§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ [Relevant documents: Second Report from the Social Services Committee of Session 1983–84 on Children in Care (HC 360-I), Government Response thereto (Cmnd. 9298) and Second Report from the Social Services Committee of Session 1988–89 on the Children Bill (HC 178).]
§ Mr. Speaker
A large number of hon. Members wish to participate in the debate. I therefore propose to apply a limit of 10 minutes to speeches between 7 and 9 o'clock. I hope that hon. Members who may be called before that time will bear that limit broadly in mind.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. David Mellor)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am particularly pleased to be able to introduce to the House, following its successful passage through the other place, such an important and keenly awaited Bill—a Bill which is the most comprehensive and far-reaching reform of child law to have come before Parliament in living memory. I am delighted that the House is so well filled for this occasion.
It is a Bill motivated by our overriding concern to put in place an effective legislative framework to ensure the welfare of children. At present, children's legislation is confusing, piecemeal, outdated, often unfair and, in important respects, ineffective—most notably when it comes to our ability to protect children at risk. The Social Services Committee's report entitled "Children in Care" in the 1983–84 Session recognised that, and recommended the thoroughgoing review of the body of statute law concerning children which, in turn, led to our 1987 White Paper entitled "The Law on Child Care and Family Services".
This Bill follows directly from that White Paper, but it has been reviewed and revised in the light of Lord Justice Butler-Sloss's report on events in Cleveland and, of course, in the light of other comments that have been made both within and outside the House. It also integrates the private and public law relating to children into a single rationalised system, as recommended by the committee, and it now incorporates the reforms of guardianship and custody recommended by the Law Commission. It also bears upon private and public law. I am glad to have the assistance of my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General during the debate, and I hope that that will be to the advantage of the House.
As I hope I made clear, we have high ambitions for this Bill. We hope and believe that it will bring order, integration, relevance and a better balance to the law—a better balance not just between the rights and responsibilities of individuals and agencies, but, most vitally, between the need to protect children and the need to enable parents to challenge intervention in the upbringing of their children. Recent well-publicised cases, including the tragic cases of Kimberley Carlile, Doreen Mason and the events in Cleveland in 1987, have graphically shown the consequences of getting that balance wrong. Of course, of itself, legislation cannot stop 1111 such tragedies, but we hope that a clear legal framework will help to make more likely clear-eyed judgments by key people involved in child welfare, whether they are in social services departments, health authorities, the police, education or the courts.
So, as I have said, the Bill is first and foremost an attempt to establish a unified and consistent code of law covering the care and upbringing of children in both the private and public domains. We aim to provide a comprehensive and comprehensible framework of powers and responsibilities that we hope will secure our central goal, which I think would be the central goal of all of us, that children receive the care, upbringing and protection that they deserve.
Two basic principles run through the Bill. First, there is an improved statement of the welfare principle governing court decisions in respect of children; that is, the child's welfare must be the paramount consideration. All courts in reaching all decisions about the care and upbringing of children must do what is best for the child. Secondly, we are proposing major reforms of the law governing parental responsibility, guardianship and the court's powers to make orders in respect of children in family proceedings. The Bill's emphasis on the primary function of parenthood will, we hope, sharpen our perceptions and highlight the obligation on parents to care for their children and bring them up properly.
The first parts of the Bill deal with new provisions in private law. New orders are introduced to reflect our emphasis on encouraging parents to participate fully in the child's upbringing.
Much of the remainder of the Bill deals with our proposed reform of the public law on children. It follows, as I have already said, the guiding principles set out in our 1987 White Paper. First, parents should be responsible for bringing up their children, but local authorities and other agencies should be ready to help when this reduces the risk of family breakdown. Secondly, such services should be provided in voluntary partnership with parents and in a way that promotes family relationships as fully as possible.
Thirdly, a transfer of the parents' responsibility for caring for a child to a local authority should require a court order following due legal process and the court being satisfied that that is in the interests of the child. Fourthly, in such proceedings parents and children should have full party status and representation. Fifthly, emergency powers to remove a child at serious immediate risk should be of short duration and subject to court review if challenged. Sixthly, where local authorities are caring for a child away from home, their powers and responsibilities, and those of the child's parents in those circumstances, should be clear-cut.
In clarifying and improving child care law in line with these principles, the Bill has a number of key provisions. It rationalises local authorities' responsibilities towards children in need, including disabled children and their families. It proposes fairer court procedures for parents and children, improved rights of access to children in care and clarification of local authorities' responsibilities to children they look after.
A vital part of striking the right balance is the introduction of a new emergency protection order to replace the present place of safety order. This will give those with parental responsibility a right to challenge the order, and power for the court to give directions on access and medical examinations.
1112 We also aim to restrict the use of wardship as a means of giving local authorities compulsory powers over a child. In regard to court jurisdiction, the Bill outlines arrangements for child care cases to be heard at the level of court appropriate to the complexity of the case.
§ Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)
In the opening passages of his speech the Minister has been talking, understandably, in terms of children and parents. He has not made any reference so far to the rights of grandparents. Will he address himself to that aspect?
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I can satisfy him later when I make it clear that there will be a broader definition of party status in the proceedings than children and their parents. If he will bear with me, I shall come to that point; I acknowledge that it is significant.
It is a complex Bill. So as not to outstay my welcome and so that as many hon. Members as possible may make a contribution, I hope to provide in a limited period a clear account of the Bill's main aspects. Obviously, in a sensible time scale I shall not be able to cover all the details, which is why I look forward, as does my hon. and learned Friend, to careful consideration of the Bill in Committee.
I need hardly say that I hope and believe that the constructive and non-partisan approach which marked the Bill's passage in the other place will be repeated here. I have great respect for the hon. Member for Monk lands, West (Mr. Clarke), who leads for the Opposition on these issues. I hope that we shall have a happy passage of the Bill, without in any way diminishing the critical scrutiny given to it. I should like to make it clear that we shall be receptive to contributions and we shall not hesitate to make changes if they appear right. The Bill was improved during its passage through the Lords and I dare say that there is room for further improvement here.
From the general reception that the Bill has received, I am encouraged to hope that we have struck something like the right note. Inevitably, a number of outside organisations are still suggesting amendments. We shall come to those in due course. I hope that, when we have finally done our work in the House, we shall have played a part in the passage of a piece of legislation that can be hailed as a landmark of social legislation in this country. That should be our aim, because Parliament will not return to the issue for a long time. The Bill will be an important and significant milestone that may point the way for many years to come.
There is one representation that I know concerns a number of hon. Members; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) raised it with me privately this afternoon. I believe that it would assist if I were to say that a number of hon. Members wrote to me following representations from the Church of England Children's Society concerning services for runaways. I am happy to confirm the Lord Chancellor's undertaking that an amendment will be tabled at a later stage to give effect to the proposal in the White Paper that organisations temporarily looking after children who have run away could be specified and then exempted from liability for the offence of harbouring in defined circumstances. I hope that that meets the point. Those who have written will be delighted to know that they have not written in vain. I hope that that shows the kind of spirit in which we shall approach these matters.
§ Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that assurance. Of course, a limited number of organisations will fit the bill, and those which are exempted will need specifying carefully. Will my hon. Friend give his assurance of that, too?
§ Mr. Mellor
That is why I said that we shall want to define the circumstances clearly. I shall look forward to assistance from my colleagues on the Committee in ensuring that we get that right in the amendment.
In the Bill, we have set down in outline a new scheme of concurrent jurisdiction for all children's proceedings. I am afraid, however, that in that respect the Bill still lacks some final details; indeed, there are one or two other provisions that have been sought that I believe will be welcomed but that we have not as yet been able to add to the Bill. That is partly attributable to the fast pace that we set ourselves following Cleveland and partly to the prolonged indisposition of the senior parliamentary draftsman, who has done such good work on the Bill. I assure the House that we shall bring forward the remaining matters in good time for there to be a full discussion on all of them in Committee and on Report.
§ Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)
On the point of concurrent jurisdiction and clause 67, why did the Government not think it appropriate to introduce a clause setting up a family court?
§ Mr. Mellor
This is a reform of the law relating to children, and is not intended to be a reform of the legal structure. The hon. Gentleman will have noted that there are provisions that allow for reallocation of cases from one court to another, which, as he knows as an experienced lawyer, is not possible under the present arrangement. One authority has said that that is the family court in embryo. It is for others to say whether that is a fair description. There are changes to the mechanism from which I believe those who are in favour of family courts could take some comfort.
This is already a bulky Bill. It is a major reform of the substantive law. It is not intended to be a reform of the legal structure. I appreciate that many hon. Members in all parts of the House want to see a change in the legal structure. I do not believe that the Bill gives them any discouragement; I could say that it gives them some encouragement.
Without more ado, I shall give a brief account of some of the principal aspects of the Bill, which I hope will help the House. Parts I and II deal with the private law, on which my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General is the authority. They establish the general welfare principle, to which I have already adverted. The requirement is that the child's welfare should be the paramount consideration. Following on from that, all orders about children should be made only if they contribute positively to the child's welfare.
Clauses 2 and 3 bring up to date and elucidate the nature and incidence of parental responsibility. A parental responsibility order in clause 4 repeats the existing law in enabling a father of an illegitimate child to achieve full parental status and also allows the mother and the father to achieve the same effect by formal agreement without recourse to the courts. That is a helpful change. Clause 5 also makes some significant changes to the law on guardianship.
1114 Part II of the Bill introduces four new orders relating to children—the residence order, the contact order, the specific issues order and the prohibited steps order. They replace the present orders for custody, legal custody, care and control and access that are on the statute book. The new orders will seek to concentrate the minds of the parties and of the courts on the concrete issues relating to the day-to-day care of the child. They are designed to encourage parents to continue to participate fully in the child's upbringing, subject only to any particular matter provided for by a court order.
We hope that the new orders will be found more approachable and more workable than the present arrangements. We also propose changes in deciding who may apply for orders, which relates to a point that was made earlier. In general, anyone who has parental responsibility for the child may apply for any order as of right. The court, whether prompted or not, may itself make any of the orders in family proceedings if it thinks fit, save where there is a local authority involved.
Clause 10 adopts a general presumption that delay in deciding children's cases prejudices a child's welfare and provides for the courts to draw up timetables and to give directions to ensure that they are kept to. Those of us who have been in the law as well as those who have not—it is not a well-kept secret—know that delay is endemic in our system. The Bill means to ensure that there is no delay in vital matters affecting children. Finally, clause 14 introduces a new order, the family assistance order, allowing a court welfare officer to advise, assist and befriend any member or members of the family taking account of the interests of the child. It replaces the existing family proceedings supervision order.
Let us consider the public provision—the public law. If any one issue makes this legislation necessary and urgent, it is the need to ensure that the most vulnerable children are not let down by indecision—that is, a failure to act when the signs of abuse are there, or, of course, by sanctioning over-zealous interference. We want to ensure that, as Lord Justice Butler-Sloss counselled in her report, the child is always treated as a person and not just as an object of concern.
Part III and schedule 2 deal with the powers of local authorities to promote the welfare of children and to help prevent family breakdown. We believe that their provisions will improve and consolidate the present law. I want to stress the emphasis in the provisions on the family, preventive work and voluntary partnership. Local authorities will have a new duty to promote the upbringing of children in need by their families, so far as this is consistent with their welfare duty to the child himself.
Among the services which will be picked out for the first time as having to be provided by local authorities on such a scale as they consider appropriate—we think that it is a matter for them—in order to discharge their general duty to children in need and their families is day care for under-fives. We are considering a proposal from the other place that local authorities should keep under review the provision of such facilities, consulting, of course, the local education authority. We intend to strengthen what is at present a power of local authorities in clause 16 to provide care and supervised activities for older children outside school hours.
Part III also clarifies the responsibility of local authorities in relation to the children they are looking after, whether under voluntary arrangements or as a result 1115 of compulsory care proceedings. The local authority will have an absolute duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of any child looked after by it, to review his needs at specified intervals, to promote contact between the child and his family and to consult the family on decisions. It will also have to establish a procedure with an independent element for considering complaints. I hope that those are in line with the common-sense views of hon. Members in all parts of the House.
Local authorities will also have enhanced responsibilities for preparing children they are looking after for when they leave care, and for helping them and other children who are accommodated away from home at the age of 16 after they leave that accommodation. We cannot, however, go as far as the Social Services Committee would like by requiring local authorities to provide assistance, including cash help for care leavers, which would duplicate provision under the social security system. That is because of the improvements that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security announced recently in benefit arrangements for 16 and 17-year-olds who are living independently. That matter is being kept under review by the Department of Social Security.
Let me turn, without further ado, to what are perhaps the most vital parts of the Bill—parts IV and V. Part IV makes major reforms in the processes for compulsory intervention in the care and upbringing of children. A court order under the statutory scheme will in future always be required. New grounds for care and supervision orders will focus on significant harm to the child, including the likelihood of such harm, and will apply in family proceedings as well as in care proceedings. Where anticipated harm is the issue, the new grounds will make it unnecessary for local authorities to continue to resort to wardship.
Rules of court will give effect to the White Paper undertaking that any person, including the child, whose legal position could be affected by the proceedings will be entitled to party status. I am happy to tell the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) that this will include those grandparents who wish to retain or take over care of a child. Parents will now be able to obtain full party status without the need for the court to rule that the child and his parents should be separately represented. The present position on legal representation of the child will be maintained, and arrangements will be made to speed the granting of legal aid to parties in care proceedings. We shall also provide for appeal rights, advance disclosure of documents, access to records, and so on, in line with the White Paper.
I hope that this shows that we have responded to points that have keen made to us. This is a practical Bill. It is not full of rhetorical flourishes, but is full of the practical experience of those who have appeared in the courts and know the practical difficulties that arise in these cases.
Part IV also makes it clear that the effect of a care order is to give parental responsibility for the child to the local authority looking after him. On parental access to children in care, we are putting right the present legislation by providing that the court can make an order about contact, whether or not contact has been stopped or prevented—at the moment, the only circumstances in which a court may intervene. We think that that is an arbitrary restriction, which should be removed. A further major improvement is that a guardian ad litem will have to be appointed by the court to safeguard the child's interests in all care 1116 proceedings, including those arising in family proceedings, unless—we regard this as an exceptional circumstance—the court considers such an appointment unnecessary. At present, appointments are made only where there is a conflict of interest between the child and the parents. We say that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, a guardian ad litem should be appointed right from the outset.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
One of the concerns expressed to me by people practising in this area arises from the fact that guardians ad litem will have to be appointed on day one. At present, it often takes two months before they become available. Will the Minister ensure that there are sufficiently trained people? Those people will be drawn mostly from the ranks of Social workers. Their ranks will be diminished and will therefore have to be replenished before the Bill is brought into operation so that there is not a gap between what the law requires and what a local authority can provide.
§ Mr. Mellor
Indeed, we have proposed changes. The hon. Gentleman might like to cast his eye over them and let me know whether he thinks they meet the concerns. Actually, we propose some quite significant changes in the administration and management of panels of guardians ad litem, because there has been some criticism as to whether the fact that a guardian ad litem is drawn from a local authority that might be concerned with the matter leads to a conflict of interests.
That is why the Bill provides that the Secretary of State will have power to require, in regulations, that panels be based on groupings of authorities. That will be building on existing co-operative experience in some areas. We hope that the distancing of panel management from individual authorities will reduce the risk of conflict. Obviously, training and having the machine ready to move into operation will be of the essence. I hope that we have got that right.
The major reforms to the statutory framework for the emergency protection of children—of all issues, perhaps the most central in the minds of most of us—are contained in part V. As the House knows, the key reform is a new emergency protection order limited to a maximum of eight days, but extendable by the court to up to 15 days. It will be challengeable after 72 hours where the application was made ex parte, or even earlier if the court decides that only a very short order should be made. That will replace the present place of safety order, which can run for up to 28 days without the parents or the child having any opportunity to challenge it while it is in force. That is one of the lessons learned from Cleveland.
The grounds will for the first time address the emergency nature of the situation and the need to remove the child, or to continue to keep the child in a safe place, in order to protect it. The holder of the order, who will usually be a local authority social worker or officer of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children—whose quality and status we accept—is given parental responsibility for the child and required to take such action, but only such action, as is needed to protect the child while the order is in force. That includes not removing him from home if it is not necessary to do so, or returning him as soon as it is safe to do so.
The court will also be able to give directions when the order is made, or at any time while it is in force, about medical examination and contact with the child—again, 1117 issues of particular difficulty in Cleveland, as we all recall. As at present, the order, when resisted, will be enforceable by a constable acting under a warrant, and police powers to order a child into protection will complement the new order. The local authority's duty to investigate cases of possible significant harm will be made more positive and other agencies will be required to co-operate in such investigations, as was recommended in the report on the tragic death of Jasmine Beckford. I am glad that the Social Services Committee, the Association of Directors of Social Services and, indeed, Lord Justice Butler-Sloss have endorsed those provisions.
Let me deal now with a matter of concern to, I suspect, a number of hon. Members—a concern which was expressed in the other place and by the NSPCC. Welcome as the changes are to all, they may not deal with cases where there is serious but not urgent concern about a child who cannot be seen, and a separate medical assessment order may be needed for such cases. I am anxious to meet those concerns.
One solution which has been discussed with the NSPCC and the Association of Directors of Social Services is to make it clear in the Bill that the authority's investigative duty will include a duty to try to see the child, and that an unreasonable refusal of access to a child, which prevents the authority or others acting on its behalf from completing the investigation, will also be a ground for an emergency protection order.
Another way would be to go for a separate child assessment order, as was suggested in the Kimberley Carlile report. I am sure that there is a potential problem here in relation to the production of a child, but I have refrained from seeking to determine that issue until I have had the opportunity to hear hon. Members' views. We all need to be satisfied that the mechanisms proposed are sufficient to ensure proper protection for the child.
I look forward to hearing hon. Members' views on the proposals which, clearly, we must get right as the Bill progresses through the House. I cannot think of a more important matter for us to get right. I undertake to take hon. Members' views fully into account and I shall not hesitate to make changes—including, if necessary, the introduction of a child assessment order—if that in the end seems to be the right answer. I shall come to no conclusion on that until I have heard the views of others.
§ Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
Will my hon. and learned Friend bear in mind the concern of many hon. Members that a large number of social workers are young and have not had the experience to know when a person is lying? When a mother says that her child is down at gran's, round at Auntie Mary's or playing outside, young social workers are placed in extreme difficulty, and their difficulty will be the need to recognise that.
§ Mr. Mellor
I agree. As well as the inevitable apportioning of blame when things go wrong, we have a duty to try to ensure that we help people to get things right. That is why we must have a modern, comprehensible legal framework and proper training.
Since Cleveland, we have made available a substantial grant of £7 million to back £10 million of total expenditure for training social workers. Through the area committees, which bring in all the different agencies, we have laid stress 1118 on inter-agency co-operation, which should help people in vulnerable positions to obtain the assistance they need to make the right decision. I am in no doubt that my hon. Friend is right, and we all have a duty to make things better.
§ Mr. Vaz
I agree with the Minister that this is an important clause, but does he not agree with me that, as it is such an important clause, the Government should have spelt out in the Bill itself to whom notice should be given when the child is removed? Under clause 42, the Government reserve the ability to make rules at a later date. Surely the Minister agrees with me that these very important matters must be in the Bill.
§ Mr. Mellor
I am not so sure that I do agree, because if rules are made and do not actually meet the technical point, they can be remade, whereas changing primary legislation is not easy. What the hon. Gentleman has raised is a perfectly legitimate Committee point. If, as I hope, the hon. Gentleman serves on the Committee, he can come to that point then.
Parts VI to IX of the Bill deal with community homes, voluntary homes and voluntary organisations. I pass over those points briefly because of the pressure of time, but we will come to them in Committee. In part XI, clause 64 is significant. It provides for the abolition of care orders as a disposal in juvenile criminal proceedings. People who follow these matters realise the significance of that provision, but I shall not go into it in greater detail now.
I have already referred to court jurisdiction. I add to what I said earlier in response the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) who spoke about the family court: what we intend is that care jurisdiction in magistrates courts should be transferred from the juvenile court to what is now the domestic magistrates court so that care cases will be heard by those magistrates who also hear other domestic and family matters. So "domestic panels" will be called "family panels" from now on. Care cases will start before the magistrates, except where related proceedings are already in existence. Criteria will be prescribed and machinery provided to identify cases which need to be heard by superior courts. Already, the President of the Family Division and others are engaged in the machinery for concurrent jurisdiction, and that will obviously take some time.
More generally, the powers to provide for the transfer of cases between courts and tiers of court will be used to enable proceedings concerning the same child and his family to be consolidated, and to avoid unnecessary delay or to expedite cases where the courts they are in are not able to hear the cases immediately or within a reasonable time. If experience shows that more cases need to be transferred up, there is power under the Bill to adjust the scheme and, if necessary, to allow cases to start at a higher level. This is the beginning of the machinery to move family cases around in a coherent way, which I hope will give some comfort to those who have argued for a family court.
The intention of clause 69 is to prevent local authorities from using the High Court's inherent jurisdiction, including wardship, as an alternative to a care or supervision order or as a means of their otherwise obtaining compulsory powers over children. We say that the inherent power remains available to cover circumstances not provided for in statute, but it is not to be available 1119 as an alternative to care and supervision which is obtained in the normal way. We believe that this will represent a better use of the resources of the superior courts.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
I, for one, as a Cleveland MP, would be very anxious if wardship should disappear completely, because it was the one way in which we could get families out of the magistrates courts and away from junior courts into the High Court, where these often very delicate, complicated and heart-rending matters can be dealt with properly by a judge. I would like to see wardship continue as a reserve power, not just for the small minority of cases but for all cases because, as I will say later, I am not satisfied to see some of these matters dealt with at junior level by individual collections of magistrates.
§ Mr. Mellor
I will listen with interest to what my hon. Friend says later. I know about the experiences that he and one or two of his colleagues went through at Cleveland. We must look at this provision in the light not of the old mechanism but of the new law and mechanisms I have described. Obviously, if my hon. Friend continues to have reservations, we shall have to look carefully at what he says.
We hope that the Bill introduces a simplified and coherent body of law comprehensible not only to those operating it but also to those affected by its operations. We are committed to safeguarding the interests of all our children. We are trying to take a firm lead by setting the overall framework in this Bill, but we have drawn on the thinking of others, the recent report of the Social Services Committee, and so on. We have been grateful for the very approving noises coming from most bodies that have already considered the Bill, which raises important and sensitive issues which must be considered carefully. In no sense do we resent that level of detailed scrutiny.
