HC Deb 12 March 1976 vol 907 cc899-908

4.1 p.m.

Mr. John Cordle (Bournemouth, East)

The matter I wish to raise is a far cry from the subjects we have been debating today. I wish to draw to the attention of the House the disturbing story of the unhappiness which has recently befallen a constituent of mine, Mr. Dennis Edwards, and two boys, John and Ian, to whom until about April 1975 he was foster father.

Mr. Edwards for the past 25 years has been an officially recognised foster parent and he has brought up seven youngsters. For that dedicated service his fellow-citizens and society should be more than grateful. Throughout that period Mr. Edwards has been under the supervision of the appropriate local government officials, and at no time has his ability been doubted to provide a secure, loving and decent home for youngsters sadly in need of care.

In April 1975 the two boys who were being fostered by Mr. Edwards were suddenly uprooted from his home and ordered elsewhere by the Social Services Department of the Dorset County Council. The official reason given for the decision was that Mr. Edwards was debarred from fostering by the provisions of the Boarding Out of Children Regulations 1955, in particular Regulation 2, which prohibits a single man from fostering any child unless that child is his grandchild, nephew, niece or younger brother or sister.

Two important questions arise, one specific to the case and the other of general consequence. The two boys who were suddenly uprooted were boys who needed to remain in secure and stable surroundings. They came to Mr. Edwards because of previous unhappiness and problems and, as he predicted, their removal from his home led to further problems. The elder of the two boys was returned to his parents and quickly became involved in violence with his father. Later, his mother was arrested for alleged incest. The boy was put into a remand home and he is now being fostered in Northern Wales. The younger of the two boys, Ian, has been placed in a children's home where he appears to be far from happy.

I would like to quote extracts from a letter he has sent to me. He says: I'm not happy here and if the Children's Department tells you I am happy it is not true. Later in the letter he writes: Denis Edwards took me three years ago. He has helped me to know what is right and to follow God's ways at all times. This is what I am trying to do, but I'm out here 10 miles away from my friends in the Salvation Army and so will never be really happy until I shall be back with my best dad in the world. Thank you ever so much. In considering the effect of the removal of these children from Mr. Edwards's home, a number of comments can legitimately and legally be made. It seems, to say the least, doubtful whether the appropriate authorities regarded the welfare of the boys as the first and paramount consideration. If they were so motivated, their judgment was sadly at fault. Secondly, the damage caused to the boys by their removal from Mr. Edwards's home has already been done and cannot be undone. Nevertheless, at least as far as Ian is concerned, one can but hope that compassion and Christian charity will impel the social workers with direct personal responsibility to allow the boy to return to Mr. Edwards at once or at least, if he so wishes, to spend his holidays with him.

I turn now to the general approach to this very important question. The 1955 Regulations should be amended so as to bring them into line with the principle of the Guardianship of Minors Regulations—that the first and paramount consideration is always the welfare of the child. That should be the overriding duty of the social services department, and all the specific Regulations should be subordinated to it.

What I am trying to say is that in any case where one of the specific detailed Regulations has not been observed, such non-compliance should not automatically be allowed to justify uprooting a child from a home which is secure and exemplary. The best interests of a child cannot be served by such action.

The 1955 Regulations should be further amended so as to bring them into line with the philosophy of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975—that arbitrary and unnecessary discrimination between the two sexes should be ended. If the Act is to mean anything, it should be put to work in respect of fostering.

The present Regulations allow any woman to foster children, be she single, married, divorced, separated or a widow, but they prohibit a man from fostering all but close blood relatives unless he is married and does so jointly with his wife. There is clearly this gross discrimination against males, enshrined as part of the law of the land, and it should be ended.

Mr. Edwards, in a letter dated 8th December 1975, wrote to me: I would emphasise that there seems to be gross discrimination against males. In so many families supposed natural maternal affection is sadly lacking and authorities seems slow to realise that fathers (including foster fathers) are capable of loving and caring for the young. No person with the genuine desire to assist children in need of help by offering to take them into his or her care and home should be disentitled by law from so doing. We need to encourage as many people as possible to come forward and to offer their services, and to ensure that their good and dedicated work is not destroyed by some bureaucratic blunder or sad miscalculation.

In this miserable case of almost spiteful bureaucracy. I beg the Minister for heaven's sake to show an overriding concern for those boys, Ian and John, and for Mr. Edwards, who has done so much over 25 years to bring up seven boys in urgent need of a loving, decent and Christian home.

4.10 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Alfred Morris)

I very much appreciate, both from his speech today and the correspondence he has had with my Department, the depth of the concern of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Cordle) about what is described as the miserable case of his constituent Mr. Dennis Edwards.

