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Mr. Allan Stewart (Eastwood) : I had intended to ask the Minister a question similar to that put by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). I congratulate the Under-Secretary on the clarity of his explanation of these complex regulations. Without complicating the question that the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow asked, may I ask my hon. Friend to comment on the position of estranged couples where one is in Scotland and one is in England? I raise the matter because of a constituency case, and clarification of the point would be appreciated.
My hon. Friend explained the progress that the Government had made on access, particularly in relation to education. If my hon. Friend referred to housing regulations, I may have missed his remarks. I understand that consultation on access in that area is taking place. Do the regulations affect hon. Members? I gather that we have no rights of access to information under the regulations, although we sometimes get confidential information when those in charge of it feel it appropriate because they can regard us as people who will respect their trust and confidence. Presumably we could get information if we acted, in effect, as an appointed agent for somebody under the regulations. Hon. Members often become closely involved with social workers in individual cases, so if the Under-Secretary would comment on the way in which, if at all, the regulations affect us, that would be helpful.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. These are the first regulations to reach the Floor of the House since the passage of the Access to Personal Files Act 1987. I agree with what has been said about the complexity of some of the language that is now used ; the original concept was simple and crystal clear in setting out what we were trying to achieve.
While I appreciate the difficulties involved in getting the checks and balances right, I have some misgivings about the detail of the regulations, apart from the complexity of the language. The Government seem to have made the
Column 990mistake of trying to maintain common provisions between the regulations that govern access to manual records, with which we are dealing tonight, and the access provisions that relate to computer-stored information under the data Protection Act 1984. I have always maintained that the two types of records are entirely different. Individuals have had access since 1984 to the sort of information that will be stored typically on computer and electronic files. But the type of information that we are discussing--manually stored information--will still, even looking into the fairly far future, be stored manually, even as we become a more electronically geared society. In social work departments there will always be a need for hard copy, manilla files which, as the Under-Secretary said, will be voluminous and of a quite different character from the electronically stored information that is covered by the Data Protection Act. Of course there is a need to keep common provisions, because we want to keep life as simple as we can, but I think that the Government were wrong to insist that the same provisions that governed the Data Protection Act should be used in governing access to manually stored files.
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) that there is a suspicion that the medical profession is backsliding--some would say it is no coincidence--on access to medical files and people's individual medical records.
I think that the BMA was right to ask for extra time. At its conference two years ago it was on the point of agreeing to adopt access to medical reports as a matter of course. However, it has moved back from that point, and I am extremely worried about that. I do not think that the Government can hide behind the need to get a voluntary scheme up and running if that scheme is going to take too long to achieve.
Has the Minister in mind a timetable within which he thinks it would be reasonable to try to achieve a voluntary scheme? If he can achieve it I should certainly be prepared to let it run and see how it operated, and if it operated reasonably well I should be prepared to countenance leaving it on a voluntary basis. However, if the medical profession really digs in its heels and makes life difficult, the Government may have to resort to statutory legislation and regulations such as we are discussing. The Minister should have a clear idea not to take five, three or even two years to make up his mind about that.
Section 2(4) of the Access to Personal Files Act explicitly rules out retrospection. That is right and proper because, as the House will know, after 1 April, and only then, individuals will have a new right of access. The social work profession has that much time to change its practice--many areas have already done so--to make sure that files created after that date are made readily and easily accessible. An absolute bar on retrospection and a rigid enforcement of the provision in section 2(4) would make access of limited use to some very specific categories of people. I am thinking, for example, of children who were formerly in care, and I think that a local authority faced with an application from someone who was formerly in care, should go beyond the minimum requirements laid down in the parent Act and these regulations and should be allowed flexibility. I hope that any guidance practice notes from the Scottish Office dealing with that aspect of the regulations will reflect my view.
Column 991The House should be aware that there is no bar on retrospection and access to social work records under the Data Protection Act 1984 and that is something of an anomaly, although I understand the need to give a certain amount of protection, and a line has to be drawn somewhere. At that point the regulations come into force, because otherwise there would be havoc, leading to some of the expenses that the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden referred to. There is a need for flexibility in applying retrospection under the regulations.