The noble Lord Mishcon, who leads for the Opposition in another place on this matter, called the Bill a children's charter, and I am happy to adopt that description. It is a charter of rights of children to have their welfare regarded as a primary concern. It must be a basic right of children in a civilised community to grow up without being abused. It must be a responsibility on all of us to step in and prevent that abuse when it happens, as we know it will and as it always has. We know that it happens too much today. We want to do something effective about it, and we are all united in that endeavour. I look forward to everyone involved working together to give effect to these rights. The welfare of children must remain the highest law for the public, as well as for the Government.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)
As the Minister has said, we have been helped by the fact that the Bill has been considered in another place, although that is not to say that the noble Lords got it exactly right, as we do not believe they did. We shall be raising a number of issues that have been pursued in another place by my noble Friends and other noble Lords. They must be greatly disappointed that, despite the superiority of their argument, they failed to persuade the Lord Chancellor on such matters as physical punishment in care, and only just persuaded him on the need for a helpful and practical approach to young people needing care. Here we have a chance to deal with that scandal and we shall seek to do it.
1120 At the outset, I want to ask the Minister about implementation. What are the Government's priorities? Will the Bill, as many fear, be implemented, as was previous legislation, in dribs and drabs? Surely the evidence is overwhelming that there should be no delay after all stages are completed, as the need for action is great indeed. This Bill has a substantial history of heartbreaking cases, interdepartmental reports, consultation papers, the report by Louis Blom-Cooper on the tragedy of little Kimberley Carlile, a report by a Lord Justice of Appeal on the Cleveland cases, a Government White Paper, and a Law Commission report. Against that background, we are now on Second Reading of the Bill in this place.
The Bill is a welcome if belated measure that aims to resolve a wide variety of family issues about child care, parental responsibilities, social work practice, and laws governing family life.
The Bill deals admirably with many matters, but with others less so, and some aspects have been woefully neglected. We applaud the Bill's intention to simplify and consolidate much legislation in a form that will meet the approval of right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House, yet we remain deeply disturbed about the Government's reluctance to introduce what would have been—despite the Minister's comments this afternoon—the most imaginative, far-reaching and positive reform in post-war child care legislation. I refer to the family court.
The Government did not lack encouragement for making such a reform, which was clearly recommended by Lord Justice Butler-Sloss in her report on the Cleveland child abuse inquiry. A family court is urgently needed so that the delicate realm of family problems—which some courts today manage with less than speedy and wholly expert resolution—may be dealt with specifically, swiftly and expertly.
We endorse the Government's recognition of the crucial years of childhood and of the importance of supporting families in need. We remain concerned about the Government's unwillingness adequately to fund effective preventive services and clearly to instruct local government to provide them. Clause 16 does not increase the priority given to day care for children, which is not a luxury but a sensible and essential resource that can help the family and prevent the strains and breakdowns that are so costly both in human and in material terms.
Only one quarter of three and four-year-olds have either a full-time or part-time nursery place. We need more and better-regulated nurseries, child minders and other specialist day care services. Day care does not undermine family responsibility but allows the family the space and support that it often needs to make the family a happy arid healthy unit.
The Bill leaves it to the discretion of local authorities to define and deliver what they consider to be adequate day care. We believe that local authorities need fair criteria for the provision of day care, so that the service encompasses not only families in crisis but all parents who would cope better with their family responsibilities and play their full economic role if a properly funded day care service existed.
It is a matter of major concern to us that the Government show no sign of introducing better regulation on the licensing and training of day care providers in the private sector. Instead, there is talk of the Government deregulating that sector in respect of day care for children aged over five years. However, day care as we know it is 1121 not only about infants but is a crucial service for school age children in families needing support when schooling is not available.
Children and youngsters should not be placed in the care of people and places that have not been properly inspected. We cannot expect parents to be the only or even the best judge of the competence and quality of carers in a deregulated private sector. We hope to persuade the Government to consider that aspect again. I look forward to hearing later from my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong), who hopes to speak on that subject in more detail.
We welcome the Government's intention in clause 20 to address the needs of the 12,000 children who leave care at age 18 or thereabouts. Youngsters leaving home face a difficult time, but it is made especially traumatic for young people who have no family or parents to fall back on. We are astonished that the Government will not ensure that that group will enjoy the same level of social security as young people aged 25, who receive the full adult rate. Youngsters aged 18 who have no family and who leave care are as much in need, if not more so, of the higher adult level of benefit that their older peers receive when they are assumed to be independent of kith and kin.
The scandal of the young homeless, especially in big cities, shocks many—including Barnardo's and Shelter, which estimate that there are 150,000 young homeless. The number grows, but no solution is yet in sight. The need for more resources, more support and the growing outrage at so many young lives being wasted must be recognised by the House. Many organisations help those young people, but they are overwhelmed by their numbers and are hampered by legislation. I welcome the Minister's announcement about an amendment, which we shall examine in detail, concerning runaway youngsters. Those youngsters are estranged from their parents for various reasons and live on the streets, with all the dangers that entails. They need support and security, and time to solve their problems. The Minister accepts that, and we welcome the tone of his comments this afternoon.
Organisations that seek to help such youngsters will be acting illegally if they do not immediately notify those youngsters' whereabouts. Often, they need a little time to talk about their difficulties—and they must be sure that those helping them will not promptly be asked to return those youngsters to the people from whom they have run away. The Church of England Children's Society informs me that the law hinders its efforts to reunite children and adolescents with their families and to find them a safe place while they sort themselves out. In view of the Minister's announcement about an amendment, I hope that the House agrees that that is an area in which it can assist, by providing a necessary and lawful breathing space for helpers and for the hurt and unhappy youngsters concerned. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), and others of my right hon. and hon. Friends, will want to pursue that point.
The Bill introduces new court procedures, new social work tasks, and a requirement for new expertise in seeking care orders that deal with rights, responsibilities, access, where children may be placed, and who may look after them. That amounts to a major challenge in the training of social workers and the courts in those new duties. The new 1122 emergency protection order, for example, will last a maximum of eight days, and there is a right of parental challenge after 72 hours. A social worker will have to investigate and guide the court not only in respect of the grounds of the order but in contacts with parents and medical or psychiatric examinations. Most local authorities will be compelled to reallocate resources and find additional staff time for those new obligations.
Any reasonable assessment of those new tasks reveals that there remains an unreasonable expectation by the Government as to the ability of local authorities to finance staff training for those new demands. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House will re-examine that aspect. Good planning, good preparation and good training will always win the day. The Bill sets the seal on child care and child protection for generations to come. It must not be introduced only to founder because of underprepared or poorly instructed staff in local authorities and in the courts.
The Bill, elegant and straightforward in its aim, still leaves too much to fortune. It places an unhappy and worrying reliance on decisions still to be made by rules of court or by the Secretary of State. It appears that fundamental areas of regulation will be left to secondary legislation and will not benefit from parliamentary scrutiny. In those circumstances, rules of court will determine who will be party to care proceedings and when a child will have a right to party status in care proceedings. We believe that a child should automatically have a right to party status in care proceedings. Rules of court may also determine who will be notified of an emergency protection order. We think that that should be made clear in the Bill.
Likewise, regulations to be made by the Secretary of State at some future date may define the notification procedure for private fostering arrangements. What is worrying about that is that a similar regulation-making power in the Foster Children Act 1980 was inserted, and regulations were not made. We support the view of the Save the Children Fund, which argues convincingly that there is an absolute need for regulations on private fostering to be inserted into primary legislation and not left in limbo, perhaps never to be introduced.
Opposition Members believe that omissions from the body of the Bill, such as those that I have just mentioned, will introduce unnecessary uncertainty and variation throughout the care and court system. We shall press the Government strongly to encode those fundamental elements. In all, the Bill contains more than 20 regulation-making powers, which we believe must be re-examined with a view to the full incorporaton of such regulations in the Bill.
We remain impressed by the Lord Chancellor's confidence that care cases will now move freely within the court structure, and will swiftly find their appropriate level and resolution. The Bill, however, does not specify how decisions will be reached, and what appeals may operate should a party wish to challenge the choice of court. We urge the Government to review the matter, and to say how the procedures will operate and how cases will be managed without delay, if only because confusion looms in that part of the Bill.
We believe that the Bill must contain clear directives so that children and their families do not suffer unnecessary harm owing to a lack of resources and of firm regulation in court procedures. Their future should not hang in the 1123 balance of a yet unspecified set of adjustments and mere tinkerings with our over-burdened court system. Our children—our people—deserve better.
The current set of changes will not resolve the present uneven service that operates in England and Wales. The present guardian ad litem service, for example, is patchy and variable, and requires urgent reform. Proper training and funding is needed, and the service should be independent and available at the same standard throughout the court system. That is clearly not the case at present, and we shall urge the Government to accept their obligation to improve this vital ingredient of current child care practice.
In the absence of a family court, we must at the very least have access to the expert advice of guardians in every case that affects a child's future, and not just in the cases that any particular court considers relevant. If the Government acted with a will, they could start to build part of the court welfare services that would be needed to supply a future family court, and we hope that they will not waste that opportunity.
§ Mr. Cryer
Representations have been made to me by a body that includes guardians ad litem. According to that body, the obligations in the Bill will increase expenditure to provide the service by two or three times. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that to provide the basis for the Bill's success such a resource must be provided by the Government.
§ Mr. Clarke
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but the Minister did not mention resources relating to such matters as guardians ad litem. I hope that that omission will be rectified before the end of the debate.
Schedule 2 requires local authorities to seek payment from parents for the cost of keeping children in care, and that gives us real cause for concern. All the expert advice suggests that the exercise will often be more costly than is intended, owing to the administrative cost of chasing small amounts of money.
Often children and young people go into care briefly to give their parents a much-needed break, especially children with severe handicaps. Such admissions to care are not frivolous but are part of a planned treatment programme, and should not normally incur a charge. Of course, parents need to know where they stand in relation to the service that they receive: in that context we welcome the Lord Chancellor's acknowledgement that written agreements are an integral part of a child's voluntary reception into care. Agreements should spell out clearly the responsibility of all parties. Nothing in the Bill, however, defines the nature of those agreed conditions. It should state that when a child is voluntarily received into care there should be a binding agreement about the procedures to be adopted for the child's discharge from care.
As the Bill stands, a child could be inappropriately withdrawn from care by a parent without warning, which could be upsetting and dangerous for the child. We need to specify the conditions of a voluntary reception, and we hope that the Government will recognise, as we do, that coming into care voluntarily should be a planned and positive event.
Although the Bill is generally considered well conceived in respect of its overall balance between children and their 1124 parents, some child care professionals believe that there is a serious gap that can be filled only by a new clause. That applies most notably to child protection.
Let me briefly outline the problem as I see it. Quite often circumstances suggest grounds for suspecting that a child is in some kind of danger, but there might well be insufficient evidence to seek an emergency protection order. I think that the Minister would agree with that. The problem was recognised by Louis Blom-Cooper and his colleagues in their report on the tragic death in June 1986 of Kimberley Carlile. They recommended a child assessment order. The idea has been supported by some child care organisations, which argue for an order that would allow for the medical examination of a child without its removal from the family. That would certainly be less invasive of family life, and might help to prevent tragedies that have been all too familiar in recent years.
We recognise—and the Minister touched on the issue this afternoon—that there is no overall agreement among child care professionals in this regard, but we very much hope that the Government will agree to explore the matter with us. We are deeply worried about the possibility that the frequent uncertainties and suspicions that surround potential child abuse may not be swiftly resolved through the proposed range of care procedures. What the Minister has said this afternoon confirms our belief that he shares our interest in the matter, and we look forward to hearing his comments at a later stage.
§ Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the need for protection might arise in many circumstances and among many people in a way that we do not normally expect? I wonder whether his attention has been drawn to a report in The Independent on Tuesday this week. It concerns a visitor to this country who is travelling around the country subjecting some children —with the approval of their parents—to pain and trouble, with the intention of improving their physical and mental development by taking them to the limits of pain and endurance.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it ought to be possible to stop the activities of people like Igor Charkovsky instantly, and that parents who are quite well off and well educated should be able to receive counselling in the same way as those living on council estates in my constituency?
§ Mr. Clarke
My hon. Friend has made a useful point, and I hope that, given the wide support that the House has demonstrated, it will be pursued effectively in Committee.
The nation's most precious resource is our children—that is, all children. Many people believe that the Bill will set the future of child care legislation and practice for generations to come. It is not too much to say that we shall not be forgiven if we get it wrong: we shall not be forgiven if we leave children without the protection, support and warmth of a loving home, which every child needs.
We all believe that children's welfare must not become the football of politicians, or of anyone else. We believe, too, that the Bill must not become distorted by sectional interests. When the spoken word has been forgotten arid the headlines discarded, people will have to live with and make sense of the legislation. The Bill must therefore receive the constructive yet critical scrutiny of all who believe, as we do, that urgent and effective reforms are needed.
1125 We must look closely at what the family means today and at whether the Bill really meets the challenge of what parents and adults need in order to help them through the stresses, the breakdowns and the tragedies that can overtake the closest of homes. We need to think about how we can provide every child who needs it with the physical, emotional and social support to set them on the road to responsible adulthood. The Children Bill provides a rare opportunity for all of us to demonstrate our own responsibility for the future—a future that must provide new generations with the essential building blocks for a safe, caring upbringing that is the right of each and every child.
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
The hon. Gentleman referred to hon. Members on both sides of the House wanting to help to secure responsible parenthood. Will he comment on children in the care of local authorities who prove to be persistent offenders and the view of the courts that they need greater powers to deal with such cases? Does he agree that the courts should have more powers when local authorities appear to fail to control unruly children?
§ Mr. Clarke
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's scathing comments about local authorities. If he serves on the Standing Committee, it may be possible for him to ensure that we make progress towards the establishment of family courts. Family courts in Scotland deal adequately with precisely the cases to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
Whether we like it or not, society changes and, with it, family life. Statistics suggest that there is more divorce now than in the past. If the present trend continues, it is likely that one in five children will have divorced parents. One in seven families is a single-parent family, and 1.5 million children are living in a family that is headed by one parent. Nine out of 10 single parents are women. Over half of them are dependent on social security. Many of the remainder are trapped in low-paid jobs.
I am not making a judgment on divorce or single-parent families. My point is that many families need more material help today—and immediately. For many, there has been an unimagined increase in material wealth in the past era, but the plain fact is that that wealth has not been distributed equally. During the last decade, many families have suffered a slow decline into poverty. As the rich have got richer, literally millions of families are living on the margins of life—on low incomes or social security benefits. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that 6.5 million people in families with children live in or near poverty. Furthermore, it was reported to the Select Committee on Social Services in July 1988 that Government figures underestimate the number of households with below average incomes.
What does that mean for children? One fifth of our population is under 16 years of age. A staggering 30 per cent. of children are living on the margins of poverty. We are talking about 3.5 million children. One in 10 children are estimated to be living in families where the head of the family is unemployed. While there has been more prosperity for some in this decade, for over 750,000 children there has been the experience of an unemployed parent, or parents, for over a year. Since 1979, according 1126 to the Child Poverty Action Group, there has been a 91 per cent. increase in children living on or below basic social security incomes. During the last decade there has been a 50 per cent. increase in the number of children living on family incomes that are below the average wage.
Contrary to popular opinion, this is no nanny state. Nanny in the last 10 years may have increased the overall level of social security payments but, had the system remained unchanged by the Government, nanny would not have taken over £11 billion from the global social security budget since 1979.
We debate the Children Bill knowing that nanny has been giving many of our families some nasty medicine in the last decade. Today families need more help than ever before. However, the Government refuse to provide clear instructions to local authorities on how to assess family need and what to do about it. There are no mandatory instructions to act. Certainly there is no mention of where resources will come from should a local authority wish to take up the Government's suggestion that they ought to identify need and do something about it.
It is not possible to look at the family in isolation. Family life is never simply the private world of parents and children. The family is shaped and influenced by a wider society. Few, surely, will share the Prime Minister's view that there is no such thing as society. One of the most significant changes in society in recent decades is the number of women in paid work. More and more families rely on the woman's wage. New labour markets often seek women in preference to men. Over half of married women now work. Rosy notions of every family with a male breadwinner, a housewife, two children, a hatchback and a labrador are very much the ad-men's invention. Families come in different shapes and sizes, with different ethnic origins, with different expectations and with very different incomes and attitudes towards such notions as marriage and the family.
We need a new system of co-ordinated welfare and legal provision to deal with the needs of today's families. The Bill makes a start in the right direction but it does not go far enough. For our part, we are stating clearly that the future of our most precious resource, our children, can be fully protected only by the development of a number of inter-related strategies—in health, education, housing and welfare. Although the Bill does not countenance the inclusion of wider policy changes, we hope to convince the Government that that is essential if we are to provide an effective and comprehensive service for our nation's children.
We recognise the need for an effective and co-ordinated set of family policies. The need for such a policy was made clear by the then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, a decade ago in his comments to the Royal Commission on the distribution of income and wealth. Similarly, we believe that the Government have not acknowledged that the success of the Bill will ultimately depend upon changes in other Government policies. Families cannot cope without the support of good schools, good health services and decent housing and, for those without a wage, a sufficient level of income to enable them to enjoy basic standards of living that the rest of us all too easily take for granted.
The Bill is the beginning of a new era in child care services and is a welcome start to the creation of a proper family policy for England and Wales. We do not expect to get at this juncture and with this Government a fully 1127 fledged set of family policies, but we state clearly for all to hear that that is our aim for the future. For the present, we shall bring a constructive and positive view to the Bill.
We urge the Government to join us in a spirit of co-operation when the Bill is considered in Committee. Improvements can be made to the new procedures. There are resource implications, from which we hope the Government will not shrink. In that context, the Bill is nevertheless a good Bill. The balance, in our view, is about right between parental responsibilities and children's rights.
We hope to convince the Government that this major landmark in child care legislation should not be seen in years to come as a collection of good intentions that lay barren through meanness in funding and a lack of clear thinking on some of the clauses. We ask the Government to join us in a spirit of shared optimism that here in this House we can lay the cornerstone of a better future for so many of our children and their parents or carers. I hope that we shall all be able to say that considerations of funding and political advantage came second and children first.
§ Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
The position of Conservative Members resembles that of an army under attack from every side. Not just one missile but a multitude is aimed in our direction. Shot, shell and cannonballs whistle over our battlements and past our ears. The river is rising, the siege is biting and violent thunderstorms rage upon us. If it is not the doctors, it is the lawyers, the football supporters, the brewers or the anti-privatisation lobby. While that barrage will never deter us from doing what we believe is right, it is nice, just for once, to discuss a Bill where surely sweetness, calm and light can obtain. Surely we must be at one in our desire to improve the lot of unfortunate children.
I dare say, having listened to the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), that there will be some disagreement. But even when the hon. Gentleman says nasty things he sounds so nice because he is such a delightful man and uses that charming Scottish accent. None the less, his speech presages a few disagreements in Committee. Some will arise about matters that are not in the Bill and others will occur when its aims are thought better achieved in a different way. But in general I am hopeful about the passage of the Bill.
I warmly welcome the central theme that the best interests of the child should govern court decisions. That is to be welcomed all the more because it is not a general rule. In abortion, experimentation on unborn children, I VF or other fertilisation techniques, the child is secondary. Tonight, for once thank God, the Bill states that the best interests of the child should govern court decisions.
I also welcome the simplification of the law enshrined in the Bill. As was said in another place, the measure will repeal no fewer than seven post-war Acts, and several other Acts relating to children will be limited by the new provisions in the Bill.
I welcome the emphasis on keeping families together. Local authorities are to be given powers to provide a service which might prevent the breakdown of families. I await with great interest more details of that service. At last we are getting away from the harm caused to society 1128 in the 1960s by Lord Jenkins' pressure for permissiveness in Britain. We are recognising the crucial importance to society of stable family life. When the Law Commission's report is acted on, I hope that there will be some changes to divorce rules, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Monklands, West, because divorce and the breakdown of families is the major cause of misery inflicted on children today. Of necessity, the Bill deals with the results and not the causes of that misery, but I welcome the fact that two important Departments of State are together on the Bill. I hope that the Solicitor-General's Department will be able to help the Department of Health in deciding what should be done to save a great many children from the misery that they presently have to bear when families break up.
It is a comfort that the lessons of Cleveland have been learnt. We await with great interest the comments of hon. Members who have particular knowledge of that ghastly case. No longer will it be possible for children to be torn from the family home and kept away for weeks as happened under the truly disgraceful regime of Dr. Marietta Higgs. Care proceedings are to be made fairer for parents and children. The Bill is built around those five major points and hon. Members on both sides of the House must support its aims, at any rate.
Of course there are a few criticisms. I share the view that it would have been much better to introduce family courts. I agree with the views expressed in another place that guardians ad litem must be independent of local authorities and be seen as such by parents. I read with great interest the debate in another place. The Lord Chancellor was clearly sympathetic to that view when he dealt with an amendment on the subject in another place on March 16 at column 398. Although the Lord Chancellor clearly agreed with the independence of the guardian ad litem, the amendment was not accepted because discussion on the consultation paper had not been completed. I do not know whether the discussion has now been completed, but I hope that the Lord Chancellor's Department eventually will administer a guardian ad litem scheme. If that happens—and there may be further amendments in Committee—it will be a useful step towards family courts.
I should like to ask my hon. and learned Friend a direct question about clause 16. The guidance on clause 16 states that the clauserequires local authorities to provide day care for children in need who are aged five or under and not attending school and enables them to provide such care or supervised activities as they consider appropriate for children who are attending a school.I entirely agree with that, but the next sentence is most enigmatic:It also empowers local authorities to make such provision for children who are not in need.I do not understand that. If we are to make provision for children who are not in need, we will not have the money and resources for provisions which children need. The Bill will require much more money to be spent, so why on earth are we frittering it away on provisions which children do not need? I should like some enlightenment on that point because I must warn my hon. and learned Friend that universal pre-school education from the age of two will become very expensive. I am in favour of such help being available to one-parent families in which the mother has to go out to work to keep her family and the child needs the 1129 service, for one reason or another, but it does not make sense to provide that service to children who do not need it.
I do not always trust local authorities. There have been recent cases of children becoming prostitutes while in local authority care and other recent cases of children being sexually abused by local authority staff while in care. I believe that now persons who have a police record for child molestation can no longer take posts under local authorities in child care without their records being known. We need to know whether that is now the case. Is my hon. and learned Friend confident that every possible safeguard has been built in to ensure that local authorities never abuse the role that society has given them as stand-ins for parents?
