HC Deb 18 May 1994 vol 243 cc831-41

'123.-In Schedule 3 to the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 (Children's Panels), after paragraph 1 there shall be inserted—

  1. "1A-(1) Two or more local authorities may make arrangements to form a joint Children's Panel for their areas.
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  3. (2) A joint Children's Panel shall not be formed in pursuance of the arrangements made under sub-paragraph (1) above unless the authorities have obtained the consent in writing of the Secretary of State.
  4. (3) The Secretary of State may give a direction to two or more local authorities requiring them to form a joint Children's Panel; and the local authorities shall comply with any such direction.
  5. (4) The provisions of this Act shall apply, subject to any necessary modification, to a joint Children's Panel as they apply to a Children's Panel formed under paragraph 1 of this Schedule.".'.—[Mr. McLeish.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)


Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)


Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

She is in charge.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not think that that was a very helpful remark from the hon. Gentleman.

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Mrs. Fyfe

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may discuss the following: New clause 6—Reporters' Service

  1. '.—(1) Subject to the provisions of this section the functions of existing local authorities immediately before 1st April 1996 to provide suitable accommodation and facilities for children's hearings under section 34 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 and to appoint a reporter under section 36 of the said Act shall be carried out on and after that date by the councils established in terms of Part 1 of this Act.
  2. (2) If it appears to the Secretary of State that the functions referred to in subsection (1) of this section of two or more authorities should be discharged jointly by those authorities, he may by order establish a joint board in accordance with this section.
  3. (3) The provisions of subsections (2) and (3) of section 62A of the 1973 Act shall apply to a joint board established under this section as they apply to a joint board established under this section with the substitution of a reference to subsection (2) of this section for the reference to subsection (1) of that section.
  4. (4) Notwithstanding the provisions of the preceding subsection, the membership of the joint boards established under this section shall consist wholly of councillors elected to the authorities established under Part 1 of this Act within the areas of the joint boards.'.
New clause 7—Children's Panel Training

'124.-In Schedule 3 to the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 (Children's Panels), in paragraph 7, after "Each local authority", for "may" there shall be substituted "shall"; and after "panel members" there shall be inserted "in accordance with such requirements as the Secretary of State may by order establish.".'. New clause 8—Reporter's Service Charter

'122.-In section 36 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 (the Reporter), after subsection (3) there shall be inserted— (4) Each Reporter will produce a Charter relating to such issues as the Secretary of State may by order define, including statements of the standards of service and hearings accommodation which are to be provided, and implementing an effective complaints procedure to ensure these standards are met.".' Government amendments Nos. 131 to 134 and 153.

Mrs. Fyfe

In supporting new clause 5, I begin by saying that in part III we have yet another example of the Government heeding no one and listening to nobody. The Government's proposals are opposed by the regional children's panels and the children's panel advisory group —there cannot be more authoritative bodies than those. They have pointed out that the proposals will lead to a loss of accountability, the use of non-local reporters, and the consequent loss of local knowledge which has been rightly valued ever since the Social Work (Scotland) Act came into force in 1968.

Families will have to travel to more remote centres for hearings. Reporters will have less influence over resources than they have had previously, yet if the same standards are to be maintained the service will inevitably cost more. In The Herald of today Mr. Alan Finlayson, no less, asked two key questions: how do we ensure that reporters remain attached to local communities; and how will reporters continue to play an effective role with regard to the allocation of resources? Those questions remain unanswered.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State denied that this is a centralising Government and said that plans for water were an exception to the general principle. But here we have another piece of centralisation in the same Bill. He must have forgotten about it—although that is rather strange because it is part III of his own Bill, not some minor detail hidden in a sub-paragraph.

Let us remember the alleged reasons behind part III of the Bill. This reminds me of one of the lighter moments that I witnessed when I sat in on the deliberations of the Standing Committee. The Minister said that it was all to do with consistency of professional practice and the promotion of staff training and development. He said that the principal reporter would provide a clear focus of leadership and management. But the Minister did not even know what qualifications would be required of the first person to be appointed to that post by the Secretary of State.

One might think that, if these were the Government's intentions, they had plenty of time to consider how to implement them. The Bill was presented to Parliament last year. Under pressure from my hon. Friends and after a lot of paper passing, the Minister finally revealed that the principal reporter's qualifications would include a knowledge of child-care law and child development and specific details would be worked out after consultation. The first point is hardly a startling revelation and the second betrays how little thought has gone into a major part of this Bill.

