HC Deb 31 January 1986 vol 90 cc1196-226

Order for Second Reading read.

9.38 am
Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

During nearly 22 years in the House of Commons I have balloted on many occasions for a private Member's Bill but have never reached the first 20. It was with a feeling of great joy and excitement that I drew in this lottery the third position. It is with great satisfaction that I present a Bill that is necessary and worth while.

There is widespread, deep and understandable public anxiety about the number of cases of cruelty to children. There is also great anxiety about the many cases involving children in care who, having been moved from the home where they suffered abuse, are subsequently returned to that home only to suffer more abuse and injury and. in some tragic and horrifying cases, death.

Like all hon. Members, I am appalled by the number of cases of vicious, sadistic cruelty to children. The Bill does not attempt to deal with cruelty to children in general: it is confined to children and young persons in care under care orders. In that sphere, it is relevant and opportune. It introduces a new safeguard to protect such children. It proposes to amend the law in relation to the representation of interested parties and on appeals. It further introduces the right of transfer from magistrates' courts to the High Court. These changes are intended to make the law fairer and more effective in dealing with cases involving children and young persons in care.

Perhaps it would be convenient to the House if I explain the Bill's main provisions in detail. Clause 1, which would require the consent of the juvenile court before the local authority could implement a recommendation to return a child "in care" to the home where he or she was living before the care order was made, is a significant proposal, which would mark a new departure in our child care law. The main purpose of the proposal is to introduce a further and relevant safeguard for the child, but such a proposal would have the added benefit of providing a safeguard for social workers as well. Responsibility for the decision would be shared by social workers and the magistrates' court.

Social workers are responsible people who carry out their duties with much care and concern, but they are human and they can make mistakes. Indeed, we know that, in certain cases, they have made mistakes, some of which have had tragic consequences. Such errors must cause them great distress, and I should have thought that the extra protection that the Bill provides would be welcome to them. That aim is to assist social workers, not to hinder or offend them.

However, the main and overriding priority of the proposed change is to strengthen protection for the child. I am wholly satisfied and convinced that, by establishing a procedure whereby a decision to return a child from care to the home from which he or she had been removed by order would have to be examined by three wholly objective but concerned people, the Bill introduces a new and important safeguard.

Chapter 2 of the recent Department of Health and Social Services review of child care contains a valuable discussion on the interrelationship between social workers and the court. It recommends that major issues should be determined by the courts while management of the case should be the responsibility of the local authority. As the report points out, there is room for debate on which decisions should fall into which category. I am strongly of the opinion that a decision to return a child who has had to be the subject of a care order must properly be regarded as one of the utmost importance, and one which, therefore, calls for the maximum scrutiny that the system can provide.

One may ask: how do I envisage my proposal improving the present system? First, the Bill adds a filter, in that, as well as the social workers, an independent tribunal, fresh to the case, needs to be satisfied that it is right to return the child. That is important, because social workers who have worked with a child's family over a period can sometimes get too close to the case. My proposal should ensure that the most careful consideration is given to the decision to return the child.

Secondly, the Bill spells out the test that should be applied before a child is returned—that in all circumstances the child will be safe. It may be said that the test is strict. Detailed consideration could, of course, be given in Committee to decide just how the test should be formulated. This question should be asked: when considering the return of a child, will any lesser test suffice?

Thirdly—this is a key part of the thinking behind this measure—the Bill empowers, and plainly encourages, the court to attach conditions to the return of the child. I envisage the court and social workers working together to create the best set of conditions for the particular case.

The DHSS is giving consideration to the regulations that would govern the return of children in care. The difficulty with such regulations, helpful though they may well be in other respects, is that almost inevitably they would have to be framed in general terms, setting out the minimum criteria. The Bill will allow for the laying down of conditions tailormade to fit the circumstances of the paticular child and case. The relevant clause refers to the supervision and inspection of the child and to periodic medical examination. This recognises the great importance of involving people such as general practitioners.

In some cases, no doubt, relatively infrequent inspection will suffice. In others, a daily check may be necessary. The main point is to enable the checks to be specific and appropriate to the case under review. Similarly, in some cases, it may be right to attach a condition that a particular person should not reside on the premises.

Linked to this, another important benefit emerges from the proposal—that the provisions made by the magistrate and attached to the permission to return the child will help to strengthen the position of social workers. We all remember the tragic history of Jasmine Beckford. On innumerable occasions, the social worker sought to see the child but was fobbed off with excuses. Under the Bill, the position would be clear—the social worker must see the child, or the child is liable to be removed under the terms of the magistrates' order. Everyone will know exactly where he stands. Following the Blom-Cooper report on the Beckford case, I propose that the magistrates should give their reasons and record them in writing.

What may be the drawbacks of this proposal? There will, of course, be some additional overall cost, but I sincerely hope that I shall not hear that reason urged against a reform aimed at making children safer. The greater drawbacks to which hon. Members may refer are, first, that it may lead to children remaining in care when they otherwise might not and, secondly, that it may impose delays.

My aim is to improve the lot of children in care; the last thing I want is to add needlessly to the number of such children. I emphasise at once that the Bill has no bearing on those children who are voluntarily in care, who may be returned at will and who may go in and out of care as circumstances vary at home. In this connection, I welcome the suggestion in the DHSS review that there should be further developments of the concepts of "respite care" and "shared care". The Bill is not intended to affect those children who are subject to a care order but have always continued to live at home.

My provision is directed at those children who are away from home and in care because an order has had to be made, or because a local authority resolution concerning parental rights has had to be passed on specified grounds. The children are in care because something has gone wrong at home to such an extent that the local authority and the court have had to intervene. They should never stay in care for longer than is avoidable, but considerations of safety are paramount. In some cases the same decision to return the child will be reached, and the return will take place at the same time as it would have done without my Bill. However, at the margin children will remain in care longer, or even indefinitely, who otherwise might not have done so. Those are the children whom the Bill seeks to protect.

No system is perfect and I recognise that as a result of the Bill some children will not go home who perhaps might have done so without harm. But other children will be saved from abuse, torture and even death. If the system is to err, it must err on the side of safety. The provision has been carefully thought out, and should not be seen as a hastily conceived response to a few appalling and headline-catching cases.

Equally, one does not want delays in the return of children, but I see no reason why an unacceptable delay should occur, if the provisions are sensibly operated by social workers and courts. When a child is formally in care and away from home under an order, the process of return is rarely rapid. In practice, there will be case conferences and much social work input with the family, leading to a planned return. If the application for permission is not notified to the court until the planned day of return arrives, there will be a delay, but, intelligently, the application will be timed and in the pipeline as part of the programme—

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

Does my hon. Friend accept that in the case of a child who has been taken into care on the wrong basis, and who is later found to be suffering from brittle bone disease, although it was feared that the child had suffered child abuse, the speed of return of the child should be of the utmost?

Mr. Walters

I agree that the speed of return is important. My point is that, although delay may occur in some cases, overall that effect should not be great.

The application should be timed and in the pipeline as part of the programme so that it can be formally determined by the court at a suitable date, not long before the projected return. It has been pointed out to me that the Bill may bear unnecessarily on children who are in care for reasons other than the risk of harm—for example, because they are not attending school. In Committee, I shall willingly consider amendments to narrow the clause's impact to the children at whom it is aimed.

It has been suggested that the provision could undermine the responsibility and judgment of social workers. While I understand that anxiety, I reject it. Nothing is further from my intention than to undermine the status and position of social workers. Such a suggestion fails to take proper account of their great sense of responsibility, and of the respect which thinking people hold for their extremely difficult task. I also reject the view that the Bill could discourage Government or local authorities from maintaining through funding and training the required standard of performance in social work practice. Government, local authorities and social workers will not shrug their shoulders and say, "Well, now it's up to the courts."

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

I failed to hear my hon. Friend's opening remarks, but does he agree that the Bill deserves support because it does not undermine the role of parents? Many of the reforms recently advocated have undermined the role of parents, and given too great a role to social workers, who do an extremely good job but of whom we tend to demand too much.

Mr. Walters

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful comment.

Clause 4 deals with the wider rights of audience, and the proposal reflects the recommendation of the DHSS review. The present widely criticised position is that the only full parties in care proceedings are the local authority and the child. Parents have a limited right to be heard, which is essentially restricted to meeting allegations made against them. Few would disagree that both justice and the contribution of parents to reaching the best decision demand that in all but exceptional cases parents should have the fullest rights before the court.

There is also widespread feeling that grandparents should have a right to contribute in appropriate cases. I have had a large postbag from grandparents since my Bill was published. I shall not quote from their letters, but they have been numerous—I have a huge pile of them—and many have given heart-rending accounts of how they have been affected by their exclusion. Other people, including uncles and aunts, and fathers of an illegitimate child, may have a contribution to make and a legitimate right to be heard.

