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Mr. Powell : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that I shall be more satisfied with that promise than with the promises that I have received from the Leader of the House and other quarters. I thank my hon. Friend very much.
Although I have read practically every word that was uttered in the other place, which is why I express my gratitude for the work that their Lordships have accomplished, the only mention that I found of grandparents was on 6 December 1988, when Lord Meston stated : "I ask that Clause 70 will not diminish the hard-won status of grandparents in care proceedings. In practice grandparents who are willing and able to help are still too often overlooked in these cases. At first sight, one criticism of the Bill before us is that it may make matters too difficult for grandparents and for foster parents to contribute. Foster parents are special people entitled to special consideration."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 6 December 1988 ; Vol.502, c. 501.]
I have received thousands of letters from grandparents all over the country which I have read and re-read. It has been suggested that I am not especially sensitive, but as the pairing Whip I am certainly sensitive. I am also especially sensitive to letters from grandparents who find themselves deprived of the opportunity to be with and to love their grandchildren, or even to see them. Grandparents who have reared children from birth until the ages of 11, 12 or 14 may find that the children are then either fostered out or taken away and the grandparents deprived of access to see them. When grandparents have to hide behind church walls, bus shelters, school walls and school toilets just to get a glimpse of their grandchildren, there is something wrong with the law. There is something wrong with a society that can allow such things to happen to grandparents. Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh) rose--
That is why I am campaigning for grandparents and that is why I am concerned that grandparents should have rights. Grandparents want rights because in today's society, where everybody is on the grab for what they can get, grandparents are only offering their love to someone else. They do not want anything from their grandchildren--all that they want is to give something. It is a refreshing change in today's avaricious society to have people who want to give something instead of always wanting to take.
Column 1133but the children were deliberately taken to places well away from Cleveland and no information was allowed to be passed to the grandparents, who were deliberately kept away from their grandchildren. Not only could those grandparents not sneak behind the school or anywhere else to see their grandchildren--they were not even allowed to know where the children were living.
Mr. Powell : Yes, I appreciate that point as I was fortunate to receive the Cleveland report from my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) and I have read every word of it. I appreciate the problems that occurred there and the trauma for the parents and grandparents. The Cleveland issue will undoubtedly be a subject for debate in the Standing Committee.
I shall hurriedly run through the clauses that I should like the Committee to consider, but first I should emphasise that the word "grandparents" is mentioned only twice in the Bill, on both occasions in the same context. On page 66, line 24, as part of clause 75(1), the definition of "relative" is given as follows :
" relative', in relation to a child, means a grandparent, brother, sister, uncle or aunt (whether of the full blood or half blood or by affinity) or step-parent".
The same definition is given in clause 55, which is somewhat negative in relation to grandparents in that in paragraph (1)(a)(iii) it prevents them from fostering their grandchildren. However, clause 56 (5)(a)(iii), on page 52, gives the local authority the right, if necessary, to put a child in the care of its grandparents or other relative. This seems to be only a backup if the welfare of the child is in danger without private fostering. I should have thought that the latter section would have come before the former in that it would be better to put a child in the care of a relative before considering private fostering arrangements. The same argument applies to clause 50, which relates to the welfare of children in the care of voluntary organisations. Apart from a mention in schedule 7, paragraph 2(1)(a), under "Privately fostered children", there appears to be no further mention of grandparents or relatives in the whole Bill.
After all the promises given from the Government Front Bench about all the points that I have made, I should have expected far more thought and consideration to be given to the subject of grandparents. For some reason, grandparents do not seem to be defined as members of the child's family unless the child has been living with them and they have parental responsibility for the child, or the grandparents are living with the children. On page 12, in clause 15(10) "family" in relation to such a child is defined as including any person who has parental responsibility for the child and any other person with whom he has been living. That definition would normally be taken to mean parents, step-parents, adoptive parents, foster parents, siblings and, of course, grandparents, and indeed uncles and aunts who happen to be living in the same house.
There is so much to be said that I will trust my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West to read what I have prepared. That will enable me to conclude my speech and give my colleagues and a number of Conservative Members the opportunity to be called. I do not believe in hogging the Floor when my hon. Friend on the Front Bench can take up these matters.
Column 1134There are a number of other places in the Bill where it may be possible to include specific mention of grandparents. This must be given very careful consideration since it may be wrong to give grandparents certain rights while not giving them the responsibility that parents have to bear. I do not see many problems arising if we aim to give grandparents reasonable access to children who happen to be under or about to come under local authority care.
The other issue to which I wish to refer concerns the inadequacy of the funding provided by the Government for the whole of the Bill. I want to be assured that there will be plenty of funding for adequate training of people. I have a great regard and respect for the majority of social workers and I have come in contact with a number of them, in connection not only with grandparents' rights but with other matters, and I feel that perhaps more money should be spent on the training of social workers.
