§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooke.]2.30 pm
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to raise what for one citizen is a matter of paramount importance. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for being present. Fortuitously, the Secretary of State is also here, but he will probably have to depart. I hope that he will read the report of the debate in Hansard. The Minister for Health talked about the deinstitutionalisation of care for the elderly; I shall deal with the over-institutionalisation of care for one young person in particular.
Twenty-two years ago a baby named Graham Gaskin was put into the care of the local authority in Liverpool after his mother, a local beauty queen, committed suicide by jumping into the river Mersey. He remained in care, being passed from one institution to another, for nearly 18 years, during which time he claims that he suffered from neglect and mismanagement. Frustrated and angry, he, too, contemplated suicide. He then purloined his file from the Liverpool social services department, and in those confidential papers he found the secrets of his life in care. He was so perplexed by what he saw, and laboured under such a sense of grievance and hurt, that he took the stolen file to the Liverpool Echo and also consulted a solicitor, Mr. Rex Makin, about bringing a claim against Liverpool city council for the ruination of his life. A talented poet, with undeniable literary skill, he felt that he had been denied an adequate education, and that he was not only a psychological cripple but unfit to find gainful occupation for which he was suited.
Proceedings then commenced in the High Court before Mr. Justice Boreham. A doctor who examined Graham reported to the court that Graham had been hard done by. He had been moved to 14 different foster homes before the age of eight. Graham also claims that he was shut up in a men's psychiatric ward in Chester for three months and injected with drugs normally administered only to adults. At that time he was nine years of age. He claims that when he was 13 he was put into the care of a single man and subjected to repeated sexual assaults. During his first 18 years he was sent to over 20 institutions—borstals, remand homes and prisons such as Strangeways, Wormwood Scrubs and Walton. All that happened while he was supposedly in the care of the local authority. Youngsters are taken into care to protect them. If what Graham says is correct, his spell in care was an unspeakable nightmare.
Let us not pretend that Graham is a saint. He now has a criminal record, but he was not a criminal when at nine months of age he became our collective responsibility. His case raises two vital questions to which I hope the Under-Secretary will address his mind. The first concerns methods of care and the second the access that an aggrieved appellant should have to information about himself.
How do we know that the story that Graham has told us is true? We should not have heard the full story but for the vigilance and campaigning of the local newspaper. The Liverpool Echo spent months checking and cross-checking the details. In a series of devastating articles, Ian Craig 283 opened the Pandora's box by revealing the sorry saga of Graham's life in our care. The stories were based on what Graham learnt from his stolen files.
However, Graham Gaskin was not allowed to keep the file for more than 48 hours. Under threat of legal action he returned the file to the Liverpool social services department. Then began the long battle to get official access to it so that Graham's solicitor could decide whether he had a case against the local authority for damages, negligence or breach of duty while he was in its care.
In July last year the Court of Appeal dismissed Graham's appeal for the social services file to be handed over to him. Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls, said that if the application succeeded there might be many more such claims for damages. That is precisely the point. If, as Lord Denning implied, Graham is simply the tip of an iceberg and there could be many more similar claims, is it not in the best public interest that the whole matter should be given a public airing?
Is it not also important that an aggrieved person should have some form of redress? Why should social workers presume that they have the sole right to make decisions about someone's life without giving their clients the right to comment on the treatment that they have received? Why should the Master of the Rolls, from his Olympian heights, presume to dictate what should and what should not be allowed?
In another similar case Lord Denning said that it would be wrong if legal aid were used against innocent folk who were simply doing their duty. He said that we should come down firmly against applications when people sought to establish their right in this way. What arrant nonsense that is. Unfortunately, Lord Denning refused permission for the case to go to the House of Lords on appeal, or we might have seen another episode in the long running saga of Denning v. The House of Lords, with his ruling being overturned.
If what Graham Gaskin says is correct, the social workers in Liverpool are guilty of negligence. It is not just a case of handing over his files so that he might seek redress. The files of every other young person in a similar position should be made available.
