HC Deb 18 July 1991 vol 195 cc528-30

'.— (1) In Scotland, if a child applies to the Secretary of State for a maintenance assessment to be made with respect to him, the local authority may, if it think fit, appoint a person ("the safeguarder") to represent the child in respect of such an application and any related matters.

(2) It shall be the duty of any safeguarder appointed under this section to promote the interests of the child concerned.

(3) In this section, "local authority" means a regional or islands council.'.—[Dr. Godman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Dr. Godman

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

My new clause is titled "Safeguarders," a term with which the Solicitor-General will be familiar. While my clause may be concerned with a very small number of children, its provisions are important. I have no doubt that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will reject it, but that he will, as always, give me a sympathetic hearing and be courteous in that rejection.

Children over 12 will have the right under the Bill to apply for maintenance on their own behalf. A provision to that effect was introduced in Committee. That provision has been received positively in Scotland by professionals with whom I have spoken following the conclusion of the Committee stage.

5.15 pm

The majority of children, many of whom will be the sons and daughters of one-parent families, will have their maintenance applications pursued by their mothers and in a few cases it will be the fathers. Children in the care of local authorities will have their interests defended and promoted by social workers in local social work departments or, in England, social services departments.

While my new clause refers to "safeguarders," the term "advocate" or "representative" would equally have sufficed. I have chosen "safeguarders" because the word is familiar in Scotland, as we have safeguarders working with children at children's hearings and on parental rights issues. Indeed, my personal view is that they are under-used in Scotland. It may be possible for them to carry out the functions under this legislation, but I suggest that safeguarders—or advocates or representatives—should be established to secure or promote the best interests of the small number of children to whom I have referred.

The concept of an advocate on a child's behalf was raised by the recent child care law review in Scotland. There is substantial support for such posts in child care legislation, and such persons would be appropriate for the functions that are likely to arise under the Bill.

Children of 12 or over in Scotland have the right to instruct solicitors, though I confess to not knowing the position south of the border. Such a child should have support and guidance because solicitors are not always the best professionals to deal with children, particularly children who are shy and inarticulate. Some solicitors use what some of us regard as pedantic and stilted English and are not always the best professionals to deal with children. I imagine that as I speak, I am losing votes hand over fist with the lawyers in my constituency.

It is important that I raise issues of this kind because there are few Scots in the House today. I refer in my new clause to a local authority meaning a regional or islands council". Islands councils have been in the news recently in another context. That apart, they contain a vast body of expertise in their social works departments in dealing with children's issues. That is why the regional or islands all-purpose authority would be the most appropriate body to establish a safeguarder for a child in that situation. But hon. Members may prefer an independent body—perhaps the Child Support Agency itself—to provide such assistance to a child aged 12 or over seeking to make an application.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Will the hon. Gentleman explain precisely who are the guardians of such children aged 12 or over in Scotland? Are they solicitors, social workers and so on? I should have thought that employees of the Child Support Agency would be the best people to support such children and guide them in making claims on their own behalf.

Dr. Godman

I have already said that the agency could provide such assistance and counselling for those young people. This is a probing new clause and I know that it will not be accepted. Safeguarders are often employed by social work departments and they do not necessarily have masses of academic qualifications. They are rarely, if ever, lawyers but usually come from within the community, as do members of the panels at the children's hearings. They have some training, some knowledge and some experience of protecting children's interests.

There seems to be a case for such an advocate, representative or safeguarder in those few cases that will involve children aged 12 or more who wish to make such an application. I make no apology for introducing the new clause on behalf of what might be only a handful of young people each year. I consider it right and proper to seek from the Minister an explanation of how he intends to assist young people when they make those applications.

Mr. Jack

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) for tabling the amendment. I was moved by his suggestion and I reflected, in all genuineness, on what he said about that subject in the Standing Committee. I was pleased that he again acknowledged the fact that the Bill properly recognises a special Scottish dimension in the way children and the law interact. In sympathising particularly with his concern for, albeit, a small but important group of children, I am glad that he has brought the issue before us again.

The hon. Gentleman places the weight of his argument on giving further responsibility to local government. Many local authorities feel that they are already carrying a heavy burden of responsibility and I am not sure whether they would respond positively to an additional job. The hon. Gentleman alluded to the provisions of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, which enables a child to be represented by a local authority social worker at a children's hearing. The House should bear in mind the fact that the Bill does not deal with considerations that arise in a children's hearing, but with essentially private actions seeking maintenance from an absent parent. Local authorities are not the best or most appropriate bodies to act in those circumstances.

I wish to put two initiatives to the hon. Gentleman, which I hope will persuade him of our good intentions. I hope that he will then either withdraw the new clause or not press it to a Division. First, I intend to provide publicity and guidance to the advice agencies and to local authorities in Scotland ensuring that they are aware of the facility for children over the age of 12 years to apply to the agency for maintenance in circumstances where the caring parent of the child has chosen not to seek a maintenance assessment. Information and advice are part of the key to the problem outlined by the hon. Gentleman. Secondly —I hope that this suggestion will make the hon. Gentleman a happy man—I shall ensure that agency staff in Scotland will be given special training to enable them to give sympathetic advice and assistance to any children applying to the agency. The agency itself will, to borrow the hon. Gentleman's word, act as "safeguarder" for the child.

I also assure the hon. Gentleman that there is, of course, nothing in the Bill which would prevent the child from bringing along a responsible adult when he approaches the agency, and the guidance that we shall issue to the advice agencies will make that clear.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I have tried to respond as sympathetically and fully as possible to his real and human points.

Dr. Godman

On the basis of the assurances that the Minister has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to