I have also extended the Bill to include foster parents in appropriate cases. They may often be in a particularly good position to comment on the relationship between the natural mother and the child, and they may know the child better than anyone else. The House will remember the despair of the former foster parents of Jasmine Beckford that no one had involved them in the vital decision.

Clauses 3 and 5 deal with appeals and the transfer of proceedings between courts. Obviously, the two provisions are linked, although neither is dependent on the other. All parties should have a right to appeal, but under the present restrictive law, only the child has such a right. The local authority does not even have that right if a care order is refused. Judges have frequently criticised the law for that.

The appeal should be to the High Court rather than to the Crown court. That is also in line with the recommendations of the DHSS review. There has been much criticism of appeals being heard in open court, often by a judge whose experience is largely in criminal matters and who tends to apply a criminal approach to evidence and procedure. The DHSS recommendation is subject to the important proviso that the High Court holds a fuller re-hearing of the evidence where necessary, and the Bill specifically provides that the appeal should be by way of such a re-hearing.

It is right that I should refer to family courts. I know that many hon. Members and many people outside the House are in favour of such courts. They believe that they answer many of the problems in child care law. It is important to distinguish the machinery of justice from the substantive law.

My proposals in clause 1, relating to a court's permission, and in clause 4, relating to parties, have no direct bearing on the question of family courts. Whatever the court structure, my proposals would still be necessary. However, I recognise that the proposals relating to appeal and transfer touch upon the family court debate. I wish to make it clear that nothing in the Bill is intended to stifle or pre-empt that debate.

The issues touching family courts go far beyond the range of child care law. The proposals in the Bill about appeals and the transfer of cases merely go some way towards meeting one area of concern—the lack of flexibility in the system as between the magistrates and the High Court, and the unsatisfactory nature of a Crown court appeal in care cases. It could be some considerable time before an integrated structure of family courts is established. In the meantime, I hope that those hon. Members who favour such courts will support my proposals, because they make an immediate and much-needed improvement to the present system.

There may be those who would prefer a delay in reform—I have heard that preference repeated during the past few days—until the final conclusions of the DHSS review on child care law are reached. That is a massive exercise and I remind hon. Members of the fate of some parts of the Children Act 1975. It was enacted in 1975, but major parts came into effect only in December 1985. One hopes that such a delay will never occur again, but it serves to underline my belief that the areas of child care law dealt with by my Bill should be reformed now, and not await the protracted process of review and major legislation.

I believe that my Bill, far-reaching though it may be in some respects, although modest in others, represents an opportunity now of making real improvements in the law. It represents an opportunity to make the law better, fairer, more just and, above all, safer. The Bill does not intend to bring about a comprehensive reform of the law, but I believe that it proposes significant improvements which could, in some cases, have a decisive effect. The Blom-Cooper report makes thoughtful suggestions about how decisions taken by social workers and local authorities could be improved—better training, better and more extensive consultation and greater resources. Those are admirable suggestions and I welcome them, but such improvements would take place in the future, perhaps in the distant future, and their effects cannot be properly measured now.

In the Bill, I propose something concrete and specific, and I propose that it should come into effect in a few months' time. The public would not lightly forgive us, and they would be right, for failing to seize an opportunity to make children in care more safe. The Bill offers such an opportunity in a way that would not prejudice more comprehensive Government legislation in the years to come. I hope that the House will agree to give the Bill a Second Reading.

10.5 am

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I compliment the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on his good luck in the ballot and I offer him my congratulations on his choice of legislation. Improvements in child care law are of considerable importance to us all. Some hon. Members will know, and I have mentioned this before, that we order things differently in Scotland. Scotland has children's panels and hearings, and social work departments have ready access to the sheriff court in cases of child abuse. Our system of children's panels and hearings and the ready access to the sheriff courts is marvellously informal and unlike court proceedings. In my view, as a Yorkshireman long and happily domiciled in Scotland, the Scottish system is much superior to the English system.

It is perhaps a shame that England does not take a leaf out of that Scottish book. However, that does not mean that we have no cases of child abuse occurring from time to time in Scotland. I am sorry to say that we are not that fortunate. I regret that there will always be cases of child abuse, whether physical or sexual. As legislators, our aim should be to reduce as far as possible the incidence of that form of cruelty. Children must be given the fullest protection under the law and the rights of parents must not be ignored.

I offer the Bill a qualified welcome, because I have several criticisms against its form and content, but those criticisms are offered in the hope that they may help to improve the Bill in Committee. I sincerely hope that the Bill is enacted, but it is in need of some improvement.

It is right that in England the courts should be involved in child care decisions. As in Scotland, that would ensure more effective safeguards for the child and for the rights of parents. In the Bill there appears to be no clear, precise mechanism to enable the court to assess the judgment of a social services department. Representatives of the British Association of Social Workers tell me that a court may have to be responsible for a decision that should be made by social workers.

I am also worried about the lack of training of magistrates. Moving north of the border once again, may I say that a children's hearing in Scotland will have three lay members and a reporter. The reporter is employed by the regional or island council but can be dismissed only by the Secretary of State for Scotland. The hearings are informal. Parents can sit around a table with the social worker, other witnesses and interested parties. The proceedings encourage closer questioning about the circumstances surrounding an application. The present training of magistrates in England does not give me the confidence that I have in our system.

The Beckford inquiry report offers some criticism of the magistrates in that case. The magistrates concluded the case by saying: In making these Orders it is our earnest hope that the Social Services Department will do its utmost to carry out a rehabilitation programme to unite those children with their parents. The chairman is reported as having directed this comment to the parents: The Social Services will do everything to help you both and get your children back with you. We know the appalling conclusion of that case. Representatives of the British Association of Social Workers suggest that there is little doubt that, if no such statement had been made by the magistrates, the area officer, if not the social worker and team leader, might have taken a very different view about the rehabilitation of Jasmine Beckford.

In England, there are considerable delays in child care hearings, which can have disastrous consequences for young children. It is especially damaging if the child's return home is delayed unnecessarily. In the Scottish system, everyone accepts that time is of the essence in child care hearings. Even resort to the sheriff's court can be achieved within seven days. We must do something about the delays that occur south of the border.

Another criticism of the juvenile courts is their adversarial approach to such matters, which is derived from the criminal courts. Is such an approach suitable for important decision-making in child care cases? In some cases, the objective is to examine personal capacities rather than to determine right from wrong. That is as true for the decisions covered by the Bill as it is for child care orders. We do not have such a system in Scotland.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman can tell me when he replies whether clause 1(4) takes account of the effects of delays. It would be wrong to remove a child from his or her parents simply because a court hearing had to be delayed for administrative reasons.

Clause 5 provides the power to transfer proceedings to the High Court. Has the hon. Gentleman analysed the implications of such transfers in terms of the delay involved in returning a child to his or her home? A case conference involving the interested professionals could meet, within days if necessary, and ensure a professional assessment of a child's home before the decision was made to return the child.

Will the hon. Gentleman also deal with the criticism contained in the brief sent to all hon. Members by the Association of County Councils? In the penultimate paragraph, which deals with voluntary arrangements made between parents and local authorities without a court order, it states: It is surely not intended that a simple return home following such voluntary arrangements, for example, for a parent to have an operation, during a period of homelessness should be covered. In 1983 … more than 20,000 children were admitted to care under such arrangements. Does the Bill deal adequately with that criticism?

I welcome the concern expressed so eloquently by the hon. Gentleman, but I am deeply worried by some of the apparent deficiencies of the Bill. I hope that they can be ironed out in Committee.

10.17 am
Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

The House is indebted to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) for what he said about the Scottish system. He seemed to be arguing for more comprehensive reform than the reforms that we are discussing today. I do not disagree with him, but it would be sensible and proper for the House to act on the basis of the best knowledge that it has available. The consequences of that are contained in the Bill introduced so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters).

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his good fortune in the lottery of the private Members' ballot. On occasions when I was fortunate enough to draw a reasonably high place in the ballot, my hon. Friend was kind enough to support me, so I am delighted to return the compliment and to support his important Bill. I also congratulate him on the way in which he introduced the Bill. He selected the subject wisely, and it undoubtedly reflects considerable public anxiety.

By now, cruelty to children should be no more than an aspect of history, but unfortunately, as we know only too well, that is not so. That is a major reason for the need to provide for children in care. On the whole, existing arrangements work very well. That is a compliment to the dedication, ability and judgment of social workers and local authorities and to the decisions of Crown and magistrates' courts.

As has been demonstrated, and as we know too well, with the best will in the world mistakes have been made, with tragic consequences for the children involved. I am not naive enough to believe that mistakes can be avoided completely, because human judgment is involved at some stage; and some judgments will prove wrong. The Bill will make it less likely that mistakes are made as there will be safeguards for children at risk and in care.

