be accompanied by a children's charter to ensure that no child with adequate, loving parents ends up in care because of poverty, homelessness, lack of day care facilities or inadequate social work.
We must remember children's rights, not merely in tug-of-love situations but from birth, including the rights to live free from poverty, in adequate housing, and to see their parents helped through illness, misfortune, matrimonial strife and isolation. This Bill must not turn out to be a child snatchers' Act.
§ 12.22 p.m.
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)
I enjoyed listening to the Minister's able speech.
I made inquiries in Scotland, as that country has a different legal system. I inquired of several bodies, including the Scottish Council of Social Service, the British Association of Social Workers in Scotland, the Association of British Adoption Agencies in Scotland, the Law Society of Scotland, the Guild of Service, the South-East of Scotland Association of Children's Panels, the Church and Nation Committee of the Church of Scotland, and Professor Sandy Wilkinson, who, with justice, is regarded as one of the greatest Scottish experts on the law regarding children.
From all those suggestions I can draw out two threads or themes. The first is that there is a mood of disquiet about Part II of the Bill as it affects Scots law. The Minister referred to this subject.
Clauses 41 to 47 are intended as liberalising provisions to afford greater protection to children and to foster parents who obtain custody. I do not think that that will be the result in Scotland, although it might be the result of the corresponding provisions relating to England. The result of these provisions in Scotland will be to restrict the rights of those who are not parents to apply for custody.
Those clauses seem to be drafted on the false premise that persons other than parents or guardians cannot claim custody under the law of Scotland. As Scots law stands at present, persons other than parents or guardians can, and do, claim the custody of children. Applications for custody have been made on the part of grandparents, brothers, and trustees. Even foster parents can claim custody in Scots courts.
If the Government have any doubt about this matter Clause 41(1) might be retained roughly in its present state, but much of the rest of Part II, relating to Scotland—particularly Clause 41(2)—might be deleted, with the exception of Clauses 44 to 48.
In Scotland, custody proceedings form part of the machinery for the protection of children which in England is provided to a large extent by wardship and by 1855 habeas corpus proceedings, neither of which exists in Scotland. Therefore, there is a deep-rooted fear that if non-parents, including relatives, have their rights to apply for custody reduced, as proposed in the Bill, an important part of the machinery for the protection of children in Scotland may be abolished.
The second theme, which was referred to by the British Association of Social Workers in Scotland, is well known to the Minister. It is that if legislation is brought in the Government must be prepared to commit themselves to providing the funds and resources which are now necessary to ensure that a continuous service is provided for parents with adopted children. Obviously there must be cuts in public expenditure, but I suggest that they should not be made at the expense of children. Social workers will be able to safeguard children at risk only when they are given the necessary back-up resources.
It is a matter of significance that recently, in Perth, two children in an emergency situation could not be provided with residential accommodation. That is not a problem peculiar to Perth. Children who appear before children's hearings in Scotland must sometimes wait up to two years before receiving placement in residential accommodation. Many children are kept in assessment centres for long periods, or are sent home in unsatisfactory circumstances because suitable facilities do not exist.
The Church and Nation Committee of the Church of Scotland recently delivered a stinging judgment when it said in its report that in many cases where supervision orders were made the actual supervision was ineffective and often nonexistent.
Throughout Scotland there is a desire that if the Government are sincere in bringing in this Bill—I believe that the Minister is sincere—the necessary resources and back-up facilities should be provided to ensure an effective and continuous service throughout.
I hope that I have passed on to the Minister the mood and feelings of many bodies in Scotland.
§ 12.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)
For me, this is the penultimate step in an arduous journey.
1856 When I looked at my files yesterday I found that I first raised this issue in 1964. I called for a committee to review the law of adoption. It required five years of work during which hon. Members from both sides of the House, and a group of which I was chairman, continually importuned respective Governments to set up this committee. It is indicative of the passage of time that none of the hon. Members from both sides who formed that committee is now in Parliament.
I should like to make a further comment, for a reason which will become clear. To the great credit of the then Home Secretary, now the Foreign Secretary, he agreed ultimately to set up the Houghton Committee. Again, I notice that I am the only Member of this Parliament who served on the Houghton Committee. I do not mention that fact out of immodesty, nor do I mention it to indicate to younger Members of Parliament that they need stamina if they are to alter the laws of this country. Indeed, I do not do so to reproach even those who may be guilty of sloth or inertia. I do so to emphasise the fact that more than a decade passed from the time the identifiable issues were raised in the House before they were put into legislative form.
Therefore I point out to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), who made a thoughtful speech, that we have a duty to form a disciplined committee ready to keep one eye on the welfare of children but the other on the sessional clock. I therefore regard as regrettable the statement made today by the British Association of Social Workers, which could only have the effect of raising obstacles preventing us from ensuring that this needed Bill reaches the statute book. That statement of the BASW was unfortunately echoed by the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett).
When we wrestle, as we do, with such delicate matters it is inevitable that we may be hesitant about some of the solutions or emphases that are in the Bill, but we cannot be too self-indulgent in our individual preferences. It is imperative that we reach a final consensus solution. Although unanimity was, surprisingly, reached amongst those who served on the Houghton Committee, that does not mean that we can expect total 1857 and uncritical approbation of all our recommendations.
How could it be otherwise when adoption is so ambitious, so technical a method of seeking to resolve sterility, illegitimacy and the nurture of rejected or unattached children. It is an enterprise where, although biology necessarily jostles with compassion, we nevertheless have to seek to ensure that love, concern and pity meet to try to overcome irresponsibility, inadequacy and sometimes evil itself. It is therefore inevitable that when we intervene by law in such a subtle process it is bound sometimes to mean that we invite condemnation as brusque intruders. The attempt is being made, and if excessive efforts are made to reshape the Bill when it goes to Committee, we may thwart its passage and the abuses that we identified, and publicised in this House more than 10 years ago will continue.
We should remember that we have only one childhood and that if it is damaged there is no second chance. Delay has already meant disaster in adulthood for thousands who have been irreparably and avoidably damaged while they have been little ones, and until the Bill becomes an Act adoption will remain a macabre lottery, for too many parents are being chosen not, as they should be, by skilled scrutiny, but by chance.
Today, whether a child receives worthy parents depends, we all know, more upon geography than upon genuine availability. It is right that we say this, because society is finding itself in the position in which people are being chosen as parents in this way because almost half the local authorities in England and Wales fail to act as adoption agencies. We have a patchwork of voluntary societies, some splendid but too many restricting their services to a limited group, too many lacking trained social staff, and too many unable to accept children with special needs, and a few not having the resources to offer what should always be the genuine alternative to adoption, namely, continuing help to mothers, and particularly unmarried mothers, who wish to keep their children.
As long as we do not have this measure on the statue book, adoption will remain for many not a blessing but a source of bewilderment and confusion. Without the 1858 alternative of this concept of custodianship proffered in the Bill, far too many legitimate children, following upon the divorce of their parents, will increasingly and permanently be alienated from one of their parents as the individual marriage partner becomes the legal father or mother.
Far too many illegitimate children are now adopted by grandparents. At a later date they go through the traumatic experience of learning that an "elder sister" may be their mother. Even worse, as a result of the failure to implement legislation along the lines of this Bill, thousands of children are today in institutions in care who could be adopted, or whose futures could be planned with the aid of long-term fostering, but they remain—perhaps 6,000 of them—in homes and nurseries because the legal machinery, which will become available by the Bill, to assume parental rights as a preliminary to adoption does not at present exist.
These children are finding that they are involved in a game which their parents are playing with them. It is a cat-and-mouse game, and that is something which the House should remember. It is all very well for an hon. Member to cite an individual instance of a child with a mentally sick mother, but I do not believe that local authorities want to intervene brutally in matter of that kind. What is happening is that far too many parents are fantasising. They hope that one day at some time in the indefinite future they will reclaim their children, and the little ones rarely in the meantime, if ever, see their feckless parents.
Our duty is clear. It is to put the Bill on the statute book. Nevertheless, I freely acknowledge that a Committee of this House cannot rubber stamp a Bill and that some scrutiny—expeditious I trust—will have to be made of it in Committee. There are a few areas where this is needed.
May I deal with the Minister's speech? The first point is the formula, which has been referred to, in Clause 2 and in Clause 15(2), which enjoins the court in all adoption proceedings and the local authority in making any decision relating to a child in care to have regard to all the circumstances and in making their decision to give first consideration to the need to safeguard, protect and promote the welfare of the child.
1859 It was put in that form by the Houghton Committee because we were concerned that there should not be an imbalance again poor parents who were caring and good parents. We thought that if we put in those words it would mean that poorer parents, able to give equal opportunities to a child in every respect other than wealth, would not be disadvantaged because a conflict had arisen between two sets of possible parents, natural parents and would-be adoptive parents, one of whom may have more money and so be able to offer more than the other.
Thanks largely to the wise intervention in the House of Lords of the Law Lords, we have in Clause 2 a sensible suggestion, one which substantially endorses the Houghton Committee recommendation; but the clause has an addendum. It is true that, when the future of the child has to be considered, there is a danger, as the law stands, of the rights of parents, rather than the responsibilities of the selfsame parents, taking precedence over the duty, which we shall bring about if we accept the Bill, of creating an active relationship with the child. These are the factors which determine the destiny of a child.
The clause ensures that natural parents have rights as citizens and not as owners of children. It emphasises in this clause that children are not property and that their futures must be determined by issues other than those relating to proprietorship. Nevertheless, there has come into existence a disturbing element—an addendum—in this clause governing the future of a child in disputed adoption proceedings. As the Bill stands, the court is enjoined, in a mandatory form, to take into account, in the case of a child old enough to understand, the wishes and feelings of the child.
The Directors of Social Services, however, in their informed critique, when talking about the wishes of a child, said:It must be remembered that a child sees things in a very different way from an adult. A child will almost always choose to maintain the status quo. Even a teenager may be distressed at being removed from a rejecting and adoptive home. When there is a genuine conflict to be resolved which involves a choice between two sets of parents, a child is not equipped with either maturity or life's experience to make such a choice.1860 The Directors of Social Services go on:He very often wants the choice made for him and we would do him a disservice by refusing to do so.What concerns me is that lay magistrates will regard it as mandatory, since they are not sophisticated child care workers, to put to a child the question what his or her wishes are. Children should not be so crushed with responsibility.
It is true that the Maria Colwell situation can and should be dealt with, but that can be done under Clause 54. Our fear that a child's feelings may not be explored, leading to a Maria Colwell situation, should not direct us, as here, to evade the responsibility of adult decision and to throw it upon children in contested adoption proceedings.
Worse, it will inevitably cause confusion, because the wishes of the child may not be in his long-term interests. There are dangers, as all of us with professional experience know, of manipulation and bribery when a child knows that he will be openly questioned by magistrates as to which set of parents he wants.
Again it means that a child has to take the responsibility of rejecting a parent and as a result can feel traumatically guilty for life. He can feel that he has encapsulated within himself a feeling of unworthiness, the very rejection that he has given to one set of parents or the other. That is a burden which should not be placed upon him in any court.
Where that onus is put upon local authorities by Clause 52, that is another matter. When a child is for a long time in care, his wishes and feelings may be elliptically and subtly explored by trained social workers of the local authority, and it may be possible for these feelings to stand when it comes to a question of a child in care. But from my experience of magistrates' courts and higher courts, I am profoundly uneasy about that addendum.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler
The hon. Gentleman was correct in what he said in his intervention when I was dealing with Clause 2. I was indeed quoting the working party document and not the Finer Report. However, he may have seen the paper presented by the Lord Chancellor, which said:Unless, the 'first consideration' is to displace and over-ride all other considerations 1861 when it will be paramountcy the word 'first' adds nothing.That is something that we shall have to consider in Committee—whether the addition of that word adds anything to the original Clause 2.
§ Mr. Abse
The hon. Gentleman has taken me back a bit. He is correct that the working party did say that, but we subsequently thought it through. We had many discussions and came to the same conclusion as the other place on this issue, and as is now embodied in the Bill.
In Clause 12, there is too an uneasy departure from the Houghton Committee. This is the clause which was designed to end the possibility of the placing of a condition, as is now possible, upon the consent of a natural mother to an adoption order—a condition insisting that the child should be brought up in a particular persuasion. I do not want to adumbrate the arguments in the report. They are overwhelming, stressing that it is wrong, when adoption means the total renunciation of the child and the finding of new real parents, as they must be from then on, that there should be any suggestion of imposing such a condition.
Those and other arguments brought us to our conclusion, but the clause, which claims to be a compromise, provides now that if a child is placed, then as far as practicable the parents' wishes should be taken into account. So far, so good. But it does not deal, as Houghton suggested, with the fact that the child's welfare must also be taken into account. This is not only a question of practicability as the clause states. It could mean that good parents of a different religion, or secular parents, could be excluded despite the fact that selecting them would be in the interests of the child's welfare, apart from practicability.
It is important to consider this matter more today than we would have had to consider it 10 years ago when I first raised it. Today we live in a multi-racial and therefore multi-religious society. For good or bad—I declare myself, as is well known, as a humanist—we also live in a secular society. Therefore, we need to consider this clause to ensure not only practicability but to ensure that the child's welfare must not be shaken by the possibility that a set of otherwise suitable parents are debarred from taking a child 1862 to whom they could give a splendid future.
On Clause 25, we come up against the "syndrome of genealogical bewilderment", which simply means that children want an answer to the question, "Who am I?" Many believe that this existentialist condition must be met, that it is a basic human right that every child should know his origins. That is why the clause gives the child the right to obtain his birth certificate after he has passed the age of 18.
