HC Deb 27 May 1988 vol 134 cc670-6

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Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

I am grateful for the opportunity today to have at least 15 minutes to present to the House observations on the code of practice on access to children in care. I realise that 15 minutes is not long enough to introduce this subject, so I must be selective in the issues with which I deal It would be nice to have a Second Reading of the Bill that I have sought to introduce so that a Standing Committee could be set up to consider the complexities of the rights of access by grandparents to their grandchildren.

The more I have considered this matter and the more I have read about it, the more complex it appears to be. From my discussions with members of the legal profession, it appears that they agree that it is a complex law. I consulted the White Paper entitled "The Law On Child Care and Family Servxes" presented to the House in January 1987, particularly the conclusion of the report, which I should like to put on record. It states: The Government accept the widespread criticism of current child care law as confusing, unnecessarily complex and in places unjust. It is hard for those parents and children who may be affected by it to understand its implications for them and how their rights and responsibilities may be affected. It is difficult also for professionals who must use or act in accordance with the law—social workers, lawyers, police and others. Changes are needed to rationalise, clarify and where possible simplify the law, above all in the interests of the children whose well being is the primary objective of child care law.

We recognise the urgent need for reform when we discuss the issue with all those who work in child care or have been involved directly, because of family problems. or indirectly, as advisers or representatives. That is why I am glad to have been afforded this opportunity to put on record a call for the early implementation of the proposals contained in the White Paper, "The Law on Child Ca re and Family Services".

Since the White Paper was presented to the House in January last year, we have heard nothing from the Government. There has been absolute silence. Perhaps there has been an occasional reply to some hon. Members, such as myself, from the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). I received such a reply on 30 March this year. However, the Government have taken no steps towards implementing those proposals. Why is it taking so long? What is the reason for the silence? What discussions is the Minister having with groups? What is the Government's intention for the early implementation of the White Paper? Is the Minister not aware of the continuing heartache and suffering of children, parents, grandparents, and the many others who are crying out for help?

The present law is in a muddle as was made clear by the Government's conclusion to the White Paper. The law is often unjust to children, whom it was introduced to protect and fails to give a fair hearing even to the parents. The White Paper contained proposals for streamlining court proceedings, for giving more rights to parents and better protection for children at risk. It showed a greater concern for the future of children. It would end the present confusion of laws which are increasingly difficult to operate. It would also allow grandparents and others who are interested in the well-being of a child, to take part in court proceedings if they feel that they have an interest in being present.

It has taken 10 years of lobbying and consultation to get this far. Let us not stop now because Parliament is too busy. We must find the time to ensure that we change the present complex unjust laws to give parents and children a far better deal.

I pay tribute to Baroness Faithfull of Wolvercote for her efforts to highlight the essential and urgent need for reform. She will undoubtedly find some solace in knowing that her efforts are appreciated, if not by Ministers or even by some Back Benchers. I wish her well in her efforts and hope that my contribution today will be of some help.

We know that excuses for delay could be recent reports and public inquiries into child care abuse cases, especially the Cleveland case. However, further delay means more risks for children, more abuse of the present laws and more difficulities and problems for parents and grandparents.

As this debate is about the code of practice for access to children in care, I took the trouble to read the documents—in all probability, the Minister has done likewise. If I read out the introduction to the code of practice my total of 15 minutes would be used up, yet all the clauses are as complex as the law relating to access to children. It would therefore, be far better for me to concentrate on recent rulings by the Law Lords. I refer to an article in The Guardian by Clare Dyer, its legal correspondent, on 26 February, which stated: a member of the adopted child's natural family should continue to have access to the child, the House of Lords unanimously ruled yesterday.

The article referred to access by a brother to his 13-year-old sister. It went on to claim that because of the complication of the case: The court would not, except in the most exceptional case, impose terms or conditions as to access to which the adopting parents did not agree … A family law specialist said yesterday that access conditions would still be a matter of exception rather than the rule. 'But I can see the possibility of allowing access even in cases involving young children, for instance to maintain a link with grandparents.' That is the point that I want to refer to in the short time left to me.