I endorse what the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden said about fees, because the £10 maximum charge, which is of course again a reflection of the charges made under the Data Protection Act, will put many people off if it is charged in full. I hope that the Scottish Office will give guidance to local authorities on that matter. I remind the House that the Department of Social Security, that well-known enlightened institution, makes no charge to people who want access to computerised social security records. If the DSS can do that under the Data Protection Act, I hope that Scottish local authorities will do the same.
If local authorities make full use of maximum charges, they will not only be able to charge £10 for access to manually stored records but £10 for computer-stored records. In many cases one file will straddle manually and electronically stored files, and access may cost £20, which would be a bad thing.
Access should be of mutual benefit to the practitioners in the profession and the clients, and I hope that the regulations will be implemented in that spirit. I know from my experience in drawing up the parent Act that many local authorites, particularly in England and Wales, are far ahead of the regulations, with successful schemes up and running which allow access free of charge. I hope that that will be borne in mind.
I understand that future cases must be extremely sensitively handled but the House should know that the provision on opinions being disclosable but intentions being withheld was forced on us by the Government and the wording reflects that of the Data Protection Act. It is regrettable that it is here, but it is, and I hope that it will be applied sensitively.
I fear that there may be some problems about the stipulated compliance period for local authorities. I do not disagree with anything that the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden said, but I take a slightly different perspective--that of the applicant. Local authorities will have substantial problems. In my part of the world they are much smaller than some of the social work departments in the west of Scotland. But 40 days within which to comply with the regulations is a long delay.
If I read the regulations correctly--I am sure that the Minister will put me right if I have not--that 40-day period starts only after the application has been made, and identification and all the other requests have been completed by the applicant to the satisfaction of the local authority. Then the local authority has 10 days in which to identify third parties whose consent may have to be solicited before the information is divulged.
If the third party delays or refuses to provide that information, at worst there may be a delay of two, three or four months. I think that the Minister said explicitly that,
Column 992if a third party refuses to comply or delays, the local authority has an obligation to publish the information minus whatever information would be in the gift of--or related to--the other identifiable person. I assume that his or her rights will be protected if there is no response to the local authority request--the information will be disclosed, but the third party information will be withheld. If I have understood that properly, it at least makes the matter clear. The regulations should state explicitly that access is afforded after the third party identifiable in the files has refused a request or has delayed.
Dr. Godman : The hon. Gentleman is the expert in these matters, although not a self-proclaimed expert. Is he suggesting that if another individual refuses to grant consent to the disclosure of information, his refusal should be ignored? How do the English regulations, which the hon. Gentleman lauded earlier, deal with such refusals?
Mr. Kirkwood : I am not sure that I understand the question. My interpretation of the regulations is that if there are any references to identifiable persons, who have rights over disclosures made to another party, they are entitled to be consulted about whether they wish the information that relates to then--no more and no less--to be divulged. They have a choice. Requests come from the local authority asking whether the people identified mind the authority divulging the information. They can say yes, do nothing or say no. If they say no, the local authority divulges the information without reference to them. It blanks it out, or removes the relevant page, report or section and the file is then made available. Third parties should be given the option to remove, excise or amend the information as they please. They can make representations to the local authority to preserve their own rights.
I was concerned about what would happen if a person did nothing, and the Minister cleared up that point. Initially I thought that the regulations would enable the local authority to say that it had not had a response from the identified third person, so it would not divulge any information. The Minister has clarified that by saying that, in such circumstances, the local authority would divulge the information except for anything that related to the identified third party.
Mr. Michael Forsyth : I shall clarify the position. To put it simply, the third person can object only to his identity being disclosed. He cannot object to the information being disclosed. It would be open to the authority, when there was a refusal by a third party, to make the information anonymous and to provide it on that basis.
The regulations on exemptions are an improvement on the original suggestion from the Government that harm, rather than serious harm, should be the test for exemption. The idea of a test of serious harm is based on the Data Protection Act 1984 and is a considerable advantage on the simple test of harm, which would have provided far too big a loophole. The Bill that I presented to the House originally allowed for information to be withheld where serious harm would be caused to someone other than the applicant.
To deal with situations such as child abuse and wife battering, the original Bill did not allow complete withholding of information on any harm grounds. It had
Column 993a better solution. In the case of distress or harm, it allowed for inspection in the presence of a professional. In such cases the professional would be a social worker. In the case of serious harm potentially being inflicted on a person, we suggested that there should be a referral for six months so that counselling and other matters could be examined. I still think that that was a better way to proceed, but although the regulations do not allow for it I recognise that they are something of an advance.