I share the view expressed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame Jill Knight) about family courts. "Agenda", the local government booklet, states :
"NCH has joined forces with other agencies in the Family Courts Campaign. It is our belief, and that of other organisations, that the interests of children brought before Courts in whatever manner would be better served by the creation of a unified Family Court. The Lord Chancellor's views in debates suggests that he does not contemplate introducing legislation for the establishment of such a court at this time."
I believe that if such a court were established it could solve a lot of our problems, particularly the problems of grandparents in relation to adoption and access.
Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth) : I begin by promising the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) that if it is my good fortune to be on the Committee of the Bill, as I hope it will, I will support his campaign for grandparents, to get those clauses in place. I am not even sure that it will be necessary, because the Minister referred in his opening remarks to the fact that he was taking on board something to safeguard the rights of grandparents. So I believe that the hon. Gentleman's long campaign has not been in vain. It shows that when Back Benchers keep going they can get there in the end. So I say, "Well done".
Everybody will agree that the Children Bill is long overdue, yet, because of the time it has taken to produce it, I am sure that it is a better and stronger Bill. Over the past few years, we have all read of extremely sad and unnecessary cases resulting in harm to, and sometimes the death of, a baby or a child. The details of such cases have been so horrific that many people have been unable to read very far beyond the headlines. This would be a very poor nation if we failed to learn the lessons from each of the inquiries that followed such tragedies.
The Criminal Justice Act 1988 contained any amount of splendid provisions for the further protection of children and they were debated at length before being approved by Parliament. That Act, as it applied to children and court procedures, had a great measure of all-party support as well as great public support. I anticipate that the passage of the Children Bill will be marked by efforts to put children's needs first and political differences aside.
Of course, the Opposition will wish to make amendments, and rightly so ; that is what an Opposition are for. But also the Government will want to put in other
Column 1135measures to complete the work that has been done with great dedication in another place. The Government may want to address themselves to such things as the registration and regulation of standards of private nurseries and child minders and the exemption of children's organisations from liability for the offence of harbouring a minor. This applies to safe houses and places of refuge, and so on.
I hope that it will be possible for the Committee to make provision for the idea of a family court. There is a tremendous amount of support for the family court system in both Houses of Parliament. The Lord Chancellor was very encouraging about family courts on Second Reading of the Bill. I do not give in on this one. I think that, in the fullness of time, we shall get there, and perhaps within this Bill we can lay the foundations for family courts. I believe that the cornerstone of the Children Bill is the attempt to ensure that courts put the feelings and needs of the child first and foremost and provide a better balance between the rights of parents and those of children, and of course of grandparents.
Local authorities and child care agencies are in very stressful, high-risk professions. In child protection, many pressures are put on them. As in many professions, fatal mistakes have been made in the past. In the majority of cases, the system and procedures have failed and have produced indecision and confusion, resulting, perhaps, in tragedy.
The reform of child care law in respect of child care proceedings and the emergency protection of children will help field workers, and that is a big move forward. The courts' powers to protect children from abuse and neglect are strengthened in the Bill. The Children Bill, which is certain to be referred to a Committee tonight--I hope without the need for a vote--has been described by the Lord Chancellor as
"the most comprehensive and far reaching reform of child law which has come before Parliament in living memory."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 6 December 1988 ; Vol. 502, c. 488.]
There could not be a more meaningful statement.
We should remind ourselves that the Bill is the result of many excellent reports arising from tragic events, tremendous consultation with all organisations which take an interest in the welfare of children, an enormous amount of work within Government Departments and by the parliamentary draftsmen, and, not least, the parliamentary all-party children's group chaired by Baroness Faithfull, who is not too far away at this moment, and the many individuals who have campaigned for years for better child protection.
All hon. Members can take pride in the fact that, at last, the legislation has arrived. We must make it work and improve it so that it will be the good piece of legislation that the Lord Chancellor says it will be. It will certainly be long and jolly hard work for hon. Members on the Committee. Let us pay tribute to the marvellous work that was undertaken in another place. Let parents and grandparents everywhere be aware that, at last, Parliament is listening to the children's cries of misery. At last we will have on the statute book legislation that will bring greater child protection.
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Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport) : I welcome this clarification and simplification of the current legislation dealing with children. However, I and other hon. Members are disappointed that the Government have not taken this opportunity to introduce family courts into our legal system. On Second Reading in the other place, the Lord Chancellor implied that the proposals in the Bill were the first stage in the process of introducing family courts. He implied also that it would be inappropriate to attempt major reforms in one go, and that a gradual approach would be more beneficial. I must admit that other Government proposals for reform, including those for the legal profession, have not led me to believe that the words "caution" and "prudence" are part of the Government's vocabulary. Perhaps I will be proved wrong.
