HC Deb 16 January 1996 vol 269 cc646-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Knapman.]

10.15 pm
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise an extremely disturbing case involving the abuse and exploitation of handicapped people at a private care institution in my constituency by people who profess to be fundamentalist Christians.

This affair exposes serious shortcomings in the supervision of charities in Scotland; it shows that it can he far too easy for unscrupulous operators to misappropriate Department of Social Security funds; and it demonstrates that it is far too difficult for local authorities to ensure that handicapped people get proper care in such institutions.

The Algrade story is a major scandal, and the Minister must institute an urgent inquiry so that proper safeguards can be put into effect as soon as possible.

The Algrade home is near the village of Humble at the foot of the Lammermuir hills. The site was originally developed as a holiday village for children from Edinburgh, and from a distance it looks idyllic.

The Algrade trust was established in 1968 with the stated objective of providing for the spiritual, physical and material welfare and education of the mentally handicapped". The top priority given to spiritual welfare later turned out to be significant, and, I fear, sinister.

The home was registered under the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 for residential and day care, and in recent years there have been around 33 residents and 10 day attenders. Many of the residents went to Humble as children 30 years ago, and they have lived virtually all their lives at the home.

Families trusted the Algrade trust, and particularly the resident trustees, Miss Betty Waugh and Mrs. Rosa Frisby, to provide for the welfare of these handicapped young people. But I fear that things went badly wrong.

Over a period of years, the local social work authority, Lothian regional council, became more and more dissatisfied with the management at Algrade. The council tried to persuade the trust to improve its care arrangements, but the social work department ran into fierce resistance from the trustees, particularly Miss Waugh and Mrs. Frisby, who claimed that they had guidance from a superior, divine authority.

In 1984, the council became so concerned about poor standards of care and management, and inadequate and inappropriate staffing, that drastic action had to be taken. The council's ultimate power was to withdraw the Algrade home's registration under the Social Work (Scotland) Act, but there was a risk that the trust could carry on regardless by claiming housing benefit for its residents instead of DSS funding.

That course of action was actually threatened by Mr. John White, who had joined the Algrade team as an adviser in 1987. I understand that Mr. White has recently folded his Care Management Advisory Service company, and that his record elsewhere includes an incident in which an old lady was scalded to death in a bath in a home that he owned. He subsequently claimed that the fact that she had a private bath was proof of the quality of her care. The man seems to be a complete chancer, and a callous one at that. He is still operating the Grey Tree trust in Ross-on-Wye, with substantial funding from the Home Office. The authorities should check on all his affairs thoroughly.

Returning to Algrade, Lothian regional council was in a difficult position. Even if it could have closed the Algrade operation, it would not have had the resources to provide alternative care and accommodation for the residents. Nevertheless, further pressure on the trust, including reports to the police and to the Scottish Charities Office, led to the resignation of the old trustees, the appointment of new trustees, the transfer of the management of the home to the Board of Social Responsibility of the Church of Scotland, and, finally, the transfer of the residents to better accommodation made available by the council at Inveresk.

Lothian regional council and the Church of Scotland have fulfilled their responsibilities fully and in difficult circumstances, with precious little help from the Scottish Charities Office. I tabled parliamentary questions in July and November last year, and the replies from the Lord Advocate and the Minister were hopelessly unsatisfactory. We are still waiting for action to deal with serious financial irregularities in the Algrade trust—and remember: the DSS has been paying more than £400,000 a year to that thoroughly dodgy organisation.

It is important that the House and the Minister should understand just how awful the position at Algrade had become. We are not discussing minor lapses or mistakes. This has been a story of serious exploitation, abuse and fraud.

For a start, the accommodation was dreadful. When I visited Humbie just after the management was taken over by Church of Scotland social workers last year, I saw primitive conditions, inadequate and probably dangerous electric wiring, and pitiful heating. In February 1994, Lothian regional council found that the temperature in the living accommodation was just 6 deg C, well below the statutory minimum for places of work. It is a mercy that the residents were moved into better housing before the big freeze at the end of December 1995.

