HC Deb 08 February 1995 vol 254 cc403-38 7.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Malcolm Moss)

I beg to move, That the draft Children (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 12th January, be approved.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

I understand that with this it will be convenient to discuss the following motion: That the draft Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 12th January, be approved.

Mr. Moss

The draft Children (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 1995 has been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, so I will confine myself to commenting on the substantive provisions of the draft Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 itself.

First, I shall draw the attention of the House to the general purpose of the order. I shall also say something about the consultation that has taken place and the changes made following publication of the proposal for a draft Children Order in July 1993. As I wish to afford hon. Members who wish to speak as much time as possible, I shall try to be brief.

The order is designed to bring together most of the public and private law relating to children in Northern Ireland in a single statutory framework along the lines of the Children Act 1989, which has been in operation in England and Wales since October 1991.

The order is based on a clear and consistent set of principles designed with the common aim of promoting the welfare of children. It will uphold the view that, wherever possible, children should be brought up and cared for within their own families.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I appreciate the Minister's giving way to me, especially as he wishes to be brief. As he said that the order followed the Children Act 1989, which applies to England and Wales, will he tell us what lessons have been learnt from the working of that Act and how they have been incorporated in the draft order?

Mr. Moss

I will deal with some of those points later, but if I do not cover them all in this speech I will certainly address the issues that hon. Members have raised when I wind up the debate.

The order makes it clear that the welfare of the child is paramount where a court has to make a decision affecting his or her future, and that children should be protected by effective intervention if they are in danger.

The order will give practical effect to those principles by setting out the services to be provided to support the upbringing of children in need, including disabled children, within their own families. The new concept of parental responsibility that will be introduced will also help to maintain the integrity of the family by ensuring that such responsibilities will continue even when it becomes necessary for a child to be taken into care.

Where the courts intervene in family life the new legislation will provide a clear checklist of matters which must be considered in any family proceedings involving a child. In particular, the court must ensure that the needs of the child are addressed when decisions are made regarding his or her future.

The order also paves the way for the creation of a guardian at litem service which will ensure that, wherever practicable, the voice of the child is heard in a wide range of care-related proceedings. As regards child protection, the introduction of new powers for the courts to make child assessment and emergency protection orders will provide for effective intervention where necessary, while ensuring that the intervention is open to challenge. A proper balance will thus be struck between the rights of parents and the duty of authorities to intervene where the child's welfare requires action to be taken.

Extensive provision is made for those cases where it is not desirable or practicable for a child to be brought up within his or her own family. Where children are looked after in accommodation provided by a health and social services board or trust, a voluntary organisation or any other type of home, the order will ensure that their welfare is promoted and protected through effective registration and inspection. Similar safeguards will be in place for children who are fostered, and detailed provisions are included to ensure that those providing child minding and day care services are subject to effective registration and inspection procedures.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

With regard to the Minister's last statement, it has been widely canvassed in Northern Ireland that the order could carry great weight in relation to church work and Sunday schools, and could also affect the work of various youth groups with boys and girls. Will the Minister comment on that?

Mr. Moss

I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising that point. There was some concern about the implications of the registration and child minding measures included in the original draft. As a result of the consultation that my noble Friend Baroness Denton undertook in the middle of last year, it was decided to introduce article 121 (6), which now includes the power to exempt specified supervised activities from registration. Boards will now have the power to proscribe activities such as scout and church activities.

I have mentioned that the proposal for a draft order was published for public consultation in July 1993. During the extended consultation period, in excess of 100 organisations and individuals responded. This was followed by a debate in the Northern Ireland Committee in February of last year. My noble Friend Baroness Denton, who then had responsibility for the Department of Health and Social Services, invited members of the Committee to discuss the issues. The outcome of that was an announcement by my noble Friend in July 1994 of the changes to be incorporated in the draft order to be laid before Parliament.

Before I detail those changes, I must take the opportunity to thank all of those who commented during the consultation period. I also thank hon. Members who participated in the debate in the Northern Ireland Committee for the consideration that the Committee has given to the issues.

A significant number of changes have been made to the draft order since the publication of the proposal. I will draw attention to the substantive matters. One of the issues which gave rise to concern was that the proposal included a requirement for those providing child minding day care to be registered only where the children concerned were under the age of eight. Many considered the age limit in the proposals to be too low. The order will now require registration where the children concerned are under 12.

Concern was expressed that by requiring registration for anyone providing child minding services for more than two hours in any day the order would require registration in circumstances where it would be inappropriate—for example, where a child was looked after for a short period by a neighbour. The order will now require only those providing child minding services for reward to register.

Sir James Kilfedder (North Down)

I understand that problems have arisen with the operation of the Children Act 1989. Has the Minister made sure that those problems have been dealt with in relation to this order?

Mr. Moss

That is a similar question to the one asked by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), which I answered by saying that if I did not cover the points in my initial speech I would certainly do so in winding up the debate. If the order goes through today—I am led to believe that there is all-party support for it—I would expect a period of consultation lasting about a year to build up the regulations. Any difficulties which have occurred in the implementation of the Children Act in England and Wales will certainly be addressed in the way in which we formulate the regulations in Northern Ireland.

Concern was also expressed that by requiring all those providing supervised activity to be registered the proposal would place an unreasonable burden on some organisations. This point was raised by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). The order will now enable the Department of Health and Social Services to make regulations exempting certain supervised activities from registration requirements.

The Government recognise the importance of voluntary organisations in the provision of services to children in Northern Ireland. While we wish to ensure, through regulation and inspection, that voluntary homes for children maintain a high standard, we have decided that the imposition of registration and inspection fees would place an undesirable burden on voluntary organisations. We have therefore dropped those provisions from the draft order. The provision for fees to be imposed on those providing child minding and day care services has also been dropped.

In response to the concerns raised in Committee that a children's home for fewer than four children would not be required to register, a change has been made to ensure that all children's homes will be subject to registration, regardless of the number of children. A change has also been made to article 21 to ensure that where a health and social services board or trust provides accommodation for a child, this should be in a proper care setting.

A large number of drafting and technical changes have been made since the publication of the proposal. Many of them relate to changes brought about by the Health and Personal Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1994, which provided that the statutory functions of health and social services boards may be discharged by trusts. The remaining substantive changes include changes to the jurisdictional arrangements designed primarily to ensure that appeals from magistrates courts will lie to the county court rather than to the High Court, and additional provision to allow for the establishment of care units within existing training school complexes.

One final and most important addition to the order has been made in recognition of the fact that hon. Members and others will have a continuing interest in the new legislation. The order will now provide for an annual report to be published by the Department of Health and Social Services in consultation with the Lord Chancellor, the Department of Education and the Department of Finance and Personnel.

The order is the first step towards providing Northern Ireland with a modern framework of child care law. Much remains to be done to give effect to the new legislation, and we are keen to see that process under way. I look forward to hearing the views of hon. Members. I am confident that the order will have widespread support and that the changes to which I have referred will be welcomed. I commend the order to the House.

7.27 pm
Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen)

The House will welcome the comments of the Minister and also, of course, the changes that have been made. Hon. Members will also welcome the fact that—at last—the order is before the House.

During the past few months, Northern Ireland has dominated the news and this House so far as the peace process is concerned, and it is inevitable and natural that that should be so. But sometimes in talking about that we tend to forget that in Northern Ireland—as in Wales, England and Scotland—the quality of life of the people has to be discussed. That has been forgotten as far as Northern Ireland is concerned.

Life goes on. Children have to be educated. Hospitals have to be built. Jobs have to be provided. There is no question but that the vast majority of people living in these islands believe that the quality of children's lives, the need to stop exploitation and prevent abuse, and the need to educate and prepare children for the future must lie at the basis of our beliefs.

We welcome the order, but we wonder why it has taken so long to appear. After all, six years have intervened between the Children Act 1989 and the order for Northern Ireland today. Indeed, there have been 16 years of discussion since the matters were originally discussed on various professional committees. The Minister said that there would be yet another year of consultation. I hope that that consultation does not mean that implementation of the legislation will be held up. That is very important.