The hon. Member has raised with me two issues—first, the need to amend the provisions for the Boarding-Out Regulations 1955, which is a matter for central Government, and, secondly, how the Regulations are applied in particular cases such as that which he has raised in the House this afternoon, which is really a matter for local authorities. My comments about the second of these issues, including the case of Mr. Edwards, must be seen against the background of what is expected of local social services departments by the general public in dealing with children who are entrusted to local authority care.

Concerning the first issue, I know that the hon. Member and the House will be very pleased to learn that the Government are now giving active consideration to the case for amending the Boarding-Out Regulations 1955. As I shall explain later, we are doing so in the light both of this case and of the recommendations of the Working Party on Fostering Practice.

We have given local social services departments the duty of making the best possible arrangements for the care of such children to ensure their welfare and their future. Yet I hope that no one will be under any misapprehension that it is always immediately apparent—even if it is ever immediately apparent—what the best arrangements are. Often it must be accepted—painful as this may be—that no entirely satisfactory arrangements can be made for some of these badly hurt and very vulnerable children.

Finding out what is best must sometimes be a matter of trial and error. At every step, judgments must be made. They must be informed judgments about motivation, about people's emotions, and about relationships—not only about how all these factors affect the immediate situation but also about how they will affect a child's development and future.

I am sure that every right hon. and hon. Member will readily accept that this is no easy task. It would be wholly wrong to pretend that the decisions made are never arguable, or that no mistakes are made. It is, however, clearly essential that decisions are made, and it is this very difficult task that we have given local authority social services departments. Their job is to obtain all the information they can. Much of it may be given in confidence. At best, it will be information that can be used to facilitate a professional judgment about what is most suitable for the individual child. Expert advice will be sought, and account will be taken of the views and feelings—often of a very private and personal nature— of all the interested parties.

None of this is an exact science, just as no two situations are exactly alike. It does not at all follow that a foster parent who has successfully fostered a number of children will be the right foster parent for every child. Inevitably, what is done will, on occasion, distress and be unacceptable to some of the people involved. But whatever is done, it is the interests of the child that must always be paramount. That was a point emphasised by the hon. Gentleman which I endorse entirely.

The careful inquiries made by my Department into the matters concerning Mr. Edwards show that the Dorset County Council social services department has carried out its duties in the way that I have just outlined. The arrangements for the care of the two brothers concerned involve matters of professional judgment based on all the relevant information, and I can find no grounds for any intervention by the Secretary of State.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish there to be public discussion of all the very personal, private and delicate matters which have influenced the decisions made by the local authority in this case. That would be a gross breach of confidence and could also cause distress to the people concerned. But perhaps I might properly say something briefly about Mr. Edwards and the two boys for the purpose of helping to put the case in its proper perspective.

There are a number of relevant points in the report which my Department has received from the Dorset County Council which I should mention. Our understanding is that since 1950 Mr. Edwards has fostered one or two other boys for some years by private arrangement. Both are now adult and one continues to live with him. Private arrangements for fostering are, of course, a very different matter from fostering children in the care of a local authority. Although, since the Children Act 1958, local authorities have a duty to satisfy themselves as to the well-being of privately fostered children, they have no responsibility for arranging placements. This remains a matter for the child's parent or guardian. In the case of these two boys, I gather than Mr. Edwards took over the rôle of parent in all but name and that one of the boys has in fact taken the name Edwards.

Between 1962 and 1966 Mr. Edwards made a number of applications both to the then local authority children's department and to the Children's Society of the Church of England either to become a recognised foster parent or to adopt a child. These applications were unsuccessful. Then, in November 1971, his application to become a foster parent was approved by the Bournemouth Social Services Committee, although this was in contravention of the Boarding-Out of Children Regulations 1955 which, with certain exceptions which did not apply to Mr. Edwards and which I shall mention later, do not allow single men to become foster parents of children in care. We cannot now establish why it was decided to contravene the Regulations in this way. There may have been an oversight. Whatever the reason, the contravention of Regulations, which do not admit of discretion in the matter, was plainly wrong. Nevertheless, two children were placed with Mr. Edwards for short periods before he became involved with the two brothers whose case has given rise to this debate.

The two brothers had been received into care in 1970 under Section 1 of the Children Act 1948 because their mother was unable to look after them. Under this section, a local authority has no power to keep a child in care if a parent desires to take over the child's care, and, where this is consistent with the child's welfare, it must endeavour to secure that the care of the child is taken over by the parent.

I feel I should mention that an assessment of the boys obtained from the child guidance clinic at this time recommended that they should be placed initially in a children's home, with a view to fostering later, and that they should be kept in close contact with their family so that their eventual return to their mother could be made as easy as possible.

