§ 4.8 pm
§ Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)
I beg to move,That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give rights to parents whose children have been taken into care.
There are many people in the Strangers' Gallery and in the Central Lobby today who have come here from far and wide at their own expense—and they are not wealthy people —to lobby their Members of Parliament. They have one aim in common and that is justice. They ask only that, when parental rights and parental access are dealt with, they should be dealt with in a court of law and not behind closed doors. They ask, too, that the parent be properly represented, and that the parents should be made party fully to the proceedings and, where necessary and subject to the usual criteria, should receive legal aid.
The problem is enormous. About 100,000 children are in care at the moment, and about 26,000 children are taken into care every year. Yet every day decisions are made behind closed doors. There are clandestine meetings between social workers. There are secret dossiers passed between social workers and lay counsellors in the social services. Is the parent entitled to be there to challenge the social workers' evidence? No. Is the parent entitled to listen to the evidence or even to know that the meeting is taking place? Sadly, the answer once again is no.
In the Jubilee Room today I heard some moving stories. The sad fact is that they were not stories but true accounts of what has been happening in social services departments. One lady had her son taken away for nine months on the basis of a secret report which she never had the opportunity to see, let alone cross-examine. The decision to take the child away was made secretly behind closed doors and after a bitter and hard struggle the social services department admitted that it had made a mistake. That is not democracy and British justice as I understand it, nor, I am sure, as many other right hon. and hon. Members understand it.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, with his usual courtesy, understanding and sympathy, is present. He was welcomed by many of the parents who came to lobby us today, and he showed a great deal of sympathy. The Government must be given due credit in that they now accept that when access has been terminated it should be possible to go to a court of law. The difficulty is that, whereas in 1979 26 per cent. of children were put in care and the local authority assumed parental rights, by 1981 that number had increased to 43 per cent.
Local authorities are quite prepared to flout even the new proposals that the Government have advanced. They 710 say that they do not want to be taken to court, that they do not want the bother or the expense, and that rather than terminate access they will provide it once, twice or perhaps three times a year. That is utterly unacceptable. How can it be right in a country which has a democracy as old as ours and which is the home of the mother of Parliaments to allow parents to be prosecuted for sending Christmas cards, birthday cards and gifts to their children? That also is unacceptable. The matter should be decided in a court of law. A parent should be legally aided when necessary, be properly represented and be party fully to the proceedings.
If there has been a termination of parental rights and those rights have been assumed by a local authority, a parent has the opportunity to go to the juvenile court after 28 days, but by then the dice are loaded against the parent. It might be many months before the parent has the opportunity to go to court, and when he or she gets to court, he or she has not had the right of access to the child. That is a major factor when the court decides. When the parent gets to court he or she discovers that he or she is not even a full party to the proceedings and must rely on the good will of the court as to the types of questions which can or cannot be asked. That is utterly abhorrent to the British judicial system which I understand and have been practising for the past seven years.
The Government's plans for a code of conduct for social workers must also be welcomed. However, it has no teeth or force of law. Already one director of social services has gone on record as saying that he will leave it up to individual social workers to decide what to do about the code of conduct.
The Bill is not a charter for the baby batterer. Social services must be vigilant and be sure that there is no parental abuse, but they wield great power and authority. That power and authority must be checked in a court of law. I ask the House to give me leave to present the Bill as it provides the same right that a criminal, a rapist or a burglar has to have his case decided in a court of law and to be represented.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jerry Hayes, Mr. Andrew Rowe, Mr. Gerald Bowden, Mr. David Alton and Ms. Clare Short.