"The following section is inserted after section 36 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968—
'36A. The Secretary of State and the Lord Advocate may, by regulations—
§ Brought up, and read the First time.1339
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
With the new clause, we may also take the new Clause 10—Amendment of section 36 of Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968—and new Clause 27—Additional provision in section 36 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968.
We may also take Government Amendments Nos. 252 and 171.
§ Mr. McElhone
I apologise to the House in advance for the length of the explanation on the new clause. I take this course because a number of hon. Members from all sides of the House have taken an interest in this matter which deals with the question of reporters in court. I should like to emphasise the great interest shown in this matter by my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) and other hon. Members. I have carefully noted new Clause 10 tabled by my hon. Friend and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) and the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel). I have also noted new Clause 27 tabled by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) and others.
Although I acknowledge that these clauses have some general purposes, I wish for a number of reasons to commend the alternative provisions contained in new Clause 14 which, as I shall try to demonstrate, is designed to achieve the same objectives as new Clauses 10 and 27.
The purpose of the new clause is to provide the Secretary of State, jointly with the Lord Advocate, with the power to deal with a difficulty that has arisen in connection with children's hearings. The clause would allow the making of regulations to enable reporters to children's hearings, although they are not advocates or solicitors, to conduct before the sheriff courts proceedings arising from children's hearings. It also gives power to prescribe qualifications, training or experience, as may be thought necessary, for reporters who are so empowered.
The system in Scotland at children's hearings is that reporters to children's panels have to decide whether children who have committed offences or who are in need of care should be brought before a children's hearing, or whether they can be dealt with in some other way, such as 1340 by voluntary measures as agreed by the social work department. If a reporter decides to refer the case to a hearing, that hearing can proceed to determine the merits of the case—for example, what form of disposal is appropriate to the child's situation as it affects the grounds for referral likely to be accepted by the child and his parents. If not, application is made to a sheriff in chambers and the case must be considered and, if the facts are established, decided. If they are so established, the child goes back to the hearing for consideration and disposal of his case.
Similarly, at a later stage there is provision for an appeal to the sheriff against the disposal of the hearing, although each year there is only a handful of appeals. We have also provided in the present Bill, in Clauses 67 and 68, amendments to Sections 37 and 40 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968. It empowers reporters to seek from the sheriff extensions to certain warrants made at a hearing to retain children in a place of safety where cases are being considered.
Since the children's hearing system began in 1971 many courts have allowed non-legally qualified reporters to appear before them in applications and appeals. In July this year, however, the Court of Session, on an appeal from a decision of the Sheriff in Glasgow, decided that, as no clear right of audience on the part of reporters had been confirmed by the Social Work (Scotland) Act, the normal rules of audience must apply, namely, that only solicitors or advocates may appear before the Sheriff. This has meant that reporters have had to take steps to instruct outside solicitors or solicitors from other local authority departments to proceed with these applications.
A number of representations have been received from the Reporters' Association, the advisory council on social work, the chairmen of regional children's panels and hon. Members from both sides of the House, suggesting that an early opportunity should be taken to give reporters the necessary power to do what, in many cases, they have been doing in practice for the past four years, namely, to appear before the sheriff in chambers.
Since July we have been considering carefully what action should be taken. It would have been tempting simply to give 1341 reporters the necessary powers, and to restore the situation which prevails in practice if not in the strict sense of the law. However, the issue goes wider than that. On the one hand, it is important that reporters who have knowledge of individual cases are able to deal with them all the way through, especially when they are complex cases in the realm of child protection.
On the other hand, of course, it must be stated that it is usual for qualified solicitors or advocates to conduct proceedings in court for the good reason that it is in the interests of the courts and justice generally that cases should be presented as competently as possible. In this connection it is true to say that there have been instances in which the handling of some cases by reporters without legal qualifications has been criticised by some sheriffs. In its recommendations the Reporters' Association suggested that the granting to reporters of the necessary powers to appear should be accompanied by the Secretary of State having the power to prescribe any necessary qualifications.