But there are arguments on the other side. The arguments are all for an endeavour to mitigate the possible consequences where a young man or woman may intervene in the life of a mother who had long ceased to have any connection with him or her, who had become resettled and who would find it a grave embarrassment that a child from the past should emerge in a new family situation which she had created.
The Minister also has said that it is intended to have rules which would seek to mitigate the consequences by directing these people to some social agency, which would erect some barrier, some sifting, before the child went on with his quest. If that is done, his need may be assuaged and the possibility of ultimate embarrassment is minimised. The Houghton Report however suggested, too, that any applicant who in these circumstances asked for his birth certificate of the Registrar-General should, if possible, be seen and directed to a social agency. I hope that in some form, whether by rule or some other arrangement with the Registrar-General, this can be done.
The Minister vigorously challenged Clause 54, which provides for independent representation of children in court proceedings to ensure that, amidst the clamour of the contending parents, foster parents and would-be adoptive parents, the voice of the child is heard. There is little doubt in most people's minds of the desirability of such a clause. I am not impressed by the suggestions that social workers not lawyers should do it or that lawyers cannot work with social workers. If the clause is introduced, it will certainly create a need for a different training for lawyers in social work and for social workers in forensic work.
But I realise that social workers will not have the degree of independence 1863 which will be necessary, even if they come from a neighbouring local authority, to represent someone independently. They will be bound by professional ties with the social workers in the neighbouring authority. That is very dangerous. I believe that lawyers have an independent part to play and should become social engineers as well as being mere marionettes looking after some other type of vested interest.
I do not believe that many people doubt the desirability of such a clause. But it is another matter when one considers the availability of funds to implement the clause. Yet there can be no doubt that only too often those of us professionally engaged in divorce face the havoc caused to children by divorces and broken marriages. We cannot doubt the need to give priority to the full implementation of this clause.
Our divorce figures are mounting ominously, and I say at once that that is not due to my Divorce Act. A decree does not cause a broken marriage, any more than a death certificate is the cause of death. People marry younger. They live longer, the settled family system declines, mobility, the growth of spurious values—all these and many other factors play their part in contributing to the present situation where we have 120,000 fatherless families because of divorce and 190,000 fatherless families because of separation. Annually, some 300,000 children are involved in court proceedings, 30,000 in disputed custody cases alone.
It is no wonder that the Government boggle at the financial burdens that this important clause could create. Yet, even if we have it in the Bill and even if in part its implementation has to be postponed, it should still be there. The child left to drift, feeling unloved and uncared for—a casualty abandoned by separated parents who often are linked together at best only by indifference and at worst by hate—is most likely to become the adult who is more divorce-prone. Every effort must be made to ensure that decisions taken now about a child's future, where one parent or both of them have failed that child, are such that the child will not be so permanently damaged that in turn he or she becomes a feckless or irresponsible parent. We are more likely to bring 1864 that about as soon as we can implement the clause. To accelerate its implementation will not be easy, and for that reason I want to suggest ways in which it can be expedited.
The Minister of State should ask the Lord Chancellor to cause the Law Commissioners to review still further the rationalised procedures already instituted in divorce by consent at the moment and to extend them to all divorces so that legal and financial resources now deployed in establishing that a marriage has broken down may be used to consider arrangements for the children and their future welfare. That should be the first and most important step in any divorce, and that consideration should precede the granting of a decree.
In our divorce laws and divorce procedures, we have our emphases awry. We need to release the manpower and money needed to bring this clause into effect. We need a Law Commission review of the kind that I suggest which could call evidence and see how we could shift the present emphases and use the financial and manpower resources thereby released to ensure the future welfare of the children may be considered rather than in spending time and legal aid money going through what is becoming more and more a charade and a needless exercise.
We debate this measure in an almost empty Chamber. It is an irony which will not escape notice that, recently, when we debated abortion and discussed the circumstances in which we should dispose of children by using the scalpel, the Chamber was full. When we debate how we can have laws such as the present proposal dealing with the love and care of children and with ways of helping to mature disadvantaged children, there is disinterest among hon. Members.
I am glad to see a number of women Members present, but I cannot help saying that I see only one hon. Lady of all those who have spoken so eloquently about abortion and women's rights. They are not here to acclaim a Bill which protects children's rights. But by those of us who do not make any distinction in our compassion for born or unborn children. this Bill is welcomed with enthusiasm.
§ 12.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)
I want first to take up the final remarks of the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) because it is worth reflecting that there were many more right hon. and hon. Members present when we debated the Hare Coursing Bill than there are today as we debate the Children Bill.
I have an interest to declare, in that I am an adoptive parent. I have two adopted daughters, who have given my wife and me great happiness as, I hope. we have given them. We are a very happy family.
This is a very desirable Bill, and many of its provisions are long overdue. The greatest contribution that this House can make is to ensure that the Bill, whatever its deficiencies, gets on to the statute book this Session.
I do not believe that we would be debating the Bill today were it not for the personal devotion of the Minister of State. I had the honour of co-sponsoring his Private Member's Bill and of working with him and a group of volunteer helpers and the hon. Member for Pontypool in the drafting of that Bill. I recollect the Minister's uncertainty whether he was engaging in too ambitious a project in introducing such a measure as a Private Member's Bill. He is having his reward today. If he had not been so personally involved—if he had not persevered and had so much understanding of the subject—I doubt whether we should be debating the Bill today.
Before referring to certain very important provisions of the Bill, I want to give one personal reminiscence about adoption. I have adopted two children in two completely different ways. I adopted a child by what is called a private adoption. I adopted a second child through the agency of a very well-known and much respected society. My experience was that much the nicest and best way for the adoptive parents, for the child and for the natural parent was the private one. If it is done responsibly, it is the very best way to adopt a child. I say that because my initial reaction was against the abolition of the right of private adoption. I have been assured by highly responsible people, however, that there is or has been a great deal of misuse of private adoption. I am prepared to admit immediately that there 1866 is scope for misuse. All I can say from my experience—and I cannot go beyond that—is that it is a great pity that we cannot introduce sufficient safeguards to ensure that private adoption is rid of this misuse.
I am prepared, for the purposes of the Bill, to accept the view expressed to me by many responsible people that there are misuses and that they are so widespread that it is better for private adoption to be abolished. I come to that conclusion with very great regret, however, and hope that the Minister of State, who knows my views on the subject, has investigated the evidence. I am assured that the evidence exists and I hope that his Department has investigated it.
On the provision of adoption, I think that the amendment to Clause 2 introduced in the other place by Lord Wigoder has resulted in considerable improvement. Unlike the Lord Chancellor, whose words were quoted by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), I think the term "first consideration" adds to the meaning. I would have gone for "paramount consideration". The interests of the child in modern society should be paramount, but I am prepared to compromise to accept the words wisely insisted upon by the Houghton Committee of "first consideration". I am glad to hear the Minister of State say that the Government do not intend to change those words.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Pontypool—he has done a great deal of work on this, as on so many allied social subjects—over the provisions about consulting a child if that child is of a suitable age. The words in the clause that due consideration be givenhaving regard to his age and understandingare a sufficient safeguard. I think that children can sometimes be very shrewd in indicating that a particular course might, contrary to what it first appears, not be in their interests. This point is at least something to be taken into consideration in those very few cases which will arise of children of a sufficient age and understanding who are able to express a view. Therefore, I am very pleased to hear that the Government intend to allow this clause to remain with its present wording.
I come now to what might be called the religious clause—Clause 12. By and 1867 large, I agree with the observations of the hon. Member for Pontypool about it. The clause is, however, a good and sensible compromise in regard to the placing of a child. The natural parent should be enabled to express a view as to how she would like her child brought up and under which religious persuasion, but that should not be an overriding consideration in placement. Equally, it is most important that the strong views of the secretary of the adoption society or of the social worker should not dominate. We sometimes tend to underestimate the effect of some of these views. I have known of cases in which adoption societies and well-intentioned secretaries have very strong religious, social or political views and try to insist on those views prevailing when deciding on placement. It is important to have safeguards on that score.
The provisions in Clause 13 are very desirable. This is one of the great reforms in the Bill—the long overdue provisions for freeing children for adoption in many circumstances. I understand from the Minister that he intends to review the clause again in Committee. I believe that the clause, particularly subsection (7), is still too restrictive and that it should be looked at in depth.
Under the Bill, certain standards are to be demanded from adoption societies, but what about the standard of practice of local authorities? There is to be a means of reviewing standards of practice of adoption societies, and that is a good thing. In rural areas such as mine, by and large it is not desirable that a local authority should be the adoption society, because in many rural areas relationships are too personal. People know each other far too well. However, I accept that the rural areas are in a minority, and I accept, too, that it is in the interests of the entire country that local authorities should be brought more into these matters. I think that some consideration should be given to a kind of inspectorate to ensure that the standards of practice, which are all-important in adoption, are constantly raised in the various local authorities.
Clause 25 concerns the rights of a child to a birth certificate at the age of 18. When we were discussing this matter with the Minister of State during the preparation of his Private Member's Bill 1868 my immediate reaction was against such a proposal. However, the more I have discussed the matter with my wife, and the older my children have grown the more I have come to believe that the idea is absolutely right. A natural parent takes a tremendous decision in giving a child over to adoption. She assumes that the child will never come back into her life and she can be reassured from the research done on this issue in Scotland. It discloses that no natural parent has complained of a child subsequently coming back into his or her life. It is psychologically important that an adopted child should have the right to know as much as posssible about his or her biological origins, and this is a most important provision. Balancing the two viewpoints, I am sure that the Minister has come down on the right side, and I have been converted to that point of view in the course of discussion and consideration.
I welcome very much the concept of custodianship which is introduced by the Bill. There has been a great deal of argument about it in learned papers. As the hon. Member for Pontypool will remember, during the preparation of the Private Member's Bill we discussed the question why we should not extend the concept of guardianship. Of course, guardianship includes certain responsibilities for property, and so forth, which the concept of custodianship does not involve. I think it is better to leave the concept of custodianship as it is in the Bill.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney North and Stoke Newington)
Why should we not retain the word "guardian"? I appreciate that it is used in different connections, but "custodianship" is such an ugly word.
§ Mr. Hooson
If the hon. and learned Gentleman is simply concerned with semantics I do not have much comment to make, but I think that the concept of custodianship, which was gone into at great length before the decision to introduce it, is a good concept, and although one might be able to criticise the word I am in favour of leaving it exactly as it is.
I come now to Clause 30(3)(c). I am informed that social workers and local government officers do not particularly like this clause which after three years gives certain rights to foster parents or to people with whom a child has been 1869 living for more than three years. It is thought that where a local government department has prepared a plan for the child the foster parents should not have the right contained in the clause. I am all for the clause remaining as it is. The local authority has under the Bill the right to be heard by any court. It holds most of the cards and if it has a case it can present it. The provision should be left as it is. because in discussing the future of children we sometimes tend to have far too many theoretical plans on their behalf, as I know from my own experience. It is far better for any child in a home, whether it is an adopted or a foster home, to have a good relationship with the parents. That is worth far more than the best institutional help.
Does Clause 68 meet the Houghton recommendations? I was surprised that the hon. Member for Pontypool did not discuss it, because I would have expected it to attract his attention. I concede that the matter is really the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor's Department, and it should be reconsidered by that Department. We are dealing with individuals in very sensitive circumstances. Very often there is not sufficient appreciation of the sensitive circumstances of, for example, the natural mother and the adoptive parents. The whole situation is sensitive from the human point of view.
I believe that a mother should not be required to appear before a court in her own locality. Unless the initiation of the proceedings is in the High Court, my understanding of the clause is that those proceedings must be initiated in the mother's own locality. The power of transfer does not meet the requirements on this matter. There should be provision for the proceedings to be initiated away from the mother's own locality.
I turn to Clause 54. I agree with what the hon. Member for Pontypool has said on this matter. What is required is a reallocation of resources. We spend a considerable sum of money on unnecessary legal aid. It is astonishing that we are unable to find the resources to provide individual representation for a child—and we are only in childhood once in our lives—and yet we waste so many resources on legal aid in many other directions. Perhaps the Lord Chancellor's Department will see whether it can 1870 accommodate the clause in its entirety, rather than reverting to a much more restrictive clause than the one now in the Bill. I know that the Minister must take this view, because this clause, inserted by the House of Lords, was lifted out of his Private Member's Bill. Therefore, we know which side he is on.
§ Mrs. Helene Hayman (Welwyn and Hatfield)
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman not agree that perhaps the Lord Chancellor could look for those savings in legal aid, in the very costly and totally futile proceedings that the Supplementary Benefits Commission forces wives separated from their husbands to take, chasing husbands for maintenance that they will never receive? That is a costly, unnecessary and distressing exercise.
§ Mr. Hooson
With great respect to the hon. Lady, I do not believe that many legal aid funds are involved in that procedure.
§ Mr. Hooson
There are many other spheres where more money could be recovered. I think that is the point that the hon. Lady is trying to make.
I received a letter yesterday from the Northumbria Probation and After Care Service. The letter bears the signature of a Mr. Murphy and other probation officers. They put forward the idea of having a child's guardian in all those courts outlined in Part V. Many suggestions have been made to me by various authorities over the past two years, but the one which has attracted me most is that of having a child's guardian, drawn possibly from the probation service, who could be brought in and certainly in the interim period be of considerable help. This is a matter that I should like to see explored in considerable depth in Committee. This last-minute suggestion is one that I find most attractive. I am sure that the Minister will look into this matter.
