HC Deb 28 October 1975 vol 898 cc1540-52
Chapter Short Title Extent of Repeal
16 & 17 Geo. 5 c. 60. Legitimacy Act 1926 Section 1(3).
5 Sections 3 to 5.
In section 8(2), the words from "and to the taking" to "of a legitimated person".
10 In section 11, the definitions of "disposition", "intestate" and "entailed interest".
1969 c. 46. Family Law Reform Act 1969. Section 14(8).
Section 15(4) and (6).
These repeals have effect subject to paragraph 13(9) of Schedule 1'.
No. 140, in page 93, line 3, at end insert:
'23 and 25 Geo. 5 c. 12. Children and Young Persons Act 1933. In section 1, in subsection (1) (a), the words "not exceeding one hundred Pounds" and in subsection (5), the words from "the maximum" to "pounds, and".'
No. 141, in page 93, line 3, at end insert:
'1937 c. 37 Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act 1937. In section 12, in subsection (1) (a), the words "not exceeding one hundred pounds" and in subsection (5) (a) the words from "the maximum" to "pounds, and".
No. 142, in page 93, line 6, column 3, at end insert:
'Section 21(3).'.
No. 225, in page 93, line 6, in column3, at end insert:
'In section 20(4), the words from "pursuant to" to "in force".".
No. 143, in line 39, at end insert:
'1973 c. 29. Guardianship Act 1973.' Section 3(5).'
No. 144, in page 94, line 12, leave out 'and (3)'.
No. 258, in page 94, line 12, at end insert:
'1966 c. 19 Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1966. Section 4'.

No. 259, in page 96, leave out lines 17 to 19.

No. 145, in page 97, leave out lines 34 and 35.—[Dr. Owen.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Dr. Owen.]

1.48 a.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler

I shall not detain the House for long on Third

paragraph 5(2) of Schedule I, and the other repeals in this Part'.

No. 139, in page 92, line 30, at end insert:

Reading. It is not too much to say that progress on the Bill has shown Parliament at its best. Our debates have been constructive, we have not divided on party lines, and our discussions have been aimed at protecting essentially, and above all, the interests of children. That has been the cause advanced by all who have taken part.

I wish to congratulate the Minister of State. The measure undoubtedly will become known as the Owen Bill', just as recent pensions legislation became known as the "O'Malley Bill". There must be somebody missing somewhere in the team. I also wish to thank the members of the Standing Committee on my side for their contributions, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, South (Dr. Vaughan).

On Second Reading I said: We are now accustomed to talking about the choice of priorities in social services, and with an ever-deepening economic crisis it is likely to become more and more a feature of our debates."—[Official Report, 20th June 1975; Vol. 893, c. 1840.] That economic crisis is now evident to everyone. It might not have been evident in June when the Bill had its Second Reading, but its effects have been devastating in social policy terms.

Already there are yawning gaps in our social services. Already there are people in desperate and urgent need who are unable to get help. It is unlikely—I fear that we must accept this truth—that we shall be able to help these people and many more like them over the next few months or perhaps years.

Inflation hits those who can least look after their own interests. Inflation hits the weakest in our society. That is our greatest social problem. As we pass this legislation, let us recognise and face that problem.

In many ways we are passing legislation in the hope that resources will become available. I join in that hope. Certainly it could be argued that the Government should give first and foremost priority to the children. Upon such an aim and effort both sides of the House can agree. If we fail or omit to give help in childhood, the omission may never be repaired. That is why children should be given priority, especially in the resources that we make available.

I congratulate the Minister and the Government on their efforts, but let us not think that the battle is over: the battle has just begun.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

I became involved in these proceedings late in the day, because I was concerned with the Petroleum and Submarine Pipe-Lines Bill when the Children Bill was in Committee. Nevertheless, my hon. Friends and I have had a strong interest in the subject of the Bill, and we are glad to see that it has reached a happy landing.

I should like to make a strong criticism. Perhaps it could have been made on Second Reading, and certainly in Committee. There should have been two Bills—one for England and Wales and another for Scotland.

This Bill adds to the hotchpotch of legislation with which Scottish lawyers find it extremely difficult to deal. It is bad enough if one is an English lawyer to deal with legislation that keeps chopping and changing, but if one is a Scottish lawyer and has to keep translating terms from one jurisdiction to another, it is murderously difficult. Such a situation also applies to social workers, reporters, the judiciary and all those who have to interpret various pieces of legislation.