I understand that the United Nations committee on the rights of the child has already said that the delay has disadvantaged children in Northern Ireland especially in view of the levels of poverty in the Province. I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is important to put on record our congratulations to all the people and bodies in Northern Ireland who have badgered the Government and pushed the importance of the order. Child care professionals and members of the voluntary sector have worked so long in a statutory vacuum. The children's organisations in Northern Ireland have influenced the shape of the order. The Children Order Group, which was formed by people from the public and voluntary sectors of child care to work on the drafting and shadowing of the legislation, deserves the particular thanks of all Members of the House of Commons and especially those who represent Northern Ireland.

I put on record the special thanks of the Labour party to my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), who spoke on Northern Irish matters until recently. He was instrumental in ensuring that small private children's homes of four children or fewer would be required to be registered. I am delighted that the Minister made reference to that this evening. We also welcome the removal of the registration fee, which the Minister has stated will be further changed.

We are worried about the lack of a common strategy in implementing the order, especially when so many bodies and agencies in Northern Ireland, including social services, education, housing and leisure services, have to work together. It is important that joint planning by relevant Government Departments in Northern Ireland and those agencies, local authorities and bodies should be a matter of priority for the Government.

We are worried about trusts and their lack of accountability. We often hear about the quango state. In my constituency in Wales and in the rest of Britain there is great disquiet about the growing number of quangos and the non-elected members of those boards. There are four health and social services boards in Northern Ireland, with 12 community units. Six trusts have already been established. I am given to understand that the Government are insisting that the other six must now apply for trust status. That is a mistake. Nowhere else in the United Kingdom are social services administered by trusts. They are generally administered by people who are elected by the people. It would be a bad move.

In a sense, Northern Ireland has been treated as a guinea pig on trusts. We had the poll tax in Scotland and local government reform in Wales. Now we have social services trusts in Northern Ireland. I hope that the areas on the fringe of the United Kingdom will not be used as testing grounds for Government philosophy. I would be disappointed if that were the case. We do not want to see the fragmentation of the child care system in Northern Ireland. A single Northern Ireland body, not the number of bodies that the Minister suggests, should look after child care.

The Minister did not say much about resources. So often in the past decade or so Acts of Parliament have been passed with all the good intentions in the world but the money has not been there to service them. It is wholly pointless to pass legislation setting up a plethora of bodies if the money does not come from central Government, in this case to Northern Ireland, to implement the legislation.

There is one advantage in looking at what has occurred under the Children Act 1989 in Britain. We can see what it has cost local authorities. There is not a shadow of doubt that the costs of social services departments in local authorities throughout Britain have increased. They have rightly done so as a result of the imposition of new legislation by the House. I hope that the Minister will tell us precisely what money is being made available to ensure that aspects of the order which are to be implemented as soon as it is passed by the House are properly resourced.

It is absolutely necessary that family support services, family centres, pre-school and after-school care, holidays, support from social workers and health visitors, preventive work, and so on are properly resourced if only because, like many parts of Britain, Northern Ireland—especially its children and young people—is severely socially deprived. I will not go through all the statistics, but I will give a few. In Northern Ireland, 27 per cent. of the population is under 18 years of age. That is a higher proportion than in Britain. There is a high birth rate in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, 19 per cent. of families are headed by a lone parent and 95,000 children live in lone-parent families. Some 62,000 households with dependent children were in receipt of income support in 1992. Northern Ireland has the highest level of unemployment and the lowest level of average growth in disposable weekly household income. Poverty is possibly worse in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland certainly has the lowest level of state provision of pre-school places in Britain.

If we take all those factors into account, it is clear that the need for family support in Northern Ireland must be greater than in any other part of Britain. It has been estimated that at least £20 million extra must be spent in Northern Ireland on that aspect of child provision alone. When we add to that a further £6 million for children with disabilities and another £3 million for other aspects of the legislation, a total of £45 million is needed. That is the estimate of the professionals who work on the ground, so to speak, in Northern Ireland. That is what it will cost for the legislation to be implemented properly.

We can give figures because we have the experience of Britain. In one London borough with a population of just under 200,000, a 51 per cent. increase in the budget was needed to deal with the Children Act 1989. That amounted to about £4 million in one London borough alone. In that borough, there was a 36 per cent. increase in social work time, a 114 per cent. increase in home and day care support and a 45 per cent. increase in substitute care. Those are the figures that we have to consider.

We talk about a peace dividend. Money will be saved because, happily, the peace process is continuing in Northern Ireland. Surely that money should go back into the Province to ensure that children are looked after properly. I am sure that everyone would agree that there is no better place for money from the peace dividend to go than into the protection of children.

The professionals in Northern Ireland have also expressed worries about court organisation, exclusion orders and emergency protection orders. I hope that the Minister will refer to those matters and give assurances to those who have to deal with those problems. I am glad that he said that there would be a proper annual report to the House of Commons. That is excellent. It was missing from the original legislation. There is a case for some monitoring to take place in Northern Ireland. I hope that that will be taken into account in the consultation process in the next few months.

Northern Ireland has had 25 years of misery with all the troubles. In all that time, the people who have worked in the care and protection of children must have had the worst and hardest time of child care professionals in any part of the United Kingdom. Their morale will be boosted by the passing of the order, but only if it is passed with consequential increases in the resources necessary to make it work properly.

We welcome all that is included in the order. Work still needs to be done. Changing needs and circumstances should be reflected both in the resources and, if necessary, in further legislation. At least this is a start. Even though years have passed, the Minister can be assured that he has the good will and support of the Opposition in the legislation before us today.

7.38 pm
Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for bringing the order to the House tonight. It has been awaited for a long time and with keen interest by all bodies involved in the care of children. I also put on record our deep appreciation of the courtesy shown by Baroness Denton when she received the elected representatives and our deep appreciation of her personal interest in this need of the Province. I am sure that the Minister will ensure that our thanks are passed on to his noble Friend.

I also take this opportunity to thank the Children Order Group which represents various organisations with a wide range of experience and expertise. Its constructive comments were a tremendous help not only to me, but to other health spokesmen of the parties represented in the House. These organisations did the children of the Province a signal service in gelling together their comments and presenting a cohesive argument for action by the Minister.

All those involved in the care of children, from both the voluntary and statutory sectors in Northern Ireland, broadly welcome the order. They acknowledge that many of their recommendations have been accepted and are included in the order. However, they regret that other key matters have been left out. It is felt, for example, that the opportunity to learn lessons from the implementation of the Children Act 1989 in England and Wales has not been fully taken. It is hoped, however, that any relevant and appropriate amendments made to that Act will also be made to this important order without delay.

One of the recommendations made by the Children Order Group was that there should be provision for an exclusion order to oust from the home a parent or caretaker who is suspected of abusing a child. That recommendation was not accepted by the Minister although it had the support of the Children Act advisory committee in its 1992–93 annual report. As this opportunity has been missed, can the Minister assure me that if the law in England and Wales is amended, a similar amendment will immediately apply to the Province?

Displeasure was also felt at the failure by the Department to make a change in the definition of disability. The definition in the order uses the term 'deaf and dumb". Surely it was not beyond the Department's ability to use other terms. It is hoped that more acceptable terms will be used in the regulations and the guidance.

Two major issues arising from the order will be vital to its success or failure. An order is not, in itself, the end of the matter; rather, it is a very important beginning. It has taken many years and much lobbying to get to this important juncture; we are glad that we have arrived. To ensure success, the Department must give vibrant leadership in carrying forth the vision contained in the legislation and in putting it into action. Such detailed and complex legislation will not implement itself. It requires proper co-ordination by the Department and it demands effective planning from the beginning. The Department must display initiative and leadership skills. Those within the Department who front the implementation of the order will carry a heavy responsibility in ensuring its success. Half-hearted leadership will make the community resentful because those people will have been filled with expectations without having them realised.

