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Column 1116proceedings, including those arising in family proceedings, unless--we regard this as an exceptional circumstance-- the court considers such an appointment unnecessary. At present, appointments are made only where there is a conflict of interest between the child and the parents. We say that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, a guardian ad litem should be appointed right from the outset.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : One of the concerns expressed to me by people practising in this area arises from the fact that guardians ad litem will have to be appointed on day one. At present, it often takes two months before they become available. Will the Minister ensure that there are sufficiently trained people? Those people will be drawn mostly from the ranks of social workers. Their ranks will be diminished and will therefore have to be replenished before the Bill is brought into operation so that there is not a gap between what the law requires and what a local authority can provide.
Mr. Mellor : Indeed, we have proposed changes. The hon. Gentleman might like to cast his eye over them and let me know whether he thinks they meet the concerns. Actually, we propose some quite significant changes in the administration and management of panels of guardians ad litem, because there has been some criticism as to whether the fact that a guardian ad litem is drawn from a local authority that might be concerned with the matter leads to a conflict of interests.
That is why the Bill provides that the Secretary of State will have power to require, in regulations, that panels be based on groupings of authorities. That will be building on existing co-operative experience in some areas. We hope that the distancing of panel management from individual authorities will reduce the risk of conflict. Obviously, training and having the machine ready to move into operation will be of the essence. I hope that we have got that right.
The major reforms to the statutory framework for the emergency protection of children--of all issues, perhaps the most central in the minds of most of us--are contained in part V. As the House knows, the key reform is a new emergency protection order limited to a maximum of eight days, but extendable by the court to up to 15 days. It will be challengeable after 72 hours where the application was made ex parte, or even earlier if the court decides that only a very short order should be made. That will replace the present place of safety order, which can run for up to 28 days without the parents or the child having any opportunity to challenge it while it is in force. That is one of the lessons learned from Cleveland.
The grounds will for the first time address the emergency nature of the situation and the need to remove the child, or to continue to keep the child in a safe place, in order to protect it. The holder of the order, who will usually be a local authority social worker or officer of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children--whose quality and status we accept--is given parental responsibility for the child and required to take such action, but only such action, as is needed to protect the child while the order is in force. That includes not removing him from home if it is not necessary to do so, or returning him as soon as it is safe to do so. The court will also be able to give directions when the order is made, or at any time while it is in force, about medical examination and contact with the child--again,
Column 1117issues of particular difficulty in Cleveland, as we all recall. As at present, the order, when resisted, will be enforceable by a constable acting under a warrant, and police powers to order a child into protection will complement the new order. The local authority's duty to investigate cases of possible significant harm will be made more positive and other agencies will be required to co-operate in such investigations, as was recommended in the report on the tragic death of Jasmine Beckford. I am glad that the Social Services Committee, the Association of Directors of Social Services and, indeed, Lord Justice Butler-Sloss have endorsed those provisions. Let me deal now with a matter of concern to, I suspect, a number of hon. Members--a concern which was expressed in the other place and by the NSPCC. Welcome as the changes are to all, they may not deal with cases where there is serious but not urgent concern about a child who cannot be seen, and a separate medical assessment order may be needed for such cases. I am anxious to meet those concerns.
One solution which has been discussed with the NSPCC and the Association of Directors of Social Services is to make it clear in the Bill that the authority's investigative duty will include a duty to try to see the child, and that an unreasonable refusal of access to a child, which prevents the authority or others acting on its behalf from completing the investigation, will also be a ground for an emergency protection order.
Another way would be to go for a separate child assessment order, as was suggested in the Kimberley Carlile report. I am sure that there is a potential problem here in relation to the production of a child, but I have refrained from seeking to determine that issue until I have had the opportunity to hear hon. Members' views. We all need to be satisfied that the mechanisms proposed are sufficient to ensure proper protection for the child.
I look forward to hearing hon. Members' views on the proposals which, clearly, we must get right as the Bill progresses through the House. I cannot think of a more important matter for us to get right. I undertake to take hon. Members' views fully into account and I shall not hesitate to make changes--including, if necessary, the introduction of a child assessment order--if that in the end seems to be the right answer. I shall come to no conclusion on that until I have heard the views of others.
Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston) : Will my hon. and learned Friend bear in mind the concern of many hon. Members that a large number of social workers are young and have not had the experience to know when a person is lying? When a mother says that her child is down at gran's, round at Auntie Mary's or playing outside, young social workers are placed in extreme difficulty, and their difficulty will be the need to recognise that.
Mr. Mellor : I agree. As well as the inevitable apportioning of blame when things go wrong, we have a duty to try to ensure that we help people to get things right. That is why we must have a modern, comprehensible legal framework and proper training.
Since Cleveland, we have made available a substantial grant of £7 million to back £10 million of total expenditure for training social workers. Through the area committees, which bring in all the different agencies, we have laid stress
Column 1118on inter-agency co-operation, which should help people in vulnerable positions to obtain the assistance they need to make the right decision. I am in no doubt that my hon. Friend is right, and we all have a duty to make things better.
