HC Deb 28 October 1975 vol 898 cc1503-17
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I beg to move Amendment No. 169, in page 35, line 6, leave out paragraph (d).

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

With this we may take Government Amendments Nos. 172 to 176.

Mr. Bennett

A little earlier we considered the problems of children in care under Section 1 of the 1948 Act. I believe that many children who are now in care under the provisions of Section 1 of that Act should come within the provisions of Section 2. There has been a growing feeling in the last 10 years that local authorities have not made sufficient use of existing legislation. However, within the last six months or so many local authorities have again started to use their powers in the existing legislation. Unfortunately, the Bill includes paragraph (d), a provision that seems to be inappropriate. Whereas all the other provisions repeat or strengthen the powers in the 1948 Act, that paragraph seeks to bring in new criteria. The grounds involve a positive act of failure by the parent. The Bill is now seeking to look merely to the passage of time.

I am most disturbed by the thought that many local authorities may again fail to carry out their duties. During a period of three years many problems may arise. Therefore, surely it would be better to use other provisions in existing legislation rather than wait for the passage of time.

I hope that the Minister will consider removing the paragraph from the Bill and will make clear that local authorities will be expected to use their existing powers in Section 2 of the 1948 Act and will not be able to invoke as an excuse the mere passage of time.

Dr. Owen

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) has on many occasions sought to emphasise that many problems could be circumvented if local authorities were to use the existing powers. My hon. Friend is right to say that. There is no doubt that if local authorities took that line it would greatly alleviate the situation. To that extent I strongly endorse his closing remarks. However, in the opening part of his comments he virtually argued that we should go back on the major Houghton recommendations. I would regard that as totally wrong. I believe that we should endorse, as did the Standing Committee, the Houghton recommendations. Therefore I believe that there are strong grounds for resisting Amendment No. 169.

Government Amendments Nos. 172 to 176 bring about a change in Section 2(1) (d) of the Children Act 1948 introduced by Clause 54 and also the body of subsection (1) so as to make clearer the meaning of the subsection as it applies to a child who has been partly in the care of a local authority and partly in the care of a voluntary organisation. I do not think that these are contentions provisions. They merely help to clarify the situation.

Amendment negatived.

Amendments made: No. 172, in page 35, line 9, after 'or', insert: 'partly in the care of a local authority and partly'.

No. 173, in page 35, line 10, leave out 'or partly the one and partly the other'.—[Dr. Owen.]

Dr. Owen

I beg to move Amendment No. 52, in page 35, line 11, leave out from 'other' to end of line 15.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The following amendment may also be discussed: No. 148, in page 35, line 12, leave out from 'child's 'to' if 'in line 15 and insert: 'proper emotional needs and development have been avoidably prevented or neglected or his health has been avoidably impaired or neglected and is likely to continue to be so'.

Dr. Owen

This amendment will remove from Section 2 of the Children Act 1948, subsection (1)(e), which provides as a ground for the passing of a resolution assuming parental rights and duties, that the child's emotional needs and development warrant it, and that the child's development would be impaired or stunted if returned to his parents". This paragraph was added to Clause 54 as a result of Amendment No. 358, which was opposed by the Government, but was carried on a Division. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) will no doubt wish to argue with the proposal.

Mr. Whitehead

There were a number of hon. Members who were not present in Committee. I should like to remind the House that the proposal was passed in Committe by 15 votes to five—only the Government Ministers and one other hon. Member voting that way.

Dr. Owen

I am not trying to escape from the voting figures. However, if legislation is passed in Committee, as with other procedures, I have to put the matter forward for consultation and ask what should be done in this particular situation and how it would affect the child-care practice.

The comments received from the professional bodies to which the Government's consultation paper was sent indicated a remarkable number of people who supported the removal of the words. The ACC, the AMA and BASW supported the removal. The NCVCCO said: there is unanimous disapproval of the new subsection (1)(e)…as a dangerous weapon in the hands of a manipulative social worker perhaps conniving with a possessive foster parent. The ADSS said: It looks as though the Association will wish to support your proposal to remove the subsection.

The NFCA was very concerned at proposals to delete subsection (1)(e), which it strongly opposed.

The ABBA said that there was some division of opinion within the Association on Clause 54 2(1)(e). While it strongly supports the intention of protecting the child's emotional health and development, it is also aware that this subsection introduces new and vaguely defined reasons for depriving natural parents of their rights.