It is argued that changes in child care law should await the outcome of the review that has wisely been initiated by the Government. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury emphasised, the results of that review might be some time coming and there might be a much longer delay before a slot for relevant legislation is found in the Government's programme. Although the review and research are necessary, if sensible action can be taken, as now, it should be, above all where the wellbeing of children is involved.

I support the Bill and trust that it will receive a Second Reading and ultimately become part of the law of the land.

10.21 am
Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

I support the Bill and congratulate the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on his choice of subject.

I have had an opportunity to speak to practising members of the Bar who are widely experienced in such work, and they fully support the spirit behind the Bill. I have also had an opportunity to talk to magistrates and judges who are experienced in this class of work and they too are fully behind the Bill.

The hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison), with his usual ingenuity and charm, managed to congratulate the Government on something in passing. It is perhaps the only time this week that the Government have been congratulated on anything. He omitted, however, to say anything about the long overdue establishment of permanent courts. When we consider legislation on the welfare of children, we should bear that in mind. The Opposition have for years asked the Government to establish family courts but they, with their usual nonchalant incompetence, have dragged their feet in the face of overwhelming evidence.

I strongly support the Bill and wish it well.

10.23 am
Mr. Roger Sims (Chiselhurst)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on the way on which he has tackled this complex issue and on his introduction of the Bill.

Children come into care through two routes. The first is voluntary care. Parents might want their children to be taken into care so that they might be looked after by the local authority, perhaps because they cannot cope or because of illness. I understand that the Bill does not cover children in those circumstances. I hope that my hon. Friend will clarify that beyond peradventure because it is confusing to see clause 1(1) referring to children "received into care", which could mean received voluntarily. The second route involves children who appear before the courts because they have committed an offence or because they are considered to need to be in care and the local authority or the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has instituted care proceedings.

The House knows that I sat as the chairman of a juvenile court for several years before entering the House and I vividly recall several cases in the latter category. The two categories are not so easily distinguishable because often when we read the social inquiry report, and heard about the child's background, we realised that it was hardly surprising that he or she had committed and offence. Conversely, with some children who were brought before us as needing care, when we read the report, we wondered how the child had got so far without committing an offence.

I also remember having to make care orders. We should be clear what we are talking about—taking a child into care because that is in the child's best interests. We are saying that the state has decided to deprive a parent or parents, who have produced the child and brought it up so far—which might be a few months or some years—of their child or, in some cases, children. We are saying that the child will be better off with social workers in a children's home than with his or her own parents, however inadequate they my may be. We are saying that they should not be in their own home, however poor the material standards might be. It is an extremely difficult decision.

I recall a case when all of the evidence was overwhelmingly in favour of making a court order and we had to sit and watch the matron lead two or three children away and take the youngest from its mother's arms. Such an example brings home to me the fact that we are considering deeply personal cases.

Hon. Members who have been magistrates will know that we weigh up the circumstances and make a decision and that is that. If we spend time afterwards wondering whether we took the right decision, we should never get a moment's sleep. There were some cases over which I lost sleep, and they were care cases. We should not belittle their importance.

The court represents society and makes a decision having considered the information presented to it by social workers, the police, the school, if relevant, and other sources, but it is the court that decides on the order. It can decide to make a supervision order, the implication of which is that the child will remain at home but be under supervision of social workers, or it can make a care order if it thinks that the child would be best away from home. There have been problems in the past when the court felt it appropriate to make a care order and the social workers took the child into care but promptly returned it to the home. Had that been the court's intention, it would have made a supervision and not a care order. Most of those difficulties have now been ironed out, but the circumstances that I have described whereby, sooner or later, a social worker can decide, without recourse to the court, to return a child in care to its home is a difficulty that the Bill seeks to tackle.

There are many occasions when social workers decide that the time is right for the child to return home. It does so, and all goes well. The case is successful. However, occasionally all does not go well, the tragic results of which we know. The intention of clause 1 is to bring back into the process of returning a child to its home the protection of the court and its authority.

A director of social services for whom I have a high regard has written to me expressing his anxiety about the Bill. He fears that the Bill will undermine the function and management of social services, in particular, with regard to the issue of discharge, by making it a matter for the court to decide. He refers to the legislation as representing: a vote of no confidence or little confidence in Social Services Departments".

I am afraid that there has been a lessening of confidence in social services departments and social workers. Most social workers are dedicated, professional people who do an extraordinarily difficult job. Most of the cases that they handle are dealt with successfully and receive no publicity. Sometimes there are mistakes. Sometimes things do not work out, not necessarily because there has been a mistake but merely because we are dealing with human beings who are fallible and unpredictable. It is those occasional cases that receive the publicity. Those cases have, I fear, lowered people's confidence in the social work system.

If a social worker can persuade the court that it is appropriate for a child who is the subject of an order to go home, the court's decision would confirm the social worker's assessment. Far from that undermining the social worker's confidence, it would be a vote of confidence in the social services department. Far from undermining social service departments, it would strengthen their position and add an extra dimension of protection to the social worker who, if there were subsequent criticism of his action, could point out that his recommendation had been considered and confirmed by the court.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) mentioned representations made to him by the British Association of Social Workers which had questioned the provisions of the clause. It suggests, for example: There appear to be no mechanisms to ensure that the Court is in a position to question the judgment of the social services department. I find that difficult to understand, because the court will have every opportunity to do so. The social worker would appear before the court and all those involved in the case would have an opportunity to explain to the court why they thought it appropriate for the child to return home. Normal court procedures offer every opportunity for that to be done.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned another point made by the BASW: The training of magistrates is haphazard and their expertise varies considerably". Those of my colleagues who have sat as juvenile court magistrates can confirm that they have special training. A juvenile court bench consists of a chairman, who is a man or woman with considerable experience in the juvenile court. The other two lay magistrates will not be ignorant of juvenile court matters. The BASW's comment is somewhat unrealistic.

If it were true to say that the returning home of a child subject to a care order should not come before the court because it is not qualified to make that judgment, it is surely even less qualified to make the original care order. The BASW's comment represents a criticism of the entire system. Although some people may think like that, it is not my view.

The House will gather that I warmly support the proposal contained in clause 1. A number of points arise on later clauses but they may be rather more Committee points and I shall not go into them in depth.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury may find that there is a difficulty with clause 1(6) and how to define "safe". How can a court decide that it is "safet" to return a child home? Can there be a definition of the word "safe"? Magistrates have to make a balanced judgment on the information before them. They cannot be 100 per cent. satisfied, for the reasons I have given—we are dealing with human beings. For similar reasons, I am not sure how practicable or desirable it will be for the court to have to give reasons for its decisions publicly even if it were possible and desirable to record them. There are many factors involved.

Clause 4 presents a problem. It refers to the possibility of naming as respondents those persons whom the court considers fit. Who will decide who are to be the respondents in the case? I shall quote from a point effectively made by the Judges' Clerks society which states: By leaving to the Court the choice of who shall be made respondents to a Local Authority's application under this clause, the Bill is imposing a new and unrealistic duty on the Court. To investigate the background circumstances of the family and the child, and determine who shall be heard ultimately, the Court will need to appoint a Reporting Officer or other independent person to act on its behalf to establish the identity of possible repondents Clearly, the social worker could not do that because he or she is involved. The society continues: It will then need to hold a preliminary investigative hearing at which the claimants to participate will be invited to present their claims or the court will need to appoint everyone listed by the Reporting Officer as respondent". That matter may present a difficulty.

It is an admirable principle to try to involve other parties in the case, but rules will need to be issued when the Bill is passed to define what is a "proper interest" when deciding who should be involved in the case.

My hon. Friend mentioned the important point that in the case of a young single girl whose child is in care it could well be that the putative father should be a party to the proceedings. There should be some clarification, either in the Bill or in rules, as to who has a proper interest.

On clause 3, on appeals, and clause 5 allowing transfer to the High Court, I fear that I might have to part company with my hon. Friend to the extent that his press release of 19 December refers to problems that have arisen and suggests that these clauses "ease the urgent need for family courts." That will not do. There is an urgent need for family courts and I would be reluctant to support anything that allowed the Government any sort of get-out in setting them up.

Mr. Walters

I did emphasise, and I want to do so again, that nothing in the Bill is intended to pre-empt the debate on family courts, or indeed progress towards them. It may well be that in a press handout there was a sentence which, with hindsight, might have been worded differently.

Mr. Sims

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that clear. I am not worried about what he has said; I am more concerned about what my hon. Friend the Minister is likely to say and how he is likely to use the Bill as a further excuse for inaction. He must know of the growing pressure for family courts and the growing impatience of the lack of Government action on that front.

The House knows of the review of child care law by the Department of Health and Social Security and of the proposals for family courts which we hope to see from the Lord Chancellor.

Mr. Ryman

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he aware that the junior Minister who is now sitting on the Treasury Bench stated explicitly in the House several weeks ago on a Friday in a debate on child abuse that he did not have the faintest idea when family courts would be introduced. In effect, he was shirking responsibility for the decision, because he said that that was the responsibility of another Department. With that nonchalant incompetence that the Department so often displays he passed the matter over to another Department.

