HC Deb 02 May 1986 vol 96 cc1223-46

'(1) After section 22 of the Child Care Act 1980 there shall be inserted— "Regulations as to accommodation with parents etc.

22A.—(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision as to the accommodation under the charge and control of a parent, guardian, relative or friend of children who are in the care of a local authority.

(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) above, regulations under this section may—

  1. (a) make provision as to the making by a local authority of a decision to accommodate children under the charge and control of a parent, guardian, relative or friend and, in particular, as to the persons who must be consulted before such a decision is made and the persons to whom notification of any such decision must he given; and
  2. (b) impose requirements on a local authority as to the supervision of medical examination of children in such accommodaton or their removal from such accommodation in such circumstances as may be specified in the regulations.".

(2) In section 85 of that Act (regulations and orders) in subsection (4) after the word "21A" there shall be inserted the words "22, 22A".

(3) In section 43(5) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 (which provides that the exercise by the local authority of their powers under sections 18, 21 and 22 of the Child Care Act 1980 shall be subject to any directions given by the court) for the words "and 22" there shall be substituted the words ", 22 and 22A".'.—[Mr. Whitney.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Whitney

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second Time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following:

New clause 7—Parent's application for care and control

'.—(1) The parent, guardian or custodian of a child in care under an order as specified in subsection (2) of this section may apply to the Juvenile Court for an order that the child he placed in their care and control.

(2) Subsection (1) shall apply to children in care under:

  1. (a) a care order made in the Juvenile Court; or
  2. (b) a resolution under section 3 of the Child Care Act 1980; or
  3. (c) an order under section 2(1) of the Matrimonial Proceedings (Magistrates' Courts) Act 1960 or an order under section 10(1) of the Domestic Proceedings and Magistrates' Courts Act 1978; or
  4. (d) an order under section 2(2)(b) of the Guardianship Act 1973; or
  5. (e) an order under section 17(1)(b) of the Children Act 1975 or section 26(1)(b) of the Adoption Act 1976; or
  6. (f) an order under section 34(5) or section 36(2) or (3)(a) of the Children Act 1975.

(3) This section does not apply to a child in the care of a local authority in consequence of an order made in the High Court.

(4) Subsections (2) to (8) and (10) to (13) of section 1 (as amended) shall apply to this section as they apply to section 1.

(5) The parties to an application under this section shall he the applicant, the local authority and the child and such persons, if any, as the court thinks fit having regard to the welfare of the child and the interests of justice.'.

Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 5, leave out clause 1

No. 2, in clause 1, page 2, line 4 leave out from `(2)' to end of line 5.

No. 3, in page 2, line 7 after 'fit', insert 'and as the relevant social services department certify as practicable'.

No. 4, in page 2, line 14 at end insert 'or the parents or the child.'.

No. 5, in page 2, line 17 leave out from first 'with' to end of line 20, and insert— 'The local authority shall have a duty to remove a child where there is a breach of a condition only if the juvenile court so ordered when making the condition. In any other case the local authority should seek the directions of the Juvenile Court.'.

No. 6, in page 2, line 19, leave out from 'removed' to end of line 20.

No. 7, in page 2, line 23, leave out 'and shall give special attention to the safety of the child'.

No. 8, in page 2, line 26, leave out 'respondents shall be', and insert 'respondent shall be the child and the court shall have power to join as parties'.

No. 9, in page 2, line 26, leave out from 'be' to end of line 28 and insert 'the child and the parents and such other persons (if any) as the court thinks fit having regard for the welfare of the child and in the interests of justice'.

No. 10, in page 2, line 36, leave out subsection (11).

No. 11, in page 2, line 42, leave out 'not exceeding seven days'.

No. 12, in page 2, line 43, leave out 'seven' and insert 'thirty'.

No. 13, in page 3, line 7, leave out clause 2.

No. 14, in clause 2, page 3, line 17, leave out from second 'if' to 'and' in line 22, and insert 'the court is satisfied that— (a) the child has been, or another child in the same household has been, subjected to serious physical injury or sexual abuse,'.

No. 15, in page 3, line 24, leave out 'the relevant local authority' and insert 'any of the parties'.

No. 16, in page 3, line 26, at end insert— `(3) An appeal from any direction of a Juvenile Court made under subsection (1)(ii) above shall lie to a Judge of the High Court Family Division and such appeal shall be by way of a fresh hearing of evidence.'.

No. 30, in clause 7, page 5, line 29, leave out subsections (1) and (2).

No. 31, in page 5, line 33, at end insert— '(2A) Section [Regulations as to accommodation at home of children in care] above shall come into force on such date as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint.'.

Mr. Whitney

I may have to delay the House a little on this group of amendments because it is a substantive change, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) will be the first to agree. It is the essence of the debate that we have had not only this morning but in Committee and on Second Reading.

There is no doubt about the objective that we all share. Child abuse represents an abhorrent challenge to society. Our search is for practical steps to prevent it as far as possible and to protect children. Equally, we all accept that it is an insufficient response, in terms of the welfare of the child, simply to ensure that an abused child is kept safe by never returning him to his parents. If that were an adequate response, the responsibility of child care agencies would be much more straightforward.

The reality is that in many cases the needs and wishes of the child will best be met by a return to the natural parents or parent and the advantages of restoring and reestablishing those natural relationships will be seen as justifying such a step, even though the possibility of risk to the child cannot be entirely eliminated. So the agencies responsible for child care cannot simply pursue a safety-at-all-costs policy. They have to be prepared—in the interests of the child and in the right circumstances—to make balanced decisions, weighing carefully and professionally all the evidence and opinion available to them, which may necessarily involve some measure of risk. The debate that we shall have about new clause 5 and on the amendments to delete clauses 1 and 2 is essentially about how those decisions can and should best be made in the interests of the children concerned, not whether they should be made at all.

It will help our debate if I begin by referring to clauses 1 and 2. Those two clauses have taken up most of the time of the House both on Second Reading and in Committee. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury has regarded them as the central feature of his Bill. The clauses were supported in Committee, but concerns were expressed about whether the role envisaged for the courts was appropriate, about the practical effects on children in care, and about whether it would in practice achieve its primary purpose of protecting children who might be abused if returned home on trial.

Since the Committee my hon. Friend has been kind enough to have several discussions with me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. In those discussions we have been able to go into our reservations about his clauses and also let him know of the results of the wide-ranging consultations we have had since the Committee stage with bodies representing local authority, social work, legal and voluntary child care interests to ascertain their views on the proposals and on the Bill as amended in Committee. I shall not give details of those reservations today or elaborate at length on the comments from interested organisations—for reasons that I hope to make clear a little later. But I must summarise again the main reservations that we have, as I believe it important, when we are all anxious to do what is right in the interests of children, that it should be clear why the Government do not feel able to support a measure which was so clearly intended to benefit children.

