§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)
I beg to move,That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish local authority resolutions assuming parental rights and to make provision for the making of care orders in cases where a child is already in the voluntary care of a local authority; and for connected purposes.My reason for introducing the Bill stems from my meeting in Liverpool a young lady called Caroline Pritchard; she has a son aged five called Frank who is in care. She has come to London today with some 2,000 signatures of neighbours and friends asking for her child to be returned to her care. About 13 months ago the child's father walked out, leaving her in an emotional state. While she was in that state she agreed to put the child into voluntary care. The grandmother of the child would have been prepared, as would another relative, to have taken the child into her care, but no one from the social services department approached them to do that.
Caroline was allowed to see her son for one hour a month. In May a care order was applied for by the social services department and granted by the magistrates' court. In November Caroline went to court to appeal against that decision. Then the decision was made by the court that in some way Caroline was unfit to take care of her son. Innuendo was used and Caroline was told that she could not see her child again. She has no right of appeal and she cannot get legal aid.
In today's edition of The Times, Michael Horsnell has an article about an interview with a paediatrician who has dealt with the case. He says that Mrs. Pritchardis supported by Professor Ralph Hendricks, a consultant paediatrician at Alder Hey Children's Hospital, Liverpool, who has known mother and child for three years and treated Francis when he was ill.He said: ' … From all my observations Mrs. Pritchard has been a good mother. There is not a shred of evidence that he has ever suffered physical or emotional hardship from her, quite the reverse.I should like to know why on earth they should have been separated. The mother is not a psychopath, nor has she any psychiatric illness. Some of the things said to this woman have been almost in the category of mental cruelty. The effect is something which I find quite appalling.'Since November Caroline has been barred from seeing her own child. She does not even know where he is. She has been told by the social services department that she may never see him again. She is in the very pits of despair, heartbroken and terribly upset.
This Bill would give mothers such as Caroline the chance, right from the start, to have the case dealt with in the juvenile courts to ensure that people such as she could be present at all stages of the proceedings. Instead of the onus being placed on her to prove her suitability to be a mother, the burden of responsibility would fall on the authority to prove her unsuitability.
My Bill seeks to remove from local authority social services committees the power to assume the rights of parents over children in voluntary care. The Bill gives these powers instead to juvenile courts and therefore allows parents to be heard and represented. The Bill also aims to ensure that all reasonable attempts are made to help keep families together and to uphold good social work practice. In addition, the Bill allows parents to apply for access to their child if a care order is made and it establishes a code of conduct.
867 The Bill is not for or against social workers. It is not even against bad social workers. The point is simply to achieve what is best for the child and the family. Sometimes that may be a care order and sometimes it will mean allowing the child to return to its parents. Decisions should be made in a manner which is fair and just. Unless a proper examination is made of the issue the best results cannot be guaranteed.
The system is inadequate in many ways. A social worker who has been advising the parent decides that the parent ought not to look after the child. A report is made to the social services committee; the social worker can do this at any time. He need not get the parent's consent first; he does not even have to inform a parent that the resolution is to be made. The committee considers the report of the social worker and generally accepts it without question. The resolution of the committee accepting the report is made without a hearing, behind closed doors, in the absence of the parent and the child. There are no representations and natural justice is ignored. What is so extraordinary is that it is only after that that the parent can object.
Supporters of the system claim that the single procedure is advantageous. They say that it saves time and money and that it requires a lower level of evidence. They claim that there is no need for the parent or the child to be represented, because the social worker has already taken their views into account. That may be true in some cases but it is not the cut-and-dried cases with which we are concerned in the Bill. This Bill is concerned with giving to a parent who wishes to contest the decision a fair opportunity to do so. We are concerned not with the vast majority of scrupulous, competent social workers but with the minority of bad ones, those who make mistakes and ruin lives.
