HC Deb 01 February 1977 vol 925 cc513-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Coleman.]

5.37 a.m.

Mr. George Younger (Ayr)

We have heard much in the Press in recent months about battered babies and the tragic background that there usually is in such cases. I want to raise tonight the problems of the organisation which is usually in the front line in dealing with such cases, the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. This is an entirely voluntary society, established originally in 1884 and confirmed by Royal Charter in 1922. Its annual budget in recent years has been running at about £500,000. The vast majority of its funds comes from money raised by voluntary effort by its own members.

However, there has for some years been a basic level of support from local authorities and the Scottish Office which, although small in relation to the total funds raised by the society, has enabled a basic professional organisation to be maintained, which in turn has led to its high professional reputation and the keeping up of enthusiasm among its members throughout the country who have raised most of its money. It is because of the threat of a serious reduction in these basic grants that I fear for the maintenance of its high standards in future. That is why I am raising the matter.

The RSSPCC has over 40 inspectors and 35 visitors. Cases are referred to it by the general public, social work departments, reporters' departments, the police or any individual. A close liaison is maintained with social work departments to avoid duplication of effort. Once an inspector has assessed a case, either the child is given protection in one of the society's homes or the child and its family can be given support and supervision if necessary by one of the society's visitors.

All the staff receive proper professional training for their work. Part of the grant received from the Scottish Office is directly used to assist in the provision of training. Therefore, the work of the society is of a thoroughly professional standard. If the society did not exist, a considerable extra burden would be put on the already hard-pressed staff in social work departments.

As regards finance, it can truthfully be said that the public get an extremely good bargain from the society. Up to now, grants from local authorities have been running at about £40,000 a year and from the Scottish Office at about £23,000, plus a small extra amount to help with staff training. In addition, local authorities pay fees for children from their areas who are taken into the society's two residential homes, one in Edinburgh and one in Ayrshire. For that relatively modest outlay, amounting to a little over £70,000 a year excluding the fees, the society does work the total cost of which amounts to about £500,000 each year.

That brings me to the current situation. In 1972 the local authority associations recommended their members to contribute to the society at a rate of £10 per thousand population in each local authority area. That was raised to £12 per thousand population in 1975 by the new local authority organisation known as COSLA. However, in September 1976, as the new financial stringency began to hit local authorities, COSLA once more discussed its recommendation and quite suddenly reduced it from £12 per thousand population to £3.80 per thousand population. If fully implemented by all local authorities, that would reduce the local authorities' contributions to approximately £20,000 a year as against the expected total on the previous formula of over £60,000.

A cut of that size would change the society's financial position from having a manageable deficit on its running accounts to having quite serious financial problems. That would put at risk some of its most valuable work and would threaten to reduce the ability of the society in future to raise the £200,000 or so that it raises every year by voluntary effort. Everyone knows and accepts that we have to have cuts in public expenditure if we are to reduce inflation, and the society would not ask to be entirely exempted from the sacrifice that everyone is having to make, but I hope that all concerned will ask themselves what is the sense in saving £40,000 to £50,000 if it puts at risk the expenditude of about £½ million which is mostly raised voluntarily and is spent for the public good.

These Good Samaritans are having their grants cut overnight by about 70 per cent. The only result must be either a much greater burden on social work departments or, worst of all, a reduction in the help given to children whose unhappy lives are the proper concern of us all. I know that the Minister is well aware of these problems and that he has a high opinion of the work of the society. I am sure he will continue to be as helpful as he can in the grant that he and his Department give to the society.

I cannot, of course, ask the Minister to make up the shortfall in grant from the local authorities. Nor, I am sure, would it be easy for him to take this matter up himself with the regional authorities concerned. I hope, however, that he will use his good offices to discuss this question again with COSLA and to ask it to take into account the saving to local authorities which the society's work makes and the danger of allowing too sharp a cut-back in support to the society without giving it a reasonable time to adapt its financial policy to the new situation. If the Minister will agree to do that, he will earn the heartfelt gratitude of the society and of myself and he will be doing a good service to the better care of children who suffer hardship and ill treatment.

5.46 a.m.

Mr. Richard Buchanan (Glasgow, Springburn)

I endorse what the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) has said. We all sympathise with local authorities at the present time over the cuts which their services have to undergo. One cannot have the same sympathy with the Government, because Governments have made the decisions creating the position in which we now find ourselves.