There is a famous saying that the language of politics is the language of priorities. That applies in the social sphere as well as any other. The Bill will go onto the statute book at a time of straitened economic circumstances for this country. I am sure that the Minister finds himself with certain economic constraints which he would wish were not present. Despite the sparse attendance 1871 for this debate, most people in the country feel that in the social sphere the care and safeguarding of the welfare of children is a top priority, that it should take priority over many other matters on which we already spend a great deal. The Government should be aware—this is the feeling throughout the country—that, whatever else we cut down, there is a limit to cutting expenditure in this sphere. We owe it to the children of this country to make sure that they are not prejudiced by lack of resources—resources that are often wasted elsewhere on much less desirable objectives. Therefore, I hope that the financial constraints on the Bill imposed by the Exchequer will not be too great.
§ 1.15 p.m.
§ Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
The Bill is too important and far-reaching to merit only a Second Reading debate tucked away ignominiously on a Friday. The Minister, who certainly deserves great credit for introducing the original Bill, is well aware of that fact.
However, I suspect that the reason for introducing the Bill so late in the week, as well as so late in the session, is that the Government think that it has all been ironed out so thoroughly in another place that there is nothing left to say on it or to do to it here. If the Government think that, they are thoroughly wrong. Indeed, the debate already has indicated that this is a wrong view.
My hon. Friends and I want the Bill on the statute book but not in its present state. There is still need for amendments, including some quite drastic ones. If the Bill became law as it stands, it would, in some respects, be a bad law. Here, I take issue with the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, (Mr. Hooson), who apparently feels that we should get the Bill on the statute book with all its limitations and that we should get it on now. I believe that 1958—about 20 years ago—was the last time we had a Children Bill, on adoption, before us. In my view it will certainly be at least 20 years before we get another one. Therefore, we must get this Bill right.
§ Mr. Hooson
It is important that we make sure that we get the Bill on the statute book this Session. We must not 1872 prejudice that. I am not suggesting that in Committee we should not look at the matter thoroughly.
§ Mrs. Knight
The difficulty arises from the shortness of time that we have left for Committee, because we are dealing with a law which will vitally affect the lives of thousands of children and millions of adults. It must be as perfect a law as we can make it. If we were able to achieve this in four weeks of Committee, I should be the first to cheer, but if we could not, I would rather see a better Bill go through in a few months' time than a guillotined Bill going through at this stage.
The first thing that we should alter is the implication that the Bill intends that the voluntary societies should eventually be phased out. The wording of Clause 1 and other clauses—
§ Mrs. Knight
The Minister's intervention has been particularly helpful. This matter concerns me greatly and I know that the voluntary adoption societies, having read the Bill, feel that their days are numbered. I am most grateful to the Minister for that intervention. I intend to get on record the reason why we must amend the Bill to avoid people working in the voluntary associations taking that view.
Clause 1 and other clauses—particularly sub-section (7) of Clause 3—certainly give the impression that the voluntary societies are not long for this world. Now that the position has been clarified I am much happier, but amendments must be passed making this clear.
I understand that there are approximately 70 voluntary societies in the British Isles. As the Minister has said, some smaller ones have recently closed and others are in the process of doing so. Some have adoption as part of a general child care scheme—for example, Dr. Barnardo's—but others exist solely as adoption agencies. All have, at present, to be registered with their local authorities. I welcome the fact that the Bill is changing this to central Government 1873 registration. I have no doubt at all that some voluntary adoption societies are not good, but I know that some are excellent and are run by voluntary bodies for whom no praise is too high—and that praise should be put on record today.
Some people have worked devotedly, selflessly and at no cost whatever to the taxpayer for these voluntary bodies for years, although often at considerable cost to themselves. The volume of experience and knowledge that they have acquired could not possibly be matched by a young social worker fresh from college. Social workers have to undertake many tasks for many disadvantaged groups in their work. The expertise and knowledge of these voluntary workers is extremely valuable and I am anxious that their efforts should be welcomed and that they should become part of a partnership.
Has anybody worked out what it will cost the local authorities to run the kind of service which these people are giving free and which some societies are seeking to give? Already societies are closing down because the present economic situation has hit them very hard. A quantitative assessment has to be made of how much it would cost the local authority to do the work that is now undertaken on a voluntary basis. Has anybody worked out what it would cost to implement the Bill? My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) has told me that East Sussex calculates that to implement the Bill in its area alone would cost £1 million per annum.
§ Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)
I do not want the hon. Lady to mislead the House, but I should point out that the Chairman of East Sussex Social Services Committee said that if this authority were to implement the Bill to the spirit and the letter it could cost up to £1 million.
§ Mrs. Knight
This emphasises how important it is for a proper assessment to be made of legislation before we pass it. This has not been done at present. Even if the cost is only £500,000 for that area, that relates to only a small part of the British Isles. A report from Birmingham social workers states that if the money is not made available, well-meaning legislation will be at best marginal and at worst repressive.
1874 It is not only the money that concerns us. There are not nearly enough social workers to take over the work implicit in the Bill. The Birmingham social workers say:…there are insufficient numbers of social workers to allocate to children in care in cities like Birmingham. It is no answer to these problems for new legislation to be passed; assurances that such new legislation will not add to workloads have not been borne out in the past. In the present economic climate it is precisely the supportive and preventive services which are being cut back. For example, the recruitment of social workers in Birmingham is currently halted in line with a city-wide freeze on local government recruitment.Although the Bill has the good will of all hon. Members, I am worried that we are embarking on this splendid scheme without asking ourselves whether we have the money and the people to do it. It is vital to amend the Bill as an earnest of our recognition that we vitally need the volunteers, not as grudged participants or woolly do-gooders but as valued and extremely important partners in the system. I want these societies to be helped and assisted by local authorities.
One way in which this could happen springs to mind instantly. Many prospective adoptive parents who live at a distance from the adoption society have to be interviewed. At present voluntary workers go to the prospective parents' home to interview them and then return to their offices. For local authority social workers on the spot to interview instead would be one way in which partnership would be immensely valuable to people in voluntary societies.
Clause 3 sets out criteria to be imposed by the Government on these societies as standards. But who will impose standards on the local authorities? Some local authorities are very good but some are not so good. As the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) will recollect the Houghton Committee said local authorities have made no systematic attempt to assess need or to develop accordingly. In 1973, 20 local authorities placed no child for adoption. In 47 other local authorities, fewer than five children were placed out of all the children who were in their care.
I should like to read part of a letter by a man who had adopted a child. He says:It is claimed that social work standards are slipping by those with considerably more 1875 experience in this sphere than myself, but I can testify, first hand, to the lack of uniformity and the many shortcomings in local social work systems.There is a general feeling for the introduction of an amendment to the Children Bill reinstating the central inspection of social services departments to provide a uniformity of standard.Many parents like myself, who have adopted and would like to adopt further, are very aware that despite the general social service attitude that there are no children available for adoption, this is not the case. The little boy we have now was tucked away 'in care' and it was mere chance that we became aware of him. There appears to be a general attitude of 'pawns', with the youngsters as acquisitions of some sort of professional game, rather than an appreciation of them as children who should be destined for a family relationship. The standard of knowledge and experience on adoption seems mediocre at the most, and in the social service adoption game the children themselves tend to become ancillary to the academic exercise itself.Parliament should think seriously about that aspect of the matter because, although criteria are necessary for the voluntary adoption societies, they are no less necessary within the local authorities social workers department.
Clause 25 provides for the adopted person over 18 to be given access to birth records. I agree with the hon. Member for Pontypool because I, too, am most concerned about the mother. Adoptive parents often think that it is probably a good idea to make this information available. However, it is by no means the case that story-book endings, with mother clasping child to breast and joyful tears all round, are inevitable. A friend of mine has devoted the whole of her adult life to voluntary work with the National Adoption Society and she has many years of experience on this matter. I listened to her most carefully when she told me that she thought such access could be disastrous for a mother. The Minister said that there was not much proof that this could happen. There can be no statistical proof of worry and there is no way in which we can judge—if we pass the Bill as it stands—how many women are desperately worried that the child, whom they left many years ago and who forms no part of their life at all, might come back and cause embarrassment.
§ Mr. Abse
Fortunately, a great deal of evidence has been available from Scotland where access has always been pos- 1876 sible and a considerable amount of research work has been carried out on this subject. Although we need to mitigate some of the consequences, I hope that the hon. Lady will not take too definite a stance on what is an important matter for the child.
§ Mrs. Knight
I was going by what the Minister said about the evidence available on the Scottish situation. I believe my correspondent is right in saying that it is incorrect that anybody should be given the right by a Bill in this House to wreck another person's life—because this could happen under Clause 25. Supposing, for instance, unhappily, the child had not turned out well and had grown up a tear-away or even a young criminal, blackmail could easily be involved. The House will have to consider this carefully. I hope we shall find time in Committee to alter this.
I do not think, although I hope to be proved wrong, that the Bill will end the problem of the battered child. Many references have been made to Maria Colwell. But there are many such as Maria Colwell. There are many children—at least five quite recently—who exactly mirror in their experience what happened to Maria, in that they were killed by their parents, and they now lie in graves which have never been mentioned in the Press, either national or local.
I know of one case personally. I remember him today, a child who, between the ages of three months and two years, was sent back to his parents on three occasions after abdominal operations for the removal of pins. After the third time the hospital had opened the child up and taken the pins from his stomach, the children's department of the local authority, of which I was a member, applied to court for custody of the child. The magistrates believed what the parents said in the witness box and returned the child to them. Within two months he was dead, unhonoured and unsung.
I am worried about the provision in the Bill dealing with the way in which children may be taken away from their parents. Clause 11(2) says that the grounds for consideration will include whether the parent has persistently or seriously ill-treated the child. Who is to decide? The evidence is that many courts cannot decide the matter accurately. 1877 A parent will go into the witness box and, looking at the magistrates with hand on heart, eye as clear as a bell, and straight face, say that the child fell downstairs or tumbled off the table.
Professor Selwyn Smith, of Birmingham University, has mentioned a recent case in which the father swore that the child had got two black eyes from falling downstairs. Professor Smith, who is an expert, says that no child gets black eyes by falling downstairs. Magistrates will not always have sufficient understanding of a medical nature which will make it clear to them whether a battered child should be taken away or not. I would like to see consultants in child treatment available to be called in for cases of this kind.
I do not mean to carp at the Bill, for there is so much good in it. But I give notice that I shall move amendments in due course in an earnest endeavour to make the Bill better than it is.
§ 1.34 p.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
Some criticisms of the Government has been voiced for bringing in the Bill so late in the Session. But it must be remembered that the Bill started in another place, where it received detailed discussion. Therefore, I do not think there is much in the criticism because, although we ourselves may put down amendments in Committee, the Bill has had very detailed discussion in Parliament already.
The Bill is undoubtedly a piece of major social legislation. In introducing new adoption procedures, it seeks to uphold the balance between the interests of the child and the rights of the natural parents. As others have done, I want to pay tribute to the work of the Departmental Committee on the Adoption of Children. I have read its exhaustive report—I dare say that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) took a great part in it—and I am glad that most of its recommendations—almost one hundred—are being implemented.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who seized his opportunity to promote a private Member's Bill on the subject. It must be of considerable satisfaction to him to be 1878 able to pilot the Bill through the House and to administer its provisions, so a large extent, in the Department.
The Bill is long overdue. Many years have passed since Parliament legislated on children and their welfare. In an age when juvenile deliquency presents such a problem, when family life in many cases seems to have broken down, when the Welfare State presents to us not only its advantages but the disadvantages of many distractions, the care of the future of children must bring many anxieties.
We have long recognised that we ought to put the interests of the child first. I believe that we should use the word "paramount". The words used in the Bill are "first consideration". I do not know whether there is a difference between the two. It is somewhat difficult to tell. But I think that "paramount" is the better of the two. The Bill stresses, rightly, that the first consideration must be the child's interests.
The case of Maria Colwell shocked us all and made us realise how much we fell short in protecting the interests of the child. The ideal, of course, is the happy family, in which the child can be brought up with the love and devotion of its parents. But that, alas, is not possible in many cases. The increase in the number of divorces, the one-parent family, the parent who pays scant attention to the needs of his children, the violence and cruelty which occur in many homes, and the consequent unhappiness that children have to endure, all require us to find some solution, and as good a solution as we can.
What are we to do in the circumstances? If a child can be adopted and become a well-cared-for member of a happy family, well and good. But how are we to ensure such a happy result? First, we have to find the happy family and, clearly, precautions must be taken to see that the child is suited to the family and the family is suited to the child.
Then, of course, there are the cases where adoption is not possible—at least at the time—and a form of guardianship exists. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) referred to the voluntary organisations which have played a great part in providing adoption services. Many local authorities have 1879 helped considerably. Hitherto, the local authorities have had the power to make arrangements for the adoption of children, but not all of them have exercised that power and provided such services.
I am happy that Clause 1 lays a mandatory duty on every local authority either itself to provide the service or to do so in partnership with an approved adoption society. I take it that the point of the intervention by my hon. Friend the Minister of State in the hon. Lady's speech was that voluntary societies go on with their work but in partnership with the local authorities. I think that the combination of the Government, the local authorities and the approved voluntary adoption societies provides a genuine safeguard against what I would call the danger of irresponsible adoption.
Hon. Members may have read the book by Henry Cecil—otherwise Judge Leon—called "Fathers in Law". It sets out the dilemma of an adopted child in a happy family who is subsequently reclaimed by the mother. The story is very good in illustrating the difficulties which attend the present procedure and the unhappiness it can bring.
I do not think that such a dilemma will occur under the provisions of this Bill. The procedure set out, enabling parental rights and duties to be transferred to the local authority or an approved adoption society so that the child is freed for adoption, is an important innovation and should prevent much unhappiness in future.
