HC Deb 08 November 1977 vol 938 cc627-36

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

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

It is with some sadness and, indeed, anger that I ask the House tonight to listen to an Adjournment debate. The events which have taken place over the last six or seven weeks—and even in in many instances prior to that—are, indeed, a reflection of the fact that notice was not taken of the demand which had been made for an inquiry into the affairs at the Woolton Vale Assessment Centre. I believe that if that request had been conceded and an inquiry had been accepted at that time, much of what has followed at the centre could well have been avoided. Certainly much of the bad publicity that the centre has attracted could also have been avoided.

The effect of the publicity upon Woolton Vale Assessment Centre at this stage is immeasurable and I believe that it will be some time before any degree of confidence returns to the centre. I am mindful of the damage that could continue to be done if the matter is not the subject of close investigation and inquiry into all the allegations which have been made about Wootton Vale.

I think that we all recognise the sensitive and sometimes difficult task facing those who have the responsibility for young people at these centres. There is not always the provision of facilities to deal adequately with the task with which they are confronted. Indeed, it has been said by the Director and Chairman of the Liverpool Social Services that the Woolton Vale Assessment Centre is inadequate in terms of buildings and facilities to meet the needs of care assessment and demand. It is only fair to say that steps have been taken to build a new centre in some 12 months to two years. This centre will, I understand, replace Woolton Vale.

I consider those arguments to be quite valid and justified. I cannot accept, however, that the building of a centre in one to two years' time should be used as an excuse to ignore the many complaints and allegations which have been made about Woolton Vale.

I have a letter from a former placement at Woolton Vale which indicates quite clearly that this is not a matter which has been in existence only for the last weeks or months. The letter was written in April 1976 by a former employee who had a brief placement at Woolton Vale at that time. He said in his letter to me: It would be an understatement for me to say that I find my brief experience working at Wootton Vale is disturbing. Clearly the building is outdated. More suitable facilities would have to be sought, and I believe that a purpose built establishment is being provided long after the need arose. Notwithstanding this, young and disturbed children continued to be victims of the conditions and the regime within this establishment, and this would be for the next two years. Perhaps I could draw your attention to the regime which still operates within the terms of the Home Office rules applicable to remand centres, and of course Wootton Vale was a remand centre in the past. For instance, official visiting is similar to that of detention centres or prison and all children are searched by staff after visiting. I believe it was the practice that all incoming and outgoing letters be read. During my placement I felt like a gaoler and spent most of the day locking and unlocking doors. That gives some indication of the inadequacies of the building. What is of more concern is that 12 or 18 months later a number of complaints arose from parents, and others, about other practices at Woolton Vale.

As my hon. Friend will know, a submission has been made by four Liverpool city councillors, and members of the social services committee, to the Ombudsman about examining allegations of cruelty and maladministration by members of the staff. In spite of the pressures that have been placed upon those responsible for the running of this centre there has been a constant resistance to any form of inquiry. Indeed, it is my view that had this Adjournment debate not taken place this evening, the last meeting of the social services committee would have continued to adopt that attitude towards the question of an inquiry.

I am somewhat disturbed by the fact that notice about this Adjournment debate was transmitted to the city of Liverpool, and its officers, before I myself knew that the debate was taking place.

I do not accept that all of the allegations which have been made—some probably exaggerated—are to be accepted on face value. That is one of the reasons why an inquiry was seen as the only answer to the problems that face those who occupied and those who ran the Woolton Vale Centre.

I could go into detail on a number of cases, but time does not permit me to do so, nor would I want in any way to cut across the decision that has been taken about an inquiry. I want to come back to that in a moment. I understand that at this point in time the social services committee has decided to refer the matter to the Ombudsman. It is, however, my view that the terms of reference of this inquiry ought to be spelled out. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to tell us more about the form which this inquiry will take.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)rose

Mr. Loyden

I believe that unless the inquiry is a full-scale inquiry there will remain upon this place a stain that will make it ineffective as a centre for the period that lies ahead.

I do not accept that the question of a new centre should be used as an excuse for not acting now, because there is a mixture of boys at the school ranging from what could be described as young criminal elements to those who in all probability have committed the one crime of absconding or absenting themselves from school, or being abroad at night, or any of those minor offences and misdemeanours. It is the degree of control that is required for the former which imposes a great deal of strain and stress on the latter.

I believe that the Government's object in setting up assessment centres was to give an opportunity to those responsible for children in care to make an assessment of their problems and to make some provision for their future on a longterm and more permanent basis. It appears to me that the present position in Woolton Vale simply does not allow for that to take place.

I do not believe that the provisions at the moment are sufficient to carry out, for instance, education of those children who need it and the care which is referred to in the statutory instrument as being the basis on which a. relationship in these homes should be built.

Mr. Steen

I support the hon. Gentleman's request for an inquiry. Is he aware that a constituent of mine has been subjected to acts of violence and herself has complained about violence in this home? Is he aware, further, that I, too have been asking for an inquiry in this case?

