HL Deb 10 June 1992 vol 537 cc1260-2

2.44 p.m.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they plan to review the Ayrshire child abuse cases.

The Lord Advocate (Lord Rodger of Earlsferry)

No, my Lords. A complaint has been made to the Procurator Fiscal in a case concerning two children in Ayrshire. This complaint is still under investigation. In the case of a further three children the Court of Session has just upheld the sheriff's conclusion that the grounds of referral had been established and press reports indicate that the solicitors are considering other legal proceedings. An appeal is still to be heard in another case involving four children.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that reply. In view of the fact that Sheriff Crozier criticised the handling by the Ayr social work department of one of the cases and then dismissed the case, is the noble and learned Lord satisfied that present procedures in these cases are satisfactory? Is he also satisfied that the recommendations of the Butler-Sloss report are being acted upon in Scotland, where some sections of the Children Act 1989 do not apply?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, I cannot comment on the particular case referred to, but on the general point following the Cleveland inquiry, copies of a shortened version of the report by Lord Justice Butler-Sloss were sent to all social work departments and their attention was drawn to the full report. Fresh guidance was issued to all the agencies involved in such cases. That guidance and other relevant matters will be reviewed in the light of the report of Lord Clyde on the Orkney inquiry when that is available.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that many people will welcome his reply that there is no intention to hold an inquiry into the Ayr cases? In case people tempt him in the future to hold such an inquiry, will he keep in mind the inquiry on children's matters in Fife under Sheriff Kearney which has been going on since March 1989 and from which no report has yet surfaced? Will he also bear in mind the inquiry in Orkney conducted by Lord Clyde which started last summer, stretched into the autumn, then into the winter and then into the spring? It perhaps only survived the summer because the summer was late in Orkney this year. Will my noble and learned friend bear in mind that these methods of solving such difficult problems are thought by many of us to be totally unsatisfactory? The cases in Ayr which involve serious allegations are currently before the courts and the courts are the proper place for the evidence on these cases to be decided.

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, the difference is that the cases just referred to are before the courts and the matter will be decided by the courts. The more general point concerns matters that have already been reviewed by Lord Clyde and by Sheriff Kearney. As I have said, we shall take account of their comments.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate aware that I, too, welcome his statement that the normal processes of law will now apply to the allegations that have been made in Ayrshire? Will he bear in mind the experience of the Orkney tribunal which sat for over a year and has, I believe, cost £5 or £6 million? It has led, as these inquiries so often do, to accusations being made against people who have no opportunity to defend themselves.

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, the noble Lord's comments indicate the importance of these matters being dealt with in the proper forum, which is the courts.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord suggested that the Ayr cases are sub judice, although I do not believe that he used that term. Therefore it is difficult to discuss them and it would probably be improper to do so. Nevertheless I am sure the noble and learned Lord will agree that public opinion in Scotland has been gripped in recent years by a number of sensational cases of actual or alleged sexual abuse of children in Ayr, Orkney and Fife. We know that child abuse exists and often results in emotional and physical damage along with the loss of innocence. I do not envy social workers their task of investigating these cases as they are often in a no win situation. It is easy to jest that social workers have too much power. However, as I understand the position—I hope the noble and learned Lord will bear me out on this—social workers have no powers themselves unless they are given powers in specific cases by justices' courts or children's hearings. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate will be able to confirm that point.

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, as the noble Lord said, social workers operate within a statutory scheme involving the children's hearing system, which is widely respected.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, does not the noble and learned Lord agree that unless the public are reassured that children will not be arbitrarily removed from their homes unnecessarily there is a grave danger that suspected cases of child abuse will not be reported when they should be?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, it is, of course, important that they are reported. However, I believe that the system which exists for such matters to be reviewed by a children's hearing and further on appeal to the sheriff provides the necessary safeguards.