HC Deb 02 May 1986 vol 96 cc1251-6
Mr. Whitney

I beg to move amendment No. 36, in page 6, line 1, leave out subsections (1) and (2) and insert—

`No provision of this Act shall have effect in relation to any proceedings which were commenced before the commencement of that provision.'. This amendment removes the transitional provisions in clause 8 which applied clause 3—appeals—to any order made in proceedings on or after commencement of the Bill even though the proceeding or hearing might have begun before the Bill came into force, and also applied clause 4—party status—and clause 5—transfer of proceedings—to proceedings which might already have begun. It substitutes a clause that any provision in the Bill should apply only to proceedings beginning after that provision came into force.

If the provisions of the Bill were to apply to proceedings already in progress when the Bill came into force there could be confusion and problems if, for instance, a grandparent applied to be joined as a party part way through a hearing. The amendment is intended to prevent any such problems arising by limiting the Bill to cases which begin after the date of commencement.

Amendment agreed to.

Order for Third Reading read.

1.55 pm
Mr. Walters

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

We have had a long Report stage and I shall not detain the House. Introducing the Bill has been a fascinating experience and it has involved an enormous amount of hard work. I thank my sponsors, from both sides of the House, for their help and support.

Taking the Bill through the House has been more difficult than I had expected, and I have not achieved as much as I had hoped. I believe that valuable proposals have been lost on the way, but, given the fact that we live in an imperfect world, I am satisfied that useful measures have been introduced and that a worthy piece of legislation will be placed on the statute book.

1.56 pm
Mr. Mikardo

I intervene briefly to congratulate the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on having carried the Bill this far and, if I may anticipate events, on getting Third Reading for the Bill, which will be sent off to another place where I am sure that it will be looked at as carefully as it has been here.

As I said earlier, the hon. Member for Westbury has been shabbily treated by the Government in having his Bill hijacked and turned into a de facto Government Bill, but I hope that his initiative in introducing the Bill has contributed something to hastening Government action on comprehensive legislation.

I broke a lance earlier with the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), but I agree with him about the imprecise and unsatisfactory nature of the Minister's comments on the timing of the legislation. Under challenge from the hon. and learned Member, the Minister, like a frightened horse, shied away from giving any assurance that legislation would be brought forward in the lifetime of this Parliament.

People have been appealing for comprehensive family courts legislation for a long time. I do not blame the Minister alone. Many of his predecessors, including some Labour Ministers, are also to blame. It has been a long and sad concatenation of procrastination and it is time that it was brought to an end. If the initiative of the hon. Member for Westbury has exerted a little pressure to that end, on that ground, if on no other, he deserves the thanks of the House.

1.58 pm
Mr. Sims

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on the progress that he has made in circumstances that have proved to be more difficult than he had expected. I share his disappointment that the Bill will not be leaving the House in the form that he and I would wish.

However, I hope that my hon. Friend will not underestimate what he has achieved. The new provisions on child care are an improvement and will be widely welcomed, and he has also precipitated discussion inside and outside the House on an important issue. I suspect that that would not have happened if my hon. Friend had not introduced his Bill.

The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) said that he hoped to put pressure on the Government in other respects. There is little doubt that that has been done. It is a measure of the success of my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury that the Government's response will be recorded not only in today's Hansard but in yesterday's Hansard. In reply to a question on child care, the Secretary of State for Social Services implied that, because of pressure from my hon. Friend and others, the Government felt that we should know exactly where they stood on the question of child care and family courts The Government's announcement is a recognition of the high profile that my hon. Friend has given to the matter.