Mr. Vaz : I agree with the Minister that this is an important clause, but does he not agree with me that, as it is such an important clause, the Government should have spelt out in the Bill itself to whom notice should be given when the child is removed? Under clause 42, the Government reserve the ability to make rules at a later date. Surely the Minister agrees with me that these very important matters must be in the Bill.
Mr. Mellor : I am not so sure that I do agree, because if rules are made and do not actually meet the technical point, they can be remade, whereas changing primary legislation is not easy. What the hon. Gentleman has raised is a perfectly legitimate Committee point. If, as I hope, the hon. Gentleman serves on the Committee, he can come to that point then.
Parts VI to IX of the Bill deal with community homes, voluntary homes and voluntary organisations. I pass over those points briefly because of the pressure of time, but we will come to them in Committee. In part XI, clause 64 is significant. It provides for the abolition of care orders as a disposal in juvenile criminal proceedings. People who follow these matters realise the significance of that provision, but I shall not go into it in greater detail now. I have already referred to court jurisdiction. I add to what I said earlier in response the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) who spoke about the family court : what we intend is that care jurisdiction in magistrates courts should be transferred from the juvenile court to what is now the domestic magistrates court so that care cases will be heard by those magistrates who also hear other domestic and family matters. So "domestic panels" will be called "family panels" from now on. Care cases will start before the magistrates, except where related proceedings are already in existence. Criteria will be prescribed and machinery provided to identify cases which need to be heard by superior courts. Already, the President of the Family Division and others are engaged in the machinery for concurrent jurisdiction, and that will obviously take some time.
More generally, the powers to provide for the transfer of cases between courts and tiers of court will be used to enable proceedings concerning the same child and his family to be consolidated, and to avoid unnecessary delay or to expedite cases where the courts they are in are not able to hear the cases immediately or within a reasonable time. If experience shows that more cases need to be transferred up, there is power under the Bill to adjust the scheme and, if necessary, to allow cases to start at a higher level. This is the beginning of the machinery to move family cases around in a coherent way, which I hope will give some comfort to those who have argued for a family court.
The intention of clause 69 is to prevent local authorities from using the High Court's inherent jurisdiction, including wardship, as an alternative to a care or supervision order or as a means of their otherwise obtaining compulsory powers over children. We say that the inherent power remains available to cover circumstances not provided for in statute, but it is not to be available
Column 1119as an alternative to care and supervision which is obtained in the normal way. We believe that this will represent a better use of the resources of the superior courts.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : I, for one, as a Cleveland MP, would be very anxious if wardship should disappear completely, because it was the one way in which we could get families out of the magistrates courts and away from junior courts into the High Court, where these often very delicate, complicated and heart-rending matters can be dealt with properly by a judge. I would like to see wardship continue as a reserve power, not just for the small minority of cases but for all cases because, as I will say later, I am not satisfied to see some of these matters dealt with at junior level by individual collections of magistrates.
Mr. Mellor : I will listen with interest to what my hon. Friend says later. I know about the experiences that he and one or two of his colleagues went through at Cleveland. We must look at this provision in the light not of the old mechanism but of the new law and mechanisms I have described. Obviously, if my hon. Friend continues to have reservations, we shall have to look carefully at what he says.
We hope that the Bill introduces a simplified and coherent body of law comprehensible not only to those operating it but also to those affected by its operations. We are committed to safeguarding the interests of all our children. We are trying to take a firm lead by setting the overall framework in this Bill, but we have drawn on the thinking of others, the recent report of the Social Services Committee, and so on. We have been grateful for the very approving noises coming from most bodies that have already considered the Bill, which raises important and sensitive issues which must be considered carefully. In no sense do we resent that level of detailed scrutiny. The noble Lord Mishcon, who leads for the Opposition in another place on this matter, called the Bill a children's charter, and I am happy to adopt that description. It is a charter of rights of children to have their welfare regarded as a primary concern. It must be a basic right of children in a civilised community to grow up without being abused. It must be a responsibility on all of us to step in and prevent that abuse when it happens, as we know it will and as it always has. We know that it happens too much today. We want to do something effective about it, and we are all united in that endeavour. I look forward to everyone involved working together to give effect to these rights. The welfare of children must remain the highest law for the public, as well as for the Government. 4.58 pm
Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West) : As the Minister has said, we have been helped by the fact that the Bill has been considered in another place, although that is not to say that the noble Lords got it exactly right, as we do not believe they did. We shall be raising a number of issues that have been pursued in another place by my noble Friends and other noble Lords. They must be greatly disappointed that, despite the superiority of their argument, they failed to persuade the Lord Chancellor on such matters as physical punishment in care, and only just persuaded him on the need for a helpful and practical approach to young people needing care. Here we have a chance to deal with that scandal and we shall seek to do it.