Mr. Sims

I might choose more felicitous expressions to describe my hon. Friend's reaction, but I would not dispute the general tenor of his comments in the debate in which the hon. Gentleman and I took part.

Mr. Thurnham

The Labour party, in its manifesto in October 1974, said that it was in favour of bringing in family courts, but by 1975 the Labour party in power was finding all sorts of formidable difficulties as to why it was not able to do so.

Mr. Sims

That is true. We all remember the Finer report in 1974 urging strongly the implementation of family courts, since when everybody has said that they are a good idea but nobody has done anything. That is not strictly true because all sorts of organisations within and outside Government have brought forward proposals, but nothing has happened. I fear that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies he will once again fall upon the fact that a review of child care law is going on and that something will emerge on family courts as an excuse for not proceeding with the Bill.

I have on occasions in the past spoken in the House on behalf of the Magistrates Association and the National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children, on whose executive committee I sit. It is fair to say that both those organisations are sympathetic to what the Bill is trying to achieve, but they dislike piecemeal legislation and would prefer some of the proposals to be incorporated in the legislation, which they hope will incorporate the changes in child care law and the setting up of family courts.

I have little faith in the Government's will to proceed along such lines, certainly in the immediate future. There is certainly no prospect of anything happening in this parliamentary Session. My hon. Friend the Minister may be able to say what the prospects are for the next Session, but even if something were clone in the next parliamentary Session we know how slowly wheels turn and it would be a long time before we saw family courts and a complete change in child care law implemented.

For that reason, I am in favour of my hon. Friend's Bill and on the principle that a bird in hand is worth two in the bush I intend to give it my full support and I hope it will be similarly supported from the Front Bench.

10.45 am
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) has spoken from his great experience as a magistrate. We were all moved to hear him say that cases concerning the care of children were the most difficult with which he had to deal and that, if he lost sleep at all, it was over such cases. We can all understand that.

I join my hon. Friend and other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on his success in the draw. I remember the excitement of that day—I think it was 14 November—and the great interest in what subject he had chosen. I congratulate my hon. Friend on choosing such an important subject and wish him success in the safe passage of his Bill.

I am not familiar with all the intricacies of the law on this matter. I speak only from personal experience of having fostered and recently adopted a child who had been in care and shuffled about from pillar to post for six years before coming to my family. I am well aware of the need for particular provision for children in such circumstances.

I hope that the Bill will be successful. No doubt it will need to be modified, but I was sorry to see the letter from the Association of County Councils yesterday which seems to be opposed to the Bill. I hope that such reservations can be overcome in Committee.

This week I also received a publication entitled "1986: Children Today" which draws attention to the scale of the problem. No doubt my hon. Friend has seen that. The latest figure given for the number of children in care in the United Kingdom is 104,628. 1 think that figure relates to 31 March 1983. The "Review of Child Care Law" shows that 20,000 children have been in care for over three years, and again that shows the need for measures in this area.

Dr. Godman

The hon. Gentleman has just given the House the statistics of children in care. Has he the figures of children returned from care each year?

Mr. Thurnham

I have them at my side, but I hesitate to refer to them now. We must be careful about children who cease to be children because of their age. The "Review of Child Care Law" is a somewhat formidable document which runs to 179 pages with 223 recommendations, but it lacks an index. I hope that when the Government produce their response to it they will produce a document which is as useful in the information that it contains but more helpful to those who want to extract information from it. If the hon. Gentleman refers to that, he will see that there is a considerable amount of information, but perhaps I could leave him to look at that point. The hon. Gentleman said that time is of the essence and I concur with that. I appreciate that there is a difference between the law in England and the law in Scotland. About 3,000 handicapped children are in long term National Health Service hospitals and local authority homes—about 1,000 in NHS hospitals and about 2,000 in local authority homes. I referred to that in my Adjournment debate speech on 25 November. The private Member's Bill initiated by the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) is in Committee at the moment and also has a bearing on this matter.

I should like to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury to another category of children. There are about 2,500 children in the country suffering from brittle bone disease. The juvenile court in Bolton is currently dealing with a child who may be suffering from that disease. The case has not yet been determined, so I cannot refer to it in more detail, but there are two aspects to which I should like to draw my hon. Friend's attention and ask him whether he will consider providing help for those particular cases.

The case was first drawn to my attention in November 1985. The local evening newspaper in Bolton covered the case. It is a nightmare for all those concerned—the child, the parents and the social workers. The trouble is that medical experts have no certain way of diagnosing brittle bone disease at an early age. The child went into hospital for a routine examination, returned home and was found not to be well. The child was taken back to the hospital on the same day and found to have a broken thigh bone. The medical experts cannot agree that the child is definitely suffering from brittle bone disease, because I understand that there no diagnostic test available to prove the case conclusively intil the child is older. Therefore, the social workers are unable to agree to return the child to the parents because the risk of child abuse is present. I am greatly concerned that that case has dragged on and is still in the courts. The parents were unable to have the child over Christmas and came to see me because they could not get time in court. I found that court time before Christmas is taken up with hearing licensing cases. Anything that can be done to speed up court hearings in such cases must be done.

The case is very complicated. There have been four medical opinions. Two say that the child is suffering from brittle bone disease and two say that they cannot be sure. We all remember the horror of the Jasmine Beckford case. Therefore, one would not criticise social workers for feeling that they should be exceptionally cautious in such cases. The case is a nightmare because the medical experts cannot conclusively prove the existence of brittle bone disease, but two experts say they are sure. I should like my hon. Friend to bear in mind the need for speeding up court cases in this instance because, as I have said, the case has been dragging on since November, causing great anguish to the parents, and presents nothing but a nightmare to all concerned. I should like to know that we shall have family courts or whatever provision is best suited to bringing that about.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to consider whether more provision can be made for medical research into diagnosing brittle bone disease. Obviously, the social workers are presented with a dilemma when medical opinion is uncertain. Can provision be made to provide a better diagnosis in such cases? I should also like to draw my hon. Friend's attention to Dr. Roger Smith's article in the British Medical Journal of 18 August 1984, which says that pre-natal genetic diagnosis is now a definite possibility. He said that an exciting biochemical chapter is now being written". I am concerned that societies, such as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, are resisting research in that area.

I now return to the number of children in care. The recommendations of many bodies have called for provisions in the law, particularly where children have been in hospital for so long that parental contact has broken down. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to pay particular attention to the need for care orders to be clearly established. In many cases I think that the local authority may be unaware of the existence of the child—the child may be hundreds of miles away from the local authority area where it was born or where it was last domiciled—and the parents may have lost touch with the child. There is an urgent need for reform in that area.

An excellent document entitled "The Case for Family Courts" has been produced by the sub-committee of the Society of Conservative Lawyers. That document contains many recommendations. I do not know whether my hon. Friends have had a chance to refer to it. One of the recommendations is for a children's ombudsman. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Minister has been able to consider that, but there does not seem to be any action or response on that front. In respect of children who are mentally handicapped and have lost touch with their families, I think that there is a case for reconsideration of that matter.

There is another difficult area concerning handicapped children which I should like my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury to bear in mind. There is an extremely difficult problem with a baby born so severely handicapped that the natural parents feel that it would be futile to use the medical facilities which might be available to try to prolong the life of that child. Care orders have been instituted in such cases. The law in that area is uncertain, and the ethical position is extremely difficult and complicated. However, in America there are changes afoot. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would comment on whether he has been able to give thought to that aspect.

I wish my hon. Friend success with his Bill in Committee. I hope that any reservations which may exist will be overcome. I look forward to changes in legislation which will enable cases, such as that of my consituent which I have referred, to be heard more quickly and a satisfactory answer to be arrived at speedily.

10.56 am
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)

I should like to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on introducing a Bill which I believe is a practical and realistic step forward. I do not share the hesitation of those who feel that the Bill will impede progress towards a family court. I think in many ways it will highlight interest in and attention on the subject and raise other anomalies which will speed the development of a family court on its way.

I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) that in many ways our present procedures work satisfactorily in many cases. There are juvenile courts and many social workers across the country taking on these extremely difficult and always emotional decisions and doing so satisfactorily. Some of the recent tragedies have highlighted public awareness and public anger that there are still children in today's world who suffer the most appalling injuries at the hands of their parents.

The history of child care law has, in my view, been too frequently an over-reaction to appalling incidents. We have to guard carefully against this. In most of the cases that have come to public attention recently the procedures laid down simply were not followed. The procedures were not necessarily wrong but there was bad practice. It is very easy at a time of emotional strain and difficulty, especially when there is a great deal of press and public interest, to look for scapegoats. The Beckford case is a good example of that. I do not believe that any of us would seek to argue that the magistrate, social workers, neighbours, doctors, teachers or anybody involved in that case had been about their business in the way in which one would recommend in an ideal world.