Our reasons, in brief, are these. The first relates to delay. The imposition of a requirement on the local authority to go back to court, in the circumstances specified in the Bill, before returning a child in its care home on trial will inevitably lead to lengthy delays before cases can be heard. That is especially so as the Bill now provides for the court to be able to appoint a guardian ad litem for the child, and the demand for guardians in care proceedings is already leading to delays. Delay in decision making for the children in question can be particularly damaging and have long-term consequences, reducing prospects for successful return home of the child or other settled placement.

Secondly, we have concerns that the very making of a direction under clause 2 could discourage local authorities from attempting rehabilitation and lead to an undesirable categorisation of children in care. Alternatively, they may seek prematurely to discharge a care order without a prior period home on trial.

Thirdly, the imposition of conditions by the court which would apply until altered by the court would restrict the local authority's ability to respond flexibly and professionally to the child's and the family's needs and to optimise the use of its resources to help all the children in its care.

In addition to those practical objections, we have reservations about the principle of court involvement in the decisions. Courts must, of course, make and discharge care orders. They involve the transfer of legal rights between parents and local authorities and are often strongly disputed. Such decisions cannot be left to local authorities to take without there being a possibility of challenge and the case taken to court for a decision. The decision by the local authority to return a child home on trial while subject to a care order is different in character, although not necessarily less important from a child welfare angle, because there is no transfer of legal rights—the local authority remains responsible in law for the child as its legal parent and, unlike most care order proceedings, there is no dispute to be resolved between parents and local authority, so no need for a third party to settle the matter.

The argument that the court authorised the removal from home and that, therefore, the court is an appropriate forum to authorise the return is a misunderstanding of the rationale of care proceedings. Such decisions are more appropriate for the local authority, as part of its responsibility under the law to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child, than for the courts.

Following what I have said, there can be no certainty that involving the courts in sanctioning return home on trial will prevent such children from subsequently being abused. We would never know whether the clauses had their desired effects. We would know in how many cases the courts refused to sanction return home, but not what might have happened had they allowed the child to return. However, we can be more certain that the delays and restrictions which the clauses would impose on the good professional management of cases would damage the interests of many children in care, which I know is the opposite of what my hon. Friend wishes to achieve. It is clear from the consultations that we have undertaken since the Committee stage that our reservations about clauses 1 and 2 are widely shared by a broad spectrum of organisations.

Of course, many organisations advanced as part of their cases the belief that it would be wrong to have further piecemeal legislation adding yet more complexity to what is already recognised as an area of law where the need is for greater consistency and clarity. Many said that it would be especially undesirable to do so at a time when the Government are known to be considering a comprehensive major reform of the law, following the extensive review that we initiated at the end of last year. But there was no evidence from the consultations we have undertaken that the organisations concerned would like provisions on the lines of those in clauses 1 and 2 to be incorporated into the comprehensive legislation that we plan to introduce. Indeed, the reverse is the case. The consensus is that the clauses would not necessarily achieve the objectives the sponsors of the Bill wish, but would be potentially damaging to the interests of many children in care along the lines that I have described.

In our discussions with my hon. Friend, he acknowledged and took note of the views of the Government and of the bodies that we have consulted. On the understanding that the new clause to provide the Secretary of State with a regulation-making power is added to the Bill, I understand that he is now willing not to oppose the amendments to delete clauses 1 and 2. In a moment, I shall discuss the substance and purpose of the new clause, but first I wish to place on record my sincere appreciation of my hon. Friend's willingness to listen with an open mind to the views that have been put to him and his willingness at this late stage to accede to the argument that an alternative approach should be followed, despite his strong personal commitment to the idea of an independent check through the courts.

The alternative approach to which I referred starts from the premise that the right way to promote the welfare of abused children is, in broad terms, through improving the performance of the local authorities which are statutorily charged with that task. There can be no satisfactory external substitute for the involvement of experienced staff acting within a well-considered framework of policies directed towards and centred on the welfare of the child.

We shall soon publish a draft guide for local agencies on working together in dealing with child abuse, and the report of inspection by the social services inspectorate of assessment by social workers of children who have been at risk of abuse and the supervision of social workers handling child abuse cases. That inspection focused on work with children placed home on trial. Both documents in their different ways will, we hope, help local authorities to improve practices and procedures where a child is returned home on trial, in respect of the decision itself and the subsequent arrangements for the care and well-being of the child at home, including health, growth, and development. Both documents reinforce the need for professionals working with the child and family to remain child-centred, and always to have the welfare of the child as their first consideration, as the law requires.

12.15 pm
Mr. Lawrence

Were there no regulations, restrictions, guidance or a framework for supervision before the Jasmine Beckford case?

Mr. Whitney

Of course there were, and there was a great deal of experience, but the experience is developing and lessons are being learnt. We may argue about this, but the Jasmine Beckford case in no way supported the suggestion that magistrates get the answers right and social workers get them wrong. Mistakes can be made in any area. We are anxious to strengthen the professionals working in this area, although neither I nor any member of the Government would suggest that we have found perfection. We must continually strive to co-operate and educate and to ensure that the best practice, which is very good, is spread and becomes the norm. That must be the way forward.

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will be reassured if I say that the Government do not believe that there is no place for the further involvement of the law in these matters. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services announced that following extensive consultations on their child care law review the Government intend to introduce a comprehensive Bill on child care law as soon as parliamentary time allows. That Bill is likely to include some changes specifically aimed at increasing the powers of local authorities and the courts to protect children who may be at risk.

The Government broadly share the views of those who have argued that, pending the introduction of comprehensive legislation, there should be no more piecemeal changes in what is already a complex and confusing legal framework, but the opportunity provided by this Bill gives us scope for making limited changes where they can sensibly be made ahead of a major Bill. The new clause to which I shall now speak falls into that category.

The new clause would give the Secretary of State power to make regulations in respect of the discharge of the responsibilities by local authorities for children in their care where a return home on trial is contemplated. The lack of such a power to make regulations in this area is clearly anomalous as powers already exist, and are exercised, to regulate arrangements made by local authorities for other placements for children in care—in children's homes or boarded out with foster parents. The regulation power proposed by the clause will cover not only placements at home with parents, but placements with other relatives and friends not covered by the boarding-out regulations. It would apply in respect of all children in care regardless of the reasons for their entry into care.