Words like "emotional needs", "impaired" or "stunted" could give rise to real difficulties concerning legal interpretation. I recognise that there is a wish to try to introduce this concept, and I have undertaken that I will be prepared to try to write this into the regulations, but I do not think that we should write it into the body of the Bill. Therefore, I ask the House to agree to withdraw these terms, which I think will shift the balance. There has been some considerable unease about this wording. I do not think it is easy to interpret in terms of legislation, and I hope that the House will agree to withdraw it.

Mr. Stallard

I make no apology for keeping the House for another few minutes. I shall be as brief as possible because most of us were here until the early hours of this morning—and rightly so—discussing the Hare Coursing Bill and cruelty to animals. We are now discussing, but not nearly so late, what some of us may think is as important as, or more important than, hare coursing; namely, children.

I was a little disappointed with the last vote, as no doubt hon. Members will have guessed. I therefore make no apology for keeping the House to discuss what is a very important subject.

Our parliamentary democracy and system can sometimes be extremely frustrating for a back bencher. There is nothing more frustrating than when one succeeds in having an amendment accepted in Standing Committee, by a reasonable majority and after a good discussion, only to find on Report that it is turned out by the full weight of the Government Front Bench and the Government machine. It is frustrating when it happens once, but when it happens twice, we backbench Members may be forgiven for feeling a little inadequate and for developing some kind of complex. This amendment was carried in Committee by an even larger majority than was the last amendment. The only people against it were Government spokesmen and one backbench Member.

12.45 a.m.

I divorce myself from any criticism of the organisations that the Minister has mentioned—the National Council for One-Parent Families, the Child Poverty Action Group and others. I have supported them for many years, and I shall continue to do so, even though from time to time we have to agree to differ about certain aspects of their policy. I shall, for instance, fight whole-heartedly for the implementation of the Finer recommendations. This debate will make no difference to my arguments in that respect.

It must be remembered that this is not a parents Bill; it is a Children Bill. Ministers have been at great pains to say that first consideration should be given to the child's needs, development, welfare and so on for all its childhood. That is what the amendment is about. We say that to put the child's needs first automatically means that the needs of someone else must come second, and that might even mean the parents. If the concept of the Bill is accepted, that must be a result.

There is often a fine balance, and who am I, any more than any other man, to say that I am right? Perhaps we shall not know who is right for some time. But I am convinced that in this respect we are more right in our approach than are those who oppose us. We are talking not about all children in normal circumstances but about special children and special parents in special circumstances. Fortunately, they are a very small minority.

The amendment deals with an exception to the grounds on which a local authority may assume parental rights. We want the exception because, as it was so aptly put to me, most of the grounds concern the fittedness—if there is such a word—or the unfittedness of the parents. In other words, there is a direct criticism of the parent in those circumstances.

Our amendment is an attempt to create some kind of escape clause, some ground that would not necessarily condemn the parents. It would allow the parents, the social worker and everyone else involved to say that there were grounds connected with the child's emotional development and so on. Who is to say that that approach is wrong in a Children Bill? I should have thought that that was what the Bill was all about.

The amendment will mean controversy and criticism. Since it was passed in Committee, we have been the subject of a number of criticisms. The first, mentioned by the Minister, naturally came from the National Council for One-Parent Families and the Child Poverty Action Group. They said that the amendment introduced a new criterion—poverty and inadequate housing conditions—and that that criterion could be used by a local authority against the parents. Having discussed the matter with them and reread the amendment, I believe that the criticism of the words was justified. That is why I changed the words and amended the amendment. The words "stunted" and "impaired", which the Minister mentioned, have now been removed.

The other legal criticism was that there was no precedent. I have in the main used the words in the 1969 Act, so that criticism cannot be maintained.

Perhaps, the words which remain, "emotional needs" are capable of some interpretation. If the Minister had said that he would support the amendment without them, that would have been reasonable, but he did not say that: he said "Scrub the lot."

Dr. Owen

With respect, I did not say that. What I said—the House has accepted Amendment No. 224—was that in the regulations about the six-monthly re view for the child I am prepared to write in "emotional needs" and similar wording to that in my hon. Friend's revised amendment. It is much better to do that by regulation than by legislation. Since my hon. Friend has now accepted that "stunted" should go out, the difference between us is not great.