Mr. Loyden

I am aware of the individual case which the hon. Gentleman raises, and I am sure that he will be pursuing it with his customary vigour. However, my concern at this stage is not with individual cases. My concern is about the circumstances as a whole at the Woolton Vale Centre.

I believe that this House should be disturbed to learn that, under legislation passed by this House, children are placed in a situation of the kind prevailing at Woolton Vale. When we in this place pass Acts of Parliament, we should ensure that the provisions necessary to implement the intentions of the legislation are available to those in local government and so on who are supposed to run these places in accordance with those Acts.

However, the main question here is that of the allegations which have been made about the violence which allegedly was endemic in the place over some considerable time. I believe that there has been a great deal of stress and strain placed on members of the staff, but again that does not remove the responsibility for dealing with the problem as expeditiously as possible.

The complaints which have been enumerated are of a very serious nature. Allegations of violence by the head against children have been made. I agree that there is conflicting evidence about the seriousness of those actions. Nevertheless, there is sufficient doubt in the minds of people that conduct of this kind is going on at Woolton Vale.

As for the staff, at the beginning of all the publicity they played a somewhat low-level role. Since then, however, they have recognised that the only way in which this could be cleared up to the satisfaction of all concerned is by an inquiry, and they have themselves drafted a petition, signed by 25 or 26 of them, calling for such an inquiry. In my view, it is a pity that the same sort of response was not there when the saga of Woolton Vale began.

It is my view that, if the Woolton Vale Centre continues in being without the necessary inquiry to which I have referred, not only will the Centre be undermined but ultimately it will undermine the entire concept of centres throughout the country. As each of these places is exposed in the way that this one has been, assuming that there are other similar cases, the concept of child care and assessment as a whole will be undermined. I am sure that that is not the Government's intention.

Is the present position satisfactory? We have been told that the local authority has now referred the matter to the Ombudsman. But it is not certain that the Ombudsman will want to carry out the inquiry, and therefore the situation may remain unresolved.

I believe that responsibility lies with the Secretary of State in these circumstances and that the evidence must be collated. I accept the valid criticism that much of the evidence which has been drafted and collated has been fragmented by the various groups gathering it, but I believe that it is not an impossible task to gather evidence of specific incidents of maladministration. From that would come a formidable report to compel the Secretary of State to investigate the affairs of Woolton Vale.

The matter reached a peak over the publicity given to the use of a cell in Woolton Vale. I visited the Centre shortly after the Press publicity had drawn attention to the matter. Some of the Press statements made about the cell were exaggerated, and were a misrepresentation, to some extent, of the true position.

However, I was appalled to see the sort of arrangements that had been made for separating children for various reasons, and as part of the general control plans. There was a room, absolutely bare and sparse, with the exception of a mattress on the floor and a toilet in another corner. Even the flushing mechanism for the toilet was outside the room. Apart from these two items there was no other piece of furniture or equipment in the room, which had a cell-like door through which observation could be kept, as in prisons.

The lights were operated from outside the cell, and I understand that this is also for observation purposes. There were two lights, one red and one white, and during the night the red light was used so as not to disturb the sleeping boy or youth. When the boy wanted to use the toilet he rang a bell for the officers to come around and flush it. I doubt whether an officer can be found to dash around and flush the toilet every time the bell rings. This sort of thing creates an environment which is, in many ways, worse than in an adult prison.

This cell is used not only for isolation—there may be occasions when headstrong boys need control—but also for punishment. The reason given for this is that it has the privacy required to carry out punishment. It was one such incident that brought the matter to light and caught the attention of the Press. One of the boys concerned in such an incident was the cause of the beginning of the whole investigation. He complained to his parents that he had been punished in this way. There is evidence that parents' complaints are disregarded, and that when boys are found with marks or weals on them, some reason is given about falling in a football match or fighting with other boys. I am not saying that every word uttered in criticism of Woolton Vale is factual and cannot be challenged, but I say that there is sufficient disturbing evidence that cannot be disregarded by the local authority, the social services committee or the Secretary of State.

I could go on for a long time giving chapter and verse of the cases I have heard about and of reports and statements by parents in regard to acts of violence and maltreatment in this remand home. In one case a boy was locked up in isolation, and it was alleged he had been a brain-damaged child at the age of six. I hope that the Minister will not suggest that that is the right way for young child offenders to be dealt with. If that kind of practice continues, I believe that it will make hardened criminals out of the children in these centres.

I believe that there is a responsibility on the Secretary of State to carry out a full inquiry into Woolton Vale and that he should not shrug off responsibility by saying that in two years' time there is to be a new centre. How many boys in that period will be damaged, perhaps irreparably? How many others will be set on the course of a hardened criminal in that period? The responsibility is ours, and the Secretary of State should grasp the opportunity to carry out an inquiry and see to it that whatever new building follows the present building is equipped to serve the purpose for which it is designed—namely, to deal with young child offenders in Liverpool.