The regulations do not seem to lay any duty on local authorities to notify people when parts of the record are withheld. That worries me. As in the Data Protection Act 1984, there is no provision for applicants to be told whether the records that they have received in response to their applications are complete. Last year I brought forward a Bill on access to medical reports, which is now an Act. It requires doctors to tell patients when they are withholding information from reports supplied to insurance companies and potential employers, either because it might cause serious harm or because it involves the privacy of others. I regret the omission from the regulations, because I think that the value of such reports is much greater if those who receive them can be sure that what they have is all that there is--or are told explicitly if that is not the case.
The provision for an appeal procedure involving three members of the local authority would lead, in my view, to a bare, sparse and minimal system. I think that there should be an ultimate right of appeal to the courts. Hon. Members may consider that that would be taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but if we do not get it right people may start having recourse to judicial reviews over unreasonable refusal of access. That remedy would, of course, be technically available, but it would also be expensive and time- consuming.
Under the Data Protection Act there is a right of appeal, initially to the registrar and thereafter to the courts. Neither of those independent routes is available under the regulations. Presumably people have a theoretical right to go to the ombudsman if they can show that injustice has been caused by maladministration, but that is a strict test compared with the provision of an explicit right to go to the sheriff court.
I am disappointed by a number of aspects of the regulations. If they are implemented inflexibly, they may lead to unnecessary delays and diminish the new rights conveyed by the parent Act by being too costly for many people to exercise. They deny the spirit of the Access to Personal Files Act 1987, which sought to provide cheap and ready access to files held on individuals by local authorities. I fear that such over-rigorous implementation of the regulations may erect substantial barriers on the road to achieving the ends sought by the original Act.
Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, South) : When I left university in 1975 I went to work for a local authority. I specialised in social work, particularly child care. It was an exciting time to go into that sort of work, because the Children Act 1975 had just been passed, giving social workers involved with children a strong indication that at last some attention was being paid to their profession.
As I became more involved in the subject, however, I realised that a number of fundamental problems had not been dealt with, two of which are exemplified in the
Column 994regulations. One was the protective attitude that social workers, like most professionals, felt towards information that they held on behalf of their clients ; the other was the complexity of the law relating to children particularly, and to social work in general. I made a quick check in the Library tonight. When I was practising in adoption, there were 18 or 19 statutes covering adoption law in Scotland. I am pleased to see that there has been an
improvement--there are now only seven--but that gives hon. Members some idea of the complexity facing social workers when considering the law of adoption. I counted 24 statutes which infringe on the subject of child care. The complexity of the issues that we have discussed tonight is reflected in these regulations. The parliamentary draftsman has failed miserably. The prolixity will make the job of the social worker even more difficult.
The regulations also show the problems of protecting the interests of the professionals before we even consider the principle and spirit of the Act promoted by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), which concerns the interests of the person who is the subject of all the social work attention and who should have access to that information. As a practising solicitor, both in local authority work and in our courts in Scotland, I have seen the difficulties of presenting a reasonable case.
I intend to pick out some of the problems created by the regulations and relate them to the protection of the professionals and the complexity of the regulations. A number of issues cause me concern. For example, paragraph 10(2), to which my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) referred, states: "the carrying out of the social work functions of the social work authority would be likely to be prejudiced by reason of the fact that serious harm to the physical or mental health or emotional condition of the individual who is the subject of the information would be likely to be caused"
and is thus a reason for refusing access to information. That is a very loose test. Who will determine the criteria? A reporter, medical practitioner or health board can certify as, under these regulations, can the social worker who may be carrying the day-to-day responsibility for a case. The phrase "emotional condition" concerns me greatly.
I know from experience that clients who have seen the information held on their social work files have been bloody angry about what has been said about them. Will a social worker be able to say that that is a condition, because revealing that information will affect the management of his case? I discussed this matter with the Scottish representative of the British Association of Social Workers and he thought the definition very loose. The provision should be used only on rare occasions. In the time available to me, I can pick out only examples of the abuse that might be open to a difficult person who does not want the information to be released. Anyone who has had access to social work case records--I have had access to hundreds--will be aware that, in many cases, they contain more opinion than fact and sometimes the opinion is very subjective. It is only when these things are tested, particularly before a court, that we can separate opinion from fact and realise how loosely those records are compiled.