The boys were placed in a children's home where Mr. Edwards was a visitor, and he befriended them. After a number of visits to his home they were boarded out with him in 1973. The boys were encouraged by their social worker to visit and maintain contact with their family, but Mr. Edwards made it clear that this did not have his agreement. The situation was not made easier for the two boys by the conflicting advice they were receiving, first, from their social worker as the representative of the re- sponsible authority, and, secondly, from their foster father.

Fostering is not an easy task. It requires very great understanding of the child's position and feelings. Mr. Edwards's feelings on this point are understandable if his intention in taking on the difficult role of a foster parent was not so much to provide temporary care for someone else's children as fully to take the place of the children's parents.

Much against Mr. Edwards's wishes, the boys were returned to the mother's care, at her request, in March 1975. It must be made clear that their return to their mother's care was not a success and quickly resulted in a care order being made for the elder boy, who is now boarded out with relatives, and in the younger boy being received into care and being placed once again in a community home. With the consent of his mother the younger boy is now subject to a resolution under Section 2 of the Children Act 1948, which effectively transfers parental rights in respect of the boy to the local authority. This boy continues to live in the community home and has frequent contact with Mr. Edwards.

I know that Mr. Edwards feels that the boys were removed from his care by the local authority, in an inhuman and bureaucratic way, just to comply with the Boarding-Out Regulations 1955, which he regards as a petty restriction. Although it is true that the contravention of these Regulations had become a matter of concern to Dorset County Council, which became the responsible body for care of the boys following local government reorganisation, wider considerations than this were involved in the decisions to remove them from Mr. Edwards's care and subsequently not to return them to him.

I only hope that Mr. Edwards, a single man approaching 60, will now accept this and will also accept that his concern and affection for the younger boy in particular, who is now 15, can best find expression through his co-operation with the social services department in whatever arrangements are made for the boy, of which he is being kept informed throughout. I think I should make it clear that, from the information available to me, I see little prospect of an application by Mr. Edwards to foster or adopt the boys succeeding.

I turn to the general question raised about the barrier to single men becoming foster parents. I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East for bringing it to the attention of the House.

Although the responsibility for decisions about arrangements for the boarding out of individual children rests with the appropriate local authority, the responsibility for the legislative provisions rests, of course, with Parliament and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

The conditions under which a child in the care of a local authority may be boarded out with foster parents are prescribed in the Boarding-Out of Children Regulations 1955—Statutory Instrument 1955 No. 1377. Regulation 2 sets out the categories of persons who may act as foster parents and enables a child to be boarded out with a man alone only if he is a grandfather, uncle or elder brother of the child. The one exception to this is where, in the case of a child boarded out with a married couple, the wife dies or ceases to live in the household, when the child may continue to be boarded out with the husband or with any other suitable member of the same household.

The Regulations do not allow a child to be boarded out with a single man who is not a close relative within the categories I have mentioned. They do, however, allow a child to be boarded out with a single woman. Many people would have reservations about allowing a single man to become a foster parent where the child is a girl. But some would certainly argue that, where the child is a boy, the prohibition imposed by Regulation 2 on placement with a single man who is not a relative is, if we are really to have equality between the sexes, an example of discrimination which can no longer be justified.

In the final analysis, it is the care and judgment exercised by the placing authority which must determine in every case whether a particular person has the qualities needed to meet an individual child's needs and whether he or she is suitable to become a foster parent.

In considering whether to make any change in the Regulations, the main question we now have to decide is whether it is sufficient to rely solely on the judgment of the placing authority in these matters, or whether the social and moral considerations which influenced the drafting of the Regulations in 1955, so as to prohibit absolutely the placement of a child with a single man, are still valid today.

The recent Working Party on Fostering Practice has suggested, separately from its guide to fostering practice, the production of which was its main task, that we should re-examine this matter. It has recommended that, while fostering should normally be arranged with a married couple, there might be occasions when fostering by a single man or woman would be acceptable. That is one of a number of recommendations by the Working Party relating to the Boarding-Out of Children Regulations which we are now considering.

It is not a question which we can or ought to decide in haste. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Boarding-Out Regulations apply to children in the care not only of voluntary organisations but of local authorities. We must give local authorities and the other agencies responsible for the care of children an opportunity to express their views before finally determining the matter.

I assure the House that we have approached this question with an open mind and will take careful note of all the views expressed. As I mentioned earlier, the hon. Gentleman may rest assured that his views and the case of Mr. Edwards will be taken fully into account. Any proposals for changing the Regulations will, of course, be put before the House as soon as practicable.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Four o'clock.