It is only fair to say a word or two about the fact that the overwhelming number of local authority officers do a wonderful job. They must sometimes feel that they can never get anything right. In the baby Beckford case, they did not take enough action and in the Cleveland case they took far too much. Balance in this matter is very important. That is why I am worried about young and inexperienced social workers being called upon to perform balancing acts of judgment which would be difficult for older people. In addition, many social workers have big case loads and that has meant problems for children in care.
Lines have to be drawn between stopping child sexual abuse and what happened at Cleveland, and between cruelty and discipline. To counter a point made earlier, I must say that I should certainly oppose any amendment that sought to prohibit spanking by parents. It would be absurd to try to pass a law that said that parents were not allowed in any circumstances to give a brisk tap from time to time on that part of the anatomy that the good Lord provided for the purpose. There is a great deal of difference between that and child abuse.
I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will take on board the great concern of some of us about the Church of England "Children's Plea" because there is another side to the question. Many children run away from good homes and not all children tell the truth. If we are proposing to set up an arrangement whereby such children can be kept away from their parents willy-nilly and whereby their parents will not even be informed, we shall be in serious trouble.
In a Bill of such complexity and importance, there are bound to be many questions, but my hon. and learned Friend can be absolutely assured of warm support for what he intends to do to help our children.
§ Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)
I have read the Official Report of the proceedings in the other place. With all due respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), with whom I rarely disagree, I must say without reservation that I gladly and warmly congratulate the Lords on the many hours of deliberation and concern devoted to the Bill. I must admit that I expressed concern when it was announced that the Bill was to start its passage in the other place, but one saw the House of Lords at its best in those discussions. No doubt my hon. Friend will make his points when the Bill goes into Committee and the 1130 Committee will perhaps rectify any points not rectified in the other place. Nevertheless, I regret that the Bill will not be debated in a Committee of the whole House because many hon. Members in the House today who are interested in the Bill and others who are otherwise engaged will not have the opportunity to serve on the Committee. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that we shall follow the Committee's deliberations closely and I wish its members God speed in bringing the Bill back adequately and suitably amended.
There has never been a more important Bill before Parliament. It is an opportunity to lay the foundations for stable families, to minimise the disadvantages, emotional stress and trauma suffered by innocent children and to end for ever the despair, grief, frustration, torment, mental torture, and humiliation which follow the award of custody to the other parent by the judiciary. A rational, fair and compassionate approach to the rules for family disputes could change the public's attitude to families and parenting for the better. Many children will benefit by improvements in their behaviour, standards, judgment, relationships, loyalties, mental strength, creative talents, personalities, compassion for others and attitudes to crime and violence. All those factors mould the character of our country. They are a sound investment for the future and influence our potential to survive and progress in today's and tomorrow's world. By abolishing the uncivilised battle for possession of a child by two people who once loved each other, the Children Bill, which emphasises the importance of both mothers and fathers in child-rearing, will end the inhuman, callous and cruel practice of divorcing a child from one of his or her loyal and devoted parents.
How many times have we interviewed constituents in our surgeries who are preparing for divorce? How many times have we witnessed the arguments between mother and father and looked across at the children involved in the dispute in despair, knowing that unless the couple make arrangements those children will be taken away from the love of one or the other parent? I have often witnessed that and I find it heart-breaking. I am fortunate to have been well and truly honoured with a faithful and kind wife and children, as well as grandchildren.
How many of us, having secured a majority of votes from 60,000 to 70,000 constituents, become disillusioned when crucial issues which above all involve the children of today, the mothers and fathers of tomorrow and the grandparents of the future are left to be dealt with through ten-minute Bills or Adjournment debates, when representatives of the Press Gallery and the media are tucked up in their beds? Children, parents and grandparents who are seeking help, guidance and support are rarely aware that some hon. Members are interested in the issue and are constantly seeking ways to help them in trying to solve their problems and, whenever possible, trying to introduce measures to alter the law. I hope that our debate today will have the media coverage that it deserves and that it will inform all involved that Parliament—not the politics of it, but all caring and compassionate hon. Members—is here to make every possible attempt to express the cries for help, to respond to the pleas for carefully-drafted laws to help people and to assist in introducing measures to solve most of the problems that the present legislation has failed to solve.
As has already been said, the Children Bill is a formidable piece of legislation to reform the law referring 1131 to children. It will help significantly in providing local authority services for children in need and for others requiring help. It will amend the present laws in respect of children's homes, community homes, voluntary homes and voluntary organisations and it will make provisions on fostering and adoption.
It is not possible in the short time available to me to cover even briefly the Bill's numerous clauses and I am sure that hon. Members will understand if I concentrate on asking all concerned to look again at extending further rights to grandparents. On Wednesday 17 February 1988 I presented a ten-minute Bill—the Grandparents (Adoption of Children) Bill. The House agreed to its First Reading, but the Bill failed to achieve a Second Reading on 22 April and therefore made no further progress. Nevertheless, I secured an Adjournment debate on 27 May on children in care and placed on the record the need for further consideration of grandparents' rights. I also submitted early-day motion 792 in the last Session of Parliament, headed "Grandparents' Rights and Grandchildren", which stated:That this House deplores the increasing frequency of grandparents being deprived of the right of access to, care, fostering or adoption of their grandchildren; notes with alarm the attitude of some social services employees; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to introduce early legislation to give legal rights to grandparents providing immediate right of access before children are taken into care and the right to be present or legally represented at any official hearing or inquiry regarding future access to, care, fostering and adoption of their grandchild or grandchildren.That early-day motion was supported by 331 right hon. and hon. Members of all parties. I draw it specifically to the attention of the House because with 650 hon. Members elected to serve in the House and entitled to take their seats, if 331 signed my early-day motion—a figure which could not include Mr. Speaker or yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and your colleagues as Deputy Speakers, and which could not include Ministers, the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition, senior Whips of either party and many others who could not sign an early-day motion—that means that an overwhelming majority of Members expressed the view that my early-day motion should be approved. If a majority of hon. Members declare their support—even for a early-day motion, of which many people take little notice—and their opinion that the Government should include such provisions in their legislation, the Government should, with the full support of the Opposition, ensure that such measures are introduced into law.
Therefore, I am disquieted, concerned and more than disappointed to find that, after all the pressure that has been brought to bear and all the questions that have been asked of the Leader of the House at Question Time about the progress of the Children Bill, and because of the promise that early legislation would be introduced to implement or to introduce measures to implement the provisions of the early-day motion, little if anything on that subject has been incorporated in the Bill. My research has not only left me bitterly disappointed—it has led me to realise that perhaps the only way to secure those provisions is to highlight for those who may serve on the Committee the clauses that I should like them to consider. I hope that you will bear with me in this, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not want to take too much time because many other hon. Members wish to speak, but I want to draw this matter to the attention of those on my own 1132 Front Bench as I noticed that my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West did not express much concern about grandparents when he might have spent a considerable time dealing with that issue.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke
I have enormous respect for my hon. Friend and I am grateful to him for giving way. One of my criticisms of the conclusions reached by the Lords, although it is not a criticism of the work that their Lordships and especially Labour colleagues carried out, was precisely the point that my hon. Friend has made—that that issue is not covered in the Bill. I happily give my hon. Friend the unqualified assurance that we shall fight in Committee and table amendments or new clauses to sustain the excellent point that he has made.
§ Mr. Powell
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that I shall be more satisfied with that promise than with the promises that I have received from the Leader of the House and other quarters. I thank my hon. Friend very much.
Although I have read practically every word that was uttered in the other place, which is why I express my gratitude for the work that their Lordships have accomplished, the only mention that I found of grandparents was on 6 December 1988, when Lord Meston stated:I ask that Clause 70 will not diminish the hard-won status of grandparents in care proceedings. In practice grandparents who are willing and able to help are still too often overlooked in these cases. At first sight, one criticism of the Bill before us is that it may make matters too difficult for grandparents arid for foster parents to contribute. Foster parents are special people entitled to special consideration." —[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 December 1988; Vol.502, c. 501.]I have received thousands of letters from grandparents all over the country which I have read and re-read. It has been suggested that I am not especially sensitive, but as the pairing Whip I am certainly sensitive. I am also especially sensitive to letters from grandparents who find themselves deprived of the opportunity to be with and to love their grandchildren, or even to see them. Grandparents who have reared children from birth until the ages of 11, 12 or 14 may find that the children are then either fostered out or taken away and the grandparents deprived of access to see them. When grandparents have to hide behind church walls, bus shelters, school walls and school toilets just to get a glimpse of their grandchildren, there is something wrong with the law. There is something wrong with a society that can allow such things to happen to grandparents.
§ Mr. Powell
I should like to finish this point first because it is important.
That is why I am campaigning for grandparents and that is why I am concerned that grandparents should have rights. Grandparents want rights because in today's society, where everybody is on the grab for what they can get, grandparents are only offering their love to someone else. They do not want anything from their grandchildren—all that they want is to give something. It is a refreshing change in today's avaricious society to have people who want to give something instead of always wanting to take.
§ Mr. Holt
I, too, have cases concerning grandparents which I shall perhaps come to later. In Cleveland, however, not only were the grandparents refused access, 1133 but the children were deliberately taken to places well away from Cleveland and no information was allowed to be passed to the grandparents, who were deliberately kept away from their grandchildren. Not only could those grandparents not sneak behind the school or anywhere else to see their grandchildren—they were not even allowed to know where the children were living.
§ Mr. Powell
Yes, I appreciate that point as I was fortunate to receive the Cleveland report from my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) and I have read every word of it. I appreciate the problems that occurred there and the trauma for the parents and grandparents. The Cleveland issue will undoubtedly be a subject for debate in the Standing Committee.
I shall hurriedly run through the clauses that I should like the Committee to consider, but first I should emphasise that the word "grandparents" is mentioned only twice in the Bill, on both occasions in the same context. On page 66, line 24, as part of clause 75(1), the definition of "relative" is given as follows:'relative', in relation to a child, means a grandparent, brother, sister, uncle or aunt (whether of the full blood or half blood or by affinity) or step-parent".The same definition is given in clause 55, which is somewhat negative in relation to grandparents in that in paragraph (1)(a)(iii) it prevents them from fostering their grandchildren. However, clause 56 (5)(a)(iii), on page 52, gives the local authority the right, if necessary, to put a child in the care of its grandparents or other relative. This seems to be only a backup if the welfare of the child is in danger without private fostering. I should have thought that the latter section would have come before the former in that it would be better to put a child in the care of a relative before considering private fostering arrangements. The same argument applies to clause 50, which relates to the welfare of children in the care of voluntary organisations. Apart from a mention in schedule 7, paragraph 2(1)(a), under "Privately fostered children", there appears to be no further mention of grandparents or relatives in the whole Bill.
After all the promises given from the Government Front Bench about all the points that I have made, I should have expected far more thought and consideration to be given to the subject of grandparents. For some reason, grandparents do not seem to be defined as members of the child's family unless the child has been living with them and they have parental responsibility for the child, or the grandparents are living with the children. On page 12, in clause 15(10) "family" in relation to such a child is defined as including any person who has parental responsibility for the child and any other person with whom he has been living. That definition would normally be taken to mean parents, step-parents, adoptive parents, foster parents, siblings and, of course, grandparents, and indeed uncles and aunts who happen to be living in the same house.
There is so much to be said that I will trust my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West to read what I have prepared. That will enable me to conclude my speech and give my colleagues and a number of Conservative Members the opportunity to be called. I do not believe in hogging the Floor when my hon. Friend on the Front Bench can take up these matters.
1134 There are a number of other places in the Bill where it may be possible to include specific mention of grandparents. This must be given very careful consideration since it may be wrong to give grandparents certain rights while not giving them the responsibility that parents have to bear. I do not see many problems arising if we aim to give grandparents reasonable access to children who happen to be under or about to come under local authority care.
The other issue to which I wish to refer concerns the inadequacy of the funding provided by the Government for the whole of the Bill. I want to be assured that there will be plenty of funding for adequate training of people. I have a great regard and respect for the majority of social workers and I have come in contact with a number of them, in connection not only with grandparents' rights but with other matters, and I feel that perhaps more money should be spent on the training of social workers.
I share the view expressed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame Jill Knight) about family courts. "Agenda", the local government booklet, states:NCH has joined forces with other agencies in the Family Courts Campaign. It is our belief, and that of other organisations, that the interests of children brought before Courts in whatever manner would be better served by the creation of a unified Family Court. The Lord Chancellor's views in debates suggests that he does not contemplate introducing legislation for the establishment of such a court at this time.I believe that if such a court were established it could solve a lot of our problems, particularly the problems of grandparents in relation to adoption and access.
§ 6.4 pm
§ Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)
I begin by promising the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) that if it is my good fortune to be on the Committee of the Bill, as I hope it will, I will support his campaign for grandparents, to get those clauses in place. I am not even sure that it will be necessary, because the Minister referred in his opening remarks to the fact that he was taking on board something to safeguard the rights of grandparents. So I believe that the hon. Gentleman's long campaign has not been in vain. It shows that when Back Benchers keep going they can get there in the end. So I say, "Well done".
Everybody will agree that the Children Bill is long overdue, yet, because of the time it has taken to produce it, I am sure that it is a better and stronger Bill. Over the past few years, we have all read of extremely sad and unnecessary cases resulting in harm to, and sometimes the death of, a baby or a child. The details of such cases have been so horrific that many people have been unable to read very far beyond the headlines. This would be a very poor nation if we failed to learn the lessons from each of the inquiries that followed such tragedies.
The Criminal Justice Act 1988 contained any amount of splendid provisions for the further protection of children and they were debated at length before being approved by Parliament. That Act, as it applied to children and court procedures, had a great measure of all-party support as well as great public support. I anticipate that the passage of the Children Bill will be marked by efforts to put children's needs first and political differences aside.
Of course, the Opposition will wish to make amendments, and rightly so; that is what an Opposition are for. But also the Government will want to put in other 1135 measures to complete the work that has been done with great dedication in another place. The Government may want to address themselves to such things as the registration and regulation of standards of private nurseries and child minders and the exemption of children's organisations from liability for the offence of harbouring a minor. This applies to safe houses and places of refuge, and so on.
I hope that it will be possible for the Committee to make provision for the idea of a family court. There is a tremendous amount of support for the family court system in both Houses of Parliament. The Lord Chancellor was very encouraging about family courts on Second Reading of the Bill. I do not give in on this one. I think that, in the fullness of time, we shall get there, and perhaps within this Bill we can lay the foundations for family courts. I believe that the cornerstone of the Children Bill is the attempt to ensure that courts put the feelings and needs of the child first and foremost and provide a better balance between the rights of parents and those of children, and of course of grandparents.
Local authorities and child care agencies are in very stressful, high-risk professions. In child protection, many pressures are put on them. As in many professions, fatal mistakes have been made in the past. In the majority of cases, the system and procedures have failed and have produced indecision and confusion, resulting, perhaps, in tragedy.
The reform of child care law in respect of child care proceedings and the emergency protection of children will help field workers, and that is a big move forward. The courts' powers to protect children from abuse and neglect are strengthened in the Bill. The Children Bill, which is certain to be referred to a Committee tonight—I hope without the need for a vote—has been described by the Lord Chancellor asthe most comprehensive and far reaching reform of child law which has come before Parliament in living memory."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 December 1988; Vol. 502, c. 488.]There could not be a more meaningful statement.
We should remind ourselves that the Bill is the result of many excellent reports arising from tragic events, tremendous consultation with all organisations which take an interest in the welfare of children, an enormous amount of work within Government Departments and by the parliamentary draftsmen, and, not least, the parliamentary all-party children's group chaired by Baroness Faithfull, who is not too far away at this moment, and the many individuals who have campaigned for years for better child protection.
All hon. Members can take pride in the fact that, at last, the legislation has arrived. We must make it work and improve it so that it will be the good piece of legislation that the Lord Chancellor says it will be. It will certainly be long and jolly hard work for hon. Members on the Committee. Let us pay tribute to the marvellous work that was undertaken in another place. Let parents and grandparents everywhere be aware that, at last, Parliament is listening to the children's cries of misery. At last we will have on the statute book legislation that will bring greater child protection.
§ Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)
I welcome this clarification and simplification of the current legislation dealing with children. However, I and other hon. Members are disappointed that the Government have not taken this opportunity to introduce family courts into our legal system. On Second Reading in the other place, the Lord Chancellor implied that the proposals in the Bill were the first stage in the process of introducing family courts. He implied also that it would be inappropriate to attempt major reforms in one go, and that a gradual approach would be more beneficial. I must admit that other Government proposals for reform, including those for the legal profession, have not led me to believe that the words "caution" and "prudenc" are part of the Government's vocabulary. Perhaps I will be proved wrong.
In 1974, the Finer committee produced its proposals for a unified family court system. Since then, there has been a steady growth of support. Today, it would be difficult to find many voices in disagreement. Our legal system is complex and far from accessible. Even if the Government's proposed changes to the legal system and the legal profession are accepted, the experience of having to go to law to resolve a family problem will not be less frightening and awesome to people who are often under emotional stress. Decisions to take a child into custody or to award custody and other similar moves are not reached lightly or easily. Such decisions have serious consequences, not only for the child but for other members of the family. Whatever system or methods we employ, we cannot always guarantee that the right decision will be made.
Evidence from countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which have had family court systems for over 10 years, shows that such a system can work successfully and improve standards in child care and the prevention of abuse. A family court would provide an informal and sensitive setting in which family problems and solutions could be aired freely. Consultation, discussion and decisions would be undertaken by staff who are specifically trained in child care and are aware of the needs of a child in a family.
Often, under the present system, children regard themselves as the cause of the problems. They suffer guilt when none should apply. In other cases, they are treated merely as the chattels of one or other of the partners. Family courts could do a great deal to relieve that burden. Parents, children and, if advantageous, members of the extended family would all be involved in reaching the decision that will affect the children's lives and future. I urge the Government to reconsider their position and use this opportunity—it may be the last—to introduce family courts into our legal system.
In the absence of family courts, the proposals to extend jurisdiction to county courts and the High Court will help to simplify and rationalise the present law and procedures. However, they also raise concern about possible delays in the hearing of cases, despite the provisions in clause 10 which create an assumption that delay is detrimental to a child's welfare. Long waits and serious delays are more likely to occur when courts are already far overstretched. There is also some worry that the expertise that has been built up by juvenile court magistrates, as is the case in London, will be lost. It is important to ensure that there 1137 are adequate resources and provisions for the training of magistrates and circuit judges before they hear cases brought under the Act.
Another matter of concern is the amount of secondary legislation which is allowed by the Bill. As we know, such legislation tends to get a perfunctory glance from Parliament, which has little or no opportunity to scrutinise it before it is implemented. In some cases, regulations which may have major implications are not introduced. Some matters in the Children Bill which are left to the regulating powers of the Secretary of State or to the rules of court raise too many important issues to be allowed to slip by.
For instance, should not children have an automatic right to party status in care proceedings? After all, their welfare and future lives are under consideration. Surely it should be the case that a child is not a party to proceedings only because of very exceptional circumstances. Such an event could be accommodated by some form of exemption subsection in the main clause conferring on the child automatic party status in care proceedings. That is a matter for further discussion in Committee.
Is this not an opportune time for the Government to consider a children's charter incorporating certain rights and entitlements, which could be attached to the Bill? The general thrust of the Bill—that is, that a child's welfare should be the court's paramount concern—is welcome, but a charter outlining children's rights in relation to that welfare would help to clarify matters and act as a backdrop against which all decisions are made.
Several groups and individuals have expressed fears about the structure of the Bill and difficulties of interpretation. The Bill needs more guidance on interpretation, particularly specific phrases as they relate to each clause. Some of the phrases I have in mind are "in need" and "standards of care". Perhaps they could be clarified. I know that the Lord Chancellor hopes that the Bill should be read as a whole, but he should be aware also that different interpretations are easily applied to a Bill of this nature. It is important that there should be uniformity among those who read and apply it.
I am a little concerned also at the lack of attention to the need for more staff and resources. Recent reports on child abuse have shown that it is necessary to do that if we are to get right the balance between overreacting and underreacting. More and better trained social workers, foster parents, police and other groups are the key to success—
§ Sir William Clark (Croydon, South)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a violation of the tradition of the House that an hon. Member should read his speech? Members on the Front Benches read speeches, but am I not right in saying that a Back Bencher is not entitled to read a speech?
§ Mr. Speaker
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the tradition is to refer to notes but not to read from them.
§ Mr. Fearn
The matter is of such concern that we should get everything right. So far, every hon. Member has read his speech and got it correct. We must be correct on the Bill. I hope the hon. Gentleman accepts that.
The Bill does not address important factors that contribute to the well-being of children, such as 1138 inadequate housing and income, general deprivation and others that are sometimes aggravated by the Government's lack of concern and their policy on local government, social security payments, child allowance and numerous other matters. The Government have the power and the opportunity to improve provisions. They should do so if they are serious about offering children protection and the good start in life that is so important. Some of the legislation, regulations and policy governing those aspects interlock with the provisions of the Bill. I should like to see more scrutiny of the effects of other legislation and local government duties and responsibilities on the provisions of the Bill, and vice versa.
The Bill has been the subject of much lobbying in the other place. The noble Lords tabled many amendments. Very few were accepted by the Lord Chancellor, although some views were taken into account. The lobbying has continued here. The majority of the amendments that will be tabled have been carefully thought through by people with wide experience of child care.
I said earlier that the Bill is most welcome. I believe that in general it will have all-party support and will not prove contentious. The matters it raises are serious and need careful deliberation. Time will be required to ensure that no ground is left unploughed. As other hon. Members have said, we must get the legislation right this time. Will the Government assure hon. Members that the House will be given whatever time is necessary to get it right? I hope that proceedings on the Bill in this House will show that there are times when all sides can negotiate, co-operate and reach the agreement which in this case will prove to be in the best interests of the children and of their families.
§ Sir Dennis Walters (Westbury)
As my hon. and learned Friend the Minister explained in his clear and convincing speech, there is a great deal in the Bill which should help to improve and protect the arrangements for the welfare of children and it is much to be welcomed, as was recognised by the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) in his thoughtful speech on behalf of the Opposition. I should have welcomed the Bill even more if it had contained a specific provision about family courts, and I agree with several hon. Members who thought that this might have been an opportunity to take that step which has been debated and written about for such a long time.