In 1974, the Finer committee produced its proposals for a unified family court system. Since then, there has been a steady growth of support. Today, it would be difficult to find many voices in disagreement. Our legal system is complex and far from accessible. Even if the Government's proposed changes to the legal system and the legal profession are accepted, the experience of having to go to law to resolve a family problem will not be less frightening and awesome to people who are often under emotional stress. Decisions to take a child into custody or to award custody and other similar moves are not reached lightly or easily. Such decisions have serious consequences, not only for the child but for other members of the family. Whatever system or methods we employ, we cannot always guarantee that the right decision will be made.
Evidence from countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which have had family court systems for over 10 years, shows that such a system can work successfully and improve standards in child care and the prevention of abuse. A family court would provide an informal and sensitive setting in which family problems and solutions could be aired freely. Consultation, discussion and decisions would be undertaken by staff who are specifically trained in child care and are aware of the needs of a child in a family.
Often, under the present system, children regard themselves as the cause of the problems. They suffer guilt when none should apply. In other cases, they are treated merely as the chattels of one or other of the partners. Family courts could do a great deal to relieve that burden. Parents, children and, if advantageous, members of the extended family would all be involved in reaching the decision that will affect the children's lives and future. I urge the Government to reconsider their position and use this opportunity--it may be the last--to introduce family courts into our legal system.
In the absence of family courts, the proposals to extend jurisdiction to county courts and the High Court will help to simplify and rationalise the present law and procedures. However, they also raise concern about possible delays in the hearing of cases, despite the provisions in clause 10 which create an assumption that delay is detrimental to a child's welfare. Long waits and serious delays are more likely to occur when courts are already far overstretched. There is also some worry that the expertise that has been built up by juvenile court magistrates, as is the case in London, will be lost. It is important to ensure that there
Column 1137are adequate resources and provisions for the training of magistrates and circuit judges before they hear cases brought under the Act.
Another matter of concern is the amount of secondary legislation which is allowed by the Bill. As we know, such legislation tends to get a perfunctory glance from Parliament, which has little or no opportunity to scrutinise it before it is implemented. In some cases, regulations which may have major implications are not introduced. Some matters in the Children Bill which are left to the regulating powers of the Secretary of State or to the rules of court raise too many important issues to be allowed to slip by.
For instance, should not children have an automatic right to party status in care proceedings? After all, their welfare and future lives are under consideration. Surely it should be the case that a child is not a party to proceedings only because of very exceptional circumstances. Such an event could be accommodated by some form of exemption subsection in the main clause conferring on the child automatic party status in care proceedings. That is a matter for further discussion in Committee.
Is this not an opportune time for the Government to consider a children's charter incorporating certain rights and entitlements, which could be attached to the Bill? The general thrust of the Bill--that is, that a child's welfare should be the court's paramount concern--is welcome, but a charter outlining children's rights in relation to that welfare would help to clarify matters and act as a backdrop against which all decisions are made.
Several groups and individuals have expressed fears about the structure of the Bill and difficulties of interpretation. The Bill needs more guidance on interpretation, particularly specific phrases as they relate to each clause. Some of the phrases I have in mind are "in need" and "standards of care". Perhaps they could be clarified. I know that the Lord Chancellor hopes that the Bill should be read as a whole, but he should be aware also that different interpretations are easily applied to a Bill of this nature. It is important that there should be uniformity among those who read and apply it.
I am a little concerned also at the lack of attention to the need for more staff and resources. Recent reports on child abuse have shown that it is necessary to do that if we are to get right the balance between overreacting and underreacting. More and better trained social workers, foster parents, police and other groups are the key to success--
Sir William Clark (Croydon, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a violation of the tradition of the House that an hon. Member should read his speech? Members on the Front Benches read speeches, but am I not right in saying that a Back Bencher is not entitled to read a speech?
Mr. Fearn : The matter is of such concern that we should get everything right. So far, every hon. Member has read his speech and got it correct. We must be correct on the Bill. I hope the hon. Gentleman accepts that.
The Bill does not address important factors that contribute to the well- being of children, such as
Column 1138inadequate housing and income, general deprivation and others that are sometimes aggravated by the Government's lack of concern and their policy on local government, social security payments, child allowance and numerous other matters. The Government have the power and the opportunity to improve provisions. They should do so if they are serious about offering children protection and the good start in life that is so important. Some of the legislation, regulations and policy governing those aspects interlock with the provisions of the Bill. I should like to see more scrutiny of the effects of other legislation and local government duties and responsibilities on the provisions of the Bill, and vice versa.