Mr. Stallard

I do not profess to have the expertise or the advice to enable me to know whether regulations are better than legislation in this case. I am a little suspicious. If we accept the spirit of this proposal, perhaps it is better to have it in the Bill as well. Many people will read the Bill but not the regulations. That is not to say that I do not have complete trust in the Minister and the Government, although I am not so sure about some future Government—God forbid!

My new amendment is a genuine attempt to take care of genuine criticism. The Minister has said that the fundamental right of parents is the custody of their children. No one disagrees with that, but the amendment deals with children in care. Of course parents have rights, and they are often vocal in demanding them. But under the Bill children have rights, and they often have no one to speak on behalf of their rights.

I hope that the amendment will enable us to protect children's rights. It is difficult to get parents to give up some of their parental rights because of the present law, which demands that the local authority should demonstrate that someone has shown a parental failure. We say that the amendment would help in that difficulty.

Since the Committee stage I have been inundated with letters giving examples of cases that might be helped if this amendment were included in the Bill. I am moved by that kind of response. I never expected it. Having amended my original amendment, I would have thought that the House could accept the new form of the amendment, thus strengthening the Bill and helping these parents and all involved.

Mr. Whitehead

We all know at this late hour what the situation is—the Committee proposes, the House disposes. The House in this situation frequently consists of many hon. Members who wish to get home. They support the Government loyally in the Lobby and do not necessarily follow every line of the proceedings in Committee.

In Committee the vote was 15 to 5 in favour of the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard). He has been conscious of some of the criticisms of the phraseology that have been levelled at the original amendment. There was the question of the use of the word "stunted" and so on. The whole of the offensive phraseology has been removed. My hon. Friend and I now propose a form of words similar to that in the Children and Young Persons Act 1969. I accept that those who have criticised this and who apparently have had their way with the Minister—although he was also of that persuasion in Committee—have at heart the best interests of those they represent.

Mr. Holland, from the British Association of Social Workers, and Margaret Bramall, of the one-parent family organisation, have written to me about this. They are good friends of mine, and I expect to be working with them on many issues in future. I think they are wrong on this one. Mr. Holland has written to say that nowadays the unwillingness to act which may have characterised some local authorities a few years ago has changed dramatically since the Maria Colwell inquiry". In other words, he says there is now no need for us to be seeking legal safeguards.

Mrs. Bramall takes a different line and suggests that the Children Act 1948 and the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 are the way to seek these safeguards and that it should be done through the courts rather than by giving powers to local authorities. We say that in this narrow area the local authority should have in some circumstances—which were gone into in Committee—these powers and should be able to exercise them.

We have gone to great lengths to find a form of words which has a precedent in Section 1 of the 1969 Act so as to meet objections about the phrasing that we had in Committee. I hope that those who have listened to this short debate will support the majority in Committee—a three to one majority. In doing so they will be supporting not only the principle of the amendment, which may be imperfectly understood from this debate, but the whole principle that Committees of this House sit and deliberate on legislation in a meaningful way and cannot simply be steam-rollered by the Government late at night.

Mrs. Chalker

I echo the words of the hon. Members for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) and Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead). We spent a long time in Committee considering most carefully what the outcome of this difficult situation would be. I know how difficult it must be for hon. Members who come in to a debate late at night and may not be sure of what the argument is. It has happened to me. There are many hon. Members who have listened to the debate tonight.

We are concerned that we now have a thoroughly acceptable amendment in the shape of Amendment No. 148. It is a great improvement on the amendment we passed by 15 votes to 5 in Committee. Four of those five votes belonged to Labour Members.

1.0 a.m.

Very often local authorities cannot find sufficient grounds for implementing Section 2 rights. We feel that Amendment No. 148 is needed by the local authorities to strengthen their hand.

Perhaps I can give one small example. A baby of 14 months was suffering from severe malnutrition. Until he was 2 years old the mother never bothered to visit him. Between the ages of 2 and 3 years she took him out about once a month, but not every month. From the age of 3 she ignored him again. At this stage the local authority had still not implemented its Section 2 rights, in spite of frequent requests that it should do so. The child was past the age of 5 before that happened. The emotional development of that child has been such that at the age of 7 years he will not accept invitations to visit other children with whom he goes to school because he does not want to go to a strange house, even with people he sees on a daily basis in school.

One could go on criticising and amending every amendment. There were times this week when it was suggested that we might amend Amendment No. 148. I decided against that course because I felt it was adequate for what the local authorities required.