It was my privilege to introduce the Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Act 1986, which received Royal Assent in July that year. Inevitably, to win the support of the Government, without which no private Member's Bill has much chance of reaching the statute book, I had to jettison a number of proposals which were in the original Bill. Nevertheless, a good many others were still in the measure when it received its Third Reading. One change that I sought to achieve was the introduction of the necessary powers to ensure that in appropriate cases children could be compulsorily examined medically from time to time as a safeguard against neglect or abuse. I am pleased that provisions for medical examination of children are included in the Bill, in relation both to emergency protection orders under clause 36(4) and supervision orders under the provisions of part 1 of schedule 3.
The legislation that I introduced will be repealed when this far more important, comprehensive and significant 1139 Bill comes into force, and I make no complaint about that. It is right that the law in relation to children should be gathered together in one place as far as possible. When my small measure was passed, one was looking forward to comprehensive legislation to follow it and that is now taking place. I am concerned, however, that some of the positive things achieved by my Act are being left rather vague or at the mercy of subordinate powers. The appeal provisions of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 in care cases will be repealed by the Bill. One reform that was made by my Act was an amendment to the 1969 Act to give to all parents a right of appeal in care cases. The new measure is silent about the right of appeal in care cases or in relation to any of the types of family proceedings under the Bill.
Clause 67 gives the Lord Chancellor very wide powers and discretion as to the types of proceedings that take place in different courts and the transfer of proceedings from one court to another. There is some unease, which I share, that once the Bill is enacted those powers may be used to confine some family proceedings to magistrates courts in the interests of economy. Most people who know about the subject would much prefer that this specalist and delicate work was dealt with by professional judges and, in particular, that the very special expertise of the High Court judges in the Family Division should not be lost to this important part of our law. I hope that that will be clarified in Committee. Perhaps my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will refer to it in his reply to the debate. If we are not to lose the expertise of High Court judges, it is important that there should be a full and general right of appeal to the High Court and from there to the Court of Appeal. I hope, again, that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister can assure us that that will be forthcoming, if not through an amendment to the Bill, by the rules to be made under it.
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) spoke eloquently about grandparents. I, too, am concerned about the position of grandparents. The Act that I introduced gave grandparents a specific right to apply to become parties in care proceedings, and for them to become parties with the leave of the court within certain parameters prescribed by the rules of court. That is being repealed and the provisions of the Bill make no express reference to grandparents. I appreciate that under clause 9 there is the general possibility for any person who can show a sufficient connection with a child to apply for leave to make an application for a section 7 order. I appreciate, too, that under clause 9 (6) rules of court may at a later date enlarge the categories of persons who have an automatic right to apply for a section 7 order, and that under clause 68 rules of court may make provision as to the persons entitled to be parties to proceedings or to participate by making representations to the court. I strongly believe, however, that after the parents there is a particular and special relationship between a child and his grandparents, both emotionally and in terms of responsibility. Grandparents have a particular right to be consulted and, if they wish, to be involved in court proceedings concerning their grandchildren's future. I hope that will be incorporated in the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will note that considerable feeling has been expressed by Members on both sides of the House about that issue.
Like other hon. Members, I was enormously impressed by the number of letters that I received from grandparents 1140 all over the country expressing the depth of their feelings and experiences, to which the hon. Member for Ogmore referred so eloquently.
I believe that what I have asked for could easily be incorporated in the Bill, and would make it a better Bill. I hope that the Minister and the Government will take a sympathetic attitude to the points that have been raised.
§ Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Westbury (Sir D. Walters) and his remarks about grandparents. The hon. Member for Langaurgh (Mr. Holt) intervened in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) concerning grandparents, and expressed the deep disquiet and distress of grandparents in Cleveland, who, when their grandchildren were taken from them, found to their chagrin that they had no recourse. The Minister said that he would listen carefully to any changes for grandparents that we might suggest in Committee. We look forward to that opportunity.
It is proper that you, Mr. Speaker, are in the Chair dealing with the Second Reading, because it was your granting of a private notice question fewer than two years ago that obliged the Minister to explain to the House what was happening in Cleveland and what he proposed to do about it. The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) mentioned all those who have been involved over the years with child care. Many of us know how difficult it is to involve oneself in child care, because it is an emotive subject and whoever raises it finds his head squarely above the parapet and likely to be shot off. You, Mr. Speaker, heard the Minister announce a judicial inquiry. The recommendations of Lord Justice Butler-Sloss in that inquiry, the work of Members of Parliament, both in and outside the House, on child care, and the steady drift of recommendations in committees, have resulted in this Bill. It is a Bill that will probably lay down the child care laws of our country for many years to come. Parliament has come together, through you, Mr. Speaker, the Minister, and other Front Bench spokesmen and hon. Members, to change the law of the land. That is the way in which we should be doing things in the House. In one sense, I am grateful to be part of that procedure and to see how it has worked positively in the interests of our children.
I came to the House rather in the manner of Mark Antony, because I came to bury not Caesar but Cleveland as an issue of child abuse. In the past two years the county has suffered enormously due to a great deal of irresponsible comment. A great stigma lay across the county. That stigma has now been erased. All the major participants in the Cleveland child abuse crisis are no longer in their jobs. It is not for me to dwell on that, but there are new faces, a new broom is sweeping clean and there is a new co-operation between the police and social services in Cleveland. There is a genuine attempt to regain in the county confidence, not only in our Health Service, but in social services. Social services took a great deal of criticism for their actions—so, too, did the health authority—and, now the tide is turning, we see a genuine effort to resolve the difficulties. Multi-disciplinary proceedings are now being established between the police and social services. Those will be in the interests of the people of Cleveland. They may, in a sad but necessary 1141 way, lead the way for other multi-disciplinary proceedings up and down the country, which would be of great assistance to other children.
We have seen throughout the ages that children do not get other than a raw deal. I recently reviewed a book about how children have been abandoned throughout the ages. In our own generation, we have seen Parliaments letting power slip away from them and an imbalance created between family life and the proper role of the social services.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) stated sincerely that family life remains the basis of our society. That family life has come under a fundamental and serious attack over the years. For a variety of sociological reasons, as well as others, we have seen a steady erosion of the family base. The Bill should seek to restore the balance in the family and should also clearly state the role of the local authority. We need training for social workers. They find themselves in sensitive and difficult situations. We need to share the burden among those who are involved in child care work. It should not be right for one individual to take full responsibility for a particular incident.
In Cleveland we saw the dreadful effect of the place of safety order, which could be misused in the hands of an over-zealous authority. The place of safety order is being replaced by an emergency protection order. The House should discuss what will happen in a real emergency where a child has not been revealed to the social worker or to whoever else visits the house. With the spirit that we have in the House and the unanimity among us—not perhaps on the detail, but certainly on the structure of the Bill and its importance—we can consider all those matters in Committee and devise something special, interesting and important for those children.
I have dwelt upon the effects of the crisis in Cleveland and the child care law in relation to Cleveland. I must do that in the interests of my constituents and all those who were involved. It has been a long haul for me, for the hon. Member for Langbaurgh who shares with me the constituency of Middlesbrough, and for the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin), who is not in the Chamber at present. I am reminded of the words of Winston Churchill in the 1930s, who said that the only shield of a Member of Parliament is his conscience. I refer, too, to the words of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who said that a man must do what he must in spite of all opposition, and that was the basis of all human morality.
Members of Parliament throughout the Cleveland crisis, and who have discussed child care in the House over many years, should feel a sense of achievement. If I catch the eye of the Committee of Selection, I shall look forward to working on the Committee and modifying the law of the land for children. Children are the greatest thing that any of us have ever had and that any of us ever will have. If we can make the future better for them, we will make the world and our country better, and our democracy a stronger and safer place.
§ Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)
I warmly welcome the Bill on behalf of my constituents. It represents a major reform of the law relating to children and the way in which they are brought up. It also affects the substance and incidence of parental status at law.
I declare an outside interest as I am parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales. I recently succeeded my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) to that post and I pay tribute to him for the long period of service that he gave to the federation and the considerable distinction with which he served it. I am glad to say that the federation welcomes the Bill and wishes to see it progress speedily to the statute book. A number of the aspects, however, concern the police and it would be helpful if my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General would comment on those when he replies.
As other Members have already pointed out, it is noteworthy that the Bill makes no provision for family courts. The federation believes that such courts will be essential in the future. I understand that my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has suggested that the Bill will enable the law affecting children to be applied uniformly, with a single system of courts, and that the new machinery, by which cases can be transferred to the county court and the High Court, and care applications to the domestic courts, has been introduced so as to decriminalise those cases. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State referred to that earlier. However, the police believe that the concept of a family court is important. They would like to be assured that that concept has not been abandoned, especially as the Select Committee on Social Services has also commented on this issue and believes that the Government should go further with their reforms.
At present the police and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children have the right to take care proceedings. Clause 26(1) provides for a child to be placed in care or under the supervision of an "authorised person". As I understand it, the "authorised person" means the local authority and the NSPCC. The powers hitherto operated by the police are to be removed. That is a major departure from long-standing practice and the House should consider it with great care. It is unique to authorise the NSPCC, but not the police, to initiate care proceedings because the police work closely with teams of social workers. The police are the first line of complaint and should therefore retain the right to initiate proceedings. I note that the police still have limited powers under clause 38, which reduces from 28 days to three days their right to remove a child to suitable accommodation.
It may help the House in its consideration of this matter if I quote from an excellent publication which is well known to social workers and to police officers. It is entitled "Working Together" and was published by the Department of Health and Social Security and the Welsh Office in 1988. Paragraph 4.5 says of the role of the police:The police are involved in cases of child abuse as a consequence of their general responsibility for the protection of life and limb, the prevention and investigation of crime and the submission of cases for criminal proceedings. In preparing cases for submission to the Crown Prosecution Service the police work to a standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt, which is not the same as the balance of probabilities on which a juvenile court must be satisfied in care proceedings. Even in cases where the police are not considering a submission in 1143 respect of a prosecution they may be in possession of information that is highly relevant to any decision taken about a child who may need protection from abuse.It would be sensible for the House to bear that advice in mind when considering the important change in the law in clause 26.
Clause 64 will mean that the making of a care order is decriminalised as it is thought that the police no longer need to initiate care proceedings. There are cases, however, where such action could be desirable. The court can still use care orders, but not for committing criminal offences. Is that why the right of police to initiate care proceedings has been replaced by the words "authorised person"? Is that a valid reason for taking away the specific power of the police to apply for a care order?
Clause 9 deals with the power of the court to make section 7 orders dealing with residence. It appears to exclude grandparents from having an automatic right of access to their grandchild. I accept, as has already been pointed out, that clause 29 says that parental contact may be made byany other person mentioned in subsection (1) … who has obtained the leave of the court",but that clause does not specify grandparents as such. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Sir D. Walters) have already raised this matter and their views have the full support of the Police Federation. I was pleased when the Minister of State said that he would consider the matter in Committee.
Clause 18 deals with the protection of members of the public from what is called "serious injury". The police are concerned to know what is meant by that phrase and how it will he precisely defined. Would a child who, in the opinion of a social worker or of the police, may be likely to set fire to premises be covered by that definition? Does the fact that a child may not have actually committed such an offence prevent action if the threat or risk of injury is perceived? That is an important matter which must be considered carefully.
Clause 21 deals with the use of accommodation restricting the liberty of a child. Clause 21(1)(b) refers to a child being likely to "injure himself". The question of definition is again important. What does that phrase mean? Does it mean to hurt or to damage, which is the definition given in my copy of the "Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary of Current English"? Does that definition include wounding? The police believe that the definition should be broad and clearly understood. I hope that the Committee will study that issue.
Clause 27 is also important. In a serious case, what happens when care and criminal proceedings are involved and where the criminal proceedings must be disposed of before the care order is made? Presumably this has in the past been covered, and will continue to be covered, by interim care orders. Is it the case, in every court where the care and criminal proceedings take place in tandem, that the care proceedings are not finalised while the criminal proceedings are pending? That is another point that needs to be clarified.
Clause 36 deals with the very important question of the emergency protection order. Once such an order has been made, it can direct production of the child for a medical or psychiatric examination. What will be the position of the local authority if it is unable to locate the child? What sanction is available against a parent who refuses to 1144 produce for this purpose a child in whose interests such a medical or psychiatric examination is considered to be desirable? It seems to me that no sanction is spelt out in the Bill, and I think that one is desirable.
In clause 39(5), a local authority that is refused access to a child is required to consider whether to apply for an emergency protection order, a care order or a supervision order. Again, I ask what sanction exists in the case of parents who refuse access.
Clause 40, dealing with sanctions, covers only the offence of perjury. But parents cannot commit perjury unless they go to court. Again, I ask what sanctions exist against parents if they refuse to hand over the child, and refuse to give information as to the child's whereabouts.
Another point that I wish to raise concerns the difficulty of a social worker in gaining emergency admission if he believes that a child—in the words of clause 39(1)(c)—"has suffered significant harm or is likely to suffer such harm". As I understand the position, the social worker has to apply to a magistrate for an emergency protection order. But that can take time. With the best will in the world, several hours could elapse before entry was gained, via the emergency protection order, with power of entry. The only alternative would be to take a police officer along, in which case power of entry could be used without a warrant only under section 17(1)(a) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. This could result in great difficulty for the social worker and for the police. Indeed, the police are reluctant to use their power under that Act to gain entry for that purpose and in those circumstances. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will look at that matter very carefully.
Clause 5 deals with persons disqualified from being private foster parents. One of the points that the police have raised with me is whether clause 57(2)(d) applies to spent convictions under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. The police and hon. Members would find it helpful to know what procedures operate in respect of people who apply to become foster parents and who, say, have been private foster parents or have worked in a private children's home. Is there adequate protection to ensure that undesirable persons are not used as foster parents? What consideration is being given to the question of incorporating the recent guidance from the Home Office and the Department on checking the credentials of those who apply for various posts involving the care of children?
I mention these points because I think that it is important that they be clarified and spelt out clearly in the legislation. On behalf of my constituents and of the police, I warmly support the Bill and commend it to the House. I hope that it will speedily become the law of the land.
§ Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)
Like other hon. Members on both sides of the House, I welcome the proposals in this Bill. It is a radical Bill from a radical Lord Chancellor. It will repeal seven post-war statutes and will amend many others, and it is appropriate that we should be considering these proposals at this time— 100 years after the introduction of the first statute protecting children. Of course, the immediate background is Jasmine Beckford, Tyra Henry, Kimberley Carlile and the 100 or so children who die each year in those circumstances, as well as the 40,000 children on the at-risk register at various times of the year. But the reforms have much great implications.
1145 I worked for almost three years as the senior child care solicitor for the London borough of Islington. I found the law complicated, confusing and inefficient, and at that stage I, like the council, regarded Islington's policy as the finest in the country. At the outset I should like to pay tribute to the social workers and the health visitors, and, indeed, even the lawyers, who work in child care. Social workers have had a very bad press recently, and the House should be aware of the great pressures that they are under in terms of the decisions they have to make and in terms of the lack of resources. It is right also that we should thank groups like the National Children's Bureau and the Family Rights Group which work voluntarily and unaided and do the kind of research that makes the task of both Government and Opposition so much easier.
I welcome the commitment in clause 1 to general welfare principles. It is very important that when the courts consider the circumstances of a child they be able to consider that child, and not any other child, in those circumstances. But I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman, when he replies to the debate, will tell us why, in clause 18, the local authority is placed under a duty different from that under which the court is placed in clause 1. That is a serious difference. It is extremely important that, if the courts are to consider the welfare of the child as being of paramount importance, that should be the duty of the local authority as well, because it would be seeking to obtain a care order for exactly the same purpose—to achieve what was in the best interests of the child.
I welcome the proposed change in the grounds for care proceedings. They are exactly the same as the current grounds for those who apply for wardship—though I am sure that the judges will not admit that those are the grounds. I welcome the introduction of the emergency protection orders, but I want to express two reservations. I agree that the place of safety orders lasted for too long a period—28 days is a very long time. At the end of that period the local authority would apply either for an extension or for an interim care order, and would then get another interim care order, perhaps for the same period. I believe that it is right that a limit should be placed on the emergency protection order period, subject to the limited circumstances of a renewal. But I do not think that parents should be expected to wait 72 hours before applying for a discharge. It would be fair and proper for a parent to be able to make application within 24 hours if he believed that he had the evidence to challenge the decision of the local authority. It is quite wrong that the Bill, in the clauses concerning the emergency protection order, does not spell out the various notices that have to be served on parents. It is wrong that we have to wait until rules are produced before these matters are clarified. It is reasonable to expect these matters to be provided for in the Bill because they affect deeply the intentions of parents.
§ Mr. Devlin
I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point, but I do not agree with him at all about the 24 hours provision that he has suggested. Many parents, having had their children taken away, will not know immediately where to turn and will be extremely concerned. They will have to take legal advice, and if the circumstances arise, say, on Friday evening or Saturday morning, that legal advice will not be available until the following Monday. 1146 Those people will not want to go anywhere near a court or a judge or a social worker, or anyone else, until they have taken advice. The hon. Gentleman, like me, is a lawyer. He will therefore know that it sometimes takes time for people to think about the advice that they are given. Surely it is right that the period should be three days.
§ Mr. Vaz
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. That is why notices should state precisely what has happened to the child. When I gave out notices as a child care solicitor, they included the names and addresses of child care solicitors, including emergency numbers for them. If those factors were in the Bill, parents would know exactly who to turn to. They would have a detailed account of solicitors who practise in that area.
I agree that proceedings in the courts take too long and I welcome the provision which allows the courts to draw up timetables. I have sat for many hours and days in the Highbury Corner magistrates and juvenile court after adjournment after adjournment. That was bad for parents and for children. If the court could specify a timetable, everyone would be clear about how long proceedings would last.
I hope that the Solicitor-General will confirm that the legal aid requirements on representation will be met in full. It is important that parents and children have ready access to solicitors and to legal aid. I hope that he will also confirm that the necessary means test requirements will be waived in emergencies.
Having welcomed some parts of the Bill, I want to draw attention to what is missing from it. I share the concern of many hon. Members about the Government's failure to honour their commitment to a family court. In July last year the Attorney-General made a pledge to come back to the House in the autumn and make a statement about family courts. On Second Reading on 6 December in another place, the Lord Chancellor said that the Bill was sufficient, but I disagree. This is an attempt to get a family court on the cheap. Clause 67 gives courts the power to transfer cases from different jurisdictions. Surely it is only a small step forward to allow a family court. The Bill creates a good legislative framework, but without the court structure to support it the Act will fail.
I fear that the Bill does not propose a family court for the same reason given by the Solicitor-General in Committee during consideration of the Legal Aid Bill. He told me then that justice should be cost-effective. The Government care about the cost rather than the principle. That is why the Bill contains no proposal for a family court.
I hope that we will be able to consider the placing and size of courts. Juvenile courts are not properly situated in our major cities. For example, the juvenile court in Leicester consists of one room with a waiting room twice the size of the court into which more than 100 people may be crowded. No refreshments or public telephones are available and people feel that justice is not supported.
There should have been more in the Bill about training and the provision of more resources for the training of judges, magistrates, social workers, health visitors and lawyers. All those people have a part to play in court proceedings. One organization—I think the Association of Metropolitan Authorities—estimated that 24,000 people across London will need to be trained in one aspect of the law or another.
1147 I deeply regret the decision effectively to end the wardship jurisdiction. Section 7 of the Family Law Reform Act 1969 gave local authorities and parents the ultimate right to go to the High Court. As a practitioner, I felt that the best form of justice available was not that of the juvenile court where magistrates were pressed for time, but the High Court. I remember warding many children because I felt that the tribunal of the High Court offered the best chance available to bring before the court some elements of evidence that may not be acceptable. Rules of evidence and procedure made it desirable to go to the High Court. The wardship jurisdiction must be kept as a safety net for local authorities, children and parents. In Committee, we shall press the Minister to reassert his commitment to wardship.
I am disappointed that the Bill contains no commitment to the statutory provision of education for the under-fives. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) will make that point when she sums up. It is important that local authorities should have a statutory duty to provide such education.
In conclusion, I draw attention to three matters. First, I want to commend Leicestershire county council. Last year, the council set up the first ever child rights officer. With the assistance of the National Association of Young People in Care, a report was produced which eventually led to the appointment of Dr. Michael Lindsay—the first ever child rights officer. His purpose is to advise children in care, to hear any complaints that they make and report them to the local authority. His post and his work have been an enormous success.
Secondly, I should have liked to have seen more in the Bill about the need to prevent children being taken into care. Figures from the Department of Social Security reveal that last year £9.1 million was spent on work to prevent the breakdown of families. Yet £434.1 million was spent on fostering and residential care. We should encourage local authorities to do preventive work. I am sad to see that section 1 of the Child Care Act 1980, which enshrines the principle of spending money in order to diminish the need to take children into care, has been tucked away in the schedules.
The Bill will run out of money. The resources that have been allocated for it, as stated in the financial memorandum, are far too low. According to various organisations, the Bill will cost £12 million to implement.
Finally, I favour the use of the words "parental responsibility", but I would have liked to have seen something in the Bill about state responsibility. I would have liked to have seen something in the Bill which reflects the past 10 years. It is all very well having fine words and fine sentiments about protecting children, but look at the policies of the past 10 years. During that time there has been an increase in crime, homelessness, unemployment and poverty. There has been the termination of certain benefits and the freezing of child benefit. All that has led to deprivation, with 2.2 million children living at or near the margins of poverty. That in turn has led to omission, neglect and abuse.
Dickens said:In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived or so finely felt as injustice.If the Government want to do justice to children, they should use the Bill as a fresh start. They should arrest some 1148 of the appalling policies which have brought poverty to the nation's children. If they do that, they will have absolute and solid support from Opposition Members.
§ 7.8 pm
§ Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)
Several hon. Members have already referred to this Bill as a children's charter. It is interesting to recall that exactly that label was applied to the first legislation which went through Parliament that recognised the child's need for protection in the home; that was in 1889, just 100 years ago. It was 30 years ago that the United Nations declaration of the rights of children was signed, and later this year the United Nations General Assembly will debate the new United Nations convent ion on the rights of children.
In retrospect, I believe that the Bill will prove to be one of the most important of this Parliament, for it deals with the welfare of children— with our future. It covers the rights of children, and the rights and responsibilities of parents and of those who care for children. The Bill will also, happily, be seen to be one of the least controversial measures to pass through the Parliament.