To those who say that confidential information about a person's medical or psychiatric condition should not be revealed, I say that it would be possible to devise a system whereby the social work and medical files could be kept separate. There would be occasions, in the case of informants giving information about baby battering, for instance, when those names would have to be excluded before files were handed over. None of the difficulties is insuperable.
Liverpool city council came to the same conclusion. In Graham Gaskin's case it agreed in October 1980 that the file should be made available, in principle, in cases of individual dispute. That decision was taken after the stories appeared in the Liverpool Echo and after the director of social services, Dr. Meredith Davies, said in an official statement to the press in August 1980 that he would prepare a report containing a detailed history of Graham Gaskin's life while in the care of the local authority. He said that a copy would be made available to Graham's solicitors. Not only was that not done, but the chairman of the social services committee, Mr. Paul Clark, was refused sight of the Gaskin file. Fifteen months later Graham's solicitors have not received the report or 284 the file. Councillors eventually were allowed to view its contents. However, despite that decision, bureaucracy, red tape, obduracy, industrial disputes and sheer bloody-mindedness have conspired to deny Graham Gaskin sight of the file which spelt out his life. The last 12 months have been a drone's hive of indecision.
I have part of that file; the file that Graham Gaskin stole but which he could not keep; the file that Lord Denning said nobody could see; the file to which the chairman of the social services committee was denied access; the file which a year ago was to be made available but has still not been made available. Graham Gaskin says:I knew the truth was in the file. People have got to know what has been going on and I knew that nobody would believe me without the file … when I read it I was so angry. I've been angry all my life because of what they have been doing to me.During Graham Gaskin's time in Moston hospital in an adult psychiatric ward, which was about as suitable as a ward in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", Graham learnt how to measure the quality of his life. He said:They never hit me. That's how I measured happiness.Yet Graham is still denied access to the file that corroborates his story.
There are also other aspects which convince me that there should be a public inquiry into what happened in Graham Gaskin's early life in care. For instance, it was suggested at one point that a voluntary worker who was allowed to attend confidential case conferences about Graham might be allowed to foster him. That man was single. Graham says that he sexually molested him. It was suggested that the way round the fostering laws would be for the voluntary worker's parents to be named as foster parents. That bending of the rules was rejected by the senior social worker, thank goodness, but that it should have been considered at all is a matter for considerable public concern.
Graham's life is also an indictment of institutional care when people in great need are treated as a package rather than a person. It is therefore deeply disappointing that the trade unions in Liverpool blacked proposals put forward by the social services chairman to reduce Liverpool's institutional provision by 80 places so that the money could be redirected for the establishment of four district intermediate treatment centres and nine fostering offices.
After 18 years in care, Graham Gaskin ended up wandering from one soup kitchen to the next night shelter. He slept out on Liverpool's pier head. Before stealing his social services file, he thought about walking into the middle of the road in an attempt to commit suicide. A decision that in principle his file should be revealed was finally received, but for over a year the will of the city council has been thwarted and the file has still not been made available.
Despite the good will of the chairman of the social services committee, Graham has still not had sight of the file which other people have seen. Only yesterday Graham's solicitor told me that he could get no sense from the city solicitor's department. There is nothing but procrastination and prevarication. Meanwhile, Graham Gaskin is just another name still locked away in a filing cabinet.
In Graham Gaskin's case, I hope that the Minister will see fit personally to intervene and hold an inquiry. For the sake of others with similar cause for complaint, I hope that he will undertake to look at new guidelines for the sharing of information with all who have a sense of grievance and 285 seek redress. I hope that encouragement will be given to local authorities to humanise their services so that the tragedy of Graham Gaskin's lost youth will never happen again.
I am grateful for the opportunity of bringing this young man's case before the House. I hope that the Minister will be able to give assurances on the points I have raised.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg)
I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) for his kind comments in welcoming me here. However, I am extremely surprised that he chose to raise the matter in such a way today, especially as he has made no representations to my Department in the past, nor, so far as I can find out, has he made any representations officially to Liverpool council.