Some people in the statutory and voluntary sectors have serious doubts about the Department's approach as they fail to see a strategy for implementing the order. Surely it is appropriate that statutory agencies work to a common agenda. Social services, education, housing and leisure services all have a range of responsibilities under the order. Only by joint planning within Government Departments can operational effectiveness be achieved. I trust that the Minister can assure the House tonight that the order will be put into operation with determination and that no effort will be spared in making it work effectively and efficiently.

The various Departments have had knowledge of the progress of this legislation; they are not starting from tonight. We expect, therefore, that much of the groundwork has been done in terms of co-ordination and planning so that it is ready for smooth implementation. When did this co-ordinated departmental planning begin? Can the Minister assure me that all the Departments are ready for action? I was a little concerned when I heard the Minister mention another year. That has caused me concern and will worry interested bodies and those who are keen to move forward because we have waited so long to get this legislation. We expected that the Departments involved would want to move forward. Urgent implementation is essential.

The second area of concern, the resources issue, is vital to the order's success. The provisions in the order, especially those relating to children in need, must not be hampered from the outset by a lack of resources. Indeed, having studied documents relating to the matter, I am certain that considerable resources will be needed to finance the order because of the low baseline of the preventive services being operated in Northern Ireland.

I am sure that the Minister can understand the hopes raised for children and families by the order. Those hopes cannot become a reality without essential investment from Government. This point is vital. The present level of funding is inadequate. We dare not rob Peter to pay Paul in this operation. The demand is clearly for a commitment from the Minister.

Rev. Martin Smyth

The hon. Gentleman talks about robbing Peter to pay Paul. Does he agree that it is a mistake to think that under our combined health and social services system, money can be moved around more easily? The reality is that the big battalions gather a greater percentage of the money. In view of the recent news of the money needed to develop the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast, is he fearful that not only other hospital services, but the social services budget could suffer?

Rev. William McCrea

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. What he says causes grave concern. I know that there will be a scrabble for resources and that there will be in-fighting to try to win resources. The order is something above the resources already allocated. It is vital that we get additional resources because without them, it will not take the House or the Province long to realise that the order is pie in the sky. We shall have an order, but we shall not be able to put it into effect. It is vital that the Minister gives tonight a commitment that there will be extra money to implement the order.

The order emphasises supporting families who care for their children in the home; that is not a soft and easy financial option. The order endeavours to develop a preventive framework for families rather than relying solely on child protection. Unfortunately, during the past year, family support, day care and after care services have been poorly developed and underfunded, and have been provided in the main by the voluntary sector.

I put on record that the people of the Province owe a tremendous debt to the voluntary sector for all its efforts over the years. It has made those efforts with few resources at its disposal. If we are really to support and strengthen families, new funding is an urgent must. Family support services are in urgent need of development in Northern Ireland.

I make no apology for relying on the expertise of the Children Order Group to advise me on the details that need attention. I genuinely feel that it is evident to all in society that, over the years, preventive work with families has been neglected in Northern Ireland and that the high rates of poverty and deprivation experienced by many in the Province make the need more pressing than any other matter within the United Kingdom.

The population of Northern Ireland has a higher proportion of children than any other region of the United Kingdom. Statistics provided for me amply express the need. For example, 19 per cent. of families in Northern Ireland are headed by a lone parent; 95,000 children live in lone-parent families; 33,000 lone parents receive lone parent support; and at least 62,000 households with dependent children receive income support. Northern Ireland has the highest unemployment and the lowest average growth in disposable weekly household income, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). Northern Ireland has the lowest state pre-school provision in Europe.

When all those and many other adverse factors are considered, it is not surprising that the odds on a child coming into care are one in 10 compared with one in 7,000 if those factors are not present. Resources, therefore, will be an essential ingredient in the success of the action proposed in the legislation. The House welcomes the legislation that has been brought before it but resources are required to enable many aspects of it to be implemented, for example the registration and inspection of day care centres, child minders and children's homes, as outlined in the order. There are already long waiting lists for registration.

Another area requiring resources is the accommodation necessary to meet the needs of young people within the community and those leaving care. The order requires health and social services boards to provide for such, if they feel that the young people's welfare is likely to be seriously prejudiced by failure to provide accommodation. The number of people in that category is greatly increasing year by year, and the budget to cover that must be adequately financed if the order is not to remain meaningless.

The order regards children with disabilities as children in need and sets out statutory obligations towards them, not only in service provision but in the promotion of opportunities for such children to lead as normal a life as possible. To take steps to fulfil the obligations under that part of the order will cost some £6 million, covering day care and after-school care. It is essential that such provision for the disabled is properly co-ordinated across the Province lest we are left with the current patchy, haphazard approach.

Taken as a whole, the order is complex and deserves the closest possible scrutiny. I am glad that, in Committee and now on the Floor of the House, we can comment on it. I have no doubt that it covers a wide remit concerning both collective and individual responsibilities for children. It therefore requires a partnership approach between parents and statutory and voluntary bodies.

The order demands a proactive role by the courts, with legal representations for parents as well as children. It also requires the appointment of a guardian ad litem for the child to deal with all those and other relevant matters. If this legislation is to be carried through, an important area is the appropriate and proper training of staff. Boards will be faced with tremendous costs in addition to all other previous burdens. That begs an important question: will the Minister assure the House that additional money will be made available and earmarked to enable boards to make the order a success?

Resources need to be stable for the foreseeable future. We need not just initial funding but consistent finance linked to careful and detailed long-term planning for the service. I am concerned that, while we may be given some initial funding to prime the pump, the boards may be left to find funding in years to come. We shall then return to patchy provision throughout the Province.

It is important to put on record tonight that the health and social services boards have estimated that they require approximately £45 million to implement the Children (Northern Ireland) Order fully. When I saw that, I thought that it was a lot of money. But I was present during the previous debate on local government finance in Wales. I listened carefully to the Minister's reply, when he stated that £43 million had been set aside in the Welsh budget to finance local government reorganisation, which is one of the Government's pet subjects. If £43 million can be set aside to fulfil Government policy on reorganising local government in Wales, there will be little problem for the Secretary of State in getting £45 million—if he can get only £43 million I suppose that I could be pushed to accept it—for Northern Ireland.

There is no reason why the Minister cannot make a clear commitment properly to implement the order. Funding is essential not only for health and social services boards but for Departments inter-related in the order's operation, such as the Department of Education, which also needs additional funding to ensure that the measure is meaningful.

What recognition has the Minister given to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which has expressed concern that there is no effective independent co-ordination mechanism for ensuring the convention's implementation in United Kingdom law, policy and practice? Has he recommendations to make to the House on that matter?

The order is important and I seek to take nothing away from the broad welcome that many hon. Members have given it, or from the Minister in presenting it to the House tonight. Two key issues have been raised in the debate: first, leadership in implementation; and secondly, resources to make implementation possible. How the Government react to those will reflect overall Government policy towards our most precious investment—our children. I earnestly trust that this golden opportunity to make a vital difference will be grasped willingly and prove to the world that we cherish our children whom the scriptures tell us are the heritage of the Lord.

I have already told the Minister that, unfortunately, an urgent constituency matter has arisen and I must return to my constituency as soon as possible. I therefore mean no discourtesy to the House by leaving. I shall read carefully every response that the Minister makes. Even though I shall not be present, I trust that the Minister will carefully take matters I have raised on board, because they will make all the difference for the children of our Province.

7.59 pm
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

This is an historic occasion in many ways. It takes us back through the history of child care in the United Kingdom to the Children Act 1908, which was the starting point for the care of children. It was a landmark in the development of policy in the United Kingdom. It is significant that it remained the principal Act in Northern Ireland until 1950, so it cannot be said that we rush things too much. The pattern of developing child care legislation is still continuing. It is interesting to note that under the 1908 Act the interests of the child were not the most important; rather parents could not be deprived of their rights unless they were found guilty in some sense. I believe that the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 is a new landmark because the emphasis is placed on the child rather than the adult, who has certain responsibilities.

The order is historic for other reasons, not least because it has had a long gestation. The children and young people review group, known as the Black committee, which was established in 1976, published its findings in December 1979. It is 12 years since I came to the House, so we have been pressing for almost 13 years for the implementation of the Black committee recommendations.