It is clear that the only reason for breaking up the reporter system and the fragmentation of the children's panels is that the current well-tried, highly regarded arrangements have to be broken up as a consequence of the Local Government Bill becoming an Act. If the Government were not fixated on breaking up local authorities, there would be no such plans.

It is worth reminding the House that in the summer of 1993, the Government published a White Paper, "Scotland's Children", and stated that they regarded its implementation as a priority. In the autumn of 1993, not a word about it was uttered in the Queen's Speech—not a word about a Bill that we all want. Instead, we received a forewarning of this completely unwanted legislation, which has soaked up 40 sittings in Committee and hours and hours more in the Chamber and in the other place. Meanwhile, the needs of children in Scotland continue to be neglected.

The Government put their need to gerrymander local government before the needs of children in trouble. That calculated act of neglect will be neither forgiven nor forgotten. With only six months until the next Queen's Speech, the possibility of a comprehensive Bill introducing for Scotland legislation such as that which England and Wales have enjoyed for five years will be included. There can be no excuse for further delay—otherwise the Government's mention of priority loses all meaning. We demand no further delay in presenting a children's Bill for Scotland. Let us get that long-awaited legislation on the statute book.

If the Government say that they mean to introduce such a Bill this autumn, why press ahead with part III of this Bill, which cannot come into force until 1996—long after we could be finished with a children's Bill that could speed through the House? Much of its likely content is not in dispute between parties, and we agree on much in the White Paper.

I remind the House why legislation for children is needed. If this mother of Parliaments were a real mother, the neighbours would all be talking about her. Parliament consistently neglects the needs of children. There have been a number of major inquiries resulting in massive tomes of crucial recommendations, Law Commission reports, and recommendations from the United Nations and European Union—but Parliament always finds more important things to talk about.

Ministers display a lack of interest in our nation's children, which makes me wonder whether they realise that children are part of the human race. In Scotland alone in 1992, 40 children lost their lives in road accidents, 857 suffered serious accidents, and there were more than 4,000 casualties. What a carnage. What a sad and sickening waste of young lives. When the Minister, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), was asked the total cost to the NHS and ambulance services that year of accidents involving children, he replied that such information was not available.

That is not the only thing that the Minister does not know. What percentage of children with severe disabilities have access to respite care? He does not know. What is the Minister's estimate of the number of children in Scotland who go hungry every day? He does not have one. What is his estimate of the number of 17 to 20–year-old offenders who were in care before the age of 16? What is his estimate of the number of children with mental health problems? How many children are the principal carers of sick or disabled parents or close relatives? To all those questions, the hon. Member for Eastwood replied, "This information is not held centrally."

The Minister can tell us how many girls in Scotland are named Mary and how many boys are named Jack. Is not it time that the Minister stopped wasting the time of civil servants discovering the most popular boys' and girls' names, if civil servants cannot devote some of their time to researching the scale of sheer misery that is needlessly endured by too many of our nation's children?

In Inverness, the Prime Minister said: We must focus attention once more on the essential concerns of the people we represent. This Parliament could do nothing more essential than focus on the needs of our young. We will not vote on the new clause because it is our firm belief that the Government themselves must deal with matters with proper seriousness, in a comprehensive Bill presented without delay. Part III of the Bill should be withdrawn.

Full discussion about the reporter service and children's panels should take place where it belongs—in debate on a comprehensive children's Bill for children in difficulties, not on a Bill that was created by and for a Government in difficulties.

Mr. Galbraith

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for any confusion that I may have caused at the start of the debate.

I support the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) in respect of the new clause and children's panels. It is inappropriate to have introduced that provision while we still await a proper children's Bill. Only in the context of such a Bill can we consider the future and structure of children's panels.

In Committee, the Minister made great play of the reasons for centralising children's panels, in respect of general and national standards and training. The Secretary of State gave the real reason away in the White Paper, "Scotland's Children". Paragraph 6.13 states: Reporters. The plans for local government reorganisation will create an increased number of local authorities. If the reporter service remained a local authority service, this would lead to a significant increase in the number of reporter's departments, including the number of small departments. That is the reason for creating a central reporter. The Government are damned by their own Bill.

Any reasonable person might say that as local government reorganisation will upset children's panels, there should be no reorganisation. Instead, the Government are going ahead with reorganising children's panels on the basis not of what is good for the care of children but of what is good for the Conservative party. That is at the heart of the problem. It will do the children of this country no good to suffer a deterioration in services to them for the benefit of Government gerrymandering.