The Bill's general philosophy and most, if not all, of its provisions have been welcomed by a wide range of organisations in the field, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The House will be aware that I have had the privilege of serving on the central executive committee of the NSPCC for the last nine years.
The events in Cleveland have inevitably focused attention on sexually abused children. The NSPCC figures for 1987, based on 10 per cent. of the register total, show a 21 per cent. increase in registration for sexually abused children. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that there has been an increase in the number of such cases. The problem is that we do not know the full extent; we only know the extent to which cases come to light.
It was interesting that Cleveland, and before that the establishment of Childline, led to a number of adults revealing that they had been abused when they were children. Child abuse is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, I have an interesting report from the director of the NSPCC discussing sexual assaults on children and whether the number is increasing— it is dated March 1925.
Sexual abuse is only part of the problem. Children are also subject to physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and simply being left alone. In 1987–88, the NSPCC dealt with referrals involving nearly 43,000 children, whilst the Department of Health provisional results from the child protection register show that 40,000 children in England need protection from abuse and neglect. That is the extent of the problem that the Bill seeks to tackle. It is important that we get right the legislative framework both for intervention and for dealing with cases after they have come to light.
However, deciding when and how the state should intervene in family life is an extremely difficult and sensitive matter. In Cleveland, perhaps social workers were prone to be too precipitate, while there has been a string of cases from Maria Colwell through to, just before Christmas, the case of Doreen Mason where, alas, social workers acted not at all or too late.
Before I came to Parliament I sat for a number of years as chairman of a juvenile court, and I actually had to make care orders. It is one thing for us to talk lightly in this place 1149 about children being taken into care: it is another to have in front of one a loving but inadequate mother and her children and to have to decide that it is in the best interests of the children for them to be taken away from the mother and put into care. We have to get such things right. We have to have the correct mechanisms for assessing what is best for the child in care, whether it should be in a children's home, whether it should have foster care, and whether and when it is to be returned to its home.
I welcome the provisions in the Bill affording flexibility in grounds for care, supervision and the new emergency protection order especially allowing intervention where there is "likely to be significant harm" to the child. In such cases, we do not have to wait until harm is actually proved. My hon. and learned Friend will not be surprised, however, if I say that the weapons in the social workers' armoury will still be inadequate as the Bill stands. He is well aware of the case for the assessment order, which was advocated by Louis Blom-Cooper in the Kimberley Carlile case; it was ventilated by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) in a ten-minute Bill about a year ago, and I have also sought to give the matter some publicity. I fear that the powers in the Bill will be inadequate for circumstances in which a social worker is unable to obtain access to a child, and an order requiring that child to be produced would fill that gap.
There is wide support among a number of organisations and practitioners in the field for such a measure, although I am aware that this support is not shared by directors of social services. I believe that their objections are ill-founded. I hope this matter can be discussed more fully in Committee.
I welcome the provision in the Bill for greater rights for children and parents and the involvement of others concerned. I warmly endorse the remarks made about grandparents, and other categories are also involved. For example, what should be the right of fathers in cases where there has been a separation and divorce and the mother has custody? I welcome the improved provisions for the review of cases of children in care, and I am pleased with the timetable for the disposal of cases and the increased use of guardians ad litem. In Committee, we shall need to discuss what exactly is their role, how they can be sure of their independence, and, indeed, who should be appointed guardians ad litem.
We should look, too, more closely at the provision of preventive measures. The NSPCC is, of course, a society for the prevention of cruelty to children. Surely there should be some obligation on local authorities to provide preventive measures. The desirability of such measures is illustrated by the fact that the Minister's Department estimates that about £9 million a year is spent on preventive work. Meanwhile, maintaining children in care is costing about £400 million.
Part of prevention is the provision of day care facilities for children under five years old. This matter should be explored further, for such facilities help the child to develop in a supportive atmosphere and can relieve pressures and tensions in the home that could otherwise lead to abuse.
Members will have received extensive and high-quality briefing from various bodies on a number of issues which 1150 I will not go into and which are better discussed in Committee, now that we are subject to the constraints of the ten-minute rule.
In closing, I point out that the NSPCC was founded in 1884, and had its royal charter in 1895. Since 1933 it has had the right uniquely—as my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) said—to initiate care proceedings, but it does so only because the legislation states that such proceedings can be initiated by a local authority or "authorised person" as designated by order of the Secretary of State. The NSPCC has been so authorised for 55 years, and has established its credentials beyond doubt. Perhaps it would be appropriate recognition of the work done by this society over 100 years if such authority, rather than being given by regulation, could be written into the Bill.
Although this is a good Bill, aspects of it are capable of being improved and others would benefit from clarification. I look forward to a constructive and fruitful discussion in Committee, from which I hope will emerge an even better Bill.
§ Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)
For many years I have worked for children's rights, so there are several matters that I would like to see included in this important Bill. However, since time is restricted to 10 minutes, I shall confine my remarks to the question of the responsibilities of local education authorities in the matter of the employment of children of school age.
I first began to be concerned about the employment of schoolchildren—in both waged and unwaged work—when I began teaching. Often girls were absent from school because they were caring for younger children, allowing the mother to go out to work when the usual child minding arrangements fell through. Other children's mothers had early morning cleaning jobs or evening jobs, and then my pupils would have the daily responsibility of looking after their younger siblings. Arrangements of this sort had a deleterious effect on their education and their lives. It does not take much imagination to conjure up the pitfalls of such arrangements when emergencies arise.
Most people in this country think that it does children good to do a job to earn a little pocket money, but many times I have tried to teach pupils who are half asleep, having been delivering newspapers since the small hours, in the dark and cold. They had regularly started work much earlier than the legally permitted time of 7 am. My pupils were often afraid of being attacked by dogs or strangers, but they wanted money for their own needs—because it would give them a degree of independence, enable them to buy clothes, and to keep up with their friends. In very poor families, children's pay is often important for the family's very survival.
Most people assume that regulations exist for properly protecting children in employment, but one third of all children in work are subject to accidents. That is a dreadful figure. Sadly, some work is so dangerous that children are killed doing it. Even if children like doing some of the jobs that they do, far too often they are exploited as cheap labour to the benefit of their employers. In theory, sections from eight different Acts govern child labour, but there is no specific legislation, except that relating to entertainment, which says that children aged below five years can work for up to two hours per day, and may attend the 1151 place of entertainment for up to five hours. Some of the charming babies who right hon. and hon. Members see in television advertisements may have been kept working for much longer than the public realise.
In 1973 a private Member's Bill, the Employment of Children Bill 1973, was presented by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer). It passed through all its stages but was never implemented. Its purpose was to introduce a national system giving local education authorities throughout the United Kingdom powers to oversee and control all employment by children in a trade or occupation carried on for profit, whether or not the child received a reward for the work undertaken. Local authorities would have been given powers to demand details of the type of work, place of work and hours worked. They would have been able to prohibit such employment, even if it were not unlawful but appeared to be unsuitable for the child by reference to his age or state of health, or because it would be prejudicial to his education. That Bill was passed in 1973—one and one half decades ago. Times have changed and the proposed penalties for which that Act provides are now very out of date. Increased adult unemployment has brought increased exploitation of children as cheap labour. It is even more vital today that the present patchwork of regulations is replaced by comprehensive, uniform national regulations to protect working children, and that those regulations are given teeth.
I commend to right hon. and hon. Members the booklet "School Age Workers in Britain Today" by Caroline Moorhead, published by the Anti-Slavery Society, which explodes many of the comfortable assumptions that most people make. The harsh fact is that about 2 million children work illegally in this country. No really effective mechanism exists to enforce the existing regulations. That is the task of education welfare officers, but there is only one for every 1,000 children of secondary school age, and so theirs is an impossible job. One authority that has taken the matter seriously is the Inner London education authority, but it is being abolished. In 1987, the ILEA appointed 10 new employment officers and a principal child employment officer to examine the problem.
Children working illegally are unprotected in every way. There is no insurance for them. There is no legal minimum wage for adults, so children's pay is very much less. A survey of children employed in the midlands reveals that some boys and girls work for as little as 30p per hour, but in central London pay can be very much higher. Outside all the safety nets are the increasing number of children living on the streets of London who have lost contact with their families and who are open to all kinds of exploitation and danger.
All Governments have failed to address the problem properly. Clear protective legislation must be put on the statute book to replace the existing mystifying patchwork of regulations that are honoured in the breach, and money must be made available to local authorities so that they can employ more child welfare officers to monitor and enforce the law. The Bill provides an opportunity to put right a dreadful situation. Our children are our stake in the future, and it is our duty to protect them from exploitation of all kinds.
§ Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)
Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Sir W. Clark) rebuked the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) for reading his speech. I have no notes because I lived through Cleveland, and anyone who lived through that does not need notes to make a speech in the House on that subject.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) and myself—as well as the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who is unwell and unfortunately not present—worked very hard together on the whole Cleveland scenario. Was there ever a child abuse crisis in Cleveland? The statistics show that the number of cases dealt with prior to the advent of Dr. Marietta Higgs was fairly consistent. The graph showed about 30 cases per month. It continued much as it had always done, which is probably true of every other part of the country—be it affluent Buckinghamshire or the less well-heeled areas in the east end of London.
Suddenly, for three months in Cleveland, children were being taken away from their parents—very often on the most specious grounds. It took the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, my hon. Friend and myself to bring that matter to the attention of the House, and for the House to react, before anything was done. One wonders how long that situation would have continued had it not been for the sharp eye of a newspaper reporter who noticed what was happening in the statistics for Cleveland and first raised the matter in a small paragraph in the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette.
The Bill now before the House is a consequence of that development. How is it that, from the days of Barnardo and Shaftesbury right through to the present—in future, perhaps the name of Bell will be mentioned—Parliament still cannot get it right? The answer is that we are trying to legislate for human nature, and however hard we try, we shall make mistakes. Parliament will always make mistakes. However, the Bill is a genuine and honest effort, in the light of what has occurred over the past three, four or five years, to put on the statute book legislation that is an improvement on the status quo.
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) has not only the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) in respect of grandparents but mine as well. In the child sex abuse cases with which I have dealt, I frequently found that the grandparents came off worst. They first lost their own children. In one case, that was because of a suicide. We all know about the situations that arise. When children are taken into care and subsequently adopted, their grandparents—who have done absolutely nothing wrong, and who may have nurtured and loved their grandchildren —are left with no access to them and no rights. They cannot even send their grandchildren a birthday present. That cannot be right in this country today. My hon. and learned Friend had better take that point on board. If he does not, I am sure that the Committee, on which I hope to serve, will make sure that it is taken into account.
That child was taken into care and subsequently adoped. The mother committed suicide. The grandparents had the children of the first marriage; one of the two children of the second marriage had been adopted, and the 1153 other was with the father. The father did not get on very well with his in-laws, who loved the child but were not allowed access to it.
The father tried to knock down a bus and was killed, so the child was put in care. The grandparents immediately asked if they could bring the child up along with its half-brother and sister, but they were not even allowed access. The child is to be adopted and they will have no rights at all. That is wrong.
A note was passed to me today about another family caught up in the Cleveland child sex abuse case. Three children were taken into care, under the care orders that we are to abolish, following medical examination by the discredited Cleveland doctors. It took the parents more than a year to take the case to court so that they could get their children back. There are two girls and a boy, all alleged by someone to have been sexually abused. That allegation, however, was completely disproved by the courts, and the parents were exonerated.
As a result, the parents have been given back the two eldest children, who are girls; the youngest, a boy, has been forcibly adopted. Those parents have lost their son. But they did nothing wrong. They may not have been the greatest parents in the world, but that is no reason for parents to lose their children. According to the note passed to me today, they have now moved to another part of the country—thanks to the help of one of my colleagues—to start a new life with the two daughters who are left, because they were afraid that they might lose them as well under the present law.
Many case histories have arisen out of Cleveland, as we know from the hon. Members for Ogmore and for Middlesbrough. I am sure that we shall deal with them all in Committee, but we should also examine aspects of the problem that are not dealt with in the Bill, such as the methods used to interrogate small children to determine whether—in someone's opinion—they have been abused. I find it almost incredible that small children have sometimes been faced with full-sized inflatable rubber dolls and, as a result of some action that they may or may not have taken, have been alleged to have been sexually abused.
I agree with those who say that there must be training. People should not be allowed to interfere in families' lives in this way unless they have been properly trained and assessed and we know that they are capable of making the right decision in 90 per cent. of cases. No one, of course, can always make the right decision—no one is perfect—but 90 per cent. is far better than the Cleveland average.
The Bill is only one step towards ensuring that matters continue to improve. As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough said, in Cleveland we are now trying to put all that has happened behind us, and a lead has been given by the Earl of Stockton. Last week three of us went to a disco in Cleveland. It was a Friday afternoon, and 1,700 children were enjoying themselves. That is the sort of image that we want—the image of a loving and caring community. We want to get rid of the image that the Cleveland case created. The Bill will go a long way towards achieving that, and I hope that I will be present to help it.
§ Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)
I do not want to follow what was said by the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt), except to make one comment. The hon. Gentleman asked why Parliament gets it wrong, and answered that it is because we are dealing with human nature, but I do not believe that we are—I do not think that it is in the nature of the overwhelming majority of people to abuse their children. In my view, we are dealing with the behaviour of a minority. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, and to others who may use that phrase, that whatever the outcome of the Cleveland case—whatever rights emerge from it, and whatever is said in discussion about it—we must not lull ourselves into believing that we have discovered all the cases of child sexual abuse in this country. We must accept the lessons of Cleveland, but we must also plead for more money, research and training for those who deal with such matters, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out.
As has already been said, we are debating the Bill in the context of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. One such right should be a child's right to live with his parents whenever possible, but if that is to happen many parents will need far more support than they receive now, or will receive under the Bill. According to some of the briefing that we have received, children who are taken into care are mainly the children of the poor. I am not sure that that is true. Children who are ill-treated are not necessarily the children of the poor, although such children are often discovered to have been ill-treated because they are already known to the agencies. We would be deceiving ourselves, however, if we believed that children in materially well-endowed homes or in professional homes are not suffering as others are, although they are a minority.
We must also distinguish between children in long-term care and those in short-term care. Many children who go into care leave within six weeks, and often there is no repetition of the difficulties that put them there. In the main, we are concerned with children who go into long-term care. Those children's families—whether they have broken down, are poor, or are cruel—have failed them, as indeed society has failed them.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) blamed what she called the permissive attitudes of Roy Jenkins. I have nothing to praise Roy Jenkins for, but if I could produce one factor that I believe has contributed to the break-up of families it is the current housing policies. The matters dealt with in the Bill must be taken in conjunction with a number of other issues.
Whatever we are talking about, however, we want to keep our children out of care. As Baroness Faithfull so eloquently put it in the other place recently, children who come into care are vulnerable children, they are frightened children, and they are often emotionally disturbed children. They are suspicious, mistrustful, unhappy and usually very lonely. They are not like the children of the family that will care for them if they go into a foster home. I am glad that the 1955 regulation which talks of people treating a child in care as though it were their own has been relaxed. Many children who come into care have contact with their parents, and it is now the policy of many agencies to continue that contact, for various reasons. Of the seven children whom I fostered for many years, only one had no parental contact.
1155 That brings me to a point that was lost in the other place, and I hope that we shall put it back into the Bill. Why should a child in care be subject to any form of corporal punishment? How can people say that such punishment is wrong in a residential home but right in a foster home? According to the survey done in Dartington, 83 per cent. of the children surveyed who were in long-term care had more than one foster placement and 56 per cent. had more than three. What sort of relationship will be built up if we defend the concept of corporal punishment for children in local authority care who are housed with foster parents? The concept that we should encourage parents to pay for their children in care is also wrong. It would be difficult to implement and it might do enormous damage if the parents are poor and already in need.
I referred earlier to the degree of support that will be needed if many of the provisions in the Bill are to work. Some hon. Members have already referred to the sad army of little children who have died as a result of one form of neglect or another—Jasmine Beckford, Kimberley Carlile, Maria Colwell, Tyra Henry and others. I do not know enough about the details of those cases to enable me to suggest what more ought to have been done. If, however, the aim is that children should stay with their families so that families can be kept together, they will need a great deal more financial support than is provided for in the Bill. The families to whom I referred—and many others—broke down because of a lack of the variety of support that is needed by such families. That support is crucial.
Children in care should have the right to complain about their treatment. When this matter was debated in another place the Lord Chancellor said that he would consider providing some means by which children would have a right to complain about their treatment. The Children's Legal Centre and the Voice for the Child in Care have argued strongly in favour of such a procedure. Children in care are vulnerable. They are often frightened about making complaints. A means must be provided by which they can make complaints.
I was glad to receive a letter that advocated that if children run away from home they have a right to be protected and should not be returned to the place from which they came. It has been impossible for me to obtain confirmation from a Government Department that there are 75,000 missing children, but that is the figure that has been given by the Children's Society. The society explained to me in a detailed letter how it had arrived at that figure. If it is accurate, it is an absolute disgrace that 75,000 children and young people are missing. Most of them will be between the ages of 14 and 16. I welcome the statement that safe houses will be provided, but we must find out why such a large number of children disappear from home and what can be done to assist them.
Reference has already been made to young people who leave care. The assistance and support that they need is crucial if they are not to end up on the streets of London—I have seen some of them—begging for support. The suggestion that young girls who have babies in order to get homes should be given the worst possible accommodation is absolutely unbelievable. If we do not want that pattern or cycle of deprivation to be repeated in a few years' time, that is exactly what we must not do. Those young women want homes and protection. They should not be blamed for the situation in which they find themselves.
We should also provide greater protection for children over the age of five who are being cared for after school. 1156 The regulations that apply to the employment of people known to have maltreated or abused children do not yet apply to the voluntary sector. I understand that a pilot scheme is being run, but greater protection is needed for children being looked after outside the home, whatever their age may be. That should apply to private fostering, too, which is not adequately provided for in the Bill. More information should also be made available to people who employ private nannies. That is a growing area of abuse.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon), who referred to working children. I have the honour to be chairman of the United Kingdom branch of Defence for Children International, which has published a document on working children as a result of a survey carried out in east London, and I can confirm everything that my hon. Friend said.
Another omission from the Bill that both I and Defence for Children International think should be rectified is the growth in the illegal adoption of children in many parts of Europe. The Council of Europe published a report on that practice. The House must consider how to deal with it before too long.
Although the Bill deals with a number of matters, there are still many omissions which suggest that we need an ombudsman for children and possibly a Minister for children who could deal with all the needs of vulnerable children and make sure that their interests are taken seriously.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
Sometimes I wonder whether the British really like children. Some of us sentimentalise them. Some of us, alas, brutalise them. Many of us strive, like parents anywhere, to cherish and nurture them. However, British society has a distressing record of undervaluing its children and young people.
Virtually all the reports of our schools inspectors point to the fact that schools expect far too little of our children. It is typical, but surely it is a source of shame, that this week it has been reported that there is not a single football club in the English League that enables its supporters, most of whom are young people, to play any part in the organisation of the club. Far too often, discussions that directly affect the lives, fortunes and future of children and young people appear to be dialogues between extinct volcanoes while those who are the subject of the dialogues stand on the sidelines, with no involvement and almost totally unnoticed.
I was interested when the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) referred to a children's rights officer. We pay far too little attention to the opinion of children about their lives and future. We have an ambivalent attitude towards parents and families. I welcome the marginally increased scope for grandparents to play their part. However, I believe that the wider family as a whole ought to be more carefully provided for in the Bill. Research shows that placements with relatives are a great deal more successful, on the whole, than other placements. The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) referred to the Dartington research, which highlighted the fact that many children who are placed in local authority care have several placements.
Fathers have rights, too. The hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) was absolutely right. We shall do women no good service if we assume that in practice they 1157 will be able to exclude a child's father from access if there is a family break-up. In that context, it is worth asking how many cases of abuse start with stepfathers.
We are making a serious mistake by not proceeding more rapidly with the establishment of children's courts. I have mentioned before to my right hon. Friend the value of the French system. The juge d'enfants is usually much younger than the average judge on the bench. He is a practising solicitor or advocate who leaves his practice for five or six years in order to preside over a special court for children.
I am not confident that a judge's training is the best preparation for making decisions about children. The Kilbrandon principle in Scotland is absolutely sound. The adversarial system may be effective in eliciting the truth. A judge's training allows him to adjudicate, but the adversarial system is appallingly corrosive of human relationships. The sooner that we introduce effective mediation, reconciliation and discussion of the appropriate outcome for a child—a procedure that has made great progress in children's hearings in Scotland—the better.
Turning to day care, when it is perfectly clear that there will be a huge demand for day care from commercial firms and others, I understand the Government's desire to allow a thousand flowers to bloom and for a market place to develop without too much Government interference. I should declare my interest in the British Franchise Association Ltd. I believe that one of the ways forward in the development of day care is to introduce the concept of franchising. One of the advantages of the franchising system is that the franchisor has a commitment regularly to inspect his franchisees to make sure that they are achieving adequate standards. That doubles the amount of inspection because there is private and public inspection. Perhaps it is a good idea to charge companies and large providers of day care a fee for inspection. At present there is a huge bottleneck in the registration and inspection of existing day-care nurseries because of the huge expansion in such provision. The Bill should contain clear criteria as to when day care is not adequate because one of the present problems is that the inadequacies of the criteria make it extremely difficult for people to strike out inadequate day care because nobody knows the grounds on which that should be done.
More day care at every level of income and at every level of provision is absolutely necessary. Day care can give women a genuine choice about their careers, and for single women trying to bring up a family it is indispensable to the family income.
As for social work training, I believe that there still runs through social services departments a clear misunderstanding of the Seebohm report. The concept of the generic social work department has been misinterpreted as a generic social worker. I am appalled that the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work can tell us that social workers are allocated to child care cases in their first year of fieldwork never having undertaken any child care work during their training. That is ridiculous. There is no point in considering pre-entry training in isolation from management practice among employers.
On the question of the resources available to social workers, there is scope for a considerable increase in the 1158 number of volunteers who would like to help and who could be useful. I have spoken on the subject before, and I believe the use of volunteers in child care work diminishes the dangers of assault for the social worker whom they accompany, increases the opportunity to visit families at times when it will be unrealistic and unreasonable to expect a statutory worker to attend and allows for the development of friendships between client families and volunteers which would be quite impossible for a professional to allow.