Let me deal now with the position of reporters to the children's panels. I have had a great deal of experience in
Column 995dealing with children's panels and I am concerned about the operation of the regulations in this respect, particularly about the problems that confronted me as a lawyer, and other lawyers in Scotland, after the case of Kennedy v. A, which was reported in page 358 of the 1986 Scots Law Times. In that case, the person appearing before the children's panel had no right of access to the reports which were before the panel. As I understand it, subject to all the exemptions in the regulations, the parent will now be allowed access to those reports.
I am concerned about how that will operate in the day-to-day operation of children's hearings. For example, when a parent appears before a children's hearing, the chairman will be instructed by the regulations that govern the procedure at hearings that a summary of the content of the reports available to the hearing will be made available to the parent. Will that change now that the parent has access to the reports through these regulations? The practical operation of the regulations will make it impossible for the parent to have the information if the local authority decides to use the time limits available here. That information is of most use to the parent at the time when he appears before the children's hearing, or when his representative addresses it. Will the children's hearing procedure be changed?
One of the major effects of the Kennedy v. A case with which I had to deal on a number of occasions was the ridiculous problem of lawyers being expected to act on behalf of their clients in presenting appeals to the court, and, because of the decision of the Court of Session, they were not allowed access to the information upon which the decision of the children's hearing was based. Will the decision in that case be changed as a result of the regulations? It is important for practising solicitors who have to appear before the courts to know how the regulations will operate in practice. I am well aware of the handicap of having to present a case to the sheriff court--initially--on appeal without adequate information, or the ability to question the information that the children's hearing or the reports' compilers have had access to.
I have been away from practice since I was elected to the House, so I do not know, and have not been able to check, whether there has been a change in the Kennedy v. A position, but I should be surprised if there had been. I would be delighted to hear the Minister's views on that.
I am also worried about prison records. Social workers operate in prisons as representatives of local authorities. Of course, most prison records are covered by the Official Secrets Act 1911, but they are in the possession of the local authorities. Can the Minister clarify that? Are prison social work records also subject to these regulations, and would the subjects of the records be allowed access to them?
I am gravely concerned, too, about the review procedure. With all due respect to local authority councillors, a review body composed of them would be inappropriate. I have practical experience of this, and shall mention one example in a moment. Before someone can make a decision on case records, he must have access to them. Local councillors have access to certain local authority records, by statutory right. But they have never had access to the case records of social work clients. I hope that that system will continue, and that they will not be
Column 996given such access. I mean no criticism of local councillors ; it is just inappropriate for them to have access to the records of people who may be their constituents or neighbours.
As I understand it, decisions on social work cases are made as follows. Reports are prepared by social workers in the case of, say, assumption of parental rights. Full case records are not submitted to the council sub- committee dealing with the cases--abstracts and summaries of cases are produced. Social workers may discuss particular details, but the idea of case records is alien. When I was employed by the local authority, the chairman of a committee discovered that the social work department had information relating to a member of the family of a councillor of an opposing party. That chairman insisted on access to that file. The social worker involved had the guts to stand up to the councillor and refused to allow him access. The case was fought hard and, thankfully, the director of social work, with the backing of the social workers' professional body, refused to release the file to the councillor. The councillor pleaded his statutory right--in which he had the backing of the chief executive of the local authority--but the director of social work stood up to him. That is an example of the inappropriate use of social work records. I am unhappy about these regulations, because they would legalise access by councillors to social work records. The only proper way to review the decision of a local authority officer--which is effectively what we are doing--is through the courts, not through a committee of the council.
The Minister has recently established a review committee to study child care legislation. One of the areas being examined is the assumption of parental rights. I have always been opposed to the idea of a local authority being judge and jury in its own case. It does not matter that it is a local authority: it could be any individual or body. In cases of assumption of parental rights, it effectively will be judge and jury under these regulations. I implore the Minister to review that position and to seriously consider involving the courts, so that we can have some objectivity and maintain the principle of the confidentiality of social work case records. The point has already been made forcibly that costs will act as a barrier. I appreciate that local authorities are not obliged to charge £10, but I cannot understand why a person who is an ordinary run-of-the-mill social work client should have to pay £10 to gain access to his records, whereas an adopted person who has statutory rights under the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978 to ask the local authority for information concerning his natural parents and the details of his adoption, does not have to pay a fee. I do not understand why a distinction is being made. Why is there a barrier to those people, who are not adoptees, having access to their records? I would appreciate some information about that.