§ Mr. Alton
I wish to correct that statement. I know that the Under-Secretary is new to his post, but I have made representations to his Department in the past. I made representations to the Liverpool city council, and as recently as last Monday I met the chairman of the social services committee and spent an hour and half with him discussing the case.
§ Mr. Finsberg
I accept the former statement, but on the latter I can say only that I am told that no official approach has been made. The hon. Gentleman and I have been in local government. Official approaches are not made to chairmen of committees, but to the permanent officers. If he says that he has also seen them, I accept what he says.
§ Mr. Alton
I must ensure that the record is straight. I made representations to as high a level as the chief executive of Liverpool city council. Your office will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that for over six months I have been writing requesting an Adjournment debate on this case, although I accept that there is great pressure for Adjournment debates.
§ Mr. Finsberg
I accept what the hon. Gentleman said. I shall find out why the information was not available.
The hon. Gentleman has asked about access to records kept by a local authority in connection with the authority's social services functions. As he will no doubt be aware from his local government experience those functions are conferred by statute on local authorities. They act under the general guidance of the Secretary of State for Social Services. That is laid down in the 1970 Act. Authorities are responsible for the decisions that they take in individual cases such as this, and we have no powers to direct or intervene.
Authorities are required by statute to keep certain records, but for the most part it is for them to decide what records should be kept to enable their functions to be properly discharged. Such records are the property of the authority. Where records are kept to meet a statutory requirement, the necessary safeguards are usually prescribed in legislation. Otherwise, however, it is for the authority to decide what procedures are needed to safeguard the personal information about individual clients which is contained in the records kept by social workers and other employees.
286 It is for the courts to decide, in cases coming before them, to what extent such records are privileged. The public interest has generally been the guiding principle in deciding whether access to records should be given. Subject to such rulings, local authorities and the professions concerned are seeking to evolve guidance.
I have no doubt that the hon. Member will agree that we would expect authorities and their officers to be concerned with the protection of the very personal and private information which has been entrusted to them, and to exercise all possible care, vigilance and discretion. But I should add that, subject to these essential safeguards, it is the general policy and practice of social services departments that individual clients should not be refused the knowledge of information about themselves which has been collected and recorded.
It is considered as a general principle to be in the best interest of clients that information—and especially information about a client's childhood and family background—should be given as freely as possible. This is certainly regarded as good social work practice and is, I am told, the practice of the department in Liverpool. But there is an obvious and clear distinction between such a practice and allowing a client sight of personal files containing material contributed in good faith by third parties, a point to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
It is for authorities to decide what it would be appropriate for them to disclose in individual cases—subject, as I have said, to whatever safeguards are prescribed in legislation and whatever rulings may be made by the courts. I repeat: we have no power to issue directions to an authority in these matters.
I can, of course, understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about his constituent. Mr. Gaskin has made it crystal clear that he is very seriously dissatisfied with the way in which the local authority cared for him during his childhood. I think that it is worth making one general point here about the remedies which are open to people in this position.
In certain circumstances they can complain to the Parliamentary Commissioner or the local Commissioner about matters of maladministration. In this case Mr. Gaskin decided to bring proceedings against the authority, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, to help him establish his case he asked Liverpool city council for access to the case records which had been kept during the period of his childhood which was spent in the council's care.
To understand the council's decision, it is necessary to consider the nature of the records which Mr. Gaskin wishes to see and to use. When a child is received into the care of a local authority, it assumes responsibility for the child's upbringing. That will, of course, include responsibility for his health, his education, his welfare, his development and all matters in general. During his childhood, many people will share in that responsibility and there will, inevitably, be changes in social services personnel.
Case records are thus the essential means of providing continuity in the social workers' understanding of the child, his background, his needs and his problems. They ensure that judgments and decisions about a child's upbringing are made in the light of the fullest possible information.