Although we recognise the validity of various arguments for and against the appearance of non-legally qualified reporters, we consider that some action should be taken relatively quickly to allow reporters to appear before the courts. The Secretary of State and the Lord Advocate therefore propose to make early regulations allowing reporters with a year's experience to conduct the relevant proceedings before the Sheriff. This will prevent too long a continuation of the ad hoc alternative arrangement to which I have referred which tends to be relatively expensive, time consuming and, at the end of the day, not very satisfactory.
In terms of the proposed new clause, officers who may be empowered by regulations to appear, are officers appointed under Section 36 of the Act. That section provides not only for appointment of the reporter himself but also for appointment ofsuch other officers as deputies of the reporter as may be required.The term "deputies" is not however used in the Act in the technical sense which may apply to the term depute reporter for administrative or grading purposes 1342 within local authorities, but is used to mean any officer appointed to assist or to act for the reporter in the performance of his duties. It is therefore proposed that the regulations will empower to appear before the sheriff persons who may be categorised as assistant reporters but who, nevertheless, act on behalf of the reporter.
Concurrently with the making of the regulations, we propose to enter into discussions with all the interested legal and social work bodies on a whole range of matters concerning the training, qualifications or experience of reporters. Our discussions will cover such matters as the special training or qualifications which reporters should have to enable them to operate effectively in all areas, but especially in the complex situation of appearing before the sheriff. We also hope to consider whether it is practicable and desirable not merely to make training available but to prescribe it in further regulations as a necessary preliminary to the exercise of these powers of appearance. It is our hope that what will emerge will be proposals for the future which will be acceptable to all shades of opinion.
If such proposals required regulations specifying training or qualifications, we should not hesitate to provide such regulations as soon as possible.
Whatever might happen to the new clause and about the regulations which we may make under it, it must be recognised that work involving the courts is necessary in only about 10 per cent. of the reporters' cases and is only a small part of the work on such cases. The rôle of the reporter is essentially that of decision-maker, together with the ability to establish relationships with all the bodies which supply information for the hearings. Those are his key functions. We should not like the present situation to lead local authorities to believe that the post of regional reporter or the higher subordinate posts within regional authorities must be filled by members of the legal profession.
Local authorities have currently shown a readiness to regard both social work and legal qualifications as having substantial relevance for such posts, and in some cases other disciplines also. The new clause should make it possible for the service to continue developing along the 1343 existing lines, but with greater regard being paid to the necessary training for this new and vitally important appointment of dealing with children in trouble.
I draw the attention of the House to Amendments Nos. 171 and 252 which relate to the new clauses. Amendment No. 171 is a minor consequential amendment to Section 49(3) of the Social Work (Scotland) Act, to make it clear that, notwithstanding that the reporter may be presenting a case before the sheriff, he may still be formally examined by the sheriff, as is the position at present under section 49(3).
Amendment No. 252 concerns the commencement provisions of the Bill and secures that the new clause and the consequential amendment to Section 49(3) come into operation immediately on the passing of the Act.
§ Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)
The new clause and associated amendments are to be welcomed. It is apparent that on this issue there is agreement which straddles the Floor of the House. However, I should like to make it clear that I place great stress upon what the Minister said towards the end of his speech about the need for experience. From my own practical knowledge, as a solicitor before being translated to this place, at times difficulty was experienced when dealing with reporters who did not know the niceties of the law of evidence.
I point out to those people who have not appeared before the sheriff and defended children with a reporter present that a qualified solicitor does, or could, have an advantage which stems from his knowledge of criminal law and the regulations concerning evidence. Had the Minister restricted his advocacy on this clause purely to one year's experience, I should have been a bit chary about accepting the Government's clause. Undoubtedly, along with the practical experience which comes from appearing in court, and having to deal with legal situations, there is also the need for training in the law of evidence and sometimes in the procedures of argument in court.