Another important omission in these regulations is counselling. I shall again use the adoption legislation as an example. An adult who was adopted as a child, who wants access to his record, is counselled. The local authority is statutorily required to provide a counselling record. Under these regulations, vulnerable people may have access to their records, but there is no obligation or right to counselling. I should like the Minister to explain the distinction between the person who has been adopted and the ordinary social work client.
Column 997The regulations, of course, recognise that we are dealing with a complex situation concerning vulnerable people, who have had cause to call on the social work services. Some of those people may have spent their lives under the umbrella of social workers. I have acted for people who have known nothing else but contact with the social work department from early childhood right through to adulthood, because of a variety of circumstances--perhaps because of mental illness or handicap or because they were children in care. They have come through the system, and now their children are going into care. Counselling would be valuable to such people. Why is it not their statutory right?
Despite my critical comments, I am not intending to force a vote on these regulations. I feel, however, that they have the serious defects relating to costs and the review body. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me the satisfaction which I am seeking and that he will take on board what has been said and reconsider these crucial issues.
It is important to pay some tribute to the practice which has now developed in social work. In many respects--the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire alluded to this--the regulations lie behind what is now good social work practice. When records are compiled they are now the subject of discussion with the client, so he knows what is being placed on the record and he can assess what is said about him.
It is important that we recognise the good practices that now exist and pay tribute to social workers who work under the present difficult circumstances in Scotland.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : In common with other hon. Members who have spoken I give a broad welcome to the regulations because I believe that access should be given to information held in personal files.
I want to pick up two matters that have not been touched upon by other hon. Members, and I hope that the Minister will comment on them. First, I want to know the implications of the regulations for the voluntary agencies that work within the social work sector. Paragraph 1 of the regulations refers to the Access to Personal Files Act 1987 and the definitions in that paragraph appear to relate to local authority social work departments. I am sure, however, that all hon. Members will recognise the valuable role of the voluntary agencies that operate in the Scottish social work sector. The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) referred to the cost implications for Strathclyde regional council and its social work department. Obviously there will also be cost implications for the voluntary agencies if the regulations apply to them. Many of such agencies operate on a shoestring budget and have limited facilities, nevertheless they perform a vital function. Many work closely with local authorities, which we welcome, and it is important to know the implications of the regulations to those agencies.
What are the implications of the regulations to files that are compiled during the training of professional social workers? Before coming to the House I was a co-ordinator for the certificate in social service and my responsibilities covered the west of Scotland, which included Strathclyde
Column 998regional council, Dumfries and Galloway regional council, the two education departments of those local authorities and various voluntary organisations.
During training, those students who were already employed had to compile a great deal of work that related to the type of case load that they would have on a day-to-day basis. There was always a difficulty in defining whether those case files were the property of the college that was responsible for the academic qualification, the social work department that employed the student or the individual student. I stress that throughout the work undertaken on that course we emphasised confidentiality to our students and we never accepted any clear identification of an individual involved in those case files.
We must consider the implications of the regulations on those files that are used by students in the process of their professional training. We need highly skilled, professionally trained social workers if we are to face up to the many problems in our society. Have the implications of the regulations been discussed with the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, which is the validating body? If not, will such an opportunity arise because, in the past, different interpretations have been given to the various schemes that operate the certificate in social service? It would be helpful to have clear guidance.
Mr. Michael Forsyth : We have had a wide-ranging debate in which hon. Members have quoted some interesting legal cases, to which I do not propose to give an instant response tonight. One of the interesting aspects of the debate was the emphasis placed on medical records, which are not immediately covered by the regulations. The hon. Members for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) and for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) pressed me on the progress with the medical profession on that matter. As I said in my opening remarks, negotiations are continuing. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire suggested that, if we were unable to reach agreement on a voluntary basis, we should take the necessary statutory measures. I can assure him tonight, without too much equivocation, that if we are unable to reach agreement on a voluntary code, I shall respond vigorously to the pressure that the hon. Gentleman and others are putting on the Government in that respect.
