HC Deb 28 October 1975 vol 898 cc1395-407

'(1)A chief officer of police shall supply such information as to the conviction of certain persons involved in the care of children as may be prescribed by regulations to be made by the Secretary of State.

(2) The regulations to be made under this section shall specify—

  1. (a) the categories of persons authorised to seek and receive information as to convictions,
  2. (b) the categories of persons about whom such information can be supplied,
  3. (c) the form in which the information shall be given, and
  4. (d) such other matters as may be requisite to the supply of such information'.—[Mr. Norman Fowler.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Norman Fowler

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

We debated this clause in Committee and voted upon it, but we felt that it was sufficiently important that the House should have the opportunity to express its view upon it.

The clause concerns a matter to which several hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden), attach importance—namely, the conviction of a person involved in the care of a child.

The case was put to us by the Association of Directors of Social Services, and it is correct to place on record the outstanding contribution that the directors have made to our debates through the information which they have supplied.

I understand that it is common practice for the police to search their records at the request of local authorities seeking information about possible criminal convictions recorded against prospective adoptive or foster parents. Such arrangements have the backing of the Home Office, but there appears to be no statutory framework for such action. It is normally only in connection with prospective or foster parents that the police will co-operate in this way.

The Association of Directors of Social Services makes the point that there are other circumstances where the right to knowledge of criminal convictions would be valuable. The directors give as an example consideration whether to permit a child to return to his home under supervision. Clearly it would be helpful to know in such a case whether there were any convictions recorded against, for example, the stepfather to whom the child is returning. Certain types of convictions could—not necessarily would—indicate that it would be unwise to return a child to such a household. In that way, the system would operate as a safeguard. After all, we are seeking to provide as many safeguards as we can. In principle, the Government have a strong case to answer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown referred to the case of Maria Colwell. I am sure that he will doubtless wish to refer to that case again if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I should like to refer to the case of Roger Gleave, which shows that it is possible in our society for a man with convictions for offences concerning children to have further responsibility for children and then to commit further offences. Gleave ran a series of hostels in London. The only defect in the arrangement was that in 1959 he had been sentenced to three years' imprisonment for an offence concerning an Army cadet and in 1971 was given a two-years' suspended sentence for an offence involving a 14-year-old boy. That man was not only operating a hostel for children and young persons but was receiving official help for doing so. The story was completed this year when three men working for Gleave were sent to prison for life for the murder of Billy McPhee, a former resident in one of Gleave's hostels. The Minister knows that we are pressing for an independent inquiry into that case and that we shall want to return to it later.

The only reason that I mention Gleave's case is to make the general point that it is possible for someone involved with children to have mat kind of record.

The position is that, in order to obtain information about previous convictions, the local authority depends largely upon the co-operation of the local police. Yet the information could be absolutely vital to a child's future.

We submit that there should be a specific requirement in the legislation regarding the obtaining of such information rather than have it left to a voluntary informal arrangement. The detail would be spelled out by regulations to be made later. The Department would be free to carry out wide consultations into the form that those regulations should take. I am sure that this proposal will have the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. I urge the Government to accept it.

Mrs. Millie Miller (Ilford, North)

This clause covers the case to which the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) referred, which was the subject of the television programme "Johnny Go Home". That programme led me to communicate with the Minister regarding the stress which is laid elsewhere in the Bill on the suitability of homes for children. The man concerned was running not a children's home but an institution for homeless adults, and children or young persons became involved. The Minister's reply, that institutions of this kind, which are primarily for the use of the homeless, will be covered by the need for the absolute protection of young people, did not entirely satisfy me. I appeal to the Minister to bear in mind that it is not sufficient merely to protect children through institutions which are run by voluntary organisations for children. He must go further, because there are institutions for adults which, as a sideline, take in young people who may become the victims of this type of person preying on them.

Mr. Bowden

I am sure that the Minister will concede that this is an important clause, and I hope that he will feel able to accept it.