We had a fair bit of discussion on the order in the Northern Ireland Committee and subsequent discussions with Baroness Denton, who proved not only to be a listening Minister, but a heeding one. The reaction to those discussions was welcome. I welcome without hesitation the changes that have been made to the order as a result. In Committee, however, we pressed that we should take on board some of the lessons learnt from the implementation of the Children Act 1989 of England and Wales. I hope that before the end of the debate the Minister will gain further inspiration and tell us what lessons have been learnt from England, or whether no lessons can be learnt. If that is the perception of advisers, it does not match that of professionals. It is important that we do not wait too long before the order is implemented.

Today's debate is historic, because although the debate in Committee was on the original draft proposals, we could have had today's debate in Committee as well. That debate would have been noted by a few enthusiasts, but by recording today's debate in Hansard, people will learn much more easily about some of our concerns. That is the best that we can do with this type of legislation.

We should have had the opportunity to examine the order in Committee, line by line, clause by clause, so that we could have amended it. All that we can do tonight is stupidly vote down the order. Since the Government introduced it and we have waited for it for such a long time, we would not want to do that, not least because the Government have a majority and would get it through in any case. In any case, if there was a Division, and I doubt that there will be, my party would vote in favour. We have waited far too long for the order, but to suggest that the order is perfect would imply that it is the only piece of perfect legislation ever to go through any Parliament. Even during my sojourn in the House I have been amazed at how Government Bills have been amended by hundreds of Government amendments, never mind by Opposition pressure to table yet more amendments. The tragedy is we have been unable to scrutinise the order, so a degree of unaccountability has slipped into the machinery of government in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Government for meeting our request to have a debate on the Floor of the House and I welcome the modifications that have already been incorporated into the order. It is proposed that registration will be required governing the supervision of paid staff. I hope, however, that because church volunteers are normally unpaid that does not mean that they do not require supervision. I recognise the tremendous work done by those groups and acknowledge that the standard of it is remarkably high. I welcome the fact that they are not required to be subject to the same registration, but I am sure that the Minister and others would agree that even in such quarters we must watch carefully those who have been entrusted with the care of our young people.

In several areas the views of professionals have been ignored and the Government must take note of that. How will the great changes in the Province be co-ordinated? The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) has already alluded to that. Who will steer the order's implementation through? I am not thinking about the Minister but about those behind-the-scenes co-ordinators. As I understand it, and unless something has happened recently among those who know more about this than some of us, no proper consultation has occurred between the court services, the Department of Health and Social Services and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland. I understand that little effort has been made up to now to educate the various Government Departments and boards, which all have a part to play in the successful introduction of the order. I admit that members of one of the trusts under the control of the Department of Health and Social Services recently gave a talk on what might be involved. That lack of co-ordination is reflected in the fact that it will take a year to introduce the regulations, whereas we believe that, by now, it should have been possible to implement the order.

The concept of co-ordination, to which the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster referred, relates to links between social services, education, housing and leisure services. Each has responsibilities under the order. Within the Departments, however, there appears to be little understanding of what will be involved and certainly little visible enthusiasm. Social workers responsible for child care are already stretched to breaking point and they are short-staffed. Because of the lack of co-ordination—I can put it no other way—things are done at one level that have no relevance to those working on the ground. For example, the joint protocol system on child abuse involves the police, social workers and others. They are trained together, yet one trained person from social services was also supposed to be responsible for Kidscape, a vital element in child care. She could not undertake her work on Kidscape for months. She had to look after the joint protocol outwith her area because there were not enough trained folk in the service to undertake that protocol work. I urge the Minister to, as we would say in Ulster, "gee up" such Departments a little and ensure that a system for co-ordinating efforts is introduced.

Some hon. Members have mentioned resources. I would sound one caveat. I am glad that the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, has returned to his place. He referred to Northern Ireland being the poorest part of the United Kingdom. It might be the poorest region according to some calculations, but, if one examines the statistics of social surveys, we are not the worst. The hon. Gentleman may have alluded to another poor part of the UK when he referred to the London boroughs problem. However, I believe that the level of deprivation on Merseyside would cause some of us to be thankful that we live in Northern Ireland.

We must be careful when we make comparisons, because sometimes we do not compare like with like. That is not to say that I would argue with the hon. Member for Torfaen about his anxiety about resources, which was echoed by the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster. I noticed that the Minister was using his calculator at that moment. We may find out before the end of the debate whether he has come up with an offer or whether he has sent messages to the Treasury so that he may tell us how we might reach the target.

We are all familiar nowadays with tight budgets and the need for effective and efficient use of public money, and few people would disagree with that requirement. However, there is genuine anxiety that the effective implementation of the order will be hampered by a lack of available resources.

That is one reason why we ask what lessons have been learnt from the implementation of the Children Act 1989 in England, and which parts of that Act have not been implemented; for I do not want the House to go down the road of our Italian colleagues in the European Union, who have an art of passing legislation but not implementing it. When they are asked, "What do you do about this?" they reply, "We have it!" but the folk who require it have not had it. The legislation has not been implemented. We do not want to go down that road. We want to go down the road where there is implementation.

The emphasis in the order is on supporting families to care for their children at home—developing a preventive framework for families rather than relying solely on child protection. We have heard that, in Northern Ireland, family support day care and after-care services are poorly developed, underfunded and provided mainly by the voluntary sector. Indeed, much of those services continue to be provided in places by the extended family. That level of community care is to be welcomed, but it is not an excuse for society to abrogate its responsibilities.

We ask, not rhetorically but factually, how can that requirement in the order be fulfilled without appropriate and adequate resources—resources not provided in the current plan? That might be the reason why the regulations will not come into force for a year; it might enable us to reach the next financial year.

The euphemism of a three-year start-up is but a euphemism. It highlights the problem. The early years development scheme has been promised £310,000 for three years, which appears to be a sizeable amount, but there were already 180 applicants to that scheme alone in response to a public advertisement in a newspaper.

The order brings in the much-welcomed registration and inspection of day care, child minders and children's homes. There are already long waiting lists for registration, as the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster said, and adequate funds to support the measure are not provided.

Under the order, health and social services boards are required for the first time to provide accommodation if children's welfare is likely to be seriously prejudiced by a failure to provide accommodation. That is not simply accommodation in Housing Executive property but accommodation with care; yet evidence from England and Wales demonstrates that 96 per cent. of social services departments considered that they had inadequate resources to comply with that aspect of the Children Act 1989.

If the measures in the Children (Northern Ireland) Order are to function in the way in which they are intended to, adequate funding must be made available. Stable resources and strategic long-term planning are needed.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster referred to the concept of a lack of definition of disability. Surely the Government and those who have advised them should by now be aware of the reaction among those who are disabled and their supporters when we use such outdated terminology. It is a patronising approach to people with disabilities.

I ask that Ministers make a commitment tonight that the terminology will be amended, not simply when the amendments are made to the Children Act 1989, but as soon as possible. That commitment was given earlier, when the Government were pressed from the Ulster Unionist Bench about the Wildlife and Countryside (Registration and Ringing of Certain Captive Birds) (Amendment) Regulations 1984, when they were caught with their pants down, if I might use that metaphor, not having done their homework properly. They gave us that commitment on that occasion.

The exclusion orders are there, and many child care organisations have emphasised the importance of introducing them, but to introduce them so that the abuser, rather than the victim, is removed from the home environment. The Minister referred to the fact that the child would be removed only as a last resort, but sometimes we forget the links between children and parents.

I remember speaking to a colleague who had a problem with a father who was not the best type of father. I asked him, to help me in my pastoral work, "By the way, how did you react to your father's death?" I shall never forget his words. He said, "He was my father." To take a child from home, or, for that matter, to move a mother and child from home into a hostel, with all the degradation that that can be associated with, is not the way, in the 20th century, to care for children who are being abused. I believe that the abuser, whether it be father or mother, should be removed from the home, even temporarily, until things can be sorted out rather than uprooting a child from its roots, from the environment that it knows so well.