The Departmental Committee recommended consideration in certain cases of "guardianship" instead of "adoption". This has been provided for in Part II of the Bill, which uses the term "custodianship order". There has been criticism of the word "custodian". I am not sure whether the word "guardian" or even "curator" would not be more appropriate. But I agree that the new concept of a sort of halfway house conferring legal status on relatives or foster parents is valuable. I am sure that it will help in cases where the child is being looked after by a relative but it is not desired to make an adoption order, where the child would be completely lost to the natural parents.
1880 I have one point of serious criticism concerning one clause, Clause 20(3), which makes a major change in court proceedings. It transfers jurisdiction in these proceedings dealt with in courts of summary jurisdiction from the juvenile to the domestic proceeding courts.
I raise this point on behalf of the Inner London Juvenile Court Panel, which comprises 120 lay and stipendary magistrates, and sits a minimum of 20 full-day juvenile courts a week. It accepts that in all parts of England except Inner London this transfer will bring very few problems. That is because both types of courts are staffed from the same justices' clerks' offices and are manned by magistrates on the same bench.
But in Inner London the juvenile courts have for many years been a separate administration. The staff are entirely divorced from the adult magistrates courts. In Inner London all the expertise, both administrative and judicial, in adoption matters before the courts of summary jurisdiction is concentrated in the Inner London juvenile court.
Moreover, juvenile court justices in Inner London have been selected by the Lord Chancellor for the work of the juvenile courts, including adoption, and they have undertaken training geared for this work. Members of the domestic proceeding courts will not have received this training unless they are members of a juvenile court. It follows, therefore, that the transfer might well mean a serious loss of efficiency, and I hope that this provision will be reconsidered in the light of these facts.
I welcome Part III of the Bill, which makes certain amendments to the Children Act 1948 with regard to the care of children. Again, there are a number of amendments that the Inner London Juvenile Court Panel would desire to make in regard to this, and there are a number of others that can be raised. I shall not worry the House with them today because they are clearly Committee points.
I realise that this is an intricate and complex Bill, and presumably that is why more matters affecting children have not been dealt with in it. I have been very concerned about cases of children charged with offences and remanded in 1881 custody, and who have to spend such custody locked in police cells or in prisons such as Holloway. I was very glad to hear the Minister of State say that the Home Office is looking into this matter. An investigation ought to be made into the efficacy of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969. It is very necessary and overdue. The Finer Report awaits attention. The greater use of the family court may well assist in many matters.
I appreciate the difficulties and that we cannot do everything at once. These are very important matters. I hope that in the not-too-distant future, despite the calls there are on the Government, they will be pursued with some sense of urgency. Meanwhile, we have this Bill, and I have no doubt that the Committee will look carefully at the provisions and consider any amendments. It is a piece of major social legislation, and I welcome and support it.
§ 1.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)
Maria Colwell was brutally killed by her stepfather in January 1973, a few hundred yards from my home in my constituency. This tragedy has left its mark on Brighton and on the country as a whole. I ask the House to understand that my approach to this important Bill is inevitably dominated by the Maria Colwell case, although, I trust, not to the point of impairing my judgment
I know that the House will bear with me if I pay one or two tributes in the aftermath of the tragedy of Maria Colwell. My first is to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), who, as the Secretary of State for Social Services, agreed to the appointment of a public inquiry to investigate the whole matter. This inquiry had been called for very strongly by thousands of people in Brighton and by many throughout the country. The Brighton Evening Argus played a major rôle in influencing those, including myself, who believed that an inquiry should be held. Brighton Council fully supported it. In particular, a former mayor of Brighton, Councillor Sheldon, one of the ward councillors, played a great part in the campaign, along with many other leading citizens.
The inquiry was held in public in Brighton and was, I believe, the first of 1882 its kind in the history of the Social Services Department. Mr. Field-Fisher, QC, acted as the chairman, very ably assisted by Alderman Mrs. Davey and Miss Olive Stephenson. The inquiry took place in full view of the people of Brighton. Many of them attended the hearings of the inquiry on a regular basis. There was widespread praise and congratulation for the way in which the whole matter was conducted. The House owes a great debt to the chairman and members of the inquiry team, and to all who so fearlessly and courageously gave evidence at the inquiry. There was no legal compulsion. It would have been possible for a number of people who came forward to refuse to do so. Every witness deserves great credit for having given evidence honestly, openly and courageously. We are also indebted to all those who helped in the organisation and operation of the inquiry, and in bringing it to a conclusion. The report will, I believe, be read by generations in the years ahead.
I cannot conclude my tributes without paying one to the Minister of State himself. His work for children is well known nationally, and I am sure that he revels—rightly so—in being known as a champion of the rights of children.
The people of my constituency in Brighton—and again, I think, people all over the country—are looking to this Bill to become a worthy and lasting memorial to Maria Colwell.
It is a pity that we have to discuss this Bill on a Friday. There are many Members on both sides of the House who would have liked to be here this morning and this afternoon but who had longstanding constituency engagements, such as we all have in our diaries for Fridays, preventing them from being present.
I apologise to the House—and in particular to the Members on the two Front Benches—for the fact that I shall be leaving the House shortly after I have spoken in order to return to Brighton to attend a series of meetings there which are vital to the welfare of my constituents.
In talking of the timetable for the Bill, I leave one point with the Minister of State and ask him to weigh it very carefully. There is a danger that if we attempt to rush this Bill through the Committee stage before the Summer Recess it will not be given the careful, detailed 1883 attention that it should receive. In the light of what the Minister has said about bringing forward a number of important amendments there is the danger that there will not be sufficient time for these to be considered in detail, not just by the Committee but by the outside organisations which are interested in and directly concerned with the Bill. If necessary, we should have part of the Committee stage immediately after the Summer Recess. We must, however, ensure that the Bill becomes law during this Session.
I am sure that the House will understand if I concentrate on Part III of the Bill, which deals with the care of children. The greatest benefit that a child can receive is a secure, loving and happy home, in which he is cared for by those who truly love him. The term "natural parent" tends to imply that any alternative is unnatural. When we talk about a blood tie, we all accept that there can be no automatic assumption that a child is better off with any particular category of person, be they natural parents, foster parents or adoptive parents.
Each case must be looked at closely and judged on its merits. What matters above all are the rights of the child. When we talk of the rights of the natural parents, we have to ask what those rights are. Can a person who does not love, care for or maintain a child be considered a parent? A true parent is a person loving, caring and sacrificing for a child. Rather than over-emphasise the natural parent and the blood tie aspect, as has been done in the past, we should be talking and thinking about the bond between a child and those who have cared for it and take responsibility for it. The strength and depth of the bond must concern all those who have a part to play in deciding the child's future.
When we turn to the problem of children at risk, none of us can forget that Maria Colwell suffered sustained cruelty in her natural mother's home. A child can also be at risk if it suffers psychological and emotional damage. When these cases are considered by the professionals involved we must be careful to ensure that confidentiality is not used in a way which prevents informed decisions being reached about a child. Communications and co-operation between all the professions involved must be con- 1884 tinually reviewed and improved. When inquiries are made about a child's future, for the purpose of preparing reports, there must be rigorous investigation into all the members of the potential family, their backgrounds and histories.
When we consider the conflict of interest which, on occasion, so tragically arises between parents and children, we come to one of the most vital parts of the Bill. Whatever the cost, in the long run we must aim for the separate representation of the child in all proceedings. I accept that at present this has to be restricted to care proceedings, because this is clearly the area of greatest risk and importance. I would like the Minister to think carefully whether it is right that that representation should depend on the discretion of the court. It ought to be mandatory in court proceedings, so that the court does not have to make a marginal judgment about representation. This happens and, on occasions, when separate representation has been refused, the court, with hindsight, might have wished that it had made another decision.
The cost of implementing the Bill will not be small, particularly if it is implemented in spirit as well as in its letter. The money must be made available, or local authorities will inevitably have varying standards. The hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) and the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) strongly believe that the Bill will cost more to implement than the Government have estimated. I, too, believe that the Government have underestimated the cost. Surely the nation will demand, even in the desperately difficult economic situation of the day, that children above all must have the highest standards of protection that can be given, even if it means the extra allocation of financial resources at the expense of something else. The effective implementation of this Bill once it becomes law will depend largely on the good will, dedication and good sense of all the professionals involved. Everyone has a part to play. We all have a responsibility for the care and welfare of our country's children.
§ 1.57 p.m.
§ Mrs. Helene Hayman (Welwyn and Hatfield)
Although I regret as much as anyone else the poor attendance in the 1885 House today, I am sure that most of those here wish to contribute to the debate in an informed and caring manner. It is a shame that the raging argument over the Abortion (Amendment) Bill should have been allowed to spill over into this quite separate debate. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) made an unjustified, hysterical and embittered attack upon supporters of that Bill, particularly on the Labour women back benchers of this House, with regard to their attitude towards that Bill.
I want to make it perfectly plain to my hon. Friend that it is quite incorrect to suggest that the only arguments used for a liberal abortion law are those concerning the rights of women. Some of us are deeply concerned not solely with the rights of women but also with the rights of families and the rights of children to be wanted when they are born. That is one of the considerations to which we put our minds.
§ Mrs. Hayman
I gave way to my hon. Friend, as he did not give way to me, hoping that he would add his comments to those which I have made. I support fully the proposition that children should be deeply cared for by society and by their parents. In that spirit I recommend the Bill to the House.
We all subscribe to the principle that the welfare of the child is paramount. Having stated that as a principle, we come to difficult questions of definition and interpretation of what is best for the child. Some of us have reservations about certain measures in the Bill because of the stereotyped idea which some people have about what is best for the child. We talk about a loving family, a caring family, but we cannot define by statute whether a loving family situation is best provided by a lone parent who is capable of giving a home to the child or by a totally separate home provided either by the local authority or by foster parents. It is diffi- 1886 cult to lay down by statute how important for a child the link with its natural parents is.
One of my fears about the time limits in the Bill—I am not a root-and-branch opponent of time limits—is that they may mitigate against the concept of the welfare of the child being of first importance. The Minister referred to the three-year time limit as being an important protection for natural parents—an encouragement to them to allow their children to go into foster care rather than the institutional care of a local authority without the fear that they might be snatched away from them.
However, the fear of many organisations representing parents, particularly poor parents, and many poor parents themselves, is that time limits, particularly those in Clause 50, will deter parents from seeking the social work help that they desperately need because renunciation on a temporary basis may mean renunciation on a permanent basis. That is a tremendously difficult question to which hon. Members will have to address their minds in Committee. There are no simple answers to it. We are not dealing with a black-and-white situation, or automatically advancing the welfare of children, by putting time limits on the rights of natural parents.
I point out to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) that one reason why the Bill will not deal with the problems and tragedies of child battering is that they are not simply problems of the care, control or possession of a child. They go far deeper than that. They are not confined—and this must be said in an atmosphere which, in seme ways, is antagonistic to natural parents—to natural parents. Step-parents, adoptive parents, foster parents and strangers have all been known drastically to ill-treat children in their care. We must pay attention to this matter at a time when attention is directed at the faults of the system in returning children to their natural parents.
I do not share the view of organisations which say that this measure should not be enacted unless all the other measures on child welfare are enacted at the same time. We want the right sort of financial day care social support to be provided for one-parent families and poor families. However, it is no good shutting 1887 our eyes to the fact that we do not get everything at once. Primarily, the Bill will do an enormous amount to help potential children for adoption. We have had to wait long enough for this Bill. Let us not have to wait longer for the implementation of the Finer Report before we pass this measure.
Certain provisions in the Bill dealing with the legal processes indicate the need for one aspect of the Finer Report to be implemented, and that is the need for family courts. We are dealing with specialist situations which make great demands on the people who have to make judgments of Solomon about the welfare of children. I fear very much leaving such matters to the present legal situation. I understand what the Minister said about this matter, but I am an advocate of an extension of the independent representation of children in court cases even if we have a family court system.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) spoke about saving on legal aid in order to provide more funds for this service. The legal aid fund is drained of millions of pounds a year because the Supplementary Benefits Commission is forced to insist that women should go to the magistrates' courts and try to obtain maintenance orders against their husbands. This costs an enormous amount of money, and causes much anguish. It is unproductive in cost-benefit terms. The result in many cases is a reductio ad absurdum because the people who do not pay, after the State has paid the cost of the court proceedings against them, go to prison, where they are kept by the State and have the least possible chance of earning the money to pay the maintenance order. We should consider whether savings could be made in this respect in order to get the additional funds which are necessary to implement the Bill.
Although I do not stand out for total implementation of all the other aspects of social policy and family welfare to which we should like effect given before the Bill is implemented, the reason why many of us have reservations about it and want care to be taken in its drafting is the inadequacies in our social services and social security system. That puts a burden on us to ensure that the Bill is drafted and passed, as I hope it will be, 1888 in a form which takes account of the climate in which it is being introduced.
§ 2.10 p.m.
§ Mrs. Lynda Chalker (Wallasey)
I am delighted to have this opportunity to welcome the Bill. I appreciate the wise counsel and experience of the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), but I take issue with him on one matter. It is six weeks since Easter, and during those weeks each Wednesday I trotted along to find out from the Whips when the Bill would be coming up. During those six weeks the House has sat long hours, often spending time on matters to which I would give a much lower priority than I would give to the Children Bill. The House will forgive me if I am a little angry that we should have had to wait so long to debate this urgent matter.
I am told that I am rather old-fashioned in my belief in the family and, because I am divorced, I am supposed not to have a belief in the family. I have a great belief in the family. What bothers me more than anything is the amount of abuse of children, which is never seen and hardly heard about until something unusual happens, almost by accident, which occurs in the natural family and never comes to the courts. As the Minister said, we need legislation which provides rehabilitation, but I hope that more emphasis will be put on Part III of the Bill because there are many families who could, with other support, remain together and provide a viable unit. That is what I dearly wish to see.