The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, and a number of other hon. Members, placed some emphasis on the question of charging. The £10 fee is a maximum charge and local authorities have the discretion to charge nothing at all if they feel that a charge would result in the information not being made available to the applicant. Our guidance will recommend that the applicant's ability to pay should be taken into account. That should satisfy the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden and a number of others, including the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire.
I was asked about the lead time being given to local authorities. At the beginning of this month local authorities were told that the regulations would come into force on 1 April. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) pointed out, many local authorities have already established good practices in that respect and therefore have a head start. I appreciate that it imposes a
Column 999certain discipline on the authorities to ensure that they have the necessary mechanisms in place to operate the regulations in time, but I do not believe that there will be any particular problem. I was a little confused about the messages on the 40-day rule. If I understood him correctly, the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden argued that that was not enough time to respond. However, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire argued that it was far too long, so I suppose that we have probably got it just about right.
Mr. Galbraith : I do not think that the 40-day rule is too long or too short. I agree that the Minister has got it just about right. I was trying to make the point that there may be exceptional circumstances in which for some reason it is impossible to get third-party permission within the 40-day rule. I wonder whether the guidance to local authorities might contain some exceptional exemptions that would allow for that. For example if a consultant was away for a considerable time, and if information was released without the permission of that person, that could lead to distrust with the authority from which the information was obtained and could cause further problems in future. Will the Minister consider making some special exceptional exemptions?
Mr. Forsyth : I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman. If he reads Hansard tomorrow, he will see that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire made the point that the 40-day clock starts ticking once the necessary information is available, so there is provision for that. I do not want to dissuade the hon. Gentleman from the view that we have got it right by pursuing that issue too far. As to his point about consultants going on holiday, there is provision in the regulations for another health professional to give the necessary consent, in the absence of the appropriate person. The other main theme which the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden raised at the beginning of the debate was the definition of serious harm. The point has been made in consultation as to why the regulations do not specify "harm" instead of "serious harm". A balance is involved. It is a difficult subject, but by definition such matters can be decided only on a case-by-case basis. We all recognise that the desire which we share to ensure that information is available where appropriate must be balanced by the odd, very exceptional case where this test would be met. I can perhaps reassure those hon. Members who were concerned about the definition by saying that it is our view that it should be exceptional for information to be withheld, rather than the kind of circumstance which the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South was concerned about.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) asked me about the housing regulations. Yes, we are at present consulting about those matters and we have had about 30 responses to date. We will proceed with the same vigour but care which we have shown in the regulations themselves.
My hon. Friend also asked me about the position of Members of Parliament. The position of hon. Members will, as usual, be the same as that of any other citizen : they
Column 1000will have no special rights under these regulations. But, as my hon. Friend himself pointed out, if they are acting as agent they will be able to operate on that basis.
The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) asked who would act as censor, who would be responsible for deciding whether information should be withheld. I can assure him that such a decision will be taken by senior management.
The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden asked me about the resource implications. It is perhaps appropriate at this point to highlight the splendid record of this Government in providing support for social work services in local government. I am bound to say that when I looked at these figures I was so astonished by the increases that we have made available that I had them checked, and I am assured that since 1979, when we came into office, the planning figure for such services has increased by no less than two thirds, in real terms. Next year the planned provision exceeds that for the current year by 13 per cent. and local authorities' own budgets by 6 per cent. for that year, so I do not anticipate that these regulations will make much of a dent on the very substantial resources which we have provided. However, it is open to the local authorities, in the light of experience, in the negotiations which take place on the rate support grant, to make a case if they feel it appropriate. I was asked about the regulations not providing for a person to be told of information being withheld. This is an important point made, I think, by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. I must say that in some circumstances it would be almost as damaging to make it known that information was being withheld as to provide the information in the first place. But the hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise that the imperative should be to make information available where appropriate--and that includes the information that the information is being withheld. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the guidance will invite local authorities to judge whether a person should be told, in keeping with that good practice.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South referred to the complexity of the child care law. I completely agree with him. He himself pointed out that a child care review is operating currently. It will report to my hon. Friend and will, I think, cover some of the points which concern the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South also asked me about prison records. Although social work records in prison would not be covered by the regulations, we will try to ensure that the same kind of code is operated on social work records in the prison system, although not on a statutory basis. I think that that will meet his point. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South also asked about the provision of counselling for people who have obtained access to their records. The guidance will certainly suggest that local authorities should offer counselling where appropriate consistent with good practice. He also made an important point about the children's hearings rules, and asked whether they would need to be changed as a result of the regulations. Chairmen of children's hearings are still required to discuss the substance of reports with families. If the regulations are approved, we shall reconsider the terms of the children's hearing rules in that respect. The rules are laid down by statutory instrument, and I am happy to undertake to look at--and, if necessary, amend--the instrument before the regulations come into force on 1 April.
