HL Deb 12 December 1946 vol 144 cc881-908

5.25 p.m.

THE EARL OF IDDESLEIGH rose to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the Interim and Final Reports of the Care of Children Committee (Cmd. 6760 and 6922); and to ask His Majesty's Government what action has been taken or is proposed on the recommendations of the Committee. The noble Earl said: My Lords, the public have every reason to be extremely grateful to the members of the Curtis Committee They accomplished in seventeen months a vast bulk of work, and they not only surveyed the field of child care extremely thoroughly but also surveyed it very quickly indeed. It is evident that the members of the Curtis Committee were inspired with a great sense of the urgency of their task. That is not surprising when one recalls that they were appointed in consequence of the shocking revelations made in the O'Neill case. I am not quite satisfied that His Majesty's Government feel a terrible sense of the urgency of the problem of the deprived child. I hope, however, that by the end of this debate and when we have listened to the Government reply, the House will be more reassured on that point.

I draw attention in the first place to the Interim Report of the Curtis Committee. Perhaps I should explain to your Lordships what that Interim Report is. Very early in their deliberations the Curtis Committee came to the conclusion that many children were suffering quite unnecessarily because the adults responsible for their upbringing in the various homes and institutions were untrained. There was a most serious lack of trained child workers, and the Curtis Committee therefore established a sub-committee to investigate the whole matter of training. This committee reported, and its report was adopted by the main Committee. There are three recommendations in the Interim Report which appear to have a particular urgency. In the first place, there is the recommendation for the appointment of a Central Training Council of qualified persons representing various bodies engaged in the field of child care. The function of that Central Training Council was to survey the whole field of training, and to establish such facilities as they considered needful. Then there was a recommendation which has a very obvious degree of urgency—the arrangement of courses for teachers. The Curtis Committee estimated that between 300 and 400 new entrants into the child welfare profession would be required every year, and it goes without saying that if we are to train 300 to 400 young women and young men next year, we must make a start this year in arranging classes for tutors who should be responsible for training them.

The third recommendation to which I wish to call attention is described in the Interim Report itself as "a matter of great importance and urgency." It is that steps should be taken to attract trainees from among the men and women leaving His Majesty's Forces. The Interim Report was signed on January 4, 1946. It is the usual practice of committees to send advance copies of their Reports to the Ministers concerned, and I have very little doubt that that practice was followed in this case. If that was done, I calculate that the Ministers have had the Interim Report in their hands for no less a period than eleven months, and I am very hopeful that the noble Earl who is to reply on behalf of His Majesty's Government will be able to tell us what has been done in those eleven months.

I have made such private inquiries as are open to me, and, so far as I can discover, the Central Training Council has not yet been appointed. I shall be delighted to be told that I am wrong. The noble Earl indicates assent to what I have said—the Central Training Council then, has not been appointed. That is surely a very strange position. Then, I suppose, nothing has been done in the matter of arranging courses for tutors who will next year, one would hope, be responsible for the education of trainees. Nothing again. I have not seen any propaganda aimed at inducing young men and young women from the Forces or from any other walks of life to enter into this profession, and so it would appear that the recommendation which the Committee, according to the Interim Report, themselves regarded as a matter of great importance and urgency has been neglected.

In this connexion, the recruitment of workers is a fundamental and vitally important matter. I would ask whether any attention has been paid to the offer made by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to lend their own trained workers to local authorities to deal with the deprived children. Certainly, the recruitment of trainees is not going to be an easy matter. In these days, as your Lordships know, there are a great number of attractive and well-paid careers open to young women, and it will not be at all an easy matter, unless very special steps are taken, to recruit young women for this type of work. I believe, however, that it is a type of work that will appeal to generous-hearted young people, if the claims of the deprived children are put before them in a sufficiently strong manner. But there is a need for types of workers other than those who are to become professionals. There is a great need, for example, for more foster parents. The Curtis Committee have the highest opinion of boarding-out as an expedient for dealing with deprived children, but they point out that there is a great lack in this connexion. That is also the experience of voluntary societies and of everyone else who is engaged in this work in any way. There is a great lack of volunteers for foster parenthood.

Again, there is a need for people to act as visitors to institutions and to boarded-out children. There is a need for ordinary members of the public to come forward and offer to be "uncles" and "aunts" to children in institutions. It seems to me that there would have been much to be said for an appeal to the nation by the Prime Minister himself—and no one is better qualified than the Prime Minister to appeal to the spirit of social service, which is not dead in our people—or by some other member of the Government, for a flow of volunteers to come forward to improve the lot of the children. That opportunity has not been taken. What a chance has been missed there!

I turn next to the Final Report. We now know that copies of the Final Report of the Curtis Committee reached Ministers on September 13—that is two months before the opening of the present session of Parliament. There was, however, as we know, no hint of legislation in this connexion in the gracious Speech. I very much hope that His Majesty's Government will now be able to give us some indication as to when legislation is to be introduced. They have not, I believe, banged and bolted the door on the chance of legislation being introduced in the present Session. It is not yet certain that the Curtis Report will be transferred to that melancholy little list with which we are getting so familiar in this House—the "Next Year Perhaps" list. There are many Bills on that list, as we know—the Actions Against the Crown Bill, the Poor Litigants Bill, the Penal Reform Bill and I have no doubt, other measures as well. I greatly hope that it will not be the fate of the Curtis Committee's Report to jostle those urgently needed reforms upon the "Next Year Perhaps" List.