The need for a stable background through the years of childhood is an idea which is often cast aside because it is unfashionable, but it occurs to me that I probably should not be in the House today had it not been for the loving relationships I had during difficult times. I am sure that must be true of many hon. Members. We have a stable, constant force behind us on which we can fall back in times of stress and anxiety. If we fail to provide that stability for youngsters when their parents deny it to them, we are setting ourselves a legacy for the future with which we shall not know how to cope.
The Bill is the first major attempt for many years to consolidate legislation. The Minister said that six months after the 1889 Bill receives the Royal Assent the adoption law will be consolidated. I am not sure how that will be done, but I assume that it may be the subject of an amending clause in Committee. I notice that Clauses 24 to 29 modify the 1958 Act but, in all, the Bill refers to 15 other Acts of Parliament.
One difficulty which will arise for people outside the legal and professional sphere of child care is that if, under Clause 50, a parent receives a letter from the local authority saying that it intends to assume the child's rights, he or she will not know where to go. Some parents will go to the citizens' advice bureau, but there are many families who are unable even to understand commonplace words.
The directors of social services were concerned that they might not be able to examine the books of voluntary adoption societies. They have argued this matter since the Bill was read a Third time in another place, although the Bill contains an amendment of the Adoption Act 1958 which puts this matter right. Some of the most experienced people in this sphere are bothered that even at the end of our present endeavours we shall not have a consolidated Act upon the statute book.
Nevertheless, nothing should hold up this vital measure. I am in considerable disagreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham. Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight). It is far better to set the framework now than to allow the present situation to drag on, not for another year but for considerably longer, until we hear about family courts, fostering and other measures.
I welcome the Minister's statement on the grant of aid to further the provision of care. That will be a partial answer to the lack of resources for the implementation of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, but it is by no means the total answer. I am sure that the Minister is conscious of that.
I have seen estimates of £14 million and £16 million, leaving aside Clause 54, as the cost of fully implementing the Bill. I am concerned that not only shall we not have the resources to implement the Bill during the next five years, but that we shall not have enough staff. Hon. 1890 Members have referred to the pressures which the Bill will inevitably put upon social services departments. They are pressures which the departments will all welcome, but with which they will not know how to cope. The social services departments are under pressure from heavy case loads and from the lack of experience of many social workers.
Experience is needed to enable a person to decide what is best for a child. That cannot be done by social workers who have been out of training for only two or three months. The problems which surround children are of tremendous complexity. One instance of that complexity is the requirement that adoptions by parents and step-parents shall in future be supervised. In 1970, 50 per cent. of adoptions were by parents and step-parents, and that load is to be added to the existing burden on the social services departments. There is also a limitation on the retraining of social workers which forces us to fall back on the training they have already had. I am told that only 40 per cent. of our social workers are fully trained, and it is reckoned that only 10 per cent. of those will have the ability to deal with adoption cases. The case load on that 10 per cent. imposed by a full adoption service will be unbelievable.
I hope that the Minister, in his wisdom and with his great experience in this matter, will put forward a method of helping local authorities which genuinely wish to implement the legislation but know of no way adequately to serve the needs of the community.
One way in which local authorities might implement the legislation when it becomes law is by the establishment of a partnership with voluntary bodies. On both sides there is great determination to ensure equality of treatment. Two-thirds of the local authorities which give adoption advice service would welcome the same inspection as for the voluntary associations and that should be built into the legislation.
At the beginning of Clause 1 is the proposition that every pregnant woman will need care. That care might be from one of the voluntary bodies in partnership with the local authority. I should like to know how the Minister envisages that, if we are to provide a comprehensive service. It is necessary that the 1891 facilities covered by sub-paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of subsection (2) should be provided both by the local authority and the voluntary agency, either in partnership over a given area or separately.
I have a suggestion to make which might save money. There is often overlapping responsibility where a voluntary adoption society is active in three or four local government areas.
I refer to a local government area in which there is no adoption association. It would be sensible and economical for neighbouring local authorities to work with adoption societies in the areas outlined by health authorities so that they all know their responsibilities. Whatever happens, each adoption society, he it local authority or voluntary, must know the standards and services which are required.
Referring to the adoption aspect of the Bill, I am delighted that the Government have agreed the amendment made in the other place to the effect that the child's welfare should be the first consideration. It is vital that we should extend our consideration not only to the material aspects but to the emotional wellbeing of the child. It is the emotional factors which will affect what happens to the child in the long term. We hope that we can extend the argument for a greater degree of consideration for the child to demands for a friend for the child.
The children's friend would not be the adoption officer, who was suddenly brought in when the adopton was about to take place or when the potential adopters were being sought. The child's friend would be somebody who, from the time when the child's relationship with the natural parent had been disturbed, could be alongside that child for the future reference of the social worker. The person might be a relation or a former foster parent with long experience of the way in which children grow up when they are away from their natural parents.
I welcome the prohibition of independent placements for adoption. That is a definite advance. I appreciate the wise counsel of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson). We know that many private placements have been successful. However, it is regrettable that the majority of them, according to the 1892 directors of social services, have been unsuccessful. I hope that we shall be able to extend the banning of private placements to the principle of banning private fostering.
I agree with what the hon. Member for Pontypool said about birth records. It sometimes happens that a child at the age of puberty is determined to find out something about his past. He has ways and means of doing that, even with our legal system. If people are concerned that parents might receive visits from their children many years after adoptions have taken place, as a result of finding the birth certificate, perhaps we should make one restriction. Birth certificates should be available only through the adoption agency through which the child was placed. The Minister mentioned this problem. We must ensure that the relevant clause is not made retrospective, so that parents placing their children for adoption know where they stand. If the provisions were made retrospective problems could arise.
§ Mr. Whitehead
If what the hon. Lady proposes were to become the practice under the Bill, it would mean that we were legislating for 18 years' hence and not for the moment.
§ Mrs. Chalker
I do not mean that we should legislate for 18 years' hence. Not every child who is adopted is a few months old. However, this matter is open for discussion and I look forward to hearing the comments of the hon. Gentleman.
This matter causes a great deal of concern amongst parents who have given their children for adoption within the past few years. I have received representations on the matter.
Clause 13(2) will discourage parents from placing children in the care of local authorities when it is in their best interests that that should be done. We should not discourage people from seeking help because of their fear of being completely separated from their children. That is the way they will see it, even though it is not the intention of the law. I hope that we shall be able to define the meaning of subsections (2) and (3). I have no doubt that in view of our present housing waiting lists there will be many children who should rightly be in 1893 care. Some families may not be able to stay together. That often happens in the case of one-parent families.
Clause 11(2) makes provision for dispensing with parental agreement where the rehabilitation of the child within the family is unlikely. There seems good reason to extend the provisions of Clause 11(5) to the earlier subsections of Clause 11.
In the past six months I have had increasing contact with people who are fostering children. Foster parents welcome the Bill. They believe that they have something to offer to new foster parents. Those people can help the local authorities. In some areas foster parents think that they are regarded as less than full parents of the children for whom they care. I have experience of the relationship of foster parents and the less experienced social workers who are younger than those who normally deal with child care cases. The foster parent feels that she is doing a favour for the people involved. I suppose that she is. although she enjoys what she is doing. She feels that she could contribute towards the social workers' identification of some of the problems if only the social worker would allow her to do so. Foster parents have suggested that they might become children's friends.
The custody clauses of the Bill are welcomed. One matter is not covered by the Bill. I have dealt with a number of cases where custody should extend to matters such as passports. The Minister may be aware of one or two recent cases. The hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) referred to one such case, where a father had a joint passport. There had been difficulties in the family. The children lived with their mother and stepfather. The father snatched the children away and took them out of the country. I should like the Minister and his advisers to consider the difficult passport situation which can occur in a foster home where there is one natural parent and one stepfather caring for the child.
I shall not go into the problem of time limits. We can discuss them in Committee. I wish to deal with the recognition of non-accidental damage, child abuse, or whatever it is called. It is my 1894 experience that there are a number of warning signs to which we turn a deaf ear or a blind eye; we think that things will get better.
Having spoken to my local social workers and friends about this problem, I am concerned to ensure that we bring into the Bill something like the register of child abuse that is operated by Lambeth Borough Council. Having read the report of the joint committee of inquiry into non-accidental injury to children, with particular reference to Lisa Godfrey, I am convinced that the way in which Lambeth Borough Council has approached this problem is something that we should recommend to other authorities.
I say that there are warning signs. Perhaps I may tell the House that during the last six years, while trying to help some families in need, I have frequently seen parents who have come to me in need—very often housing need—to discuss this matter. While the children are running around, anybody who has worked with them can see bruising which is suspect. I am not saying that everybody should start to inform upon people, but there is one case in which the authorities were informed quite by chance, and within three months the child had to be taken into care. The initial comment put a probation officer on her guard, and put the local authority social worker on her guard to look further than what appeared in the net curtains. The curtains were opened, people went into the home and found out what was going on. I hope that we can consider bringing in a register on lines similar to that operated by the London Borough of Lambeth.
I ask the Minister to include in the Bill an information system whereby, if foster parents and natural parents—and particularly natural parents—move from one local authority area to another everybody concerned with the child in question is informed. This system usually works in the case of a foster parent, but not always with a natural parent, and the lack of information between social service departments is extremely worrying.
I now turn to the thorny question of private fostering. I do not wish to make a case solely on the basis of the evidence produced on behalf of West African families, where many of the children of students coming to this country to study 1895 are put into foster homes, usually privately advertised. I know that this problem is perhaps outside our experience in Britain. We do not have the idea of the extended family in the way that it exists in Nigeria and Ghana. In those countries—and others—there is feeling that children are children and are brought up by responsible adults. Frequently, children are given to relations and friends to care for. When students from those countries come here with their children—and I think that there may be some good in counselling them to leave their children in their homeland—they would be well advised to seek not private fostering but the help of the local authority.
I say that so strongly because there is a language and an understanding barrier. When a Ghanaian woman places her child in a private foster home and says to a white woman "I give you my child", she does not imply any permanence. It is a language problem and one which we could overcome by banning the sort of advertisements which occur weekly in Nursery World, many copies of which I have here. If we were to ban such advertisements we should get over the problem because local authorities would then become involved and there would not be tug-of-love situations when these students wish to return to their homeland and want their children back.
Under our Bill as we discuss it now in in the House there could be tug-of-love situations which are never envisaged. I do not read West African papers regularly, but the misunderstanding in West Africa of our measures on this issue is something about which we should be concerned because it is not conducive to good relations.
I turn to one of the Finer recommendations which, above all, is crucial if we are to keep families together. It is that we put money into day care for children so that we do not split families for a considerable time. If that is done we shall take a further step along the road towards having fewer children taken into permanent care. But if children are in that permanent care it should be remembered that they are individuals and they should be individually represented in any proceedings which take place. If it is a money problem, so be it. We seem to be able to vote through on the nod. night after night, things which cause far 1896 greater problems for our borrowing requirement than are likely to be caused by any of the proposals in the Bill, and particularly Clause 54.
I am sorry to tell the hon. Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) that if we were to do away with legal aid for the purpose of chasing errant husbands we should not save that amount of money. If we were to change the present system we should be in the position of having to spend money in a different way. We should be faced with the problem of looking after mums without maintenance and we should not save the amount of money which the hon. Lady led the House to believe would be saved by doing away with legal aid.
I believe that we can get to the bottom of this problem. Never since I have been in the House have I seen such unanimity of will to get on to the statute book a measure as significant as this. It is a caring will. It is a will which puts this place far above many of the feelings which are being expressed about it now that people can hear all the interruptions on the media. I hope that the will expressed today will be translated into legislation in a very short space of time, having been amended where necessary in Committee.
§ 2.37 p.m.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
I follow the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) in her exhaustive examination of the Bill both in welcoming it and in appreciating that the prime consideration that will face us in Committee, and must face the House on further consideration, is the financial one.
We are meeting in a situation of severe financial constraint. There are calls on all sides—and we heard it again from the Leader of the Opposition in her political broadcast the other night—for even heavier cuts in public expenditure. To implement the Bill, even to implement the setting up of what is proposed in the Bill in the first instance, will be costly.
There is some dispute between the directors of social services upon whom the burden will fall, as it will upon their social workers on the ground, and the noble Lord who replied to the debates in another place about the actual cost involved. As my hon. Friend said, there 1897 will be considerable further instances where we need to go into the whole area of children's representation in all legal situations where they might be deemed appropriate. This is a consideration which the Committee throughout will have to bear in mind. There are difficult areas where we are looking at the aspirations which the Bill legitimately seeks to fulfil and the real and grim facts of the present financial situation.
It is in view of that that I must at the outset say that I greatly regret the statement put out today by five voluntary associations. The statement has been put out over the names of and presumably with the authorisation of the British Association of Social Workers, the Child Poverty Action Group, Gingerbread, MIND and the National Council for One-Parent Families. It amounts to a warning that the Bill or at least Parts II and III in anything like their present form will damage the rights of children. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) suggested that it might even be seen by some, were it to go through unamended, as a child snatcher's Bill, as a measure for the transfer of children—people—from the underprivileged and needy sections of the community whose welfare is the prime aim of these five organisations, as it is of all of us, to the better-off who can use and indeed exploit the law as we might change it.