I must declare an interest. My wife and I are grandparents to five wonderful grandchildren—three grandsons and two grand-daughters. We live only five miles from them. I always appreciate my wealth in this materialistic world by the treasures that my close family give to me. Its value is priceless and its benefits unmeasurable. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, now enjoy the blessing of being a grandparent. Only grandparents can fully appreciate the joy and the love that that can bring.

When I became involved with the problems of other grandparents I began to appreciate the heartache that they suffer through no fault of their own. I introduced a ten-minute Bill. I also tabled early-day motion 792, which has been signed by no fewer than 303 right hon. and hon. Members. Eighteen Cabinet Ministers, two Law Officers, 63 other Ministers including 14 Government Whips, Mr. Speaker and three Deputy Speakers, two Opposition Whips and 40 Government Parliamentary Private Secretaries, plus 15 shadow Ministers, makes a total of 144 right hon. and hon. Members who cannot support my early-day motion—although many have expressed support. Even though I am no mathematician, once those 144 are deducted from the possible 649, 509 right hon. and hon. Members are left. Therefore, 303 signatures to my early-day motion from a possible total of 509 represents more than 60 per cent. support of all those eligible to sign my early-day motion. That is proof enough that action is called for by the majority of Members of this House.

I hope that the Minister will not dodge or duck the issue in her reply. I want a positive reply rather than the excuses set out in a letter to me or her use of the reply made by the Leader of the House on 19 May. My early-day motion and ten-minute Bill are not complex. They do not represent a lawyer's paradise. The proposal is short, sharp, understandable and could be implemented without great difficulty and with very little expense. It would extend legal rights to grandparents which should be theirs long before they become grandparents.

Everyone involved in this call for rights for grandparents must first think of the child or children. What do those children think when the love, understanding and protection that they have been given is cut off from them without explanation, notice or warning? Who can assess a child's suffering? That child must feel deserted by parents and grandparents. The child is in a torment and usually grandparents suffer the same. Surely grandchildren and grandparents have the right to have their own flesh and blood to love and care for them.

My ten-minute Bill, which was supported by so many, does not ask the Government for estates. It has no selfish motives, and it does not ask for more money. It asks for nothing but the right to give. Is it because of that that people cannot understand that grandparents are wise, understanding, compassionate, caring, want to show love and give love to restore a child's confidence? In this selfish society, people wanting a legal right to give should be reason enough for my Bill and for a reasonable reply to be extended by the Minister.

I conclude by reading a poem sent to me by Mrs. H. Matthews of Plymouth. It crystallises all the hurt and distress which grandparents feel in this situation. I am no Dylan Thomas, but her poem. which is entitled "Grandchildren Lost Through Divorce", reads: I gaze at your picture hanging, there, on the wall And I wonder, have you lost your curls, have you grown tall? Do you like school now—chocolate-strawberry ice cream It would be lovely to know, but it's all just a dream. It's a long time since I saw you, well over a year I remember birthdays and Christmas, but you never come near. Do you get my cards and letters, maybe you wonder too What happened to the Granny who said she loved you? Love grows, flourishes, withers Sometimes it dies between mummies and daddies, and they have to part But the love of a granny lies, ever deep, in the heart. Now you and your mummy have drifted away 'We're no longer your family', I hear with dismay. It isn't true, sweethearts, you'll always he mine, Blood's thicker than water, there's always a line Between you and me darlings, for as long as I live And I hope that your mummy, if not forget, can forgive And remember sometimes, there's a Granny, who sorrows For all the lost yesterdays, todays and tomorrows. I don't want to hurt you, but it would mean so much If your mummy would only let us keep in touch. I don't ask for a lot, just a card, and a photo or two So you don't forget me, as I can't forget you. That poem symbolises the thoughts of many people. There are 98,000 children in care at present, and I appeal to the Minister, on behalf of all those children and their grandparents, to take action now, to show compassion and caring, and to help those people who live only in the hope that they can give.

1.17 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mrs. Edwina Currie)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) on three things. First, on winning the ballot; secondly, on raising once more, as he has done all this year, the important question of access to children in care—especially by their grandparents; and thirdly, on enabling me to respond to my 50th Adjournment debate since becoming a Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) holds the record for Adjournment debates, as he replied to more than 100. However, on looking up his record, I found that he achieved his century in December 1984, which was some five years after he began. I have clocked up my half century in less than two years, and so I reckon that we are getting on a little faster.