10.42 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Mr. Roland Moyle)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) has raised this matter on the Floor of the House because he has been following it assiduously with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and has discussed the matter with my Department. I apologise for the fact that the Liverpool Corporation knew before my hon. Friend that he had been granted an Adjournment debate. I do not know the facts, but I assume that once my Department was informed that my hon. Friend had the Adjournment debate, it thought that he knew that, too, and, out of professional courtesy, it informed the Liverpool Corporation.

The matter my hon. Friend raises is of special concern to everybody who is concerned with young people, particularly when they are away from their parents and in the care of local authorities. I am happy to see that the Liverpool City Council has made its concern apparent. It is a concern which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I share.

It looks as though the allegations will be subject to another inquiry of an external nature. Therefore, I shall not go into the allegations in detail, although, if time permits, I shall try to outline them.

Woolton Vale is an observation and assessment centre, with 53 places, and concentrates on boys of the more difficult type in the age group 12 to 18. Other boys are held in less, onerous conditions because they are more amenable to treatment.

The building is inadequate and is one of Mr. Gladstone's old, converted residences. It makes it difficult to carry out adequate supervision, and therefore a replacement is being built at Fazakerley to take 88 boys. There will be a secure unit, for which the Department has approved a grant of £97,500, and it will open in November 1978.

The inadequacy of the centre, however, is no excuse for ill treatment or inadequate care of boys. The allegations that have given rise to the present demands for an inquiry concern chiefly one youngster of 15, who was in the centre following appearances in court for offences, who was caned in the separation room of the unit and about whom it is alleged that he was seized by the throat by staff and on another occasion frightened by tales of haunting. There is another allegation that two other boys were set upon and assaulted by boys in the presence of and with the active concurrence of staff, and there are also allegations of ill treatment and assault by staff on other boys.

In addition there has been one incident concerning members of staff. Police were called in after a complaint made by one of the women on the staff. According to the Press, she had been assaulted by one of the male members of staff. A case against him was brought to court on 18th October, but it was not proceeded with. The man agreed to be bound over and the judge agreed that the case should be allowed to lie upon the file. He described the incident as having been horse-play which had got out of hand and, although it was a humiliating experience for the woman concerned, he thought that it would be quite wrong to allow the full panoply of the jury proceedings to be instigated in the case.

The allegations were considered at meetings of the adoption and special services sub-committee of the city council's social services committee and came before the committee at its meeting on 2nd November. The committee decided to recommend to the council that a further independent inquiry should be set up. My information differs from that of my hon. Friend. I understand that the proposal that will come before the full council on 9th November reads: That the Committee considers it desirable that an inquiry, completely independent of the City Council, —that is important— should be held as soon as possible into the various allegations made about the conduct of Woolton Vale; and accordingly, as complaints of maladministration have already been referred to the Local Government Commissioner, urges him, in the event that no statutory inquiry is ordered by the Secretary of State, to accept those complaints and undertake an investigation into them and into any other matters which might come to his notice during the course of the investigation and which seem to him proper to be enquired into in the context of the allegations made. I see no cause for the Secretary of State to intervene in the case, at least at this stage. The council is clearly concerned to get at the facts and it will entrust the matter to the Local Government Commissioner. The Commissioner has powers under Section 26 of the Local Government Act 1974 to investigate any such complaint of injustice in consequence of maladministration in connection with action taken by or on behalf of a local authority.

It is entirely for the Commissioner to decide whether he can act and how far he can extend his inquiries. He has not yet taken that decision. Matters that he could look into include, among many other things, a failure to observe rules, and malice towards the person concerned. Several local authorities have themselves endorsed the referral of complaints to the Local Government Commissioner. I understand that the city council will be considering this proposal tomorrow and the Commissioner has still to decide whether or not to accept the reference. As the hon. Member knows, we have of course been in close touch with Liverpool over this case and my regional social work service officers have visited Woolton Vale and are aware of the difficulties experienced in running the centre.

The Secretary of State has powers to institute an inquiry under the Local Government Act 1972 and the Children Act 1975. These are, however, very much last-resort powers.

If the Commissioner did not exercise his discretion in favour of an inquiry, it would be possible for the city council to set up an independent inquiry, and our experience is that reports from such inquiries have generally commanded full acceptance from the responsible bodies concerned. I think it best that these matters should be dealt with locally by the responsible authority, if at all possible.

Mr. Loyden

Does my hon. Friend accept that an ultimate decision by the Secretary of State cannot be ruled out at this stage?

Mr. Moyle

We shall have to see how the dispute goes, but I cannot rule out anything at this stage.

In the unlikely event of the Commissioner not agreeing to the request of the city council, the best conclusion would be for the council to set up an independent inquiry. The Secretary of State and I would have to be satisfied that the inquiry was truly independent and was capable of making an independent assessment of the problem.

My hon. Friend asked in his first letter, which we received on 24th August, whether we would consider closing Wool-ton Vale. I must confess that this is a course of action that—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at ten minutes to Eleven o'clock.