I regret that interpretation of what the Bill is about. It is ten years or more since we began, at least in adoption, to consider the area covered by the Bill. It may now, with hindsight, be a matter for regret that we were not, simultaneously with Houghton, considering fostering, and perhaps the terms of reference of that Committee might have been wider. However, as I am at present sitting on a Committee with infinitely wide terms of reference, I can see the difficulties in that. Also, it was a great success to get a unanimous report from Houehton of great clarity, which my hon. Friend's Private Member's Bill, of which I had the honour to be a sponsor, essentially implemented. That is probably why there is less controversy over Part I than over Parts II and III.
I regret what is said in this joint statement. It is suggested that the Bill, if 1898 implemented, could expose more children to risk than present legislation. I do not believe that to be the case. I cannot see the Bill coming out of Committee in a form which would put more children at risk, would leave fewer children rather than more able to go into the care of long-term fostering, able to exploit all the advantages which we hope will be given by the custodial relationship, able perhaps to break through the various legal impediments which over the years have stopped many children enjoying that caring relationship throughout their childhood—as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) said, the only childhood they get. I cannot believe that the Bill will make their position worse. Essentially, it must make it better.
§ Mr. Abse
My hon. Friend gives a well-deserved admonition to the British Association of Social Workers. May I assure him that, on the basis of the many meetings that I have had with social workers on the Houghton Report, I gravely doubt whether what the association says is more representative of social work opinion generally in the country than Mr. Scanlon is representative of the engineering workers in South Wales.
§ Mr. Whitehead
I make no comment on who is representative of whom among the engineering workers. That would be out of order in more senses than one. It has been my privilege, however, over the past year throughout my county authority in Derbyshire to speak to gatherings, large and small, of social workers, foster parents and other concerned bodies. I have not had one representation—as well as the meetings, I have received many written submissions for consideration by the Committee and possible amendments subsequently—reflecting anything like the approach put before us in this statement.
It is astonishing that, after all the years in which this Bill has been considered—the debate that we had on Houghton when the Conservative Party were in power and the many debates in the House of Lords—now, on Second Reading of this Bill, this onslaught on the whole principle of Parts II and III should have been delivered.
§ Mr. Andrew Bennett
Would my hon. Friend not at least accept that the British 1899 Association of Social Workers lobbied the House early in the spring and that Committee Room No. 10 was full of their members expressing the points of view contained in this joint statement, that the individual groups concerned have been lobbying individually for some time and that certainly my experience of social workers in the Greater Manchester area suggests that many of them have been disturbed since they realised the full implications of the Bill for fostering and child care practice?
§ Mr. Whitehead
I take the point about the lobby, which I unfortunately could not attend. I accept that it took place and that Mr. Bamford and others have been here urging this viewpoint on hon. Members for some time. If that is true of social workers in the Manchester area, so be it. My own feeling is that of course there are points to be remedied in the Bill. Of course some things are wrong. As my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) said, we cannot make the Bill the scapegoat for all the other problems in the area of familial relationships, social deprivation and so on. Of course we wish to see the Finer Report implemented, but it cannot be said that because we are getting the Bill we shall not get Finer or that Finer will be delayed because the Bill is going through.
Getting in one of these pieces of social legislation, given the priorities which Governments tend to have, is in itself a serious struggle. But there are situations in which half a loaf is better than no bread. There are situations in this House—this has certainly been true of my limited experience—when Governments simply will not, in their first year or two, because they are committed to all the usual manifesto exhortations, give the proper priority to this kind of social legislation. Getting this through now in the third Parliament after Houghton is a major step forward and a particular tribute to the Minister of State, who has, within the Government as he did as a private Member, lobbied so assiduously for the measure.
I shall say something about some specific points which the British Association of Social Workers has raised, on which I tend to agree or, at least, to see the drift 1900 of their thinking. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North will find our normal alliance on matters of civil liberty re-assumed at that point.
I want first to consider the part of the Bill which, in terms of those representations, is least contentious—Part I, dealing with adoption. Here, as I did in the debate on the Houghton Report—unfortunately, we never had a debate on the Private Member's Bill because of a certain election in February last year—I must declare an interest. I am, as one might say, a child of the 1927 Adoption Act. I was adopted in a private placement—in, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) might be interested to know, a reasonably successful one of the type which will now be outlawed.
I can therefore speak with some feeling of the effect on my life that the kind of caring relationship provided, in this case by adoptive parents, has had, as her own relationship with her natural parents had for her. All of us can say this. Most of us, I suppose, are where we are because of the circumstances of our environment and upbringing. We should all also have to say that any measure which extended that kind of close family relationship to another category of children in need, deprived and neglected through their only childhood, is to be welcomed.
I would strongly support keeping Clause 25 as it is. The hon. Member for Wallasey suggested that there would be a problem—an element, I suppose, of retrospective legislation—if we made this measure, as we hope to do, applicable to those who were adopted in the different circumstances of the 1927 and 1958 Acts. That is true, but if the thing is right, it is right. We cannot now say to people that we propose to reform the law to give people access to their birth records if adopted on the day after the legislation goes through and thereafter for a period of eighteen years on, and not say to those adopted under the previous legislation that they should have the same rights and the same access.
§ Mrs. Knight
Would the hon. Gentleman not take into consideration the fact that the natural mother also has rights in this regard and that it could have a disastrous effect on her life?
§ Mr. Whitehead
Of course I will accept that point, as all of us must who deal seriously with this matter. I have gone through this in my own life. I met my own natural mother when I was 30 and I know that it is a traumatic experience for both parties. I would not necessarily say that everyone should do it. I would say that there should be counselling at the time that the adoption society or the court makes the records available.
I would say two things to the hon. Lady. First, under Scottish law, as we have been reminded, access at the age of 16 has been for many years a matter of right. Dr. Alexina McWhinnie has produced a book called "Adopted Children and How They Grow Up", which suggests that there is no evidence of harassment of the natural parents or the relationships of the natural parents being shattered or destroyed by the intrusion of an adopted child, as it were, coming back.
It is a fact, which perhaps the natural parent finds as hard to accept as those of us in this House might, that the adopted child seeking this information and seeking to make himself, as it were psychologically whole is doing it for reasons which have nothing to do with the creation of another substantial familial relationship. Such a child wishes to know who and what he is. This is true as he approaches marriage. As the result of amendments in another place, we have a provision in Clause 25 that, if an applicant can provide evidence that he intends to marry, he does not have to reach the stipulated minimum age of 18. I believe that that is right. It is at such moments that a person wishes to know all the relevant facts and data about his past. It is that quest for data that is essentially needed.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston should also be reminded that many natural mothers who have in the different circumstances of many years ago given up their children, feel as deprived by the blank in their lives as perhaps do the adopted children whom they have lost. They do it for different reasons. They may not merely feel curiosity but feel able to take up that maternal relationship which was broken when the child was only a month or two old.
1902 I have had a good deal of correspondence about this matter since the Private Member's Bill was first broached. An organisation called Jigsaw has been set up by Angela Hamblin and others. It is an association of natural mothers who wish to see a register of adoptions open to them. Whether provision for that can be made in this Bill, I do not know, and whether it will be dealt with in the Bill, I do not know. But it casts a light on the approach of the natural mother which is rather different from that suggested by the hon. Lady.
I want to make one further point about adoptions. There is an anomaly in Clauses 9 and 10 which we shall have to look at in Committee. This is a point which has been raised by the British Association of Social Workers. It appears that, under Clause 9, married persons who can show that jointly they have reached the age of 21 can adopt a child which presumably they had out of wedlock. However, Clause 10 suggests that a unmarried person who has reached the age of 21 can apply for adoption as a single person. If that is so, it is curious. It appears to be discriminating against someone. In Committee, we shall have to decide whether to remove the age limit for married people, or to attempt to bring Clause 10 into line with Clause 9.
These are Committee points, but it seems to me that we should acknowledge that there are still anomalies in the provisions for adoption left in the Bill as it has come from the House of Lords.
I conclude by commenting on one or two areas of real concern under the later provisions of the Bill in Parts II and III.
Although I do not accept the statement of the five organisations about the deleterious effects of the custodial relationship envisaged and the possible drying up of long-term fostering if the implications of what foster parents may hereafter apply for are either custodianship or as adoptive parents after five years, nevertheless I see a certain number of difficulties.
We have built into Clause 30 the limits of 12 months on application with consent of the natural parent for custodianship and for three years, not necessarily all of a piece, if there is not such consent. A number of people, including the Deputy Director of Social Services in Derbyshire, have written to me suggesting that there 1903 is a considerable evidence that the one-year limit may be too little in view of the records that there are of unsuccessful placements which manifest themselves between the first and second years. In the researches of Victor George and others, there is a suggestion that the rate of unsuccessful placements between the first and second years is still running at more than 25 per cent. That is a large amount if we are to make the provisions of Clause 30 applicable in the Bill.
Here, I join forces with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North. Many people from deprived backgrounds who have let their children go into care and are glad to put them into fostering do not make distinctions between short- and long-term fostering and may consent to custodianship when too short a time span has elapsed. We shall have to look carefully at these time limitations in Committee and decide whether the 12 months minimum is right.
There are two other matters on custodianship to which I wish to refer. First, what happens to the child if the custodianship is challenged by the local authority and the application by foster parents is turned down? The Bill allows for the child to return to its pre-existing situation. It remains fostered by the people concerned. We shall have to look carefully at the Bill to see whether there are not possibilities of harm for the child where there has been any kind of contest in the courts.
The other matter about custodial relationships which causes me concern is that in Clauses 30, 34 and subsequently there is no provision for the financial support of those who have taken custodianship. Simply because a person becomes the custodian of a child, he should not thereby lose the financial support and back-up given to foster parents. We shall have to make it clear that this is not to be the case.
I want finally to discuss the problem of tug-of-love children. A great deal has been said about the danger that these cases may increase in number as a result of this legislation. Clauses 37, 49 and others dealing with this matter have been shaped by the consequences of the Maria Colwell and other cases. One of the main worries is not that these cases will increase 1904 in number and that they may be more satisfactorily resolved by the legislation but that immense harm is done to children in these situations. I suppose that that is the point behind the representations of the BASW.
If we can get in this legislation some provision for anonymity for children in these cases, in my view it will be of immense advantage. A child in my constituency in a children's home was the subject recently of an application by her former foster parents living in Sussex for her to be returned to them. Her natural mother had taken her back from the foster parents and then, because of other difficulties with the sibling children at home, she had been placed temporarily in the care of the local authority. This fact had been communicated to the foster parents. The foster parents began to make a fuss about that and had applied to my local authority to have the child returned to them. The newspapers saw this as a story—a tug-of-love case, which is the newspaper expression—which would sell more papers. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dozens of journalists were parked outside the children's home on the lookout for the natural mother.
I do not propose to name that child. It would be invidious of me to do so. Her life has been seriously harmed by what those newspaper men did. If we can put into this legislation some provision for anonymity for children who are the subject of tug-of-love cases—and there may be many more coming into the courts as a result of this legislation—we shall have done something to minimise the harm done to their lives.
There are many other points which one could make, but the House will be glad to know that I do not intend to make them. I look forward to a thoughtful, not overlong Committee stage and I hope that the spirit of bi-partisan welcome that this Bill has received from almost everybody I have heard today will be sustained through the Committee and that this much-needed, much-delayed legislation will be on the statute book before the summer is out.
§ 3.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Jim Lester (Beeston)
I appreciate the privilege of being able to speak in this debate, even at this late hour. I am delighted to take part in a debate 1905 through which has run a thread of concern and care and a common desire to see the Bill become law.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) in his view that a Committee stage of only four weeks is disappointing. This is such an important Bill that it should not be rushed. It is essential that the change in direction that it represents should have a careful, unhurried and reflective consideration with the good will of both sides, and I would hope that we could go on after the recess to realise the desire we all have of getting the Bill right.
We could use the Bill to simplify the many current Acts affecting children's welfare, but I understand the Minister's comment that six months after the Bill has been passed the 1958 Act will be repealed and there will then be one Act covering the adoption of children. That is a major step forward.
I welcome the assurances by the Minister about the resources element and the rate of implementation of the Bill. As a former chairman of a children's finance committee I share the very real concern of directors of social services about the manpower available, the state of training, the financial limitations that we now face and the priorities for local authorities. One has only to see the very sad rate of achievement of the 1969 Act to appreciate this point.
I compliment the Minister in one respect. For the first time in this House I have heard the expression of a realistic view of the dichotomy which exists between us, here, passing legislation and those in local government who have to carry it out. The Secretary of State for the Environment has said, quite rightly, that the party is over, yet we here are, in a sense, continuing to lay the table with future major legislation. The different approach adopted by the Minister is very welcome. We must look realistically at what can be achieved, and I accept the Minister's priorities that children should come first, but the fact that we have stated that in the House does not mean that it will automatically take place in the budgeting arrangements of the local authorities. In dealing with such a vulnerable section of the community we should, in the interests of the children, get much closer to reality.
1906 In considering the major purpose of Clause 1 adoptions we must not forget that 76 local authorities will be starting from scratch to provide an adoption service. Fortunately, local authorities like my own in Nottinghamshire have long done so as a valuable part of their child care service, and they have established a very good record over many years. However, we must not underestimate the difficulties of doing what the Bill seeks to achieve, to provide a national service of a similar high standard. The Minister, who is responsible for the health service, does not need me to tell him of the terrible difficulties over resources. One is interested to see, as one reads the report of his own departmental committee, that it thinks that legislation is important and vital. It thinks that better casework practice and an improved use of existing powers through a significant increase in qualified local authority social workers should also be pursued as objectives of the utmost importance.
