HC Deb 27 June 1979 vol 969 cc611-22

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

11.34 p.m.

Mr. David Lambie (Central Ayrshire)

I should like to raise the question of the closure of Hazeldene nursery. Hazeldene children's residential nursery in Kilwinning in my constituency was completed as a purpose-built children's home in 1967 by the then Ayr county council. From that time, annual admissions have ranged from 174 in 1967 to 76 last year. In 1975 Hazeldene came under the control of the social work department of Strathclyde regional council following the reorganisation of local government in Scotland. Since that time the number of children in the home at any time has dwindled from 35 to 13, including seven severely handicapped children. By the end of this month no children will be left in the home. The last remaining residential nursery for the under-fives in Strathclyde will have been effectively closed and the staff of 39 will be looking for other jobs. The remaining 13 children will be fostered, placed in smaller residential units, or returned to their parents in line with the present Strathclyde social work thinking.

The seven handicapped children, two of whom are severely handicapped mentally and physically, will require special care if transferred to one of the smaller residential social work units. In the circumstances, fostering will be difficult, if not nearly impossible.

It has been suggested that these handicapped children are the problem not of the regional council but of the local Ayrshire and Arran health board which at present has made no provision for young handicapped children except in institutions like Dunlop House and Larbert where they mix with adults.

In this connection I quote from a letter received by the staff of Hazeldene from one of the parents with a handicapped child presently at Hazeldene: The news of the closure of Hazeldene has come as a shock to all my family and I am greatly concerned about the future of Maria Ann. When it became impossible to look after her at home it was only with reluctance that we parted with her. It was only the assurance that she would be cared for that convinced me that it was the only thing to do. Since her arrival at Hazeldene Maria Ann has received all the care and attention that could ask for. Hazeldene is her "home" now and I mean "home" in every sense of the word. I fail to understand why children like Maria Ann, for there must be many like her, cannot continue to benefit from the ideal conditions and surroundings at Hazeldene not to mention the caring staff … I am deeply concerned to discover that there is no provision for young handicapped children in our county. The alternatives offered are Dunlop House and Larbert, both of which I feel are unsuitable, because with no disrespect, I just do not like the idea of Maria Ann going to a large institution among adults, and I would strongly oppose such a move. I hope I do not appear to be uncharitable, but perhaps the people who sit on committees have the country's economy at heart and are bound by the statistics in front of them to put a red line somewhere, but may I suggest that perhaps if a little one close to a committee member were one of these statistics then maybe that red line would never have been drawn. That is the fear expressed by one of the parents, and it is a fear expressed by all of the parents who have children in this residential home. The fear of this parent and of the other parents concerned must be answered by the Minister tonight. What will happen to these children? What facilities are available throughout Strathclyde region now that the last remaining residential nursery for under-fives who are severely handicapped is about to close? How many of these children are now in adult homes?

One of the worst aspects of this closure was the way it was announced to the staff at Hazeldene. This brings no credit to the Labour-controlled Strathclyde regional council. On 30 March the staff read a report in one of the local newspapers—the Irvine Times—under the heading "Nursery faces axe". That report, which was the first that the staff knew about the closure, said: Strathclyde Regional Council's Social Work Committee have agreed that the nursery—the last residential one within Strathclyde's control should be run down—with the remaining 16 children being fostered or placed in children's homes. … The future of the Hazeldene staff yet has to be decided and the Director of Manpower Services is to report back on the transfer of the staff—or any required negotiations with unions. That was the first that the staff knew of the closure and that they were to be transferred or, perhaps, made redundant. So much for the Labour Government's employment protection legislation and joint consultation with the staff and trade unions concerned.

The newspaper report was finally confirmed in a letter dated 11 April from the director of manpower services to Mr. Gallacher, the district organising officer of NALGO, one of the main unions concerned. That letter said: I can now confirm that the Social Work (Supportive Services) Sub-Committee have decided:

  1. (a) that Hazeldene should cease to be used as a residential nursery and recommended accordingly to the Buildings and Property Committee;
  2. (b) instructed the Director of Architectural and Related Services to prepare an early report on the cost of adaptation of the nursery to a day care centre for the physically handicapped".
At a meeting in Hazeldene on 3 April, the staff, with the local trade union officials present, were told of the closure by officials of the manpower services department. They were told that the building would be closed for one to two years and that all the children would be moved. The staff were advised to apply for other jobs and were told for the first time that the closure date was 15 June.

