HC Deb 30 November 1979 vol 974 cc1744-54

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

4.14 pm
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

In this Adjournment debate I should like to call to the attention of the House the events following the death of Paul Brown. The debate comes at a time when there is growing unease about the effectiveness of our social services. It concerns a family that was well known to the social services. Let me briefly put the evidence before the House.

On a number of occasions Paul Brown and his brother were taken into care by the local authority. That is the first piece of evidence. Secondly, the children's grandmother—Pauline Brown's mother—again, on a number of occasions, drew the attention of the local social services department to the danger in which she thought the two young children existed.

The third piece of evidence is that the neighbours, unlike so many neighbours, were not inactive. The record shows that they drew the attention of the police to what they thought was happening to these two young brothers. Fourth, the health visitor—one of the heroes of this case—made valiant attempts to protect the interests of the two children, sadly without success.

Despite all those warning signals, the health and social services department in the locality failed in a number of important ways. In the first place, the children were put on the at-risk register in March 1975, but the first report on what happened to the two Brown children recalled that no case conference followed the children being placed on the at-risk register. Also, the social services department failed to carry out the non-accidental injury procedure properly—that is, the procedure to be followed when it is thought that children are being bashed about by adults. The local health authority was not informed and no distinguishing mark was made on the children's record or file.

Further, when the foster-parents in Wallasey, who were entrusted with the children's care, were trying to protect those children from Pauline Brown and her husband, who were temporarily reunited at the end of 1975 and early 1976, the social services department gave little support to those foster parents in their efforts to protect the two young brothers.

Following that, when the mother took it into her head to take the children to London, and a safety order was taken out by the local authority, the order was allowed to lapse after one month. In July 1976, when the alarm bells were well and truly ringing, and Paul's brother failed to turn up at the local hospital for a test, very little effort, or not sufficient effort, was made by the local authority to ensure the welfare of these two children. Those events occurred in a background against which everybody admits that the grandparents, to whom the children were entrusted, were known to have problems and that the grandfather had already been had up for trying to kill one of his own sons with a belt.

Therefore, the story came to its horrific end when, on 11 August 1976, a doctor and ambulance were called to the home of the Browns, and Paul Brown was taken into hospital. There he was found to be deeply unconscious and to have extensive bruising. He was transferred to Walton neurological unit for brain surgery. The operation showed evidence of repeated violence.

On the following day the social services acted in the case of his brother, who was taken away from the care of the grandparents. I quote from the Oakes report. Paul's brother, it says, was found to be dirty, infested and ravenously hungry. Against that background, what action did the local authority take? Its first action was to set up what is called the Oakes inquiry, which reviewed the evidence and set out a number of conclusions, centring on the failure of communications, the importance of training and another important conclusion to which I hope I shall have time to return. I think that the right hon. Lady the Prime Minister would generally describe the findings of the Oakes report as "wet".

Fortunately, following the publication of the Oakes report, two Tory councillors, Councillors Walker and Mrs. Wood, raised publicly the question of how the Oakes inquiry could have come up with these conclusions when it had seen documents which supposedly would be submitted to the Oakes inquiry but which they believed perhaps had not been submitted after all. As a result of their sticking out—they are two of the heroes of this sorry tale—the council set up the second inquiry, known as the Heald inquiry. Heald came to the conclusion that, first, the existing record from March 1976 "was skilfully changed" after the ill treatment of the children had been established. Secondly, he maintained that the two councillors had seen a memo which stated that the social worker writing the memorandum had felt, or strongly recommended, that the children should not be placed with the family. Heald stated that, given the existence of the memoranda, much wider and serious questions were raised—namely, whether the Oakes inquiry was misled". As a result of coming to that conclusion, Heald went on to say—he was circumspect and proper—that probably the local authority would want to ask the Secretary of State for Social Services for a committee of inquiry under the Children Act 1975 and to link with that the powers that exist under the Local Government Act 1972 to compel witnesses to present themselves and to give evidence.

The next move comes from the local council. On 13 October 1979 it wrote to the Secretary of State asking for the inquiry and asking to see him. Following that meeting with the Secretary of State, which sadly was from only the majority party and not from all parties on the Wirral council, action was not taken. The first question that I ask the Minister is whether it was his Department that asked to see representatives from only the majority side or whether that decision was made by the local authority.

Secondly, given that the Oakes inquiry, the first inquiry, drew attention to one of the problems of the area, the lack of staff, is the Minister satisfied that the tragedy of Paul Brown will not repeat itself through the lack of social work staff and those staff being adequately trained? To concentrate his mind on this question, I report to him that his Department recommends that by 1983 we should have in the Wirral 192 trained social workers. At present we have 91, and under the cuts agreed this week 12 of those posts will disappear. Will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that the staff in the Wirral is adequate and adequately trained to prevent another disaster from occurring such as the one that befell Paul Brown?