I know that those of us who travel become used to strange places, but I think that you will agree with me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, even for those of us who travel, no matter where we roam, there is no place like home. If it is true for us, how much truer it is for a child. regret that the Government have ignored the wisdom of that key measure.

As I draw to a close, 1 consider several other matters, especially the concept of guardian ad litem. The Black committee recommended that a guardian ad litem be appointed to safeguard the children's interests. That has emerged repeatedly. Even in 1987, the Northern Ireland Adoption Order, which was implemented in 1989, did not make the guardian ad !item role independent of the agencies. One area board can still be the placement agency and provide the guardian ad litem report. Admittedly, the boards try to ensure that the guardian ad litem is not an officer for the same placement district. That at least is an attempt to do something about it.

However, we live in a small world. The people work in the same services. They might even be wanting promotion. The human reaction is not to trample over people when trying to climb up, so as to avoid problems with them when falling down. It is equally true that one should not start arguing with the boss who might be on the interviewing panel for promotion. There is not the degree of independence required of somebody who is there to protect the child's interests.

I regret that the recommendation does not seem to have been taken up. Admittedly, there has been a limited introduction of the guardian ad litem system. It seems unfair that, where a parental dispute has gone to private law, the rights of a child to independent representation are not recognised. Will the Minister reconsider the decision not to extend the guardian ad litem system to cover private law cases?

I understand that the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee has kept reviewing the implementation of the Children Act 1989. But up to now there has been little evidence that the lessons learnt from that Act have been applied. At the British Association of Social Workers conference in Northern Ireland on the subject not long ago, it was suggested that there was no strong sense of leadership in that area. I understand that the management executive was represented on the co-ordinating body, which also included the chief social services inspector and the deputy director of court services, but there was no education representative. The question was asked: how do the professionals in that sector feed into the organisation?

On 22 November there was, apparently, a stab at setting up an implementation group, but its functions and membership are not yet clear. I believe that it has met once and that working groups in different sectors are being set up to provide guidance and regulation. That might explain why it will be a year before we get anything.

The four boards are now invited to participate, but where do the voluntary groups fit in? At a time when the provision of child care is increasingly coming from the voluntary and private sectors, surely voluntary groups should be involved in the discussions at an earlier stage. In east Belfast it is proposed to close Firbreck children's home—a statutory home with places for 12. The figures show that the statutory home costs about £500 per child. The voluntary home costs about £1,000 per child. The voluntary home is large, taking 30 or 32 people, but only half its places are filled and the costs are much higher. Why is it that a statutory home, which provides a useful and excellent service, is being closed? At Christmas, its 12 spaces were occupied by 14 people. Nobody can deny that there is a need for such care and, when the order is implemented, the need to co-ordinate it effectively will be even greater.

8.23 pm
Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West)

I thank the Minister for introducing this important legislation. I was delighted that he used a calculator earlier. I hope that that is a good omen for the finances involved in the implementation of the order. Naturally, I am delighted to support the order. I wish to congratulate all those organisations in Northern Ireland which have made such a significant contribution to the debate over the past couple of years. They include the Children Order Group, which has already been mentioned, Child Care, Gingerbread and the Save the Children Fund.

I have been in medical practice in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years and I should like to think that I have first-hand experience of the deprivation of my constituents and patients. That deprivation extends not merely to west Belfast, but to sections of north, south and east Belfast, as well as other parts of Northern Ireland. The deprivation is concentrated in west and north Belfast where, according to the registrar general's classification, most of the population comes from social class groups 4 and 5. By any criteria of social deprivation, west and north Belfast have suffered greatly.

The debate is about family poverty—children, their needs and how they have been treated in various ways over the years. In west and north Belfast, more people have died through violence over the past 20 years than anywhere else in western Europe, excluding the terrible conflict in Bosnia. There are more people on social security benefits, and there are probably more people with alcohol problems and illnesses.

Unfortunately, I do not have the figures in front of me, but childhood illness, even asthma, occurs more among those in deprived areas than elsewhere. There are also more children coming under the influence of paramilitary organisations. All those factors have an important effect on children, especially when they reach 12 or 13 years of age.

The Save the Children Fund has done great work over the years in highlighting the problems involved in the care of children. Both the voluntary and statutory sectors in Northern Ireland have broadly welcomed the order and will be pleased for it to pass on to the statute book. But the Save the Children Fund believes that it is important that, rather than simply paralleling the Children Act, lessons should be learnt from its implementation in England and Wales and applied in Northern Ireland, through the regulations and guidance drawn up for the implementation of the order.

There are two main issues: the success of the order in practice and ensuring that the outstanding issues raised by the United Nations committee on the rights of the child are monitored and considered in future. There is a need for resources—about which much has rightly been said—and the need to extend the philosophy and principles underpinning the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and the order to other areas of law, policy and practice affecting children. There is concern that the effect of implementing the order will be hampered by lack of available resources. Further resources will be required to enable the registration and inspection of day care, child minders and children's homes as outlined in the order.

I believe that the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) mentioned the accommodation needs of young people in the community and of those leaving care. Those needs must be seriously considered.

In its concluding observations following the examination of the UK Government's first report on the implementation of the convention in the UK, the UN committee on the rights of the child raised a number of issues which are pertinent to the welfare of children. If left unaddressed, those issues could restrict the effectiveness of the order. The committee expressed concern that there was no effective independent co-ordinating mechanism for ensuring the implementation of the convention in UK law, policy and practice. The order is very much in keeping with the UN convention, particularly in its emphasis on seeking the core principles—ensuring that children's best interests are safeguarded and ensuring that children can express their views and have them taken into account.

The subject of co-ordination is so important that I have no doubt that all the public representatives involved in the debate—especially those of us in Northern Ireland—will consider it carefully. I appreciate that the Minister cannot do that himself, but I am sure that some organisation or person will co-ordinate all those services. We are concerned that children who are placed in care in Northern Ireland under the social welfare system may be sent to training schools which are institutions for the detention of children.

Much has been said about the Children Order Group. I am personally indebted to that group, which has done much work in this area and has provided us with valuable documentation. The group largely comprises social workers. The hon. Member for Belfast, South spoke forcefully about the physical and sexual abuse of children. I believe that social workers, not just in Northern Ireland but across the United Kingdom, have performed outstanding work in that area. Unfortunately, sometimes chances must be taken in allowing children to return to the home or to visit a particular relative and, when things go wrong, social workers seem to take most of the blame. In my experience—which has been gained over many years—social workers, health visitors, nurses and all those who work with children through the statutory and voluntary services do an outstanding job.

The Children Order Group pointed out that a lack of commitment by Government in implementing the legislation is evidenced by continual delays in bringing forward the order. I understand there may be a further delay of one year, but perhaps it cannot be helped.

The United Kingdom Government have been criticised by the United Nations committee on the rights of the child. The delay of more than five years between. the Children Act 1989 for England and Wales and the introduction of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order has disadvantaged children in Northern Ireland. Despite strenuous complaints by statutory and voluntary bodies, the Government have no apparent strategy for implementing the order. I know that the Minister will address those important points.

Successful implementation of the order will depend upon a number of statutory agencies working to a common strategy. Social services, education, housing and leisure services will all have responsibilities under the order. However, at present there is no evidence of joint planning by the Government Departments which are responsible for those services.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) made the point about additional funding. We are aware of the funding problems within the trusts and health boards, especially the Eastern health board. I am also aware of the financial problems within the west and north Belfast trusts. I do not criticise the executives or the staff who work for those bodies, but funding levels are very important. Other hon. Members have already emphasised that point.

We will be watching for co-ordination among the bodies responsible for implementing the order. At the end of the day, the Minister must use his calculator and, together with his colleagues, ensure that there is enough funding to implement this extremely important piece of legislation.

8.32 pm
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I apologise for missing most of the speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) and some of the speech of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). What I did hear, I fully endorse and wish to be associated with.