Column 1120At the outset, I want to ask the Minister about implementation. What are the Government's priorities? Will the Bill, as many fear, be implemented, as was previous legislation, in dribs and drabs? Surely the evidence is overwhelming that there should be no delay after all stages are completed, as the need for action is great indeed. This Bill has a substantial history of heartbreaking cases,
interdepartmental reports, consultation papers, the report by Louis Blom- Cooper on the tragedy of little Kimberley Carlile, a report by a Lord Justice of Appeal on the Cleveland cases, a Government White Paper, and a Law Commission report. Against that background, we are now on Second Reading of the Bill in this place.
The Bill is a welcome if belated measure that aims to resolve a wide variety of family issues about child care, parental responsibilities, social work practice, and laws governing family life.
The Bill deals admirably with many matters, but with others less so, and some aspects have been woefully neglected. We applaud the Bill's intention to simplify and consolidate much legislation in a form that will meet the approval of right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House, yet we remain deeply disturbed about the Government's reluctance to introduce what would have been--despite the Minister's comments this afternoon--the most imaginative, far-reaching and positive reform in post-war child care legislation. I refer to the family court.
The Government did not lack encouragement for making such a reform, which was clearly recommended by Lord Justice Butler-Sloss in her report on the Cleveland child abuse inquiry. A family court is urgently needed so that the delicate realm of family problems--which some courts today manage with less than speedy and wholly expert resolution--may be dealt with specifically, swiftly and expertly. We endorse the Government's recognition of the crucial years of childhood and of the importance of supporting families in need. We remain concerned about the Government's unwillingness adequately to fund effective preventive services and clearly to instruct local government to provide them. Clause 16 does not increase the priority given to day care for children, which is not a luxury but a sensible and essential resource that can help the family and prevent the strains and breakdowns that are so costly both in human and in material terms.
Only one quarter of three and four-year-olds have either a full-time or part-time nursery place. We need more and
better-regulated nurseries, child minders and other specialist day care services. Day care does not undermine family responsibility but allows the family the space and support that it often needs to make the family a happy and healthy unit.
The Bill leaves it to the discretion of local authorities to define and deliver what they consider to be adequate day care. We believe that local authorities need fair criteria for the provision of day care, so that the service encompasses not only families in crisis but all parents who would cope better with their family responsibilities and play their full economic role if a properly funded day care service existed.
It is a matter of major concern to us that the Government show no sign of introducing better regulation on the licensing and training of day care providers in the private sector. Instead, there is talk of the Government deregulating that sector in respect of day care for children aged over five years. However, day care as we know it is
Column 1121not only about infants but is a crucial service for school age children in families needing support when schooling is not available.
Children and youngsters should not be placed in the care of people and places that have not been properly inspected. We cannot expect parents to be the only or even the best judge of the competence and quality of carers in a deregulated private sector. We hope to persuade the Government to consider that aspect again. I look forward to hearing later from my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong), who hopes to speak on that subject in more detail.
We welcome the Government's intention in clause 20 to address the needs of the 12,000 children who leave care at age 18 or thereabouts. Youngsters leaving home face a difficult time, but it is made especially traumatic for young people who have no family or parents to fall back on. We are astonished that the Government will not ensure that that group will enjoy the same level of social security as young people aged 25, who receive the full adult rate. Youngsters aged 18 who have no family and who leave care are as much in need, if not more so, of the higher adult level of benefit that their older peers receive when they are assumed to be independent of kith and kin.
The scandal of the young homeless, especially in big cities, shocks many-- including Barnardo's and Shelter, which estimate that there are 150,000 young homeless. The number grows, but no solution is yet in sight. The need for more resources, more support and the growing outrage at so many young lives being wasted must be recognised by the House. Many organisations help those young people, but they are overwhelmed by their numbers and are hampered by legislation. I welcome the Minister's announcement about an amendment, which we shall examine in detail, concerning runaway youngsters. Those youngsters are estranged from their parents for various reasons and live on the streets, with all the dangers that entails. They need support and security, and time to solve their problems. The Minister accepts that, and we welcome the tone of his comments this afternoon.
Organisations that seek to help such youngsters will be acting illegally if they do not immediately notify those youngsters' whereabouts. Often, they need a little time to talk about their difficulties--and they must be sure that those helping them will not promptly be asked to return those youngsters to the people from whom they have run away. The Church of England Children's Society informs me that the law hinders its efforts to reunite children and adolescents with their families and to find them a safe place while they sort themselves out. In view of the Minister's announcement about an amendment, I hope that the House agrees that that is an area in which it can assist, by providing a necessary and lawful breathing space for helpers and for the hurt and unhappy youngsters concerned. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), and others of my right hon. and hon. Friends, will want to pursue that point. The Bill introduces new court procedures, new social work tasks, and a requirement for new expertise in seeking care orders that deal with rights, responsibilities, access, where children may be placed, and who may look after them. That amounts to a major challenge in the training of social workers and the courts in those new duties. The new
Column 1122emergency protection order, for example, will last a maximum of eight days, and there is a right of parental challenge after 72 hours. A social worker will have to investigate and guide the court not only in respect of the grounds of the order but in contacts with parents and medical or psychiatric examinations. Most local authorities will be compelled to reallocate resources and find additional staff time for those new obligations.