Subsection (2)(a) would enable requirements to be set governing the way in which decisions are taken to return a child home on trial. That would enable requirements to be laid down, for example, to ensure that the local authority always obtained the views of the health authority where it had been concerned with the child, and that other interested persons—for example, foster parents and concerned relatives—were formally notified of the intention to return a child home and could have an opportunity to comment before any decision was put into effect. This subsection would be wide enough also to provide for some involvement of local authority members in the decision-making process, should it be thought desirable. I stress that the Government have reached no view about that at this stage.

Subsection (2)(b) would enable the regulations to cover matters such as the arrangements for the supervision by the authority of the children concerned and for securing regular monitoring of their health as well as their social well-being.

The detailed content of the regulations would, in the usual way, be the subject of consultation with local authority and other interests before they were made. It would be important to strike the right balance between providing for the desirable degree of legal requirement to support and promote good practice in all cases, and being over-prescriptive in ways which would hamper the local authority's ability to act flexibly and responsibly to the requirements of the individual circumstances. I hope that our consultations will help to get this balance right. However, I am sure that there is a sound prospect here of providing what I described earlier as a valuable statutory underpinning of good professional practice, and of reducing the possibility of standards of decision-making and practice falling below acceptable levels in any individual cases.

The Government accordingly believe that regulations to govern return home on trial can play a positive and useful role in improving the prospects both of improved child protection and positive work for rehabilitation. In the Government's view, this is the right way ahead, rather than seeking an increased role for the courts in local authority arrangements of individual cases.

I speak in favour of amendments Nos. 1 and 13, which leave out the existing clauses 1 and 2 respectively, and of amendments Nos. 30 and 31, which provide for the new clause to come into force by order made by statutory instrument. I do not wish to take up the time of the House by discussion of new clause 7, which seems to suffer from the same objections as clauses 1 and 2, or the other amendments bracketed with it which concern the existing clauses 1 and 2, which I hope the House will decide to drop. I commend new clause 5 to the House.

Mr. Walters

Any hon. Member who has followed the need for legislation is anxious to see the introduction of speedy comprehensive legislation. The Minister referred to it and said that it would come soon. I believe what he says, and hope that it will come very soon. We shall follow the progress with much interest.

I greatly regret that the Minister's new clause will negate and replace the original clause 1, although the scope of that clause was considerably redefined and restricted in Committee. I still believe, as do many hon. Members from all parts of the House, that the reintroduction of the magistrates court to review in certain limited and specific cases, and only when the magistrates making the original care order had so decreed, the decision taken by a local authority to return a child in care to the home from which it had been removed by court order on grounds of cruelty, neglect and moral danger, would have had a significant and beneficial effect. It would have introduced an experienced body of people, detached from the case under consideration, to review a decision taken by a group of people closely associated and involved, and, on certain occasions, too closely involved, both with the child and all members of its family.

I remain convinced that such a review by a judicial body detached from the in-house atmosphere of the decision taken by social workers would have been salutary. Moreover, in a small but significant number of cases, it would have provided an important additional safeguard for the child, although I accept that in some other cases, perhaps more numerous, it might have slowed the process of the return of the child.

In Committee my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) were the only two Members present to vote against the clause. However, despite the sympathetic hearing given to me and some of my hon. Friends by the Minister and Secretary of State, we failed in our efforts to persuade his Department.

I also had to take account of the fact that, although I received widespread popular backing for the measure, the wholehearted support and valuable assistance of the Family Law Bar Association, and, in private, the support of a number of senior judges, the Law Society and several other organisations concerned with child welfare did not accept the strength and validity of our argument about magistrates courts. Perhaps I may say how much the Bill owes to the enormous work and help given by the Family Law Bar Association, particularly by Mr. Robert Johnson, QC and Mr. James Holman.

There is a certain illogicality in accepting that magistrates should make the original court order which places a child in care, and the need recently announced by the Lord Chancellor for expanding training for magistrates dealing with care orders, but not accepting their competence to deal with the limited number of cases to which I have referred. Perhaps the daughter of the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) will agree with that. Logical or not, that was the position that my supporters and I had to face. Therefore, we agreed that it would be sensible in the circumstances to accept the Government's amendments, thus preserving other valuable proposals in the Bill.

Although more limited and different in character, the proposals in the Government's new clause provide useful additions to the present state of the law which will considerably strengthen the protection of children at risk within the existing parameters.

Although the clause introduced by the Government differs substantially from the proposals which I envisaged when drafting the original clause, I am wholly satisfied that a considerable improvement will have been achieved as a result of its introduction. Therefore, I welcome it.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

I speak as a lay person on the Bill, but I wish to make a number of points.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on the hard and sincere work which he has done on the Bill and on his attitude towards it, which was illustrated by his speech. I can hardly wait for the family courts which the Minister has promised us. They are a major step forward, and I hope that the Minister's deeds will be as good as his words because those courts are the essential missing link.

I am particularly glad that grandparents and others in the family will come within the Bill's provisions. I believe that the new clause will give force to making provision for accommodation for children. After all, they are our primary concern. But there is also provision for parents, guardians and friends to be involved in proper consultation and supervision.

12.30 pm

We are discussing this issue because authorities often inadvertently neglect their responsibilities. I would hesitate to say that we are talking about only a few cases. There are probably more than we know about, and many cases probably exist under the surface and do not come to light. If new clause 5 means improved supervision, and that we can reach some of those cases under the surface, we will have made a substantial step forward.

The guidelines are being laid down, and the Secretary of State will impose requirements on local authorities to ensure that they follow them. If that too means the more effective supervision of children, I welcome that step and recognise it as an improvement to the Bill.

Mr. Lawrence

I rise to oppose the new clause and its attendant amendments, and to voice my strong objection to the Government's effective decimation of an eminently sensible, necessary and widely supported Bill, which I have had the privilege of sponsoring. It is widely supported not only in the House but in the country.

I do not blame my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) for accepting the situation. If he had not done so, the entire Bill would have been lost, and saving something good is better than losing everything good. Those of us who are concerned about child welfare and the need to stop Jasmine Beckford-type cases recurring greatly appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury has chosen this subject for his Bill from among many other important subjects for legislation. He has, moreover, pursued the Bill with great skill and determination.

But I do blame the Government for what is, in effect, a craven surrender to the pressure of the social workers' lobby. As a result, a measure will be rejected that might otherwise have slightly but intelligently extended the rule of law. Both these effects are as unlikely manifestations of the Government of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as it is possible to imagine.

Mr. Whitney

Does my hon. and learned Friend believe that the Law Society has been recruited by what he describes as the social workers' lobby? Can he explain the role of the magistrates in the Jasmine Beckford case? Was he happy with their role then, and does he believe that it justifies his case now?