We have heard from the Minister and from a number of bodies, but I am concerned now with the people who care for the child in this difficult situation. Therefore, I put most weight on the views of the foster parents. They are unequivocal in their view of the importance of a child's emotional development. The Government must drop their amendment and accept Amendment No. 148.

Dr. Owen

The hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) has made much of what the local authorities require. She must, therefore, address herself to the fact that the ACC and the AMA, which represent the authorities which will be most deeply involved in social services, support withdrawal of the provision. That is also the case with the directors of social services and the British Association of Social Workers. These are the people who will have to operate this Act and use the legislation. Although I respect the views of the foster parents, they are in a minority on this issue.

The Committee made many changes to the Bill. Many of the Committee suggestions have been accepted throughout the proceedings this evening, but we are also bound to take account of the views of other people on Committee amendments, and in rejecting Amendment No. 148 I ask the House to recognise that I have undertaken to put the wording about emotional needs as far as possible into the regulations. To that extent I am taking a sizeable step towards meeting the objection of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard).

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 174, in page 35, line 17, leave out from 'them' to 'and' in line 19 and insert: 'the parental rights and duties with respect to that child'.

No. 175, in page 35, line 20, leave out 'that parent' and insert: 'the parent on whose account the resolution was passed'.

No. 176, in page 37, line 20, at end insert: 'or an order under section 25 of that Act'.—[Dr. Owen.]

Mr. Whitehead

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When will the House have the opportunity to vote on Amendment No. 148?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The House will not vote on Amendment No. 148. It fell when the House agreed to Amendment No. 52. That is the way of life.

Mr. Whitehead

I beg to move Amendment No. 53, in page 37, line 20, at end insert: '(12) Before passing a resolution under the provisions of subsection (1) of this Clause, the local authority must—

  1. (a) have regard to and consult the individual who has had the closest personal relationship with the child over the previous three years, as far as this can be established, and
  2. (b) ensure where at all possible that the relationship continues thereafter, having regard to Section 3 of this Act.
In this subsection "closest personal relationship" shall be interpreted as that person who on a continuing daily basis has fulfilled the emotional and physical need of the child in place of a stable parental relationship'. The purpose of the amendment, which is supported by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen), is to return to the concept which we brought into the Committee stage with what was then Amendment No. 400. That amendment was much criticised when I moved it in Committee on the ground that we incorporated the phrase "psychological parent" for that person who had the closest emotional and personal relationship with the child at the time when the child might become subject to a care order. I drew there upon the wording of Dr. Anne Hayman, to whom again I pay tribute, who was very keen on the particular phrase "psychological parent."

I can see that the phrase leads to certain difficulties, but I have been amused to find it cropping up not once but four times in a letter written on 24th October to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard), in which my hon. Friend the Minister said that in his redrafting—which is Amendment No. 224, I think, which we discussed earlier—he would see something roughly equivalent to the concept of psychological parenthood written in, if not into the statute at least into the advice which will be sent out under the terms of Amendment No. 224.

What the hon. Member for Wavertree and I have sought to do is to provide a precise definition of those close personal relationships which ought to survive and should be acknowledged when any local authority is making a care order. We have now said that the local authority must, when making any resolution under subsection (1) of the clause have regard to and consult the individual who has had the closest personal relationship with the child over the previous three years, as far as this can be established, and"— and perhaps this is more important— ensure where at all possible that the relationship continues thereafter, having regard to Section 3 of this Act. That is the clause which asserts that the rights of the child have primacy within this legislation.

I do not wish to detain the House unduly. The hon. Member for Wavertree hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However. I say to the Minister, who has been most patient throughout these proceedings, that I should like him to say whether he can take something of the spirit of this amendment as implicit in whatever instructions may be issued or whatever consultations may take place under the auspices of his Department along the lines of Amendment No. 224, which the House has already accepted.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)

It would be useful for the House to appreciate the seriousness of the amendment, because what the clause does is to extend the powers which local authorities were given under Section 2 of the Children Act. The clause gives to local authorities the powers to pass resolutions which deprive the natural parents of the rights to their own child. The House should not shrink from realising the severity of the clause. It is saying that the local authority, with all its bureaucratic machinery and all its weakness, should have the right to deprive the parents of any rights towards their child. Local authorities are in a weak position in view of the turnover of social workers, many of whom do not stay for long, and good social practice is not as widespread as we should like. In those circumstances the clause has serious implications.

