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Column 1179often today, is the problem of poverty, deprivation and disadvantage, which can be so starkly seen in Bradford and other inner cities in Britain.
The Prime Minister does not believe in society. But after 10 years of Thatcherism, the need for our nation's wealth to be shared more equally is more urgent than ever before. It is all very well to build a framework which we hope will protect children more effectively than has been the case in the past, but the Bill will be no more than words on paper unless we ensure that Britain's children and families receive a fair share of the wealth that they have been creating over the years.
Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West) : We have had an interesting and wide-ranging debate. We have anxiously awaited the Bill, having read of its progress in the other place, but those working in child care have been anxiously awaiting such a major Bill for at least 10 years. In 1968 we were promised another Bill in the not too distant future because it was recognised then that the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 had not dealt with everything that it might. I remember that fairly vividly because at that time I was training as a child care officer and we were arguing strongly for the introduction of family courts.
I have been struck today by the number of hon. Members who have supported the case for a family court. That support has been almost unanimous across the Floor of the House. I hope that Ministers have heard that. It is now 20 years since legislation was promised in 1968 and I hope that the House will not tolerate such a delay again. We are looking to the Government to move much more quickly--I hope during the passage of the Bill--towards a family court structure. Many of the good things in the Bill cannot be achieved under the current structure. The Bill moves towards recognising the rights of children and their right to be represented properly in court. The adversarial system simply cannot deal with that effectively. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will look at that.
Many hon. Members have welcomed the Bill but have recognised that in some areas it is profoundly disappointing. They have dealt with those points that are missing from the Bill and those aspects of it that do not assure us of the general or the specific protection that our children need.
The subject with which I am most concerned is that of day care. The Government have a problem because they have adopted targeting in every other policy, but tonight the House is asking them to recognise that targeting will inevitably miss some children who will have to live with the effect of that for the rest of their lives. Hon. Members have talked about training. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) put forcibly the case for a proper initial training for all workers in this area. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) made a good and thoughtful speech. He paid tribute to the work of those in the voluntary organisations and the local authorities. Far too often, they are the people who bear the brunt of our anger and frustration when systems laid down by the House fail.
I was trained in the late 1960s and I practised in the early 1970s, and in those days it was almost unthinkable to remove children from their home. We were trained and encouraged to do whatever we could to keep children in
Column 1180their home. That was the mood of the time. However, as the tragedies happened, so the public's mood, frequently reflected in the House, was that social workers should have removed children at risk much earlier. That is the climate within which the Cleveland crisis arose. We should remember what happened before Cleveland and, in particular, recognise that social workers were asking for legislation long before that crisis arose. Therefore, no hon. Member can absolve himself or herself from responsibility for what happened. We cannot look at the Bill in isolation. The past 10 years have been a bleak experience for many of the nation's children, many of them faring worse than the children of some of our European neighbours. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) has produced figures which demonstrate that Britain's poorest 4 million households have seen their living standards fall by an average of 6 per cent.--more than £2 a week--under the Government. Britain's poor are now poorer than they were in 1979, and Britain has more of Europe's poor now living within its boundaries. Britain used to have the second lowest rate of population in poverty in Europe, but now we are sixth. In 1979, 480,000 families depended on supplementary benefit, but by 1986 that figure had increased to 1.140 million. Many, many children are involved in that number, and it is they whom we are concerned about tonight.
In drawing together some research from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, from Strathclyde and from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, a study by Becker and MacPherson in 1986 concluded that, whilst the causal link association between poverty and abuse or neglect required further detailed research, there was both quantitative and qualitative evidence to suggest that there was a link.
I take very seriously the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) that many children who are not in this category of a poor family nonetheless suffer neglect and abuse. Nonetheless we are putting at risk many of our children simply by condemning them to life in a poor family. A 1984 Select Committee said that children who came into care were the children of the poor. That reflects what my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles was saying--that those are the children who end up in care ; they are the children identified.
I am not trying to say that poor people abuse and neglect their children. However, we need to understand the social processes by which children end up as victims. Poverty and all it means in our society does have an effect and for this House to neglect that fact is to neglect the needs and aspirations of many people in our society.
Many hon. Members and organisations active in child care have great concern about the situation of young people leaving care, and that matter has been addressed by hon. Members today. Some of the stories that I have heard, as a member of the general committee of the National Children's Home and from other organisations, paint a very depressing picture. I have heard of young people left with as little as 12p a day after paying accommodation costs. Young people are being made homeless or forced into prostitution and other illegal activities in order to survive.