I will give the Government credit very willingly for what has been done. There has been the appointment of extra inspectors to a number of Departments. Inspectors are certainly very much needed. I am glad to see, and it is reassuring to know, that the Curtis Committee are, on the whole, satisfied with the quality of the inspectors' reports. The trouble is that these excellent reports by inspectors are again and again pigeon-holed by local authorities and, no doubt, by others too. No action is taken upon these reports year after year, when they are made. At least, however, the inspectors, by bringing a breath of fresh air into these institutions, are doing an immediately useful task. Then a circular has been issued to local authorities by the three Departments principally concerned with the matter. The three Ministerial mountains, having been in labour for something over two months, produced a circular dated November 23. I would not say anything opprobrious about this circular, but it does appear to be a little belated. Surely it was not necessary to wait until November 23 to call the attention of the local authorities officially to a Report which was issued in September and to which immense attention had been devoted, both in the Press and in Parliament.

The circular assures the authorities that the Ministers have the Report under what is called "active consideration"—a splendid phrase, to which we are very welt accustomed. The Ministers have the Report under "active consideration," and have asked—very mildly, very gently and very politely—that the authorities also should take some notice of the Report. They make only one practical suggestion to the authorities. That is, that they should take into consultation, it they choose, those inspectors whose reports they have so frequently disregarded. I suppose that even this very mild and timid little circular will do some good, and that Ministers of the Crown have to be exceedingly polite in addressing local authorities. Had I been in their position, I think I should have been tempted to be a little more peremptory in tone. I should have been inclined to call for reports from the local authorities, and to have given a date by which such reports should be received. As it is, I understand that the results of the deliberations of the local authorities, officially not begun until November 23, will in most cases not be ready until the end of February.

If I am too impatient with local authorities, it is not without reason. Criticisms made by the Curtis Report are very painful, and the revelations are shocking. It it one of the most distressing features of the local authorities' administration of Poor Law children that very often they are kept in workhouses not for six weeks —which I believe is the legal period—but for months and months and months. I do not think that I should be doing my duty if I do not read to your Lordships one brief description of the conditions that prevail in these workhouses. One paragraph in the Report says: The smell in this room was dreadful. A premature baby lay in an opposite ward alone. This ward was very large and cold. The healthy children were housed in the ground floor corrugated hutment which had been once the old union casual ward The dayroom was large and bare and empty of all toys. The children fed, played and used their pots in this room. They ate from cracked enamel plates, using the same mug for milk and soup. They slept in another corrugated hutment in old broken black iron cots some of which had their sides tied up with cord. The mattresses were fouled and stained. On inquiry there did not appear to be any available stocks of clothes to draw on and it was said by one of the assistant nurses that 'everything was at the laundry and did not come back.' The children wore ankle length calico or flannelette frocks and petticoats and had no knickers. Their clothes were not clean. Most of them had lost their shoes; those who possessed shoes had either taken them off to play with or were wearing them tied to their feet with dirty string. Their faces were clean; their bodies in some cases were unwashed and stained.


Would the noble Earl give a reference for his quotation?


The reference is to the Curtis Report, paragraph 144. There are other descriptions, not quite so bad. I agree that I have picked the very worst. There were other similar institutions in which children are kept, not for a short time but for considerable periods. The children are removed from these institutions to local authority homes, and in a number of cases those local authority homes are well run. There are, however, a great number of unsatisfactory local authority homes, staffed very often by people with no understanding of, or sympathy with, the needs of children—homes in which there are no lockers for the children to keep their little treasures, and only bare, bleak, cold rooms. This maladministration of the actual children's homes which occurs not infrequently with local authorities is paralleled at the administrative centres by a vast amount of bureaucratic inefficiency and the worst type of departmentalism. We were prepared for these revelations by the Report on the O'Neill case. Your Lordships may remember that case, and may be familiar with the little bits of grit that got into the bureaucratic machines of the two local authorities concerned with the child O'Neill—the letters which should have been sent and were not sent; the papers that were not brought forward at the right moment; the visits by a person who was not really qualified to visit the child; all these little mistakes that culminated in the tragedy of Dennis O'Neill's death. It is a very frightening thought, my Lords, the extent to which the happiness of deprived children is confided to not very competent little clerks and minor officials, who are often over-worked, who are not specialists in their subject, and whose horizon is bounded by very petty departmental considerations.

The Curtis Committee propose as their main reform the substitution of ad hoc children's statutory committees in local authorities, and the entrusting of deprived children in local authority hands to these committees. They are to employ their own children's officers who will be specialists in their subjects. That reform will need legislation, of course—very thorough and comprehensive legislation—and I realize perfectly that it cannot be enacted in a hurry. It must take time. I would only suggest for the consideration of His Majesty's Government, and as a matter which they might pass on to the local authorities that, pending legislation, interim committees might be formed. I understand that something of the kind was done in the case of tuberculosis before the 1914–18 war. Pending tuberculosis legislation, interim tuberculosis committees were established by local authorities, and they did the work which was subsequently entrusted to statutory committees. I venture to put forward that suggestion as one that might conceivably prove fertile. But, whatever reforms we may make in administrative machinery, there will be a continuing need of public vigilance and interest in the cause of the children. It would be a very serious delusion if we were to suppose that by any legislative or administrative Act of ours we can set things so right that they will not go wrong again.