I have no doubt that everyone in north Ayrshire will be happy that Strathclyde regional council is to provide a day care centre at Kilwinning for the physically handicapped. The need for such a centre has existed for some time, but why spend money adapting a purpose-built residential nursery, such as Hazeldene, when another nearby building is available? Fergus Hill nursery across the road from Hazeldene also catered for children is need but has been closed for nearly two years. It is an attraction for vandals and local children who play in the grounds. Strathclyde regional council seems to have forgotten that it owns the property. Will that also happen to Hazeldene?

As the local Member, I was first involved when I attended a meeting of the Hazeldene staff on Monday 9 April following the article in the Irvine Times. The date is firmly impressed in my mind because that evening the then Prime Minister opened the general election campaign in the Apollo Centre in Glasgow. Because of the approaching general election, I advised the staff at that meeting to contact their local trade union representatives and demand that consultations should take place. The trade unions involved are NALGO and NUPE. I promised the staff that I would meet them again if I were re-elected in the general election.

After the election, subsequent meetings took place on Monday 14 May and Thursday 7 June. Various councillors were present. Councillor Ronnie Carson, vice-chairman of the manpower services committee of the regional council, and local councillors Archie Lambie and Elliot Gray attended along with trade union representatives Mr. Mike Kirby of NALGO and Mrs. Jamieson of NPE.

Councillor Ronnie Carson informed the staff that the closure date had been put back by the manpower services committee from 15 June to 30 August. We had gained about two and a half months. With that new closure date, the staff decided to fight and to organise a local petition, which was signed by more than 2,000 people. I hope to hand it to the Under-Secretary after he has answered the debate.

In spite of the councillor's assurances, the social work department went ahead with its plans effectively to close Hazeldene and my latest information is that all the children will be out of the home by the end of this week.

That is why I decided to ask for this Adjournment debate tonight. Because I was disturbed at what was happening to the children at Hazeldene, I wrote at the end of May to Sir Lawrence Boyle, the chief executive of Strathclyde regional council, to Councillor Dick Stewart, the leader of the Labour group on Strathclyde regional council, and to the Secretary of State for Scotland. So far, neither the Secretary of State nor Councillor Stewart has replied.

The Secretary of State for Scotland—I put this to the Under-Secretary of State who is to reply—was quick off the mark in dealing with the proposal by Ayrshire and Arran health board to close Seafield children's hospital in Ayr in the Secretary of State's constituency, yet he has not shown any interest in what was happening to the severely handicapped children in Hazeldene in my constituency. I hope that the Under-Secretary, replying for his right hon. Friend tonight, will show that the Secretary of State is as much concerned about children in my constituency as he appears to be about children in his constituency in dealing with the closure of Seafield hospital.

This morning I received a letter from Mr. Harry Kilmurry, the depute director of administration of the Strathclyde regional council, answering on behalf of Sir Lawrence Boyle. Was it just a coincidence that notice of my intention to raise the question in an Adjournment debate was published last Friday and I received this letter written on Monday, after waiting about a month for a reply?

I shall now quote from this letter. As I have explained, I had been complaining about the lack of consultation, and Mr. Kilmurry says: As you know, all Sub-Committee meetings of the Council are open to the public and it can therefore happen that a press report appears before there is any formal consultation with staff on a matter which has required the Sub-Committee's approval. Nevertheless, because of the unusual position of the staff which had subsisted for some years, the interim resolution of the matter by the NJC decision last year, and informal discussions with NALGO which took place prior to the Sub-Committee meeting in April, it appears that both staff and the major union concerned were aware prior to that time that some decision would require to be made by the Council on the future of the nursery". Thus, Mr. Kilmurry claims that there were informal negotiations between NALGO in Glasgow and the chief officials of Strathclyde regional council. Mr. Kilmurry claims also that a meeting had taken place between the staff and representatives of Strathclyde. He says: At that meeting staff were given an assurance with regard to being offered alternative employment, and subsequent protection under the better conditions clause, and as a result staff have agreed to co-operate with regard to the closure and the placement of the remaining 12 children still resident in this establishment". So the Strathclyde regional council is claiming that the staff accepted the closure and are prepared to co-operate with it.

