HL Deb 30 November 1944 vol 134 cc75-84

3.23 p.m.

LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH rose to call attention to the fact that the inquiry into the provision and administration of remand homes by the London County Council is to be held in private, and to suggest the desirability of the attendance of the Press in order that the evidence may be reported, subject to safeguards to prevent identification of children concerned such as are required in the juvenile courts under Section 49 of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933; and further to call attention to the fact that the Secretary of the Committee of Inquiry is shown in the Civil Service List for 1943 as one of the Children's Branch Inspectors of the Home Office, the Department responsible for inspecting and approving the remand homes which are the subject of criticism, and to ask whether this is considered a desirable arrangement.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the question standing on the Paper in my name has regard to an inquiry which has been ordered by the Home Secretary and which I believe is likely to open within the course of the next day or two. The matter has therefore a certain urgency. I think most of your Lordships will be aware of what a remand home is, but I would like quite briefly to point out that a remand home has, I think I am right in saying, three classes of inmates. There are, firstly, children alleged to have been guilty of some offence who have been sent there pending inquiry by the magistrate. Secondly, there is a different class of children concerned in what are called "care and protection" cases—children, for instance, who may have been sent there pending some prosecution of the parents. Thirdly, there are children who have been guilty of offences, who perhaps have had more than one chance, who are to be committed by the magistrate to an approved home, and who are sent to a remand home pending arrangements for their transfer to the approved home. The remand homes therefore have as inmates innocent children, children not so innocent, children who are novices in crime, and children who may be called veterans and who are to be sent on to approved schools. Therefore it is very important that careful rules should be observed to keep separate innocent children from novices and veterans in crime, and to keep separate novices and veterans. The homes in the County of London are, of course, provided by the London County Council, and they are inspected and approved by the Home Office.

I mention that in order to sketch the background of this matter. My first question relates to the fact that the inquiry which has been ordered by the Home Secretary is to be held in private, and I raise that point because prima facie it seems undesirable that an inquiry of this sort should be held in private. One strong reason for observing privacy is the danger that there should be any identification of the children concerned. But I would point out that there is a provision in the Act of Parliament to which I refer in the Notice of my question that the public should not be admitted to juvenile courts but that representatives of the Press should be admitted so that the evidence can be suitably reported subject to safeguards to prevent identification. If it is thought that in this particular case, where one particular home has been referred to and one or more children have been referred to, there would be difficulty in preventing identification, I would suggest that there is no real difficulty. I understand that there have been thousands of children through half a dozen of these remand homes in the last ten years. Quite obviously if the homes were referred to as A, B, C, D, E and F, and the children were referred to by numbers, it would be impossible to identify child 53 from home F or child 175 from home A. Consequently I cannot really believe that there is any need to have the inquiry in private for the protection of the children.

Having disposed, as I submit, of that objection, I would say that I think a public inquiry in a case of this kind is of the very essence of our democratic system in order that the public may be able to judge the evidence and in order that public anxiety may be allayed by the result of the inquiry. I believe that public anxiety would be better allayed by an inquiry at which evidence was given in public than by an inquiry held behind closed doors, only the report being published. My second question relates to the gentleman who has been appointed secretary of the Committee. Of course I need not tell your Lordships that nothing I say can possibly cast any reflection upon this official or any other. The secretary has been appointed, no doubt, because he is familiar with the work, and, quite clearly, the Committee must have the guidance of some official who knows the ropes. But I do not think it is desirable that the official chosen should be actually a member of the branch of inspectors whose duty it is to inspect these homes. This is clearly a case in which, I submit, Caesar's wife must be above suspicion. In this instance, Caesar's wife is the Home Office, and, here again, it is very important to reassure public opinion, and to ensure that the public should be quite certain that the Home Office is not the accused and the judge and the jury, or has too great an influence, because, after all, the Committee is to be a Committee of inquiry. It is very important that the public should feel quite certain that the inquiry is impartial in every possible way.

There is a third point, and as I only came across it this morning I was not able to put it on the Paper. But I did my best to give the noble and learned Viscount who sits on the Woolsack notice by telephoning him immediately to notify him that I was going to raise this question. Reflecting on this matter I recollected what was known as the Hereford case which also concerned a children's court, and in which an inquiry was set up. I had the curiosity to look up what was done in that particular case, for it was also a case where there was a great deal of public anxiety concerning the issues involved. I found that, as required by the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, there was a Resolution by both Houses of Parliament, and as a result the body which was set up had the power to summon witnesses, call for the production of documents and take evidence. In this case, there has been, so far as I know, no Resolution of both Houses of Parliament, but a mere appointment by the Home Secretary. That raises the question in my mind whether the Committee which has been appointed will have power to do these things, summon witnesses, take evidence and so on. It is quite clear that, if they do not have the power, that is another grave defect in the constitution of the Committee, and it will I think give rise to a great deal of public anxiety.

I cannot help feeling that, in the interests of everybody concerned, in the interests of the official who has been appointed as secretary, of the Department of the Home Office and of the L.C.C., the Government would be well advised to think again, and to make other and better arrangements. Above all, the people who are really concerned, and the people we are thinking about, are the children, the unhappy waifs in these homes, who are only in them—be they innocent or be they not so innocent—because they have not had good homes of their own. I do not think that you often find children who have had good homes finding their way into a remand home, whether it is a home which comes under the L.C.C. or one which comes under some other authority. It is in the service of the children that the whole of this apparatus is set up. And I am quite sure that I shall carry all your Lordships with me when I say that it is the interests of the children which we regard as of paramount importance. I sincerely hope that the noble and learned Viscount will be able to answer my question in a way which will relieve some of the public anxiety which I believe has been created.

3.33 P.m.


My Lords, in the absence of any representative of the Home Office in the House, I will give to my noble friend and to your Lordships the reply which the Government would make to the questions which he has put. Let me first of all say—on my own behalf and, I feel sure, on behalf of everybody in the Government—that in any Court of Justice, or in any tribunal which is analogous to a Court of Justice, there can be no question whatever, under our Constitution and practice, that the proceedings should take place in public. No other method is even tolerable in our Courts of Justice. The only conceivable exception arises when the strongest public interest calls for privacy; as when, for example, the danger of disclosing important details in the course of the trial of a spy in time of war, or something of that sort, makes it absolutely necessary to depart from the rule. But if, of course, you classify this inquiry correctly, it is really an administrative inquiry, of which there are great numbers taking place almost every year in connexion with one Department or another.

My noble friend did not happen to mention it, but it is not irrelevant to remind the House that the inquiry is being conducted by Mr. Russell Vick, K.C., and by Miss Curtis. Mr. Vick, if I may be allowed to say so, is known to me and a great many other people as not only a distinguished lawyer but as a very firm-minded and determined personality. With my knowledge of him, I can assure the House that there could hardly be selected anybody in whom one could put more complete confidence that he will, whatever be the trouble, try to get to the bottom of the whole business, and will make an absolutely candid and impartial report. Miss Curtis is a lady who has vast experience connected with children, and is a most admirable second member of such a body of inquiry.

It constantly happens in connexion with the setting up of an inquiry of this sort—and, as I have said there are a great many of them—that the question has to be decided as a preliminary by the Minister concerned whether the inquiry is going to be given a certain character and authority under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, or not. I happen to have had in my official life quite a considerable experience in having to decide which course should be taken. My noble friend is quite right when he says that the Hereford Inquiry, which some of us well remember, was given the status and authority which that Act offers. You have to have a Resolution of both Houses of Parliament—a much more elaborate proceeding, therefore, authorizing the inquiry—I think authorizing the inquiry being conducted by the person intended. In the Hereford case it was Lord Justice Goddard, now Lord Goddard, who conducted the inquiry. That being done, the Act gives to the tribunal certain special qualifications. In particular, it authorizes the administration of an oath to any witness whom it calls before it, and leaves to those conducting the inquiry the decision whether it should be in public or in private. That is the method that is followed occasionally, but I should doubt if we have an example of it more than once a year, or even as much as that, on the average. But it was done in the Hereford case and there are one or two earlier cases that I remember.

But the more usual course which is adopted—and it is a course which in very many cases has been recognized to produce excellent results—is the simpler course of the Department concerned appointing a person or persons to conduct the inquiry. The names are usually announced in advance. Those persons undertake that duty and make a report which in most cases—it will certainly be so in this case—is a published report. That report does not give merely the conclusions of those who inquire into the matter, but makes proper reference to the evidence, and sometimes even reproduces it. That is beyond all question the course which is usually followed. His Majesty's Government came to the conclusion in this instance that on the whole this second and more usual course was to be preferred.

I warmly agreed with my noble friend when he asserted that the interests of the girls—some quite young, and some older, and almost young women; some of them, I am afraid, with not at all a good record, but others, I hope and believe, quite innocent—are the first consideration. Of course they are. It would be possible, although it is most unusual in the case of these Departmental inquiries, to have the inquiry in public. I have here a list, kindly provided for me by the Home Office, giving details of inquiry after inquiry in that Department alone in which I think almost without exception the inquiry has been in private. No doubt it could be provided that this inquiry should be held in public. I rather doubt whether it would be possible in the case of an inquiry of this sort to say that the Press shall be admitted but not the rest of the public. That was specially provided for by Statute in the case of the sitting of the juvenile courts; Parliament enacted in express terms that in that case the Press should be admitted, and it went on to provide that the Press shall not make any reference to the names of the children. I question whether it would be possible, by a mere edict from the Chairman or from the Home Office, to say "The doors are open in this Departmental inquiry, and the Press may come in, but nobody else." I have no doubt that if the Press gave an undertaking not to publish names they would not publish them, but there would be the greatest objection—would there not?—as I think my noble friend on reflection will agree, to letting the public generally into an inquiry of this sort.

Some of these girls, many of whom are quite young, have unhappily fallen into grave trouble in the past. They have been—to use a convenient periphrasis—"no better than they should be." An honest attempt is being made to give them a new start in life. I cannot think that it would be a good thing to let in members of the public, some of them perhaps prurient and inquisitive and uncontrolled, immoral people who, if one of these young girls who in the past has got into trouble is called, might say "I recognize that girl; that is the girl who used to be hanging about outside such-arid-such a public building." I cannot think that that would be a good thing, and; if I may express a personal opinion, it seems to me that the Home Office was right in saying that it would be better for this inquiry not to be in public.

The inquiry is not likely to be very prolonged, because if Mr. Russell Vick and his colleague set to work they will get through this business very quickly, and I am sure that, having considered the matter, they will make their report with promptitude. The report will be published. I think that that statement has already been made, but I am so sure that I am right in saying that that I give the undertaking that the report shall be published, and published in extenso, so that the public shall know what it contains. But is it really right to say that while ex parte statements are being made day by day, and while, it may be, witnesses are called to whom very unpleasant questions have to be put—girls; it may be bad girls, but none the less girls—the principles of good government require that this inquiry should be in public? I must say that I do not agree.

That was the conclusion to which the Home Secretary came, and I hope that my noble friend, whose desire for the public good in this matter I most warmly recognize, will weigh those considerations, which I believe are some of the considerations which led to this decision. It would have taken a little longer, no doubt, to get a Resolution through both Houses for an inquiry, although I do not suppose for a moment that it would have been opposed; but the cases in which there have been inquiries on some specific point, especially by the Home Office, the inside of which I know something about, which have been dealt with by appointing a thoroughly responsible person and announcing the name in public, and following that in due course by the publication of the report, have been very numerous.

My noble friend takes a further point, and it is a point which, when one hears it stated, impresses one, on the general principles of good government, as a point well worth thinking over. The civil servant who has been appointed to be the secretary of this inquiry is, I understand, one of the Children's Branch Inspectors of the Home Office. My noble friend will be the very last to seek to make a merely captious point, and I quite see the force of the suggestion, which is that this is a remand home which the Home Office inspects, and the secretary of the inquiry is to be a civil servant who comes not only from the Home Office but from that branch of the Home Office which is concerned. That is a perfectly fair point to raise.


He may have inspected that very home.


Well, he has not. Whatever you may think of the Government, they do not do that! The real answer is this. It does not matter how well chosen the Chairman is; he must have, if he is going to do his work thoroughly, the services of a secretary who is under his direction and is completely subordinate to him, but who not only has a general knowledge of what the inquiry is about, but who really knows the machinery and where to get information about this point, and what is the class of inquiry to be made about that one. When the, Home Office arranged for an inquiry, as it did quite recently, about a particular incident in the Police Force, the person appointed as the secretary came from that branch of the Home Office which has to do with the police. It is a fallacy to suppose that everybody in the Civil Service knows everything; it is even a fallacy to suppose that everybody in a particular Department of State knows everything in that Department. And if I were to choose any Department which is so diversified and broken up into different sections of administration, it would be the Home Office. It would obviously be of no advantage at all if the secretary were not a person who was able to tell the President, "Those are the people whom you are seeking for, and that is the section of such-and-such a public administration in which you will find the sort of person for whom you are asking."

The secretary has nothing to do with choosing witnesses. The direction in that matter is given by the President of the tribunal, and the evidence may be offered from all suitable and authoritative sources so far as is possible. The secretary is a completely subordinate official and, if I may be allowed to say so, I never conceived him to be anything else. I am sure that, as my noble friend himself said, nobody has the slightest suspicion that this particular gentleman, whoever he is, is not going to discharge his duty with most complete candour and honesty. But, as a practical matter, if you want to get a thing investigated, well, there would be something to be said after all, even if you were inquiring into the morals of Cleopatra, for getting the help of a member of the household who knows how and when Cleopatra carries on. I have given an answer, and those are the considerations, as I understand them, which actuated the Home Secretary in coming to his conclusion; and while I recognize that my noble friend has raised points of administration of public interest, to which he is well entitled to ask for an answer, I hope he will feel that the answer has not been entirely eristic, but that it does contain some solid substance.


My Lords, I can only speak again by leave of the House, and I do so because I want to make a suggestion. I recognize that my noble and learned friend has given an answer which deserves very serious consideration, but I want to put this point to my noble and learned friend. He has made it quite clear that this decision is a matter of weighing advantages and disadvantages. I accept that entirely; I also accept entirely, of course, his description of the strong and impartial nature of the tribunal, and I notice that he described Mr. Russell Vick as a learned and determined personality who no doubt would be an experienced chairman. Would my noble friend not consider whether the Home Secretary could not give discretion to the chairman to let this inquiry be held to some extent in public or entirely in public, if he in his discretion, weighing the advantages and disadvantages, comes to the conclusion that that might be a good course? Would he consider that as a possibility?


I will very gladly communicate that suggestion to my colleague the Home Secretary.

House adjourned at ten minutes before four o'clock.