In his reply yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear that proposals on child care would be forthcoming in the autumn. He was less forthcoming about the family court proposals, other than to say that they would be made soon. My right hon. Friend did not challenge the suggestion that the proposals would be introduced in the next week or so. We have heard such promises so often that I shall believe that when I see it. In his reply, the Secretary of State said: Some of those commenting on the review of child care law have said that no changes to child care law should take place in advance of a family court. The Government do not accept this need to be so and continued to see advantage in not delaying desirable improvements in child care law pending possible introduction of a family court."—[0fficial Report, 1 May 1986; Vol. 96, c. 472.] We are not asking the Government to delay improvements to child care law; we are asking them to accelerate the introduction of a family court. There is no reason why the two measures should not go ahead. They have been considered for some time. If the family court proposals are introduced shortly, it should be possible to consider them along with a proposed White Paper in the autumn and for the legislation on both to be considered together. One knows the difficulty of achieving co-ordination between Government Departments, but that should not be beyond the wit of man, if the political will is present in the Government.

I am sorry that the Bill will not leave the House in the form that we had hoped—I hesitate to use the aphorism about half a loaf because I think that we are getting no more than a slice—but the time that we have spent on it has been time well spent.

2.2 pm

Mr. Ken Hargreaves (Hyndburn)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on his success in getting the Bill through to Third Reading. It must be a satisfying achievement—one which I shall not experience with my Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he has done.

2.3 pm

Ms. Harman

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters). As soon as I had had an opportunity to study the Bill carefully and to consult those who were involved outside the House, unlike the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, I made it plain to the hon. Member for Westbury what my attitude and the Opposition's attitude would be. I am not being mealy-mouthed in saying that the hon. Gentleman used the opportunity of coming high in the ballot to focus the attention of the House on the considerable concern about the pressing issue of children in care. Unwittingly, he has carefully exposed the Government for their inaction in not bringing forward child care law legislation and legislation for the implementation of a family court.

At the outset, I was concerned about clause 1. It was important to draw the problem to the public's attention. Following the Jasmine Beckford inquiry report, and after the heated hysteria generated by some elements of the press had died down, it was important for the matter to be considered fully by the House, and on a wider basis. The hon. Member for Westbury has put the debate on child law back on to an even better keel. That of itself created a better climate in which to discuss the issues and to try to resolve the problems. That is very important.

It is worth looking briefly at the background against which children are taken into care. It is important to ensure that children are taken into care only when it is absolutely necessary and that families are broken up only when it is absolutely unavoidable. I should like to consider the background against which the reluctant decision is made by magistrates and social workers alike to take a child into care, and the necessity for that decision.

It is ironic that, although we rightly and collectively condemn mistreatment of children and are horrified, outraged and angered by parents who mistreat their children, and although we collectively feel a sense of shame at belonging to a society which includes people who abuse and even kill their children, all too often our collective sense of shame does not extend to a collective desire to support families with small children.

All too often, the spiral of problems which ends in child abuse is tied up with lack of proper public services, with bad housing and with inadequate income. That does not excuse child abuse and it is not the whole story. Despite having low incomes, bad housing and suffering a complex network of problems, many people manage to be caring, loving and good parents. Lack of day nursery places, day care facilities and decent housing and inadequate income can be the straw that breaks the camel's back and the spark that leads to child abuse in vulnerable families.

We should collectively not only have a sense of outrage but recognise that the children in families where battering takes place are the children not only of that family but of society as a whole. We all have a collective responsibility for them. It is shameful that, compared with the rest of Europe, Britain has the lowest provision of nursery classes and places for children under five. That is typical of the division of attitude between people on the continent and people in Britain. The culture of Europe is much more welcoming to and accepting of children. It recognises that they are part of the community as well as, most importantly, part of their families.

Research has shown that the children in care are the children of the poor. The Government are responsible because of the increasing number of families hit and blighted by joblessness. The problems will be exacerbated by the Social Security Bill, which will result in more families in poverty and therefore more families vulnerable to having a child taken into care. Judging by the Government's figures in the technical annex to the White Paper on social security, 100,000 low-paid families and 100,000 families in which a family member is unemployed will lose out under the legislation. Those low-paid families and unemployed families will be worse off. About 30,000 low-paid families and 10,000 families in which a member of the family is unemployed will be worse off by £5 a week or more.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady seems to be widening the debate in an unacceptable way. She should confine her remarks to the contents of the Bill.