Column 1001The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) asked me about voluntary organisations. The 1987 Act extends only to the manual records of local authorities for their social work functions, and the regulations could not, therefore, extend to the records of voluntary organisations, although the hon. Lady has made a point of substance. It is open to the voluntary organisations to institute procedures based on the regulations, as I have confirmed we shall do in the prison service. Some voluntary bodies are already developing access arrangements but we are not requiring them to do so.
There has been some criticism of the complexity of the regulations. That is often a consequence of private Members' legislation. I have discovered in recent months that it is never as simple as it might appear at first sight. Nevertheless, I hope that the House will accept the regulations as a genuine and sincere attempt to bring to people in Scotland the opportunity of access to information to which they are entitled, and the first in a long line of such attempts. Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Access to Personal Files (Social Work) (Scotland) Regulations 1989, which were laid before this House on 16th January, be approved.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Maclean.]
Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield) : On 14 July last year, the Summerleaze Gravel Company Limited applied to Buckinghamshire county council for planning permission in relation to land in East Burnham park, Lees farm and Hunts Wood farm, all of which are in East Burnham in my constituency. The application is for the winning and working of sand and gravel and matters ancillary thereto, including the erection of processing plant, the crossing of public highways, the importation of infilling material and restoration to agriculture. Part of the land is at present used as farmland, part is a nursery and part is woodland.
The total site area is 52 hectares and the development will take 13 years to complete. It will involve the removal of 1.65 million tonnes of gravel at the rate of 150,000 tonnes a year. The site will then be filled with 1.1 million cu m of waste material. According to the planning application, the development will involve maximum daily lorry movements of 365.
The application site lies within a preferred area in the Buckinghamshire county council's minerals local plan, which was adopted nearly seven years ago, in April 1982. The preferred area is known as area 17. Preferred areas are areas where applications to work sand and gravel for general market needs will be favourably considered. There is therefore a presumption in favour of the application. I want to explain to my hon. Friend why that presumption should be rebutted--at any rate, why we should call in the application, even though there is a presumption in its favour.
There are two principal reasons--one of substance and the other of procedure. The substantive reason relates to the proximity to the site of Burnham beeches, which is nationally recognised as one of the largest remaining blocks of woodland in England--undisturbed since the ice age--and is highly valued for the ecological system to be found within its borders. It is listed as a site of special scientific interest under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The beeches have been owned by the Corporation of London since 1880. The Corporation of London (Open Spaces) Act requires it to keep the land unenclosed and unbuilt on for the recreation and enjoyment of the public and to observe its natural aspect. Burnham beeches attract up to 500,000 visitors from the surrounding area, London and overseas every year.
The application site is about 200 m from the southern boundary of the beeches. The corporation of London is therefore concerned that, should planning permission be granted, damage would be caused to the environment and amenity of Burnham beeches. The ground water table system could be unbalanced by the draw-down effects of the excavation of the natural water table. The corporation has therefore commissioned a report from the Institute of Hydrology on the hydrological implications. To date it has received only an interim report, prepared in under six weeks. The Institute of Hydrology has concluded that the underlying parts of the beeches are in hydraulic connection with the gravel it is proposed to extract. The exact nature of the connection is not known at this stage, and its establishment will require further boreholes and associated study.