Any reasonable assessment of those new tasks reveals that there remains an unreasonable expectation by the Government as to the ability of local authorities to finance staff training for those new demands. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House will re-examine that aspect. Good planning, good preparation and good training will always win the day. The Bill sets the seal on child care and child protection for generations to come. It must not be introduced only to founder because of underprepared or poorly instructed staff in local authorities and in the courts.
The Bill, elegant and straightforward in its aim, still leaves too much to fortune. It places an unhappy and worrying reliance on decisions still to be made by rules of court or by the Secretary of State. It appears that fundamental areas of regulation will be left to secondary legislation and will not benefit from parliamentary scrutiny. In those circumstances, rules of court will determine who will be party to care proceedings and when a child will have a right to party status in care proceedings. We believe that a child should automatically have a right to party status in care proceedings. Rules of court may also determine who will be notified of an emergency protection order. We think that that should be made clear in the Bill.
Likewise, regulations to be made by the Secretary of State at some future date may define the notification procedure for private fostering arrangements. What is worrying about that is that a similar regulation- making power in the Foster Children Act 1980 was inserted, and regulations were not made. We support the view of the Save the Children Fund, which argues convincingly that there is an absolute need for regulations on private fostering to be inserted into primary legislation and not left in limbo, perhaps never to be introduced. Opposition Members believe that omissions from the body of the Bill, such as those that I have just mentioned, will introduce unnecessary uncertainty and variation throughout the care and court system. We shall press the Government strongly to encode those fundamental elements. In all, the Bill contains more than 20 regulation-making powers, which we believe must be re-examined with a view to the full incorporaton of such regulations in the Bill.
We remain impressed by the Lord Chancellor's confidence that care cases will now move freely within the court structure, and will swiftly find their appropriate level and resolution. The Bill, however, does not specify how decisions will be reached, and what appeals may operate should a party wish to challenge the choice of court. We urge the Government to review the matter, and to say how the procedures will operate and how cases will be managed without delay, if only because confusion looms in that part of the Bill. We believe that the Bill must contain clear directives so that children and their families do not suffer unnecessary harm owing to a lack of resources and of firm regulation in court procedures. Their future should not hang in the
Column 1123balance of a yet unspecified set of adjustments and mere tinkerings with our over-burdened court system. Our children--our people--deserve better.
The current set of changes will not resolve the present uneven service that operates in England and Wales. The present guardian ad litem service, for example, is patchy and variable, and requires urgent reform. Proper training and funding is needed, and the service should be independent and available at the same standard throughout the court system. That is clearly not the case at present, and we shall urge the Government to accept their obligation to improve this vital ingredient of current child care practice.
In the absence of a family court, we must at the very least have access to the expert advice of guardians in every case that affects a child's future, and not just in the cases that any particular court considers relevant. If the Government acted with a will, they could start to build part of the court welfare services that would be needed to supply a future family court, and we hope that they will not waste that opportunity.
Mr. Cryer : Representations have been made to me by a body that includes guardians ad litem. According to that body, the obligations in the Bill will increase expenditure to provide the service by two or three times. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that to provide the basis for the Bill's success such a resource must be provided by the Government.
Mr. Clarke : My hon. Friend makes a good point, but the Minister did not mention resources relating to such matters as guardians ad litem. I hope that that omission will be rectified before the end of the debate.
Schedule 2 requires local authorities to seek payment from parents for the cost of keeping children in care, and that gives us real cause for concern. All the expert advice suggests that the exercise will often be more costly than is intended, owing to the administrative cost of chasing small amounts of money.
Often children and young people go into care briefly to give their parents a much-needed break, especially children with severe handicaps. Such admissions to care are not frivolous but are part of a planned treatment programme, and should not normally incur a charge. Of course, parents need to know where they stand in relation to the service that they receive : in that context we welcome the Lord Chancellor's acknowledgement that written agreements are an integral part of a child's voluntary reception into care. Agreements should spell out clearly the responsibility of all parties. Nothing in the Bill, however, defines the nature of those agreed conditions. It should state that when a child is voluntarily received into care there should be a binding agreement about the procedures to be adopted for the child's discharge from care.
As the Bill stands, a child could be inappropriately withdrawn from care by a parent without warning, which could be upsetting and dangerous for the child. We need to specify the conditions of a voluntary reception, and we hope that the Government will recognise, as we do, that coming into care voluntarily should be a planned and positive event.
Although the Bill is generally considered well conceived in respect of its overall balance between children and their
Column 1124parents, some child care professionals believe that there is a serious gap that can be filled only by a new clause. That applies most notably to child protection.