I speak about such matters with feeling, having been the chairman of a London juvenile court for many years before entering the House, as well as being a qualified psychiatric social worker. Therefore, perhaps I have a proper recognition that both magistrates and social workers have an important contribution to make but I realise that their contribution is different. I believe that the court does have a place in child care law. I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) when he talked about the great difficulty and burden of making such decisions. For a juvenile court magistrate there are probably few more serious decisions to be taken than that to deprive a parent of its child until that child is 18 years of age. This is a serious decision and it is one which I think parents are entitled to have ratified by a court.

I have always been sceptical of the Scottish arrangement for children's hearings. Somehow, it seems to be a denial of the seriousness of the court. I do not believe that, in child care cases, people can sit down in friendly fashion at the table and discuss in a harmonious, almost chatty, way, those serious matters. One needs the formality of a court, although it does not need to be a hurly-burly public place which, most of the time, is devoted to criminal cases.

Dr. Godman

May I say to the hon. Lady that the children's panels treat matters relating to child care with the utmost seriousness? I hope that I did not give any other impression during my speech.

Mrs. Bottomley

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I entirely accept what he says. When the Scottish hearing system is discussed by those involved in English juvenile court hearings, it is often misrepresented as a remarkably informal setting. I am simply seeking to argue that the element of formality and the seriousness of those enormous decisions need to be given due attention.

Under the Bill, it is proposed that appeals should be heard in the High Court rather than the county court. I am sure that that is a step in the right direction. It is supported by the Department of Health and Social Security review of child care law. The High Court would offer various better options. There could be a more flexible application of the rules of evidence, which is a point easy to overlook. Frequently, in child care cases, the evidence is hearsay evidence. It is on the edges of permissibility. One is dealing with peoples' opinions; what people have said; or an individual's assessment about a child. It is naive to think that it is easy to come to a decision.

In cases of physical abuse, at least one has clear evidence, such as bruises, but what about the many cases of emotional abuse, neglect, children being deprived entirely of care or interest, or cases of mental cruelty? In those cases, it is difficult to get hard and clear evidence. The suggestion of appeals going to the High Court is one of the many ways in which the Bill eases the passage towards a family court. Similarly, extending the right of appeal to local authorities and parents is an eminently sensible and reasonable approach.

The suggestion that the court should review the decision that the child should be returned home to the parents from whom he was removed is a good idea, mainly for the reasons that I have already stated. A court hearing highlights and clarifies the seriousness of the matter. I have some reservations, which I should like the Committee to explore. There is the problem about the mechanisms in the juvenile court for hearing cases. There is no tradition that magistrates will hold on to a particular case. I believe strongly that in juvenile court work, the continuity of the magistrates is as important, in some cases, as the continuity of the social workers. If we are seriously suggesting a system under which a case will come back for review, every effort should be made to have the same bench or at least the same chairman sitting on that further case.

Further, this may be too much of a blanket proposal. Perhaps it should be appropriate only in cases where the child has been taken into care initially for neglect or abuse. There are other cases where the proposal is less appropriate, and it may be an unwieldy requirement. For example, I have been told that in truancy cases the child is safe at home, but I am open to discussion on that. Those are often exactly the families that need an element of authority and reality testing. They need to realise the nature of their responsibilities, and that they should insist that their children attend school.

The suggestion that the system would lead to delays needs consideration because in child care cases, of all cases, a speedy decision is vital. For example, if there is a three or six-month delay for a child of three or six months, that may be the equivalent of the whole of the child's lifetime all over again. We must consider the relationship with the parents and the extended family and the emotion involved, so we must consider carefully the threat to many relationships if there is a delay.

It should not be regarded as a criticism of the way in which social workers conduct and handle child care cases that they need to take the family back to court to have the case reviewed. That should be looked at positively. It touches on the issue of training. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary will be mindful of the fact that social work training is closely related to the issues that we are discussing today.

The provision for the court introducing conditions for a child returning home is eminently helpful and appropriate. Too often, in recent cases when a child has died, clear evidence was available, if only it had been gathered, that the child was losing weight. A regular medical examination is an extremely sensible and straightforward requirement, which could be introduced in many cases. In nearly all the major horrific cases, if the child had been seen at a medical, many further difficulties could have been avoided.

The Bill allows for other interested third parties to have the right to be heard in the magistrates' court, with leave, and where appropriate. That could be a licence for all sorts of busybodies coming along to court wanting their views to be heard. This is an important development as long as it is clear that it is not an automatic right, but a provision that is available. In care cases, of all cases, it is important that the extended family should feel that there has been a full and fair hearing on extremely complex and emotional matters.

I support all those who have called for a family court. It has been estimated that at present there are no fewer than 20 different ways by which a child can come into local authority care. There is an enormously complicated network of courts, and bits and pieces of child care law. The child care law review takes a step in the right direction. The review is a little ambiguous on family courts. We shall not have satisfactory measures for children's and parents' cases to be heard properly, fairly and in an understandable way, for the children and the parents as much as anybody else until we move forward with family court provision.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury on introducing the Bill, and I hope very much that it gets a Second Reading and that there is an opportunity for further discussion and worthwhile debate in Committee.

11.8 am

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on introducing the Bill, which I support.

There is no doubt that we need greater court supervision of care cases. I see the Bill as an interim measure before we set up a family court, which many of us would like. I should like to make two points, one about the contents of the Bill and the other going somewhat wider.

First, I refer to the provision that grandparents and others in the extended family should have access through the court to the care case. I have come across several cases in which there were others, particularly those with whom the child had been boarded out, who should have been heard. I should have liked them to have the right to be heard. I am delighted to see that provision in clause 4(2). It will be an important additional safeguard to children in care, who are subject to the control of the court.

The Bill does nothing to derogate from the principle that the parents' place is prime. I am pleased about that. We were recently given the figures for child abuse, but it is difficult to discover from those figures much about the children's background. It is clear to me from the figures for 1980–1984 that a high proportion of such children come from family units without two natural parents. A high proportion of children who are abused live with single parents. We should not forget that when considering amendments to existing legislation.

Some reports about the desperately sad cases of child abuse try to impose on social workers more responsibility than they can or should carry. Many social workers achieve an extraordinary high professional competence, but to try to impose upon them the ultimate responsibility — that of parenthood — is dangerous and unhelpful. Many who report on child abuse cases or react to them fall into that trap.

I support the Bill and hope that it will have a swift passage.

11.12 am
Ms. Harriet Harman (Peckham)

The Bill's aim is to protect children who might be battered at home. That is a laudable and important aim. Everybody has been shocked by the recent murders of children at the hands of their parents or step-parents. That is hard enough for people to understand or accept, but when a child who is murdered or beaten is in local authority care, that is totally unacceptable and causes widespread concern, which we all share.

Because the issue is so important we must ensure that the Bill meets that concern and is not either ineffective or, worse, counter-productive to children's interests.

I have substantial reservations about the Bill, which are widely shared. My reservations are shared by the social work profession in the form of the British Association of Social Workers, and the Association of Directors of Social Services, by the local authority organisations through the Association of County Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, by the legal profession in the shape of the Law Society, the children's legal centre and the Legal Action Group, and by part of the judiciary through the Justices' Clerks Society. Those bodies have a great deal of experience and involvement, so we must pay careful attention to their reservations.

One of my reservations is that child care law and practice is bedevilled by piecemeal and patchwork additions. This is a substantial reservation, not a nitpicking, bureaucratic point. The Social Services Select Committee was emphatic on the matter, so when we are engaged in another possible patchwork and piecemeal addition we must be convinced that the Bill's benefits will outweigh the problems of the patchwork approach.

The Bill provides that a child cannot be returned to its family without a court order. The hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) talked about abuse, torture and death. In Committee we should consider narrowing the Bill's scope so that a court's consent is required only when a child is likely to be physically at risk.

I am worried in case the Bill makes it necessary for children who are in care voluntarily to be covered by a court order before they can return home. The hon. Member for Westbury has put my mind at rest about that. About 20,000 children are brought into care voluntarily each year. It would be impossible if the courts had to give their consent before such children were returned to their parents. Worse, it could disastrously undermine voluntary care.

Voluntary care is a positive intervention in helping and supporting families who are in difficulty or who have temporary problems—such as the mother having to go into hospital for an operation or the family being temporarily homeless. It would be a disastrous turn for the worse if parents who place their children in care voluntarily know that they cannot have them back without a court order. I am much reassured, but some adjustment will have to be made in Committee.

The Bill provides that the courts must be involved in every case. I do not think that we need an automatic review which could become a rubber stamp. We need a good and widely understood complaints or appeals mechanism. For example, it would have been better in the Beckford case if the foster parents had had the right to trigger an appeal or make a complaint and initiate court proceedings. There cannot be effective scrutiny by the courts unless a third party is worried or objects. The court's involvement should perhaps be dependent on objection rather than be automatic. Without that, many cases will not be scrutinised at all.