There is already on the Statute Book much excellent legislation relating to children. I am sure that when the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, brought in his great Children Acts he and his advisers were filled with a great sense of hope and perhaps they anticipated that they had dismissed Mr. Bumble from the service of the public. I remember when I was entering public life some nineteen years ago we had just abolished the Guardians and substituted for them the Public Assistance Committees. There again we heard much eloquence on the subject of the demise of Mr. Bumble. It is pretty clear from the Curtis Report that Mr. Bumble, or someone very like Mr. Bumble, is to-day alive and active, and we must be careful to make sure that, when the children's officers are appointed, Mr. Bumble does not get the job. The wards of the State, as these children are sometimes called, need the protection of the vigilance of the public if their lives are to be even tolerable. I venture to suggest to your Lordships that we must be completely satisfied as to the conditions under which these children are being brought up before we even consider the suggestions that have been made in some quarters that all children ought to be made wards of the State.

That brings me to the voluntary societies. I am glad to say that many of the voluntary societies have earned a substantial measure of praise from the Curtis Committee. That is especially true of what is called "The Big Three"—the three larger and richer voluntary societies. The Curtis Committee, in paragraph 227 of their Report, say: Although often hampered by large buildings, which made difficult the individual relationships so necessary to the full effectiveness of their work, there was no indication that as a group the voluntary homes fell below the general level of child care now obtaining throughout the country. In many instances they were well above it. That, to some extent, is satisfactory to your Lordships.

With regard to the buildings which are unfavourably mentioned in the Curtis Report, I have made some inquiries and I find that the real difficulty is that many of these buildings, which were described as gaunt and barrack-like, were erected in the days of the Local Government Board. The Local Government Board specified that all homes in which children were kept should have dormitories eighteen feet wide. It did not matter in the least how long the dormitories were, how bleak they were, or how bare; they had to be eighteen feet wide. Well, that type of specification is responsible for what exists in the older buildings of the voluntary societies. They are, to the best of their capacity, endeavouring to improve these buildings and to erect more modern ones of the cottage type in their place. Some of the voluntary societies are handicapped by lack of funds and by public support. In that connexion, I would mention that I find it a little hard to understand why it is that the voluntary societies are not entitled to draw family allowances on behalf of all their children. There seems to be a case in justice for that concession, and I regret that it has not been made.

I am not denying, of course, that there are some exceedingly bad voluntary homes. There has been a great deal of publicity about those homes, and I am glad of that publicity. For example, your Lordships will have seen some publicity devoted to a very shocking convent laundry where the children are grossly overworked and underpaid. There is an extraordinary institution where the children have to rise at six o'clock, do an hour's housework and half an hour's spiritual meditation before breakfast; and there are many other extraordinary examples of old-fashioned, ill-run, voluntary homes, sometimes very small in size, run by untrained people and quite out of touch with modern ideas. I believe that the remedy for these had voluntary homes is inspection. The present law, unfortunately, does not provide for the inspection of endowed children's homes and institutions. Only those which appeal for public funds can be inspected. That appears to me—and I hope it will appear to your Lordships—to be a bad gap in the law. I would plead with His Majesty's Government, even in advance of comprehensive legislation on the whole subject, to introduce a Bill that will permit of inspection of all homes and institutions in which children are kept, whether they be endowed or not, and I urge that when these homes are brought within the ambit of inspection, powers of the State to act on adverse reports shall be vigorously used. The exemplary closing of even a few of the worst of the institutions would, I believe, have a great effect in raising the standard of the rest. But of course that is a reform that cannot be put into operation until there are sufficient trained workers to take over the children.

There are very many other recommendations in the Curtis Report that require attention, but at this late hour I certainly shall not weary your Lordships by speaking any further. I repeat that I am very anxious indeed to hear the reply that will be made on behalf of the Government. I have, with full responsibility, brought a charge of apathy against the Government on this matter, especially with regard to the Interim Report. I shall be delighted if at the end of this debate I am able to feel that that charge has been answered.

6 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support both the question and the plea of the noble Lord who has just spoken. This Report has been awaited with great interest and, I believe, read with wide approbation by those who are concerned with the care of children. Its main recommendations also command wide assent—such recommendations, for example, as the extension of the scope of all public care, the setting up of trained children's officers, the reduction of the many departments concerned and the setting up of one co-ordinating authority, the better training of workers and visitors throughout this whole field, and, as the last speaker has said, the general oversight and inspection of all homes and, with discretion, of those who have care of adopted children.

There is agreement (is there not?) that some of the present confusion is due to the fact that several departments are both locally and centrally concerned with this particular problem. I hope one is not being cynical if one says that it would be a major miracle in Whitehall if those departments became one merely by the method of departmental conference. I think we have got to admit that a good deal of the poor quality of the work done in homes and, I suppose, sometimes in inspections, is due to the lack of trained workers and, up till now, the lack of any provision for adequate training. This is a matter which is admirably worked out in the Interim Report, and one only hopes that action will be taken along those lines as quickly as possible. Quite obviously a great deal is going to depend upon the quality of the people termed "children's officers" and the various visitors. It would be most unfortunate if existing school attendance officers or other officials were given a new name and set a new job. What we want are workers of a new type with a specialized and thorough training and, I would add, a sound philosophy on life. Therefore I feel that one of the most important things in the two Reports is the recurring emphasis on the importance of training in this field of social activity.

I should like to express the hope that the churches should be able to make their contribution in this special field. I might put it this way. If piety is no substitute for sanitation, neither is sanitation a substitute for wholesome and cheerful piety. I would like to call the attention of your Lordships to the observation on religious care, and also to the further note on page 183 of the Report, because I think those two passages reflect fairly accurately the views of the Christian communities, indeed the religious communities of this country. We agree that general inspection is most desirable. I know from experience that many of the homes and shelters for which my own communion has been and is responsible have benefited greatly by the advice of the inspectorate of the Home Office, and I have no doubt that if that whole method of inspection can be extended we shall benefit still more in the future. A good home has nothing to fear from a good inspector, and a bad home ought not to exist.