Let me briefly outline the problem as I see it. Quite often circumstances suggest grounds for suspecting that a child is in some kind of danger, but there might well be insufficient evidence to seek an emergency protection order. I think that the Minister would agree with that. The problem was recognised by Louis Blom-Cooper and his colleagues in their report on the tragic death in June 1986 of Kimberley Carlile. They recommended a child assessment order. The idea has been supported by some child care organisations, which argue for an order that would allow for the medical examination of a child without its removal from the family. That would certainly be less invasive of family life, and might help to prevent tragedies that have been all too familiar in recent years.
We recognise--and the Minister touched on the issue this afternoon--that there is no overall agreement among child care professionals in this regard, but we very much hope that the Government will agree to explore the matter with us. We are deeply worried about the possibility that the frequent uncertainties and suspicions that surround potential child abuse may not be swiftly resolved through the proposed range of care procedures. What the Minister has said this afternoon confirms our belief that he shares our interest in the matter, and we look forward to hearing his comments at a later stage.
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : Does my hon. Friend agree that the need for protection might arise in many circumstances and among many people in a way that we do not normally expect? I wonder whether his attention has been drawn to a report in The Independent on Tuesday this week. It concerns a visitor to this country who is travelling around the country subjecting some children--with the approval of their parents--to pain and trouble, with the intention of improving their physical and mental development by taking them to the limits of pain and endurance.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it ought to be possible to stop the activities of people like Igor Charkovsky instantly, and that parents who are quite well off and well educated should be able to receive counselling in the same way as those living on council estates in my constituency?
The nation's most precious resource is our children--that is, all children. Many people believe that the Bill will set the future of child care legislation and practice for generations to come. It is not too much to say that we shall not be forgiven if we get it wrong : we shall not be forgiven if we leave children without the protection, support and warmth of a loving home, which every child needs. We all believe that children's welfare must not become the football of politicians, or of anyone else. We believe, too, that the Bill must not become distorted by sectional interests. When the spoken word has been forgotten and the headlines discarded, people will have to live with and make sense of the legislation. The Bill must therefore receive the constructive yet critical scrutiny of all who believe, as we do, that urgent and effective reforms are needed.
Column 1125We must look closely at what the family means today and at whether the Bill really meets the challenge of what parents and adults need in order to help them through the stresses, the breakdowns and the tragedies that can overtake the closest of homes. We need to think about how we can provide every child who needs it with the physical, emotional and social support to set them on the road to responsible adulthood. The Children Bill provides a rare opportunity for all of us to demonstrate our own responsibility for the future--a future that must provide new generations with the essential building blocks for a safe, caring upbringing that is the right of each and every child.
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : The hon. Gentleman referred to hon. Members on both sides of the House wanting to help to secure responsible parenthood. Will he comment on children in the care of local authorities who prove to be persistent offenders and the view of the courts that they need greater powers to deal with such cases? Does he agree that the courts should have more powers when local authorities appear to fail to control unruly children?
Mr. Clarke : I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's scathing comments about local authorities. If he serves on the Standing Committee, it may be possible for him to ensure that we make progress towards the establishment of family courts. Family courts in Scotland deal adequately with precisely the cases to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
Whether we like it or not, society changes and, with it, family life. Statistics suggest that there is more divorce now than in the past. If the present trend continues, it is likely that one in five children will have divorced parents. One in seven families is a single-parent family, and 1.5 million children are living in a family that is headed by one parent. Nine out of 10 single parents are women. Over half of them are dependent on social security. Many of the remainder are trapped in low-paid jobs.
I am not making a judgment on divorce or single-parent families. My point is that many families need more material help today--and immediately. For many, there has been an unimagined increase in material wealth in the past era, but the plain fact is that that wealth has not been distributed equally. During the last decade, many families have suffered a slow decline into poverty. As the rich have got richer, literally millions of families are living on the margins of life--on low incomes or social security benefits. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that 6.5 million people in families with children live in or near poverty. Furthermore, it was reported to the Select Committee on Social Services in July 1988 that Government figures underestimate the number of households with below average incomes.
What does that mean for children? One fifth of our population is under 16 years of age. A staggering 30 per cent. of children are living on the margins of poverty. We are talking about 3.5 million children. One in 10 children are estimated to be living in families where the head of the family is unemployed. While there has been more prosperity for some in this decade, for over 750,000 children there has been the experience of an unemployed parent, or parents, for over a year. Since 1979, according
Column 1126to the Child Poverty Action Group, there has been a 91 per cent. increase in children living on or below basic social security incomes. During the last decade there has been a 50 per cent. increase in the number of children living on family incomes that are below the average wage.
Contrary to popular opinion, this is no nanny state. Nanny in the last 10 years may have increased the overall level of social security payments but, had the system remained unchanged by the Government, nanny would not have taken over £11 billion from the global social security budget since 1979.