I suspect that this important debate will not be reported in the press because the subject does not make news headlines. As an English Member of Parliament, I will use this occasion to acknowledge the diligent work of all 17 Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland. They perform the same duties as other hon. Members, while addressing and accommodating additional constitutional and security problems. I hope that I do not sound patronising as I wish to acknowledge their role. I do not think that it is often commented on or properly understood by the media.

I believe that the order is a farce in law-making terms. I am interested in scrutiny in this place, and this process is a charade. We would be taking the mickey to suggest that we are performing a proper law-making role this evening. It is a nonsense and I am not prepared to acquiesce, by my silence, to this charade.

In every other context, an order of this size would constitute an Act of Parliament. It is a nonsense to suggest that we are paying adequate attention to the contents of the document, or indeed to the people who will, we hope, benefit from it. Regardless of whether there is a devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland, so long as we are responsible for making orders in this place that affect Northern Ireland we must ensure that they are examined properly and on the same basis as legislation for England, Wales and Scotland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) referred to "Great Britain" legislation, but I think that he meant legislation for England and Wales. At present, the House of Commons is considering the Children (Scotland) Bill in Committee. That legislation parallels this order and it is being dealt with line by line. Hon. Members are able to probe every detail, and that is the correct procedure. However, that process is not followed for Northern Ireland legislation. That example underlines the nonsense of the situation to which I have referred.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because I meant to refer to that point in my speech. Does he accept that the Scottish legislation is a separate corpus of legislation which the House is able to handle well? I do not understand why it is claimed that it cannot handle legislation for Northern Ireland in the same way.

Mr. Mackinlay

The hon. Gentleman and I are as one on that point. I hope that the time will come when Northern Ireland legislation is treated in the same way as legislation for Scotland and for other parts of the United Kingdom.

Naturally, hon. Members want to see this order on the statute book. However, I urge them to hang on because I believe there are a few omissions. I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that I have read every page, but I have certainly done my best to scrutinise the document. Unfortunately, it is a vast volume with no pictures, so it takes some time to read.

The document is flawed because it does not take account of the fact that we share a land border with the Irish Republic. Christian denomination and voluntary organisations, as well as statutory organisations, perform many social work duties in Northern Ireland, and I do not think that the document fully takes account of that or the interface with the Republic.

People who have abused children have in the past absconded to the Republic to avoid justice. The Attorney-General recently complained that I had tabled 25 questions about Father Brendan Smyth. I make no apology for that, because it goes to the heart of the Government's stewardship of children's services.

I am critical of the Government on that issue, among many others. I do not think that they ensure good stewardship of social services in Northern Ireland. Not many people lie awake at night worrying about it—except for hon. Members from Northern Ireland and my friends on the Opposition Front Bench—but the Government's stewardship, as represented by the Northern Ireland Office and the Attorney-General, has been shown to be flawed. I think that the Attorney-General has been dilatory in his handling of the celebrated case of Father Brendan Smyth. He has refused to acknowledge that he and the Church have failed the victims of Father Brendan Smyth and their families. It is time to look at why that has occurred. I believe that the legislation should be beefed up to take account of those circumstances.

I am indebted to Ulster Television, which produced the documentary "Suffer Little Children" as part of its Counterpoint series. It was broadcast on 6 October 1994 and it showed how Church and state had failed to ensure justice for children and their families in Northern Ireland. I regret that, so far, the other independent television companies have failed to network this important programme elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I have tabled an early-day motion suggesting that they should do so. If they did, it would alert other hon. Members to the fact that the justice and social work regimes in Northern Ireland are not satisfactory. I urge hon. Members not only to study that programme, if they have not already seen it, but to support me in the suggestion to independent television companies that it is networked.

The House will be aware that Father Brendan Smyth is now in prison having been found guilty on child sex abuse charges—there is therefore no question of sub judice—of which he had a long history, yet for some time he was able to escape justice by going to the Irish Republic.

I recently asked the Attorney-General a question, but it has not been answered satisfactorily. I asked him to explain why Cardinal Cahal Daly, in his detailed statement, reported that Brendan Smyth had been interviewed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary early in 1990 in connection with child abuse complaints, that the priest had admitted wrongdoing, but was riot arrested".—[Official Report, 16 January 1995; Vol. 252, c. 447.] The words "admitted wrongdoing" are taken from the cardinal's statement. I therefore want to know why the RUC did not arrest that priest early in 1990. Why did it take from then until 1994 for that man to face trial? We know that he did not abscond to the Irish Republic for many months after that interview. No adequate explanation has been given of the stewardship of this matter by the RUC or the Attorney-General.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. It is perfectly proper for the hon. Gentleman to allude to certain cases. This is not the primary cause of this evening's debate, so I hope that he will only make allusions to it rather than further develop any particular case.

Mr. Mackinlay

I always obey everything that you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I very much appreciate your wise counsel and guidance.

The measure is voluminous. If it were English or Scots legislation, the matter to which I am alluding probably would require an entire morning in Committee. I appeal to you to consider my point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I promise that I shall not labour it too long, but this matter probably would have been discussed in Committee and alluded to in consideration of many of the articles. It goes to the heart of whether there is adequate social work support. The hon. Members for Belfast, South and for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) referred to measures to protect children from abuse. The matter has to be aired.

I take your point Mr. Deputy Speaker, but if I can demonstrate that the matter is relevant, I might consider dividing the House because the order is deficient. The parent of one of the victims of Brendan Smyth has raised with me whether the order should, as the lid has been lifted on Brendan Smyth's activities—he is only one example; there are probably others—allow the RUC and the social work authorities that are subject to the order to investigate matters that are some years old. That certainly is the view of the aggrieved parents who feel that the authorities, the Attorney-General, the RUC and, to some extent, the Northern Ireland Office want to keep the matter under drapes and do not want to go back too far. If the order were a Bill, I would move amendments to that effect in Committee.

My second point concerns the Northern Ireland Secretary. I addressed it to him recently in a written parliamentary question. There has been inordinate pressure from some members of religious communities to prevail upon aggrieved parents of children who have been abused to withdraw their complaints.

My written question referred the Northern Ireland Secretary to the specific case of the parents of one of the victims of Father Brendan Smyth, who were approached by a member of the Norbertine order to see whether they would withdraw their complaint. In fairness to the Northern Ireland Secretary, he wrote back to say that the matter continues to be investigated to see whether there has been an attempt to pervert the course of justice.

Will the Minister give us a progress report on that matter, as it is extremely important in view of the failure of Church and state to protect the interests of those families?

It is documented that the Church knew about the activities of Brendan Smyth, not for months but for years, and covered it up. I am of the Catholic faith, so there can be no suggestion in any sense of my demonstrating any spite. I am proud of my faith. The overwhelming majority of pastors are well-motivated people, but there have been one or two bad eggs and there has been a propensity to cover things up, which I very much regret. These matters need to be brought out into the open.

Obviously, it has been a difficult matter for my friends and colleagues from Northern Ireland to articulate, but I have at all stages kept in touch with my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker), whose constituency was primarily affected by the matter that I have raised. He and I have worked in concert and I know how concerned he has been about it. In view of the sensitivities in the Province, it is probably better that a lad from Essex raises it rather than one of my colleagues from Northern Ireland, and in that spirit I have done so tonight. The Secretary of State and the Minister really have to address what is happening.

In conclusion, let me endorse the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen made. We hope that there will be a considerable peace dividend. There is much ground for optimism. I believe that we should talk up Northern Ireland. It is a tremendous place to visit, the quality of life there is first class and the hospitality is superb, but it is battered and bruised after 25 years of strife. Children, in particular, have suffered indoctrination as well as the pain and anxiety of the troubles.

Generally, Northern Ireland needs to enjoy the dividend that will come from a reduction in the security services. Those resources need to be reallocated in Northern Ireland, particularly to the national health service and social work. It would be appropriate, prudent and fair if a large amount of those resources were channelled into promoting the welfare of children in the cities, particularly in the constituency of my Labour colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West and other colleagues, who have many inner-city problems and who, in my view, would be Labour Members if they represented other parts of the United Kingdom. I am aware of the problems faced by children in their constituencies.