Mr. Lawrence

I shall mention the magistrates shortly. However, my hon. Friend the Minister is quite right—I bracket the Law Society with the Government for their craven surrender to the pressures of the social workers' lobby.

Ms. Harman

In his list of those craven people who have surrendered to the social workers' lobby, does the hon. and learned Gentleman include the Association of County Councils, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Justices Clerks' Society, the Magistrates Association, the Children's Legal Centre, the Law Society, the Association of Directors of Social Services and numerous other organisations? Have they, too, suddenly and most uncharacteristically been led by the nose by social workers?

Mr. Lawrence

The social welfare workers' organisations are very persuasive. They have considerable influence over local authorities, because they are advised by social services officers. Social services officers have close and necessary liasion on a day-to-day basis with social workers. It should come as no surprise to the hon. Lady that a few people who feel strongly about an issue and who are in close day-to-day contact with those who have to take the wider decisions can influence them. We all know that that happens, and it has clearly happened in this case.

I object to what the Government are doing for four reasons. First, what they are doing is contrary to the wishes of the majority of our constituents—the very people who sent us to Parliament. They trust the courts but they do not always trust social workers. They admire and value the dedication of social workers, as we all do, but they do not always trust them to operate without adequate supervision and control. They do not trust them to act without proper control because they read about cases such as that of Jasmine Beckford. There are rules and regulations, a framework for action and a structure for adequate supervision and yet, left to the devices of the social workers, these poor babies and children are abused and their lives destroyed.

That is because the system as it exists is inadequately supervised and controlled. That may be because social workers are under extreme pressure through the size of their caseload—some people are not able to make proper judgments when they are under supreme pressure. Or it may be because they become friendly with, close to, sympathetic to and committed to the families concerned. I do not blame them for that, for anyone would do so in any circumstances. However, it means that the system as it has hitherto operated has been shown to be inadequate, and gravely and tragically inadequate in some instances.

The people support the idea that there is a need for the court to supervise social workers' actions. That is not because the court left to itself would know best. As the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) said, the court would not have the necessary experience, despite all the training programmes, to make decisions on its own. However, the courts would make decisions on the advice of social workers, tested by others who have representations to make, and it would act as an objective filter, a protection or a final test, before potentially harmful and risky decisions were taken.

I believe that that is what the people understand to be the function of the magistrates court in child welfare cases. I believe that the people wanted a Bill to take account of that. That is why I think that the Government are going contrary to the people's wishes.

Secondly, what the Government are doing is contrary to the wishes of the House, which on 31 January granted a Second Reading to a Bill which contained the very provision that is now being snuffed out. The very essence of the original Bill was to give the magistrates court which made the care order the power to decide whether the child, the subject of the care order, should be returned to parents whose behaviour has resulted in the state's protection to the child being given in the first place.

When the Government first showed signs of beginning to crumble at the behest of the care organisations and the social welfare workers' lobby in Committee—and the Law Society, for which I hold no brief, financial or otherwise—my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury offered a compromise—always look for the compromise. My hon. Friend offered a sensible compromise that had the effect that cases would be referred to the magistrates court if the magistrate who made the original care order stipulated that that should happen before the child was allowed home. The good sense of that compromise was that it ensured that in the most worrying cases magistrates could reserve to themselves the right to reconsider the case.

The Government rejected even that compromise. As a result, they had to suffer two indignities. The first indignity was that of being defeated on a vote by their own supporters, who were reflecting the will of the House on Second Reading. The second indignity was having as their only supporter the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman)—as bizarre a union between my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Lady as it is possible to conceive of in this astonishing place. By overruling the Committee's decision today, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is clearly going against the wishes of the House.

My third objection to the Government's emasculation of the Bill is that they are concentrating almost total power, subject only to some relatively small although perhaps important improvements that my hon. Friend is to make, in the hands of the social workers. The Government have done this, despite the fact that in a few but nevertheless important cases social workers have been found wanting. That is why, alone, I believe among Government Back-Benchers, I went into the Lobby in support of new clause 1 because it gave to the courts the power to consider all matters with a little more care and thoroughness.

If the social worker lobby had accepted its errors and taken full responsibility to purge its lapses by a self-regulating reform of the system, perhaps one could have had more confidence in it. However, in the Jasmine Beckford case, some of the social workers tried to blame what they did on the juvenile court that had made the care order. In his hardly completely objective or unbiased report, Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper said that they were misled by the chairman of the court having said that it was hoped that the child would be returned—

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Lawrence

Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to finish this point. If the people that we are about to trust with unfettered power and judgment cannot recognise that a statement from the chairman of a bench was no more than a gesture of long-term hope and optimism, the court having taken the child away from its parents, it cannot fill us with much confidence about the judgment of social workers.

It is manifestly clear that on that occasion the Willesden juvenile court said that the child must go into care, that the social workers would give the matter their urgent, continuing attention and that one day it was hoped that things would be better and the child would be able to return home. That is not the same as saying that the child must be returned at the earliest possible moment, perhaps to be put at risk, without considering whether the parents were fitted enough to have the child back, since they had been responsible for the damage to the child that resulted in the care order. For social workers, or anybody speaking for them, to say that it was not really their fault because the court had given a strong indication that at the earliest possible moment Jasmine Beckford should be returned to her home was a distortion of any moderate and objective reading of the situation.

The social worker organisation is wonderful, but it needs to be controlled, like any other organisation that is closely connected with the wrongdoing section of our society. The same applies to a probation officer when he gives evidence in court. However many armed robberies there may have been, or however many serious assaults may have been committed, a very responsible probation officer can usually be found to say, "Poor fellow, he had a bad childhood and he has a bad past. He is trying to put it all behind him, but he lost his temper. The proper sentence is to put him under care, where we can keep an eye on him." We understand why probation officers sometimes come to that conclusion, but it brings home to those of us who are involved in the law the necessity for another body to make an objective judgment over and above the opinion of a witness that is so committed to the individual concerned that their judgment may for the time being be clouded as far as the wider interests of society or the particular interests of the child are concerned. After all, social workers cannot talk to very young children. They cannot say to the baby of one or two years, "Would you like to go back to your parents?" They hear only one side of the story, and it is very difficult to assume that always, in every case, even the best-meaning social worker will not make a misjudgment.

12.45 pm

Of course social workers do not like to have their empire interfered with—nobody likes that. That is one of the forces of behaviour with which we incessantly come to grips in this place. That is all the more reason why we should be careful before we accord to them the absolute powers as this emasculated Bill now more or less does. Social workers want to keep their power—the question is whether it is wise to let them.