Let us take as an example the rather complicated provisions of the Social Work (Scotland) Act, which will be complicated even further by this Bill. There is no doubt that a fundamental knowledge of 1344 how to present a case in terms of advocacy is required.
I was glad to hear from the Minister that it is intended to deal not only with the question of experience, which presumably means an assistant reporter sitting alongside a qualified reporter who has been duly authorised to appear before the sheriff, learning the practical ways of how to deal with lawyers, sheriffs and legal thinking, but also with the need to attend courses to learn the law of evidence. Many reporters, knowing the difficulties which they sometimes have to face in court, have voluntarily gone ahead and attended these courses and gained some of the necessary experience which is required. There is no doubt that the clause is required.
I should like to mention that the stated case which I read relating to this matter, which came from the Glasgow sheriff's court, contains a definition of the law as it was passed in the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968. On the interpretation of the sheriff and on the confirmation of that interpretation by the Court of Session, that definition ruled out the opportunity of reporters appearing before the sheriff's court for legal purposes.
In many courts throughout Scotland it was the practice of sheriffs, no doubt with some irritation, to hear reporters present the cases with which they had been dealing. At the outset of the social work provisions and reforms there was an acceptance by the then Government that reporters would be allowed to appear before sheriffs.
I should like to quote from a circular which was submitted by the Social Work Services Group on 6th February 1970 to county clerks and town clerks of large burghs, as they then were. Under, "Functions and responsibilities", it states:Where the grounds are not accepted by the child or his parents, the reporter will present the case to the sheriff, including the leading of evidence. He will also represent the children's hearing at appeals to the sheriff from their decisions.There is no doubt that when the Government, through the officers of the Social Work Services Group, were considering this question, that power had been given to reporters to appear before the courts, 1345 and sheriffs in many cases accepted that situation. I am not sure about the background, but, perhaps because certain unqualified reporters had appeared before sheriffs and made a mess of things, general irritation began to grow.
§ Mr. Dempsey
Will the hon. Gentleman explain to lay Members what constitutes an unqualified reporter?
§ Mr. Wilson
This is one of the conundrums. The reporter represents a new discipline. The specification by the Government at the outset for the recruitment of reporters was that due or equal consideration should be given to both legal and social work qualifications. It may be that in time, as the new system gets under way, academic disciplines will emerge from the universities which manage to combine both legal and social work qualifications. Perhaps, for the purpose of the argument, in relation to the stated case emerging from Glasgow, I could define an unqualified reporter as an inexperienced reporter. A reporter is appointed by the local authority. It is the local authority's responsibility so far to decide who is the best person to appear.
There is no doubt that in areas such as Tayside, part of which I represent, considerable difficulty has been caused by reporters who had been accustomed to appearing before the courts, suddenly being refused the right of appearance. It is only proper that the situation should be put right. Indeed, additional expense is incurred by local authorities if a duly qualified lawyer—I do not intend to define him—has to present the case on behalf of the children's hearing. He is instructed and given all the papers. In many cases he is also given the arguments by a reporter or depute reporter who will be sitting alongside him. Therefore, one gets duplication of functions.
There is the practical point that in many areas there are no legally qualified reporters. For example, Fife has no qualified solicitors, but it has five reporters who are not qualified solicitors. Tayside has no qualified solicitors on the reporters' staff, but it has seven reporters who are not qualified solicitors. Orkney has no qualified solicitor, but it has one reporter who is not a qualified solicitor. In Shetland the position is the same. Strathclyde—this huge area which repre-1346 sents half of Scotland—has two qualified solicitors and 46 reporters who are not qualified solicitors. I am not sure whether this is correct, but I am informed that one of the two qualified solicitors is resigning and that the other prefers not to go into court to present cases. Be that as it may, in Strathclyde and in other areas there is a great problem. It is necessary that this gap should be closed.