I do not know whether that suggestion is costed in the figures that we have been given as the cost of implementing this legislation—the Government's £8½ million—or the other figures that have been used, including £14 million, £18 million or £22 million. I sincerely welcome the Government's assurance that they will not impose additional responsibilities without providing the resources, and that the timing and implementation of the Bill will be subject to full consultation with those who will be required to carry it out. It would be good if that approach spilled over into other legislation put forward by other Ministers.
I support the view that the Bill should be considered in the context of what is provided for the total welfare of children. It should not be seen as trying to establish a new fashion. Everything is subject to fashions. We should strongly resist the temptation to suggest that adoption and custodianship are preferable to support in other ways. I quote the example of day care, which 25 years ago was considered unfashionable and harmful to families. It was dispensed with in many areas, but in today's world we see that it has an increasing relevance in keeping families together and helping one-parent families, in particular, to remain as a unit. I remember the fashion of purpose-built children's homes as against cosy 1907 country cottages, and the question whether children in care should be out in the country or in town. All that really mattered was the quality of the house parents who were looking after the home.
We all recognise that the Bill, the Houghton Report, and all the other work that has gone into the Bill, change the balance of interest between children, natural parents, foster parents and adoptive parents. There is a clear division between responsible bodies on the question whether we have gone too far or not far enough in the Bill, and whether it will help or hinder the good practice of child welfare. All of us involved in the debate today are anxious to break the circle of deprivation which we see through children being in care and then producing children who go into care. The same applies to the battered babies syndrome.
I must confess that, given the statistical evidence available for the reasons for children coming into care, I am uneasy about the provisions in subsections (2) and (3) of Clause 13, under which one can dispense with parental consent and free children for adoption, subject to certain conditions. I welcome the Minister's statement that this area is still under review. We all believe that the first interest is the future of the child. In many cases it is important to maintain contact with the natural parent.
It is easy to say that, but it is much harder for a social service worker, a house parent, or a foster parent to do it, even though it is in the best interests of the child, because with children in care there are many natural difficulties about maintaining contact with parents. The parents may be only a short distance away, but there may be transport difficulties, and there may be other children who need to be looked after. Anyone who has experience of a children's home knows how important contact is, even if it is limited to a birthday card or a Christmas card.
No one would suggest that we want to support bad parents. Under the existing legislation, bad parents can be dealt with. However, one does not want to see this legislation tip the scales against the interests of the in-betweens, or marginals.
Clause 13(3) deals with one-parent consent. We know the Press expression "tug- 1908 of-love". I find it difficult to imagine anyone involved with a child in a "tug of love" situation. I prefer to describe it as a tug-of-war situation. The subsection should be widely considered in that context. Where the consent of one parent is dispensed with, and a tug-of-war situation arises, a child may be involved in matters of spite, revenge and blackmail.
I turn to the question of fostering, dealt with in Clause 50. Foster parents do an invaluable caring job. They have a special vocation to deal with difficult and disturbed children who are not suitable for adoption and who require the support of the social services. Although the National Foster Care Association does not regard the Bill as a means of excluding natural parents—it rightly says that fostering is different from adoption—foster parents are pledged to help families in need by caring for their children, and they are warmed by the successful reuniting of caring parents with their children. There is much in the provision which implies that over a period of time a different philosophy may emerge, and that fostering may mean adoption. The vexed question of time limits, with which the Minister dealt sympathetically, may be involved. However, if limits were badly used, or introduced on arbitrary grounds, they could be considered as an additional hazard in regard to the welfare of the children in care.
We can understand the thinking behind the principle of payment of custodians or adoptive parents. If we analyse the reasons for so many children going into care, which include poverty and the inability of the natural parents to afford accommodation—homelessness, as we call it—we find that it raises the major principle that adoptive parents could expect special payments for looking after those children—payments to which natural parents would not be entitled. This is a matter of balance, which we can examine in Committee.
I agree that it is vital to put this legislation on the statute book. The good will of hon. Members and the level of debate point to the likelihood of this being achieved. In the final analysis, the Bill will be seen as a major step forward in child care, and it will help those many over-pressed people who undertake this vital work.
§ 3.12 p.m.
§ Mr. John Watkinson (Gloucestershire, West)
I rise to give a broad welcome to the Bill and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on having piloted it thus far. I hope that it will emerge from Committee before the end of the Session so that we have an up-to-date provision for adoption and other ancillary matters on the statute book.
I have been a little concerned about some of the reactions from organisations and social workers who are directly concerned with the welfare of children. An article published in The Times today points out that a group of these organisations has condemned the Bill because it seeks to deprive parents of their parental rights. Indeed, there are some who see the Bill as a success for a powerful lobby to promote adoption of children by reducing the rights of those parents, almost as if there were a Machiavellian intent on the part of the Minister to deny parents their rights.
This is not the case. There is no partisan spirit involved in the provisions of the Bill. If there is, it is directed towards the children who have suffered and who continue to suffer through the deprivation of a normal family home.
The keynote of the Bill is found in Clause 2. Every other clause needs to be read in the context of that clause, which states that those who will have to manage and bring the Bill into effect must promote the interests of the child and that first consideration should be given to that child. I confess that I am a little surprised that Clause 2 says in relation to the adoption of a child, that the first consideration in adoption proceedings should be given:… to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child throughout his childhood".I believe it to be the case that, in all proceedings involving children, first consideration is always given to the welfare of the child. It is manifest in the Guardianship of Minors Act.
I think that all of us would be prepared to say that the best interests of a child are served if it can be brought up with its natural parent, and we must all be aware that adoption is not a universal panacea and has not been a universal success. Many adoptions break down. We have to admit also that a large per- 1910 centage of fosterings break down. One organisation has suggested that we are tackling the problem from the wrong end and that the social deprivations in housing and social services need tackling in the first place. That is corect. We do need to improve our services. But the brutal reality is that we are unable at present to provide for ourselves and our citizens the social background which we all desire.
In this context, the House is confronted by the problem of children who need the care and attention of us all. To that extent, it is necessary to have the Bill. I broadly welcome the introduction of a comprehensive adoption service. I note, too, the caveat, which many hon. Members have made, that there is no point in Parliament willing the end if it does not provide the means. I note, too, the publication from the British Association of Social Workers pinpointing the extent to which social work and social care are under direct financial threat. I welcome my hon. Friend's undertaking to ensure sufficient funds to bring the Bill into effect.
There are those who claim that the Bill is primarily an attack on parental rights and point to Clause 13, particularly subsections (2) and (3), in confirmation. One has to take into consideration what has been said. The removal of parental consent is a very serious matter. But it must be accepted that being freed for adoption may have beneficial effects for those children who have remained in children's homes for long periods and who need and can benefit from adoption services.
We have been warned of the danger of Clause 13(3) being used to extend rather than diminish tug-of-love situations. I should like clarification of subsection (7), which states that:An adoption agency shall not place a child for adoptionunless certain conditions have been fulfilled. It may produce circumstances in which unnecessary delays take place.
We have heard mention of the time limits to be imposed in the Bill—notably, the five-year and three-year limits. I, too, am worried about them. But those who have cared for children are entitled to an interest in them, and we know that whenever court proceedings have been initiated in the past in relation to fostering children and adoption proceedings, all 1911 too often the immediate response has been the removal of the child from the home, and thus the attempts of well-meaning foster parents are thwarted. So I welcome the clauses which prohibit the removal of children from those who are seeking to bring about adoption or seeking a custodianship order.
I note, too, that the Bill hedges itself around with clauses in order to protect the interests of parents when it comes to custodianship, consent and adoption. Very rigorous tests are imposed by this Bill. Likewise I note that, in the clause empowering local authorities to assume parental rights after three years, there again the Bill lays down very strict and rigorous tests, placing obligations upon local authorities to inform parents of what they intended to do, and giving parents the full opportunity to avail themselves of the courts to oppose the measure if they so wish.
Hon. Members have mentioned the nature of custodianship. This is an area which requires tightening up. There should be more definition of what is meant by custodianship.
I share the views of hon. Members who find the nomenclature a little disturbing and distasteful here. To say that one is the custodian of a child smacks too much of the jail, rather than of social service and of care. But I think that within that clause we need, as Opposition Members have stated, to ask ourselves questions about what happens in the case of revocation. What happens to the child in those areas where parental rights and control over the child are not given to the foster parents?
We ought seriously to consider the reservations of the British Association of Social Workers and the Directors of Social Services in relation to custodianship as it concerns children who are in the care of the local authority, because it is here felt that this might impose a real fear upon parents who place their children with local authorities that the Bill may prevent them from so doing. This needs to be looked into.
I give the warmest possible welcome to Clause 54, which allows for separate representation of the child. From my own experience in the court I know how useful and welcome this clause will be.
1912 I also welcome the provision in the Bill which allows foster parents representation in court at the discretion of the court. I know from my own experience in my own constituency of the heartbreak situation of foster parents who see the foster child brought before the court and are unable to express any opinion or any view to that court. I think that this clause is entirely welcome, and I reiterate the remarks of my hon. Friend here when she said that it is vital that we also bring into operation the family court, as has been recommended by the Finer Report. Family law in this country is in a state of chaos, and everyone will be served if there is reform in this direction.
I give this Bill a very warm welcome and hope that it will find its way on to the statute book at the end of this Session.
§ 3.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Stanley Cohen (Leeds, South-East)
I shall leave the speech I had intended to make where it belongs—in my folder—because obviously we want to hear replies from the Front Benches.
I wish first to pay a special tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, not only for his comprehensive introduction to this debate but for the work he has done as a Minister and, prior to that, in connection with this subject.
Most of us appreciate, as I am sure he will, that not only people in this Chamber but people throughout the country will be very grateful for the work done in this respect. I am pleased that at least there is a recognition on both sides of the House that it is impossible to draft perfect legislation. The Minister made this clear. We all recognise that changes will have to be made in the light of experience. This is a sensitive and emotive subject. I have been a member of the Leeds Children's Committee for 18 years and I am therefore aware of some of the problems. It is important that we should have discussed the subject in such a constructive way.
The Minister will recognise that there have been, there are and there will be, critics of the legislation. I hope that in Committee it will be recognised that those critics are constructive and serious in their 1913 concern about the possible effects of certain clauses. I hope that the Committee will look at such things carefully. I know about some of the problems which face children's departments and social service departments. I speak, too, as someone who appreciates the problems of religious organisations. I am aware of their doubts and fears. While I accept without question my hon. Friend's sincerity, I believe that we have to guard against the way in which this legislation is interpreted by the various authorities throughout the country. It is that which is worrying many organisations. I am sure that with my hon. Friend's guidance the Committee will take this into consideration.
The problems of implementation have been raised today. I appreciate that those who have attended today, inadequate though the total number may have been, have been greatly concerned about this subject. I do not wish to select anyone for particular reference, but it has been unfortunate that Conservative Members should have made such appeals for us to find money to implement the Bill. This is rather inconsistent at a time when the Conservative Party is demanding public expenditure cuts. I hope that those who advocate finding the means to implement this measure will realise that there cannot be this inconsistency.
The Bill cannot work without the necessary social workers. At the moment, there is an insufficient number of social workers to operate existing legislation. This shortage is not a question of money or promotion; it is one of status. We have somehow to improve the status of the social worker if we are to attract the people who will be needed to carry out this proposed measure.
I feel that we are being a little too despondent about the effect of the Bill upon the relationship between voluntary organisations and local authorities. In my local authority area there is an excellent relationship between the authority and the voluntary organisations. Such relationships are more extensive throughout the country than we sometimes imagine. Credit should go to local and voluntary bodies, because they have realised that there is a vitally important job of work to be done in the interests of the children of our community. They 1914 are prepared to sacrifice some of their own beliefs to work together to improve the situation.
Many people talk about depriving parents of their rights. For too long we have concerned ourselves with parents rather than with children. This Bill represents a serious and long overdue attempt to try to rectify the situation, so that we may take care of those who at present are probably not capable of asserting themselves and looking after their own interests.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Dr. Gerard Vaughan (Reading, South)
We were reminded by the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) that today is the penultimate step along what has been a very long road. We have had an outstandingly constructive debate. It is clear that hon. Members on both sides of the House will bear in mind the admonition of the hon. Member for Pontypool about having one eye on the interests of children and one on the statutory clock. It is significant that 14 hon. Members have spoken in the debate, which shows the wide and constructive feeling which exists in the House.
We all want to see the Bill on the statute book, but I hope that the Minister noted the remark of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) that we must not be over-hurried in Committee. It may be necessary for us to extend the Committee a little longer than he has in mind. I congratulate him, not only on his initiative which lies behind the Bill but also on the realistic and modest way in which he presented it today. The Minister was right to open his speech by referring to the general issues which lie behind the Bill. That is one of the yardsticks, but only one, on which people will judge whether this is a good Bill and whether it will do what is wanted.
There is a widespread view that children are not adequately represented in decisions involving their future and certainly are not adequately followed up. I share that view. The May issue of the New Law Journal carries an article by Mr. Brown pointing out that, having removed many of the obstacles to divorce, society feels the need to give much greater help to the innocent casualties of divorce, the children. Mr. Brown 1915 goes on to say that there is now an opportunity for a much greater vision, and he calls for a charter of children's rights. I was interested to hear this theme taken up by the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett).
Despite the detailed study given to the Bill in another place—and here I should like to say how valuable has been the work of the noble Baroness, Baroness Young—we are still receiving a large number of anxious representations, not just on the detail of the Bill, but on the principles and main objectives of the Bill, partly because of the wider context in which people are viewing it.
The figures from the Finer Committee—the 1 million children, the 60 per cent. of children needing care who come from one-parent families, the nearly 3,000 children who come into care as a result of inadequate housing facilities, the falling rate of the pay provision facilities—were referred by the hon. Member for Stockport, North and the hon. Lady the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman). I agree with the hon. Lady that it would be wrong for us to hold up the Bill until we fulfilled the other needs in respect of children.