From my own experience and from the observation of others, most children over 16 come home when they want their laundry done and to get a good square meal at weekends. How many children leaving local authority care would love to be able to do that? I believe that there is scope for imaginative development as many older people living isolated and lonely lives would welcome the opportunity to develop a friendship across the generations and perhaps provide laundry or a meal at the weekend in return for friendship. Obviously there are risks involved and that suggestion will have to be considered, but it may prove useful.
We all know that the child is the father of the man and that patterns of parenting are passed down from one generation to the next. The figures provide distressing evidence that my generation has passed down a poisoned chalice. The Bill is the response to the working of that poison and a determined step towards the long-awaited antidote. I thank the Government for producing the Bill and for their willingness to continue to improve it. As many hon. Members have said, there is nothing more important than getting the protection of children in the legal system correct and ensuring as best we can that our families are enabled to bring up their children in ways which will make the Bill unnecessary.
§ Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich)
I welcome the Bill as a well-thought-out and constructive attempt to remedy an unsatisfactory state of affairs. I also welcome the fact that there has clearly been considerable consultation with various groups that represent children, and their views have been taken into account. I particularly welcome the replacement of the place of safety order with the eight-day emergency protection order, the reasonable access of the parents to the child and the attempt to avoid taking children into care who may have been abused by making arrangements for the abuser to leave home. I reiterate the comment I made in the debate on the Cleveland case. When that is not possible and when a child is taken into care at short notice, arrangements should be made to allow the mother to accompany the child so that the separation of young children and their mothers is not as dramatic and horrendous as it has been recently.
I should like to draw attention to a number of omissions from the Bill, and to some improvements that could be made. I should like there to be a child assessment order whereby the medical inspection of a child at home could take place if there were grounds for concern but they were not sufficient to justify further steps. In the case of Kimberley Carlile who hon. Members have mentioned and who was from the Ferrier estate in my constituency, had such a child assessment order been available to the health visitor who was particulary concerned but unable to insist on a medical inspection, that child would probably be alive 1159 today. While I recognise the difficulties involving liberty, interfering with parents' rights and social workers trying to build up good working relationships with parents, we have to put the child's safety first.
I regret the exclusion of children over five from regulation in regard to child minding, school holiday provision and private fostering. In recent months we have come to regret the lack of safeguards that existed in the past, and we omit those provisions at our peril. We are beginning to recognise that there is an unfortunate group of people in society who gravitate towards children for the wrong reasons. If we allow children to be preyed upon by such people, ultimately we shall find ourselves discussing an emergency Bill following a tragedy. I should like to prevent that instead of waiting for the sacrificial victims.
I shall raise an aspect of the Bill with which I am particularly concerned following recent events in a Greenwich children's home. I should like to make it clear that I am not using parliamentary privilege to describe anything, which is not already known, but simply to use what is happening as an example to show why there should be a crucial change in procedures and in the Bill. The White Paper specifically requested that local authorities should provide a procedure with an independent element for children in care to use if they have a complaint. The specific requirement for an independent element is lost in the Bill and I would like to see it restored.
A number of bodies involved with young children in care have called for its restoration, including the Voice for the Child in Care, the Independent Representation of Children in Need, and the National Association of Young People in Care. All of them have had experiences of children who have become the victims of the social services, rather than being supported by them. Again, I want to make it clear that I am not attacking local authorities or social workers. But I am saying that there have been abuses of children in care by social workers—sometimes by senior social workers. Obviously, it is difficult for the colleagues and employers of such social workers to be the judges of what has happened.
I have a particular example of that in a children's home in Greenwich, where a key worker was disciplined for serious offences and was ordered to be demoted and transferred. Very much against the wishes of the principal of the second children's home, which was for severely disturbed teenaged girls, but on the direct instruction of the director of social services, the worker was placed in the second home. Within a short time, one of the girls in the home alleged that she had been raped.
There is a potential conflict of interest if that case is investigated by the director of social services, who has been responsible for the placement of that employee in that particular home. I am asking for a provision in the Bill that would make it possible for a girl in such a case to ask for an independent investigation. That would not always be necessary because there will, of course, be many more mundane and routine complaints in which ordinary investigations by the local authority concerned would be wholly appropriate. But we must remember, as has already been said today, that those girls are vulnerable and afraid, and have often been severely abused for most of their lives. They do not expect to be believed and if they make an accusation and are not believed they will fear recrimination from the people whom they have accused because they will still be at their mercy. I want such girls and boys to know that if they have a complaint and wish 1160 it to be investigated by people who are not responsible for their future maintenance and well-being, they will have someone to whom they can turn.
Several other hon. Members have mentioned today the guardian ad litem system. I want to reiterate the need to strengthen that service and, again, to make it more independent. It is often the case that a social worker in one authority will be a guardian ad litem to the charge of a friend of hers in another authority, or vice versa. There should be some distancing, so that children in need know that there is one person who will be independent of the rest of the network that surrounds them. We must take that seriously. The Children's Legal Centre has said:At present, children in care, unlike every child in the country, cannot go to court under wardship, if their parent—the local uthority—mistreats them.They must have independent and, where appropriate, legal redress.
A new procedure has been initiated in Greenwich and it includes an independent element at the start of the inquiry. However, it states how the progression will go if the complaint is not resolved and it is gradually sucked back into the heart of the social services department. The final opportunity for the complaint to be heard is with a case review within the local authority and the decision of that case review is binding. I would like to see that procedure eliminated so that any children in care who have serious complaints can be sure that they are heard by people who will listen fairly, who will not disbelieve them and who will have no motive for wishing their version of events not to be true. Children need such independent representation.
We are considering cases of potential tragedy. We need to ensure not only that tragedies are unlikely to occur—although they will certainly occur sometimes—but that no longer shall we never know about many of them. Children in care who have been in care for most of their lives, especially those who end up in secure units, have had a difficult life. It is interesting that, following the Cleveland affair, many adults have come forward and explained how they were abused as children but had nowhere to turn. The girls and boys I have described will be in the same circumstances and may be damaged for ever. We must ensure that they have someone to turn to who will give them a fair and independent hearing.
§ 8.4 pm
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
I want to join other hon. Members in welcoming the Bill, which has a big job to do. It emphasises the important role of the family and of children within the family, but it also highlights the important role of local authorities. We have seen far too many examples of failure in the performance of local authorities in this area and they must improve their performance. The Bill provides a legal framework in which people can work and it will mean that there will be far fewer excuses for failure of performance in the future.
I want to deal with four aspects of the Bill. My first concern is with the under-fives, a group spoken about at length by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), who pointed out the growing demand for services for the under-fives. The growing demand is not being met by facilities sufficient either in quantity or, more importantly, in quality. Parents are demanding higher quality and we should insist on a sufficiently high standard of care for under-fives in particular. In the Bill, the priority 1161 should be day care services for under-fives. We have heard examples of provision in the rest of Europe compared to this country and more must be done in the enforcement of standards and the registration of facilities. The Home Office has said that we can expect amendments on those matters and I look forward to seeing them. It is true to say that the character of a child can be largely formed by the time the child is five, so that is the most crucial stage of a child's development in ensuring that matters go well thereafter. The Bill is much concerned with what happens if matters do not go well.
I join with other hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes), who have said that they are in favour of assessment orders. I support that and I am much swayed by arguments put forward by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. The objections made to assessment orders are bureaucratic objections. Assessment orders will be much to the advantage of children in the grey areas in which it is difficult to legislate, but in which it is obvious that more powers are needed. The Kimberley Carlile case is an example of a case in which an assessment order was needed. I hope that provision for assessment orders can be brought forward.
In Bolton, we have just had a major investigation into child abuse. Eight children were made wards of court and a further eight children were also involved. One of the parents of the children involved has been in touch with me and he asked me to put it to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health that he should carry out an investigation of the way in which Bolton social services carried out the inquiry. I have written to my right hon. and learned Friend to ask him to consider the need for a full investigation.
There is also great concern in Bolton about the question of juvenile offenders. It is welcome to see the improving trend nationally. The number of children in care has declined from 82,000 in 1983 to 66,000 in 1987. The number of offenders aged 14 to 16 has come down from 114,000 in 1981 to just under 100,000 in 1987 and the number of juveniles in custody has dropped from 8,000 to 4,000.
Although no one wants juveniles to be put in custody—the subsequent careers of those placed in custody are often difficult, with a pattern of continuing returns to custody—there is no doubt that there is a need for places in secure units in cases where discipline has broken down. In Bolton there has been great concern about persistent offenders who have been arrested time and time again by the police. One 14-year-old was arrested 23 times. The police feel that it is most frustrating for them simply to arrest someone who is then allowed to repeat the offence. More care is needed in this area, either to impose the course of last resort, which is to put a child in custody, or to make sure, if that course is not followed, that an effective course is followed whereby the child is kept properly under control.
Today I have received a letter from the clerk to the magistrates court in Bolton, saying that the magistrates in Bolton feel that the court should have extra powers. The clerk said that he would like the present situation to be improved, stating: 1162The situation therefore is that if the Local Authority chose not to submit a report to the Courts, the Magistrates have no power to certify the young offender unruly and he has to be remanded into the care of the Local Authority.I understand that the court wants a provisionto the effect that if the Local Authority is required by the Court to provide a report for the purpose of the Certificates of Unruly Character (Conditions) Order 1977, it shall be under a duty to do so".I hope that when the Bill is under further consideration, my hon. and learned Friend will give thought to that point so that the Bill can be amended suitably because such provisions would be welcomed.
Problems with children who have not had the right upbringing in their own family can be ameliorated to some extent if they can be placed in the care of a suitable foster family. I encourage more families to come forward to carry out a fostering role, although it is not an easy job at the best of times. When I spoke to Bolton council about this, I was told:This is a tough job, requiring experienced, mature, resilient, sympathetic and unshockable parents".I call on the Government to reconsider the scale of the fostering allowances available to such parents. Payments to such families can be about £125 per week, but the amount varies from place to place and, generally speaking, falls short of the amount recommended by the National Foster Care Association.
The alternative—a child being placed in a local authority home—is unsatisfactory. A child should be within the love and care of a family and, if not in its own natural family, in a suitable loving and caring foster family. If a child is placed in a local authority home, the cost will be between £200 and £300 per week. If discipline is so lacking that the child has to be placed in a secure centre, I understand that the bill to taxpayers could amount to in excess of £500 or even £1,000 per week. However, it is not so much the cost that we should be concerned about as the fact that that sort of care is so inferior to the proper care that a child needs and its need to be in a family.
I call on the Government to have another look at the scale of allowances provided for fostering to see whether more support could be given to the campaign by the National Foster Care Association for a generous national scheme of adoption and fostering allowances.
Those are my main points in welcoming the Bill. More resources will be needed, but I stress that those resources must be used more effectively by the local authorities in the true interests of the child and of the society in which those children will grow up and become adults.
§ Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)
I welcome the general principles encompassed in the legislation but echo points that have been made by hon. Members of all parties that there are several glaring and important omissions. I hope that the Government will be prepared to listen to Members of Parliament during the process of this legislation and amend the Bill accordingly.
It is important to learn the lessons of previous child care legislation and to avoid this legislation being simply a narrow reaction to any particular issue. I am referring, of course, to the Cleveland question. With respect to those hon. Members who are no longer in their places, and who have been concerned with Cleveland, they are doing no service to future generations of children if they see the Bill 1163 as purely and simply a reaction to Cleveland, because a wide range of issues need to be addressed that are not directly concerned with what happened in Cleveland.
I begin by addressing several issues relating to social work practice. I am very much aware of the no-win situation in which social workers find themselves, especially in child abuse cases. I know of that personally because I spent nearly 20 years in social work before becoming a Member of the House. I remember vividly being a team leader in Leeds when one of the social workers for whom I was responsible was responsible for the care of a baby who died at the hands of its mother. I will never forget that case as long as I live because we had to deal with the problems arising from it and to have on our consciences the death of that baby.
I am worried by the fact that some politicians who have spoken in this debate thrive on social worker bashing and have little insight into the problems faced in social work practice, especially in child abuse cases. I do not need to give examples, but perhaps the industrial placement scheme that is used to give Members of Parliament experience in industry should be extended to place certain hon. Members in social services departments because they might then have a different view of the difficulties that are faced every day by those people who work in the social services under the stress that I have experienced personally.
The central dilemma of social work is whether or not to intervene. I have found from past experience in social work that, whatever one does, one ends up in trouble in someone's eyes. Social workers were criticised in the Beckford, Henry and Carlile cases for their failure to intervene, and were criticised in Cleveland for unwarranted intervention. Social workers simply cannot win. On the one hand, they should respect the privacy of family life and the rights of parents and children in their own homes, but on the other hand they must ensure that the children do not suffer serious harm from those same parents or guardians.
From my experience in this place, I would say that there is little understanding of the fact that in some instances there is a need to take a risk with children and to take the decision, "We believe that it is in the best interests of this child to take a risk and to leave the child in its home where we do not think that there are any risks." I am worried that the legislation does not seem to recognise that. Indeed, some hon. Members do not seem to recognise that one of the most precious and important skills in social work is risk-taking. I commend those local authorities which have set up policies and produced detailed written documents stating their set policy on risk-taking and which have said that they will support the risks that occasionally have to be taken where a child is remaining in a home about which questions have been raised.
If social workers did not sometimes take a calculated and properly thought-out risk, every child referred to a social services department, to the NSPCC, to the police or the caring agencies would end up being removed into care, and that is not the answer. I hope that more politicians will understand the need for risk-taking. That is why in addressing myself to some of the Bill's omissions I highlight the fact that there is no mention or recognition of the need for a properly thought out policy on risk-taking in child care and child protection. We should support and encourage local authorities in drawing up such policies.
1164 I should like to highlight another area in which there is a glaring omission from the Bill. I refer to the lack of provision in this legislation or in other legislation for the removal from the home of the alleged perpetrators of an abuse. When working in Leeds I had the experience of removing from their home, on a place of safety order, a 9-year-old girl and her sister on the basis that the 9-year-old girl had made allegations that the mother's co-habitee had had intercourse with her. I recall vividly going to that house to remove the girl's 12-year-old sister on the basis that she too was at risk, along with ump teen policemen, who surrounded the house, and going in and removing not the alleged perpetrator but the child. That was absolute nonsense. The person who should have been removed in those circumstances was the person who was alleged to have done the damage to the child.
We are doing nothing in this legislation about that issue and I earnestly hope that the Government will look in Committee at the possibility of addressing it.
If I had had more time I would have liked to talk about the civil liberties aspect of the issues that concern me in relation to the policing aspects of social work. I have been very worried about the way in which, in some instances, parents' rights have been eroded when case conferences have taken place and the parents have had no right to know what was being said behind their backs. As someone who has been on the practice side and is now a parent, I feel very strongly about that.
I feel that many other issues have been omitted from this Bill, some of which have already been mentioned—for instance, day care provision, the family courts question, the need to look, possibly, at the children's panel system in Scotland, provision for care leavers, the issue of social worker training, which is absolutely essential to proper child care protection, and the proper resourcing of facilities.
It is not possible to push through Bill after Bill, Act after Act, and not increase resources. At the same time as Acts have been passed in the last 10 years—and I could name quite a number of them—resources have been cut by about 20 per cent., so local authorities have fewer and fewer resources with which to deal with the issues they are required to tackle.
Of most importance—and this has not been touched on in any great detail in the debate so far—is the need to examine the real causes of child abuse and what I believe are the wider political issues that have to be addressed. The DHSS guidelines issued last year set the main priorities for child protection as effective surveillance, decisive intervention and individualised assessment. The accepted model of child abuse which is projected by the DHSS and the Government is one of individual pathology. It is a disease model, but it is the individual child, the individual abuse, on which we need to concentrate.
I reject that as an approach to dealing with child abuse because it largely ignores the very important economic and social context in which parenting takes place. There is a grave danger in portraying the skills and responsibilities of parenthood as a private set of activities independent of the social and economic context in which those activities take place. As other hon. Members have said, there is a need to address the question of poverty. One third of all children live in low-wage, low-income households or very-low-income households.
We must also address the question of preparation for parenthood. I have two children. I was never prepared for 1165 parenthood in any way. The education system has not prepared me and I suspect that that is the case with many other hon. Members. What do we do to prepare young people for the parenthood about which we romanticise? We encourage young people to get married and become parents but give them little guidance about the problems one faces as a parent.
I would argue in particular that nowhere is the individual pathology model more questionable than with regard to sexual abuse. If hon. Members are interested in looking at the research on this issue, I would commend the work being carried out at the moment by Christine and Nigel Parton in west Yorkshire. In a paper to be published shortly, Christine Parton makes the point that:The roots of child sexual abuse are not so much in deviant family and sexual values but in normal ones.The essential point that she is making, with which I concur, is that the sexual norms and values of society lead directly to child abuse.
I should like to give the House a few examples before I sit down.
We have a society in which judges excuse men who have had sex with children on the basis that their wives were pregnant. Judges excuse that kind of behaviour. That says something about our values. We have women blamed for male sexual violence—women, not men. The Cleveland report gave the impression that the responsibility for protecting children from male sexual violence was the mother's, not that men in society should address these issues.
What we need in this place is more working-class mothers, not more lawyers; we have heard lawyers all night, with all due respect to some of them, who have made good speeches. We need more working-class mothers who have had experience of the problems of bringing up children on low incomes and of many of the issues that are faced in parenthood.
We need to address in particular male socialisation, sexual attitudes and expectation of women and the portrayal of women in society. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) made some very important points about how women are portrayed in the media. It would be a good starting point to stop women being portrayed as they are in the tabloid press because it creates in men a certain expectation of women. These are issues that we need to address.
I have said that I broadly welcome this legislation, but it is important to make it clear that a simple legal tidying-up measure will not resolve the very deep and serious questions concerning the welfare of children about which we are all concerned. We need to tackle the political and moral issues that should be addressed in this situation. We need to tackle the question of how men treat women and how rich treat poor in our society. Above all, we need to tackle the moral bankruptcy, selfishness and greed that have underpinned the political example set by the present Government over the past 10 years.
§ Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East)
I very much welcome this Bill and the opportunity to speak in what is a very important and, speaking for myself, fascinating debate to have sat through and listened to.
1166 There can be very few issues as private and sensitive as the question of child care. Parents pride themselves on knowing best how to bring up their children. They resent any intrusion into or criticism of that activity. I suppose it is only criticism of one's driving style that can be taken as personally or is as likely to give such offence as criticism of how one brings up one's children.
For those of us who dearly love and cherish our children, as I am sure all of us in the House do—my children are the very reason that I come to this place—it is indeed difficult to comprehend the attitude of mind of parents and others who wilfully, and often with premeditation, set out to abuse and ill-treat innocent and helpless children. We run the risk of judging others by our own standards because there can be very few parents who at some stage in parenthood have not felt their self-control beginning to slip and have stopped just in time before slapping a bit too hard or using language that is a little too strong. Such incidents, of course, are followed instantaneously by horror and self-rebuke, but those actions are the nearest we can come as loving parents to understanding the sorts of situation that give rise to the problems behind this Bill.
From the debate so far this evening it is clear that there are a number of unresolved issues, many of which have been the subject of undertakings by the Lord Chancellor in the other place to introduce amendments in this House. I look forward to them and I want to address myself to a few of them. First, however, I wish to deal with one or two other aspects of the Bill.
A point has been raised about the Bill moving firmly towards increased parental responsibility. I welcome that. We hear a great deal these days about rights but much less about the responsibilities which must go with those rights. The Bill sets out to balance that responsibility about the primary interests of the child. Furthermore, the Bill is written in language which is clear to all involved in child care. It makes it a lot easier for those of us who are not lawyers to understand what the Bill is saying. It may not be quite up to the standards of a plain English award but the Government should be congratulated on producing a piece of legislation which will be easily understood by all those who have to implement it as well as those who may hope to serve on the Committee and understand the amendments.
I particularly welcome the changes in what are currently called custody orders, which are to be replaced by residence orders, contract orders and the like. There can be very few of us who have not been through a divorce or have not got a close relative or friend who has. The tug of war that can take place between parents who are divorcing will often destroy the last vestiges of trust and security for the children caught in the middle. The proposals in this Bill make it quite clear that the responsibilities of parenthood are not to be monopolised by one parent or to be thrown away by another like some discarded empty bottle. Once a parent, always a parent, and with that goes parental responsibility.
Some issues which have been debated in the other place are still to be resolved. There were attempts by some noble Lords to amend the proposals for parents to withdraw their children from voluntary care without notice. The Lord Chancellor rejected those amendments, but I hope that they can be given more attention during the Bill's passage in this House. We should understand—again, there is the risk of judging others by our own standards 1167 —that although the vast majority of reasonable, sensible parents would give notice, a tiny minority, perhaps even drunk, might, on the spur of the moment, turn up to retrieve their child, regardless of whether he wishes to go, whether he is awake or asleep, or whether the other parent agrees with the action. Obviously, we do not want to discourage parents from using voluntary care—it is a sensible objective—but we must look at that matter again. A useful article in Social Work Today referred to that point.
In his opening remarks, my hon. and learned Friend referred to the harbouring of those who have run away from home or from local authority homes. There is still a point to be cleared up, and I hope that we can get some clarification. When the Lord Chancellor replied to the debate in the other place, he referred to safe houses and said that amendments would be introduced in this House along the lines of what was in the White Paper. The sentences in the White Paper are acceptable to everybody. I do not have time to read them, but they are contained in paragraph 50 of the White Paper. What is slightly confusing is that they appear under a heading concerned with local authority homes. I hope that the arrangements to permit the Children's Society to continue its work will not be restricted to those who have run away from local authority homes.
On 20 December 1988 the Lord Chancellor announced that amendments will be forthcoming to the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948. We are still awaiting them, and we have heard the reasons for the delay. However, the problems go much further than simply reforming that Act. Many factors now point towards a need for a full policy on the care of children by people outside the family when the children are not at school. Obviously, such a policy should not be a straitjacket, nor should it impinge on the parental responsibilities that we are rightly enshrining in the Bill. The matter overlaps the responsibilities of the Department of Education and Science.
We cannot escape the fact that more and more women want and expect to return to work soon after childbirth. However wrong I as an individual might think that that is—I make no bones about it; it is wrong—I have no right to make that judgment for others. We know that there is a great lack of day care facilities, whatever the form of pre-school care and even out of school hours care, for children aged over five.