The new clause is acceptable to me in exchange for my own which specifies some training courses. However, I hope that the regulations, which will give meat to the skeleton which has been presented to us, will ensure that the irritations from which sheriffs suffer regarding inexperienced reporters are removed. It is not good for a child to see the reporter who represents the system under which children are to get treatment, twisted round the fingers of, say, an extremely well qualified solicitor.
I am informed that the Tayside area, through both restrictive and non-restrictive advertisements, advertised for applicants for the regional post and that it did not get a single application from a qualified solicitor. That suggests that there is no tremendous enthusiasm on the part of solicitors to become involved in the new post of reporter which takes in a mixture of disciplines.
§ Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)
I tabled new Clause 10 which in some respects, is similar to the Government's new Clause 14. The reason for tabling the new clause was a recent decision by the Court of Session in the case of Kennedy v. O'Donnell, to which reference has already been made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. The decision by the Court of Session virtually deprives reporters to children's panels and their deputes and assistants of the right to appear in court in cases involving, for example, disputed grounds of referral to children's hearings unless they possess practising certificates from the Law Society of Scotland. It is important to remember that in giving that decision Lord Wheatley was expressing the law as it stands. He was not expressing an opinion on the desirability or otherwise of reporters, their deputes or assistants, making representations in court.
1347 Under the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 a children's hearing may decide to make application to the sheriff for several reasons, first, where there are disputed grounds of referral and, secondly, when there is incapacity on the part of the child to understand the grounds of referral—for example, in the case of a battered baby. There is also the case where a child or his parents decide to appeal against the decision of the hearing. I am reliably informed by Mr. Alan Finlayson, the Midlothian children's reporter, that in his region the frequency of such cases works out at about five per week, mostly in the first two categories—disputed grounds of referral and incapacity to understand the grounds for referral.
There are precedents for people who are not practising solicitors making representations in court. For example, Customs and Excise officers can conduct prosecutions in court in cases where people have avoided or attempted to avoid Customs. Factory inspectors can also prosecute in court for breaches of safety regulations, and so on. In view of these precedents, there seems to be no reason why, given other good reasons, a reporter should not be allowed to make the appropriate representations in court.
The main responsibility of a reporter is to decide whether, and if so how, to intervene in the life of a child once a report has been submitted, and it is questionable whether a legal qualification is all that relevant and necessary to a reporter's job. The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) referred to the fact that a social work background could be as relevant—if not more so—as a legal background.
There is the possibility of recruitment to the post of reporter being inhibited unless the new clause is accepted. Without it, lawyers would be the only people qualified to apply for posts as reporters, and even assistant and deputy reporters. Unless the new clause is accepted there will be a kind of two-tier system of reporters: those who are in the top tier, namely, those who are legally qualified, and those in the second tier who are not legally qualified. It would be unfair to many applicants with excellent social work backgrounds, and so on, if they were deprived of the opportunity of reaching the top tier of their chosen profession.
1348 It also appears that not many lawyers are all that interested in becoming children's panel reporters. Not many applications for vacancies come from people with a legal background, and I am told that in the Strathclyde Region only one out of the 49 reporters or assistant reporters is a practising solicitor and therefore would be qualified, under the present law, to appear in court.
There is even the possibility of a complete breakdown in the service unless an external solicitor is instructed. The hon. Member for Dundee, East referred to the extra expense which a local authority would incur as a result of having to pay additional fees to an external solicitor. There is also the danger that if an external solicitor or a solicitor from another local government department took on a case before the court he would not have experience of the child's background, and this lack of continuity would be against the best interests of the child.
Much of our debate today has been about the rights, and the lack of rights, of reporters, but we must remember that we are discussing a children's Bill which is concerned primarily with the rights and welfare of children, and it appears to me that unless the new clause is accepted there could be a break in continuity in dealing with a child and this could be detrimental to his welfare and interests.
My new Clause No. 10 would give all reporters, deputies and assistants some ex officio right to make the appropriate representations in court. The Government's new clause contains a better form of wording than I have proposed because it stipulates qualifications, training and experience to be decided by the Secretary of State and the Lord Advocate and also because it mentions making applications for warrants.