Requiring every case to go to court will exacerbate critical problems of delay which already exist in the juvenile courts. Delay is not a technical matter. Delay can work strongly against a child's interests. The first five years of a child's life are critical in terms of its mental, social, physical and emotional development. Periods which might seem short for an adult are enormously long to a small child.

A deep problem caused by delay already exists. The added jurisdiction of so many extra cases would, I fear, immeasurably worsen the problem. The justices' clerks are also worried about that. We should not impose upon the courts an extra responsibility that will lead to delay unless we are convinced of the extra benefits involved.

The parents should always be respondent and always be treated as parties in a case. If they do not want to be represented or attend the court they do not have to, but they should always be respondent.

The hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) talked about other people who might apply for leave of the court to be joined as parties to a case. She said that that might open the door to busybodies. We should reappraise our attitudes to busybodies. To one person someone might be a busybody but to another they might be a caring neighbour or relative. We have elevated the principle of non-intervention in the nuclear family to the point of ideological dogma. We should recognise that others share responsibility and anxiety about a child as well as the parents, the social services and the courts.

Dr. Godman

I am interested in what my hon. Friend says about so-called busybodies. Many of the cases of child abuse referred to the NSPCC and the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are first brought by such "busybody" neighbours.

Ms. Harman

Indeed. I hope that we can rehabilitate busybodies and recognise that they are—

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

As the inadvertent sponsor of busybodies, may I ask whether the hon. Lady agrees that it is important that the court should have power to give leave for other interested people to speak? There would be a slight difference in emphasis if anybody felt that they had the right to speak. The court should have some right to decide whether a person's evidence would be relevant.

Ms. Harman

The Bill says merely that people may, by leave of the court, be joined as a party. I hope that in Committee we can give the courts guidance on the grounds on which they should consider an application for leave to be a party.

The question of busybodies raises a peculiarly English cultural problem. Anyone who has taken small children to the continent will have been amazed by the fact that if small children are left in a pram outside a shop in, say, Italy, people take them out of the pram, look through their clothes and ask what they are fed on. They regard that as normal. They ask how old the children are and comment on whether they are too large or too small for their age. Such behaviour in this country would be regarded as busybodying. On the continent it is regarded as part of the collective responsibility for children who are not only children of a family, but children of the community.

Our awful cultural approach, which amounts almost to the privatisation of children, bedevils child abuse problems and a whole load of attitudes, approaches and policies towards children.

The child should always be a party to a case and always be represented by a guardian ad litem. I fear that, without such a provision, the courts will have no independent check of the evidence. The court must go on the evidence before it and not on a hunch. Magistrates may be unhappy about a case, but unless there is evidence that a child is not safe, they are in a difficult position.

Magistrates are being given a considerable responsibility. They will have to be satisfied that a child will be safe—an important but absolute term. We must consider the quality of the decision that magistrates will be able to make. They will have to decide whether a child will be safe and they will have before them the social worker, who wants the child to go home—otherwise the case would not have come to court—and the parents, who want the child to go home—otherwise they would not have gone to court.

Unless the child is a party to the case, with a guardian ad litem, the court will have no independent means of looking behind the evidence and carrying out investigations, perhaps questioning the health visitor, neighbours, teachers or the family doctor.

Children's panels in Scotland have an inquisitorial arm so that they can take an independent look at the evidence. I fear that we may place magistrates in a dilemma. All the evidence will be going one way and the magistrates will have a considerable responsibility. There may be more cases in which magistrates feel that there is no evidence that a child is not safe and that they therefore have to make an order. But there will be more sleepless nights because magistrates will not have the means to look behind the evidence. The appointment of a guardian ad litem would at least give the courts the help of independent evidence. As the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) said, they have to reach a most difficult decision.

The fact that the juvenile court is to be the forum for the decision raises fundamental problems. We are asking a court designed to deal with adversarial procedures to take an inquisitorial approach. As I said, Scottish panels take that approach, but they were set up with that in mind. It is difficult to graft an inquisitorial procedure onto an adversarial system, which is set up in different ways, with different rules and different resources. That will create problems.

My subsequent comments about magistrates relate not only to the Bill but to the magistracy and all child care law, and underline the urgent need for a family court. We are giving magistrates extra jurisdiction and we must examine whether they will be able to discharge that responsibility.

The hon. Member for Surrey, South-West mentioned the importance of continuity. In Scotland, it is possible to get a hearing before a children's panel very quickly and the aim is that the same panel should hear a case each time. If the child comes back to court a year or even two years later, the aim is to have the same panel hearing the case, thereby ensuring continuity.

If a different group of magistrates hear a case each time, they do not have much chance to make high quality decisions. We may be giving them a responsibility which it is unfair of us to expect them to discharge.

I do not say that all magistrates in juvenile courts are badly trained and inexpert, but there is a widely recognised problem. If magistrates sit on a range of cases, they do not build up the expertise that is accumulated in the Scottish system or would be built up here if we had a family court.

The training of magistrates is patchy and unsatisfactory. That is not the fault of individual magistrates; it is an intrinsic problem of the system. It is misconceived to believe that we can relax when we take the decision away from social workers and give to magistrates the responsibility to say that a child will be safe.

We must remember that in the Jasmine Beckford case the magistrates leaned on the social workers to send the child back home, where she was murdered. They limited the opportunity of social workers to keep the child in care.

Everybody will remember what Mr. Blom-Cooper said about social workers in the Jasmine Beckford report. No doubt those comments have contributed to the creation of the atmosphere in which the Bill has been produced. However, we should also remind ourselves what Mr. Blom-Cooper said about the magistrates. He said that they were "utterly misguided", that they did not protect abused children and that they should be "publicly upbraided".

The best course would be for the Government to use the Bill not as an excuse for inaction, but as a spur to action. The child care law review has attracted astonishingly widespread support for its work and its consideration of the substantive law changes that are required is well under way. The family court review is also underway, though it is proceeding more slowly.

The proposal for the introduction of a family court has had virtually unanimous support for many years, as is evidenced by the Family Court Campaign, which I thoroughly endorse. A family court would provide a speedy, expert, flexible system with an inquisitorial approach as well as the adversarial way of recognising the rights that have to be balanced in difficult cases. The Government should get a move on and overtake this Bill with measures to change the substance of the law and procedure in a comprehensive way, which is long overdue. If that happens, this Bill will have achieved its aim.

11.31 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Whitney)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on his long overdue good fortune in the ballot and on his choice of subject. Over a number of years my hon. Friend and I have engaged in a number of exchanges and have co-operated on foreign affairs. It is of special interest to me to have the opportunity of responding to his important initiative in an area which is of such great national concern.

Hon. Members who have already spoken in this debate have vividly expressed the horror that all of us feel as we regularly learn from the media the details of yet another case of child abuse. It is easy to get the impression that never a week passes without the emergence of still one more alarming story of cruelty to children and of irresponsibility on the part of some of those who are specifically charged with the duty of caring for children. Disturbed though we all are by such cases, we must always seek to hold in correct perspective the small number of child abuse tragedies compared to the many thousands of children at risk who are protected by prompt action, and we must bear in mind the great deal of good work that is done by professionals and which goes largely unnoticed and unsung. We must set that against those few cases in which things go tragically wrong.

While accepting the sad truth that the death of some children in dreadful or violent circumstances will remain inevitable, as it has been throughout history, every such tragedy is one too many and we must strive to learn from each one for the sake of other children in future. This is a task in which we all have a role to play and a contribution to make. It is a challenge to every one of us, to the whole community, and cannot just be left to the professional worker employed by the public in the social services department of the local authority.

As relatives or as neighbours, there may be occasions when any one of us may have to take necessary but unpleasant action if it appears that children could be at risk of abuse from their parents. The voluntary organisations have a vital role in complementing the efforts of the statutory services and, as we all know, outstanding in this field is the valuable work carried out by the NSPCC. It is worth noting that that organisation has now moved into the second century of its existence, and that underlines the fact that, lamentable though it is, cruelty to children is not a uniquely modern phenomenon.

As legislators, we have a duty to provide the right legal framework and the object of my hon. Friend's Bill is to improve the effectiveness of that framework. Before offering comments on his proposals, I hope it will be helpful to the House if I set out some of the other action that the Government have put in hand to improve the quality of child care. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) has recognised, on the basis of her long experience and deep knowledge of these matters, in many cases what has gone wrong recently has not been because of the law but because of bad practice. We should all be concerned about that and willing to tackle it.

The essence of the Government's function must be to ensure that all the agencies that need to prevent child abuse at local level fully understand what is expected of them and how they must work together. They must have established arrangements that work well to that end. This involves not just the social services departments, though they will have to be in the lead, and not just the health authority, but often education authorities, the police, the probation services and the voluntary sector. It can also mean developing ways of harnessing the help of members of the community.