In the debate on clause 16 in the other House, proposals were made to require local authorities to provide day care for all under-fives. The Lord Chancellor resisted that, and I hope that my hon. Friends will continue to resist it. The hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong), who assented to one of my earlier comments, will not agree now. I do not think that the right way forward is to require local authorities to do that. It must be remembered that there is a substantial voluntary sector which must be harnessed and enhanced. There are ways in which it can be improved. I do not pretend that it is perfect. There is a need for greater professional training and greater control and regulation of those involved. That is the way forward. That is the way we should set out our stall.
Putting young children into a local authority system which, by its nature, is bound to be somewhat institutionalised is not the right way forward. If we can involve the voluntary sector even more than it is at the moment we will also involve parents. That is significant. If 1168 we can involve the parents at that stage, it will set a pattern for their involvement throughout their children's schooling. The Government have been trying to do that with other legislation. That environment needs to be regulated and supplemented by local authorities. Let us not have the blanket approach which was suggested this evening.
I shall return to those points if I am fortunate enough to be selected to serve on the Standing Committee. It is a great pleasure to be able to take part in a debate which is not full of political hype. We have heard a few highly party political comments, but the debate has not contained the political hype and propaganda which characterise many debates in this place. I am sorry that more hon. Members have not been present to hear the debate. They would understand that this is the House of Commons at its best. I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak about such an important Bill.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
Like other hon. Members, I welcome the debate about the law relating to children. We should remember that this is not just a post-Cleveland Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) said. It is far more general and covers a longer perspective than that. Many aspects of the Cleveland debate are disturbing, such as the way in which the popular newspapers rushed to judgment against individuals and used it as a general attack on social workers. People made instant responses to matters which they could barely have had time to investigate.
Anyone who has examined the traumas, the unpleasantness and the sordid side of the abuse of children in our society will know that the most difficult decisions are often those which must be made by welfare workers of any description—social workers, the police and many others. They are all extremely difficult decisions. Whatever one does, one gets it wrong, because one is wrong in somebody's eyes. The only thing to do is to err on the side of protection of the child. If one gets that wrong, one will obviously lose everything in the long run. It is an extremely difficult matter. I hope that there will be some caution in attitudes towards social workers in future and that there will not be cheap attacks on them by press reporters who have not bothered to understand the difficulties in which they must work in the first place.
I shall concentrate on day care provision for under-fives. Although some hon. Members have mentioned it, it has not been referred to extensively. There is an awful lot of idealising about bringing up children. There is the ideal of the nuclear family in the semi-detached, three-bedroomed house with a garden in some pleasant suburb, who are always available to ensure that children have a decent upbringing. For many children that is not the case. The reality of life for many children in our society is not growing up in that sort of environment; it is growing up in an overcrowded flat, sometimes shared with other families, in a high-rise development with little open play space. Even if there is open play space, parents are afraid of children using it unless they are supervised. If there is no supervision and parents are unable to go out and look after their children, there is no play for them.
Many children are growing up in such environments. Many children are growing up in poor environments. 1169 Without dramatising what I am saying, many children are not getting enough to eat, and, in many cases, not of the right food, because their families are so hard-up.
The problem of child poverty was serious in 1979, and it is catastrophic in 1989. I ask Conservative Members who willingly and slavishly supported the Government's economic policies over the past 10 years to look to themselves on the 10th anniversary of Thatcherism and consider the lot of many children in our society and the resurrection of malnutrition and diseases which many thought had been banished after the slump of the 1930s. That is the consequence of a slavish endorsement of the market forces argument and market forces policies.
Clause 16 deals with the provision of day care for children. One welcomes it. At least we have something in legislation. Clause 16 states:Every local authority shall provide such day care for children in need within their area who are—primary schools managed by local education authorities
- (a) aged five or under; and
- (b) not yet attending"as they consider appropriate".Obviously, I, along with anybody else with any sense, welcome the fact that that there is to be day care provision for children in need. I take issue with the fact that we have a narrow definition of children in need as a requirement for a local authority to provide day care, and in doing so we are saying that other children who are not within that narrow definition will not receive day care.
When one starts to question what is available in day care provision, one is horrified. When visitors from overseas come to my community in Islington, those who are interested in local authority matters or social problems often ask about day care provision. The borough of Islington scores pretty well in the national average in its provision of community day nurseries, play centres, nursery schools and classes, playgroups and many other forms of informal day care. It scores well because the Inner London education authority and the borough of Islington give a high priority to day care provision. Yet even now the borough is under-funding many services. The borough and I both recognise that. There is a long waiting list for day nurseries. It is almost impossible for many parents to get their children into day nurseries.
The 1976 Select Committee report on the problems of children recommended a massive increase in the provision of day care facilities. I understand that the Prime Minister, when Secretary of State for Education and Science, made a rash promise of 700,000 places for the under-fives. We are still a long way short of that. Indeed, we have very poor provision.
The differences throughout the country in the provision of nursery places for children aged three to five are astonishing. Some local authorities manage as high as 85 per cent. Others, such as West Sussex, are below 10 per cent. Is that caring for the under-fives, or is it saying that we will throw the problem back to the parents and ignore the fact that many of them may be living in unsuitable accommodation and cannot afford to send their children to private nurseries?
Provision in the United Kingdom is very poor. The statistics provided by the House of Commons Library show that the number of places available in local education authority nursery schools and classes for the 1170 zero-to-four population is only 9.4 per cent. I realise that not all children under four are eligible. One might argue that only children aged three and four should be eligible. One finds that local authority day nurseries provide only 32,000 places in the whole country.
The changes in the past few years show an even more astonishing position. One would have hoped that, with the growing recognition of the need for children to be able to go to good day care facilities, such facilities would have expanded, but there has been hardly any expansion. Between 1985 and 1987, places in local authority day nurseries did not increase at all. There was only a substantial increase in the number of children in registered places with child minders. I applaud the work of child minders, but many local authorities and child minders recognise that that is not the ideal answer, because better facilities are needed for children to extend themselves and to develop their individuality and personality.
When we compare the provision of local authority and other pre-school facilities in this country with the provision in other countries in Europe, we see what an appalling mess it is in. If West Germany can manage 60 per cent. provision for children aged three to five and if Spain can manage 66 per cent. provision, why can Britain manage only 44 per cent.? Because of political will and political priorities, the Government do not regard it as important to provide those facilities.
Where there is local authority provision, in some cases it is expensive—indeed, sometimes, prohibitively so. Where parents are sending children to private day nurseries and private pre-school provision of various sorts, the cost is astronomical. I spent part of yesterday at a National Union of Students conference on the provision of day care for the under-fives. The delegates were asked about the cost of nursery facilities provided in institutions of higher education. It is important that nursery facilities are provided in such institutions. If they are not, how can women get back into education? All institutions of higher education are pleading with women to come back. The cost of nursery facilities may be as high as £70 per week, which is totally prohibitive for poor women.
I make one simple plea. I hope that an amendment will be moved in Committee, and accepted, to introduce a statutory requirement for the provision of pre-school educational places, be they nursery, day care or whatever. There should be proper monitoring of the facilities nationally. We should not forget that we are ignoring the real needs of a large number of children who are living in great poverty, distress and difficulty, and who cannot experience the joy of socialising with other small children, of learning how to play together and of developing properly. We are starting discrimination in the cradle because of the Government's economic policy and the lack of social provision for children.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
When the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) spoke of Cleveland, my mind's eye filled with the picture of a small boy, returned home to his parents, who sat silently, withdrawn into himself, refusing to speak to anyone, staring straight ahead. His mother, who was worried sick, said that he had had 14 or 15 nightmares that week but that he refused to say anything. He had been seen by Dr. Higgs, warded, and later de-warded and sent home. I 1171 cannot recall whether he was one of the children who were carried off by social workers late at night, perhaps at 2 o'clock in the morning. Anyway, he had been taken away under a place of safety order obtained from a magistrate who worked in a local hospital. He had not been abused sexually but he was abused by the system. So, too, were all the other children who were taken away in Cleveland in 1987. So were the two men who committed suicide. So were the families who were irreparably split by allegations made in that great wave of zealotry.
I recall specifically a man arriving on my doorstep with a letter telling me what had happened to him and his family. He came along on Sunday, 14 June, two days after I was elected to the House. That letter was impossible to comprehend. We assume that such things cannot happen in a civilised society. Here was a professional man, well able to safeguard his own interests, totally crushed by a system of law and so-called welfare which had completely removed all his rights and responsibilities.
This welcome Children Bill will immeasurably improve the position. We have to legislate for all our children, and for the sake of all our children. Millions of children live normal, happy lives. However, each year thousands are injured, abused or neglected by adults. For the sake of my constituents and the community at large, we must go further than the provisions of the Bill.
The Bill is an excellent one for simplifying the law, and for defining properly the rights and responsibilities of parent and child. It is long overdue that the declaration of the rights of the child 1959 and the European convention on human rights should find expression in English law. The sweeping away of the long discredited place of safety order will also receive a wide welcome, as will the introduction of the emergency protection order and the simplification of the provisions relating to wardship and guardianship.
Careful consideration must be given in Committee to various points such as notification about emergency protection orders, the training of social workers, the under-fives, written agreements relating to children in care and especially the independence of guardians ad litem. If the Government wish, I will gladly serve on the Committee to support them in dealing with all those matters.
It is crucial always to hold in mind what we are about fundamentally. We are seeking the best welfare for the nation's children because a halfway house will not do. It is not sufficient to build the front half of the vehicle to Rolls-Royce standards and then try to weld a Skoda body at the back. Unfortunately, that is what the Government are seeking to do by refusing to follow the logic of their own arguments all the way to a system of family courts.
I have no doubt that, in framing his reply, the Solicitor-General has already thought of a quip about Rolls-Royce costs, but this matter is too serious for quips. Perhaps we should consider not whether we can afford a system of family courts, but whether we can afford not to establish one.
The Finer committee on family law reported in 1974. Fourteen years later, no argument against the system proposed has yet been advanced. Fourteen years have elapsed, with no progress. To put that time in context, it is fair to say that in the past 140 years, since the Infants Relief Act 1874, there has been an average gap of nine years between major pieces of legislation relating to children. The last and the most important Act was the 1172 Children and Young Persons Act 1969. The Minister said that he thought it would be a long time before another such piece of legislation came before the House.
If we profess to be the party of the family, we can hardly be prepared to wait another nine years to establish family courts. If we read the Bill thoroughly, we can see that it is almost as if the new system is already presumed to be there. The present structures are plainly inadequate to deal with the new law that is proposed. We need a non-adversarial system of law in family matters. We need compulsory reference to conciliation in many cases of family break-up. In New Zealand, for instance, where all divorce cases are referred to conciliation, after conciliation 19 per cent. of couples resumed the marriage, 39 per cent. reached full understanding, 16 per cent. came back for further guidance, but only 26 per cent. reached no agreement. Consider the savings that would be made in legal aid under that system.
Passive child abuse, such as allowing a child to view pornography or adult acts, might be prevented at an early stage and on a low-key basis by a simple reprimand from a court guidance counsellor, backed, as he would be, by the full authority of the court.
In order to speed up court cases, there must be a mechanism to introduce cases at the most appropriate level of court as soon as possible. I urge the Government to enhance the system, which was pronounced by the Finer committee and adopted in New Zealand, by including a judge as the chairman of the court in a way similar to industrial tribunals. The judge and tribunal should have power to call witnesses, to call for evidence and to instruct that parties be represented.
I find it quite unbelievable that in this country one must go to a judge to seek an interim injunction—and give undertakings in damages and other matters in case one is wrong—in order to freeze a man's bank account, yet in order to take his children away one only has to go to a magistrate and say that one has a suspicion that the child might be in danger. That shows how this country has its priorities so terribly wrong. I look forward to the Bill putting that priority right.
I respectfully submit that it is not sufficient to remove the most obvious shortcomings of the present system. The real point is that, in order to make sure that the system provides justice, we need a root-and-branch reform of the court system. I suspect, in the words of Mark Antony, thatI tell you that which you yourselves do know.This is a good Bill. It has the potential to become a great milestone in the history of child care law. The potential lies in clause 67, which the Lord Chancellor described in the other place as a "marker" to be eventually much more extensive in its effect. If that is not the case, the provisions of the Bill will be too strong for the court system that it will have to work within. It would be a great mistake and a tragedy for our people if this reform were to be presented half-finished.
The Lord Chancellor has sent us a well-drafted and cohesive Bill. When introducing it elsewhere, he showed that he represented all that is best in our party. His intention is to leave the country with an enduring mark of its compassion for the most unfortunate and vulnerable people in our society.
We should bear in mind the image that I conjured of a child who was shattered by what has happened to him. Whether that child's life was ruined by state intervention, 1173 by abuse or by divorce, it is imperative that we recognise that no provision is too good or too expensive for us to enact.
A hundred years after Lord Shaftesbury campaigned for better working conditions for children, we still remember him. We can emulate his reputation with this Bill. I should be very surprised if the Government were to grant my request tonight. All I seek at this stage is an undertaking from the Solicitor-General or from the Government that they will consider whether the Bill can be the vehicle for a comprehensive reform of the law on children by introducing family courts. That should be considered carefully before the Bill leaves the House. Many hon. Members, and concerned people and organisations outside, agree that we now need a family court. I ask the Solicitor-General and the Government to give us the tools and let us finish the job.
§ Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)
I, like many other hon. Members, welcome the opportunity to participate in the Second Reading of this important Bill, which touches on some of the most emotional and sensitive issues in our society. I am sure that we all agree that it is difficult for any statutory framework to deal effectively with complex human relationships, especially those within families.
Shortly after my election to the House, the Cleveland issue was highlighted. I felt at that time that it would have been wrong of me to intervene, because my intervention, however well-intentioned, would have been made without all the facts. However, I had the distinct impression that the emotions aroused boiled over. That may have been natural, indeed unavoidable, but that also effectively underlines the need to deal sensitively with matters affecting children. Despite my earlier remarks, we must have a statutory framework that takes into account so far as possible the experiences of recent events.
Prior to my election to the House, I was a practising solicitor and I had had some experience in general practice of dealing with family law. I welcome in broad terms the provisions of the Bill that deal with custody and access on marriage breakdown. The removal of the terms "custody" and "access" and any steps that remove the conflict in such cases and make it easier for parties in marriage breakdowns or in the breakdown of family relationships to resolve their difficulties should be welcomed. Many of us who have been advocates in such matters have seen time and time again the terrible situation of children being used as emotional blackmail in family disputes. Unfortunately, many were in such a serious situation that they saw the gaining of custody of the children as a prize to be won in legal proceedings and did not consider that the interests of those children should be given paramount consideration. Therefore, anything that goes towards removing such a conflict should be welcomed.
The amendments to the care proceedings are very much overdue. The historical piecemeal approach to the law relating to children was much to be deprecated. Over many years, we saw provisions in the Children Act 1975 fail to be implemented time and time again. The courts were hampered, because they had inadequate provisions to deal with those matters effectively, although some of them were already on the statute book.
1174 The rights of parents to be parties in care proceedings are important. I have never understood why that has not been introduced earlier. In care proceedings, of course, the child is represented, and on many occasions I myself have represented children. However, the parents have a large and important interest, too. They should be heard and should not simply be interested parties.
The creation of emergency protection orders is welcomed. The eight-day initial order will meet some of the objections of the place of safety orders, and will give parents rights to challenge after 72 hours. That has resource implications, not least for the legal aid fund. I hope that the Government will allow sufficient resources to be made available to the legal aid authorities to ensure that parents and children, and all the other interested parties, can be properly and legally represented, where necessary. I also welcome the tighter timetable for interim care orders contained in the Bill. I am sure that the Solicitor-General is aware of the old maxim "delay defeats justice", but where children are concerned that delay is even more intolerable.
This has been a fruitful debate. Much has been said about how to strike the right balance between acting quickly to prevent abuse and identifying those cases where intervention would not be justified. We all agree that we cannot legislate for perfection. However welcome the new provisions may be, we also need to encourage the agencies involved in such decisions—social workers, doctors, the police, voluntary bodies and, on occasions, probation officers—to work closely together. Because there are misunderstandings between those agencies and, let us be honest, jealousies, tragedies can occur. We all have a responsibility to ensure that the voluntary agencies outside the framework of the law work effectively together.
In common with other hon. Members, I believe that there are some omissions from the Bill. The most glaring is the failure to introduce family courts. I welcome the provisions in the Bill so far as they go and, as the Minister of State said earlier, some people see them as the means to set up embryonic family courts. I welcome the establishment of family panels as part of the system in magistrates courts. Juvenile courts were never the right place to deal with children involved in care proceedings, and family panels will now address some of the relevant issues.
The right answer is the establishment of family courts, but, despite the overwhelming support of hon. Members and interested organisations for their introduction, the Government appear to be determined not to introduce them. I fail to understand why, unless it is because of a lack of resources. I commend the words of the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) who said that it was not a case of whether we could afford them, rather that we could not afford not to have them.
Family courts are important because the adversarial nature of magistrates courts, and sometimes of other courts, destroys the possibility of any decency in the proceedings. That adversarial nature does a disservice to family law, and we must reconsider the introduction of family courts. The aim of family law should be to resolve conflicts without bitterness. One cannot remove bitterness entirely, but it can be significantly reduced.
The Solicitor-General and other Front-Bench spokesmen will be aware that concern has been expressed about the resource implications of the Bill. The Association of Directors of Social Services is particularly concerned 1175 about the resource implications for training and the appointment of guardians ad litem and so on. The Government should not delay the introduction of the Bill's major provisions because of lack of cash; rather, they should make it clear that the resource implications will be met in full. There should be no skimping.
I also trust that amendments will be made to the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948 in relation to private nurseries. An undertaking was given about that in the other place and I trust that the Government will act upon that in Committee. Yesterday, I led a delegation to see the Lord Chancellor whom I admire. He is an honest and sincere man who listens carefully to the points put to him.
The Bill is welcome in so far as it goes, but it could go much further. We all have the responsibility to make the Bill into an Act which is a true children's charter. I hope that the Government will respond positively to any constructive idea proposed to strengthen the Bill during its passage through the House.
§ 9.4 pm
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
Earlier I was struck by the remarks made by the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), who is a lawyer specialising in children's law. He drew attention to the extraodinarily complex and confusing nature of the law which surrounds children in our society. I believe that the Bill, with its 83 clauses and the wide range of issues that it attempts to encompass, is a further reflection of the complexity of that law.
The complexity in the law has arisen largely because we tend to think that children have different rights from adults. Having read the Bill, I have the distinct impression that children are still viewed as the property of parents rather than as individual citizens in their own right. I accept that they do not vote and that they are small and often inarticulate, but by definition they are people. In our anxiety for their welfare we sometimes lose sight of that fact, and we have set up institutions that have impinged upon children's rights.
Adults may not be subjected to physical medical examinations against their will, but in Cleveland children were subjected to inspections which almost amounted to abuse. There were not only inspected, but photographed in that act by third parties. They were subjected to appalling humiliation, but because they were small and inarticulate they were deemed suitable for such treatment. That is awful.
When we take a child into care, what we are really doing is inflicting compulsory custody on the child. That cannot be inflicted upon us as adults unless the police have a good case against us. Even then, we are protected by the writ of habeas corpus and the police have to bring the case before a court within seven days. A child may be taken away and held for 28 days before the relevant order comes back to the magistrates courts for extension. Again the child is treated in a lesser capacity than an adult. When the child is suspected of being abused it is removed, but the abuser is often left in the family home. The child is subjected to a trauma which should perhaps rightly be inflicted on the person suspected of perpetrating the crime. Instead, however, the victim is taken away. That represents another trauma on top of the abuse already suffered.
1176 I question some parts of our social security system. If one studies the cases of physical abuse against children, one often discovers that the children were in happy foster homes but were then reclaimed by their mothers, who were setting up homes with new partners. The children represented points in the housing game. In other words, the child is taken back not because it is wanted but because it is a valuable commodity. In The Lancet this week a paediatrician described a case in which parents refused treatment for a handicapped child because they believed that the operation, which the paediatrician thought necessary, might end the child's life. In the paediatrician's words, the child was worth £200 to the household in allowances. Again, the rights of the child were subjugated to the financial interests of the adults.
I could go on, but time is limited. My point is that the Bill tends to perpetuate the idea that powers given to professional workers to protect children are necessarily a good thing. I do not think that that is always so. The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) stressed the need for children to have an outside, independent source to whom they can speak. She pointed out that several children's organisations support that idea. The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes) pointed out that when the Bill was going through the House of Lords, that principle was rather lost. I wish to reinforce the idea that it should be included, and that the point should be made very strongly.
I should like to see emphasis placed again on what I would call the natural neighbourhood networks of protection for children—the teacher, who often suspects that something is wrong; the neighbours, who perhaps do not report things as much as they used to because the social worker is supposed to be doing that job; health workers, who often know a lot more about what is going on but perhaps tend to refer cases to the so-called professionals in the field. I should like to see the police involved to a much greater extent because they are not only trained in these matters but also circumscribed in their activity by very specific parameters. They cannot take people away and lock them up for 28 days without producing them in the courts. I hope that, as the Bill goes through its Committee stage, more emphasis will be placed on the need for the community to keep an eye on and take charge of its children.
I was struck by one thing in the admirable book written by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) about the Cleveland case. An experienced paedietrician—talktng about the so-called disclosure sessions at which children were almost bullied into giving the evidence that the social worker wanted in order to carry the case forward—pointed out that children very rarely tell lies in these cases, that most children are truthful, and that if one listens to them one gets the truth. I hope that as the Bill goes through its various stages a great deal more attention than is currently being shown will be given to children as independent citizens with the right to speak up in their own defence.
§ Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
This Bill is a landmark in children's legislation. Many burning issues and many needs will be brought to the surface during its passage. Some of those needs will be met, and many of the issues will be passionately debated, but, however good the provisions of the Bill turn out to be, however good the law, 1177 all the passion and all the debate will have been to little purpose if the training needs of those who have to implement it are not met.
Children have special needs. Their whole future is finely balanced. So much depends on the knowledge and accurate judgment of the professional people involved. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, police, teachers, carers, the clergy all become involved with children in need of care and protection. But central in this area of child care and protection are the social workers. It is in their hands that the needs of children at risk are placed. Their knowledge of the roles and responsibilities of other professional groups is so important in helping these children and their families. On their shoulders is often placed the ultimate responsibility for success or failure.