Before concluding and before allowing the hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) to intervene, I make a number of pleas to the Minister. I ask him to call a public inquiry to investigate the circumstances following the death of Paul Brown. At the very least I ask him to review the evidence that is now coming forward before he makes a decision.

There are three pieces of evidence, or three powerful reasons, why an inquiry should be granted. First, an inquiry was refused under the Labour Government. I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moyle). I asked him to report what was in his mind when he refused. He said that the most dominant factor that he can recall is that he hoped that the issue would die down and go away. It obviously has not. More seriously, it will not go away. Immensely serious charges are now being made locally that the reason why the key document was missing and not submitted to the Oakes inquiry was that a person was asked not to submit the document, and in return any disciplinary action for drunkenness would not be taken against that person.

That alone perhaps suggests that an inquiry should now follow, but there are two other reasons. When the Select Committee on violence in the family considered the circumstances in which public inquiries should be set up, the Committee said that they should be a rare occurrence but that when there was gross failure in one or more services coupled with widespread public disquiet, the Minister should grant such an inquiry. I would have thought that there was a failure across services and growing public disquiet.

New evidence is also coming forward. The mayor of Wirral, together with representatives of the local council, wishes to come and present evidence to the Minister. I ask that the Minister should grant that request. I also gather that people, as they say, are beginning to hum in the Wirral at the present time, and that this evening, on one of the television programmes, we will again receive more evidence not just of forging documents in this case but of another possible instance as well.

I conclude by saying to the Minister that the ghost of Paul Brown will not go away and will not be laid to rest unless he acts. I ask the hon. Gentleman to set up an inquiry. I ask him at least to review all the new evidence coming to the fore. I ask him to receive the mayor of Wirral and other representatives of the local authority. I ask him to report back to the House that he is convinced that the evidence exists for a public inquiry to be set up.

4.26 pm
Mr. David Hunt (Wirral)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) for this opportunity to intervene not only to demonstrate an all-party approach to this issue but because I argued in a similar way to him for an inquiry with the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moyle). When I went to see the then Minister with my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) on 22 November 1978, the Minister gave us a categorical assurance that all our concerns had been fully investigated and that he was satisfied that there was no reason for a Government inquiry. I was not satisfied and I am not satisfied now.

Month after month went by after our meeting and there was still no decision. A new element had then to be taken into account, namely, the detrimental effect that this case was having on social work generally in Wirral. That must be a consideration, but it has now been overtaken by events. New and disquieting evidence has come forward. Some of it has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Birkenhead. My discussions recently with the mayor of Wirral, the former chairman of social services, Mr. John Roberts, my hon. Friend the Member for Bebington and Ellesmere Port (Mr. Porter) and many others who have approached me in confidence have caused me great concern.

I wish to make clear that the leader of the council, Councillor Harry Deverill, and the members of his council have always appealed for anyone with material evidence to come forward. That, at last, seems now to be happening. The council, in setting up the Oakes inquiry and the Heald investigation, and in its call for a statutory inquiry over two years ago, has shown its determination to get at the truth. The leader of the council, to whom I was speaking only a few moments ago, has authorised me to endorse, on his behalf, his determination and the determination of his council to seek the truth and their willingness to give the Minister the fullest possible co-operation in seeking to bring this matter to an early conclusion.

It seems to me that the only satisfactory solution to this tragic case is to have some form of statutory inquiry. I therefore plead with my hon. Friend the Minister not to put off his decision to carry out further inquiries but to reach a conclusion now. In the light of the emerging evidence, the suspicions and counter-suspicions, the rumours and counter-rumours, that decision must be to have a statutory inquiry conducted by a High Court judge with power to summon witnesses to give evidence on oath. That is what Mr. Heald recommended and what the council pressed for. Too much time has already been lost.

There are too many matters that will never satisfactorily be resolved unless the air is cleared by a decisive step towards the truth. The smell of cover-up in the social services department made public in all the local newspapers this week can be dispelled only by a careful and judicial examination of the facts. I hope that this afternoon the Minister will respond, so that the recriminations can stop and the truth emerge.

4.30 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Sir George Young)

The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has ably described how the tragic events which led to the death of Paul Brown in 1976, as well as certain subsequent events, have raised issues which are of continuing concern in his constituency and elsewhere.

First, I wish to endorse what has already been said about the death of this four-year-old boy. It was a terrible case, a case where the child died as a result of neglect by foster-parents. I am sure that we all agree that we must do everything in our power to see that such cases do not recur, either in the Wirral or anywhere else, although I cannot, of course, give the unconditional guarantees which the hon. Member sought from me in his speech.

