HL Deb 13 July 1987 vol 488 cc825-6
Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will set up an independent inquiry into the problem of child abuse with a view to giving guidance to local authorities, health authorities and other bodies on how best to deal with a situation which is causing increasing anxiety.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Skelmersdale)

My Lords, the Government have concluded that it is not appropriate to instigate a general inquiry into child abuse in present circumstances. Guidance to local authorities, health authorities and other bodies on inter-agency arrangements is in an advanced stage of preparation and will be amended if required following the report of the committee of inquiry into the situation in Cleveland, announced by my honourable friend the Minister for Health on 9th July. Further to that, my honourable friend is announcing today that Mrs. Justice Butler-Sloss, to whom the Government are most grateful, has agreed to undertake this inquiry.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the extra information he has given us. Nevertheless. in view of growing evidence of the increased number of child abuse cases nationally, does the Minister not agree that there should be thinking, additional to the inquiry, as to how much the legislature should interfere in the life of the family and also to what extent we should change our present procedure? Does he not agree that we should look at what happens in Scotland, which has a more informal base for dealing with children's problems, and perhaps set up an extension of children's panels whereby the whole family unit and social workers would be assisted?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I would not go so far as to agree with the thought that, I suspect, underlies the question asked by the noble Baroness; namely, that the law in this area is in a mess. Nevertheless, the Government admit that there is need for change. The Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Act 1986, when implemented, will give parents a new right to be made full parties to care proceedings with the corresponding right of appeal. Our proposals in the White Paper The Law on Child Care and Family Services provide for improvement in parental rights when an emergency protection order is made. With regard to comparing the situation with that in Scotland or anywhere else, I know that this is one of the points made in response to the White Paper.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, can the Minister. having said who is to be chairman, also give the names of the assessors? If not, can he say how they will be recruited?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, not yet. However with a bit of luck I hope that I can do so by the end of the week.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that when the individual inquiries into this case and previous cases, for which everyone is grateful, have been carried out, it would be a good idea to look at the overall structure of child care services, which would include the juvenile justice system and preventive work?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, that might well be something which comes out of the current inquiry. As I have just pointed out to the noble Lord, Lord Bottomley, we do not yet know who the assessors will be; still less do we know what the inquiry will recommend. That is something for the future, but I firmly take my noble friend's point.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, bearing in mind that the Minister has ruled out the proposal for a formal inquiry made by my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs, will he consider making available for debate the draft advice that it is proposed to send to the various authorities and professions in connection with child abuse, so that the wisdom of your Lordships and of those in another place may be brought to bear before those vital documents are issued?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, while a debate in this House is a matter for the usual channels, I am of course ready to receive advice, wherever it comes from.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Lord remind the House of the terms of reference of the inquiry to be conducted by the most distinguished High Court judge? Will he and his right honourable friend not close the door at present to the possibility of a much broader inquiry, even a commission. if the results of that inquiry justify it?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition, because I tried to make clear in answer to earlier supplementary questions that our minds are not totally closed. We shall of course have to listen to the results of this inquiry. We have not yet set the terms of reference. These are under discussion with the distinguished High Court judge. The noble Lord gives me an opportunity to express regret that on Thursday I may have given the impression that the inquiry would definitely report at the end of September. I intended to say that we hoped that the inquiry would report then.

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