HL Deb 04 November 2002 vol 640 cc474-5

2.44 p.m.

Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether proceedings under the Children Act 1989 are appropriate where children are known to be suffering from professionally diagnosed organic illnesses.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, under Part IV of the Act, local authorities will make an application to court for an order only where they are satisfied that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. In some cases where proceedings are appropriate, the children concerned may be suffering from a professionally diagnosed organic illness.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, which is exactly in line with what I expected. He will recall that for the past four years I have been drawing individual cases to his attention by letter and highlighting more general cases in Starred and Unstarred Questions in your Lordships' House. At his request, on 15th January this year I wrote to his friend Jacqui Smith MP in the Department of Health. It took her until 22nd October to tell me that the social workers had discharged their statutory duties and to tell me many facts that I knew already.

I find it appalling that the Department of Health seems unable to grasp the fact that aggrieved parents have sought out Members of the House of Lords to have their problems highlighted and, it is to be hoped, settled. I sent the department a list of 10 parents, none of whom was asked about the problem. Is it not time that parents were spoken to? Will the Minister look at the problem and find out what is going on with social services?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I regret that it took a lengthy time to respond to the concerns of the noble Countess. She gave details of 16 children. Time and care had to be taken to ask the relevant local authorities for their views. We have made a judgment that the proper procedures were followed. It would be inappropriate for my department to talk directly to parents. It cannot be appropriate for Ministers or officials to intervene in individual cases; nor would it be appropriate for them to comment on such cases, especially those that have been the subject of court proceedings. Our responsibility is to ensure that local authorities carried out the proper procedures, and they did.

Earl Howe

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the main aims of social workers in this field should be to provide help and support to families who need it? Is he satisfied that in cases such as those cited by the noble Countess, families are being properly listened to rather than being put immediately under a pall of suspicion by social workers? Should not social workers and social services assessments take seriously and address themselves fully to the concerns expressed by parents?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, parents' views must be made known in any childcare proceedings. But I refer the noble Earl to the comments of the Chief Medical Officer's working group on the illness CFS/ ME, which is very relevant to this Question. It concluded that evidence that is clearly suggestive of harm needs to be obtained before convening child protection procedures or initiating care proceedings in a family court. It also makes the point that social services should be made aware that medical opinion in the field of CFS/ME is divided and that consideration should be given to obtaining further opinion from an expert medical practitioner with specialist knowledge of the illness.