Column 1003The pollution effects of dust discharge over the beeches could be severe. The corporation has therefore also commissioned a report on the potential effects of dust discharge and in particular the effect of such pollution under the lichen and algae within the beeches. The bedrock strata immediately adjoining sections of the proposed site are fractured and fissured in such a way that the methane by- product of the infill material could find its way through the substrata into the beeches. The corporation has therefore commissioned another report on the potential effects of pollution as a consequence of the proposed landfill with industrial and domestic waste.
My hon. Friend may, not unreasonably, say that all these matters must have been thoroughly investigated when the Buckinghamshire minerals local plan was drawn up at the beginning of the decade. The Nature Conservancy Council has addressed this point in its assessment of the potential effects of the proposal on Burnham beeches. The council says :
"The plan dates back to the early 1980s and the NCC would have had an opportunity to comment at the draft stage. That they did not raise any objections to extraction in this area reflects the state of knowledge relating to hydrological matters, and likely implications for sites of nature conservation interest, at that time. Since then a number of sites have suffered badly, particularly in East Anglia, through the effects of changing the groundwater table. In response to these problems our understanding has increased, through the implementation of directed research, and we would almost certainly have questioned the designation of this sie as a preferred area had the plan been presented today."
There are two additional matters of relevance to the minerals local plan. The first is that the description of the buffer zone in the plan is out of date following residential development of the land. The second is that the plan envisages a maximum production rate of 100,000 tonnes per annum, whereas the application proposes 150,000 tonnes per annum. To summarise this substantive reason, Burnham beeches could be irreparably damaged by the proposal. The Summerleage Gravel Company Limited has written to me today to say :
"We pose no threat to Burnham Beeches."
That is a disputed issue of such importance that it should be considered by an independent public inquiry.
The procedural reason why the planning application should be called in arises from the need for an overall environmental assessment. As my hon. Friend knows, the Town and Country Planning (Assessment of Environmental Effects) Regulations 1988 came into effect on 15 July. It is, of course, no coincidence that this planning application was submitted on 14 July, because the chief planning officer advised Summerleage to get its planning application in quickly to avoid the effect of the regulations. This suggests that the planning officer took the view that, had the regulations been in force, an environmental assessment might have been necessary.
My hon. Friend wrote to me on 9 January to explain the position in relation to planning applications made in the period from 3 to 14 July. The directive ought to have come into effect in the United Kingdom on 3 July. My hon. Friend told me that it would be open to the Secretary of State to call in such an application for his own decision, if it appeared to him to relate to a project that might fall within the terms of the directive. In that event, my hon. Friend told me, the Secretary of State would be likely to arrange an inquiry, the procedure for which would achieve
Column 1004the principal objective of the directive. In this way, the spirit of the directive would be respected in the case of applications lodged during this period.
The Department's circular on environmental assessment, which was issued last year, explains that it is a technique for drawing together in a systematic way expert quantitative analysis and qualitative assessment of a project's environmental effects, and presenting the results in a way which enables the importance of the predicted effects and the scope for modifying or mitigating them, to be properly evaluated by the relevant decision- making body before a decision is given.
In my view, that is precisely what is required in this case : a drawing together in a systematic way of all the evidence and the presentation of the results in a way that facilitates a proper evaluation. In the absence of an environmental assessment, which the applicant has contrived to avoid, this can be achieved only by a public inquiry.
My hon. Friend might say that such an inquiry would place a heavy burden on all the parties involved. My answer to that is that, when it comes to the preservation of something as special as Burnham beeches, there is a heavy responsibility on all of us to ensure that its future is secure.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that many of the environmental matters that have to be considered in a case such as this are highly technical. There is, no doubt, no shortage of technical expertise at county hall, but for the reasons I have given, it is vital that there should be an independent inquiry into all these matters.
I understand that the county planning committee proposes to consider this matter in April. I doubt very much whether it will have all the information it needs to be able to make an informed decision by then. A public inquiry would be able to consider all the important issues in a sensible timescale.
Some 200 of my constituents have written to me on this matter. A rather larger number attended a public meeting recently. Many organisations support the calling in of this application. They are the British Lichen Society, Britwell parish council, the Bucks, Berks and Oxon Naturalists Trust, Burnham parish council, the corporation of London, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, English Heritage, Farnham Royal parish council, Friends of the Earth, the Nature Conservancy Council and the Ramblers Association. There is widespread local concern about the impact that this development would have on the whole surrounding area, and I urge my hon. Friend to call the application in.