We are having a bad time at the moment. As unemployment increases, hardship increases and children are apt to suffer more. The RSSPCC does a tremendous job. There are apt to be more children at risk during a depression. The society's funds are being denuded because the grant is being cut, yet this is a time when the funds of the society ought to be getting a boost to help it to overtake many of the problems that it will face in the future.

I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State not only to ask COSLA to increase the grant per thousand children but to do all he can in his own right to see that this voluntary effort is not allowed to wither away. As the hon. Gentleman said, the society raises £500,000 by its own efforts. In times like these such funds may not be readily available, and the society will therefore need more help instead of less from the people who really should bear the responsibility.

I urge my hon. Friend to accept that responsibility and do all he can to see that the society is preserved and that the work it is doing is sustained. I hope he will use his good offices with COSLA and the Department to ensure that the society has sufficient funds to carry on its excellent work.

5.49 a.m.

Mrs. Margaret Bain (Dunbartonshire, East)

I, too, endorse what was said by the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger). I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Violence in the Family. The evidence given to us by the RSSPCC and its sister organisation south of the border was of inestimable value.

Given this reduction in the local authority grant to the society and the difficulties that the society will encounter in raising funds on a voluntary basis in the present economic situation, will the Under-Secretary of State look at the role of the Voluntary Service Unit to see whether it could make a direct donation to the society? There is a feeling among voluntary organisations that there has not been the adequate clarification of the rôle of the VSU in Scotland that there has been south of the border. That is one direction from which funds could be made available to the society.

Like other hon. Members, I urge the Minister to do all that is possible within the Scottish Office to make sure that the grant it gives directly is increased.

5.50 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Frank McElhone)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) on initiating this debate on an important subject. I also appreciate the contributions by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mrs. Bain) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Buchanan). I should also mention several other hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) and Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown), who take an interest in children's affairs.

I am at one with the hon. Member for Ayr when he says that over a period of 90 years the society has had a long and distinguished record in the care and protection of children. We can all agree on that. The society has a long, distinguished and highly professional record.

If I understood the hon. Gentleman aright, he suggested that the local authorities were being somewhat shortsighted in deciding to reduce the financial assistance they give to the RSSPCC, since the authorities themselves—hard pressed as they are on financial and staffing resources—may find that any consequent reduction in the society's work on the care and protection of children will result in a corresponding increase in demand for the authorities' own services. Under the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, local authorities have power to give grant to any voluntary organisation whose object is to promote social welfare. I must make it clear that it is entirely for a local authority itself to decide whether to give such financial assistance to any particular organisation operating in its area and, if so, the amount of help that it will give.

I understand that four or five years ago the local authority associations in Scotland devised a formula which individual local authorities could, if they so wished, adopt in making grants to voluntary organisations. Following the reorganisation of local government, COSLA has considered this question and has made recommendations about the level of grant which authorities might wish to make. I understand, however, that the convention's recommendations are no more than recommendations and that individual authorities will themselves decide whether to adopt them.

COSLA decided last autumn that the recommended rate of grant to the RSSPCC should be reduced from £12 per thousand population to £3.80 per thousand population. It appears that this could result in a loss of income by the RSSPCC of up to £40,000 in the current financial year if all local authorities adhere to this recommendation. I can appreciate how anxious the society is about such a reduction in income coming, as it does, at a time when voluntary organisations generally may be finding it not so easy to obtain any compensating increase in income from other sources, particularly voluntary sources.

I am afraid that I do not have information about the action which individual authorities may be taking about grant to the society. As I have said, this is a matter on which local authorities must make their own decisions. They are best placed to decide on what they can afford in the light of the income available to them—including the rate support grant paid by the Government—and of the claims on all their resources. Each authority will be well aware of the services provided by the RSSPCC in its area and will have considered, I am sure, any implications for its own services for children if there were to be a reduction in those of the RSSPCC itself. I hope that the outlook is not nearly as gloomy as the picture painted by the hon. Member—and I doubt whether it will be. Conversely, I hope that the picture which I have painted is not too optimistic.