We debate the Children Bill knowing that nanny has been giving many of our families some nasty medicine in the last decade. Today families need more help than ever before. However, the Government refuse to provide clear instructions to local authorities on how to assess family need and what to do about it. There are no mandatory instructions to act. Certainly there is no mention of where resources will come from should a local authority wish to take up the Government's suggestion that they ought to identify need and do something about it.
It is not possible to look at the family in isolation. Family life is never simply the private world of parents and children. The family is shaped and influenced by a wider society. Few, surely, will share the Prime Minister's view that there is no such thing as society. One of the most significant changes in society in recent decades is the number of women in paid work. More and more families rely on the woman's wage. New labour markets often seek women in preference to men. Over half of married women now work. Rosy notions of every family with a male breadwinner, a housewife, two children, a hatchback and a labrador are very much the ad-men's invention. Families come in different shapes and sizes, with different ethnic origins, with different expectations and with very different incomes and attitudes towards such notions as marriage and the family. We need a new system of co -ordinated welfare and legal provision to deal with the needs of today's families. The Bill makes a start in the right direction but it does not go far enough. For our part, we are stating clearly that the future of our most precious resource, our children, can be fully protected only by the development of a number of inter-related strategies--in health, education, housing and welfare. Although the Bill does not countenance the inclusion of wider policy changes, we hope to convince the Government that that is essential if we are to provide an effective and comprehensive service for our nation's children.
We recognise the need for an effective and co-ordinated set of family policies. The need for such a policy was made clear by the then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, a decade ago in his comments to the Royal Commission on the distribution of income and wealth. Similarly, we believe that the Government have not acknowledged that the success of the Bill will ultimately depend upon changes in other Government policies. Families cannot cope without the support of good schools, good health services and decent housing and, for those without a wage, a sufficient level of income to enable them to enjoy basic standards of living that the rest of us all too easily take for granted.
The Bill is the beginning of a new era in child care services and is a welcome start to the creation of a proper family policy for England and Wales. We do not expect to get at this juncture and with this Government a fully
Column 1127fledged set of family policies, but we state clearly for all to hear that that is our aim for the future. For the present, we shall bring a constructive and positive view to the Bill.
We urge the Government to join us in a spirit of co-operation when the Bill is considered in Committee. Improvements can be made to the new procedures. There are resource implications, from which we hope the Government will not shrink. In that context, the Bill is nevertheless a good Bill. The balance, in our view, is about right between parental responsibilities and children's rights.
We hope to convince the Government that this major landmark in child care legislation should not be seen in years to come as a collection of good intentions that lay barren through meanness in funding and a lack of clear thinking on some of the clauses. We ask the Government to join us in a spirit of shared optimism that here in this House we can lay the cornerstone of a better future for so many of our children and their parents or carers. I hope that we shall all be able to say that considerations of funding and political advantage came second and children first.
Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston) : The position of Conservative Members resembles that of an army under attack from every side. Not just one missile but a multitude is aimed in our direction. Shot, shell and cannonballs whistle over our battlements and past our ears. The river is rising, the siege is biting and violent thunderstorms rage upon us. If it is not the doctors, it is the lawyers, the football supporters, the brewers or the anti-privatisation lobby. While that barrage will never deter us from doing what we believe is right, it is nice, just for once, to discuss a Bill where surely sweetness, calm and light can obtain. Surely we must be at one in our desire to improve the lot of unfortunate children.
I dare say, having listened to the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), that there will be some disagreement. But even when the hon. Gentleman says nasty things he sounds so nice because he is such a delightful man and uses that charming Scottish accent. None the less, his speech presages a few disagreements in Committee. Some will arise about matters that are not in the Bill and others will occur when its aims are thought better achieved in a different way. But in general I am hopeful about the passage of the Bill.
I warmly welcome the central theme that the best interests of the child should govern court decisions. That is to be welcomed all the more because it is not a general rule. In abortion, experimentation on unborn children, IVF or other fertilisation techniques, the child is secondary. Tonight, for once thank God, the Bill states that the best interests of the child should govern court decisions. I also welcome the simplification of the law enshrined in the Bill. As was said in another place, the measure will repeal no fewer than seven post-war Acts, and several other Acts relating to children will be limited by the new provisions in the Bill.
I welcome the emphasis on keeping families together. Local authorities are to be given powers to provide a service which might prevent the breakdown of families. I await with great interest more details of that service. At last we are getting away from the harm caused to society
Column 1128in the 1960s by Lord Jenkins' pressure for permissiveness in Britain. We are recognising the crucial importance to society of stable family life. When the Law Commission's report is acted on, I hope that there will be some changes to divorce rules, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Monklands, West, because divorce and the breakdown of families is the major cause of misery inflicted on children today. Of necessity, the Bill deals with the results and not the causes of that misery, but I welcome the fact that two important Departments of State are together on the Bill. I hope that the Solicitor-General's Department will be able to help the Department of Health in deciding what should be done to save a great many children from the misery that they presently have to bear when families break up.