The catering was basic, to put it mildly. I understand that the trust took advantage of the free European Community surplus food scheme to put £50,000-worth of horsemeat on residents' plates over five years—at least, we presume it was horsemeat; the residents described it as pony.

The trust's outlandish religious culture was probably the main priority, and the handicapped residents were manipulated shamelessly. Those who did not comply could be subjected to cruel punishments, and there are even more serious allegations of sexual abuse by a senior carer who worked at Humbie for 10 years. Amazingly, he was protected by the original trustees.

Staffing at the home was, at best, inadequate. One of the oddest features of this operation was its ability to spend such a low proportion of its income on the care of its residents. Although Mr. John White was maximising the trust's claim for DSS and other funding to more than £420,000 a year, the trust's expenditure on staffing was just £36,000 a year. Spending on staff usually accounts for about 70 per cent. of care home budgets, but at Algrade the figure was 10 per cent., so staff costs were extraordinarily cheap.

Expenditure on food must have been pretty low, too, with all that free EC horsemeat or whatever. We know that heating costs must have been minimal, that the residents had little pocket money, and that there is no evidence of investment in the buildings at Humble, so where did all the money go?

I believe that large sums of money that should have been spent on the care of handicapped people have been diverted into the former trustees' religious organisation, and into property that now belongs to individual former trustees. I understand that about 17 properties, worth about £2 million, in and around the village of Pathhead may have been acquired in that way. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), who represents Pathhead, is present. That property in Pathhead includes the high street café, which is exotically named, "The Video and Satellite Ministry".

That "Ministry" seems to be a combination of the former trustees' brand of fundamentalism and material beamed from kindred spirits in the United States of America. When I visited the café last year, my main concern was for a group of handicapped young people from the Humbie home who were working in the cafe clad in absurd tartan uniforms. The ex-trustee who met me there, Mrs. Frisby, had obviously prompted them carefully and effectively to tell me that they wanted to return to the care of the former regime at Algrade. She went further. She cited divine guidance for her mission. Those "helpers"—I understand that they were paid £5 for a seven-day week—seem to be vulnerable people, who are being exploited and manipulated.

Apart from milking their handicapped residents' DSS funding, the former trustees used other tactics. I have now seen evidence that a blind elderly relative of a day attender was bamboozled into signing a will leaving his house to Miss Waugh, and there are more stories about wills and unconventional property conveyancing that deserve attention.

All that has been perpetrated in the name of Christianity and "spiritual welfare", which is shameful; it has also been done by a registered Scottish charity with substantial funding from the DSS, which is intolerable. I pay tribute to Lothian regional council for its vigilance and persistence, which has led to the removal of the previous trustees and the provision of better care and accommodation for those 33 handicapped people.

That must not be the end of the story, however. About £2 million of public money intended for the care of handicapped people has apparently been pocketed by the trust or embezzled by former trustees. That money must be recovered and made available for its original purpose. I want to know why the Scottish Charities Office, which has had plenty of information about the affair for 14 months, has still taken no action.

I submit that either the DSS or local authorities should be able to audit and, if necessary, directly control money paid to private care agencies, of which there are now a good many. Moreover, this outrageous story includes a number of allegations of criminal offences: such offences should lead to prosecutions.

The people who have suffered neglect, exploitation and worse at the hands of the Algrade trust are entitled to expect appropriate action and fair compensation. It is imperative for lessons to be learned from this affair, to ensure that nothing like it can happen again anywhere in Britain. I appeal to the Minister to consider the matter carefully, and also to study further evidence that will appear in the BBC's "Frontline Scotland" programme on Thursday. I am grateful for the BBC's help in researching the affair, and to the Edinburgh Evening News, which has also taken an interest in it over the past year.

I appreciate that the Minister may not be in a position to announce specific action tonight, but I trust that he will accept that the Government have a duty to deal with a scandal of such proportions.