For some years now the Government have also been giving some assistance to the RSSPCC, initially for training purposes and, for the last two or three years, to help it with development work and its headquarters expenses—for example, by paying the expenses of specially appointed staff. In the present financial year we have offered grant of £23,000 for development and headquarters work, and the hon. Member for Ayr spoke of small additional allowances for staff training. For the present financial year there is a grant of £23,000 for development and headquarters work and we expect the grant for training purposes to be in the region of £25,000. Therefore, the total grant comes to £48,000 in the year.

We have not yet completed our consultations with the society on grant for the 1977–78 financial year. The amount which we shall offer must to a large extent depend on the programme of work which the society plans to undertake and on our own budget for grant for social welfare purposes. But, while I am unable to say how much we shall be giving RSSPCC for this, I am hopeful that at least we shall not be applying any cuts in grant available for development and headquarters work or for approved training. In these perilous times when there are so many constraints on finance, that is very welcome news and a measure of the worth that we put on the society.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

Is not the crux of this matter the whole economic strategy on public expenditure? Although I have been not exactly uncritical of the lack of public expenditure in very necessary areas, is it not rather strange that this issue should be raised by an hon. Member who has been crying out for more cuts in public expenditure? Much as we appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern for children and for the good work which the society performs in Scotland, is it not strange that an hon. Member who shouts and votes for more money to be spent on guns, bullets, nuclear submarines and multi-rôle combat aircraft should be asking for a sum of money which would amount to one-fourteenth of the cost of one multi-rôole combat aircraft? Does not this demonstrate a rather strange sense of priorities on the part of the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger)?

Mr. McElhone

I have heard that argument advanced by my hon. Friend before. There is call from the Opposition for substantial cuts in public expenditure, and it is only fair that we should ask them where we should make the cuts and what additional money the hon. Member for Ayr wants if he has a special interest in any specific organisation.

Over the last few years increasing attention has been devoted to the question of non-accidental injury to children —some people describe it simply as "baby battering". Central and local government and the health services have been specially concerned to try to develop administrative and professional arrangements which will bring together all those concerned with the circumstances of a particular case where such injury has occurred or is suspected. The hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East referred to the Select Committee. A Select Committee of this House is at present study ing the whole question of such injury to children and how ways might be found to reduce the level of risk.

This matter has been very much in the forefront of the RSSPCC's thinking, and the society approached my right hon. Friend to see whether we could, under our powers in the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, give financial assistance towards the establishment of a special unit to deal with non-accidental injury. This would provide treatment for families in a particular area and also offer a wider consultative and educational service to social work and health authorities in Scotland on this problem. Similar units operate in other parts of the country under the NSPCC and are proving to be a most valuable resource.

I am glad to say that we agreed to give grant at the rate of 75 per cent. of approved costs for an initial period of three years towards the establishment of such a unit in the Glasgow area. This grant will reflect both the social work and National Health Service interests of the central Government. The unit would, of course, serve an area wider than Glasgow in its consultancy rôle. The remaining 25 per cent. of the approved costs is being shared equally between the Greater Glasgow Health Board and the Strathclyde Regional Council.

I very much welcome that joint initiative in establishing a unit of this kind in Scotland. Consultations are now proceeding with a view to launching this project, and I hope that in view of its importance it will be in operation before long. It is important to stress that not one penny of the approved expense of the unit is being asked from the society itself.

The hon. Member for Ayr will see that, for our part, the central Government are recognising in a tangible way the development and headquarters work of the RSSPCC. I hope that the society does not have to curtail its local day-to-day activities as a result of any shortfall in income from local authorities. Irrespective of the question of grant, however, I am quite certain that, by continued and close co-operation between the staff of the society and of the local authorities—backed up by the support of the community with its still untapped resources—we can continue to improve our services for the well-being of the children of Scotland.

The House will know that I have been putting emphasis on talks with church leaders. I feel that a great deal can be done by church congregations working with voluntary bodies in stress areas.

I thank the hon. Member once again for initiating this debate, which I regard as very important. He will be comforted by the £48,000 which we are giving this financial year and the fact that we hope it will be no less in 1977–78. The fact that we are contributing 75 per cent. of the grant towards the special unit shows that the Scottish Office is cognisant of the difficulties facing the society. That body has done a great deal for the care of children, and I hope that our contribution will help to meet the aspirations of the society and those of the hon. Member for Ayr and other hon. Members who have taken part in the debate tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Six o'clock a.m.