It is a comfort that the lessons of Cleveland have been learnt. We await with great interest the comments of hon. Members who have particular knowledge of that ghastly case. No longer will it be possible for children to be torn from the family home and kept away for weeks as happened under the truly disgraceful regime of Dr. Marietta Higgs. Care proceedings are to be made fairer for parents and children. The Bill is built around those five major points and hon. Members on both sides of the House must support its aims, at any rate.
Of course there are a few criticisms. I share the view that it would have been much better to introduce family courts. I agree with the views expressed in another place that guardians ad litem must be independent of local authorities and be seen as such by parents. I read with great interest the debate in another place. The Lord Chancellor was clearly sympathetic to that view when he dealt with an amendment on the subject in another place on March 16 at column 398. Although the Lord Chancellor clearly agreed with the independence of the guardian ad litem, the amendment was not accepted because discussion on the consultation paper had not been completed. I do not know whether the discussion has now been completed, but I hope that the Lord Chancellor's Department eventually will administer a guardian ad litem scheme. If that happens--and there may be further amendments in Committee--it will be a useful step towards family courts.
I should like to ask my hon. and learned Friend a direct question about clause 16. The guidance on clause 16 states that the clause "requires local authorities to provide day care for children in need who are aged five or under and not attending school and enables them to provide such care or supervised activities as they consider appropriate for children who are attending a school."
I entirely agree with that, but the next sentence is most enigmatic :
"It also empowers local authorities to make such provision for children who are not in need."
I do not understand that. If we are to make provision for children who are not in need, we will not have the money and resources for provisions which children need. The Bill will require much more money to be spent, so why on earth are we frittering it away on provisions which children do not need? I should like some enlightenment on that point because I must warn my hon. and learned Friend that universal pre-school education from the age of two will become very expensive. I am in favour of such help being available to one-parent families in which the mother has to go out to work to keep her family and the child needs the
Column 1129service, for one reason or another, but it does not make sense to provide that service to children who do not need it.
I do not always trust local authorities. There have been recent cases of children becoming prostitutes while in local authority care and other recent cases of children being sexually abused by local authority staff while in care. I believe that now persons who have a police record for child molestation can no longer take posts under local authorities in child care without their records being known. We need to know whether that is now the case. Is my hon. and learned Friend confident that every possible safeguard has been built in to ensure that local authorities never abuse the role that society has given them as stand-ins for parents?
It is only fair to say a word or two about the fact that the overwhelming number of local authority officers do a wonderful job. They must sometimes feel that they can never get anything right. In the baby Beckford case, they did not take enough action and in the Cleveland case they took far too much. Balance in this matter is very important. That is why I am worried about young and inexperienced social workers being called upon to perform balancing acts of judgment which would be difficult for older people. In addition, many social workers have big case loads and that has meant problems for children in care.
Lines have to be drawn between stopping child sexual abuse and what happened at Cleveland, and between cruelty and discipline. To counter a point made earlier, I must say that I should certainly oppose any amendment that sought to prohibit spanking by parents. It would be absurd to try to pass a law that said that parents were not allowed in any circumstances to give a brisk tap from time to time on that part of the anatomy that the good Lord provided for the purpose. There is a great deal of difference between that and child abuse. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will take on board the great concern of some of us about the Church of England "Children's Plea" because there is another side to the question. Many children run away from good homes and not all children tell the truth. If we are proposing to set up an arrangement whereby such children can be kept away from their parents willy-nilly and whereby their parents will not even be informed, we shall be in serious trouble.
In a Bill of such complexity and importance, there are bound to be many questions, but my hon. and learned Friend can be absolutely assured of warm support for what he intends to do to help our children.
Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore) : I have read the Official Report of the proceedings in the other place. With all due respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), with whom I rarely disagree, I must say without reservation that I gladly and warmly congratulate the Lords on the many hours of deliberation and concern devoted to the Bill. I must admit that I expressed concern when it was announced that the Bill was to start its passage in the other place, but one saw the House of Lords at its best in those discussions. No doubt my hon. Friend will make his points when the Bill goes into Committee and the
Column 1130Committee will perhaps rectify any points not rectified in the other place. Nevertheless, I regret that the Bill will not be debated in a Committee of the whole House because many hon. Members in the House today who are interested in the Bill and others who are otherwise engaged will not have the opportunity to serve on the Committee. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that we shall follow the Committee's deliberations closely and I wish its members God speed in bringing the Bill back adequately and suitably amended.