Having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone) I get the impression that the regulations governing qualifications and experience will not be too restrictive but, at the same time, they will ensure adequate standards of competence. I shall, therefore, not call for a Division on my new clause. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Queen's Park for listening to my suggestion. This is the first time that I have had one of my suggestions adopted in legislation by the 1349 Government. Recently, in reply to a Parliamentary Question that I tabled some months ago I was told that the Government were tabling a new clause similar to the one that I had put forward. I am, therefore, willing not to press my proposal as the Government have shown themselves more than willing to listen to what I have had to say. It is a pity that there are not more Government Ministers who are as receptive as my hon. Friend the Member for Queen's Park has been.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)
The hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) said that this was the first time he had had one of his suggestions accepted. He will have noted that the new clause had my name to it as well, and that might have made a substantial difference.
I welcome the Government's new clause. I used to have to declare an interest in that my wife was reporter for the children's panel in Selkirkshire, but since the reorganisation of local government she has left that post and therefore I give notice that I no longer have to declare a financial interest in these matters. But I still have a close interest in the development of the children's panel hearing system, and it is a pity that we are debating the matter on such a narrow point because, apart from one debate some time ago in the Scottish Grand Committee, we have never had a chance to review the working of the system as a whole and pay the tribute which ought to be paid and which is long overdue not only to the professional reporters but also to members of the children's panels and the social work departments for the way in which the system has operated. The system comes under much unjustified criticism, mainly from those who are resistant to the philosophy behind the Social Work (Scotland) Act and the criticism usually ought to be directed at the lack of basic facilities provided by the local authorities to enable the panels properly to carry out their work.
As the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire said, this is a children's Bill, and it is children about whom we are concerned. The Government's decision, although it is a late one, is very welcome, as is the fact that the practice in the past of sheriffs varying in their attitude towards reporters, whether or not they had legal 1350 qualifications, will end, and the decision in the Kennedy case will be reversed.
The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) referred to the irritation felt by some sheriffs and some lawyers in court at facing inexperienced reporters, but that irritation is two-way. I suspect that there has been a lot of irritation amongst reporters at the obscurantism of the legal profession, often up to the Bench, on the philosophy behind the new Act. That measure was designed for the benefit of the family, for the benefit of the children, and it is right that in this Bill we should take steps to make a minor amendment to the law to put right something that we did not foresee at the time of the original Minister.
I hope that the Minister will bring the regulations forward at an early date, because this is an important matter and he has not given much indication of timing. Secondly, I hope that he will so frame the regulations that the job of reporter will continue to attract a mixture of people from different disciplines, including the legal profession, because I am concerned at the stories from different hon. Members about the relatively small proportion of people from the legal profession going into this new job. I hope that in the new regulations the door will be left open for the direct recruitment of people with legal qualifications as well as those with other qualifications to come in and do this worthwhile job.
§ Mr. Robertson
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) has decided not to press his new clause to a Division. The position, so we thought, was that reporters had the right to appear before sheriffs. The House of Commons passed a measure giving, as we thought, reporters that right, but, lo and behold, much to our astonishment we discovered that that was not so. What guarantee is there that even with the words now proposed some other judge, at some other time, in relation to some other case will not find that Parliament has not the right to make this decision?
We occasionally get into this kind of situation, and if it were confined to an exceptional case, or to one aspect of a reporter's work it would not be so bad, but in recent days another decision has been taken in relation to another field of work. 1351 In that case, judges and courts have decided that people who are not solicitors do not have the right to appear in the pleading. This is a good clause if it does what the Government believe it will do, if only because it breaks the monopoly—
§ Mr. Dempsey
Will my hon. Friend make clear one point that I am trying to grasp? Is it not the case that a reporter will still not be entitled to appear in court unless he has a minimum of a year's experience?