The Government have an obligation to take advantage of the new atmosphere, to build up cross-community relationships between children—which already exist thanks to the tremendous work that has been started—and to ensure that children who have suffered as a result of the troubles, poverty or unemployment and everything that flows from them should be the subject of positive discrimination in respect of the distribution of resources now available as a result of the peace dividend.

8.49 pm
Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

Paragraph 4(5) of schedule 3 to the order states: In this paragraph and paragraph 5 'hospital' does not include special accommodation within the meaning of the Mental Health (Northern Ireland) Order 1986. That set me thinking, because I recently received correspondence from constituents about a child with mental illness. I support the measures in the order, in that it will give greater protection for children and consider their needs. However, in the Northern health and social services board area, children under 18 suffering from acute mental illness such as schizophrenia are not provided with proper accommodation in which to undergo psychiatric treatment.

The hospital in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) covers my area, and I make it clear that I make no criticism of the professionalism of the staff who care for people who suffer from mental illness and require psychiatric treatment and care. Their devotion and dedication to patients, young and old, are appreciated by patients later and, during the period of their illness, by patients' parents and relatives.

A 14-year-old constituent of mine had to be placed in Holywell hospital's adult acute admission ward, and later spent one month in the adult male intensive care ward because no alternative in-patient facilities designed and staffed to manage the degree of disturbance presented by seriously ill young persons were available in Northern Ireland.

Skilled and qualified psychiatric nurses should not be expected to treat seriously ill children in wards designed for seriously mentally ill adult patients. I ask the Minister to seek to provide for the children of Northern Ireland special and appropriate accommodation for their medical and psychiatric care. That could be done on an all-Northern Ireland basis, which would be more conducive to early recovery of children suffering from mental illness and undergoing treatment.

I invite the Minister to bring together officials of all health boards in Northern Ireland, to seek funding for specific accommodation in the treatment of mentally ill children. Provision of discrete areas within an adult hospital may be feasible, but it is not considered desirable or best practice. I trust that the Minister will not forget my brief comments but will endeavour to make even better provision.

8.53 pm
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

Some years ago, I spent a memorable holiday in that beautiful country of Ireland. As often happens, there was an Irish promotion week. One shop I visited had labelled everything that one could imagine. There was Irish cheese, Irish butter, Irish cream, local bread, Irish potatoes and shamrocks all over the shop. They had tried desperately to label everything. Some wag had put up an enormous notice, which read, "Think Irish. Buy French beans."

The order reminds me of that notice, because the Government thought about Irish children, but when it came to drawing up the order, they failed to consider the special needs and difficulties facing the Irish people, believing that a rehash of English and Welsh legislation would do.

Northern Ireland's population has a larger proportion of children than any other part of the United Kingdom. It urgently needs concerted help and support, and has been waiting far too long for the order. The Government have rightly been criticised for the delay of five years since the implementation of the Children Act 1989. The stresses and strains of family life in Northern Ireland are apparent for us all to see, yet there have been inexplicable delays and lack of Government commitment to presenting the order.

My hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and the hon. Members for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron), for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs), for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for North Down (Sir J. Kilfedder) raised many concerns. I shall therefore deal with only a few issues, including several not yet mentioned.

The decision that the functions of health and social services boards may be discharged by trusts led many hon. Members to question who will be legally responsible when things go wrong, how consultation will be undertaken and who will he involved. There is obviously a need for accountability when dealing with complex legislation, and that is especially important when children's lives are at risk.

Why could not an article have been added to prevent all child minders or anyone paid to care for children having the right to smack children? The order offers the Government the opportunity to protect some children while they are busy, as the result of a recent court decision, producing guidelines that will allow child minders to smack. A National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children leaflet, recently distributed with Government approval, states that children should not be shaken or smacked. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the age at which a small child can be smacked by a paid child minder. Nothing in the order tells us that.

The lack of independence of guardians ad litem has been frequently raised with me. Clearer guidelines on their duties could have been issued. There is great concern for their independence as well as for an extension of their services and perhaps use in criminal courts.

The procedures for children to give evidence in courts are far from satisfactory. There is growing demand even from the judiciary to implement the recommendations in Judge Pigot's report on video evidence, and for children's evidence to be taken outside the realms of a court. The identifying of children in court should have been prevented by earlier legislation but continues. Stronger wording should be used, to prevent that happening in all courts.

The committee of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child strongly criticised the British Government's lack of social expenditure. It is estimated that 39 per cent. of children in Northern Ireland live in poverty—much higher than the average for the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland also has the highest level of unemployment and the lowest disposable household incomes. Are the Government prepared to put money into doing something about it?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said, the health and social services boards have estimated that, to implement the order and provide the necessary training, they will need £20 million for child minders and day care, £6 million for children with disabilities, £3 million for child protection and £2 million for children leaving care—a total of £45 million. That sum does not take into account the changes in court services, which will also be very expensive. Will the Government provide all that money?

If the Government really want to do something to help, they should consider carefully the United Nations committee's report on the effect of the emergency legislation on the children of Northern Ireland and its criticism of the outrageous power to hold children as young as 10 for seven days without charge. The Government should also examine children's complete lack of confidence in that system.

The need for support for the teaching of the Irish language was also mentioned. So much has been done to keep alive the languages and traditions of Wales and Scotland; why has not the same been done in Northern Ireland?

The UN committee was also disturbed by reports of physical and sexual abuse of children, as has been mentioned. It was concerned about secure training orders and children placed in training schools in Northern Ireland. It also mentioned gipsy and travelling children, especially with regard to their access to basic services such as education. The report discussed the need to establish an independent mechanism for the monitoring of the Children Act 1989 and the convention on the rights of the child; the need for children to have a greater voice in decisions affecting them; and the need for urgent race relations legislation in Northern Ireland. Those are just a few of the matters mentioned in the UN committee report, which should have been considered when the order was finally drafted.

I have been brief to allow the Minister time to respond. Many things could have been done to improve the Children Act 1989. It is not good enough virtually to repeat the legislation that came into force more than five years ago. Times have changed and flaws in the legislation have been identified. The Government should have taken this opportunity to strengthen the Act and to think about the needs of the Irish people. My advice to the Minister when he embarks on his one-year consultation is, "Think Irish, not French beans."

9.1 pm

Mr. Moss

We have had a very good debate. Of course, this is the final debate on the order which, as was rightly pointed out, has been gestating for a considerable time. The order is lengthy and complex and its preparation has involved a great deal of work. The Department of Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland, the Office of Law Reform, the Department of Education, the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland court service have also been involved.

The order was first published in July 1993, with a longer than usual consultation period of three months. We were then asked for an extension, which we gave, until the end of November 1993. The order was debated in February last year in the Northern Ireland Committee by many hon. Members who have contributed to this evening's debate, and many changes were suggested. Baroness Denton invited all members of the Northern Ireland Committee to discuss amendments to the order with her. Some took her up on that invitation and, has been said several times, she listened carefully and suggested about 11 amendments.

One of the main issues raised this evening was that of resources. Among those who mentioned resources were the hon. Members for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron). We accept that implementation of the order will have resource implications for boards and trusts in Northern Ireland. It will replace the existing legislative framework and, of course, account needs to be taken of the resources already deployed and of the development of child care services already in hand.

It is recognised, nevertheless, that additional resources will need to be deployed in certain areas over a period, before and after the order comes into operation. Much of the expenditure involved will not begin to arise until the next financial year 1996–97, when we envisage the order coming into operation, and will be spread over a number of years as services develop in line with boards' and trusts' child care trusts plans. Even before that, however, a large number of staff in the health and social services boards and trusts will require training, a point raised by, among others, the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster. Those involved in the voluntary sector will also require training and the Department of Health and Social Services will provide support for that.

Resources will also be required in relation to the new requirement to appoint guardians ad litem in care and care-related proceedings. Additional funds of up to £2 million will be made available in the current year to cover training in the new legislation and the start-up costs for the guardian ad litem service.