There has never been a more important Bill before Parliament. It is an opportunity to lay the foundations for stable families, to minimise the disadvantages, emotional stress and trauma suffered by innocent children and to end for ever the despair, grief, frustration, torment, mental torture, and humiliation which follow the award of custody to the other parent by the judiciary. A rational, fair and compassionate approach to the rules for family disputes could change the public's attitude to families and parenting for the better. Many children will benefit by improvements in their behaviour, standards, judgment, relationships, loyalties, mental strength, creative talents, personalities, compassion for others and attitudes to crime and violence. All those factors mould the character of our country. They are a sound investment for the future and influence our potential to survive and progress in today's and tomorrow's world. By abolishing the uncivilised battle for possession of a child by two people who once loved each other, the Children Bill, which emphasises the importance of both mothers and fathers in child-rearing, will end the inhuman, callous and cruel practice of divorcing a child from one of his or her loyal and devoted parents.
How many times have we interviewed constituents in our surgeries who are preparing for divorce? How many times have we witnessed the arguments between mother and father and looked across at the children involved in the dispute in despair, knowing that unless the couple make arrangements those children will be taken away from the love of one or the other parent? I have often witnessed that and I find it heart-breaking. I am fortunate to have been well and truly honoured with a faithful and kind wife and children, as well as grandchildren.
How many of us, having secured a majority of votes from 60,000 to 70,000 constituents, become disillusioned when crucial issues which above all involve the children of today, the mothers and fathers of tomorrow and the grandparents of the future are left to be dealt with through ten-minute Bills or Adjournment debates, when representatives of the Press Gallery and the media are tucked up in their beds? Children, parents and grandparents who are seeking help, guidance and support are rarely aware that some hon. Members are interested in the issue and are constantly seeking ways to help them in trying to solve their problems and, whenever possible, trying to introduce measures to alter the law. I hope that our debate today will have the media coverage that it deserves and that it will inform all involved that Parliament--not the politics of it, but all caring and compassionate hon. Members--is here to make every possible attempt to express the cries for help, to respond to the pleas for carefully-drafted laws to help people and to assist in introducing measures to solve most of the problems that the present legislation has failed to solve. As has already been said, the Children Bill is a formidable piece of legislation to reform the law referring
Column 1131to children. It will help significantly in providing local authority services for children in need and for others requiring help. It will amend the present laws in respect of children's homes, community homes, voluntary homes and voluntary organisations and it will make provisions on fostering and adoption.
It is not possible in the short time available to me to cover even briefly the Bill's numerous clauses and I am sure that hon. Members will understand if I concentrate on asking all concerned to look again at extending further rights to grandparents. On Wednesday 17 February 1988 I presented a ten- minute Bill--the Grandparents (Adoption of Children) Bill. The House agreed to its First Reading, but the Bill failed to achieve a Second Reading on 22 April and therefore made no further progress. Nevertheless, I secured an Adjournment debate on 27 May on children in care and placed on the record the need for further consideration of grandparents' rights. I also submitted early-day motion 792 in the last Session of Parliament, headed "Grandparents' Rights and Grandchildren", which stated : "That this House deplores the increasing frequency of grandparents being deprived of the right of access to, care, fostering or adoption of their grandchildren ; notes with alarm the attitude of some social services employees ; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to introduce early legislation to give legal rights to grandparents providing immediate right of access before children are taken into care and the right to be present or legally represented at any official hearing or inquiry regarding future access to, care, fostering and adoption of their grandchild or grandchildren." That early-day motion was supported by 331 right hon. and hon. Members of all parties. I draw it specifically to the attention of the House because with 650 hon. Members elected to serve in the House and entitled to take their seats, if 331 signed my early-day motion--a figure which could not include Mr. Speaker or yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and your colleagues as Deputy Speakers, and which could not include Ministers, the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition, senior Whips of either party and many others who could not sign an early-day motion--that means that an overwhelming majority of Members expressed the view that my early-day motion should be approved. If a majority of hon. Members declare their support--even for a early-day motion, of which many people take little notice--and their opinion that the Government should include such provisions in their legislation, the Government should, with the full support of the Opposition, ensure that such measures are introduced into law. Therefore, I am disquieted, concerned and more than disappointed to find that, after all the pressure that has been brought to bear and all the questions that have been asked of the Leader of the House at Question Time about the progress of the Children Bill, and because of the promise that early legislation would be introduced to implement or to introduce measures to implement the provisions of the early-day motion, little if anything on that subject has been incorporated in the Bill. My research has not only left me bitterly disappointed--it has led me to realise that perhaps the only way to secure those provisions is to highlight for those who may serve on the Committee the clauses that I should like them to consider. I hope that you will bear with me in this, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not want to take too much time because many other hon. Members wish to speak, but I want to draw this matter to the attention of those on my own
Column 1132Front Bench as I noticed that my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West did not express much concern about grandparents when he might have spent a considerable time dealing with that issue.
Mr. Tom Clarke : I have enormous respect for my hon. Friend and I am grateful to him for giving way. One of my criticisms of the conclusions reached by the Lords, although it is not a criticism of the work that their Lordships and especially Labour colleagues carried out, was precisely the point that my hon. Friend has made--that that issue is not covered in the Bill. I happily give my hon. Friend the unqualified assurance that we shall fight in Committee and table amendments or new clauses to sustain the excellent point that he has made.