My final objection to what the Government are doing is that their stated justifications seem to be without much substance. It is said that the social workers are more professional than the lay magistrates in child care. That is true, and if the Bill gave to the courts the power to examine, check and filter before deciding to return the child to the parents' care, with no part played by the social worker, I should not support it. However, we are talking about the court acting on the advice of the social worker and after testing that advice against other people's representation, and the court applying its objective experience and good sense to the problem.

It was said in a letter to The Times of 19 March 1986 by Mr. Blom-Cooper, who conducted the panel of inquiry into the Jasmine Beckford case: In our view, the experience of Jasmine Beckford's death—and some others—is that magistrates in juvenile courts lack the necessary professionalism to be able to make the difficult judgments which have to balance the risk of future abuse against the need to reunite families. If it is not too technical for magistrates to decide whether a child should he taken away in the first place, why is it too technical for magistrates to be able to decide whether the child should be returned to the parents? My hon. Friend the Minister said that that point is a misunderstanding of the mysteries of the child care world and what it is about. That is manifest nonsense—it is gobbledegook to protect empires. There is no substance in the criticisms that magistrates are technically incapable of making the second part of the decision once they are capable of making the first part.

It is then said that the Bill that was given a Second Reading would mean delays before a child properly returnable to his parents could be allowed so to do. However, if there are delays it will be because it is better to be careful, thorough and safe than to be sorry. It may be that there would be delays, although there are shorter delays in the magistrates courts than in the High Court, and that the magistrates courts delays can be speeded up. A priority could be given to cases of reconsideration of a care order. It is not necessary that such a case should go to the end of every list, and that one should have to wait for two, three or four months before the matter is reconsidered, but it is conceded that there will be delays. If those delays lead to thorough and careful reconsideration they will be well worth having.

It is said by some that the Bill with its original clauses 1 and 2 is a piecemeal change in the law and therefore bad. I agree that reforming the law in a piecemeal way is not ideal. Even the Minister agreed with that. Some of the Bill's opponents say that it is better to wait for comprehensive reform of the child welfare law than to tinker. If they wait for comprehensive change, they have a long wait coming. I asked the Minister earlier whether he could guarantee that such legislation would be introduced within the lifetime of this Parliament. He could not give that guarantee. Still less can he guarantee that such comprehensive changes will come in the lifetime of the next Parliament, or of the Parliament after that.

We have been waiting for years for family courts. We have been waiting for years for comprehensive legislation. Since we must wait for years and years for the comprehensive, we must do the piecemeal. We never object to that. Most of the Government's legislation is piecemeal. The argument that it is better not to have the piecemeal but to wait indefinitely for the comprehensive might end in the deaths of more Jasmine Beck fords throughout the country. That is wholly and utterly undesirable.

The Government's action in effectively killing the substance of the Bill has saddened me because it has been done with little or no justification. I forbear from dividing the House only because that would take up valuable time which my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) might need for his important and widely supported Bill and because I have a feeling that not sufficient hon. Members are here to ensure that the Bill survives if we divide against it.

I hope that the Government will have second thoughts and that if they do not have second thoughts of their own volition the noble Lords in another place will have second thoughts for them. If they do, a measure that has the support, not only of the House of Commons on Second Reading, but of the people in the country, a sensible, wise and intelligent improvement in the law will be restored and a measure that has the support of the whole House of Commons will go on to the statute book. I hope that the original measure is not yet wholly dead.

Mr. Mikardo

The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has a well-deserved reputation as a doughty fighter in the House, in the courts and in other forums. Today he engaged—it was quite a performance—in two separate civil wars. He engaged in a civil war between hon. Members on the Government Benches and in a civil war between various eminent people and various branches of the legal profession. I do not wish to interfere in any of those quarrels, certainly not in the quarrel between the stratospheric lawyers. I am a mere mortal, groping around in the foothills. Who am I to pass judgment upon the legal immortals sitting at the top of Mount Olympus?

I was puzzled by one part of the hon. and learned Member's speech. He began and ended by telling us what the people of the country want. I wondered what his authority was for saying that. I wondered whether he conducted a referendum and how he took the census. We all tend to judge subjectively from what we hear in our constituencies and at our surgeries.

I have heard a lot of criticism of social workers in relation to child care cases. However, I have heard many more of my constituents complaining about the behaviour of the courts. In both cases, no doubt, their views were affected by subjective considerations. So I reckon that I do not know what the people want, and that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not know either. It was uncharacteristically pretentious for him to pretend that he does.

Unlike the hon. and learned Member for Burton, I believe that the new clause improves the Bill. It still has some defects, but it will be better for the inclusion of the clause. If I had any reservations about voting for the Third Reading of the original Bill, I have few, if any, about voting for the amended version.

I agree with almost everything that the Minister said, but one passage worried me. I am not sure that I heard him aright, because he was galloping along at a fair old pace. He reminded me of a colt running its first race in a five furlong maiden on hard going. However, if I did not misunderstand the Minister, he cast doubt on whether any say in these matters should be given to the elected members of a local authority who serve on the social services committee. If the Minister said that, I disagree with him.

I said earlier that I have great regard for the overwhelming majority of social workers and directors of social services, but we must not get away from the principle that all local authority officers, like all officers of Government Departments, must be subject to the supervision and control of the elected representatives of the people. Otherwise, we shall slip out of being a democracy and into being a bureacracy.

Eighteen amendments have been selected for debate with the new clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) and I are responsible for seven of those amendments, but if the first—to delete clause 1—is accepted, the other six will fall, so I shall not waste the time of the House by referring to them, except to say that the fact that it was possible reasonably to table so many amendments to a single clause demonstrates that the drafting of that clause was defective. I join the Minister in saying farewell to it without pangs of regret.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo). I have much more sympathy for his judgment on these matters than for his judgment on the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill). I should like to feel that the hon. Gentleman's judgments on those two issues are not related.

I have great sympathy with the arguments of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) who put the case for those of us who felt strongly in Committee that clause 1 should remain in the Bill. However, I take issue with what my hon. and learned Friend said about the responsibilities of social workers and the way in which they conducted themselves.

The British Association of Social Workers was among the first to come forward with a detailed and rigorous code of practice for social workers in child abuse cases. It included not pious words, but ways of managing and enforcing the practice set out in the code.

1 pm

Some of us felt extremely strongly about the court that had had a part to play in the difficult decision to return to his home the child who had already been subjected to injury, abuse or moral danger in his home. We felt that the matter should go back before the court for approval. We did so for a number of reasons. I acknowledge that we failed to convince not only the Government but the many well-meaning voluntary organisations which play a part in influencing public opinion. Perhaps we must take some responsibility for not having worked harder to explain our reasons and thinking behind the steps we took.