Sacred to the Bill is the concept that the family unit should be maintained at all costs and that it should be nourished and boosted. Every support should be given to that concept by the local authority. We must encourage the unstable family. We must promote the concept of neighbourhood and community.

Families face special stress in the worst urban areas, and in those areas the social service workers are also facing stress and deprivation. It is significant that social workers are often as deprived as are the clients they serve. The clause is likely to be used in the most deprived urban areas and it wields an axe with a potential cutting edge sharp enough to sever the whole family unit and to permeate the extended family.

The clause refers to children who are in care. Where a local authority, on the recommendation of social workers—often young and untrained—takes the view that a parent is: of such habits or mode of life as to be unfit to have the care of the child, or (v) has so consistently failed without reasonable cause to discharge the obligations of a parent as to be unfit to have the care of the child; it can pass a resolution which will divest the parent of that natural relationship. That is a serious matter, and the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) and I feel that the clause needs modification.

The Minister may say that the parent can serve a counter-notice on the local authority, as provided in the clause, within one month after the passing of the resolution, but he must know that deprived parents are often depressed and downtrodden and do not have the life force or will to appeal against the bureaucracy which has taken away the child. They feel that the full weight of bureaucracy is bearing down and crushing them.

The clause will have the most pernicious effect upon the most deprived families. Perhaps too many mistakes are made by unskilled social workers. The amendment does not interfere with the powers contained in the clause. It merely allows local authorities to have a further source of information before passing a resolution to divest parents of their natural rights. It provides that, before passing the resolution, the local authority should examine as closely as possible the relationship which the child may have had over the previous three years—it may be with an aunt, an uncle, friends or grandparents—and consult the individual who has had the closest personal relationship. In that way, the members passing the resolution would have two sides before them—the social worker's recommendation and hearing a member of the family or a close friend who has known the child and can advise them.

1.15 a.m.

In Liverpool, I attended a large case conference about a child and I was amazed that it was put under a Section 2 care order without either the mother being there or any member of the family or friend being approached. Clause 54 goes further than Section 2, and that is why the amendment is so crucial. It would not reduce the powers of local authorities. It would simply direct the local authority towards a fresh source of information to help and guide it in a very difficult decision.

In this way, it would provide some continuity in the child's life. Without it, the child could pass from the natural parent into the bureaucracy of a local authority with social workers changing year in and year out. The amendment would at least offer some continuity with the child from a person who has had close dealings with it for three years. This is a relatively modest amendment but it could make a lot of difference to the lives of the children in the years to come.

Dr. Owen

I do not think I disagree with anything my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) have said. There is no doubt that to use these powers without proper regard to the personal relationships would be wrong. That is not confined to the regulations on parental rights and duties. It applies to practically the whole Bill.

It was to meet these general points that I put down Amendment No. 224 relating to Section 27(4) of the Children and Young Persons Act so that we would be able to make regulations prescribing six-monthly reviews and the manner in which they should be carried out. I assure the House that in those reviews those aspects of the child's welfare which are important, particularly the personal relationships and emotional needs, will be covered, as they should be.

I think that we can find a form of wording in the regulations which will be freer and easier and not so hidebound as it would be in legislation. It will certainly have regard to the concept of personal relations, which are very important. Amendment No. 224 will give us an important new power in a wide range of regulations for which the local authorities are the key people. I think that in this way we shall meet the purpose of Amendment No. 53 and some of the others which we are discussing.

Mr. Steen

Why will the hon. Gentleman not consider putting the provision in the Bill as well as in the regulations? It is our fear that committees and local authorities will look not at the regulations but at the Bill. To put this requirement in the regulations might mean that it will fall on eyes that do not read.

Dr. Owen

Amendment No. 53, as drafted, is open to the objection that the parent may be the individual referred to in paragraph (a) and it may not be practicable or desirable to consult him.

A further point about the amendment is that Clause 54, to which it relates, is concerned only with children who have been placed voluntarily in the care of local authorities under Section 1 of the Children Act 1948. Amendment No. 53 would not apply this concept of considering a child's personal relationships to other children who have been committed to the care of a local authority under other legislation such as the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, guardianship and wardship, or matrimonial legislation, where it might also be relevant.

There are a number of technical points. It is often tedious for a Minister to plead that it is better to do things in another way, but I believe that in this case we shall get a more flexible and wider coverage of the points made by hon. Members by dealing with them in regulations.

Amendment negatived.

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