The Government must constantly keep an eye on what is happening nationally and must help authorities to learn lessons from experience and raise the standards of their practice. All our recent reports indicate that, while much good work is being done in an area where decision-making is extremely difficult and emotionally demanding for all concerned, there are shortcomings in practice, in fieldwork and at more senior levels of management. We shall continue to use all the means at our disposal to put these matters right, working with local authorities, where I hope we shall have the support of the elected members of these authorities as well as their staff. I hope that councillors will be alive to their important responsibilities for ensuring the good management of their services and for monitoring their operation. Within the next few weeks, we shall, for example, be issuing for consultation a draft guide on child abuse procedures which will bring up to date the guidance on the handling of cases, concentrating on the inter-agency collaboration which is an essential element in effective work to prevent child abuse. The Department will shortly be publishing a report on the recently completed inspection by our social services inspectorate of the supervision of social workers and assessment procedures in child abuse cases. This report will make a number of important recommendations to improve the management of such cases.

In July last year, we issued a consultative paper on the conduct of child abuse inquiries. The consultation period ended on 30 November and work is now well in hand on the final version. We are also working on further guidance to improve the current arrangements for reviewing the situation of every child in care. a review which local authorities are required by law to carry our every six months. Three weeks ago, on 10 January, I was privileged to launch a well attended national seminar, in which professionals from all over the country participated. That seminar examined the results of a major programme of research which has just been completed on decision making by social workers engaged in child care. We are now organising a series of regional seminars and training aids developed from these studies. Those are some of the practical measures we are taking to improve the quality of child care and to prevent child abuse.

As I have said, all hon. Members have a special responsibility to see that there is an effective legal framework for child care. We need laws that above all else, provide for the protection of children while ensuring that at the same time proper recognition is given to the rights and responsibilities of parents. Where those responsibilities and rights are restricted or removed, there must be due legal process in which all concerned have a full opportunity to put their case and to appeal if they are aggrieved.

Our present law has been built up over many years and reflects in part swings in opinion about the relative weight to be attached to children's and parents' rights. Not surprisingly, it is complex, difficult to follow and lacks consistency. There is wide recognition of the need for reform, for which the Select Committee on Social Services cogently argued in its report on child care in 1984. Following that report, we set up a review of the existing law, and the report of the official working party was published last October. It made more than 200 recommendations.

The majority of the responses to the consultation exercise, which ended just a few days ago, have generally been favourable and there is a broad consensus on the need for a comprehensive reform to produce a coherent body of law in an area which has suffered from too much piecemeal amendment. We shall be reaching conclusions shortly on how best to proceed in the light of the responses to our consultation exercise and will then make our intentions known to the House. I should certainly like to see an early opportunity for Government legislation, as I am sure will many hon. Members.

A number of hon. Members have referred to the idea of family courts, and I think that it would be appropriate if I offered some comment on that subject. My right hon. Friends the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary have established a committee of officials to examine the feasibility of a unified court with exclusive jurisdiction in all family matters to identify the main options and to examine their resource implications.

Although, as has been pointed out by both sides of the House, there is now a consensus in favour of a family court, there is still some variation of view on the form it should take and how it should be organised. Major changes could be involved. Depending on the type of court selected, it could lead, for example, to considerable reorganisation of judges, staff, accommodation and welfare services and extensive procedural changes. It is, therefore an undertaking of some complexity with a number of inherent difficulties. We realise, as the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Ryman) pointed out with his customary charm, that it has taken longer to produce a consultation paper than many of the enthusiasts of the scheme would wish. Although it had been hoped to produce an initial consultation paper in the autumn, it has not proved possible for the family court review to keep to that timing. However, my right hon. Friends believe that careful preparation is necessary when moving into such complex territory.

Ms. Harman

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many people will be bitterly disappointed at his statement that, because a narrow area with respect to the jurisdiction and procedure of the family court does not as yet attract 100 per cent. consensus, the Government will not move on this matter? The Government are allowing themselves to become bogged down. The Government are not noted for waiting until there is unanimity and consensus on every point before bringing measures before the House. We can only suspect, therefore, that they simply lack the political will to make space for this important measure and to bring it before the House at the same time as the substantive law is changed following the child care law review. That is not good enough.

Mr. Whitney

Clearly, the hon. Lady misunderstood the point I was making. I am grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to offer some clarification. I was saving that there were many matters of debate and many issues. Although it is regretted that the timetable has not been met, there is no question that we shall not move forward. The review is in hand. I am optimistic that the exercise will be launched before very long—I can say no more than that. We must recognise that this idea has been a long time coming. As my colleagues have pointed out, the Labour Government were a good deal more dilatory than the present Government. We have been working on this matter for a considerable time.

Mr. Ryman

Has the hon. Gentleman or any other Minister in his Department received legal advice on this matter from any Law Officer?

Mr. Whitney

It seems a pity that this important debate, in which there is a consensus, invites the hon. Member for Blyth Valley to make only that sort of intervention.

Mr. Sims

Will my hon. Friend accept that impatience at the lack of action on this front is not confined to the Opposition but that many Conservative Members feel that the delays, one after the other, in even producing a consultative paper are becoming unreasonable? We should like action to be taken. If action is not taken soon, it will strengthen the case for my hon. Friend to get cracking on the Bill.

Mr. Whitney

I recognise the strength of feeling on this issue on both sides of the House. I am sure that it has been well and truly noted by my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor.

I shall leave, for a moment, the subject of family courts. Clearly, that is a matter to which Ministers will return. I should like to emphasise that the comprehensive change in child care law which we are seeking does not need to await decisions that may be taken on a family court. I hope that it was helpful to the House to have that review of current developments in child care and the Government's position on the reform of the legal framework. I shall now turn to the details of the Bill.

Clauses 1 and 2 are intended to provide an extra measure of protection for the child who is already under a care order. As hon. Members know, as the law stands, the local authority in such cases has to exercise full parental rights and responsibilities in relation to the child, and at all times has to act in accordance with the so-called welfare principle—always to give first consideration to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child in accordance with section 18 of the Child Care Act 1980. There is no doubt at present about the statutory duty of the local authority. The focus of the social worker's attention must be the interests of the child.

The Bill proposes that there should be an exception to the general rule that local authorities have full discretion in the discharge of their parental responsibilities by requiring that, before a child subject to a care order can be returned home to his parents, they should satisfy a magistrates' court that the child would be, safe in all the circumstances those circumstances including a wide-ranging set of conditions which the court could impose.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury has explained why he believes such extra protection is desirable. It clearly would provide a defence against the danger that social workers, in their anxieties to help and support families, can return a child home in circumstances where the risks for that child are unacceptably high. This can happen, but good child care policies and social work practice should effectively prevent it. I have already referred to the action we are taking to see that all authorities have satisfactory arrangements to that end.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the need to get court approval before a child was returned home would ensure not only that the decision was subject to independent scrutiny and detached judgment but that all such cases were fully and properly considered by the local authority before putting their case to the court. The House has to consider carefully whether this approach is the only or the best way of protecting these children and the possible consequential effects. Now is not the time to go into every detail, but I hope it will help the House if I put before it some considerations which we believe are relevant.

First, is the magistrates' court the best place to take decisions of this kind involving what are essentially professional judgments? I suspect that there is no clear answer to this on which all would agree. The Select Committee on Social Services in its 1984 report on children in care was clearly strongly opposed to extending the powers of the court, preferring that it was concerned only with sanctioning legal changes of status, such as the making or unmaking of a care order. Much of the comment we have received on our own child care law review supports that view. This question is one not only of principle, but of practice. How in practice would the magistrates' court deal with such cases? How would they fit in with the traditional adversarial approach to issues in cases where the local authority and the parents were likely to agree to the return of the child? There would surely have to be provision for a guardian ad litem for the child, and, if necessary, separate legal representation. How, in turn, would the conditions proposed by the court be enforced? What would be the consequences of a breach by either parents or the local authority?

Secondly, what might be the effects on social work practice of this provision? Might it not lead to authorities being more reluctant to undertake positive rehabilitation work with children and families because of the inevitable delays and extra work involved in preparing for court hearings, and hence to be a disservice for some children whose best interests will be in a return home? My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury has covered those points and taken a positive view.

Much recent research emphasises the importance of maintaining links with families from an early stage of a care order if long-term prospects for discharging the order are not to be prejudiced. The need is generally for flexible, sensitive and responsive working with families, including the option of returning the child home while still under a care order. Would the delays involved in court proceedings and the inevitable inflexibility of applying specific conditions attached by the court be compatible with that need?