The broad brush approach of the Government is simply not meeting the needs of the most vulnerable, and the recent social security changes are affecting these children particularly.
Ms. Armstrong : I am dealing with what the Bill does not cover and with aspects of the Bill that are linked to other pieces of legislation. Conservative Members may not like the fact that other pieces of their legislation are making children victims. I am saying that this House has the responsibility to ensure that this does not happen.
In the Committee in another place, my noble Friend Baroness David moved an amendment calling for an estranged young person's premium under the social security system. In rejecting the amendment, the Lord Chancellor said that this was the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Social Security. However, in the view of many of us and many groups working with these most vulnerable young people, the Secretary of State for Social Security is not fulfilling his responsibility to them.
The noble Baroness Faithfull moved an amendment after the Secretary of State for Social Security had announced that some concessions would be made to a small group of 16 to 17-year-olds. On Third Reading, the noble Baroness said :
"Although we are grateful to the Minister for the extra help to 16 and 17 year olds under the Social Security system, we feel that it is quite inadequate."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 1989 ; Vol. 505, c.380.]
Such matters will have to be addressed in Committee because we know that these young people, through no fault of their own, have become victims. That is part of our concern in considering this Bill. If deals partially with children who have become victims, who have little control over actions taken against them, and few defences to counter neglect.
We all recognise our responsibility for developing more effective means of identifying neglect and abuse and for intervening to stop it. However, we must also work towards providing support for all children, so that fewer of them become victims. Anyone who works with damaged children knows that that damage lives with them and will affect them throughout their lives. Without appropriate support, it can also affect their own behaviour as parents.
We argue that society has a responsibility to offer all children opportunity, and that opportunity is an effective way of ensuring that as few children as possible become children in danger. Services for families with young children should provide a powerful means of support for all children and not just for the most vulnerable. The Government are afraid that if they ensure the provision of services for all children, somehow that will undermine the family. In the first decade of this century, there was considerable argument about that matter, but significant advances were made in legislation affecting children. Universal health screening at school and school dinners were instituted. Members of Parliament at that time felt that that would in some way undermine the family, and that if the state stepped in and took responsibility for examining the child's health or for feeding him, millions of mothers and fathers would feel no sense of responsibility for their children. Those politicians were proved wrong.
In Committee, we shall seek to ensure that local authorities have a duty to provide day care themselves or in partnership with the voluntary and private sectors. We shall assert a statutory duty to offer nursery education to all children. Children enjoy attending pre-school centres and benefit from doing so. The effects are long-lasting, and their parents benefit from short-term relief from the full-time job of caring for their children. They also benefit
Column 1182from the ability to work if they wish, and from the increased confidence that is a consequence of involvement in nursery and pre-school centres.
Limiting local authority day care to children in need is shortsighted. It stigmatises the children and their families at an early stage. Targeting in that area, as in others, does not work. The Government's response to date is woefully inadequate. The statement from the ministerial group last week gives no hope for the future. The people of this country are looking for a national, co-ordinated child care policy that will ensure that many fewer children become vulnerable. We shall argue for extending child rights to all children and not just to those facing emergencies in the knowledge that such support strengthens parents in caring for their children and demonstrates a responsible Government attitude for the future.
We want to open up opportunities for all children, because we want as few of them as possible to end up victims. The Government must not think that women who go out to work pose a threat to the family unit. That is one way which the family survives, and it can also be a way in which the family grows in a completely new and different direction. Family life has changed. It has moved on and become very different. We must ensure that those changes are recognised and that we work with families as they are.
I hope that we have flagged up some of the issues. I particularly want the Minister to address the question of quality of care. The Government have been promising since last November amendments to the Nurseries and Child- Minders Regulation Act 1948, and they have been mentioned by right hon. and hon. Members tonight. We are concerned that out of school schemes should be recognised and continue to be registered. If they are deregistered, as rumour suggests, older children--many still young and vulnerable--would be left without statutory protection, in terms of both standards of care and the personnel providing that care. Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles and the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes), have outlined the potential problems, and I urge the Government not to go down that road. I ask the Solicitor-General to tell us tonight when the amendments will appear, so that we can ensure that we have plenty of time to consider them.
I have tried to cover some issues that are in the Bill and some that are not. The Minister told us at the beginning of the debate that this would be our last opportunity for many years to put matters right. We welcome much of what is in the Bill, but we urge the Solicitor-General to recognise in his reply the importance of matters which are not in the Bill but which are central to ensuring that we offer opportunity, support and security to the children of the future--and to the children of today, so that the country will have a future.