At the same time, I would agree personally with the general recommendation of the Report that institutions are a second best. Nevertheless, as things are, there is an urgent need for more small homes of various kinds. There is one type of home which, as far as I have read, is not mentioned or asked for in the Report, which some of us do believe to be necessary. I refer to the home for unmarried mothers, with nursery accommodation attached to it, where an unmarried mother can live and go out to work and still keep her baby. We have in the Church of England a certain number of homes for unmarried mothers and their babies at the earliest stage, and one of the most distressing things in those homes is the case of the unmarried mother who wants to keep her baby—and she ought to be encouraged to keep her baby—being forced by economic pressure, or else by unsympathetic parents, to allow the child to be adopted. Workers in this particular field feel that if there was a larger provision of hostels for unmarried mothers, with nurseries attached, it would obviate that loss and hardship and the community would benefit.

As time is pressing I want to confine myself to asking a fundamental question: Can we be satisfied that 125,000 children are deprived of normal home life in this country, especially when we remember that that is not the whole tale? There are also a very considerable number of children living with parents who are vicious or mentally deficient, under conditions of bestial squalor which are quite shocking. We had this matter raised in the House nearly two years ago, and figures to-day are no better than they were then. In the last three years in one district of the West Riding there have been on an average 1,650 cases dealt with by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and last year 45 cases were brought into court and convictions obtained, which is the highest number on record. What happens then? The parents go to prison for a few months, and apparently in prison they get no sort of treatment of a psychiatric kind and no sort of education in parentcraft. The children in the meantime are lodged in the Poor Law Institution or somewhere, and when that little episode is over they go back to the previous conditions unchanged. That is a deplorable state of affairs, due very likely to the lack of homes at the present time.

As I say, although institutions are a second best, institutions are still necessary. I think the Report would have gained in strength had it strayed just a little from its terms of reference and drawn the attention of the public and the Government to the existence of a very large number of children living under those shocking conditions. Large numbers of children are being in fact deprived of anything like a normal home life. I would, therefore, press upon His Majesty's Government the urgency of this whole question. Whether we think in terms of the setting up of homes or the training of workers and children's officers for the prevention of the fundamental causes of this particular evil, legislation as well as vigorous administrative action is needed.

In conclusion, may I say that I share, at least to some extent, the feeling of criticism expressed by the first speaker? Some of us who are not Party people expected the present Government, whatever they did or did not do, to be peculiarly sensitive to the claims of humanity in general and in particular. We are a little disappointed sometimes that, owing to choice in some cases and pressure of circumstances in others, economic and political issues have inevitably had priority. We hope that in the days to come questions like the one of which we are now thinking may have the urgent and full attention of His Majesty's Government. It is at least arguable whether the nationalization of transport will bring unmixed blessings to the country, and I have no doubt that that will be argued to the full in your Lordships' House before long; but in any community which keeps its soul it surely is beyond argument that it is right that we should care, and care constructively, for the reform of evil-doers and, in particular, for the true welfare of children deprived of normal home life, so that they may be, in the old phrase, Christianly and virtuously brought up in as near an equivalent to a good home as the community can provide.

6.12 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to detain you for very long at this late hour, but there is one matter about which I am not very happy. In paragraph 440 of the Curtis Report it is suggested that these so-called "deprived" children should be cared for by a special children's committee and that this committee should act through a special children's officer. When we look at one of the other recommendations, that contained in paragraph 431, we find it is stated quite emphatically that the children should be the subject of constant local interest and that they should be absorbed to the greatest possible extent in the life of the neighbourhood. Surely the proposal to appoint a special Children's committee, with a special children's officer, will tend to increase the separation from the other children in the neighbourhood to which these deprived children are subject. Their welfare will be the responsibility of various other committees, such as the maternity and child welfare committee and some branch of the public health committee. If we are to achieve what we think is best for these chidlren, surely they should be the responsibility of the committee which has the care of all the other children in that particular part of the country. If we make a divorce between various bodies looking after the various types of children, we shall take away from the new committees for the care of children a good deal of the valuable information and experience which the maternity and child welfare committees have acquired.

Another very important argument in favour of keeping these children under the care of the health departments of the local authorities is that in dealing with young children it is their medical care which is really the most important consideration of all. Anyone who has worked in this field will, I think, agree that a community of young children is particularly susceptible to infection and various outbreaks of infectious disease. Very simply and very unexpectedly a number of deaths can occur from quite unsuspected causes when children are together in that sort of way. Surely, therefore, the really logical person under whom these children should be put is the local medical officer of health, because he has the entire responsibility for their care in his part of the world. It may be said that it is perfectly simple for a children's committee to work in very close conjunction with the public health committee and its medical staff. I do not doubt for a moment that that would be a suitable arrangement in normal times, but it means that when a crisis occurs there is no one person to take the responsibility or to come to any kind of a decision. It is at those moments that a tragedy can occur. The recommendation that special children's officers should be appointed to deal with the children is, I think, a perfectly sound one, but I would much prefer that the children's officer should be on the staff of the medical officer of health and be somebody in the nature of a health visitor. These people are women of great experience; they are trained as nurses, they do a good deal of extra training in public health and they would, I think, be far and away the best type of person to visit and inspect children's communities.

If that view of the local responsibility for children were accepted, it would mean that the central department in charge would be the Ministry of Health. I think that is really the best department to deal with them, because it has at the present time a large number of very well-trained men and women inspectors and a trained medical staff. There is one further fact which I think would be an advantage, and that is that the Ministry of Health has no penal powers; it is purely an advisory Ministry. Some people say it might be better if it were given some kind of penal powers, but I rather doubt that myself. The alternative bodies are not quite as satisfactory. One is the Ministry of Education. The job of the Ministry of Education is primarily to deal with education. Furthermore, if you are going to put these unfortunate deprived children in the care of that Ministry it will again separate them from the normal children in the community. The other Ministry might be the Home Office, but there again the same question of dividing the children applies. Although the Home Office will do, and already does, an enormous amount of good and kind work for the people under its care, in the public view it is still connected with crime and prison.

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, I would not venture to encroach upon your Lordships' time at this late hour had not the Curtis Report contained certain remarks about the delinquent child, which is a subject in which I have been interested for many years. Therefore I hope your Lordships will allow me to make one or two remarks about it. I propose to confine my remarks to the hostel service, where boys and girls are placed under probation. I certainly do not understand the legal side of it, but I think a certain amount can be done to improve this service without legislation. As your Lordships know, the hostels are run either by the local authorities or by voluntary organizations. In the Curtis Report it is said—and this interested me somewhat—that the homes which are run by the voluntary organizations are better than those run by the local authorities. That gave me some pleasure, because I have attempted to run one myself. They said, of course, that they varied from one organization to another.

I would like, if I may, to endorse in general what the noble Earl opposite said with regard to inspection of these organizations. I do know, by personal contact, that conditions in some are shocking, and I think not only is it right for the children that they should be inspected, but it is right for the organizations themselves. We want inspection. We try and help in our small way, in voluntary organizations, by having one annual inspection, and we beg the authorities to carry out inspection.

The noble Earl opposite referred to every aspect of this problem, and I would like to endorse all that he said about hostels. May I turn for a moment to the internal economy of a hostel which is registered? As your Lordships know, every registered hostel is inspected, and to be registered, of course, you have to appeal for public funds. The finances have been greatly improved since June 1 of this year, when the maximum contribution which a hostel gets was increased to £2. That is to say, the probationer pays 10s. and the maximum amount payable from public funds is 30s. I will not go into technicalities, but I would like to suggest that that is an improvement and I am very glad of it. I cannot help referring to the question of clothing. In these voluntary hostels—and I am sure this applies both to boys and girls—when boys come into our hostels every single stitch of clothing they have on has to be burnt, and we get only £12 to refit them. That is not enough. If any of us started to redress ourselves from scratch, so to speak, on £12, we should find the task impossible. Before the war we appealed for clothes and we got them but to-day I think many noble Lords would share my unwillingness to part with clothes. With that £12 you have to buy everything, and I do suggest that it is a thing for which an increase could be given.

Your Lordships might ask how we get coupons. The other day the voluntary society to which I belong asked the Board of Trade for 1,500 coupons for our boys on probation. They replied, "Certainly you can have them, but when you ask for coupons next time we want these 1,500 coupons back." I wrote to them that that would be perfectly impossible. When boys come up before the court they very rarely have any coupons; I regret to say their coupons are constantly taken by their parents. That was the reply I gave to the Board of Trade. I would like to say that they understood my point of view and I would take this opportunity of thanking the humane and common-sense officials for what they did.

There is one other point I would like to mention, and that is with regard to the payment of wardens. I think this is the most important point I wish to make to your Lordships. There is no payment whatsoever from public funds for wardens. You get your payments to help the probationer, but you get nothing for the man who runs the show. The result—and I notice the Curtis Report points this out—is that the wardens are often bad. I know of one warden who only gets £75 a year, and the result is that that man has to work outside to make up his income, which is another unfortunate result. You get adolescent young men who should be under masculine control, but who are under feminine control. I think if you want a good man you have got to pay for him, and public funds should be used for that purpose. We want our wardens to be leaders of youth in the best sense of the word.

In conclusion, I would like to say that at the end of the Report there is a reservation by certain members of the Committee on religious matters. Actually, it only refers to children boarded out, but it would also cover those who are in hostels. I personally attach immense importance to that. I do not think any of us who take any part in the welfare of children in this country believe that by hitting any boys or girls you can make them better citizens. I know of no probation officer in this country who approves of corporal punishment—not a single one. There is also this point. What is the use of telling a boy or girl that if they thieve, if they disobey, or if they set a rick on fire, they are anti-social? How can you tell them that when they know nothing about such matters? There is only one answer to that—although I realize it is not always possible—and it is that they should have a sound religious background both in the home and also whenever possible in the hostels as well.

6.28 p.m.


My Lords, I will not detain your Lordships for more than two or three minutes, but I should not like to sit through this debate and not say from this Bench how sincerely we share the feelings which have been expressed here, and how anxious we are that the Government should undertake as soon as possible a really satisfactory legislative handling of these difficulties. I have had occasion to complain, rightly or wrongly, about one or two other matters which have not already been dealt with by legislation which the Government have introduced. I think it would be quite unfair to use that in reference to the Curtis Report. It is inevitable that there should be a very considerable time occupied in considering how such legislation should be framed, and I do not make any reproach on that score at all.

Indeed, when you read the Curtis Report—and it is a very interesting document to read—the first thing that strikes you is that so many Government Departments are concerned. There are three major Departments, and sometimes another one or two. It is quite true, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield said just now, that it takes a little time, in those circumstances, to get an agreed policy. It would be quite impossible to produce a comprehensive Bill in the course of a month or so. What I am anxious about, in common with the noble Earl who opened this discussion, is to receive some reassurance on two points. I should like to be assured that there are members of the Government, high in office, who are really dealing with it. This is a matter which calls for first-class attention and legislation. If there were some member of this Government who was able to vow that he would make himself responsible for a new Child Act, one that would really meet some of these terrible things, he would deserve a higher place in the gallery of prominent politicians, than some others who will, no doubt, do their conscientious best in other directions. You cannot read this document without seeing that we are living in the presence of an amount of cruelty towards and misunderstanding and frustration of young children that is truly horrible.

The other point on which I should like to be assured is that the Government are now really doing all they can. I know all about the circular that was sent out—it appeared at the moment when there was a little criticism—and I do not say that circulars are not valuable things. It is not really difficult to send out a circular, but a circular is not the course called for by this Report. I am not reproaching anybody, but although I have a question that appears on the Order Paper for today, I feel bound to make these remarks which represent my deep feeling in this matter. Al the same time, I want to say, quite frankly, that I do not for a moment reproach the Government for not having yet introduced legislation. I am sure it will be a very difficult and complicated matter to get the legislation in the correct form. I do not quite agree with my noble friend Lord Amulree; I do not think the whole interest of these children is connected with health. Health is important, but there are many other things equally important. I do not wish to say any more for I want to save time, but I did not like to remain entirely silent on a subject which deeply affects our young generation, and which is one of the most serious interests of many of us, particularly those of us who have had responsibility in what I may call the "homes" department of the State.

5.32 p.m.


My Lords, I should like first of all to thank the noble Earl opposite for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of the main points he intended to raise. I shall try to reward him by giving a fuller answer than I should otherwise have been in a position to do. I should also like to thank the noble Earl—and I am sure I am speaking for the whole House—for the opportunity of discussing a subject of very great public importance. It is a very good thing for us in this House to be reminded occasionally of our joint responsibility with another place for the welfare of many thousands of homeless children. I can assure the noble Lord that it is a real help to the Government and to the Departments concerned, particularly while policy is still in the fluid stage, to have the views of noble Lords who have made a special study of this question from their particular angle. I should like to thank all the noble Lords who have spoken for their extremely urgent desire to help. I must also apologize because I shall not be in a position to answer all their points, but I hope they will blame the clock for that rather than blame me.

May I say how grateful I am for the intervention of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, a former Home Secretary, who speaks with the experience of one who has spent several years in the actual Department responsible for a number of these homeless children. I can immediately answer his first question. He asked whether any Ministers of high rank are making themselves personally responsible for giving attention to me recommendations of the Curtis Report. I can tell the noble Viscount that the Minister of Health, the Home Secretary, and the Minister of Education have given, and are giving, their personal time to the consideration of the recommendations of that Report. I should like, on behalf of the Government, to thank the Chairman and members of the Curtis Committee for the time and thought they have given to this inquiry, which was a public service of outstanding importance and usefulness. They were all busy people and, like most of us, with many other interests and occupations; nevertheless they gave up many of their working days for about 18 months to the business of this Committee. The full Committee met on sixty-four days, during which it examined 229 witnesses. As they were not satisfied with second-hand evidence of the way homeless children are cared for, the members of the Committee themselves visited no less than 451 institutions, and many foster homes, in different parts of the country.

This Report to which the noble Earl has directed our attention is a landmark in the history of collective care of children, because it is the outcome of the first public inquiry wide enough in scope to cover every type and class of homeless child. It is safe to say that many of these children will owe an even greater debt of gratitude than we do to the humane and public-spirited authors of this Report. I am glad that they have had the satisfaction of producing a Report that has stirred the public conscience, and also a Report that, far from sharing the fate of many other Reports that languished indefinitely in pigeon-holes, has already set in motion the administrative machinery of Government Departments and local authorities. I do not think anyone could read through this Report without painful emotion. Certain passages conjure up a picture of neglected and unhappy children that no one who has read them is likely to forget.

The noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, read the House a passage about the deplorable conditions in one public assistance institution visited by members of the Committee, but he did not report the footnote at the bottom of the same page. I think it will reassure the House to hear what that footnote actually said. It said: The attention of the local authority was drawn immediately to the state of these children, and they have now been removed to a separate nursery. It is also reassuring to know that bad cases have been rare, and that, in the words of the Report, By far the greater number of homes were, within the limits of their staffing, accommodation, and administrative arrangements, reasonably well-run from the standpoint of physical care, and in other ways the child has inure material advantages than could have been given to him in the average poor family. But, of course, people are not satisfied to-day that a child is properly looked after if it is clothed and fed. The public conscience demands a much higher standard of child care than it did some thirty or forty years ago, when private philanthropy and the Poor Law were regarded as good enough for children without a family. The criterion of child care in the Report is that the unlucky child without a home has exactly the same rights, and deserves exactly the same consideration, as the lucky child with a home. It takes for granted that we all recognize that in the absence of parents or guardian it is our business, collectively, to stand in loco parentis and to provide those children who have lost the usual family background with the best possible substitute for a real home. I think that both these views are entirely in accordance with average opinion to-day.

But we are sometimes in danger of forgetting that our existing system of providing for the homeless child developed its institutions and practices in response to a very different climate of public opinion. It is not surprising that the Report finds a wide gap between the standard of child care upheld by the members of the Committee of Inquiry and the standard actually applied at the present, time, and over a period of many years, by a majority of public and private agencies. The main quality it found lacking in most of these substitute homes was what the normal parent gives the normal child almost without knowing it—a strong and constant flow of personal affection and a sense of security that comes from long and habitual experience of the same familiar faces in the same familiar surroundings.

No child lacking this sort of relationship with a grown-up person can hope to have a full and happy childhood. The substitute homes should, therefore, compensate to the greatest possible extent for the psychological, as well as the material, advantages that the normal child derives from a family background. I think everyone accepts as the principal aim of policy, present and future, the provision of these elementary features of the ordinary pattern of home life. But I think it is also accepted that existing administrative machinery, both central and local, is quite unequal in present circumstances to this enormous and novel task. The authorities and agencies now responsible for homeless children have grown up in an entirely haphazard and sporadic fashion. They have been formed to meet the particular needs of particular types of children, or according to the particular direction of philanthropic endeavour at particular times and places, or as a result of the independent decisions of a multitude of local authorities, in towns and country districts, and of a number of different Government Departments. We agree entirely with the Committee that this unplanned growth has led to much confusion and waste of effort and to serious lack of co-ordination both at the centre and locally. The jungle of Committees and agencies was, undoubtedly, one reason for many of the present defects in arrangements for the care of these homeless children. It follows from this, as the Committee said, that what is needed is co-ordination and simplification in accordance with a national plan covering every type of homeless child. This would also mean concentrating administrative responsibilities, that are at present widely dispersed, both at the centre and locally.

Here I would like to say in reply to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield, that we do accept the recommendation of the Curtis Committee that one Government Department should be responsible for all homeless children, whether they are temporarily or permanently homeless, and whatever may be the cause or origin of the lack of a home. To make all the necessary alterations in powers and functions would, of course, mean legislation, and I will explain in a moment why we are not ready for legislation yet. I was very glad to hear from the noble Viscount opposite, speaking as he did with the advantage of his long administrative experience, that he understood some of our difficulties. I cannot, I am afraid, accept the noble Earl's suggestion about an interim Children's Committee to take the place, pending legislation, of the ad hoc Children's Committee recommended in the Report, because I am not yet certain that such an ad hoc Committee is, in every case, the most suitable instrument of local government. This, I think, follows from the idea of developing more unification among the local authorities responsible for these children. I should like to remind the noble Earl that the joint circular issued on November 23 mentioned "lack of co-ordination between different Departments of the same authority," as one of the faults that need to be remedied. And I am glad to be able to tell him that as a result of this encouragement—the encouragement given by the circular—many local authorities have already taken the initial steps towards what the noble Earl desires.

We do accept the view that legislation will be necessary, but I am afraid that I cannot forecast, at the moment, what the form of the Bill will be, or when it will be introduced. That does not mean, as some noble Lords might suppose, that another useful Bill has been elbowed out of our legislative programme by doctrinaire Socialist measures. The reason—if I may give it—is simply this: that we have not yet had time to work out a satisfactory scheme. It is the time factor that counts. May I remind the House that the Report only appeared this autumn, that it contains 62 recommendations, a number of which will require legislation, and furthermore, that these recommendations, and any alterations that on consideration may seem preferable, must be considered not only by the Government but by the representative bodies of local authorities and voluntary agencies engaged in the work of looking after these homeless children.

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay, who as an independent Member of Parliament cannot be suspected of any tenderness towards the present Government, put this argument very neatly in a debate which took place in another place. He then said: "I would much sooner have the right thing done a little later than have hasty legislation now." Of course, Mr. Kenneth Lindsay has had experience at the Ministry of Education, so he was speaking with a background of real knowledge. Hasty legislation, as noble Lords are aware, often means errors that take years to rectify, and I am sure it would be a mistake, when dealing with a matter of this importance, not to allow enough time to do the job thoroughly and to do it once and for all. Until we know just how much can be achieved by the quicker and more satisfactory administrative method, it is impossible to say what the contents of the Bill will be. But let me add, in reply to the question asked by the noble Earl opposite, that we have not ruled out the introduction of a Bill this Session.

There is one question which I hope noble Lords will ask themselves. Is this a problem that can be solved by legislation? Can any Statute, however carefully framed, give the homeless child the sort of substitute home and substitute parents we all desire? What the Curtis Report recommends, as the nearest approach to normal family life, is either boarding out children with foster parents, or, if public residential care is indispensable, the setting up of separate homes for groups of not more than twelve children to one adult, each of which will be something like, and have something of the atmosphere of a large family.


Surely the Curtis Committee's Report does not recommend the extinction of the great voluntary services which, indeed, they most strongly commend?


I entirely agree with the noble Viscount. I was going to make a qualification. This should no exclude the use of larger residential homes of up to thirty children—that, it is said, is the ideal maximum—for certain types of children, unstable or "problem" children. Legislation can certainly improve the administrative machinery used for these purposes but it cannot possibly provide the much larger number of substitute homes and substitute parents which is the primary requirement. Large orphanages and similar institutions are bound to wait for a sufficient supply of small houses and cottages before they can disperse their inmates, and noble Lords will appreciate that shortage of accommodation is a cause of delay, and a handicap to progress, that legislation cannot overcome. But, in spite of the limiting factor of bricks and mortar, there is much that can be done immediately or in the near future, and, certainly, without waiting for statutory changes, by administrative decisions taken either in Whitehall or locally.

I should like to tell your Lordships what we have done already, and what we intend to do, to implement the recommendations of the Curtis Report in this way. The noble Earl has already referred to the joint circular which was issued on November 23, with copies of the Report, to all local authorities concerned, asking them to review their present arrangements in the light of the recommendations and criticisms in the Final Report, and to take whatever action they considered practicable and appropriate. The advice that was given in this circular was received by the local authorities promptly and cordially, and we know that they are acting upon it. This initial step was followed by the strengthening of the central inspectorate, which supervises and advises both public and voluntary agencies. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced on November 28 that a number of additional inspectors, both men and women, had been engaged by the Home Office and the Ministry of Health.

The recruitment and training of the right sort of people to staff these homes is really more important than anything else, for it is to them that the children naturally look for an equivalent of the parental relationship. The Interim Report, to which the noble Earl has referred, pointed out that the usual assumption that a good character and a little domestic experience are sufficient qualifications for a house-mother is now challenged by most of the officers in charge of homes. There is general agreement that systematic training in the physical and mental well-being of children is absolutely essential as a supplement to good personal qualifications—of which I suppose the most valuable (and also the most rare) is a sense of vocation as a foster mother. The bringing up of homeless children is, in fact, a profession like teaching or medicine, and requires a similar background of trained professional skill.

As soon as we received the Interim Report we realized that instruction in child care would mean a number of carefully organized courses in practical and theoretical subjects. We started immediately with our preparations, and we were well advanced with our plans for the training of these house-mothers and senior staff on the lines recommended by the Committee, when the Final Report was published. The launching of the training scheme was postponed to take account of any fresh recommendations that might affect or improve it, but our progress has been so satisfactory that we expect a decision to be taken and announced in the very near future. Let me add that this training scheme will include the appointment of a Central Council on Training in Child Care. That, of course, can be done without waiting for legislation.

Even though these improved training facilities may soon be ready and available, we are not deluding ourselves into the belief that it will be a simple or an easy matter to attract the large number of young trainees whom we require if these homeless children are to have more personal attention than they have hitherto had. There is acute competition for young women in professions such as teaching or nursing, which also offer contact with children, and it is not surprising that many of them prefer to go where they find the easiest and most pleasant conditions of work. The Central Training Council will have to consider urgently how time career of child care can be made more attractive to potential recruits than it is at present. I am sure it would help recruitment if it were more widely known that almost all homes for children are now suffering from staff shortages, and that there is urgent need for the help of many more suitable women, both young and middle-aged, who are willing to take up the good work of mothering the motherless child.

I am glad to be able to tell the noble Earl that since the publication of the Final Report many warm-hearted people have volunteered to befriend these homeless chidren. All offers of voluntary assistance received by Government Departments are sent to local authorities or voluntary homes in the locality from which they come. I can assure the noble Earl that no good will is wasted, and I need hardly say how much those who run residential homes would welcome more visits to the children they look after, followed by letters and presents on birthdays and at Christmas. The really kind deed is to give one of these children a short holiday by the sea, or elsewhere, with other children of a similar age. I should have thought that many families would wish to take at least one homeless child for a holiday once a year. In some cases the holiday expenses can be met.

Of course, easily the greatest voluntary service is rendered by foster parents. There is a grave shortage of people who are willing to open their homes to these children, and we cannot extend the boarding-out system until volunteers with a genius for home-making come forward in much larger numbers. We should welcome whatever publicity women's organizations in town and country—such as the Women's Institutes and the Towns-women's Guilds—can give to the paramount need of homeless children for kind and conscientious full time foster parents. In the past, there has been almost everywhere a strong prejudice against boarding out children in the homes of professional people, and that has resulted in foster homes in this country being limited almost entirely to weekly wage earners. A child will certainly benefit from the wider resources of such a professional home, and what he or she does in later life is surely an irrelevant consideration. If only this old-fashioned prejudice can be removed, many more foster homes of first-class quality are likely to become available.

I am glad to be able to inform the noble Earl that further administrative action being taken this week, and I have in front of me now copies of four documents that will be issued to-night by the Home Office and the Ministry of Health to county councils and county borough authorities. Their aim is to encourage and help local authorities with the boarding-out of children to foster parents. As noble Lords will remember, the Curtis Committee recommended this as the ideal method in the great majority of cases. There are two sets of rules about boarding-out, drawn up mainly for the protection of the child, and they have been amended and assimilated in accordance with views expressed in the Report. They will come into force on January 1, 1947. There is a covering Memorandum on the Boarding Out of Children and Young Persons, which gives these authorities detailed directions and guidance about the right method of boarding-out, and again follows closely the lines of the Report. Finally, there is a joint circular from these two Departments which, among other immediate administrative improvements, suggests placing responsibility for finding homes and supervizing the boarded-out children in the hands of a single officer. This is a first step towards the type of local organization in charge of a children's officer so strongly recommended in the Curtis Report. I hope this will please the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, who stressed the importance of the children's officer.


Will the noble Earl ensure that copies of these circulars are sent to voluntary societies as a matter of interest?


I will see that the nobe Earl's request is transmitted to the two Departments concerned, and I do not think there will be any difficulty about that. In conclusion, I should like to ask noble Lords to do all they can, individually, in whatever part of the country they may live, to draw attention to what the public can do to help the authorities responsible for children in their neighbourhood. I feel that if there is this great co-operative effort between the public and the people directly responsible the conditions that we all wish to see improved will improve with the greatest possible speed.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Earl for his reply, and I thank him for the courtesy with which he answered all the numerous questions.