The Bill has been the subject of much lobbying in the other place. The noble Lords tabled many amendments. Very few were accepted by the Lord Chancellor, although some views were taken into account. The lobbying has continued here. The majority of the amendments that will be tabled have been carefully thought through by people with wide experience of child care.
I said earlier that the Bill is most welcome. I believe that in general it will have all-party support and will not prove contentious. The matters it raises are serious and need careful deliberation. Time will be required to ensure that no ground is left unploughed. As other hon. Members have said, we must get the legislation right this time. Will the Government assure hon. Members that the House will be given whatever time is necessary to get it right? I hope that proceedings on the Bill in this House will show that there are times when all sides can negotiate, co-operate and reach the agreement which in this case will prove to be in the best interests of the children and of their families.
Sir Dennis Walters (Westbury) : As my hon. and learned Friend the Minister explained in his clear and convincing speech, there is a great deal in the Bill which should help to improve and protect the arrangements for the welfare of children and it is much to be welcomed, as was recognised by the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) in his thoughtful speech on behalf of the Opposition. I should have welcomed the Bill even more if it had contained a specific provision about family courts, and I agree with several hon. Members who thought that this might have been an opportunity to take that step which has been debated and written about for such a long time.
It was my privilege to introduce the Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Act 1986, which received Royal Assent in July that year. Inevitably, to win the support of the Government, without which no private Member's Bill has much chance of reaching the statute book, I had to jettison a number of proposals which were in the original Bill. Nevertheless, a good many others were still in the measure when it received its Third Reading. One change that I sought to achieve was the introduction of the necessary powers to ensure that in appropriate cases children could be compulsorily examined medically from time to time as a safeguard against neglect or abuse. I am pleased that provisions for medical examination of children are included in the Bill, in relation both to emergency protection orders under clause 36(4) and supervision orders under the provisions of part 1 of schedule 3.
The legislation that I introduced will be repealed when this far more important, comprehensive and significant
Column 1139Bill comes into force, and I make no complaint about that. It is right that the law in relation to children should be gathered together in one place as far as possible. When my small measure was passed, one was looking forward to comprehensive legislation to follow it and that is now taking place. I am concerned, however, that some of the positive things achieved by my Act are being left rather vague or at the mercy of subordinate powers. The appeal provisions of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 in care cases will be repealed by the Bill. One reform that was made by my Act was an amendment to the 1969 Act to give to all parents a right of appeal in care cases. The new measure is silent about the right of appeal in care cases or in relation to any of the types of family proceedings under the Bill.
Clause 67 gives the Lord Chancellor very wide powers and discretion as to the types of proceedings that take place in different courts and the transfer of proceedings from one court to another. There is some unease, which I share, that once the Bill is enacted those powers may be used to confine some family proceedings to magistrates courts in the interests of economy. Most people who know about the subject would much prefer that this specalist and delicate work was dealt with by professional judges and, in particular, that the very special expertise of the High Court judges in the Family Division should not be lost to this important part of our law. I hope that that will be clarified in Committee. Perhaps my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will refer to it in his reply to the debate. If we are not to lose the expertise of High Court judges, it is important that there should be a full and general right of appeal to the High Court and from there to the Court of Appeal. I hope, again, that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister can assure us that that will be forthcoming, if not through an amendment to the Bill, by the rules to be made under it.
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) spoke eloquently about grandparents. I, too, am concerned about the position of grandparents. The Act that I introduced gave grandparents a specific right to apply to become parties in care proceedings, and for them to become parties with the leave of the court within certain parameters prescribed by the rules of court. That is being repealed and the provisions of the Bill make no express reference to grandparents. I appreciate that under clause 9 there is the general possibility for any person who can show a sufficient connection with a child to apply for leave to make an application for a section 7 order. I appreciate, too, that under clause 9 (6) rules of court may at a later date enlarge the categories of persons who have an automatic right to apply for a section 7 order, and that under clause 68 rules of court may make provision as to the persons entitled to be parties to proceedings or to participate by making representations to the court. I strongly believe, however, that after the parents there is a particular and special relationship between a child and his grandparents, both emotionally and in terms of responsibility. Grandparents have a particular right to be consulted and, if they wish, to be involved in court proceedings concerning their grandchildren's future. I hope that will be incorporated in the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will note that considerable feeling has been expressed by Members on both sides of the House about that issue.
Like other hon. Members, I was enormously impressed by the number of letters that I received from grandparents
Column 1140all over the country expressing the depth of their feelings and experiences, to which the hon. Member for Ogmore referred so eloquently.
I believe that what I have asked for could easily be incorporated in the Bill, and would make it a better Bill. I hope that the Minister and the Government will take a sympathetic attitude to the points that have been raised.