I regard the task of replying today, as on all those other occasions, not as a chore but as a privilege. We are all privileged to he Members of this august House and we Government members regard ourselves as being immensely privileged to be followers of my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher). The Adjournment debate is also a first-class parliamentary device enabling ordinary Members to raise issues of both national and local importance. I hope that I shall never forget how important they are.

When I was a Back Bencher, I raised five Adjournment debates. As a result, those of my constituents who were workshop employees of British Coal were able to take early retirement with good pensions, and Calke abbey will be open to the public by the National Trust next year. I hope that hon. Members will he able to attend on that occasion, and I shall be delighted to welcome them all to my constituency.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right: grandparents are important people in a child's life. That is especially true when the parents arc preoccupied with their own problems or may have absconded, gone missing or died. I well understand the concern of grandparents in such circumstances, and have been approached by my constituents in similar cases. Happily, all those cases appear to have been resolved satisfactorily. In the end, however, the law must be written to put the child's interests first. The needs of the grandparent, or indeed parent, do not come first.

The child's needs are usually best suited by living in a caring family. If the child's natural family cannot look after it, another family is the next best alternative. That is why I have always regarded foster parents as an essential resource, and often the next best thing to the child's own family. Foster parents may well be grandparents or other members of the child's family, in which case they can receive foster allowances in the same way.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, some years ago I was chairman of the social services committee in the city of Birmingham. I had a survey done of all the children in care in that city who were with foster families. To our surprise, we found that the majority of foster parents were relatives, or had been known to the child before the family break-up. They were neighbours or teachers, for example. Often that is what is best for the child. Since I was in Birmingham the law has changed, and we are monitoring carefully the effects of that change. The hon. Gentleman has done us all a timely service by raising the issue as he has done today.

Prior to 1983, the law left decisions about management and access to children in care entirely to the professional judgment of social workers. The parents or extended family had no right of appeal to a court if access was terminated by a local authority, and rights of access could be decided simply by resolution of the authority. The movement for reform surfaced during the passage of the Health and Social Services and Social Security Adjudications Act 1983—usually known as the HASSASSA Act—which resulted in a Government amendment to section 12 of the Child Care Act 1980. The Act came into force on 30 January 1984.

Under that legislation, parents, guardians and custodians can apply to a court when a local authority has notified them of termination of access. The decision of access is a matter for the court. The legislative changes recognised that the interests of a child and its parents may differ, and a guardian ad litem may be appointed. The provisions do not apply to children subject to a High Court or county court order, or to children in voluntary care—which is where many of the problems tend to arise—or subject to a place of safety order. It was therefore a somewhat limited reform, but very much a step in the right direction.

Local authorities are required to notify parents, guardians or custodians of termination of access. Termination takes effect from the date of the notification, and parents, guardians or custodians can apply to the juvenile court to challenge the decision. An appeal can be made to the High Court. If financially eligible, a parent, guardian or custodian may apply for legal aid, and the court will make an access order if appropriate, to which conditions may be attached. There is also provision for an emergency whereby a single magistrate may terminate an access order for seven days.

The hon. Member for Ogmore has mentioned specific cases and judgments, but I am sure that he will understand that without notice of them I do not wish to offer any comment. We have been monitoring the working of this exercise with the greatest care, and I take what the hon. Gentleman has said very seriously. The social services inspectorate has now completed a postal survey of all social services departments, a consideration of policy and procedures documents and an inspection of nine social services departments in the working of the new access provisions. I understand that the completed report will be put to Ministers shortly, but I have not seen it yet. The work shows that, on the whole, the departments have taken the provisions on board. From the response to the postal survey it appears that the number of termination of access cases is increasing, as is the number of court hearings.