Reference has been made to the fact that the Government have less than wholehearted support for resource provision in Northern Ireland in the sphere of health and personal social services. Resources are limited but, even in the face of competing priorities, the Government have increased resources for HPSS every year. Overall expenditure on HPSS in Northern Ireland will total £1,510 million in 1995–96, an increase of 5.4 per cent. in cash terms or 2 per cent. in real terms over the 1994–95 forecast outturn. Hon. Members who referred to my calculator now know what I was doing.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Did the Minister also calculate why, when it is Government policy to shift to care in the community, there have been cuts in the south and east trust area for Belfast?

Mr. Moss

The hon. Gentleman can write to me about any specific lack of resources in a particular trust and I shall certainly look into that. However, I can say in all honesty that I am not aware of a lack of resources for community care in any trust in Northern Ireland.

I was talking about overall expenditure. In Northern Ireland, it has increased an impressive 55 per cent. in real terms since 1979–80.

A number of hon. Members also mentioned the key issue of implementation.

Mr. Murphy

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way before he finishes with the issue of resources. It is very important that we heard that £2 million is being made available for the setting up and implementation of the new legislation, but what about the figure suggested by those who work in social services in Northern Ireland? They believe that, in the years to come—perhaps three, four or five years ahead—and in view of the experience of England and Wales, on a pro rata basis more than £40 million extra will be required specifically to implement the order.

Mr. Moss

The hon. Gentleman gave some figures in his speech. I added them up, and they came to £29 million. A sentence later, the total had risen to £45 million. I have seen the same briefing from various parties as the hon. Gentleman, and it seems to me that the figure grows and grows, like Topsy.

The honest answer is that we do not know exactly how much the measure will cost to implement. What we are saying is that we are starting to spend the money now. The hon. Gentleman will know how Government spending is organised: each year, the public expenditure survey takes on board the bids from each Department for the necessary expenditure. We shall build into next year's HPSS public expenditure round sufficient bids to implement the policy during the intervening years, but it will take at least a year for many of the regulations to be published and consulted on. We already have a mound of paper which will be submitted for consultation fairly soon.

To those who ask for commitment, I can give the commitment that we intend to press on as quickly as possible to organise the regulations and ensure that the order is up and running in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Murphy

Although exact comparisons cannot be made between London boroughs and towns and cities in Northern Ireland, surely the Northern Ireland Office is taking account of what has happened in England and Wales over the past six years. Surely it can examine the figures and make a proper comparison. Clearly, the Minister cannot specify the cost of implementation to the nearest million, but surely some figures will emerge. There is no question of a "bid"; the order presumably has the backing of the Treasury and the entire Cabinet, and if it is to be implemented the money must go with it.

Mr. Moss

It does not work quite like that. We shall, as usual, be making our bids in the public expenditure survey round for next year and the year after; we shall make proper costings, and we shall take the experience of England and Wales into account in the implementation of the Children Act.

We also recognise that the implementation will have an impact on a wide range of agencies. That point has been raised by a number of hon. Members. It is intended that the implementation will be carried out under the overall direction of a project board comprising representatives from the Department of Health and Social Services, including the management executive, the chief inspector of social services and the Northern Ireland court service.

In addition, there will be a broadly based implementation steering group, which has already been set up to co-ordinate the plans of the wide range of agencies with key roles in the order's implementation. That group includes representatives from the health and social services boards, the voluntary child care sector, the Department of Education, the police and the legal profession.

I remind hon. Members that it took about two years to bring the Children Act into operation here in England and Wales. We hope to proceed at a faster rate in Northern Ireland.

Rev. Martin Smyth

The Minister mentioned the Department of Education. Is that Department not fairly remote from the work base? Should not the group include representatives of the education boards? There have been hold-ups in the provision of access to ordinary schooling for children in need.

Mr. Moss

That is an interesting point. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in these matters, and that many of his amendments have already been accepted by my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State. We shall begin consultation on the regulations fairly soon; if he wishes to make his point to us then, we shall consider it in more detail.

The hon. Members for Mid-Ulster and for Belfast, South mentioned the exclusion of abusers from the family home. We accept that there is widespread support for the principle of a court order that would exclude an abuser, or an alleged abuser, but we pointed out in the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs that it would be difficult to ensure not only that the rights of a person against whom such an order might be made are protected but that the order achieves the desired outcome. Reference was made to the Children (Scotland) Bill, which is currently being debated. The Scottish Office issued a White Paper suggesting that a provision for the exclusion of abusers be included in that Bill.

The Scottish Office experienced extreme difficulty in drafting an appropriate clause, and that is now the subject of considerable discussion in Committee. It is unlikely that it will survive in its original form. We sympathise with the points that hon. Members have made, but it is extremely difficult to draft an appropriate measure while retaining a vestige of human rights for the person who may be excluded from the family home.

The hon. Members for Belfast, South, for North Down (Sir J. Kilfedder) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) asked whether we would learn lessons from the Children Act of England and Wales. The Government consider that the legislative base provided by that Act is sound. A number of issues, of course, have to be addressed during the implementation of the order in Northern Ireland, but, as I have said, we are confident: that the primary legislation provides a sound basis and there are no plans to reform the fundamental principles of the Children Act. Work on the regulations and guidance which will flow from the order is proceeding in the Department. In carrying out that work, much regard will be taken of developments in England and Wales in the implementation of the Children Act.

The hon. Members for Mid-Ulster and for Belfast, South raised the definition of disability, which they felt was rather stigmatising. The definition provided in the order follows that used in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1978 and is repeated in the Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1989. Changing the definition may give rise to anomalies and it would be inappropriate to use a definition for disabled children that differs from that used in legislation affecting disabled people generally.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Moss

If I must.

Rev. Martin Smyth

The Minister said in his opening speech that he would be brief to allow us to speak. He has plenty of time now to answer the points that have been raised. The Minister is, of course, acting on advice, but it is the same advice that the same Department tendered to his predecessor in 1989, when I was steering the Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Bill through the House. If that Department has not learned anything from 1989, it is time that there was a shake-up.

Mr. Moss

My colleagues in the Department probably heard that as well as I did. [Interruption.] I am not blaming anybody.

The hon. Members for Belfast, South and for Newcastle-under-Lyme asked about guardians ad litem and what steps we were taking to ensure their independence. We recognise the key importance of those people and that there should be a representative of the child and his or her interests in certain proceedings under the order. The creation of an effective guardian ad litem service will be essential to the successful operation of the children order. Detailed arrangements have yet to finalised, but it is envisaged that the service will operate as an independent body, quite separate from the health and social services boards and trusts.

I shall also address one or two individual comments. The hon. Member for Torfaen asked how we will monitor the children order. I assure him that the management executive, assisted by the social services inspectorate, will monitor the implementation of the order. The hon. Gentleman also asked about trusts being less accountable for their actions than boards. The health and social services trusts are statutory bodies established by the Department of Health and Social Services and remain fully within the health and personal social services department. Trusts exercising delegated functions will be fully accountable for their actions to appropriate boards and, ultimately, to the Department and the Minister.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South raised two other issues—one about Kidscape. The regional strategy for 1992–97 contains a target that Kidscape, a self-protection programme for children, will be introduced in every primary school by 1997. The Department is confident that that target will be met. The hon. Gentleman also asked about waiting lists for the registration of child minders. It is true that in some places the processing of applications for registration is delayed, but, overall, that is not the case. Boards and trusts actively encourage people to apply for registration. In the past five years, for example, the number of registered child minders has risen by 57 per cent.

The hon. Member for Belfast, West asked about care units in training schools. The order makes provisions for the creation of separate care units in training schools. We emphasise that those care units will be quite separate from the parts of the complexes that accommodate children who have committed offences.

Last, but not least, the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) raised a specific point. It is true that a teenager was recently treated in Holywell hospital as the hon. Gentleman described, but that was a most unusual case. The circumstances will be reviewed to eliminate the likelihood of similar admissions in the future.

I commend the orders to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Children (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 12th January, be approved.

Resolved, That the draft Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 12th January, be approved.—[Mr. Moss.]

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