I accept the concern about delays. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton that, if there is a will, there is a way, and that the problem can be overcome. I am concerned about the cut-off period of seven days. A child can be returned home up until seven days without returning to court. It has been put to me that the increase takes place gradually. A child who has been going home regularly for two, three or four days may decide that he wants to stay for seven days. In that event, the court has to give approval. I recognise that parents have weight in that respect. Approval would have to be obtained from the court if older children at boarding school want to go home during the holidays. I can see the sense in that.

I find it difficult to understand why the Government were unable to agree to the court setting conditions for the return home. In the review of child care law, great weight was put on the desirability of enhancing a supervision order so that requirements set down by the court can be made in the supervision order. For example, the supervisor should be informed of the child's address, the supervisor should have access to the child, the child should be medically examined, the child should comply with the supervisor's directions to attend at specified places for specified activities, the child should receive medical and psychiatric treatment where necessary, and the child should comply with directions on education.

That recommendation of the child care law review would allow great intervention of the court in the future treatment of a child. It has been suggested that half a loaf is better than no loaf at all and that, if we can move some way at this stage, perhaps when we come forward with comprehensive proposals there will be greater scope for encouraging the court's intervention.

There is another area in which I feel the court makes a valuable contribution. Too much is made of the Beckford case in the sense that there were faults on all sides. Of course, the magistrate should never have said, "We hope that you will be reunited," or whatever. That was straightforward bad practice. I am pleased that the Lord Chancellor is setting up a training scheme for juvenile court magistrates. It has been made abundantly clear that the magistrates' advice was unwanted and unuseful.

One cannot help but say that the social worker involved in the case failed to see the child on her own. One cannot fulfil one's parental obligations as the representative of a local authority if one fails to see the child for whom one is discouraging those responsibilities alone.

I believe that it would be of value to have an independent hearing prior to the child returning home. I accept that we have to find different ways of achieving that. It would be an independent element hearing all the evidence and information. I shall make a few comments on the way in which that can be achieved.

Mr. Lawrence

My hon. Friend has put her finger on the real value of a court. The first question that a court would have asked in the Jasmine Beckford case was, "When did you last see the child at the home?" The answer would have been, "I have not seen the child at the home." It is inconceivable that the court would then have allowed Jasmine Beckford to go home to her parents until the matter had been looked into further. My hon. Friend has put her finger on a wonderful example of the value of the judicial process as a test.

Mrs. Bottomley

If my hon. and learned Friend will bear with me, my understanding is that the child had been seen before she returned home. The incident occurred when the child was at home under the care order. If it were a condition that the child attended a medical examination, that would ensure that the child was seen. A court hearing would have the value of ensuring that there was a thorough reappraisal of the history of the case, the factors concerned and the personalities involved.

We are being encouraged to move down the line of regulations. I believe that there is a need for an independent element. It is abundantly clear that a case or review conference cannot be chaired by a person with management responsibility for the person implementing the decision. It cannot be chaired by the supervisor of the social worker concerned. A person with direct management responsibility for the key worker would not be able to separate himself from resource issues and many other local variables.

A person with a supervisory responsibility for the work involved would be subject to exactly the same procedure identified by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton—great emotional identification with the family, which could sometimes cloud his judgment. We have all identified the fact that that emotional identification with and feeling for the family is one of the best tools for helping the family to improve and get over its difficulties. We should not regard it as distinctly unprofessional.

I am extremely wary about any suggestion that the independent element on the review should be an elected representative of the local authority. I am deeply concerned about recent reports of too much political interference of the most destructive sort in social work practice. We all know about cases in which racial issues have become involved, global aspirations about racial values applied and social workers questioned about particular cases. That is not helpful.

The only aspect which we are not covering in any way is what the parents make of the events and their responsibilities and whether they feel that they have been given a fair hearing. If I had an overall critcism of the voluntary organisations which have responded to the Bill, it would be that they seem to have little understanding of the perplexity of many parents about the way in which decisions are made behind closed doors by do-gooders who, in the parents' view, have already made up their minds. A court hearing on this vital decision would, first, make the parents realise that all the issues had been considered fully and fairly and, secondly, spell out to the parents their responsibilities and the seriousness of the matter.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, in bringing forward the regulations, will consider the way in which parents will be formally addressed—whether there is to be a formal meeting in the local authority's offices, whether there is to be a document setting out the details in writing and whether an official will have the job of emphasising the seriousness of the matter. In some senses, such a formal meeting would have the weight of a court hearing with the parents. It would be similar to police cautioning in the juvenile bureau. Some ceremony would be attached to the procedures. I believe that that would be helpful.

We are being encouraged to follow what one would have to call boarding-in regulations. We shall have to see how they, together with the review of child care law, develop concrete proposals. I regret that the Bill has not been able to move in the direction that we had hoped. I also recognise that that is apparently because we failed to convince a great number of others who are as anxious as ourselves to see that child care practice and provision for abused children should be improved.

Ms. Richardson

I want to speak only to new clause 7 which is down in my name. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) has said, the amendments that we have down will become redundant if, as we expect, clause 1 goes. New clause 7 has a slightly different principle, but the Minister dismissed it in his closing sentence when he said that it was subject to some of the same objections as clause 1. Perhaps it is, but I confess to being a lay person and I do not know whether it is or not.

New clause 7 was drafted by the Family Rights Group which saw it as an extension of the principle contained in clause 1. The existing clause 1 gives the court the power to decide whether or not a child should be placed at home on trial. It is just and logical that the court should exercise this power following applications from families as well as from local authorities.

A common problem faced by children in families is that the local authority does not do the work which would enable the child in care to return home. Although children and parents can apply to discharge orders, the courts are understandably reluctant to discharge an order unless a child is already living at home and the process of rehabilition has been shown to work. If a care order is discharged before any rehabilitation work is started, the child will go home without any preparation and there will be little support or supervision.

The child care law review working party was also aware of this problem, as I am sure the Minister knows. As a result, it recommended that a juvenile court should be able to make orders for phased rehabilitation. We think that new clause 7 is in line with that recommendation. Although I shall not press it, I should like to place it on record that it is intended as a helpful addition to the previous clause 1 of the Bill which, we expect, will now go in favour of the Minister's new clause.

Mr. Sims

I spoke strongly on Second Reading and in Committee in support of clauses 1 and 2 and I do not propose to repeat what I said on those occasions. In any event, the arguments have been well deployed by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). It is a pity that the clauses are to be dropped. They would have offered additional protection to the child and to the social worker. That is an aspect that has not been considered.