§ Mr. Robertson
Even that is not clear. Even under this new clause it is not clear which reporters can attend in which circumstances to deal with which cases.
Two things were done by the decision of the Court of Session. One was the re-establishment of the monopoly of the legal profession in the courts which the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 was thought to breach. Even with these words, there is no guarantee that their intention will be carried out. It is clear that the Government have retreated from the position they took in the 1968 Act, if only in subsection (b).
We have to decide what the relevant skills of a reporter are. Is he to be a social worker with a law degree or a solicitor with a social work degree? When we passed the 1968 Act we agreed that the person we wanted primarily was a social worker with an understanding of the laws relating to the care and problems of children and the whole social work climate. What we did not want—the Government assured us that this would be so—were the formalities and procedures normally associated with the law brought into children's hearings. Although there was nothing to prevent a lawyer who took some courses in social work from becoming a reporter, it was never intended that a solicitor should, just because he was a solicitor, be qualified to be a reporter. He had to be rather more than a solicitor.
When I hear about the irritation of sheriffs and judges, I sometimes wonder whether they understand the irritation of the rest of us—particularly that of Members of Parliament—about their pronouncements and judgments and the 1352 way in which they deal with our proposals.
I am not sure that the publishing of regulations is a good thing. The Government could have met the situation had they restated their intentions in the 1968 Act and given the reporter in all circumstances when a case had been referred from a children's hearing the right to represent in the sheriff court the point of view of the panel and of the child. If a sheriff is an expert in law and is to make sociological judgments, must we demand that he has a degree in sociology? Perhaps that would be a good idea. Who says that they are always well qualified to make judgments?
We have said time and again that the child is the most important factor in these matters. The law must take second place. We must restate that firmly and clearly. I hope that the new clause will achieve that. I doubt it, but if the judges, on their Olympian heights, can hear an echo, I hope that they will hear this warning, "You have heard our intentions: interpret the words accordingly."
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
In view of the general agreement that new Clause 14 is desirable I shall not detain the House long, but I want to place on record my appreciation of the Minister's responding so quickly to the case made by the reporters, the children's panels and hon. Members, including me, who have raised with him the points arising out of the case of Kennedy v. O'Donnell.
The clause does not quite restore what was understood to be the position under the 1968 Act. However, it is probably the neatest way of amending that Act. I want to be sure of one thing: that the regulations which the Minister will then be empowered to make will appear steadily. He said that, concurrently with the regulations being prepared, there would be consultation with the legal profession, the reporters, the children's panels and so on. There is an old saying,Procrastination is the thief of time.My experience of doing my hon. Friend's job is that consultation is the thief of time. We seem to go on far too long in consultations when often the intention of Government and Parliament is perfectly clear.
1353 The difficulty arose in this case because the 1968 Act was silent on this point. What was assumed to be the case has now proved not to be so because of the challenge in the sheriff court and subsequently in the Court of Session. It is agreed that that position should be restored and reporters enabled to carry on their previous practice. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell us that, as soon as the Bill is activated, we shall have the regulations to restore what was thought to be the position.
§ Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)
I welcome the new clause. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan), who is here, must be taking a particular interest in this matter as the Minister who was responsible for steering the Social Work (Scotland) Act through the House. We are glad to see some of the intentions of that Act being made more clear.
It is right that the power, which we believed to be intended, should be restored. As many hon. Members have said, we are thinking particularly of the interests of the child. When a reporter has a particular knowledge of a child it is important that that knowledge is carried through all the stages at which the child is dealt with.
The Minister said that this problem arose in only a small proportion of cases—about 10 per cent. Apart from the one case which has given rise to this problem in legal terms, over the last four years has the representation of children by reporters caused any practical problems? I question whether it has. Has there been any concern in legal circles or among sheriffs about the appearance before them of reporters who were not legally qualified?