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) : It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Westbury (Sir D. Walters) and his remarks about grandparents. The hon. Member for Langaurgh (Mr. Holt) intervened in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) concerning grandparents, and expressed the deep disquiet and distress of grandparents in Cleveland, who, when their grandchildren were taken from them, found to their chagrin that they had no recourse. The Minister said that he would listen carefully to any changes for grandparents that we might suggest in Committee. We look forward to that opportunity.
It is proper that you, Mr. Speaker, are in the Chair dealing with the Second Reading, because it was your granting of a private notice question fewer than two years ago that obliged the Minister to explain to the House what was happening in Cleveland and what he proposed to do about it. The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) mentioned all those who have been involved over the years with child care. Many of us know how difficult it is to involve oneself in child care, because it is an emotive subject and whoever raises it finds his head squarely above the parapet and likely to be shot off. You, Mr. Speaker, heard the Minister announce a judicial inquiry. The recommendations of Lord Justice Butler- Sloss in that inquiry, the work of Members of Parliament, both in and outside the House, on child care, and the steady drift of recommendations in committees, have resulted in this Bill. It is a Bill that will probably lay down the child care laws of our country for many years to come. Parliament has come together, through you, Mr. Speaker, the Minister, and other Front Bench spokesmen and hon. Members, to change the law of the land. That is the way in which we should be doing things in the House. In one sense, I am grateful to be part of that procedure and to see how it has worked positively in the interests of our children.
I came to the House rather in the manner of Mark Antony, because I came to bury not Caesar but Cleveland as an issue of child abuse. In the past two years the county has suffered enormously due to a great deal of irresponsible comment. A great stigma lay across the county. That stigma has now been erased. All the major participants in the Cleveland child abuse crisis are no longer in their jobs. It is not for me to dwell on that, but there are new faces, a new broom is sweeping clean and there is a new co-operation between the police and social services in Cleveland. There is a genuine attempt to regain in the county confidence, not only in our Health Service, but in social services. Social services took a great deal of criticism for their actions--so, too, did the health authority--and, now the tide is turning, we see a genuine effort to resolve the difficulties. Multi-disciplinary proceedings are now being established between the police and social services. Those will be in the interests of the people of Cleveland. They may, in a sad but necessary
Column 1141way, lead the way for other multi- disciplinary proceedings up and down the country, which would be of great assistance to other children.
We have seen throughout the ages that children do not get other than a raw deal. I recently reviewed a book about how children have been abandoned throughout the ages. In our own generation, we have seen Parliaments letting power slip away from them and an imbalance created between family life and the proper role of the social services.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) stated sincerely that family life remains the basis of our society. That family life has come under a fundamental and serious attack over the years. For a variety of sociological reasons, as well as others, we have seen a steady erosion of the family base. The Bill should seek to restore the balance in the family and should also clearly state the role of the local authority. We need training for social workers. They find themselves in sensitive and difficult situations. We need to share the burden among those who are involved in child care work. It should not be right for one individual to take full responsibility for a particular incident.
In Cleveland we saw the dreadful effect of the place of safety order, which could be misused in the hands of an over-zealous authority. The place of safety order is being replaced by an emergency protection order. The House should discuss what will happen in a real emergency where a child has not been revealed to the social worker or to whoever else visits the house. With the spirit that we have in the House and the unanimity among us--not perhaps on the detail, but certainly on the structure of the Bill and its importance--we can consider all those matters in Committee and devise something special, interesting and important for those children. I have dwelt upon the effects of the crisis in Cleveland and the child care law in relation to Cleveland. I must do that in the interests of my constituents and all those who were involved. It has been a long haul for me, for the hon. Member for Langbaurgh who shares with me the constituency of Middlesbrough, and for the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin), who is not in the Chamber at present. I am reminded of the words of Winston Churchill in the 1930s, who said that the only shield of a Member of Parliament is his conscience. I refer, too, to the words of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who said that a man must do what he must in spite of all opposition, and that was the basis of all human morality.
Members of Parliament throughout the Cleveland crisis, and who have discussed child care in the House over many years, should feel a sense of achievement. If I catch the eye of the Committee of Selection, I shall look forward to working on the Committee and modifying the law of the land for children. Children are the greatest thing that any of us have ever had and that any of us ever will have. If we can make the future better for them, we will make the world and our country better, and our democracy a stronger and safer place.
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Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge) : I warmly welcome the Bill on behalf of my constituents. It represents a major reform of the law relating to children and the way in which they are brought up. It also affects the substance and incidence of parental status at law. I declare an outside interest as I am parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales. I recently succeeded my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) to that post and I pay tribute to him for the long period of service that he gave to the federation and the considerable distinction with which he served it. I am glad to say that the federation welcomes the Bill and wishes to see it progress speedily to the statute book. A number of the aspects, however, concern the police and it would be helpful if my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General would comment on those when he replies.