I make no apology for reminding the House that Maria Colwell, who died in my constituency, was viciously battered to death by her stepfather, a man who by the age of 21 had two convictions for violence. It is no exaggeration to say that, if that information had been in the hands of the Social Services Department at an earlier stage when the question of Maria's care and protection was before the court, she would probably—I put it no higher than "probably"—be alive today.

I know that the Minister has studied the document produced by the East Sussex County Council, "Children at Risk". Indeed, he has made some kind comments about it, and I should like to repeat my tribute to it. Paragraph 90, on page 41, states: We also asked the police about their attitude to providing information about people and this is relevant to the points raised in the Report about references that could have been obtained about Maria's stepfather. The police operate at present under the Home Office Circular 140/73 'Police Reports of Convictions and Related Information' which strictly only enables the police to release information to the Social Services Department about prospective adoptive and foster parents. This excludes information, for example, about a child's prospective stepfather. The Sussex police are willing to co-operate, but need the formal agreement of the Home Office to the disclosure of such information. We feel that this matter is of particular importance, and the need for the information to enable informed decisions to be made about children outweighs the other disadvantages about individual privacy, and so on. We think that this is a particular area where present practices should be altered on a countrywide basis. I stress that that is a report from the local authority in whose area Maria Colwell died.

8.0 p.m.

I hope that the Minister will take the recommendations of that report to heart and accept new Clause 25. No doubt he is aware that consultations are going on between the East Sussex County Council and the Home Office, and if he is able to tell the House that it will be possible to get over this problem without the new clause we shall take a different approach to it, but if he is not able to give that assurance, I hope that he will accept the clause.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I mention the tragic case of Richard Clark, a Scottish case, to reinforce what has been said about the need for the new clause.

I said in Committee that Richard Clark was introduced to hospital in May 1974 suffering from a massive cerebral haemorrhage as a result of severe ill-treatment and battering from the household in which he had been staying. His mother was charged with attempted murder on one day and on the same day senior social workers transferred Richard to a household where the two persons, the man and the woman, had already been convicted under Section 12 of the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act of having neglected their children by failing to provide adequate food, clothing, lodgings and medical attention and keeping the children in a verminous condition. If information were made freely available in an emergency situation, it would be much less likely for a child to be transferred to a household where he might be battered within an inch of his life, as happened in this case.

I understand the civil liberties argument, and I have some sympathy for it. It seems that there might be something in the argument about the police making available background information which does not refer to a conviction. But I suggest to the Minister that what matters is the interest of the child, and I should hate to think that in an emergency situation in which a child might be vulnerable and his life might be in danger the House would not consider it necessary that the information should be made freely available to senior social workers.

Mr. Robert Hughes

The full history of the Colwell and Clark cases does not point to the fact that it was only because of a lack of information from the police that the incidents occurred. The worrying thing in both cases was that there was no lack of social workers going into these homes.

The major failing was the lack of liaison between social workers operating from different agencies. Between the time of the crisis and the eventual incidents there was ample time for social workers to have identified the problem and taken action to remove the children from their homes. I hope that the impression will not be given, as I am sure it is not intended to be, that it was primarily because of a lack of police co-operation that these children suffered in that way.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if a senior social worker knew that a man and woman had been convicted of a serious crime against children he would be unlikely, in an emergency situation, to transfer children to their care?

Mr. Hughes

I should hesitate to comment on that.

Mrs. Chalker

On looking ahead to the business before us I notice that the Minister, in Amendment No. 248 to a later clause, refers to information about a household to which one might return a child. He refers there not to the person to whom the custody of the child can be given but to other persons in that household.

The Minister knows how concerned I have been on this score, and if he has seen fit to put forward that amendment to Clause 38 it seems that he should also see fit to accept the new clause, because there will be times when, without the provisions of the clause, the information will not be available to allow the social worker to judge whether a child should be returned to a home or whether a child should be in a particular home.