I argue for the retention of children's services at local level not just because I am generally opposed to centralisation but because existing children's legislation has a severe legal deficit. Large parts of it infringe justice, not only for children and parents but others. That deficit can partly be redressed because the existing system of local representatives and regional councils are under the direct authority of those involved and are answerable to local people. Once the service in centralised, it will be more difficult to redress the legal and justice deficit.

The Government acknowledge that problem. Paragraph 5.11 of the White Paper deals with child protection orders and paragraph 5.16 states that justice is the right of children and parents to appeal in a court with legal representation …Justice is reinforced by the European Convention of Human Rights, which emphasises rights through legal process. It is clearly necessary to ensure that any changes in legislation would satisfy the standards of both Conventions. The Government recognise that justice deficit in respect of not only children but their parents. I remind the Minister that others are involved. Grandparents are one example. They have no legal redress once accusations are made against them.

Children's cases are difficult. The burden of proof is not beyond reasonable doubt, for the sheriff. As the law stands, the child's welfare is paramount—but we must not allow that to blackmail us into removing justice. Although the current system does not redress the imbalance of justice, it goes some way to allowing people to speak up on behalf of others.

Decisions of fact are made by the sheriff. In that case, parents have a right of appeal, but others who are the subject of allegations have no rights. The case may go to the reporter. He can make exclusion and other orders against individuals against whom allegations have been made, but those individuals have no rights to present their case to the children's panel. In other words, accusations and allegations can be made, and there is no redress whatever under any part of the legislation. That cannot be an acceptable position within our current legal constraints, and it definitely is an infringement of the European convention on human rights. The Government are aware of that, but until they address it and introduce legislation to deal with it, the only means through which those involved have any source of redress is by the children's panels being local, with their local representatives being able to get involved and to speak to the children's panel and the social work department. Let us get some equity in the Bill.

5 pm

There are suggestions in the White Paper on how that might be dealt with, in the section that deals with the exclusion of abusers. The orders will have to be made by a sheriff, not just the children's panel. If that is the case, I hope that those involved, if they are not parents, could have some access at that stage. It is premature of the Government to go ahead at this stage and form a national system with a chief reporter—a system that will withdraw the last vestiges of justice for many. The children have rights of justice, as does everyone else involved. Until the Government address that, and given the relationship of the Bill to the White Paper, they should withdraw their amendments and plans to introduce a centralised children's reporter system.

Mr. Dalyell

May I, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, say a word quite legitimately to those of our colleagues who did not have the privilege of serving on the Committee, and improperly to the Members of the House of Lords who will have to take up the questions that we ask? We really did try in an honest way to elicit answers to urgent questions, which were asked long before the Bill went to Committee, from the Association of Directors of Social Work, and many experts in the field, of all parties and none. A really serious attempt was made to do that. I have to say that, having been around here for a very long time, I have never served on a Committee considering a Bill where there have been so few answers. Having combed through what was done in Committee, I should like to put, as is my wont—my colleagues know it only too well and will soon be relieved—

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

How many?

Mr. Dalyell

Eleven this time. Eleven unanswered questions. First, why are the Government making these ad hoc changes and not implementing the Finlayson report? The Finlayson committee worked absolutely seriously on the issue. No attempt has been made to implement its report. I try again. Why not?

Secondly, what specific evidence can the Government produce to justify the reporters' service becoming non-accountable at a local level? The truth is that it is becoming unaccountable.

Thirdly, why are the Government ignoring the advice of the regional councils, children's panels and the directors of social work and proceeding to establish a centralised reporters' service? My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) and others tried hard in this area to get some rational reply. We failed. No kind of answer was given to that.

Fourthly, how much autonomy will "local" reporters have in giving time to "corporate" local government child care matters?

Fifthly, who will determine how much time a "local" reporter gives to a local area? That is left entirely in the air. It is a very practical issue.

Sixthly, who will determine the length of time that a reporter remains in a particular area, and on what basis will that be decided?

Seventhly, in what areas of policy, practice, resources and finance will local reporters be prescribed by instructions from the principal reporter? That has not been replied to.

Eighthly, how will the Government ensure, in the new system, that sufficient panel numbers are recruited for each area? Will that happen by alchemy, by magic? How will proper training be provided for all panel members? How will there be consistency across all panel areas? That has not been answered at all.

Ninthly, what is the role and position of the children's panel advisory committee in the present system?

Tenthly, why is there no provision in the Bill to enable the creation of a joint panel to cover a number of local authority areas?