As other Members have already pointed out, it is noteworthy that the Bill makes no provision for family courts. The federation believes that such courts will be essential in the future. I understand that my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has suggested that the Bill will enable the law affecting children to be applied uniformly, with a single system of courts, and that the new machinery, by which cases can be transferred to the county court and the High Court, and care applications to the domestic courts, has been introduced so as to decriminalise those cases. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State referred to that earlier. However, the police believe that the concept of a family court is important. They would like to be assured that that concept has not been abandoned, especially as the Select Committee on Social Services has also commented on this issue and believes that the Government should go further with their reforms.
At present the police and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children have the right to take care proceedings. Clause 26(1) provides for a child to be placed in care or under the supervision of an "authorised person". As I understand it, the "authorised person" means the local authority and the NSPCC. The powers hitherto operated by the police are to be removed. That is a major departure from long-standing practice and the House should consider it with great care. It is unique to authorise the NSPCC, but not the police, to initiate care proceedings because the police work closely with teams of social workers. The police are the first line of complaint and should therefore retain the right to initiate proceedings. I note that the police still have limited powers under clause 38, which reduces from 28 days to three days their right to remove a child to suitable accommodation.
It may help the House in its consideration of this matter if I quote from an excellent publication which is well known to social workers and to police officers. It is entitled "Working Together" and was published by the Department of Health and Social Security and the Welsh Office in 1988. Paragraph 4.5 says of the role of the police : "The police are involved in cases of child abuse as a consequence of their general responsibility for the protection of life and limb, the prevention and investigation of crime and the submission of cases for criminal proceedings. In preparing cases for submission to the Crown Prosecution Service the police work to a standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt, which is not the same as the balance of probabilities on which a juvenile court must be satisfied in care proceedings. Even in cases where the police are not considering a submission in
Column 1143respect of a prosecution they may be in possession of information that is highly relevant to any decision taken about a child who may need protection from abuse."
It would be sensible for the House to bear that advice in mind when considering the important change in the law in clause 26. Clause 64 will mean that the making of a care order is decriminalised as it is thought that the police no longer need to initiate care proceedings. There are cases, however, where such action could be desirable. The court can still use care orders, but not for committing criminal offences. Is that why the right of police to initiate care proceedings has been replaced by the words "authorised person"? Is that a valid reason for taking away the specific power of the police to apply for a care order?
Clause 9 deals with the power of the court to make section 7 orders dealing with residence. It appears to exclude grandparents from having an automatic right of access to their grandchild. I accept, as has already been pointed out, that clause 29 says that parental contact may be made by
"any other person mentioned in subsection (1) who has obtained the leave of the court",
but that clause does not specify grandparents as such. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Sir D. Walters) have already raised this matter and their views have the full support of the Police Federation. I was pleased when the Minister of State said that he would consider the matter in Committee.
Clause 18 deals with the protection of members of the public from what is called "serious injury". The police are concerned to know what is meant by that phrase and how it will be precisely defined. Would a child who, in the opinion of a social worker or of the police, may be likely to set fire to premises be covered by that definition? Does the fact that a child may not have actually committed such an offence prevent action if the threat or risk of injury is perceived? That is an important matter which must be considered carefully. Clause 21 deals with the use of accommodation restricting the liberty of a child. Clause 21(1)(b) refers to a child being likely to "injure himself". The question of definition is again important. What does that phrase mean? Does it mean to hurt or to damage, which is the definition given in my copy of the "Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary of Current English"? Does that definition include wounding? The police believe that the definition should be broad and clearly understood. I hope that the Committee will study that issue. Clause 27 is also important. In a serious case, what happens when care and criminal proceedings are involved and where the criminal proceedings must be disposed of before the care order is made? Presumably this has in the past been covered, and will continue to be covered, by interim care orders. Is it the case, in every court where the care and criminal proceedings take place in tandem, that the care proceedings are not finalised while the criminal proceedings are pending? That is another point that needs to be clarified. Clause 36 deals with the very important question of the emergency protection order. Once such an order has been made, it can direct production of the child for a medical or psychiatric examination. What will be the position of the local authority if it is unable to locate the child? What sanction is available against a parent who refuses to
Column 1144produce for this purpose a child in whose interests such a medical or psychiatric examination is considered to be desirable? It seems to me that no sanction is spelt out in the Bill, and I think that one is desirable.
In clause 39(5), a local authority that is refused access to a child is required to consider whether to apply for an emergency protection order, a care order or a supervision order. Again, I ask what sanction exists in the case of parents who refuse access. Clause 40, dealing with sanctions, covers only the offence of perjury. But parents cannot commit perjury unless they go to court. Again, I ask what sanctions exist against parents if they refuse to hand over the child, and refuse to give information as to the child's whereabouts.