In the other local newspaper, the Irvine Herald, this was reported on 15 June: Staff at Hazeldene nursery, Kilwinning, have launched an all-out battle to avert the closure of the home … The staff are acting following a meeting between the home's 42 employees, MP David Lambie and Councillors Ronnie Carson and Elliot Gray. A spokesman for the workers said: 'We will make sure no children leave the home and that no redeployment will take place. We will continue this policy until such time as we receive a definite proposal on the future of Hazeldene.' Although Mr. Kilmurray and Sir Lawrence Boyle thought in Glasgow that everything was all right down in Ayrshire, the staff were campaigning against the proposed closure. In fact, Mr. Mike Kirby, the divisional secretary of NALGO, in a circular letter to all NALGO members in the Ayr division social work department, stated: Dear colleague, Hazeldene Nursery, Kilwinning. NALGO has been advised that the Social Work (Supportive Services) Sub-Committee have decided that Hazeldene should cease to be used as a residential nursery.… The members at Hazeldene, together with their domestic staff colleagues who are members of NUPE, have today formed a Joint Action Committee to fight the closure. The Committee have already received firm support in their fight from parents, four regional councillors and the two local MPs, in addition to amassing a vast support in petition of the general public in the area". This is the important part which is underlined: NALGO members in all sections of the Social Work Department (fieldwork, administration, homes and centres) are urged to assist their fellow members in this fight by refusing to co-operate in the transfer of any children from Hazeldene". Therefore NALGO in Ayrshire, taking advice from its members in Hazeldene nursery, was advising its members not to co-operate with this proposed closure. Those of us who know Strathclyde know that this is typical of negotiations with Strathclyde regional council. No wonder my friend and colleague, Dick Stewart, had not the courage to reply to me. This is another example of an inefficient, gigantic regional council, controlled from Glasgow, and the children in Hazeldene are the ones who are suffering.

I accept that it is better to foster children as a principle. Where the Strathclyde regional council has gone wrong is in thinking that this principle can be applied through Strathclyde, covering more than half the total population of Scotland. There is need for variety and Hazeldene can supply that, as a day nursery with a residential element for the severely mentally and physically handicapped. This would use the purpose-built building, use the skill and experience of the present staff, and supply a much-needed want in the Cunninghame district. At present, Cunninghame district has a population of about 130,000, and one day-care nursery for 50 children. Glasgow district, with a population of about 800,000, has 19 day nurseries. Why? Both districts are in Strathclyde and are under the same social work department. Why are the facilities in Cunninghame so much less than the same facilities being offered to the people in the Glasgow district?

In other cases where Ayrshire has been ahead of the rest of Strathclyde in providing facilities, Strathclyde has always told us "You have got to stand still until the rest of the region comes up". Here we have a position where Glasgow urban area is far ahead of Ayrshire in these provisions and we are being told "Your facilities will be reduced and no more money will be spent in your area to bring you up to the standards in Glasgow".

Tonight I am asking the Secretary of State to intervene and ask Strathclyde regional council to reconsider its decision to close Hazeldene residential nursery. Investigation is also needed into the lack of places in day care nurseries in Cunninghame district compared with other districts in Strathclyde region. There is need for Hazeldene to be a combined day care nursery and residential nursery. The buildings are there, the facilities are available, and the staff is there. The demand is there from the mentally and physically handicapped throughout Strathclyde and from the families in the Cunninghame district. More variety in child care is needed, and not the uniformity of the Strathclyde council's present policies. I hope that the Minister will give me the assurances that I seek.

11.55 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Russell Fairgrieve)

First, I mention to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie) that I am extremely interested in the Adjournment debate and I wish to answer all the hon. Gentleman's questions. However, he has consumed 20 minutes of a 30-minute debate, leaving me only 10 minutes.

Mr. Lambie

The Secretary of State for Scotland had a month to answer before I spoke.

Mr. Fairgrieve

I shall continue. Therefore, I am not able to answer all the hon. Gentleman's questions. As he knows perfectly well—

Mr. Lambie

Why is not the Secretary of State replying?

Mr. Fairgrieve

It is my responsibility to reply for my right hon. Friend on this matter. I shall continue with the subject matter of the debate. If there are any more sedentary interruptions from the hon. Gentleman, I shall not be able to say what I intended to say about this important subject in his constituency.

The hon. Gentleman has tonight drawn attention to some difficulties which have arisen from the decision by Strathclyde regional council's social work committee to close an establishment which it considered was no longer needed for its original purposes, in view of the changing patterns of services to help children and their families. This decision is entirely a matter for the local authority and the approval of my right hon. Friend is not required for a proposal of this sort. The hon. Gentleman did, of course, copy to my right hon. Friend his recent letter to the chief executive of Strathclyde regional council about this matter.