The Minister dealt with this question of a reporter having one year's experience. He went on to say that there would be consultations about qualifications and so on. I was unclear as to whether it would be one year's experience alone or whether there would be other things involved. Can the hon. Gentleman be more specific on this point? Paragraph (a) speaks of empowering:officers or any officer or class of officers".Can the Minister explain in a little more detail what is meant by that? At one 1354 end of the scale it could mean a class of officer such as a reporter with one year's experience, while at the other end it could mean any officer. A regulation could be used to empower an individual by name. Will the hon. Gentleman explain what is meant here, because the words appear to cover an extraordinarily wide range?
There is also this question of consultation on training or experience. How wide will the consultations be? Will the Government consider publishing draft regulations so that we may know rather more exactly what is involved? There is some unease in some quarters.
While I support this new clause in principle I agree with the hon. Member for Paisley (Mr. Robertson) that it is a good thing that reporters should be able to appear before the sheriff, in the spirit of the Social Work (Scotland) Act. I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that ultimately the final custodian of the liberty of the individual is the law. The law is made here, certainly, but it has to be administered in the courts. I am not a lawyer and am not always given to defending them, but there are occasions when the interests of a child cannot be served because someone is not legally qualified.
Several of my legal friends pointed out during the passage of the Social Work (Scotland) Act the importance of bearing in mind that ultimately it is in the child's interests to make certain that the best legal advice is available from someone who is properly qualified. The purpose of the law is to serve the ordinary citizen. I say that with a certain amount of feeling because it is so important to remember this when talking about the necessary training or experience. We must ensure that the kind of qualifications a reporter needs before he can appear in a court enable him to give a child the full protection of the law.
I welcome the new clause and would be grateful if the Minister would respond to the questions I have put.
§ Mr. McElhone
By leave of the House to speak again, I would say the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) has, along with other hon. Members, raised several important points. It is proposed that the first set of regulations to be made as 1355 soon as possible after the Bill becomes law should give a right of audience to those reporters and staff who have a minimum of one year's experience working as a reporter. These initial regulations would not require any training or qualifications. Consultations will, however, be set in hand to discover whether suitable training or qualifications can be devised. If this is possible, amending regulations will be introduced in due course.
It should be noted that the qualifications for reporters which the Secretary of State may prescribe under Section 36(2) of the Act as amended were intended to relate to general qualifications for the reporters' work rather than the presentation of cases before the sheriff to which this clause relates. It is doubtful how wide the powers will go in terms of a reporter's staff. They would not cover training or experience.
The hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns asked whether there had been many cases other than that which occurred in Glasgow. As far as I am aware the Act has worked well generally in all parts of Scotland since the social work provision for children's panels came in. There is a requirement of one year's experience for reporters or deputy reporters or, as it says in the clause "officers". The hon. Member asked why we used the term "officers"—
§ Mr. Dempsey
Can my hon. Friend clarify this quesion of a minimum of one year's experience? Is it not also subject to subsequent qualifications which the Secretary of State will lay down? Since there could be an able reporter who would not qualify under the conditions laid down by the Secretary of State does it not mean that there could be reporters with several years' experience who would not be eligible to appear before the sheriff?
§ Mr. McElhone It is a question of striking a balance. This is a judgment upon the time a reporter could be within a social work department or a regional authority. We came down in favour of one year as being the most suitable period. This covers the whole of Scotland and allows reporters to go into the courts. It does not cause an interruption of the many cases coming before the courts on referral from children's panels.1356
§ I return to the point about the use of the term "officers". The word means a deputy in the sense of the term as it is understood for administrative or grading purposes within local authorities. It is simply used to mean any officer appointed to assist or to act for the reporter in the performance of his duties. It is proposed that the regulations will empower people to appear before the sheriff—persons who may be categorised as assistant reporters but who, nevertheless, are acting on behalf of the reporter.
§ I am grateful for the kind words spoken by my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) and for the general welcome given to the new clause by the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel). I appreciate, too, the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes). As for the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. Robertson), knowing him as well as I do, I feel sure that the judges will be listening to him and will take due note of his comments.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill.