§ 3.28 p.m.
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Social Work (Scotland) Act was brought in by the previous Government in 1968 and has since been carried on by the present Government, and with local authorities throughout Scotland. I think it is a very good Act of Parliament, and as Chairman of the Social Work Committee for the County of Roxburgh I strongly approve of the Act and what it has done both in dealing with juvenile delinquency and with general social work.
There is however a matter which is causing some concern, and the Bill which 675 I am introducing to-day is designed to deal with it. In April of last year Part III of the Social Work (Scotland) Act came into operation abolishing the juvenile courts in Scotland and setting up in their place a system of children's hearings. From then on all children under the age of 16 (with some minor exceptions) who may be in need of compulsory measures of care have been referred to an official in each local authority known as a reporter. His duty is to decide on the facts available to him whether a child should be brought before a children's hearing for consideration of his case. The function of the hearing is to decide what should be done in the best interests of the child. The hearing has no powers to adjudicate on the grounds on which the case has been referred to them. If there is any dispute about the grounds of referral, the child and his parents have the right to ask for these grounds to be established by the sheriff. Once the grounds of referral have either been accepted by the child and his parents, or established by the sheriff, the hearing then decides whether the child should be made subject to a supervision requirement or whether his case should be discharged.
Most cases brought to a hearing are disposed of within a month of being notified to the reporter; but if a case has to go to the sheriff, this will of course protract the proceedings, and occasionally it may take up to three months before a case can be disposed of by a hearing. When such a delay arises in the case of a child who is approaching his sixteenth birthday, there is a possibility that the hearing may not be able to dispose of the case before the child attains the age of 16, and this is where the difficulty has arisen which the present Bill is intended to remedy.
As the 1968 Act stands, a children's hearing has no power to impose a supervision requirement on someone who is over the age of 16 unless he is already subject to a previous supervision requirement. In this event he is regarded as a child until he reaches the age of 18 at which point any supervision requirement ceases to have effect. If, for example, a child of 15 years 11 months who is not already under supervision is charged with committing an offence and is brought before a children's hearing, he or his 676 parents have the right to ask that the alleged offence with which he is charged shall be proved against him before the sheriff. The case must therefore be sent to the sheriff, who will decide whether the facts are as alleged. By the time the sheriff has established the facts and the child has been brought back to a fresh children's hearing he may well have passed his sixteenth birthday, and the hearing has no power to impose a supervision requirement on him. The child could not therefore be dealt with for the offence. This is clearly an unsatisfactory situation and it has been necessary to make an administrative arrangement, which my noble friend the Minister of State for the Scottish Office may wish to describe, to deal with such cases until the 1968 Act can be amended.
I am sure that your Lordships will agree that this is an unsatisfactory situation, and the Bill which I am at the moment introducing will remedy this defect that has come to light since Part III of the 1968 Act was brought into operation last year. It continues the jurisdiction of a children's hearing over a child whose case has been referred to them and who is not already under supervision until they have disposed of his case, even though he may have passed his sixteenth birthday before the conclusion of the proceedings. I think your Lordships will agree that it is unsatisfactory if this axe, as it were, comes down at the age of 16 while the case is still under jurisdiction. I therefore beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Elliot of Harwood.)
§ 3.32 p.m.
§ LORD HOY
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends I should like to extend our support to the Bill introduced by the noble Baroness. This is the second day in succession on which your Lordships have been engaged in correcting defects in the law. The only difference between to-day and yesterday is that it has not taken the Scots fifty years to find out where the mistake was made, and for this we are grateful to the noble Baroness. I think that the case she has made is absolutely unanswerable and we are delighted to be able to support it.
§ THE MINISTER OF STATE, SCOTTISH OFFICE (BARONESS TWEEDSMUIR OF BELHELVIE)
My Lords, on behalf of the Government I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood on introducing this very useful measure, which will remedy the defect which she has so ably described to the House. I would only say that I think it is a little early yet to see the result of the hearing, but I understand that a great many parents and children do feel that much time and study is being given to their problems. I think the House would wish to join me in paying tribute to all those who give up their time voluntarily to serve on these panels, and I have very much pleasure in supporting my noble friend.
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD
My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, for his support from the Opposition Benches and also my noble friend Lady Tweedsmuir. I trust that your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.