HC Deb 14 May 1991 vol 191 cc136-8
2. Mr. Day

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what assessment he has made of the impact of the Children Act 1989 on the handling of child abuse cases.

The Minister for Health (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)

The Children Act 1989 will have a major impact when it is introduced five months from now, in October. It provides a proper framework to safeguard the child as well as the parents and will promote firm action to protect the child when necessary.

Mr. Day

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Children Act recognises fully the importance of the role of parents?

Mrs. Bottomley

The Children Act redresses the imbalance in terms of recognising the on-going responsibility of parents. Two new orders are the emergency protection order, which enables parents to return to court after 72 hours to put their case, and the child assessment order, which means that the child can be assessed without removing parental rights.

Mr. Hinchliffe

Is the Minister aware that there appears to be a deliberate campaign of misinformation in certain sections of the press about the role of social workers in child abuse cases? Will he take the opportunity of the implementation of the Act in October to launch a public information campaign, setting out the rights and duties of parents under the legislation and also the rights, responsibilities and duties of local authorities and the social workers whom they employ?

Mrs. Bottomley

I certainly endorse the hon. Gentleman's point. However, the decisions that social workers must make are enormously complex. If social workers remove a child needlessly, they are castigated; but if they do not remove a child and it is abused, they are also castigated. Sometimes it appears that there is a ritual abuse of social workers.

In implementing the Act we are determined to clarify the rights of parents. The Family Rights Group, for example, has been working on a handbook for that purpose. We are also determined to clarify the role and responsibility of social workers. If they can remember that their prime duty is the welfare of the child and the need to have clear evidence, they may be able to avoid some of the pitfalls that have occurred in recent cases.

Miss Emma Nicholson

Will my hon. Friend consider, when looking at the aftermath of child sex abuse cases in the past two years, giving child psychotherapists a primary responsibility for identifying whether a child should be taken into care? I ask that because, as my hon. Friend knows, the modern social worker is a generic animal and does not have the specific child care knowledge that the old-style children's officer used to have.

Mrs. Bottomley

Skilled and professional workers should also know the limit of their knowledge and there are clearly times when they need to seek further expertise and advice. Our major implementation programme for the Children Act is unprecedented in child care. I recently announced a further package of initiatives, amounting to £1 million, to deal with various aspects of child abuse. One of those involves the treatment of victims of child abuse. The aspect that my hon. Friend indentifies is part and parcel of the matters on which we hope to make further progress.

Mr. Rooker

I think that the Minister appreciates that there is a good deal more common ground on that issue than on many that come before the House. What action is being taken to remedy the acute shortage of qualified social workers to implement the most significant piece of child care legislation for the past 100 years? If 50 per cent. of local authorities are to implement the Act on the financial basis of cuts or no growth, how will they meet the strict new timetables laid down by the courts for the detailed and rigid assessments required, given that shortage? How will the social service departments avoid families becoming child abuse statistics if they do not have the resources to operate what must be the ultimate user-friendly service?

Mrs. Bottomley

I endorse the hon. Gentleman's point about the spirit of co-operation that underlies the implementation of the Act. Because of the resource implications, this year local authorities, in their personal social services standard spending assessments, have seen an increase of 23.5 per cent., which is the biggest increase in money going into social services for 15 years. Moreover, there has been a 40 per cent. increase for social worker training, amounting to £50 million.

I recently hosted a meeting with local authority representatives, social services inspectors and directors of social services and talked about how we could secure the commitment of long-term social workers to the service. We considered manpower, training and deployment issues. Many local authorities could do better in deploying their existing work force. We have more social workers and more of them are well qualified, and we must use them as effectively as we can in implementing this important Act.

Mr. Holt

My hon. Friend will know that the Children Act arose as a direct result of the Cleveland child sex abuse scandal. How does she react to the fact that my constituents who were caught up in that scandal are still, seven months later, waiting for compensation? It should have been paid to them, but is being held up because of the solicitor acting on behalf of the local authority and the doctors involved, who caused the scandal in the first place.

Mrs. Bottomley

My hon. Friend played a major role in drawing attention to the situation in Cleveland and championing the cause of his constituents. I am happy to report that when the social services inspectorate went back to Cleveland relatively recently, it was most impressed by the way in which lessons had been learned and the new procedures implemented. I have no information available on my hon. Friend's specific worry, but I shall take up the matter on his behalf.