The reforms or changes in the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 are belated. We know that a review is taking place involving a number of committees, but this too gives room for criticism about the way in which Scottish legislation is tackled in this House. Apart from the large number of Scottish Ministers who passed through the pipeline in Committee—three Under-Secretaries and the Lord Advocate—there was only one other Scottish Member of Parliament on the Standing Committee dealing with the Bill. That was unsatisfactory. However, we should express our thanks to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) and the Ministers who have been concerned with this subject. I hope that at the end of the day we have made some improvements in Scottish law on the treatment of children, although there is much more that we have to carry forward.

In passing I should like to pay tribute to the new Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who has taken over at a very late stage, as I have. Tonight he has accepted a number of amendments that had been rejected in Committee, amendments that will prevent the assimilation of Scots law to the law prevailing in England.

If one thing has emerged from these debates it is that there is a tremendous gulf between the way in which Scotland and England tackle the problems of custody, adoption, the treatment of children before children's panels, juvenile courts, and so on. That does not necessarily mean that our methods in Scotland are the best, and plenty of criticism has been expressed this evening about some of our legislation. But it means that the English and Scottish methods are completely different, and one of the strongest arguments for a Scottish Assembly is that we could have a rolling review of Scottish legislation to make sure that it was up to date and in line with current developments on the Scottish scene.

1.57 a.m.

Mr. Hooson

The passing of the Bill is a very important landmark of the way in which the community at large treats children. We have come a long way from the days of Charles Dickens, and this is another step on the way.

I should like to add my congratulations to those already offered to the Minister of State. I know that he will take great pleasure in seeing the Bill become law, for the simple reason that when he was successful in the Ballot as a Private Member he chose this as the subject for his Bill. I had the privilege of working with him on the drafting of that Bill, and I know that he was an expert before he became a Minister.

In my experience in Parliament—although it is not as long as yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is not short—I do not remember a Member presenting a Private Member's Bill and being at the receiving end of much discouragement, being told that it was so complex that it was impossible to contemplate a Private Member's Bill covering the subject, and then having the opportunity of putting his ideas into effect with the whole strength of the Department behind him.

A good deal has been said tonight and in Committee about the economic constraints of our time, and of course they limit the speed at which some of the provisions of the Bill can be put into operation. Nevertheless, it is important that the Bill should be enacted, for it takes the law a considerable step forward. Although it is a time of economic constraint, this is the right time to pass good social legislation. It need not be rushed, although the Bill certainly has been more rushed on Report than it should have been.

I congratulate everybody concerned and say that this is the best handled Bill that I have seen. The Minister and his Department have been prepared throughout to look at suggestions in Committee. I have never known any team on a Bill as cooperative as the Government team have been on this occasion.

Normally, legislation ends in acrimony as it begins in acrimony. It is a great pleasure to be involved in a Bill that did not begin in acrimony and certainly does not end so.

1.59 a.m.

Mr. Bowden

I should like to be associated with the tribute paid to the Minister by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler). The Minster has emerged at the end of the Bill with increased stature and respect both inside the House and outside. I know that he would be the first to pay tribute to the tremendous help he has received, from the very start, from his officials.

The Bill is rightly called the Children Bill. It is a new charter of children's rights. I am proud to have been associated with it and to have played a small part in its passage. It is the care section which has been my greatest interest, of course, because it was in my constituency that the tragedy of Maria Colwell took place. The name of Maria Colwell is indelibly printed on my memory and that of everyone in Brighton. I think. As the Bill has progressed, the people of Brighton have realised that it will go a long way to reducing the chances of such cases happening in future. The care section is indeed a worthy memorial to that tragic little girl.

We respect the Minister's determination to make the Bill work. He has said that he is prepared to do everything possible to reallocate resources within his own Department to ensure that it gets under way as quickly as possible.

There is greater public awareness of the needs of children, but there must be continual vigilance. No law by itself can produce all the answers. Public commitment is essential. The family is still the basic unit in our society and I hope that it always will be. Ultimately, the protection and welfare of children is the responsibility of every individual citizen.

2.2 a.m.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I should like to pay tribute to all the Ministers involved with the Bill for the gracious way in which they dealt with amendments. Many representations were sent to me from many bodies in Scotland. Each of the four Scottish Ministers involved took immense trouble to take up these complaints and to deal with them satisfactorily. There were only two outstanding complaints, and I am glad that the Scottish Minister who has just taken over dealt with them in Government amendments tonight.

Anyone who participates in Scotland's legal system—the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) and I are both qualified lawyers on different sides of the profession—will know that an enormous effort has been made. If we took up a disproportionate amount of time, I apologise to English Members, but the Scottish requirement has been well defined. Scottish Office Ministers took particular trouble to help in this connection.

At a time of severe financial stringency, we all hope that, however many cuts there may be in public expenditure, they will never be at the expense of children. I hope that sufficient funds and facilities will be made available to make the Bill work well in future. I wish the Minister every success with it.

2.4 a.m.

Dr. Vaughan

I want to pay tribute to someone who has been mentioned many times during our debates on the Bill—the late Sir William Houghton—and his committee. The Houghton Report was an absolute model. Despite all the enthusiasm of the Minister of State, we should have found it more difficult to carry the Bill through without the recommendations of that committee.

I should also like to congratulate the Minister of State on the immense care, good humour and patience he has shown. I do not suppose there has been any Committee stage in which more undertakings have been given which have actually been carried out. We have appreciated this very much. I believe that the Bill will be much more effective as a result of what we have done. Clearly, there will be a need for a consolidation Bill for children's legislation. The scene has now become very confused. People working in this area will need some kind of guidance by bringing the legislation together.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) for the way he has led the debates for the Opposition. It will be no surprise to the Minister if I say how concerned we are about the resources that will be needed to back up this measure. We all know what happened to the Children and Young Persons Act and the difficulties that arose in implementing it. That was one of the reasons why we emphasised the need for some kind of monitoring and research. We were pleased that the Minister accepted that need.

We are concerned about staffing. Although we appreciate the sincerity of what the Minister says—that this measure will not be implemented until there are the resources to back it up—there are fears that, particularly in the present economic climate, it will not be possible to implement it. We are now getting reports, for example, that Wakefield is cutting its social services budget by £273,000. This involves, among other things, the abandonment of the appointment of 31 social workers and nine trainees. This is a major depletion of the ranks and is bound to have an effect on legislation of this kind. In East Sussex the bill is being cut by £750,000. This, too, will affect, among other things, the establishment of social workers and, in this case, stand-by emergency duties of social workers, which is most serious. At Coventry, major cuts are being made which will affect the establishment of social workers.

I do not want to end on a gloomy note. I mention these things to support the anxiety that we have shown about the implementation of the Bill. We accept the Minister's sincerity when he says that he will introduce the Bill in stages as resources are available. We have appreciated the harmony and good will that has been shown throughout proceedings on the Bill.

2.8 a.m.

Dr. Owen

I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for their kind references to me. It is worth putting on record from the start that this legislation could never have been brought to this stage had it not been for the work of the Houghton Committee and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), who as Home Secretary set up that Committee. There is now only one member of that Committee left in the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) who is at present out of the country. I know that he wanted to take part in the Committee proceedings. He was a tremendous friend of this measure when it was a Private Member's Bill, as was the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson).

I have many people to thank, not least those in voluntary bodies outside the House. They have contributed tremendously to the informed debate on both sides of the House. They have had a major and genuine influence. I like to think that they have been consulted in depth at all stages.

I do not think that I could let this occasion pass without mentioning the Association of British Adoption Agencies, which certainly helped me greatly when the Bill was introduced as a Private Member's Bill. It made an outstanding contribution. Many other voluntary organisations have also helped. Nor can I forget the work of the volunteer draftsmen who worked on the Private Member's Bill. They worked against massive obstacles to draft the Bill in its early stages before it became Government legislation. That push given to the Bill then was crucial. There were young lawyers who gave up a lot of their time, and we are grateful to them.

No one could possibly deny the contribution made by the Department. Many hon. Members have been the recipients of letters from it. It has been hard work. I am grateful to members of my Department and members of other Departments. The Scottish Office, the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Office have also been involved—to name the major Departments. We are certainly very grateful to them all.

I must mention my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Miss Jackson) without whose ability to keep together the requisite number of hon. Members for voting purposes the Bill might have had a more difficult time.

We start the Bill at a very difficult financial time, and it would be quite wrong if the message were to go out from the House tonight and when, eventually, as I hope, the Bill receives the Royal Assent, that somehow and automatically many of its desirable provisions will be automatically implemented. They will not be. That must be clearly understood. Most of us here recognise that the Bill will have to be implemented in phases and at a speed which many of us will regret. Those, however, are the facts of life, and I believe that we shall serve the best interests of children by being realistic about resources.

Too often in the past the House has willed an end and then failed to provide the means. This time we must move at a pace at which we can match the means to our aspirations, and I hope that we shall be able to achieve that.

I have been discussing implementation of the Bill with the local authorities. The first group of clauses, which I hope will start to operate on 1st January 1976, includes the welfare clause, the clause concerning the additional reason for dispensing with consent, requirements as to religious upbringing, power to order inquiries, supplementary powers and other aspects involving no extra costs.

The second group will require a period of six to nine months for rules and regulations to be made dealing with relatively minor changes and re-enactments of adoption law. I think that we shall be able to introduce in 1976–77 the provision to enable people to have access to their birth record. The acceptance of the new concept of custodianship orders cannot be jeopardised by premature introduction, but I hope that the prospects for introducing it in 1977–78 are reasonable.

The core of the Bill is the comprehensive adoption service, and this is the area where the big money is involved. An extra £5 million will probably be needed in addition to resources spent on adoption. It will not be possible to implement that immediately. I do not believe that we shall know before the rate support grant discussions next summer and autumn whether we shall have sufficient resources to give enough money for local authorities to have at least a year's warning of the introduction of statutory provisions, and a longer period than that may be needed before we can be sure of the necessary high standards.

Separate representation, a new aspect of the legislation, again involves high cost. I am discussing with the local authorities the possibility of making a start in the year 1976–77, with particular attention to cases like that of Maria Colwell involving applications for the variation or discharge of care or supervision orders. That would be a modest low-cost start, and it is important that this provision is started as soon as possible.

Against that sort of background we shall not know the true pace of implementation until we know what resources are available. We shall have to match the demand on these parts of children services with all the other pressures on the services, such as the rise in juvenile delinquency and increasing numbers of children in care. All these factors make demands on scarce skills. It is not always just a question of shortage of money. One of our scarcest resources is skilled people, although that often comes down in the end to a question of money.

Reference was made to the need for consolidation. That is a high priority requirement, and I hope that the adoption provisions will be the first part of the Bill to be consolidated.

This has been United Kingdom legislation. We have gained from Scottish experience, and in certain aspects there is no doubt that Scottish law has been in advance of English law. However, there are advantages when discussing an issue so central to the whole stability of the United Kingdom—the family and children—in being able to bring together legislation from across the United Kingdom. I think that this has been helpful for all of us.

Tonight marks the end of the Bill's stages in this House. It has taken a long time to bring it this far. It is a very much better Bill than the Bill which went into Committee, and a better Bill than the Bill which left Committee. Tonight's proceedings, though they have had to go on rather long, have improved the Bill substantially. Many people have contributed to this. I think that it has shown perhaps a view of the House of Commons that is not often appreciated enough outside—the detailed work that can go across party lines to improve legislation without political rancour and show the House of Commons in one of its most attractive aspects. Would that we received more opportunity to publicise that working of our parliamentary democracy to the country as a whole. I am grateful to the Opposition for the way in which they have enabled that spirit to manifest itelf throughout the legislation.

With those sombre warnings about the future and of a phased implementation which will not be as rapid as any of us would wish, I hope that in the last analysis what the Bill will do more than anything else is to change people's attitudes to child care. It will be a success if as a result of this legislation we see increasingly and in all decisions that are made about children the best interests of the child becoming the priority consideration. It is that interpretation of the legislation that I should like to see operated by the courts.

We for our part, in the difficult financial choices that will face us, must face up to the fact that if we do not invest in the children of the country, we are serving future generations ill. They are the seed corn of our future, and they need and demand an investment of money and resources but perhaps above all a fundamental change of attitudes in many aspects of our decision-making as it affects children.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time and passed, with amendments.

  1. FURTHER REPEALS 110 words