Much of what the hon. Gentleman said relates to the local authority's own inquiry into this tragic case. The first inquiry was set up by the Wirral borough council and the Wirral area health authority under the chairmanship of Mr. J. S. Oakes, barrister-at-law, following the sentencing of Stanley and Sarah Brown for child neglect in the autumn of 1977. The terms of reference of the inquiry were to inquire into:

  1. "(1) the services made available to the Brown family (including Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Brown) in respect of their care of Paul and Liam Brown;
  2. (2) The arrangements for communications between the agencies concerned in the care of Paul and Liam Brown;
  3. (3) The adequacy of the action taken to protect Paul and Liam Brown."
The inquiry reported on 28 March 1978. In the comments and findings section of the report, the inquiry made a number of detailed criticisms of individuals and procedures in the social services department. It found that the services available to Stanley and Sarah Brown were adequate but that there had been failures in communication and certain errors of judgment which had caused the children to be exposed to risk.

Following the circulation of the Oakes report to members of the social services committee of the Wirral borough council, a special meeting of the committee was held on 10 April 1978. At that meeting two councillors raised the question why the report made no mention of a document which they had seen containing a recommendation that the two children should not be left in the charge of Stanley and Sarah Brown. The contents of the Oakes report made it clear that the inquiry had not seen any such document as that described by the two councillors; nor had any reference been made to it.

In view of the serious implications, the chief executive caused an internal investigation to be carried out. This revealed a clear conflict of evidence. On the one hand, the two councillors maintained that on 1 March 1978 they had seen a document in the room where the Oakes inquiry was being held, while, on the other hand, every person interviewed in the social services department, and, in particular, the social worker who was said to be the author, denied that any such document had ever existed.

Mr. Heald was provided with the documents which had been prepared for the Oakes inquiry. On reading through all the documents produced for him, he found no reference in any of them which might be taken to relate to the alleged memorandum.

At the public hearing on 25 July 1978, all eight of the councillors invited to attend gave evidence, but none of the 36 employees of the council—some in the social services department and some in other departments—did so. In a number of cases the employees concerned replied to the invitation saying that they had been instructed by their trade union, NALGO, not to co-operate with the inquiry.

Mr. Heald's report found that on the evidence available to him the material document did exist but was not shown to the Oakes inquiry. Mr. Heald was satisfied that the report had been prepared in March 1976 by a social worker at the central Wirral office of the social services department on the subject of whether Stanley and Sarah Brown were suitable persons to continue to have the physical custody of Paul and Liam Brown and was unfavourable.

Owing to the lack of evidence, Mr. Heald was unable to come to any conclusion about what happened to the report after 2 March 1978. He concluded that a serious question arose: namely whether, and to what extent the Oakes inquiry was misled. He suggested that it was open to the council to consider seeking an inquiry which could enforce the presence of witnesses and the production of documents. However, Mr. Heald stated quite clearly in his report that had the Oakes inquiry had the missing document, its recommendations for the improvement of services would have been unlikely to have been materially different. He did not, therefore, recommend that the Paul and Liam Brown inquiry, as such, should be reopened. Subsequently the Wirral council did indeed ask the Secretary of State to establish an inquiry.

The statutory powers available to the Secretary of State to establish an inquiry into a case of child abuse are contained in section 98 of the Children Act 1975, which enables him to establish an inquiry into the functioning of a social services committee in so far as those functions relate to children, and that is the limit of its scope. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) said, this request was turned down by the previous Administration.

However, I am deeply concerned about what both hon. Members have said and about the continuing public concern. From what the hon. Member for Birkenhead has said, he is not, as the title of his debate indicates, asking for a public inquiry into the death of Paul Brown. He is asking for an inquiry into the behaviour of certain officers long after Paul had died.

No one who has read the details of this case, in particular the Heald report, can be happy about the episode of the missing document. Though I am satisfied that action is in hand to implement the recommendations of the Oakes inquiry so far as the structure of the Department and its procedures are concerned, there is the clearest indication from the Heald report that some evidence that should have been made available to the Oakes inquiry was, at best, not available and might even have been withheld. No one with a concern for the welfare of children can be anything but concerned at the implications of such behaviour.

I have therefore decided that it would be wrong for me to take no further action and I should like to initiate a proper inquiry. In deciding what form of inquiry is appropriate, I take note of what Mr. Heald suggested in paragraph 40 of his report, namely, that statutory powers exist in the Children Act to investigate this matter. However, there are other legal views on the scope of the Secretary of State's powers under that Act.

In the light of what has been said this afternoon and the continuing unease in the Wirral, which will not go away, I feel that I should urgently seek clarification of what precise powers are available to the Secretary of State in a matter of this kind. If such powers can be used to investigate this matter, I would propose to discuss it further with the authority concerned and with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, with a view to reversing the Department's previous decision not to intervene.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Five o'clock.