It seems to me that we shall make the work of our local authority social services departments that much more difficult if we deny them this kind of information which will be given, I am sure, in the greatest of confidence, and only in those cases where it should be given. We are not seeking the disclosure of every bit of information which any chief police officer may collect. We are seeking to protect the interests of the child. That is the reason for the new clause and, because of his later amendment, I cannot see how the Minister can refuse it.

Dr. Owen

This debate is familiar. There was a similar amendment in Committee and the arguments both against and for it were similar to those that we have heard today. We are united in our belief that there is a need for better communications. It is the lack of communication that has often been the reason for an incident to children when it might have been avoided. Almost every inquiry, whether formal or informal, into where child care has gone wrong has shown a lack of communication.

In all these arguments the case has been put forward for the statutory provision of information. In many cases the argument has been that this is not the right way, and one has tried instead to arrange an informal process, or sometimes a formal process such as the area review committees, for the exchange of information.

The House should be under no illusion that what we are debating here, as we did in Committee, is a major change in our legislative practice. Such a provision as this would be the first instance in English law of a specific statutory obligation on the police to provide information of this kind. I do not believe that such a major change ought to be made, or can be made, in just this legislation.

I hold strongly to the view that the best interests of the child should come first, but I do not think that this can be confined to cases involving children. Mention has been made of the Gleave case. The hon. Gentleman knows that my right hon. Friend has a letter outstanding in reply to what he wrote on this matter. There is a question of the form of inquiry, but nobody has denied the need for an inquiry into this case, and in the light of that inquiry it would be wrong for anyone to prejudge any consequences that may come out of it.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Home Office had reached a conclusion on the request of East Sussex County Council. I am not in a position to answer that, but I imagine that it has not. I think that its conclusion is that it is within the county council's discretionary powers to reach a voluntary agreement at a local level between the police force and the social services department, and I am not convinced that the way to deal with the problem is to impose a statutory obligation on the police force.

Mr. Bowden

I hope that the Minister has not missed the point that I am anxious to stress. As things stand, there can be no voluntary agreement between the Sussex police and the East Sussex social services department because of the existing regulations. The police in Sussex are anxious to supply the information, but at the moment they cannot do so.

Dr. Owen

I agree, because I understand that it does not require legislation. It is within the power of the Home Office, either by guidance or in particular circumstances, to agree that it should be done. This is primarily a Home Office matter, not one for my departmental responsibility. I understand that it would require formal agreement from the Home Office but that it does not require legislation for it to give that agreement.

What I was trying to say to the hon. Gentleman is that this case, where the request has come from a local police force in combination with the social services department, will be in a way a test case for what he wants and what the House would wish to establish—a close working relationship between the police force locally and the social services department. The question posed by the amendment is whether we should make this statutory.

I am not convinced that by making a statutory provision one ensures better communication. Indeed, in many cases where there was statutory provision—one hon. Member mentioned the provision for visits—it had not been complied with. We delude ourselves if we think that statutory provision ensures better communication.

There are major civil liberties issues involved here. I remain of the conviction that this is the wrong place in which to make such a major change. The change may come, through voluntary arrangements, as I would prefer, or through a statutory obligation if it is felt by the Home Office, the Police Federation and the police constables that that is what is necessary, but I do not think that a statutory provision here which would make a precedent is the right way to proceed.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will explain where Scotland stands in this respect, since this discussion has related to the powers of the Home Office. If the Home Office has power to make decisions of this kind, has he consulted it? If so, what is its attitude? I should also like to know the attitude of the Scottish Office.

Dr. Owen

I am speaking for the Government, but since this is mainly the departmental responsibility of the Home Office, it can be taken for granted that the Home Office feeling is that the House should be urged to resist the new clause and that a statutory provision is not the way to deal with this need. No one denies the need for better communication or wishes to restrict access to information. This raises the whole question of which the House is very jealous in other respects—how much police information, dossiers and the rest, should be made available to other Departments.