Our Department also commissioned the Dartington social research unit at the University of Bristol to undertake research into the working of the provisions. The preliminary results have just reached the Department, and my officials are examining them. The findings tend to show in both studies that children whose parents receive notices terminating access are not typical of children in care. The children appear to be those who have entered care at a young age, stayed a long time and experienced neglect and possibly abuse before coming into care. The findings also show that contacts with their family before entering care have been poor. That is typical of certain groups of children, but it is not typical of all the children concerned. I know that concern has been expressed about the fact that rather than terminating access local authorities are seriously limiting access, but at present I have no consistent information about it.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the code of practice. He probably knows that there is a statutory requirement to produce and to revise from time to time the code of practice. The one that is currently extant was laid before Parliament on 16 December 1983. It was very well received by those working in child care. It has also been circulated, with a local authority circular, to all local authorities, the courts and voluntary agencies. The code of practice recognises that the most difficult and unhappy situations concerning the children in care can arise from disputes about access. All too often, the links between children and family can wither away. Children can become pawns in battles between parents, but for the majority of children there is no doubt that their best interests will be secured by efforts to sustain some links with their natural families, including, where appropriate, the grandparents.

Local authorities and family agencies need to plan for children from admission to discharge and to include access in their plans. That should include the importance of maintaining contact with relatives, particularly grandparents, by access arrangements. All that is included in the code of practice.

We should also bear in mind the duty to consider the wishes and feelings of the child. That again is mentioned in the code of practice, because those to whom we are referring are often not children but teenagers. They may have their own views on contact with parents or grandparents. In such cases, social services departments should remember that young people may later change their minds. They should therefore ensure that reasonably up-to-date information is held on record about grandparents, should children want to make contact with them later.

The hon. Gentleman referred to his ten-minute Bill. As I am sure he realises from the response to his efforts, the courts already have power in adoption proceedings to make grandparents parties to those proceedings and it is therefore open to grandparents to ask the courts to make them parties. Grandparents who are made parties are eligible to apply for legal aid. In addition, the Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Act 1986, that comes into force this year, will allow the courts to make grandparents party to care proceedings, at the courts' discretion. I know how much the hon. Gentleman is concerned and I hear what he says about his Bill, but we are particularly anxious to resist a piecemeal approach to the reform of child care law. It is generally acknowledged that that has been the cause of much of the confusion and uncertainty that we shall seek to remove by a Bill that we hope to present to the House before too long, based on the White Paper on child care law that we published in January 1987.

If the hon. Gentleman reads again the White Paper entitled "The Law on Child Care and Family Services" he will see that the proposals on access include significant changes to the resolution of disputes about parents' access to children in care. In paragraph 55 we say that we recognise the advantages of involving in the proceedings anyone who has a proper interest in the child's future and his welfare … anyone who is permitted to seek and is seeking legal responsibility for the child in the proceedings will be able to be a party. This will include anyone seeking a custody order such as a parent or stepparent or a person who is qualified to apply for a custodianship order. If the first two limbs of the proposed grounds for a care order"— which are set out in paragraph 59 of the document— are satisfied, anyone who establishes that he has a proper interest in the child and who wishes to have custody of the child will be able to be a party.

The White Paper says specifically in paragraph 56 that Grandparents who wish to retain or take over custody of a child would be able to be parties". In paragraph 64 further comments about access are made. They would change the whole approach of the law by making it clear that reasonable access is to be presumed and that local authorities are to be encouraged to agree with parents about access before a court order is made. If agreement cannot be reached, the court has power to determine reasonable access when making a care order and will require any parties seeking alternatives to refer the matter back to court, if agreement on variation cannot be reached. That is quite different from what happened 10 years ago when only social workers could make such a decision.

The hon. Gentleman asked why there appears to have been no action since publication of the White Paper. I assure him that we take seriously our responsibilities as set out in that White Paper. This is highly complex stuff. Our preliminary effort at producing a draft Bill has already created well over 80 clauses. We hope to introduce comprehensive reform as soon as possible, but nobody can anticipate the Gracious Speech in the autumn. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that, but we intend to legislate as soon as parliamentary time is made available.

The events in Cleveland, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, came to public attention barely weeks after publication of the White Paper in the spring of 1987. Those events are directly relevant and a full inquiry has taken place. We expect the report of Mrs. Justice Butler-Sloss shortly. We may need to revise some of our proposals in the light of her report, but it would not be wise to have an inquiry and a full judicial report only to ignore its findings. We regard the matter as requiring urgent attention, however.

I hope that I have convinced the hon. Gentleman that Ministers share his concern and are determined to take action as quickly as possible. I wish him, his family and all his grandchildren a very happy holiday.