It is a pity that a number of the organisations to which my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) has referred seem to have misunderstood or misinterpreted that which my hon. Friend and his colleagues were trying to do in clauses 1 and 2. Of course, one cannot entirely ignore the strength of the recommendations that they made. I was more impressed by some of their representations than by the case advanced by my hon. Friend the Minister. I am bound to say that his arguments against the clauses did not hold up. I argued against him in Committee and will not repeat my arguments here. He says they introduce the principle of court involvement in these decisions. That is exactly what they do and exactly what we are arguing there should be. Again, I do not need to repeat all the arguments because we have heard them all in this debate. There is perhaps a philosophical difference between us about how cases of this sort should be heard.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton spoke of the Bill being decimated. I would go further and say that the heart is being torn from it. I admire and commend the gracious manner in which my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury has taken the way in which the Bill has been treated. The heart having been torn from it, the transplant is modest, but at least it is better than losing the Bill altogether. The proposals that have been made are an improvement on the present situation. While I accept them, I do not do so with great enthusiasm.

1.15 pm
Ms. Harman

It is right that clause 1 should be deleted and that new clause 5 should be inserted. That will improve the Bill. None the less, I am unhappy about the situation in which we are discussing new clause 5. The measure is small when one considers the comprehensive framework of child care law. My criticism is that we are discussing it rather than the comprehensive review. However, that is not a criticism of the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters), by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a criticism of the Government. It is not the fault of the hon. Member for Westbury that he has not introduced legislation giving effect to the child care law review. As a private Member, he is not able to do so. But it is wrong that we should be discussing only the returning home of a child or regulations on accommodation at home of a child in care. We are not allowed to decide on access, revocation or discharge of orders. That has to wait. If the Government had had the political will, they could have brought comprehensive child care legislation before the House, but they simply lack the political will to do so.

I fear very much that nothing we have heard from the Minister gives us any reason to hope that we shall get a child care law review in the lifetime of this Parliament. That will be a great disappointment to all those who want to see a comprehensive improvement. It will also be a great disappointment to all the organisations and people who have worked so hard to achieve a consensus to enable the Government to bring forward a comprehensive Bill. The piecemeal criticism is not a criticism of the hon. Member for Westbury or his Bill, but it is a criticism of the Government.

I am also disappointed that we are discussing new clause 5 and the deletion of clause 1 in the context of the old juvenile court system that we now have, not in the context of family courts. If we had a system of family courts, I do not think that there would be objections to greater involvement of the courts in the decision whether to send a child home. But let us look at what the so-called scrutiny of the courts as currently constituted would have meant under clause 1 when considering whether to send a child home.

First, we know that there would be delays. There already are delays. The Magistrates Association and the Justices Clerks Society are absolutely certain that, without radical changes, an addition to their jurisdiction in that way would cause delay. We heard in Committee and on Second Reading of the real problems that delay can cause. It is not just a technical matter, but concerns the breakdown of relationships during the period when the child is in care.

There is also a problem of continuity. Extra bits of jurisdiction would be given to the juvenile court in relation to family matters, and there might be a different bench each time one comes before the court. One must also consider the lack of experience of a juvenile court because as the jurisdiction of those courts is currently constituted they cover a whole range of matters. However well-intentioned they are and however great their aptitude, they will not gain the experience that will help them to give sensible scrutiny.

People have said, "If juvenile courts are experienced enough to decide to take a child into care and to decide on conditions of access, why are they not experienced enough to decide that a child should be returned home to his parents?" But when a child is taken into care or a parent applies to vary the terms on which access was granted, there are two sides to the case, so the magistrates are still operating in an adversarial system and will have brought before them the two sides of the case between which they must decide.

The trouble with clause 1 is that it deals with cases in which both parties agree. The local authority wants the child to go home, or it would not have applied to the court, and the parents want the child to come home, or it would be pointless for the local authority to bring the matter before the court. The court should consider those cases only if it can exercise an inquisitorial role. If not, all that will happen is that everyone argues on the same side and the court can only rubber-stamp the decision. The hon. and learned Member for Burton asked, "How can social workers make a sensible decision if they have heard only one side of the case?" How can magistrates in a juvenile court make a decision worth all the delay involved if they, too, will hear only one side of the case? They will hear only the local authority and the parents agreeing.

If we had the system that exists in Scotland and that is proposed under the family court, with a mixture of the adversarial and the inquisitorial approach, and with court welfare officers to go behind the unanimity of the evidence presented to the court, such extra scrutiny would be worth the delay and bureaucracy involved. But otherwise the decision would be a sham which would cause delay, confuse the lines of responsibility and provide no better scrutiny.

I regret that the new clause was not introduced in Committee. Had it been, we could have amended it so that it made sense. We have a rough idea of what it means from its title, which is Regulations as to accommodation at home of children in care. We also have a rough idea of its meaning from the Minister's explanation. But I defy anyone to understand what this means: The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision as to the accommodation under the charge and control of a parent, guardian, relative or friend of children who are in the care of a local authority. It is legal gobbledegook. Perhaps "charge and control" and other matters are mentioned in other parts of child care law, but that is no excuse for introducing an extremely complicated and muddled new clause to deal with a simple concept. Efforts should be made to ensure that new measures can be understood in their own right and that we need not call upon the services of, for example, the hon. and learned Member for Burton before we can understand what we are discussing.

The hon. Member for Westbury and the hon. and learned Member for Burton talked about public support for the Bill. The hon. Member for Westbury said that it had widespread public support. I agree that there is widespread public support for something to be done about the law and that there is widespread anxiety about what has happened recently to children in care. But that does not mean that there is widespread support for the means by which the Bill tries to achieve those aims. We should acknowledge the feeling that the Government should recognise the widespread pressure for a comprehensive child care law Bill and for the introduction of family courts. I agree that that public opinion exists and that the Government should respond to it by doing what they have failed to do so far—they should guarantee to introduce within the lifetime of this Parliament a child care law review and the implementation of family courts. We would like to see both effected together because some changes in child care law cannot be supported properly without changing the forum in which they are discussed.

The hon. and learned Member for Burton talked about many organisations being led by the nose by the social workers' lobby. That is absolute garbage. The Law Society and social workers have often disagreed. The Law Society and the Legal Action Group have often disagreed. Indeed, I am sure that they disagree more than they agree. The Association of Directors of Social Services finds it easy to disagree with the Association of County Councils, as is its right, and the ACC often disagrees with the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. It is rare to find the Justices Clerks Society and the Magistrates Association agreeing with the children's legal centre.

The fact remains that all those organisations, representing everyone in the field except for the Family Law Bar Association, reached a concensus that clause 1 was wrong and would do more harm than good. It is ridiculous to suggest that somehow they have been swept up in a tide of emotion. They have all separately considered it from their point of view and reached the same conclusion. The hon. and learned Gentleman should accept that, instead of suggesting that they have all abdicated their responsibility and been led by the nose.