I know that the hon. Member holds a different view, but he is asking us to establish for the first time in English law a specific statutory obligation on the police to provide such information. He cannot get away from the fact that this would be a major change involving major issues of civil liberties, issues which the House would be well advised to take very cautiously. It is for the Home Office to agree to this policy, which has been put to it. If I am wrong, specific legislation would be needed and that would have to be produced in its widest context. I believe that this is an aspect which will be looked at in the inquiry, but I must ask the House to resist the new clause.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. McElhone

If I may deal with the Scottish situation, Scottish local authority social work departments already have access to records of conviction in relation to prospective foster and adoptive parents. The arrangements are given effect in the administrative circular, a version of which is about to be issued to police forces which will strengthen this situation. The circular says: A director of social work inquiring about applicants to act as foster or adoptive parents may be given details of their convictions. It adds: A director of social work inquiring about prospective employees in residential establishments for children may be given details of their convictions.

Mr. Norman Fowler

Both Ministers have made the point. They claim that civil liberties are at stake, but what we want is already being done in some areas and we wish to ensure that it can happen everywhere. It cannot be argued that new and fundamental civil liberties questions are involved—

Dr. Owen

There is all the difference in the world between a police officer making available information for a local social service department under a voluntary agreement and a statutory provision that he shall supply information.

Mr. Fowler

But the Minister contends that new and fundamental issues are involved. That is not so. This already happens in some areas.

Mr. Bowden

To reinforce my hon. Friend's point, the police willingly provide information about prospective adoptive or foster parents. Surely it is only a narrow line that we are asking that it should be available in the case of stepparents.

Mr. Fowler

I agree entirely. We are all seeking to safeguard the interests of the children. This debate has concentrated on circumstances in which men with convictions have got through the net, so the system is not working that well. Statutory provision will not necessarily be the ideal solution or solve all problems for ever, but it is more likely to lead us to an ideal solution than the informal and inadequate arrangement we have. I must advise my hon. Friends to vote against the Government.

Question put, That the new clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 147, Noes 163.