The proposal in the Bill is straightforward. It would allow a parent a hearing at the first stage, before any decisions were taken. One of the arguments that may be advanced against the proposal—I understand that the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), who has had considerable experience as a social worker, may put this forward later—is that court procedures would deter social workers from seeking care orders. However, if the social worker is not sure enough of his case to be prepared to submit it to a court, he should not be seeking a care order in the first place. If the Bill has the effect of weeding out bad cases before they get started, so much the better.
Before I took the matter up I was concerned to see what other people felt about it. I was pleased to find that the argument for change was supported not only by Members of almost all parties in the House but by the National Council for One-Parent Families, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Family Rights Group, the Legal Action Group, Justice for Children, the Children's Legal Centre and the National Council for Civil Liberties.
I canvassed the views of lawyers who had extensive experience of the use by local authorities of powers to assume parental control. The reply from a firm in the south-east of London is of particular interest:We are particularly concerned as to the total lack of justice involved in the current rights of local authorities in these matters. The procedure places the burden to oppose the resolution on parents who are frequently not in a position to understand what they should do; especially as the persons who would otherwise advise them (social workers) are frequently the persons who are in fact on the opposite side of the fence in these matters.868 In essence, all that the Bill does is to require a local authority, if it believes that its case is right, to present the evidence upon which it bases that decision to a court for examination. Reluctance to do so can only be construed as an indication that frequently these resolutions are made when the evidence is not available to support them.
It might be argued that magistrates are not fit for the task set them by the Bill. That simply is not true. Magistrates are not a bunch of old fuddy-duddies living cloistered lives, detached from the real world. Juvenile magistrates are specially selected because of their interest in child care work. Indeed, many are teachers, child psychologists or even social workers. In addition, they now receive some, although not enough, training.
Of course, the juvenile court is not the optimum solution. Ideally, a family court should be set up to hear disputed cases between parents and social workers. But it is not realistic to aim for that in a private Member's Bill. The cost would be too high. The resources would not be made available. The House would be well advised to look at the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1972 which provides for an informal family hearing. Just because the best solution of a family court is too expensive that is no reason for avoiding progress towards it. This Bill would give the parents a hearing before the decision is taken. It would make the procedure seem fairer. Justice would manifestly be seen to be done.
Another argument that may be put against the Bill is that it might take a long time to get cases to court, with decisions being made only after a long and drawn-out process. That i s not and need not be true. Juvenile courts, although they do not advertise the fact, are not vastly overcrowded. Delays are reasonably short. Cases are dealt with efficiently. Care proceedings can and do get priority . Juvenile courts are not so formal as to frighten a parent away from contesting the matter. In any event, a parent has the option of not taking part in the proceedings.
The current procedure is rather like expecting the priest to whom one has just confessed one's crimes to turn round, put on his judge's robes and begin to pass sentence. It sounds absurd. One cannot expect people to be able to wear two hats at once, but we expect this of our social workers and social services committees, who must be witness, counsel, judge and jury, and will continue to be so until the Bill becomes law .
I should also like to see a requirement that a decision whether to seek a care order be made within the first year of voluntary care. That would be contained in the code of conduct.
The Bill will give the parent a hearing where none existed before. It will end the incestuous relationship between social services committees and social workers. It will provide for natural justice. Above all, it will ensure that young mothers such as Caroline Pritchard will have the chance from the outset to challenge those who decide to play God.
§ Mr. Roberts
Yes, Mr. Speaker.
It is with some trepidation that I oppose the Bill, because many of the examples of bad practice under the present procedures are real and give rise to the need for action to alter the way in which local authorities may assume parental rights over children who are already in care. What I object to is not 869 the definition of some of the problems as outlined by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton), but his proposed solution.
There is a great deal of misunderstanding, even in the hon. Gentleman's mind, about exactly what he is doing. I do not know the Liverpool case of Caroline Pritchard, which the hon. Gentleman quoted. I would not want to judge whether that child should be returned to the parent. But it is clear from what the hon. Gentleman said that he has not been returned to his mother because a decision has been taken on two occasions by a juvenile court—not by a social services committee.