10.27 pm
Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian)

I shall be brief, but I wish to identify myself with this affair, because Pathhead is in my constituency.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) on raising this terrible matter. Constituents in Pathhead drew my attention to it, fearing a gradual takeover of the village following the organisation's purchase of houses: they were afraid that it would be institutionalised under the auspices of the Algrade trust. The exploitation of the youngsters in the café was also drawn to our attention; what we did not know about was the abuse and cruelty meted out to handicapped children. That must be the greatest fear of the parents and grandparents of such children.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian that an in-depth inquiry is the only way in which to satisfy the public and those representing them here. If criminal charges result from accusations of sexual assault, the cases concerned should go to trial. The misappropriation of funds must also be investigated, and the activities of the misguided religious zealots must cease immediately.

10.29 pm
The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) on his success in securing this debate. I welcome this opportunity provided by him to set out the position on the Algrade trust and the action which has been taken. I am also grateful for the comments of the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke).

The Algrade home at Humbie in East Lothian opened in 1968 as a residential school for children with learning difficulties. It developed into providing accommodation also for adults, many of whom had been educated at Algrade. When it was established, it was well regarded by many residents, parents and independent parties. As a consequence, it was popular, and places in the home were sought after.

The home had charitable status, and was run by a group of trustees. Until mid-1995, it was run by its founding trustees. In 1982, the home was approved to provide 44 residential places and 70 day care places, but there has been a gradual reduction in the numbers, so that latterly Algrade provided accommodation for 33 adults.

As a social work establishment, Algrade was registered with the relevant social work authority—Lothian regional council—for most of its history. Thorough and regular inspections were carried out from the late 1980s, and shortcomings were identified. These shortcomings related to management arrangements, staffing, the form of care, and general standards within the home. Meetings were held between the social work department and the trustees to discuss and agree on improvements. On each occasion, the trustees undertook to make the necessary improvements, but this did not always happen. Some improvements were made, hut other points had to he returned to regularly.

In the 1990s, the concern of the registering authority increased, and serious concerns were reported by the social work department to Lothian social work committee.

In August 1993, Lothian social work authority decided that no further admissions should be made to Algrade. In September, the social work authority informed the chairman that one of the founding trustees should cease to have any involvement in the management of Algrade. She did not step down as asked. In 1994 the social work authority made a number of inspections, some unannounced, and held meetings with the trustees in order to keep a close eye on the implementation of recommendations for the improvement of the running of the home.

In October 1994, following further inspection, the social work authority gave notice to the board of trustees that the property could not continue to be used as a residential home. The reason was that the premises did not meet the necessary requirements. The building was not wind and watertight, and there were signs of damp in all the buildings. The heating was inadequate, and, in the winter months, temperatures were unacceptably low. Food storage and eating arrangements were unsatisfactory. There was also concern about the management, which had failed to comply with requirements.

In view of the importance of improving the management arrangements for the home, the social work authority approached the Church of Scotland, which very nobly agreed to take on the management of the home. This it did in October 1994.

I express my thanks to the Church of Scotland for stepping into this most difficult situation, for which it was in no way responsible. It placed its experience at the disposal of the trustees in order to bring about very necessary improvements. The new trustees are now responsible for the management of Algrade, and I have full confidence in their commitment and competence.

The Church of Scotland set as its main priority finding alternative accommodation for the residents. Many were attached to the community in Humbie, and had built up local friendships. However, it was important that their living conditions should be of a good standard.

The social work authority identified Wedderburn house in Musselburgh as a suitable temporary alternative. It was formerly a residential home for adults with learning difficulties, and was owned by the council. The regional council proposed to lease Wedderburn house to the trustees of the Algrade trust at a peppercorn rent of £1 a year. The Secretary of State's consent to this was received within a week of the proposal from the regional council.

The region's property committee gave its approval three weeks later. Some refurbishment was required, and the residents moved into their new home on 19 December 1995. Wedderburn house will now provide a home for the former residents of Algrade, for up to two years. In this time, discussions will take place between the social work department and the trustees about more permanent accommodation arrangements.

The social work authority was also concerned about the arrangements for administering and looking after the money of residents at Algrade. The director of social work submitted a report to the Scottish Charities Office in October 1994. This was its first involvement. The Scottish Charities Office is a division of the Crown Office, established in 1992 and responsible for the supervision of charities and charities legislation. This legislation allows the Lord Advocate to make inquiries into concerns about misconduct or mismanagement in the administration of charities.

The report from the director of social work was not sufficient on its own to found a case. The Scottish Charities Office therefore initiated its own investigation. The allegations are complex, and are being investigated in detail by the Scottish Charities Office. Following the initiation of the investigation, the original trustees resigned, and, as I said, have been replaced by new trustees.

I pay tribute again to the new trustees, who have backgrounds in teaching, accountancy and medicine. They have taken on a difficult situation, and are already in discussion with the social work department, parents and guardians of residents. The new trustees have also been working with the Scottish Charities Office in its investigation of the previous administration.

The intervention of the Scottish Charities Office demonstrates our new charities legislation in action. It has allowed the charity to continue to function in the interests of those it looks after. It has saved the charity, in the best interests of its beneficiaries. It is investigating the allegations fully and fairly, in the interests of justice for the trustees. It would be wrong for me to comment further on the possible outcome of an investigation that is still in hand. If the hon. Member for East Lothian has evidence of fraud or embezzlement, he should send it to the proper authorities—in this case, the Lord Advocate—as a matter of duty.

On account of the complexities, the matters have been taking some time, but the resources of the Scottish Charities Office are sufficient for the work load. I am satisfied that there are no fundamental shortcomings in the supervision of charities legislation.

I turn to the allegations of sexual and other abuse.

Mr. Home Robertson


Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

May I answer some of the other points made by the hon. Gentleman? He can intervene later.

We regard the allegations of sexual and other abuse as very serious. I understand that, in October 1994, a resident made an allegation of sexual abuse against a male member of staff. The police investigated it and interviewed the member of staff concerned. The resident, however, withdrew the allegation, and the police had no basis on which to take forward the case.

More recently, as the residents have got used to the new arrangements and their confidence in the new Church of Scotland staff has grown. they have started to talk about their experiences, and eight complaints have been made about the same member of the former staff who was concerned in the earlier allegation. The police arc now investigating those complaints through their women and children unit, and are treating the complaints seriously. The member of staff ceased working there in October 1994.

The residents have also made other allegations of a serious nature. Those include physical abuse, being made to stand out of doors at night in underwear as a form of punishment, and the expression of concern about aspects of their diets. There has also been a complaint that the father of a man attending on a day basis at Algrade was pressurised to alter his will, linking it to the arrangements for the future long-term care of his son.

All those complaints are being investigated by Lothian and Borders police, who are working closely with the Scottish Charities Office, Lothian region social work department and, of course, the Church of Scotland. As all the allegations are under investigation, it would be wrong for me to comment on them.

The present position is that there are new trustees, new management in the form of the Church of Scotland, and new premises at Wedderburn house. Investigations are being pursued into allegations of sexual abuse and fraud. We are anxious to see what lessons need to be learned. In particular, I am asking the chief inspector of social work to visit the Church of Scotland so that we may learn what lessons its members think could usefully be learned in the light of their current responsibility for the residents,

I turn to the general issues raised by the case. As I have already said, we do not yet know fully what lessons may be learned. We are, however, clear about the importance of the inspection and registration function of local authorities in detecting and dealing with any problems which may arise in residential care homes. The Secretary of State is about to issue guidance to all authorities, particularly aimed at the new authorities, on their statutory responsibilities for inspection. It describes the key tasks to be carried out, giving particular attention to the issues that may be raised following reorganisation.

In addition, a Scottish Office internal working party, which includes full representation of outside interests, including the Church of Scotland, is discussing possible changes in registration arrangements for residential care homes. That working party reflects the issues raised with certain residential care homes and nursing homes for elderly people, but its remit extends more widely. It will certainly take account of any lessons which may be learned from Algrade. The group will be making recommendations to me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State very shortly. It might be helpful if I set out the current arrangements.

Local authorities are required to register private and voluntary residential homes. Registration is required where the whole or a substantial part of an establishment's function is to provide personal care or support as part of a planned programme.

As part of the overall responsibility for maintaining standards, the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 identifies three main aspects to which an authority should give particular consideration. Those who own and control an establishment should be "fit" persons to carry on the establishment; the premises should be "fit" for the purpose for which they are registered and the level and experience of the staffing should be appropriate; and registration should have regard to the way in which care is provided.

Authorities may refuse, or cancel, registration where these, or similar, conditions of registration imposed by authorities under the 1968 Act are not satisfied. An authority may thus close a home if it is unsatisfactory. This is a power which has to be used with care.

In order to ensure that standards of care are maintained on an on-going basis at a sufficiently high level following initial registration, local authorities have powers to inspect establishments with regard to the condition and management of the establishment as well as the care provided. Guidance issued by the Scottish Office indicates that it is for authorities to determine the frequency of inspections. It recommends that two per year should be seen as the minimum for normal circumstances, and suggests that at least one inspection should be undertaken without notice.

Mr. Home Robertson

If the Minister had been in a position to follow the case as I have over the past year, he would understand that the local authority has been doing its level best to deal with the situation for a long time, but has not had proper powers. The Minister is saying that it is open to the local authority to withdraw registration. I invite him to address my point about the fact that the former trustees threatened to do without registration, and simply to put the residents on to housing benefit instead, which is a way of driving a coach and horses through the controls.

How long will it take the Scottish Charities Office? It has had information about the odd accounting practices of the former trustees for 14 months. How much longer?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I can answer those points. A number of inquiries are currently in progress. The first is being conducted by the Scottish Charities Office into the conduct of the previous trustees and administration. A full report has been prepared by an accountant on the financial issues relating to the administration, which go back a long way. That is expected to be in the hands of the Scottish Charities Office very shortly, and will leave the way open for a conclusion to the matter before very long.

The second investigation is being conducted by the police into allegations of sexual abuse. In addition, a Scottish Office working party is looking at registration procedures. That should provide a stronger registration and inspection process in due course. We are thus taking all these problems seriously, but I do not think that any additional inquiry is needed.

Mr. Home Robertson

What about housing benefit?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The accountant will cover thoroughly all the matters relating to the accounts of the administration. We would he extremely dissatisfied if he did anything less, and I have every confidence that he will do that.

Mr. Home Robertson


Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes again, I must tell him that we consider the problem that he has raised as very serious. I share his concern. Action has been taken. The Scottish Charities Office has intervened effectively, and will continue to do so. There are new trustees and new management. The residents have been moved to new premises. Investigations are in progress. We must learn the necessary lessons, and I will keep the hon. Gentleman in touch with what is going on.

I warmly congratulate the Church of Scotland on its action in this matter, which has been of great benefit to those directly concerned.

Mr. Home Robertson

I invite the Minister to address the second question that I put to him. It was wide open to these people to sidestep the whole registration procedure by simply opting out of the social work part of the process and claiming housing benefit. That was a threat. Will he do anything to block that loophole?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I will look into the hon. Gentleman's point and write to him.

On a slightly different point, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that a Scottish Office working party is looking thoroughly at the registration procedures. It will reach an outcome and make recommendations to the Secretary of State before long.

The point raised by the hon. Gentleman may well he covered in the accountant's report, which is expected this week along with—

Mr. Home Robertson

indicated dissent.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but he does not know what is in the accountant's report. It has not been presented to me. It is about to be presented to the Scottish Charities Office. His point may well he covered. I will look into the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman.

This is a serious matter, and I am extremely grateful to the Church of Scotland, which has acted in a selfless and dedicated manner in the best interests of those who were looked after—perhaps that is the wrong expression—those who were in the home. That is wholly to its credit. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this matter.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fifteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.