Ms. Harman

I hope that I have shown the link between poverty and reception of children into care, and between poverty and family breakdown. Perhaps I can leave it there. We offer our congratulations to the hon. Member for Westbury on taking the opportunity to use his place in the private Members' ballot to bring before us an important issue.

2.10 pm
Mr. Whitney

Before I come to the points that I want to make, I have to say that it is a pity that throughout these difficult proceedings on a complex and sensitive matter we have been treated in almost every intervention by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) to her standard litany of promoting her party's distorted views on the present situation. If she is interested in the problems of poverty, unemployment, homelessness and deprivation, she should think hard about how those problems would be exacerbated if her party's policies were implemented. The policies advocated by her right hon. Friends would cost an additional £24 billion. How much social deprivation would there be then?

I should also like to join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on using his good fortune in the ballot to promote a Bill of such importance about a matter that is of great interest to everyone. Whatever views we have about the practicalities and the steps that would be needed, none of us underestimates the great amount of work that requires to be done to prevent child abuse. It presents a challenge to the whole of society and that is why my Department is active in this whole area. Much of the work is of a practical nature and consists of liaison between the social services inspectorate, local authorities and social services departments. The work is not headline-grabbing but nevertheless a great deal of work is being done. I can assure hon. Members that we shall continue to strive to see that the best practice in Britain, which is exceptionally good, becomes as near as possible universal.

In addition to the practical aspects, the law has a role to play. The law is not yet right and that is precisely why we launched a consultation exercise last October and we look forward to producing proposals in the autumn which will form the basis for further comprehensive legislation. I recognise the deep disappointment felt by my hon. Friend about the change in the Bill, but I hope he and our hon. Friends will accept that the Bill as it now stands will do a great deal of good and will be of benefit in this difficult area.

The new regulation-making power about "home on trial" will help to strengthen the existing arrangements for child protection, especially when it is linked to the other steps that we are taking to assist local authorities in their child abuse work, about which I have already spoken.

The new provision allowing parents to have party status where an order for separate representation of the child is made will, if the Bill becomes law, remedy what many people see as a real injustice to parents. Their present inability to appeal against a child care order is a defect and I am glad that we have the opportunity in this Bill to put it right. The measures we have achieved on the status of grandparents will be greatly appreciated by my hon. Friends. Despite their disappointment about clauses 1 and 2, I hope that my hon. Friend and his sponsors will accept that the great efforts they have put into the Bill have had a worthy outcome.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) said, I acknowledge that the wide national debate that has been generated has been a factor in our rapid digestion of the response to our working party report. There have been 200 detailed responses in this complicated area. Thus my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to make the announcement to the House yesterday about his proposals in the autumn.

Therefore, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) can look with great satisfaction on what he has achieved. I congratulate him on his Bill.

2.15 pm
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

I should like to add my wholehearted support and congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) on moving us a significant and important stage forward in the protection of children at risk.

I have been provoked to speak in defence of my hon. Friend the Minister by a naive and simplistic remark by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman). Since 1979 there have been dramatic increases in resources for health and personal social services. But much more at the heart of the matter is the fact that, to protect children in care, social workers need professional autonomy, not political interference. I urge the hon. Lady to look in her own back yard for political interference in professional work.

With regard to the Bill, the need to rectify the position of parents and grandparents has been long overdue. I am aware of the interest in that matter of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James).

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the fact that there has been a sincere, thorough and thoughtful examination of improvements in and the promotion of good practice. Guidelines have been issued by his Department. I join him in his remarks about the work of the inspectorate. At some stages, some of us have wondered whether we were going fast enough, and whether the introduction of a court hearing would help to move things forward. That is borne out by the figures. Every child abuse death is a death too many and a tragic waste. The evidence is that the number of children who are seriously injured or killed has been coming down in recent years. I am sure that that has been achieved through concerted action and the maintenance of good practice. We look to the Minister to move on as fast as possible in comprehensive child care law reviews and the development of good practice.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed

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