Eleventhly, how do the Government intend to secure the public accountability of a national reporters' service? If such accountability is to be through the Scottish children's reporter administration, how is the independence of the principal reporter in operational matters to be maintained? If it is not, to whom will the administration be accountable?

If we do not get answers this afternoon, I hope that the other place will take up those questions, and many others, in detail about this wretched, pernicious and, indeed, wicked Bill.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I do not intend to speak for long, as my voice is a bit croaky, as hon. Members can hear.

I did not have the privilege of serving on the Standing Committee like my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), but I had the immense privilege, when a councillor, to be around when the children's panels were first set up. Indeed, I was one of the first members of the Children's Panel Advisory Committee and we set up the training and selection procedures for people who were to work on the children's panels. There may have been criticism from time to time about particular areas, but by and large that system has been accepted as one of the best systems of justice for children that there has been in Scotland for many years. The system has been looked at by people from all over the world, and looked at to learn lessons from. It is strange that we should alter a system without any clear guidelines and without any real reasons.

I have been approached in the city of Aberdeen by councillors, of all political parties, who normally would not cross the road to speak to me, but they have come to see me in my surgery. They have written to me to say that they are utterly appalled at the effects of the establishment of a centralised reporting system. They just do not know what will replace it, or how the individual local input will be brought about.

One of the tragedies of the Bill is that, having decided to break up the regional council system—let us leave aside the party argument about whether we were all in favour of unitary authorities; for or against the regions, and the rest —the Government had not thought of the consequences on all the different areas of policy. Then they woke up afterwards and said, "We are breaking up the system, which had been working very well. We will have to find some way of replacing it. We shall have a centralised reporting system." It makes my blood run cold when I hear Ministers at the Dispatch Box say that it will all be done in the name of efficiency; that there will be savings; that it will be done better; and that there will be greater productivity.

In the children's panel system, we cannot put productivity, or so-called "efficiency", before the needs of children and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) said, before the needs of parents and grandparents. Therefore, there may be some local authority areas—it is not our fault—which cannot sustain a full reporting service on their own. If one breaks things up, one ends up with fragments of a jigsaw that are not the right size and perhapss have to be shaped and fitted to suit, but these new clauses would allow local control, local accountability and local service. I ask the Government not to be blinkered by previous decisions, to look at the practical realities of what we need and accept the new clauses.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

First, let me tell the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) that we recognise the strong case for legislation on the care of children. Many of the points that he raised would be relevant to a Bill on that subject and we shall consider introducing legislation when time is available.

We think it extremely important for high standards and continuity to be followed in the reporter service. One reason why we wanted to proceed on this basis was the lack of viability of some authorities under the 32-authority structure that had been proposed. The Finlayson report highlighted the great limitations on the resources of small departments, and on their ability to keep up to date with wider information on the progress of child care cases.

I was asked about closer working relationships. It will be for the principal reporter to determine the location and disposition of staff, starting from their present location and assessing local demands and conditions. The reporter staff will be based locally, but in some cases they will operate between several local authority areas. The principal reporter will regard as a major priority the maintenance of links with children's panels and with local authorities, to progress the best interests of children.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) asked me about qualifications. The principal reporter will have a degree or equivalent qualifications in relevant subjects; he will have knowledge of child care law and child development in general and he will have knowledge and experience of deciding on referrals of children who may need compulsory care measures.

Amendments Nos. 131 and 132 are technical. They are designed to clarify the scope of the Secretary of State's power under section 36 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 to make rules in relation to the duties of reporters. The amendments will ensure that that power will cover all the functions of the principal reporter—that is, his powers as well as his duties. They also clarify the functions of the principal reporter as those to be conferred on him by the 1968 Act and the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975.

Let me deal next with amendments Nos. 133, 134 and 153. A little later, I shall discuss our reaction to new clause 7, which is similar, but in the meantime the House may wish to note the details of the amendments. They seek to place an inescapable duty on local authorities, in place of the existing discretion under the 1968 Act, to make such arrangements as they consider appropriate to enable the Children's Panel Advisory Committee to obtain names of possible panel members for submission to the Secretary of State, and also to train panel members—or possible panel members. A consequential amendment is made to the title of the Bill. The amendments will ensure that local authorities make appropriate arrangements following restructure.

From the time of the introduction of the hearings system in 1971 until the introduction of regional authorities, the previous smaller authorities are not recorded as having had any major difficulty in recruiting panel members. I suspect that new clause 5 was tabled primarily as a result of the concern expressed by some that currently in certain areas in the larger regional authorities it is difficult to recruit new members. The new authorities in those areas will be unable to maintain the required number of members.

