HC Deb 28 October 1975 vol 898 cc1489-503
Dr. Owen

I beg to move Amendment No. 49, in page 33, line 16, leave out from 'authority' to end of line 23 and insert: 'not less than 28 days' notice of his intention to do it'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With it we may take Government Amendments Nos. 50, 51, 184 and 185.

We may also take Amendment No. 168, in page 33, leave out lines 18 to 21.

Dr. Owen

The amendment would remove from the clause the requirement, added in Committee, for the parent of a child in the care of a local authority under Section 1 of the Children Act 1948, or in the care of a voluntary organisation, to give variable periods of notice of intention to remove the child from care depending upon the length of time the child had been in care. The amendment would substitute for the variable periods of notice a single requirement to give up to 28 days' notice after the child has been in care for six months.

The Government's proposal, to substitute a single requirement to give up to 28 days' notice after six months in care for the requirement now in the Bill to give variable periods of notice which would begin to apply immediately the child was received into care, was included in a consultation paper which was circulated among professional bodies in September.

The response to this paper indicated that opinion on the need for notice of removal during the first six months was polarised between those of the Association of Directors of Social Services, which would have preferred that there should be a requirement to give up to 28 days' notice effective immediately the child came into care, and the British Association of Social Workers, which preferred that there should not be any requirement to give notice however long the child had been in care.

Between these extremes there were the views of the voluntary organisations concerned with child care which expressed a preference for the Government's proposal to the variable provisions now in the Bill.

Perhaps I may quote from some of these. The National Council for One-Parent Families said, We are very worried about Clause 53 because the majority of children in care from 0–6 months are in care because of the illness of the parent and the one thing they long for is to be able to go home. Even a delay of two days will seem extremely long, especially to a very young child. We think that 14 days is ample time for the Local Authority to apply for an order preventing a child in their care from being returned to his parents should that be thought necessary, and to prepare the child for the return". The National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations said it had consulted all its major societies and that they felt that it was important to have only one qualifying period as it would be impossible to give valid reasons for variable periods in care requiring different periods of notice. I think they would have preferred the period to be twelve months rather than six, as the Houghton Committee recommended, but they appreciated the point that the requirement for notice could be waived by the authority or organisation. The Association of British Adoption Agencies said, The flexibility of the Committee Amendment with its variable periods of notice is very attractive but we fear that it would prove complicated in practice and very easily misunderstood. Rather regretfully therefore, we support the government compromise of a single recruitment of up to 28 days' notice after 6 months. We wonder, however, whether six months will soon prove to be too long a period and would like to see the Secretary of State given power to change the time either up or down. Differentiation between short-term and long-term does seem valid but only experience can show where the dividing line should be drawn. It seems clear that we cannot meet the wishes of all who have expressed a view on this contentious issue and therefore in a spirit of compromise I have tabled this amendment which goes part of the way towards meeting the differing views expressed. The original proposals in the Bill have been changed from 12 to six months.

The amendment would, of course, enable the Secretary of State, by order subject to approval by each House, to vary the periods of 28 days and six months should these prove, in practice, not to be the most suitable.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) has very strong feelings about this issue. I respect those feelings. He has already successfully moved an amendment which has substantially changed the periods. We have met him half way, although he may say that it is not quite as far as half way. My only consolation to him is to say this: first, it may well prove that his suggestion eventually is the one that is fixed on. My own sympathy for the fact that that may well be so is well known. I have always wanted shorter periods, but I am bound to take account of what the professional organisations feel. There is very strong feeling against going for the variable period as a first step.

The compromise, which does not meet all the objections of everyone, is in the best interest of children. It will give us a six-month period—down from 12 months. It will give us experience of this shorter period and time scale. If as the result of experience we want to go even further down, it gives the Secretary of State full power.

I have often stressed that this legislation must not be static legislation. We must be able, in the light of experience, to make adaptations. But equally, we would be extremely foolish if we were to ignore the collective experience of those who are working in the child-care field.