Had it not been for the number of hon. Members wishing to speak, I should have been tempted to talk about my other professional activities and my experiences with children damaged by deprivation and the number of people I have had to see in custody wrangles and the awareness that it is the on-going conflict and insecurity which damage the children in divorce cases and not necessarily the divorce itself. We can go into such matters in Committee.
There is a general view, however, that the Bill could perhaps have included consideration of family courts. We shall want to consider that matter in Committee. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and the very sincere view of my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) that there is nothing in the Bill to diminish the general abusing and battering of children, and perhaps there should be. We shall want to discuss that in Committee, and we shall want to discuss whether the Bill should include something more positive about the regis- 1916 tering of children who are liable to abuse. There is a danger that the child care section will make cases such as that of Maria Colwell less likely but may induce complacency in us all that with the passing of the Bill all will be well. Of course, it will not.
I was glad to hear the Minister say that he does not propose to amend Clause 2. I was strongly in favour of "paramount", perhaps because of my experience in the divorce courts, but having looked at the legal arguments, I agree with the Minister that we have arrived at a satisfactory compromise.
I share the anxieties of the hon. Member for Pontypool about the significance to be given to the views of young children. It is one thing to inquire of a child his views about what is happening, but it is quite another to ask him to decide his own future. I am glad that Directors of Social Services bring out this point in their representations.
We shall want to look closely at the local authority proposal in relation to voluntary societies. Despite the Minister's reassurance, there is a danger of setting up such a range of tasks that all agencies have so wide a duty, with counselling for the prospective adoptive parents, counselling for the natural parent, advice in the court and counselling after the adoption has taken place, that it will be beyond the resources of some voluntary societies and we may lose these societies by forcing them to close down, not because we legislate them legally out of existence but simply because we ask them to take too much work on their shoulders.
I was glad to see in the Bill a note of the possibilities of collaboration between organisations, and that point was made strongly by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield. As the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) asked, is it right that there should be one set of rules for a local authority agency and another set of rules for a voluntary society? Surely if two bodies are doing the same work they should follow the same rules. Why not have an inspectorate for both? Why not have a better appeal procedure than that contained in the Bill?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said, we shall want to take up Dr. Kelmer Pringle's proposal for 1917 a children's friend. It has much to commend it. We shall also wish to look into the provisions for legal aid for childrens' representatives and to consider the probation officers' proposal, which has only recently come to us.
A worrying aspect is the lack of resources. That question was raised by many hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston and Wallasey. Already, in a short period, the estimates have escalated from £3 million to £14 million, excluding all the peripheral costs which are likely to be brought in.
There is a severe shortage of social workers, and only 40 per cent. are fully trained. Where are the extra staff to come from? The Minister said the Bill will be implemented in stages, but, with the greatest respect, that was what was said about the Mental Health Act, and we know what happened over that. That is what we heard about the Children and Young Person's Act, and the Minister himself said how much dismay and disillusion that had caused. I was only slightly reassured when the Minister said that we must not raise hopes beyond what is achievable, because that is exactly what several of us fear the Bill may do.
This is, of necessity, a highly complicated Bill. The clauses build up on each other. The hon. Member for Beeston (Mr. Lester) has referred to some of the difficulties and complexities. For example, Clause 11 (2) is built on by Clause 13 (2), which in turn is built on by Clause 14 (1). That leads to the appalling possibility of a child being free for adoption but not being placed and of having no parent. In that situation a child could go into the care of a local authority at the age of two or three and grow up to the age of 18 having as his only legal parent an adopting authority.
Clause 33 (3) links with Clause 37, on the matter of custodianship. This makes a mockery of children in local authority care being placed with foster parents. If the foster parents can assume unilateral powers, there could arise a situation of a tug-of-three between the local authority, the foster home and the natural parents.
As this is a complicated measure, we shall need to examine it in Committee. However, that in no way detracts from 1918 the welcome we extend to the Bill today.
No group or political party has a monopoly of caring and concern for children. We all share the present concern. However, we believe that more needs to be done, and done urgently. On that basis, we welcome the Bill.
§ 3.42 p.m.
§ Dr. Owen
I hope that I may have the permission of the House to speak again.
In responding to the debate I must comment on the remarkable degree of concern, understanding and depth of knowledge shown about this subject, which has been discussed in a bipartisan manner. I welcome that spirit, which, if manifested in Committee, will ensure that the Bill reaches the statute book this Session. I am determined that that should happen. I am equally determined that the Bill should be given most careful thought and consideration. The exact length of this Session has not been determined. There is a possibility that we shall wish to resume in the autumn. We may be able to deal with the Bill in Committee in the few remaining weeks, leaving more time for us to consider the amendments on Report. The determination of hon. Members on both sides that this Bill should reach the statute book is the confirmation that it will get there.
Much work was done on the Bill in another place. We shall be able to build on that work. The principles of the Bill will always give rise to discussion. People will always hold different views. I respect those views. However, nobody can feel that he has not been given a good hearing over the past 18 months. I have seen most people concerned myself.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), played a crucial part in this matter when I was a private Member. We had a great opportunity to go through the legislation and the drafting and see for ourselves some of the difficult problems which can arise from wording. What matters is the interpretation that the courts will place on our words. That is why we must be careful.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), stressed the question of resources. This will be a major problem, but it must be faced. Two problems arise when we deal with resources, either to 1919 provide more money or to reorientate or redirect resources. There seems to be a strong feeling among hon. Members that the highest priority should be given to the problems of children. If we are faced with the prospect of very little resources we must be prepared to switch resources, painful and difficult though that may be.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and others raised the whole question of child abuse, and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden), who had the tragedy of Maria Coldwell in his constituency, referred to this matter. Following the letter that we sent from the Department asking local authorities and area health authorities to set up area review committees, we have received and analysed their replies. Registered systems are now widely used as an aid to management and early diagnosis of non-accidental injury to children. They provide a source of easy reference for hospitals and field workers wishing to establish whether a child is regarded as at risk. The best recording systems can provide a source of information about a number of seemingly minor incidents which together can be built up to give a clear picture that something is wrong.
So far, 59 area review committees have some kind of central register. A further 20 were on the point of establishing a register and had gone into method and procedures at the time when they started to reply to my Department. A further 14 have the matter under active consideration. For a few area review committees separate registers are kept by the area health authority and the social service department. All but two area review committees have discussed registers in the year since April 1974.
When the Committee wishes to discuss whether registers should be made mandatory, it will have that background of a considerable and remarkable movement towards voluntary registers and we shall wish to consider and study registration procedures in other countries. The procedure in the United States has not been altogether successful. I am open-minded about the issue. I tend to think that it will come eventually, but at the present time I am delighted at the progress that has been made voluntarily.
1920 The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, the hon. Member for Reading, South (Dr. Vaughan) and others raised the whole question of family courts. I have some sympathy with their view. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) feels strongly about this. Until decisions have been taken on the Finer Committee's proposals concerning administrative orders, the Law Commission's Report on matrimonial proceedings in magistrates' courts has been received and the Children Bill now before Parliament has become law in its final form, it is premature to consider the question of family courts. The provisional proposals of the Law Commission's working party were designed to bring the matrimonial jurisdiction administered by magistrates' courts into line with that of the divorce courts. As the Law Commission's final report will have to take account of the Children Bill, it is not likely to be ready until the late summer.
I ought to deal with another point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool. He suggested a radical re-examination of the procedure for hearing divorce cases in England and Wales. The Lord Chancellor has under consideration the question of extending to further classes of proceedings the Special Procedure list introduced in December 1973, and he will take particular note of my hon. Friend's suggestion that it could be extended to cases where there are children of the family. I am sure that there will be many direct representations to the Lord Chancellor.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool that the idea of having regard to the wishes of the child is not a new concept. Section 7(2) of the 1958 Act provides that the court shall give due consideration to the wishes of the child having regard to his age and understanding, so Clause 2 does not break new ground in that respect. I recognise the argument that was put forward but contrary views have been expressed on that issue.
Many hon. Members referred to Clause 54, and my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool made a plea that the provision should be retained but he accepted that enactment could not take place now with the wider provisions of the Bill and he wondered whether there was some way, 1921 by using the Law Commission, which would mean a redirection of resources, or perhaps by switching round present procedures, we could find some way of enacting more extensive coverage when resources were available.
This is a difficult question. I have to be blunt with the House. There is a tremendous tendency, when legislation is on the statute book and there is a tragic incident, for everyone to say that if it had not been for the fact that legislation had not been implemented, that child might not have died.
The pressures on Ministers to give way and enact prematurely are considerable. One of the safeguards that we have on full enactment of legislation is that we do not bring forward provisions until we have adequate resources. If we could rely on being able to withstand pressure and not enact until we were certain that the provisions and the resources were right—many people have stressed that the resources of skilled manpower and womanpower are just as important as the financial resources—I would be more attracted to this suggestion. But this, also, is something that we want to consider in Committee. I am very apprehensive of getting independent representation off to a false start, building up false hopes and not matching them with resources, and not fulfilling the hopes that many of us have for independent representation.
Many hon. Members have raised specific points. Only one hon. Member, the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), raised the Scottish problem, when he mentioned the provision for social work purposes. That is the responsibility of local authorities in Scotland as in England and Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has only recently advised Scottish authorities of the need to review priorities so as to increase residential and other resources for the care and supervision of children. He is now also considering a provision for inclusion in the Bill which would enable grants to be paid as in England and Wales for the construction of secure accommodation in residential establishments for children. So he is considering the Scottish position.
1922 There has been disquiet in Scotland about the Scottish custody provisions in Part II. The proposals included in Clause 41 reflect the consultations with the legal profession and social work interests in Scotland, including the Scottish Law Commission. I understand that Clause 41(1) takes full account of the existing right of persons other than the child's parents to apply for custody under Scottish common law. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will take careful note of what has been said in the debate. There will, I hope, be a Scottish Minister in Committee to deal with points of Scottish law. I certainly hope so, anyway.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool expressed anxiety about Clause 12 and felt that there might be an introduction of the welfare principle, not just that of practicability. Clause 12 would be read with the welfare clause—Clause 2. We can discuss this in Committee, but I think that his point is covered.
Many hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett), have raised the whole question of whether we should be creating an imbalance between poorer and richer parents. I greatly welcomed the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield when she said that it was not sufficient to argue that the Bill should not go forward purely because we did not have sufficient resources in all areas and because all aspects of child care had not been dealt with.
My hon. Friend knows a great deal about this. She has been considerably interested in the question of one-parent families. Many hon. Members have stressed their belief that one cannot consider legislation in isolation from housing, day-care for the 0–5 age group, or the whole question of provision. Those outside bodies which have expressed concern have every right to be concerned—I do not resent that at all—but they are misconceived in thinking that, by holding out for such causes one could also prevent this legislation from going through.
Nor do I think that their priorities are wholly correct. When we talk about costs of this legislation, we should recognise that there are savings. I have not used this argument before, as I am mighty 1923 sceptical about introducing new legislation on the forecast of making savings—but residential care is very expensive and is getting ever more expensive. If, as a result of the Bill, some of the children currently in institutional care can be given foster parents or adoptive parents, there is no doubt that there would be savings. So the costing of the legislation is a difficult question.
That is why we shall gain in knowledge as we implement, and it is why I attach a great deal of importance to implementation in stages after full consultation. What we might think is a tolerable pace of implementation now, we might not so think in a year from now. Therefore, consultation with local authorities will be continual, and in this way I hope that we can meet some of their anxieties.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery referred to Clause 68. He suggested that it could be amended to enable mothers to apply to inferior courts outside their own areas. Under the Bill jurisdiction for the inferior courts is normally founded on the place where the child is. Mothers will rarely make application under the Bill. There is always the choice between the magistrates' court and the county court; there will be a considerable amount of latitude under the rules, especially for magistrates' courts, with which paragraph 264 of the Houghton Report was concerned. However, I shall consider the point further and draw it to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.
A number of other questions were asked, many of them technical, and some anxiety was expressed about custody and custodianship. Many hon. Members criticised the name. I cannot say that I took on board the name "custodianship" with great enthusiasm. An alternative was "guardianship", which is how many people still think of it. But the problem of using the word "guardianship" in this context, when what is meant is custody, is very formidable under the terms of the law. For those who think of custody in terms of being taken into custody, there is also another much happier connotation—care and custody—which is old and respected terminology in the law, meaning "love and affection". 1924 Once we get used to custodianship, I think that it becomes much less fearsome.
I deal finally with the voluntary agencies, a matter raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight), the hon. Member for Reading, South and the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker). We look for a partnership. I do not want to impose a definite pattern. The sort of collaboration across boundaries referred to by the hon. Member for Edgbaston in some special areas might be a sensible way of using resources in times of restraint. I do not want to impose barriers to a sensible arrangement like that.
A number of hon. Members asked about inspectorates for the local authority adoption services as well as for the voluntary ones. The Social Work Service in my Department has regional officers in close association with the local authorities, as well as with the voluntary agencies. To some extent, I think that it will provide an information system, as well as an advisory system, on which Ministers can rely.
I end with these remarks. The Bill is a very difficult question of balance. None of us wishes to take away a child from a natural parent, but we have to try to ensure the long-term interests of the child, which should be before us first and foremost. It is in that light that we have to look at this legislation, and that will be done carefully in Committee. However, I believe that we are close to achieving the right solution in a very difficult area of social affairs and that, with the help of the Committee, given the spirit of the debate so far, we shall achieve a major piece of social legislation, as this will be judged by history to be.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).