It is important to remember that the new unitary authorities will restore local identity in many ways and will have a sharper focus on panel membership, which should help to overcome any perceived problems.

I ask the House to resist the new clause. We are, of course, investing in appropriate recruitment programmes for panels in the new areas.

Mr. Dalyell

What exactly does the Minister mean by smaller authorities having a "sharper focus"? How is it possible to have a "sharper focus" on such matters?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I mean that we expect local authorities in future, because of their size and disposition, to be more responsive to local circumstances. As I just said, we shall be investing considerably in appropriate recruitment programmes for panels in the new areas and we believe that that will be of assistance.

New clause 6 is directly opposed to the changes envisaged in the Bill. It would continue the reporter service within local authorities, but with one change—provision for authorities to create joint boards to administer the reporter service. That is a step towards overcoming the acknowledged limitations of small reporters' departments based on local councils, but we regard it as not nearly sufficient to ensure what we consider to be the necessary high standards of efficiency and effectiveness in the reporter service, which children and their families have a right to expect. In our view, those standards can best be obtained centrally through the new administration and the principal reporter. I ask the House to reject the new clause.

That brings me to new clause 7. Local authorities play a vital part in supporting children's panel advisory committees in their task of recruiting local panel members; they also play a crucial role in arranging training for panels, complementing the strong support that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gives to panel member training. I have no difficulty in accepting the thinking behind the first part of the new clause, which replaces the existing discretion of a local authority with a duty to make arrangements that it thinks appropriate for the support of the CPAC and the training of panel members; that intention is met by Government amendment No. 134.

5.15 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Will the proposals include the establishment of a national advisory committee in connection with the role played by the chief reporter? Can the decisions of a chief reporter be appealed against and, if so, to whom should people appeal? The Secretary of State?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I know of no such proposals, but I will make inquiries and inform the hon. Gentleman of the outcome.

Overall, new clause 7 strikes us as too restrictive and ultimately inconsistent in qualifying the local authority's discretion by empowering the Secretary of State to lay down by a formal order requirements for the authority to observe in exercising its discretion. We therefore cannot accept the latter part of the amendment. As I have said, if there is any default in duty the Secretary of State can take action under the necessary provisions laid down in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973.

New clause 8 seeks to insert a new provision to require each reporter to produce a charter relating to such issues as the Secretary of State may define, including standards of service, the accommodation of hearings and a complaints procedure. The new clause is cast on the assumption that reporters will continue to be appointed by local authorities and is opposed to the provision for a new reporter administration in part III. For that reason alone, I must reject the new clause and I ask the House to resist it.

Mr. McLeish

I think that it is the common view of the Opposition that that was a disgraceful speech on a very serious issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) pointed out, we need a children's Bill: it is ridiculous beyond extreme that we should be faced with the nonsense in this Bill without such legislation.

The Minister may differ from the official line that he has given us, but in a Scottish Office context this is a humiliation for those who care deeply about the service. It is a kick in the teeth for those who pioneered the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, developing it into a unique system to deal with children. Now the Government are not only walking away from their responsibilities, but destroying the spirit and fabric of what some people took decades to build up.

Out of the mouths of babes and Ministers! We do hear some fascinating comments. We now know that the new councils lack viability. We have small departments, and of course we are concerned about child care. We are discussing some of the most sensitive issues in social policy—the future and sensitive care of children. The Minister has accepted that there are concerns about child care; how on earth can he then set up a council the size of Clackmannan, covering 47,000 people? What are the Government up to? It beggars belief. I should like to be charitable and say that they are confused, but I cannot be charitable—[HoN. MEMBERS: "They are malicious.") Yes, malicious is the word, because there is a deep intention to undermine the fabric of an excellent service. Instead of introducing the Bill and the investment that are needed, the utter nonsense that we have heard is paraded as a reply to serious questions and to the serious initiatives in the new clauses.

I warn the Minister that we shall continue to return to the issue. It is important that eventually some organisation and some groups in the House start to take the future of Scottish children seriously. Even if the Government will not do that, Scottish children can rest assured that in the hands of a Labour Government they will have the investment and the concern that they deserve. I do not intend to divide the House on the matter, but I ask the Government to believe our warning. They are an absolute disgrace and everything that they have said on the subject serves only to reinforce our deep suspicion that, for them, everything is market oriented, and that the needs of children in Scotland are going by default.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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