I take account particularly of the National Council for One-Parent Families. It is our duty to respect one-parent families, who face very formidable problems. We can easily tilt the balance in this legislation too strongly against single-parent families. Although I have a great deal of sympathy with the need to put the interests of the child first and foremost, we must always remember that there are other balances to be held when we are considering this legislation. Therefore, I urge the House to accept this compromise.

Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

Very reluctantly, I have to say that I am not exactly satisfied with the new amendment proposed by the Minister. I say that regretfully, because I have admired the way in which the Minister has handled the Committee stage of the Bill and the period since then. I have admired his courteous replies and his treatment of members of the Committee. It has been a model as regards treatment of Committee members. I was proud and privileged to serve on such a Committee. The level of debate has been as high as, if not higher than, that of many Committees. Much of this has been due to my hon. Friend the Minister. I unequivocally give credit to him in that regard.

However, I have one sorrow. I have no personal axe to grind in this matter, but I have come to know over many years' involvement in public health and local government a great number of people and many problems in my constituency. One of these problems has been the midnight snatch, the sudden snatching away of children from Section 1 care under the 1948 Act. In my constituency this has happened at all hours, sometimes in the middle of the night. Children have been literally snatched from a bath when a parent has turned up.

I am not saying that the parent does not have a right to take the child back. That is not the argument. We are saying that there ought to be a reasonable period before the child is moved from one situation to another, no matter how long it has been in care. This kind of situation can occur, even in the first six months. I should have said that 28 days' notice after six months is too long. The scale ought to be graded down, even going right to the bottom. I am worried about the reaction which might be set up among some parents at the end of, say, five months and 20 days because of the 28 days' notice which would come into force at the end of six months. There will be a reaction. They will want to get back the child quickly because the 28–day period is too long.

12 midnight.

I do not have as many contacts with the professional organisations as does my hon. Friend, but I have many contacts with foster parents who live in fear that a child may be snatched away. There has been an increase either in the number of such incidents or in the reporting of them. People may be more concerned because of our discussions on the Bill. They may have reacted because of their fear of what might happen because of the Bill, or there may be a general increase in these incidents because people are worried. There is just as much need for protection in the first six months as in any period thereafter.

There is no adequate protection now. That is no reflection on the authorities. They may be reluctant to operate the existing legislation, or there may be a delay in operating the legislation which allows the parent to carry out a snatch. If we are to prevent the occurrence of incidents similar to those which are so frequently reported in newspapers and on the radio, the time scale must start from the beginning. I am unable to accept the absence of any protection in the early days.

I am puzzled by the Association of Directors of Social Services. In Committee my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) referred to a letter from that association which welcomed the principle of the clause but wished to see the principle applied to all children in care. The association did not suggest that it should apply only after six months or 12 months. It referred to an abrupt change of surroundings being very distressing for a young child, especially for one who had been away from home for much less than a year.

Dr. Owen

I do not want there to be any misunderstanding. That is the view of the Association of Directors of Social Services but it is polarised by the BASW view which is that there should be no requirement.

Mr. Stallard

That is the kind of healthy debate we had in Committee. Many foster parents who do a tremendous job, often with difficult children, fear the possibility of a snatch. I want that fear to be removed. We must, therefore, return to the time scale accepted by the Committee after much discussion. Several compromises were suggested, many amendments were tabled and, after long discussion and a consensus of expert opinion, we arrived at the words which appear in the Bill. I do not think that we could have arrived at a better set of words, and I hope that the House will accept the clause as it stands and reject the amendment.

Mr. Bowden

I rise to support the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard). With great respect to the Minister, I remind him that we had an excellent debate in Committee where, by 12 votes to nine, the wording in the Bill was accepted by the Committee. It is regrettable that the Minister should ask us to overturn that decision.

I have on many occasions expressed my great respect for the way in which the Minister has handled the Bill. He has done a remarkable job. Yet, on this amendment, he has put the weakest case and weakest argument of any discussion on the Bill.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Minister had before him a whole range of possibilities of compromise, but he has come up with the worst possible answer, a limit which is too long—six months—and if the child is only one day within the six-month limit it can be taken away by the parent without warning.