It follows that such records, if they are to be of value and contribute to the better understanding of the child's interests and needs, must be detailed, frank and 287 comprehensive. They will include reports from many other professionals and agencies concerned with the care of the child—from doctors, teachers, health visitors, police officers, probation officers, and so on.
There is thus a problem, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, in the case of third parties—that is, those who are themselves bound by professional and ethical standards which require them to respect the privacy of information in their possession, or whose professional relationships with clients may be put at risk by disclosure. There is a significant danger that disclosure could undermine the confidential exchanges between professionals and agencies, which in the long run are so necessary to the child's best interests. In that case the value of the records would certainly be greatly diminished. Social workers might find it necessary to resort to keeping private records of information that they felt could not be placed on the official records. The net result would certainly be to the general detriment of social work practice and even more to the detriment of the interests of clients.
It is against that background, and with these issues in mind, that Liverpool city council refused to allow the hon. Member's constituent to see his case records. He applied 'to the High Court, under the 1970 Act, for discovery before action of the relevant documents.
I can do no better than to quote the judgment of the court, which concluded that it wasnecessary for the proper functioning of the child care service that the confidentiality of the relevant documents should be preserved.The judgment continued:This is a very important service to which the interests—also very important—of the individual must, in my judgment, bow. I have no doubt that the public interest will be better served by refusing discovery.Mr. Gaskin subsequently appealed against the dismissal of his application. His appeal was dismissed. The Court of Appeal held that the practice in wardship and custody proceedings not to award discovery of local authority case records of children in care should be of general application.
It was thus made quite clear by the courts that the case records maintained by local authorities in respect of children in their care are private and confidential and privileged documents which it would be contrary to the public interest to disclose. I am bound to say that we see no reason to disagree with the conclusion that the courts reached, and it is not our intention to seek any change in the law.
However, as a result of the court's ruling, Mr. Gaskin understandably found himself in some difficulty, and the Liverpool city council announced that it would do what it could to help him. The council agreed that, without prejudice to its policy and practice as to the confidentiality and privileged nature of child care records, a report should be prepared that would give a detailed history of Mr. 288 Gaskin's placements while in the authority's care. As the hon. Gentleman said, this was to be given to Mr. Gaskin or his solicitors.
I have made inquiries about the progress on this report, and I understand that the matter is in the hands of a subcommittee of the social services committee, which is exploring ways in which information can best be made available to clients of the social services department.
I can give no more information on progress than that. All that I can do is to come back to what I said earlier, that this is a matter that falls wholly within the responsibility of the Liverpool city council. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman continues to make his representations to the council, because it is not a matter for the Government.
§ Mr. Alton
As the Minister said, the council decided over a year ago that in principle the file should be released. Yet now, all these months later, the file has still not been released. Does that not suggest that there is a role for the Government? I do not ask the Minister to make a declaration this afternoon, but surely the Government should at least look at the guidelines that are available to local authorities, which he described earlier, about access to information. If it is reasonable for some information to be made available in this case, should we not look at the problem in the general context of the whole country?
In view of the issues that I have raised in the case of Graham Gaskin, and in view of what happened to him during his time in the care of the local authority and of the community—whether it is a matter for one city council or another council is almost irrelevant; clearly, a life has been damaged by experience while in community care—has not sufficient been said today for the Minister at least to agree to a departmental inquiry into the case? Will he not consider that possibility?
§ Mr. Finsberg
The hon. Gentleman has raised several specific points. He said that about a year ago Liverpool city council made a decision. I have been a leader of a major local authority. If I led a council and took that decision I would want to see it acted upon swiftly. That reinforces the point that this is a matter for the local authority, upon whom Parliament has placed responsibility. I do not feel that it would be right for the Government to change that decision in the light of what has been said.
I gladly undertake to look at the general guidelines and to consider their relevance. As regards an inquiry, it is not appropriate in this case to use the powers that I am told we have under the Children Act 1975. I shall look at the general guidelines to see the principle involved, but the hon. Gentleman must pursue this issue with the authority upon whom Parliament has placed duties, namely, Liverpool city council.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Three o' clock.