The evidence from two Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work surveys—"Protecting Children" and "The Law Report"—indicates that students are leaving their one-year and two-year qualifying training ill-equipped to handle child care protection work. As has already been mentioned, some students receive their qualifications without ever having worked on a child care case. In May of last year the Government rejected the council's proposal that social workers' basic training be extended by a year. This would have allowed time both for basic training and for specialist training in any one of a number of fields, including child care. The Government have recognised the need for remedial training for existing social workers. They should supply the money that is necessary for basic and specialised training not only for social workers who deal with children but for all those who deal with children. I quote from the explanatory and financial memorandum:The full annual cost of the Bill will … be between £4 million and £11 million of which £4 million will fall to local authorities and between £0 and £7 million to courts administration and legal aid. There may also be one-off training costs for local authority staff training.The memorandum also says:None of the other provisions of the Bill is likely to have substantial financial effect. The sponsoring departments may have to make modest provision for monitoring the effects of the changes.That is not good enough. More money should be—must be—provided. Our hopes for this Bill rest with those people who have to implement its provisions.
In conclusion, I have to say that we as legislators cannot sit back and think that we have done our duty by children in passing a Children Bill if we do not include in it provision for training and for monitoring its effects. Children are our future and the future of this country; we should not be counting pennies when counting the cost of our duty towards them.
§ Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)
I am most grateful for the opportunity to intervene briefly in the debate on this Bill, which I welcome. I reinforce strongly all that my hon. Friends the Members for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) have said during the course of the debate.
I want to emphasise the need to give grandparents rights under this Bill. I refer to a constituent of mine—the grandmother of two young children—who wrote to me saying: 1178At all times up until September 1988 I enjoyed access to the children, with whom I had a very good relationship. I was then notified by the council"—I should say that the council referred to is not my own local authority—that they were terminating my own access rights, which they had allowed me up until then … I understand from the barrister who has advised that there is currently a gap in the law that means that, as a grandmother, I have no clear rights to commence proceedings against [the council] to enable me to take up access. Clearly, I take the view very strongly that there is some fault in the law.As many hon. Members have said, that fault is very clear. I should be grateful if the Solicitor-General, in his winding-up speech, would make clear very precisely what rights grandparents have under this Bill. What locus will they have in the various proceedings that are spelt out? Will legal aid be available to grandparents to enable them to take proceedings if they so wish?
This debate takes place against the background of child benefit having been frozen for a considerable period—perhaps the most major attack against children and families in this country.
Let me cite another part of the background against which the debate takes place. In the city of Bradford, which I have the honour to represent, children are the victims of a vicious campaign of Conservative dogma, which clearly represents the worst aspects of extreme Thatcherism. There are 9,000 school children whose parents are either unable or unwilling to pay school meal charges, which have almost doubled since last October. There have been major cuts in the funding of the voluntary sector, and these have hurt organisations serving children and families. I think that the meanest of those cuts relate to toys and equipment supplied to child minders in the district.
I think of the single parent with three young children who is buying a house, described as being in a shocking condition, on a rental purchase scheme at 22 per cent.-plus interest. She is a young, vulnerable and quite inarticulate woman, the youngest of whose three children suffers from epilepsy. I have a letter from the citizens advice bureau in Bradford, which has been trying desperately to assist her. It says:I am still trying to get money through another community care grant for repairs which Environmental Health deem necessary and for which a nine day order has been issued. Again I find it unacceptable to be told by Social Fund Officers 'to put a lock on a cellar door' as an answer to sewerage and silt problems in the cellar; and to their apparent naivety or possibly unwillingness to respond to matters of urgency. It is now Friday. The order was issued last Friday. Three telephone calls to DSS, one application form explaining the urgency and now another letter has gained no response other than flimsy excuses and insensitive suggestions.That is the reality of the attack that is being made on children and families in Bradford.
We know that 2 million children live in poverty or near the poverty level. In Bradford, many children are living in poor, overcrowded homes. They go to old under-equipped schools, badly in need of repair and renovation, and live in communities which lack basic community facilities, are run-down and strewn with litter, graffiti, waste and rubbish. Is it any wonder that 15-year-olds now represent a major criminal class in Britain?
The Government's response is to threaten to punish still further the parents of those children rather than dealing with the cause of the problem which, as has been said so 1179 often today, is the problem of poverty, deprivation and disadvantage, which can be so starkly seen in Bradford and other inner cities in Britain.
The Prime Minister does not believe in society. But after 10 years of Thatcherism, the need for our nation's wealth to be shared more equally is more urgent than ever before. It is all very well to build a framework which we hope will protect children more effectively than has been the case in the past, but the Bill will be no more than words on paper unless we ensure that Britain's children and families receive a fair share of the wealth that they have been creating over the years.
§ Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)
We have had an interesting and wide-ranging debate. We have anxiously awaited the Bill, having read of its progress in the other place, but those working in child care have been anxiously awaiting such a major Bill for at least 10 years. In 1968 we were promised another Bill in the not too distant future because it was recognised then that the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 had not dealt with everything that it might. I remember that fairly vividly because at that time I was training as a child care officer and we were arguing strongly for the introduction of family courts.
I have been struck today by the number of hon. Members who have supported the case for a family court. That support has been almost unanimous across the Floor of the House. I hope that Ministers have heard that. It is now 20 years since legislation was promised in 1968 and I hope that the House will not tolerate such a delay again.
We are looking to the Government to move much more quickly—I hope during the passage of the Bill—towards a family court structure. Many of the good things in the Bill cannot be achieved under the current structure. The Bill moves towards recognising the rights of children and their right to be represented properly in court. The adversarial system simply cannot deal with that effectively. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will look at that.
Many hon. Members have welcomed the Bill but have recognised that in some areas it is profoundly disappointing. They have dealt with those points that are missing from the Bill and those aspects of it that do not assure us of the general or the specific protection that our children need.
The subject with which I am most concerned is that of day care. The Government have a problem because they have adopted targeting in every other policy, but tonight the House is asking them to recognise that targeting will inevitably miss some children who will have to live with the effect of that for the rest of their lives.
Hon. Members have talked about training. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) put forcibly the case for a proper initial training for all workers in this area. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) made a good and thoughtful speech. He paid tribute to the work of those in the voluntary organisations and the local authorities. Far too often, they are the people who bear the brunt of our anger and frustration when systems laid down by the House fail.
I was trained in the late 1960s and I practised in the early 1970s, and in those days it was almost unthinkable to remove children from their home. We were trained and encouraged to do whatever we could to keep children in 1180 their home. That was the mood of the time. However, as the tragedies happened, so the public's mood, frequently reflected in the House, was that social workers should have removed children at risk much earlier. That is the climate within which the Cleveland crisis arose. We should remember what happened before Cleveland and, in particular, recognise that social workers were asking for legislation long before that crisis arose. Therefore, no hon. Member can absolve himself or herself from responsibility for what happened.
We cannot look at the Bill in isolation. The past 10 years have been a bleak experience for many of the nation's children, many of them faring worse than the children of some of our European neighbours. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) has produced figures which demonstrate that Britain's poorest 4 million households have seen their living standards fall by an average of 6 per cent.—more than £2 a week—under the Government. Britain's poor are now poorer than they were in 1979, and Britain has more of Europe's poor now living within its boundaries. Britain used to have the second lowest rate of population in poverty in Europe, but now we are sixth. In 1979, 480,000 families depended on supplementary benefit, but by 1986 that figure had increased to 1.140 million. Many, many children are involved in that number, and it is they whom we are concerned about tonight.
In drawing together some research from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, from Strathclyde and from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, a study by Becker and MacPherson in 1986 concluded that, whilst the causal link association between poverty and abuse or neglect required further detailed research, there was both quantitative and qualitative evidence to suggest that there was a link.
I take very seriously the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) that many children who are not in this category of a poor family nonetheless suffer neglect and abuse. Nonetheless we are putting at risk many of our children simply by condemning them to life in a poor family. A 1984 Select Committee said that children who came into care were the children of the poor. That reflects what my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles was saying—that those are the children who end up in care; they are the children identified.
I am not trying to say that poor people abuse and neglect their children. However, we need to understand the social processes by which children end up as victims. Poverty and all it means in our society does have an effect and for this House to neglect that fact is to neglect the needs and aspirations of many people in our society.
Many hon. Members and organisations active in child care have great concern about the situation of young people leaving care, and that matter has been addressed by hon. Members today. Some of the stories that I have heard, as a member of the general committee of the National Children's Home and from other organisations, paint a very depressing picture. I have heard of young people left with as little as 12p a day after paying accommodation costs. Young people are being made homeless or forced into prostitution and other illegal activities in order to survive.
The broad brush approach of the Government is simply not meeting the needs of the most vulnerable, and the recent social security changes are affecting these children particularly.
§ Ms. Armstrong
I am dealing with what the Bill does not cover and with aspects of the Bill that are linked to other pieces of legislation. Conservative Members may not like the fact that other pieces of their legislation are making children victims. I am saying that this House has the responsibility to ensure that this does not happen.
In the Committee in another place, my noble Friend Baroness David moved an amendment calling for an estranged young person's premium under the social security system. In rejecting the amendment, the Lord Chancellor said that this was the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Social Security. However, in the view of many of us and many groups working with these most vulnerable young people, the Secretary of State for Social Security is not fulfilling his responsibility to them.
The noble Baroness Faithfull moved an amendment after the Secretary of State for Social Security had announced that some concessions would be made to a small group of 16 to 17-year-olds. On Third Reading, the noble Baroness said:Although we are grateful to the Minister for the extra help to 16 and 17 year olds under the Social Security system, we feel that it is quite inadequate."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 1989; Vol. 505, c.380.]Such matters will have to be addressed in Committee because we know that these young people, through no fault of their own, have become victims. That is part of our concern in considering this Bill. If deals partially with children who have become victims, who have little control over actions taken against them, and few defences to counter neglect.
We all recognise our responsibility for developing more effective means of identifying neglect and abuse and for intervening to stop it. However, we must also work towards providing support for all children, so that fewer of them become victims. Anyone who works with damaged children knows that that damage lives with them and will affect them throughout their lives. Without appropriate support, it can also affect their own behaviour as parents.
We argue that society has a responsibility to offer all children opportunity, and that opportunity is an effective way of ensuring that as few children as possible become children in danger. Services for families with young children should provide a powerful means of support for all children and not just for the most vulnerable. The Government are afraid that if they ensure the provision of services for all children, somehow that will undermine the family. In the first decade of this century, there was considerable argument about that matter, but significant advances were made in legislation affecting children. Universal health screening at school and school dinners were instituted. Members of Parliament at that time felt that that would in some way undermine the family, and that if the state stepped in and took responsibility for examining the child's health or for feeding him, millions of mothers and fathers would feel no sense of responsibility for their children. Those politicians were proved wrong.
In Committee, we shall seek to ensure that local authorities have a duty to provide day care themselves or in partnership with the voluntary and private sectors. We shall assert a statutory duty to offer nursery education to all children. Children enjoy attending pre-school centres and benefit from doing so. The effects are long-lasting, and their parents benefit from short-term relief from the full-time job of caring for their children. They also benefit 1182 from the ability to work if they wish, and from the increased confidence that is a consequence of involvement in nursery and pre-school centres.
Limiting local authority day care to children in need is shortsighted. It stigmatises the children and their families at an early stage. Targeting in that area, as in others, does not work.
The Government's response to date is woefully inadequate. The statement from the ministerial group last week gives no hope for the future. The people of this country are looking for a national, co-ordinated child care policy that will ensure that many fewer children become vulnerable. We shall argue for extending child rights to all children and not just to those facing emergencies in the knowledge that such support strengthens parents in caring for their children and demonstrates a responsible Government attitude for the future.
We want to open up opportunities for all children, because we want as few of them as possible to end up victims. The Government must not think that women who go out to work pose a threat to the family unit. That is one way which the family survives, and it can also be a way in which the family grows in a completely new and different direction. Family life has changed. It has moved on and become very different. We must ensure that those changes are recognised and that we work with families as they are.
I hope that we have flagged up some of the issues. I particularly want the Minister to address the question of quality of care. The Government have been promising since last November amendments to the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948, and they have been mentioned by right hon. and hon. Members tonight. We are concerned that out of school schemes should be recognised and continue to be registered. If they are deregistered, as rumour suggests, older children—many still young and vulnerable—would be left without statutory protection, in terms of both standards of care and the personnel providing that care. Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles and the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes), have outlined the potential problems, and I urge the Government not to go down that road. I ask the Solicitor-General to tell us tonight when the amendments will appear, so that we can ensure that we have plenty of time to consider them.
I have tried to cover some issues that are in the Bill and some that are not. The Minister told us at the beginning of the debate that this would be our last opportunity for many years to put matters right. We welcome much of what is in the Bill, but we urge the Solicitor-General to recognise in his reply the importance of matters which are not in the Bill but which are central to ensuring that we offer opportunity, support and security to the children of the future—and to the children of today, so that the country will have a future.
§ The Solicitor-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell)
This has been, on the whole, an exceptionally thoughtful and constructive debate. There can hardly be a subject more important to any of us in the House, or in the country as a whole, than the subject of children—particularly those afflicted by family breakdown or by any one of the various circumstances of difficulty, distress or danger for which the Bill seeks to provide a new framework of law and thereby, we hope, the route to a remedy and a better life.
1183 The Bill has two main aims. The first is to gather in one place and, we hope, in one coherent whole all the law relating to the care and upbringing of children and the provision of social services to meet their needs. The second is to provide a consistent set of legal remedies which will be available in all courts and all proceedings. Those seemingly simple aims are more revolutionary than most people realise: they have never been achieved before. Child law, perhaps more than any other aspect of family law, has developed piecemeal to provide particular remedies at particular times for what appear at the time to be particular needs.
The Bill represents the first attempt to establish a unified and consistent code of law covering the care and upbringing of children in both the private and the public domains. It is the result of a number of studies, starting with the report "Children in Care" produced by the Select Committee on Social Services during the 1983–84 Session and including the Law Commission's valuable report on guardianship and custody, published last year. Let me pay a special tribute to the Law Commission's invaluable work in this regard.
"Children in Care" gave rise to the interdepartmental review and consultation report entitled "Review of Child Care Law" in 1985, and that in turn led to the White Paper "The Law on Child Care and Family Services" early in 1987. There then followed, as we all know, the tragic events in Cleveland which led to the setting up of the statutory inquiry under Lord Justice Butler-Sloss. The delay has meant that it has been possible to incorporate in the Bill the lessons learned from that valuable report.
The debate has rightly welcomed the three basic principles that run through the Bill. The first is the improved statement of the welfare principle governing court decisions in respect of children—namely, that the child's welfare must always be the paramount consideration—and the fact that all courts in reaching all decisions about the care and upbringing of the child must do what is best for that child. Secondly, there is the major reform of the law governing parental responsibility, guardianship, and the court's power to make orders in respect of the children in family proceedings, which rightly lays so much emphasis on the primary function of parenthood and the right and obligation of parents to care for their children and to bring them up properly. Thirdly, there is the re-statement of the powers and duties of local authorities to provide services to children and their families in a way which emphasises partnership with parents and pays regard to the needs of children.
This finds expression in the concept which runs like a golden thread through the Bill, that while intervention where necessary is provided for, the courts and public authorities should seek to intervene in the normal arrangements of family life only where it is necessary in the interests of the child to do so and that, when they do, they should ensure that it is done in an appropriate and sensitive way.
Against that background, there was such a large number of constructive and thoughtful contributions that I shall be unable to deal with them all. However, the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) began to draw the threads together when he referred to safe houses for runaway children, family courts and grandparents—a point that was so fully and eloquently developed by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and that was picked up by many of my hon. Friends. The hon. Member 1184 for Monklands, West also referred to a new clause on child protection and to the important question of the implementation of the Bill.
The objective is not to allow the problem to drag on year after year, as has happened under all Governments during the last few decades. We shall seek to implement the Bill within about 18 months. However, there are complex details to be worked out if this all-important subject is to be fully dealt with in the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) asked about runaway children. I repeat what my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State said earlier: that we shall seek to meet the concerns of the Church of England Children's Society and to achieve the right balance. That will include my hon. Friend's concerns. We shall also seek to exempt the appropriate organisations, thereby taking into account the anxieties of the Children's Society.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston referred to the meaning of "children in need" and drew a distinction between the duty to provide for children in need and the power to provide for other children in a local authority's area. She need have no worries about that. There will be a continuation of the existing power.
I intend to deal in detail with the point about grandparents that was taken up by the hon. Member for Ogmore and also by my hon. Friends the Members for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) and for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt), the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Sir D. Walters) who explained that he could not stay until the end of the debate.
The Bill will provide grandparents with significant new rights. If the child has lived with them for three years they will have an automatic right to be party to any proceedings. What is more important, if those with parental responsibility agree, grandparents can automatically be brought into the proceedings. Furthermore, with the leave of the court, they may also be brought into the proceedings. The Bill provides that their rights may be extended even further, if that is thought to be necessary.
We have approached constructively the rights of grandparents. We want local authorities to consider the placement of children with the wider family, including grandparents, when parents cannot adequately look after their children, subject to such a placement being in the best interests of the child. In addition, the Bill provides that grandparents can apply for a contact order. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice) for referring to the direct language of the Bill. It is saddening and disgraceful if grandparents have to resort to the subterfuges described by the hon. Member for Ogmore. They will be able to apply to the court for a contact order, if that would help the child in question. All those provisions represent a marked step forward in assisting grandparents in the way that hon. Members on both sides of the House would wish.
§ The Solicitor-General
Of course that is a matter for the court and court practice at the time, but we are 1185 encouraging local authorities to view that approach constructively as the proper way to treat a child in those circumstances.
The question of family courts has been raised by many hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Southport (Mr. Fearn) and for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth and passionately by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin). I studied the subject carefully some years ago. While there is a huge weight of opinion behind the concept of the family court, there are almost as many opinions as to the meaning of that concept. The Bill contains some constructive steps towards a sensible family court and I shall quickly enumerate some of them.
First, as my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has constantly and rightly emphasised, if we are to have a sensible family court, first we must get substantive family law right and that is the primary objective of the Bill. As for the concept of a unified family court, we are not going the whole way, but the Bill consolidates all proceedings relating to the child and his family. All the remedies under the Bill are to be available in all family proceedings. That is a great step forward for anyone who has practised in this field. The Bill provides for each case to find its way to the right court—that has been a problem—on the application of a party, or if the court decides that the case needs to go to a higher court or sometimes to a lower court it can make that transfer. All parties, or those who believe that they should be parties, have a right to apply to be joined in those proceedings. As nobody wants a multiplicity of proceedings, that right is likely to fall on receptive ears.
The Bill is a beginning of a rolling programme of reform which will link the reform of the substantive law with procedural and jurisdictional reform. It is a major move in the direction which those advocating a family court have been urging which we can examine in further detail in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston and the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) raised questions about protecting children in local authority care. The Secretary of State will be able to make regulations governing the placing of children with local authority foster parents. My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston was particularly concerned about that. Everyone is anxious that that immensely valuable service, provided with such dedication by so many people, should not be tainted by placing children with those who are unsuitable.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East raised a number of very thoughtful points. He asked a rather technical question about the difference between the welfare duty of the courts in clause 1 and local authorities' duties in clause 18. But it is clear that the duty of the court is to the particular child before the court. Therefore, of course, one considers the best interests of that child. But the duty of local authorities in clause 18 is wider and more general and applies to all children in that category so the duty is sensibly and inevitably framed rather differently.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby), who was putting not only his own concerns as a constituency Member of Parliament, but those of the Police Federation, which he now represents—and I 1186 congratulate him—spoke of some of the anxieties of the police about the enforcement of powers and the sanctions against a parent who might refuse to produce a child or to allow access. A person who refused to do either of those would be ordered to come before the court, if it were one of the higher courts, and if he refused to obey he would be subject to all the penalties available for contempt. In the magistrates court, failure to comply would lead to a fine or imprisonment under section 62 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980.
A number of hon. Members raised questions about wardship, including the hon. Member for Leicester, East. Wardship is no longer to be available as an alternative to care proceedings and that must be sensible. In my recollection, it was in some ways disruptive, but it may be of comfort to the hon. Gentleman, who is shaking his head, if I remind him that the more complex care cases will be transferred to the county court or the High Court and there is always an inherent jurisdiction in the High Court, which will remain available for serious cases in which there seems to be no statutory or satisfactory remedy. That provides a safety net and it is better that wardship should be used thus than in the rather wide way in which it tended to be used in the past. Again, we can discuss that point further in Committee.
Many hon. Members expressed interest in the child assessment order. It is a most complex and important matter and was dealt with earlier by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State. The connections of my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are long-standing. To him and to the hon. Member for Greenwich, (Mrs. Barnes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), I must say that we look forward to discussing those matters more fully in Committee.
The hon. Member for Eccles took up the point made by a number of hon. Members about the suggested abolition of parental contribution. That sounds friendly and attractive when initially suggested and one wonders why parents should contribute, but the suggestion is for the abolition of a long-standing practice. The Bill follows the recommendation in the review of child care law consultation document that the current two schemes should be brought into line. It goes on to emphasise the aspect of reasonableness when it comes to considering which families are capable of paying and properly should pay and which should not.
§ The Solicitor-General
No, because I have only three minutes left, so please forgive me.
The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) talked about excluding the alleged abuser, which is an important matter. In practice, it will be open to a person who obtains an emergency protection order to leave the child at home if the alleged abuser agrees to leave. We are considering whether a special exclusion order in addition to the emergency protection order may, in some instances, be helpful.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East and the hon. Member for Greenwich were concerned with the possibility of introducing amendments in Committee to modernise the provisions of the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948 relating to day 1187 care for the under-fives. We have it in mind to make the registration duty placed on the social services departments of local authorities simpler to operate and easier to enforce, in line with the proposals of the 1987 White Paper. However, we are considering, in response to suggestions made in the other place, whether the registration duty should apply to day care facilities for children up to the age of eight. Those provisions will be disapplied in relation to facilities for older children, but we intend to provide for the regulation of residential holiday activities, again in line with the White Paper. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East that the voluntary sector has an important part to play in all this work in co-operation with the statutory sector.
In conclusion, in whatever way the many matters on which hon. Members of all parties have commented are ultimately formulated, the Bill as a whole represents the most comprehensive and far-reaching reform of child law. It links for the first time the strands of private law on the upbringing of children and the public law on local authority services, compulsory intervention and private arrangements for caring for children to produce a single code of consistent principles of practice which will pave the way for further reform of family law and procedure. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).