In Committee, I outlined a number of horrifying circumstances in which it would have been possible, under the original proposal, for a parent to remove a child from care without warning. Much as I respect the director of Gingerbread, I do not think it reasonable to say that even two days' delay could cause stress and strain because the child might be in care because the mother was ill. As the Bill stands, that two days' notice could be and would be waived easily in the vast majority of cases, but where it was undesirable to waive it, where the local authority wished to make further inquiry, it would be able to do so. I urge the Minister to think again about this. He should let the provision stand as the Committee decided by the substantial majority of 12 votes to nine.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I hope that the House will support the Minister of State's amendment because in a very difficult situation it is a reasonable compromise. The decision to make the change at six months makes a clear distinction between short-term and long-term fostering. We should be trying to make short-term fostering as informal and as easy as possible. Only in the long-term fostering situation do we need the sort of safeguards suggested.

In most instances quoted, a snatch-back, even if in a long-term fostering case, would be covered by the amendment. In the one case I have had quoted to me of a snatch-back in a short-term fostering case, the local authority should have used powers it already had to have the child in care under Section 2 instead of Section 1 of the 1948 Act.

We should consider carefully what we mean by short-term fostering. Many hon. Members have had family crises in which they have been unable to look after the children and have turned to grandparents, uncles, aunts or friends, with the children moved at short notice because of family illness, for example. When the crisis is over, the children are brought back quickly. I can think of circumstances in which I fetched my children back from grandparents at very short notice with complete agreement.

But there are many families which have no supportive web of friends or relatives to turn to in a crisis, so the local authorities have to provide short-term fostering. They should be working in the same supportive way as relatives and friends support the vast majority of families, and it is important that they should not have to give this sort of formal notice.

There are many instances where someone has made plans for a confinement, for instance; the husband has a job which takes him away from home but makes arrangements to be on holiday on the due date to look after the other children. Then the birth starts early, he is away and the other children have to be looked after. The only course may be to place them in a foster home. The father returns and naturally goes to the house to collect the child. He sees the child but is told "You have not given two days' notice" or the foster parent may not think that he is the ideal person to take the child away, but the child runs to him.

It is important to keep short-term fostering as informal as possible. If there are any grounds for the natural parent not to be in possession, the local authority should use not Section 1, but the existing powers—

Mr. Whitehead

There are bound to be circumstances of what is technically short-term fostering which cannot be seen as the legal equivalent of a family situation where powers have been taken, but if a child is in care in a fostering situation, we need safeguards to prevent a snatch-back.

Mr. Bennett

The statutory powers should be those within the 1948 Act which provided that parents should not take a child back at will. The sad thing is that many local authorities have been reluctant to use this power, which they already have. They could use that power to stop those situations. We have to concern ourselves that we do not extend the power to a completely different group and cause a lot of upset.

We should look at the situation of a single parent facing sudden illness who possibly knows someone who might be persuaded to look after the child in an informal situation or may have an elderly relative who could look after the child. Does she do that or use the first-class local authority foster home? So long as there are these time limits, they may push her to use the poorer services when she feels that she is not losing her child. It is about cases of that kind that the British Association of Social Workers and certainly the social workers to whom I have spoken in Stockport are worried.

What do we do about enforcement? If a parent does not give notice but turns up, especially if it is only after three or four weeks, the child will recognise the natural parent and it will be difficult for the foster parents to ring up the police. They would have to say, "You have not given notice and the child stays here". What do we do then? We have to tell the natural parents that they are losing some rights.

There is also a difficult situation where possibly someone is taken into care because the parent has a breakdown in mental health. How does one tell people in such a case?

My last point is about timing. There are many problems with this if one faces it. I would plead with the House to recognise the short-term fostering situation. There should be informal arrangements for 99 per cent. of cases and in the cases where there are problems the local authorities should be using their existing powers under the 1948 Act.

Mr. Bowden

May I refer the hon. Member to what he said in Standing Committee in the light of what he has just said about where he stands? He then said, The simple answer is for parents to tell the local authority, perhaps giving 24 hours' notice, so that the representative of the local authority can be present when the child is transferred.—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 29th July 1975; col. 550.]