I think I heard the Minister suggest that the Government would produce a pamphlet on working together on child abuse directed at encouraging agencies to work together to deal with child abuse. Obviously, agencies must cooperate to ensure that a problem which is recognised in one part of the system does not go unrecognised in another part which might lead to a wrong decision. Obviously, there must be co-operation and planning on an inter-agency basis.

I venture to suggest that health visitors, social workers and teachers in Southwark will probably regard a booklet on working together on child abuse with some degree of cynicism. The ability to work together on a sensible basis requires that one does one's job properly and liaises with other organisations. At present the pressures on the Health Service mean that people leave hospital much sooner than would be the case if they convalesced there. That has increased enormously the pressure on health visitors. The deteriorating housing conditions caused by cuts in capital spending and rate support grant to local authorities, and increasing joblessness, which has increased poverty, has increased pressure on both social workers and health visitors.

A key element in the inability of social workers to respond properly to increased pressures and demands has related to social services spending. The increase in spending on social services was only 0.5 per cent. in the last financial year. Even the Department of the Environment recognises that, just to stand still, there must be an annual increase of 2.5 per cent.

If the ability of health visitors, teachers and social workers to do their job is undermined by a lack of increased spending with which to meet the growing and very real demands on their services, they will not want to be told that the problem can be solved by a booklet on working together on child abuse. Many of them would see that as yet another cynical public relations exercise on the part of a Government, who could really do something about child abuse. For example, they could introduce a comprehensive Bill on child care law or reform the court system by introducing a family court, yet they have singularly failed to do so. They could ensure that the Health Service, housing, and social services have adequate resources. I look forward with interest to the booklet, but I should also like the Government to take some real action. Instead of using the Bill as an important spur to action over an issue about which there is immense public concern, they have used it and the booklet as an excuse for inaction.

1.30 pm
Mr. Whitney

The hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) has taken the opportunity to make her usual plethora of groundless and baseless accusations against the Government and our record of achievement. She has suggested that we do not spend enough on the Health Service. But if a 24 per cent. increase in spending on health is not enough, she must explain what would be enough, and by how much she would be willing to increase taxation. She has also suggested that local authorities do not spend enough. Yet spending is at record levels. Spending on the personal social services is also at a record level.

Ms. Harman

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Whitney

I shall not give way, as the hon. Lady had quite a fair go. She complained that nothing was being done about child care law. However, last October we launched a monumental consultation exercise. We have announced that the proposals will be published as a basis for legislation, and publication will be in the autumn. As the original consultation document was launched in October, we have moved very quickly, and I hope that the hon. Lady will have the grace to accept that.

Ms. Harman

Does the Minister accept that the amount of money going into housing via the local authority, which is the main housing authority in Southwark, has fallen drastically as a result of the Government's policies? Moreover, does he agree that the amount spent on the Health Service in Southwark, in the shape of Camberwell district authority and the Lewisham and North Southwark district health authority, has also fallen drastically? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that?

Mr. Whitney


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I hope that we can now return to the subject of children in care.

Mr. Whitney

I apologise for being led astray by the hon. Member for Peckham, but when she has seen the impact of the Resource Allocation Working Party and the amount of money devoted to the provision of her constituents in Southwark, I hope that she will understand how favoured they are. But it is typical that yet again the hon. Lady thinks that the answer is to take more and more money from the taxpayer. The answer in most of these areas must be to improve performance and procedures, and that is the object of the new clause. I am confident that that aim will be achieved.

I am grateful for the comments—or at least most of them—of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley). I recognise that the content of the consultation process should ensure that the procedures that finally emerge in the regulations take account of the issues that she raised. The home-on-trial scheme, for example, is an important step and should be recognised as such. That is an area in which we are determined to continue to improve practice. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) made a difficult decision when he decided to co-operate with the Government and agree to a very different provision being inserted in the Bill, but I believe that the new clause will be a useful step forward.

I shall clarify my position on local authority members and whatever role they may play. The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) suggested that I spoke rather quickly when I last intervened, and I plead guilty to the charge. I was trying to give other hon. Members the chance to participate in the debate. The subsection that the Government have proposed would be wide enough to provide for some involvement of local authority members in the decision-taking process should this be thought desirable. I hope that that clarification will place me on the side of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West. I must stress that the Government have not yet reached a view on the involvement of local authority members.

Mr. Mikardo

The Minister has used the phrase "should this be thought desirable." Thought by whom to be desirable?

Mr. Whitney

As I explained in my earlier intervention, the framing of the regulations will be preceded by consultation. I am sure that must be right in this difficult area.

I do not want to detain the House for long because I believe that all the ground has been covered, much of it on Second Reading. However, I must refer to the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), who was rightly described by the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar as a doughty fighter. What we had this morning from my hon. and learned Friend was more in the nature of an intervention by a knight errant or a Don Quixote because he appeared to be tilting at windmills. He has conjured a phantasma out of the air—

Mr. Lawrence


Mr. Whitney

—a phantasma that the Government are cowering against an attack by the serried ranks of mobilised social workers. It appears that others are cowering as well as the Government, including the Law Society, the Association of County Councils, the directors of social services, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Justices' Clerks Society and the Magistrates' Association. That is the windmill at which my hon. and learned Friend, Don Quixote from Burton, seems to be tilting.

Mr. Lawrence

I thought for a moment that my hon. Friend was calling the Government a phantasma. I would reject that description immediately.

Mr. Whitney

I am most grateful. We are now clear between us where the phantasma is established. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will accept that he is wrong.

I must say in somewhat more serious terms to my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) that I reject his argument that the associations—I shall not go through the list again—did not understand the original proposals. That is not a very tenable position. It is going a little far to suggest that the Law Society and the Government, no less, should not understand the proposals. I was tempted to take up the argument about magistrates but I shall not do so.

It should be accepted that we all share certain objectives. My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst spoke of a philosophical difference between us, but I do not believe there is. Perhaps the difference between us turns on practicalities in determining how best we can ensure that terrible mistakes are not made. Mistakes will be made from time to time. In the Jasmine Beckford case, terrible mistakes were made by many people, including the magistrates.

The Government believe that the way forward is to continue to improve the way in which cases are dealt with. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West is well aware of that and recognises that that is the way forward. We reject the piecemeal approach when it is in the wrong direction. We do not believe that to go back to the court at this stage in a particular case is the correct way to approach the matter. The airy-fairy dismissive approach, "There may be the odd delay, but does that really matter?" is unjust not only to the particular case that is under consideration but because of the effect that it would have on all child care cases.

We have ranged widely on a number of occasions over these issues. I hope very much that the House will accept new clause 5.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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