Division No. 369.] AYES [8.17 p.m.
Adley, Robert Hayhoe, Barney Rawlinson, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Aitken, Jonathan Henderson, Douglas Reid, George
Arnold, Tom Hooson, Emlyn Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)
Atkins, Ht Hon H. (Spelthorne) Hordern, Peter Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussex)
Bain, Mrs Margaret Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk) Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Banks, Robert Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Beith, A. J. Hunt, John Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks)
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay) Hutchison, Michael Clark Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Bottomley, Peter Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Royle, Sir Anthony
Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown) Irving, Charles (Cheltenham) Sainsbury, Tim
Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent) James, David Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Brittan, Leon Jones, Arthur (Daventry) Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Brotherton, Michael Jopling, Michael Shelton, William (Streatham)
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Shepherd, Colin
Buchanan-Smith, Alick Kershaw, Anthony Sims, Roger
Budgen, Nick Kilfedder, James Skeet, T. H. H.
Bulmer, Esmond King, Evelyn (South Dorset) Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Chalker, Mrs Lynda King, Tom (Bridgwater) Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)
Churchill, W. S. Knight, Mrs Jill Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Knox, David Sproat, Iain
Cockcroft, John Latham, Michael (Melton) Stanbrook, Ivor
Cooke, Robert (Bristol W) Le Marchant, Spencer Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Costain, A. P. MacCormick, Iain Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Crawford, Douglas Macfarlane, Neil Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)
Crowder, F. P. Madel, David Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Dodsworth, Geoffrey Mates, Michael Stradling Thomas, J.
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Mather, Carol Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
Durant, Tony Mawby, Ray Tebbit, Norman
Dykes, Hugh Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Thomas, Rt. Hon P. (Hendon S)
Eden, Rt Hon Sir John Meyer, Sir Anthony Thompson, George
Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray) Mills, Peter Trotter, Neville
Fairgrieve, Russell Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) van Straubenzee, W. R.
Fisher, Sir Nigel Moate, Roger Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Montgomery, Fergus Viggers, Peter
Fookes, Miss Janet Moore, John (Croydon C) Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd) Morgan, Geraint Wakeham, John
Freud, Clement Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) Walder, David (Clitheroe)
Goodhart, Philip Mudd, David Watt, Hamish
Gorst, John Neubert, Michael Weatherill, Bernard
Gow, Ian (Eastbourne) Newton, Tony Welsh, Andrew
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) Nott, John Wiggin, Jerry
Gray, Hamish Onslow, Cranley Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Grieve, Percy Osborn, John Winterton, Nicholas
Grylls, Michael Page, John (Harrow West) Wood, Rt Hon Richard
Hall-Davis, A. G. F. Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby) Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Parkinson, Cecil Younger, Hon George
Harrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye) Pattie, Geoffrey
Harvie Anderson, Rt Hon Miss Penhaligon, David TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Hastings, Stephen Percival, Ian Mr. Adam Butler and
Havers, Sir Michael Pink, R. Bonner Mr. Richard Luce.
Hawkins, Paul
Allaun, Frank Castle, Rt Hon Barbara Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Anderson, Donald Clemitson, Ivor Eadie, Alex
Armstrong, Ernest Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Edge, Geoff
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Cohen, Stanley Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)
Atkinson, Norman Coleman, Donald Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Concannon, J. D. Evans, John (Newton)
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Ewing, Harry (Stirling)
Bates, Alf Corbett, Robin Faulds, Andrew
Bean, R. E. Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill) Fitt, Gerard (Belfast W)
Blenkinsop, Arthur Cryer, Bob Flannery, Martin
Boardman, H. Dalyell, Tam Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)
Booth, Albert Deakins, Eric Ford, Ben
Bradford, Rev Robert Dean, Paul (N Somerset) Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)
Bray, Dr Jeremy de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey George, Bruce
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Dell, Rt Hon Edmund Gilbert, Dr John
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Dempsey, James Ginsburg, David
Buchan, Norman Doig, Peter Gould, Bryan
Buchanan, Richard Dormand, J. D. Gourlay, Harry
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Duffy, A. E. P. Graham, Ted
Campbell, Ian Dunlop, John Grant, George (Morpeth)
Carter-Jones, Lewis Dunnett, Jack Grant, John (Islington C)
Grocott, Bruce McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) McNamara, Kevin Spearing, Nigel
Harper, Joseph Marks, Kenneth Spriggs, Leslie
Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Stallard, A. W.
Hatton, Frank Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Hayman. Mrs Helene Millan, Bruce Swain, Thomas
Heffer, Eric S. Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N) Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) Mitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen) Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Huckfield, Les Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey) Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Tierney, Sydney
Hughes, Mark (Durham) Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Tinn, James
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Newens, Stanley Tomlinson, John
Hughes, Roy (Newport) Noble, Mike Tomney, Frank
Hunter, Adam Oakes, Gordon Urwin, T. W.
Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford) O'Halloran, Michael Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Ovenden, John Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Janner, Greville Owen, Dr David Ward, Michael
Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Palmer, Arthur Watkins, David
John, Brynmor Park, George Watkinson, John
Johnson, Walter (Derby S) Pendry, Tom Weitzman, David
Jones, Alec (Rhondda) Prescott, John White, Frank R. (Bury)
Jones, Barry (East Flint) Roberts, Albert (Normanton) White, James (Pollok)
Jones, Dan (Burnley) Robertson, John (Paisley) Whitehead, Phillip
Kaufman, Gerald Roderick, Caerwyn Whitlock, William
Lamont), James Rodgers, George (Chorley) Williams, W. T. (Warrington)
Litterick, Tom Rooker, J. W. Woodall, Alec
Loyden, Eddie Roper, John Woof, Robert
Mabon, Dr J. Dickson Rose, Paul B. Wrigglesworth, Ian
McCartney, Hugh Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock) Young, David (Bolton E)
McElhone, Frank Sedgemore, Brian
MacFarquhar, Roderick Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
McGuire, Michael (Ince) Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford) Mr. James Hamilton and
Mackenzie, Gregor Skinner, Dennis Mr. David Stoddart.
Mackintosh, John P. Small, William

Question accordingly negatived.

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