Mr. Bennett

Yes. I am sure that that would be the simple answer, but the problems are for the short period. I accept the suggestion that six months is perhaps too long and that perhaps one could come down for small children in a short-term fostering of two or three days, but we should look at it in the family situation. If we look at the figure for children in care in 1973, we find that it was 93,000. Some 54,000 of them had come in during that year. Therefore the vast majority come in and go out over a very short period of time.

The compromise put forward by the Minister is, I think, the best, retaining the very valuable short-term service. If we introduce any time limits we shall discourage some parents from letting their children come in and cause a great deal of unrest among social workers.

12.15 a.m.

Mrs. Chalker

I remind the House that, as the Bill stands, in the case of a child in care from nought to six months—that is a period, not the age of the child—the notice is two days, for a child in care from six to 12 months the notice is seven days, and for a child in care over 12 months the notice is 28 days.

We were starting just now to lose sight of the fact that we are concerned with children in care over a period of time. We are not concerned with the child who goes into care while a mother is in hospital for a relatively short period. We are concerned with up to six months in the first instance. While accepting what the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) says about the use of Section 2 of the 1948 Act, that is not the argument behind this particular matter.

The Minister has reported to the House a wide range of views, and has come down very much more on one side than I would have expected from what he reported to us. We have had from the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) a clear exposition of the problem. Had we not had that, I think that the words of the National Foster Care Association regarding the notice of removal would be extremely relevant. The Association maintains that any reasonable parent will see the necessity for a foster parent to have at least 24 hours' notice to prepare a child for his return home, to get his clothes and toys together and prepare her own family for the child's departure. In cases where circumstances are not really suitable for a child's immediate return home, many tragedies could be averted by the obligation to give notice—even two days' notice for a child in care under six months.

In one case a toddler of 19 months was brought out of his cot one Sunday evening at eight o'clock and given to his father, who had been discharged from jail that day and had never before seen the child. That child was to be taken, the foster mother was told, to an address which was that of a neighbour. That child has never been traced by the foster parent from that day forward. It was somewhere in North Wales. The addresses were completely false. Yet there was absolutely nothing the foster parent could do, or the local authority social worker, to prevent that parent snatching that child—a child that he had never seen.

The effect on two other foster children in the same home was such that it took weeks to settle them. They said, "We are terrified that someone will snatch us away as Jenny was snatched away last night." This is a case from my own constituency.

In all we have heard it seems to me that we need to give the foster parents the chance to ensure that the facts they are being given are true. For the shortest period of care now written into the Bill, nought to six months, the two days' notice is a very short period, particularly when a child's mind needs to be prepared for that transition.

I hope very much that the House will support the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North and reject the Government's proposals on this point.

Mr. Robertson

Although it is not clear that this provision or the Government amendment would apply to Scotland, it is a possibility that we have to consider in the light of later amendments. But, whatever be the case, I support the Bill as it stands, because I believe that the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) is unshaken. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) was careful to avoid mentioning the reason why notice was required. It must be within his experience of cases in his own constituency that some form of notice would have been beneficial to all concerned. In any event, it is only common decency that a child should not be snatched away in the middle of the night, which is always a distinct possibility.

There is a problem. The period now in the Bill and proposed originally by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North in Committee may not be perfect, but it is better than the Minister's proposal. I cannot see why, in the case of a period of six months less one day, no notice should be required, but that a period of six months plus one day should require 28 days' notice. In both cases, sufficient notice is needed so that the foster parent can verify the facts and the local authority can take some action if necessary so that the situation can be kept under control.

I support the provision now in the Bill.

Dr. Owen

The argument has been well demonstrated in the conflicting views advanced by my hon. Friends the Members for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) and Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett).

The Houghton Committee studied this proposal and recommended a period of notice—and this is the first time that it has been incorporated in our legislation—after 12 months. The Committee discussed it and decided in favour of the provision now in the Bill. I have come forward with a proposal to introduce a pause up to six months.

The Secretary of State would have power to come to my hon. Friend's proposal if it seemed better in the light of experience, but in my view it would be unwise to take this step quite so quickly. It may be a step to which we shall come eventually.