Last May the Liverpool social services committee successfully applied to the magistrates court for a care order. In November the parent applied for the revocation of that order. That application was turned down, not by a social services committee but by the court. At that hearing, not only could the parent be represented but, under the Children Act 1975—originally sponsored by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), who is now in alliance with the hon. Gentleman—the child could be separately represented in an application for revocation. Therefore, the courts made mistakes, or the hon. Gentleman would not be critical of what they had done.
The Bill is not about care orders. It is about a child who is not committed to the local authority's care but has been received into its care on a voluntary basis. It is decided that it is in the child's interests to secure plans for his long-term future, and therefore a resolution needs to be made about his guardianship. Such a resolution could be made only if it could be shown that he had been abandoned or that the parents had permanent disabilities that prevented them from caring for him or had failed to discharge their obligations as parents.
The only other ground on which parental rights can be assumed are that the child has been in care for more than three years. That in itself is justification for the assumption of parental rights. It was a new provision in the 1975 Act to deal with the problem of children left languishing in care, with no parental contact. No long-term plan for them could be made because parental rights could not be assumed.
That provision was introduced as a result of the Maria Colwell case, a scandal which resulted directly from a juvenile court decision, which was wrong, to send the child home to the natural mother and stepfather. The stepfather beat the child to death.
It is true that hon. Members will make representations on behalf of constituents who come to see them. Such constituents represent their own interests and may or may not represent the interests of their children. Legislation now recognises that the child can be separately represented. No children turn up at law centres. No children in care turn up at advice bureaux to see Members of Parliament. Their views are often represented by social workers and by a guardian ad litem appointed by the court.
I believe that something needs to be done. What is wrong with the present system is that, as the hon. Gentleman said, when a social services committee and the social workers decide to assume parental rights over a child already in care, to determine its long-term future, they do not have to notify the parent until after the assumption of parental rights. Then 870 the parent has the right to go to court, but the notification after the assumption of parental rights can be in writing and the parent may not fully understand it.
I should like a code of conduct to come out of this debate and the Bill, a code that will make it clear that parents shall be informed before proceedings on the assumption of parental rights; that they may be represented and may appear before the committee; and that a guardian ad litem to represent the child and interview the parents may be appointed before the assumption of parental rights. If that goes through a social services committee against the wishes of the parent, he or she will have the right, as now, to go to the court to argue their case and seek to have the assumption changed or revoked.
The court should be a backstop for parents who object to what is happening. I do not think that in every instance, even when the parents consent or there are no parents, it should be a matter for the juvenile court to decide. Anyone who believes that magistrates are better able to take the decision than dedicated, elected councillors on social services committees is mistaken. Many people on social services committees, people of all parties, are dedicated—that is why they are on the committees—to the well-being of children and to wanting to see families united. They want to avoid the need for children to come into care. They should be able to take the decision, with the safeguards that I have said should be provided. Those safeguards, given statutory backing, together with the parents' present right of appeal to the courts, would be adequate. It would be misguided to fill up the magistrates courts with assumption of parental rights cases simply because one does not think that it is just to have a hearing before elected members of social services committees.
I hope that something positive will come out of the debate and the Bill. I hope that what is wrong with the present system will be put right and that there will be a code of guidance with statutory backing, one that the hon. Gentleman and I can support. But I hope that the House will not accept the Bill, which proposes to put every case into our already overcrowded courts, even when there is no need, or to do so is not necessarily in the interests of the parents or the children. Whether we like it or not, they see the courts as punitive instruments. Social services committees are nearer to the family courts, which may not be seen to be so punitive.
§ Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Alton, Mr. John Cartwright, Mr. Patrick Cormack, Mr. Alfred Dubs, Mr. Reginald Freeson, Mr. Clement Freud, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. David Knox, Mr. Kevin McNamara, Mr. Christopher Price, Mr. Jack Straw and Mr. Dafydd Wigley.