Another point that I wish to raise concerns the difficulty of a social worker in gaining emergency admission if he believes that a child--in the words of clause 39(1)(c)--
"has suffered significant harm or is likely to suffer such harm". As I understand the position, the social worker has to apply to a magistrate for an emergency protection order. But that can take time. With the best will in the world, several hours could elapse before entry was gained, via the emergency protection order, with power of entry. The only alternative would be to take a police officer along, in which case power of entry could be used without a warrant only under section 17(1)(a) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. This could result in great difficulty for the social worker and for the police. Indeed, the police are reluctant to use their power under that Act to gain entry for that purpose and in those circumstances. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will look at that matter very carefully.
Clause 5 deals with persons disqualified from being private foster parents. One of the points that the police have raised with me is whether clause 57(2)(d) applies to spent convictions under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. The police and hon. Members would find it helpful to know what procedures operate in respect of people who apply to become foster parents and who, say, have been private foster parents or have worked in a private children's home. Is there adequate protection to ensure that undesirable persons are not used as foster parents? What consideration is being given to the question of incorporating the recent guidance from the Home Office and the Department on checking the credentials of those who apply for various posts involving the care of children?
I mention these points because I think that it is important that they be clarified and spelt out clearly in the legislation. On behalf of my constituents and of the police, I warmly support the Bill and commend it to the House. I hope that it will speedily become the law of the land.
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) : Like other hon. Members on both sides of the House, I welcome the proposals in this Bill. It is a radical Bill from a radical Lord Chancellor. It will repeal seven post-war statutes and will amend many others, and it is appropriate that we should be considering these proposals at this time--100 years after the introduction of the first statute protecting children. Of course, the immediate background is Jasmine Beckford, Tyra Henry, Kimberley Carlile and the 100 or so children who die each year in those circumstances, as well as the 40,000 children on the at-risk register at various times of the year. But the reforms have much great implications.
Column 1145I worked for almost three years as the senior child care solicitor for the London borough of Islington. I found the law complicated, confusing and inefficient, and at that stage I, like the council, regarded Islington's policy as the finest in the country. At the outset I should like to pay tribute to the social workers and the health visitors, and, indeed, even the lawyers, who work in child care. Social workers have had a very bad press recently, and the House should be aware of the great pressures that they are under in terms of the decisions they have to make and in terms of the lack of resources. It is right also that we should thank groups like the National Children's Bureau and the Family Rights Group which work voluntarily and unaided and do the kind of research that makes the task of both Government and Opposition so much easier.
I welcome the commitment in clause 1 to general welfare principles. It is very important that when the courts consider the circumstances of a child they be able to consider that child, and not any other child, in those circumstances. But I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman, when he replies to the debate, will tell us why, in clause 18, the local authority is placed under a duty different from that under which the court is placed in clause 1. That is a serious difference. It is extremely important that, if the courts are to consider the welfare of the child as being of paramount importance, that should be the duty of the local authority as well, because it would be seeking to obtain a care order for exactly the same purpose--to achieve what was in the best interests of the child. I welcome the proposed change in the grounds for care proceedings. They are exactly the same as the current grounds for those who apply for wardship-- though I am sure that the judges will not admit that those are the grounds. I welcome the introduction of the emergency protection orders, but I want to express two reservations. I agree that the place of safety orders lasted for too long a period--28 days is a very long time. At the end of that period the local authority would apply either for an extension or for an interim care order, and would then get another interim care order, perhaps for the same period. I believe that it is right that a limit should be placed on the emergency protection order period, subject to the limited circumstances of a renewal. But I do not think that parents should be expected to wait 72 hours before applying for a discharge. It would be fair and proper for a parent to be able to make application within 24 hours if he believed that he had the evidence to challenge the decision of the local authority. It is quite wrong that the Bill, in the clauses concerning the emergency protection order, does not spell out the various notices that have to be served on parents. It is wrong that we have to wait until rules are produced before these matters are clarified. It is reasonable to expect these matters to be provided for in the Bill because they affect deeply the intentions of parents.
Mr. Devlin : I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point, but I do not agree with him at all about the 24 hours provision that he has suggested. Many parents, having had their children taken away, will not know immediately where to turn and will be extremely concerned. They will have to take legal advice, and if the circumstances arise, say, on Friday evening or Saturday morning, that legal advice will not be available until the following Monday.
Column 1146Those people will not want to go anywhere near a court or a judge or a social worker, or anyone else, until they have taken advice. The hon. Gentleman, like me, is a lawyer. He will therefore know that it sometimes takes time for people to think about the advice that they are given. Surely it is right that the period should be three days.