I hope that I have demonstrated that, on balance, the compromise which I propose commands the greatest respect among those whom we have consulted. But I accept that there are differing views, and I respect those views.

We have to be careful in striking a balance. We have to bear in mind the possibility, as the Bill stands, that poorer families will be deterred from putting their children in care when things go wrong in the absolute certainty of being able to reclaim their children immediately. The open access of short-term fostering and care facilities is a very important factor. As matters stand, we should have to explain to anyone putting their children into short-term care that there would have to be a two-day period of waiting. We have to be careful that we do not deter people from using the care facilities in times of economic difficulty.

It is with that possibility in mind that the National Council for One-Parent Families has not felt able to support my hon. Friend. I might say, incidentally, that far from being an elitist organisation, the National Council has championed the cause of people who have no access to elite organisations, as have the fostering organisations—

Mr. Robert Hughes

Can my hon. Friend make a distinction between voluntary care on a short-term basis as opposed to the situation when a local authority takes a child into care? Is there a distinction?

Dr. Owen

The important thing is when the child goes into care. It applies whether the person concerned is taking care of the child under an order—in which case, if that person has been shown to be

unable to look after the child, there are other powers open to the local authority—or whether it is a case of a parent who has done no harm to the child at all but where there is a long period of illness, financial difficulty, a housing crisis, or violence in the marriage. It might be a temporary situation. Initially the parents may have thought that they were putting their child into care for a very short period and it may have developed into a very long period.

I return to the point that the House must decide whether it wishes to take a much wider step than was recommended by Houghton or a more cautious step, with the possibility of going to the scale recommended by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras North. I hope that the House will agree with myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Stock-port, North and decide to support Amendment No. 49.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 94, Noes 24.

Division No. 371.] AYES 12.25 a.m.
Allaun, Frank Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Noble, Mike
Armstrong, Ernest Flannery, Martin Oakes, Gordon
Atkinson, Norman Ford, Ben Owen, Dr David
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) Palmer, Arthur
Bates, Alf George, Bruce Penhaligon, David
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Grant, George (Morpeth) Prescott, John
Blenkinsop, Arthur Grant, John (Islington C) Roper, John
Boardman, H. Grocott, Bruce Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Rowlands, Ted
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Harper, Joseph Sedgemore, Brian
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Small, William
Buchan, Norman Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Buchanan, Richard Hunter, Adam Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Spearing, Nigel
Campbell, Ian Johnson, Walter (Derby S) Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Jones, Alec (Rhondda) Stoddart, David
Cohen, Stanley Jones, Barry (East Flint) Swain, Thomas
Coleman, Donald Kaufman, Gerald Tierney, Sydney
Concannon, J. D. Lamond, James Tinn, James
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Leadbitter, Ted Urwin, T. W.
Corbett, Robin Mabon, Dr J. Dickson Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill) McCartney, Hugh Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Dalyell, Tam McElhone, Frank Watkinson, John
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) MacFarquhar, Roderick White, James (Pollok)
Dell, Rt Hon Edmund Mackenzie, Gregor Whitlock, William
Dempsey, James McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Dormand, J. D. McNamara, Kevin Woodall, Alec
Duffy, A. E. P. Marks, Kenneth Young, David (Bolton E)
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)
Eadie, Alex Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Evans, John (Newton) Millan, Bruce Mr. Thomas Cox and
Ewing, Harry (Stirling) Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Mr. Tom Pendry.
Faulds, Andrew Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King
Bain, Mrs Margaret Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray) Knight, Mrs Jill
Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown) Henderson, Douglas Loyden, Eddie
Cryer, Bob Hooson, Emlyn Montgomery, Fergus
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Newens, Stanley
Robertson, John (Paisley) Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW) Wool, Robert
Sillars, James Welsh, Andrew
Sims, Roger White, Frank R. (Bury) TELLERS FOR THE NOES
Skinner, Dennis Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E) Mr. Phillip Whitehead and
Stallard, A. W. Winterton, Nicholas Mr. R. C. Mitchell.
Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 50, in page 33, line 29, leave out 'twelve' and insert 'six'.

No. 51, in page 33, line 37, leave out 'twelve' and insert 'six'.—[Dr. Owen.]

Forward to