Thirdly, the courts have additional burdens of a wide variety. The clauses as drafted would bite on all children in care, many of whom may not be in care because of parental abuse or neglect. About 12,000 such children live at home at any one time. My hon. Friend said that he would be willing to see the Bill amended to restrict it as far as possible to abused or neglected children. Nevertheless, some problems would still remain. For example, if guardians ad litem for the children had always to be appointed, there would be a problem finding sufficient qualified people. Professional time taken up in court work inevitably means less time to devote to other pressing cases.

Those, then, are some of the questions we need, to address in reaching a view on the merits, or otherwise, of clauses 1 and 2. There is one further point. In the end the quality of any court decision will depend on the quality of the professional work done by social workers and others working with children and their families. Whether or not the Bill becomes law, our chief concern should be to see that standards of professional practice in all cases are as high as possible, and that local authorities are discharging their responsibilities as a "good parent". That is a matter which, as I mentioned earlier, we are already pursuing vigorously with local authorities. A key element in that follow-up is likely to be how decisions that a child should be returned home are taken, the level at which they are taken, and the need for such decisions and subsequent monitoring arrangements to be part of a well-considered plan for the child, following full assessment based on advice from all the agencies concerned, of whom there may be several. This is action which we and local authorities must take, irrespective of the progress of the Bill. It supports my point that the court avenue is not the only, nor necessarily the best way of protecting children at risk.

One final observation on the central proposal of the Bill is that no one is infallable, neither local authorities nor the courts. As the Blom-Cooper report so graphically made clear, and as many hon. Members have pointed out, in that sad case it was the court that initially encouraged the local authority to return Jasmine Beckford home. There was also one tragic affair some years ago — the case of Wayne Brewer—in which the magistrates went against a local authority's wishes by revoking a care order, and the child was subsequently killed.

Clause 3, which provides for appeals in care proceedings to go from the juvenile court to the High Court, rather than to the Crown court, and for local authorities to have a right of appeal, is broadly in line with the recommendations in our review of child care law. The proposal that local authorities should have a right of appeal fills a gap widely recognised as wrong.

Clause 4 would allow the magistrates to make parents and other interested persons full parties in care proceedings, and is again an objective similar to that recommended by the review. The Government are still considering responses to the child care law review and have not yet decided their position on these and other recommendations, so I cannot give a definitive view on the substance of these clauses today. However, I must express some concern about legislating for those specific changes ahead of more comprehensive legislation, in which a consistent coherent approach across the board can be achieved. Questions of court jurisdiction and procedure are more directly the concern of my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor. I believe, however, that they too would prefer that changes in those areas are not made piecemeal, but as part of a wider package. Clause 4, in particular, could have considerable resource consequences for legal aid. One advantage of legislating across the whole spectrum of child care law is that increases in resource costs in one area may be offset by savings elsewhere, while in a partial Bill of this sort it is much less possible to achieve that.

Clause 5, which allows cases of unusual difficulty or length to be transferred from the magistrates' court to the High Court, was not among the recommendations of the child care law review. The apparent objective behind the clause may go some way to providing the more professional approach to care cases that some see as an advantage of a family court. Like clauses 1 and 2, this provision would break new ground in care proceedings, and it would be desirable for the House to know the views of those who would have to operate it. At first sight there are clearly questions to be asked about the criteria and procedure for transferring cases; how they would work in practice; and whether any possible improvement in the quality of decision-making for children would adequately offset the adverse effects on the child and family of delay in reaching court decisions and the trauma of further court appearances. There is a case for deferring legislation of this sort until the prospects for a family court are clearer, though, if there is support for it, I would not rule out the possibility of a measure on these lines in the comprehensive child care Bill that we hope to introduce in due course.

Clause 6 deals with the timing of implementation and, as it stands, seriously underestimates the time needed to introduce the changes proposed. However, that is no doubt a matter which can be considered later, if the Bill proceeds.

I am sorry to have spoken at such length, but the Bill raises important issues. Changes in this area need and deserve the most careful consideration. The Bill is both timely, and untimely. It grapples with issues which have greatly concerned all of us in recent months, and from that point of view it is most timely. But it also comes when we are well advanced with a major review of child care law and when, whatever else may or may not be agreed on, there is almost universal support for the idea of a comprehensive measure, rather than further piecemeal legislation, however well intended or appropriate. We must also beware of the risks of over hasty changes in the law too narrowly focused on specific problems that have been tragically highlighted.

If the House decides to give the Bill a Second Reading, I am sure that much detailed discussion will be necessary in Committee. Some of the questions and reservations which I and many hon. Members have expressed make it clear that we shall have to take those issues a good deal further. I hope that the Government will have a clearer view of what we want to achieve in the major child care law reform having considered the result of the consultation exercise. That may well affect our attitude to the provisions of the Bill at that stage.

Having offered some of our misgivings, for reasons which I hope my hon. Friend will understand, and having emphasised the concrete actions that we have already set in hand to improve practice, I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to end where I began, which is by congratulating him on introducing the Bill, which is certainly important and seeks to deal with an issue of the greatest national concern. I congratulate him, too, on the spirit in which he introduced the Bill.

11.58 am
Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

I apologise to the House for not having been present for the whole of the debate. I intervene briefly because the tragic case of Jasmine Beckford was in my constituency, and, inevitably, I have been heavily involved in it. I congratulate the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on drawing the matter so quickly to our attention after the conclusion of the Blom-Cooper report.

There has been a good deal of common sense in the speeches from both sides of the House, not least from the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims), and it is clear that there is a good deal of consensus. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) on stressing the many important points which she knows from her knowledge of my constituency. The House may not know that for several years my hon. Friend was a worthy member of the Brent community law centre, and consequently advised my constituents about social services and other matters.

In relation to the background to the Beckford case, I had close association with the six area teams involved. If there is an inner city responsibility for social services across the board, including what we are trying to do in the probation service, the wide responsibility of social workers has a great impact on how much and what expertise they can apply to their functions. That forms an important part of the Blom-Cooper report.

I heard the Minister's reply to this timely and untimely Bill. I have sat through many dabates when private Members have had a good cause, but they are like the man who seeks the one-handed lawyer, because, on the one hand, and on the other hand, they are never quite certain which hand they will receive. In relation to the Bill being timely and untimely, I accept that comprehensive legislation must follow, but the likelihood is that the Bill is a step in the right direction. The debate has highlighted several important background issues, not least of which is the framework of family courts and the Scottish experience brought to bear by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). The possibility remains that we need not wait until the t's are crossed and the i's are dotted by the Government's legal department.

The legislative procedure of the House is always under severe pressure from priorities — what Bill shall be introduced this Session and what Bill in the next. I hope, from my impression of today's debate, that the Bill will succeed in reaching the objectives of the hon. Member for Westbury when he had the good luck to come out of the hat.

12.2 pm

Mr. Walters

With the leave of the House, I should like to make a few brief comments on the debate.

There have been several helpful, constructive and well-informed speeches from both sides of the House, which show that my Bill has received considerable support. It has been slightly more qualified from the Front Benches but is supported on the main question of Second Reading.

Hon. Members will agree that most of the points that have been raised can be dealt with in Committee. However, I shall take up one or two of those points without delaying the House too long. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) made a good point about clause 1(4). It would be intolerable for a child to be removed again because of administrative delay. We will consider carefully that matter in Committee, but the key answer is for the application to be in the pipeline in good time.

The hon. Member also mentioned voluntary care. Clause 2 makes it absolutely clear that the provision applies only to children in care under orders or resolutions, so that preoccupation would not arise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) raised two specific matters about children suffering from brittle bone disease and children who have been put into care on medical grounds. Those are sensitive issues and we shall consider them carefully. I cannot give my hon. Friend an answer at the present time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) raised several points, including the definition of "safe", which was also raised by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman). That matter may need redefinition, but, as I said in my speech, if the system is to err it must err on the side of safety. That is a point that we shall consider.

I am grateful for the helpful and well-informed speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) and for Devizes (Mr. Morrison).

The hon. Member for Peckham referred to piecemeal and patchwork legislation. Although the Bill is not meant to be full and comprehensive legislation, it does introduce measures that are specific and which have been carefully worked out. They are important measures and would in no way affect the more comprehensive legislation that will take place in due course.

The hon. Member for Peckham mentioned the Blom-Cooper report and the criticism of the magistrates. It is true that magistrates made a comment, but it was more a throwaway line on the basis that they hoped that the child would be returned to the family as soon as possible. In retrospect, that has been rightly criticised as a mistake. I do not believe that a similar situation would arise if my proposal was agreed to. Here, the magistrates would have to consider carefully whether an order to return a child should be made. I have emphasised the advantages of a detached, but concerned, group of people having to study the case as presented to them by those more closely involved. I believe this to be relevant and important improvement.

My final point is directed to the Minister. Comprehensive legislation eventually could do much better, but there is an old and boring cliché which says that sometimes the best is the enemy of the good. If we believe that the Bill is good, positive and constructive, let us not delay in getting it through the stages, especially if we believe that it has a contribution to make, as I do.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second Time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 42 (Committal of Bills).