Mr. Vaz : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. That is why notices should state precisely what has happened to the child. When I gave out notices as a child care solicitor, they included the names and addresses of child care solicitors, including emergency numbers for them. If those factors were in the Bill, parents would know exactly who to turn to. They would have a detailed account of solicitors who practise in that area.
I agree that proceedings in the courts take too long and I welcome the provision which allows the courts to draw up timetables. I have sat for many hours and days in the Highbury Corner magistrates and juvenile court after adjournment after adjournment. That was bad for parents and for children. If the court could specify a timetable, everyone would be clear about how long proceedings would last. I hope that the Solicitor-General will confirm that the legal aid requirements on representation will be met in full. It is important that parents and children have ready access to solicitors and to legal aid. I hope that he will also confirm that the necessary means test requirements will be waived in emergencies.
Having welcomed some parts of the Bill, I want to draw attention to what is missing from it. I share the concern of many hon. Members about the Government's failure to honour their commitment to a family court. In July last year the Attorney-General made a pledge to come back to the House in the autumn and make a statement about family courts. On Second Reading on 6 December in another place, the Lord Chancellor said that the Bill was sufficient, but I disagree. This is an attempt to get a family court on the cheap. Clause 67 gives courts the power to transfer cases from different jurisdictions. Surely it is only a small step forward to allow a family court. The Bill creates a good legislative framework, but without the court structure to support it the Act will fail.
I fear that the Bill does not propose a family court for the same reason given by the Solicitor-General in Committee during consideration of the Legal Aid Bill. He told me then that justice should be cost-effective. The Government care about the cost rather than the principle. That is why the Biill contains no proposal for a family court.
I hope that we will be able to consider the placing and size of courts. Juvenile courts are not properly situated in our major cities. For example, the juvenile court in Leicester consists of one room with a waiting room twice the size of the court into which more than 100 people may be crowded. No refreshments or public telephones are available and people feel that justice is not supported. There should have been more in the Bill about training and the provision of more resources for the training of judges, magistrates, social workers, health visitors and lawyers. All those people have a part to play in court proceedings. One organisation--I think the Association of Metropolitan Authorities--estimated that 24,000 people across London will need to be trained in one aspect of the law or another.
Column 1147I deeply regret the decision effectively to end the wardship jurisdiction. Section 7 of the Family Law Reform Act 1969 gave local authorities and parents the ultimate right to go to the High Court. As a practitioner, I felt that the best form of justice available was not that of the juvenile court where magistrates were pressed for time, but the High Court. I remember warding many children because I felt that the tribunal of the High Court offered the best chance available to bring before the court some elements of evidence that may not be acceptable. Rules of evidence and procedure made it desirable to go to the High Court. The wardship jurisdiction must be kept as a safety net for local authorities, children and parents. In Committee, we shall press the Minister to reassert his commitment to wardship.
I am disappointed that the Bill contains no commitment to the statutory provision of education for the under-fives. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) will make that point when she sums up. It is important that local authorities should have a statutory duty to provide such education. In conclusion, I draw attention to three matters. First, I want to commend Leicestershire county council. Last year, the council set up the first ever child rights officer. With the assistance of the National Association of Young People in Care, a report was produced which eventually led to the appointment of Dr. Michael Lindsay--the first ever child rights officer. His purpose is to advise children in care, to hear any complaints that they make and report them to the local authority. His post and his work have been an enormous success.
Secondly, I should have liked to have seen more in the Bill about the need to prevent children being taken into care. Figures from the Department of Social Security reveal that last year £9.1 million was spent on work to prevent the breakdown of families. Yet £434.1 million was spent on fostering and residential care. We should encourage local authorities to do preventive work. I am sad to see that section 1 of the Child Care Act 1980, which enshrines the principle of spending money in order to diminish the need to take children into care, has been tucked away in the schedules. The Bill will run out of money. The resources that have been allocated for it, as stated in the financial memorandum, are far too low. According to various organisations, the Bill will cost £12 million to implement.
Finally, I favour the use of the words "parental responsibility", but I would have liked to have seen something in the Bill about state responsibility. I would have liked to have seen something in the Bill which reflects the past 10 years. It is all very well having fine words and fine sentiments about protecting children, but look at the policies of the past 10 years. During that time there has been an increase in crime, homelessness, unemployment and poverty. There has been the termination of certain benefits and the freezing of child benefit. All that has led to deprivation, with 2.2 million children living at or near the margins of poverty. That in turn has led to omission, neglect and abuse.
Dickens said :
"In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived or so finely felt as injustice."
If the Government want to do justice to children, they should use the Bill as a fresh start. They should arrest some