Hazeldene residential nursery school was planned and built in the late 1960s to provide residential accommodation for babies and very young children, particularly those waiting for adoption. Over the past few years, however, it has increasingly become accepted that the best interests of babies and young children in such circumstances are met by their being placed as foster children for a short spell with a family. Since Hazeldene nursery was opened, the need for this sort of facility seems to have decreased significantly and the local authority has therefore been using it to provide accommodation for some young handicapped children.

I understand that, for some time, officials of Strathclyde regional council's social work department have been examining the need for the nursery and have had some exploratory discussions about possible changes in use with representatives of various interests involved, including the National Association of Local Government Officers, which, together with the National Union of Public Employees, represents the staff employed in Hazeldene nursery.

I am informed that, in March of this year, a sub-committee of the Strathclyde regional council's social work committee considered proposals for the future use of Hazeldene nursery. The sub-committee noted that alternative means of care would be provided for the 16 children then in residence, and that the premises were neither needed nor suitable for a children's home. The sub-committee concluded that Hazeldene nursery should be closed and that its alternative use for the physically handicapped should be investigated. At the same time, it asked the director of manpower services to advise the committee on proposals for transfer of existing staff and to enter into any necessary negotiations with trade unions.

I appreciate the worry and concern which members of the nursery staff may have felt as a result of uncertainty over their future and the possible need to undertake employment in an alternative job. However, the detailed procedures for consultations and negotiations before and after a decision such as this by a local authority must be a matter for the authority itself.

My information is that, as a result of recent and continuing discussions between officials of Strathclyde social work department and the trade unions concerned, and staff employed in the nursery, the staff has now accepted the need for closure of the nursery and that a satisfactory solution has been agreed to the rundown in the provision made there.

Mr. Lambie

That is not true.

Mr. Fairgrieve

Today there are only 10 children accommodated in the nursery and it is expected that, with the help and co-operation of other services, including the Ayrshire and Arran health board, suitable places can be found for these children. It is envisaged that alternative placements for all the children will have been made by the end of August.

I have received assurances from Strathclyde regional council that there will be no precipitate action in moving children out of the Hazeldene nursery without alternative provision being made which is suited to the needs of the children concerned. Similarly, the local authority is anxious to ensure that the redeployment of staff will take place in as systematic a manner as can be arranged; and that individual members of staff will be matched with appropriate available jobs within the local authority's organisation.

Closure of a facility such as this—even if it no longer serves its original purposes—must bring change and some uncertainty to the occupants and their families and to the staff who have been looking after them. I am sure, however, that Strathclyde regional council is doing all it can to obtain the best possible alternative placements for the children now in Hazeldene nursery and to offer all the staff concerned suitable alternative employment when the nursery closes.

There are a number of other comments that I should like to have made, but, as I said earlier, time was cut short for mc. I shall try to reply quickly to some of the specific matters referred to by the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the position of a child named Maria Ann. I remind him in all fairness that the object of the home when it was built a decade ago was not for the problems of children such as Maria Ann. It is because the home is no longer able to be filled with the children for whom it was built that it has taken in disabled children. That is very important, and it should be remembered in this debate.

I think that I have said already what is to happen to the children. We are making certain that no hardship is caused and that they will be found other places in which to live, be they in homes or in personal or family accommodation.

The hon. Member spoke of communications with Strathclyde regional council. As I said earlier, these council debates are open to the public. It was up to Strathclyde to decide whether this matter should be debated before or after the staff were informed. We have learned that many of the staff knew.

The hon. Member then asked why it had been decided to change a nursery which had been purpose built. It has to be changed because the purpose for which this nursery school was built originally is unable any longer to be fulfilled. A change will have to be made, anyway, and Strathclyde has been making this change of necessity during recent years.

Naturally, I shall be delighted to receive the petition which the hon. Member will be handing me after this debate. But I trust that it recognises that, because of circumstances which may have been outside Strathclyde's control, it is not I or the regional council who have had to find other uses for this home.

As for the hon. Member having no answer from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, of course my right hon. Friend is interested in this matter, but it is my duty on his behalf to reply to this question. He has asked me to assure the hon. Member that this Government will make certain that no hardship will be caused to the children in the home or to the staff. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend has had an interest in this subject from the very beginning.

It is not for me to comment on replies from the Labour controlled Strathclyde regional council. The hon. Member has made these points fully himself.

The need for residential nurseries such as Hazeldene has decreased for a number of reasons. The number of babies and young children offered for adoption has been falling. The birth rate has been at a relatively low level for a number of years—

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

Adjourned accordingly at four initiates past Twelve o'clock.