The Solicitor-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell) : This has been, on the whole, an exceptionally thoughtful and constructive debate. There can hardly be a subject more important to any of us in the House, or in the country as a whole, than the subject of children--particularly those afflicted by family breakdown or by any one of the various circumstances of difficulty, distress or danger for which the Bill seeks to provide a new framework of law and thereby, we hope, the route to a remedy and a better life.
Column 1183The Bill has two main aims. The first is to gather in one place and, we hope, in one coherent whole all the law relating to the care and upbringing of children and the provision of social services to meet their needs. The second is to provide a consistent set of legal remedies which will be available in all courts and all proceedings. Those seemingly simple aims are more revolutionary than most people realise : they have never been achieved before. Child law, perhaps more than any other aspect of family law, has developed piecemeal to provide particular remedies at particular times for what appear at the time to be particular needs.
The Bill represents the first attempt to establish a unified and consistent code of law covering the care and upbringing of children in both the private and the public domains. It is the result of a number of studies, starting with the report "Children in Care" produced by the Select Committee on Social Services during the 1983-84 Session and including the Law Commission's valuable report on guardianship and custody, published last year. Let me pay a special tribute to the Law Commission's invaluable work in this regard. "Children in Care" gave rise to the interdepartmental review and consultation report entitled "Review of Child Care Law" in 1985, and that in turn led to the White Paper "The Law on Child Care and Family Services" early in 1987. There then followed, as we all know, the tragic events in Cleveland which led to the setting up of the statutory inquiry under Lord Justice Butler-Sloss. The delay has meant that it has been possible to incorporate in the Bill the lessons learned from that valuable report.
The debate has rightly welcomed the three basic principles that run through the Bill. The first is the improved statement of the welfare principle governing court decisions in respect of children--namely, that the child's welfare must always be the paramount
consideration--and the fact that all courts in reaching all decisions about the care and upbringing of the child must do what is best for that child. Secondly, there is the major reform of the law governing parental responsibility, guardianship, and the court's power to make orders in respect of the children in family proceedings, which rightly lays so much emphasis on the primary function of parenthood and the right and obligation of parents to care for their children and to bring them up properly. Thirdly, there is the re-statement of the powers and duties of local authorities to provide services to children and their families in a way which emphasises partnership with parents and pays regard to the needs of children.
This finds expression in the concept which runs like a golden thread through the Bill, that while intervention where necessary is provided for, the courts and public authorities should seek to intervene in the normal arrangements of family life only where it is necessary in the interests of the child to do so and that, when they do, they should ensure that it is done in an appropriate and sensitive way.
Against that background, there was such a large number of constructive and thoughtful contributions that I shall be unable to deal with them all. However, the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) began to draw the threads together when he referred to safe houses for runaway children, family courts and grandparents--a point that was so fully and eloquently developed by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and that was picked up by many of my hon. Friends. The hon. Member
Column 1184for Monklands, West also referred to a new clause on child protection and to the important question of the implementation of the Bill.
The objective is not to allow the problem to drag on year after year, as has happened under all Governments during the last few decades. We shall seek to implement the Bill within about 18 months. However, there are complex details to be worked out if this all-important subject is to be fully dealt with in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) asked about runaway children. I repeat what my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State said earlier : that we shall seek to meet the concerns of the Church of England Children's Society and to achieve the right balance. That will include my hon. Friend's concerns. We shall also seek to exempt the appropriate organisations, thereby taking into account the anxieties of the Children's Society. My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston referred to the meaning of "children in need" and drew a distinction between the duty to provide for children in need and the power to provide for other children in a local authority's area. She need have no worries about that. There will be a continuation of the existing power.
I intend to deal in detail with the point about grandparents that was taken up by the hon. Member for Ogmore and also by my hon. Friends the Members for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) and for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt), the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Sir D. Walters) who explained that he could not stay until the end of the debate. The Bill will provide grandparents with significant new rights. If the child has lived with them for three years they will have an automatic right to be party to any proceedings. What is more important, if those with parental responsibility agree, grandparents can automatically be brought into the proceedings. Furthermore, with the leave of the court, they may also be brought into the proceedings. The Bill provides that their rights may be extended even further, if that is thought to be necessary.
We have approached constructively the rights of grandparents. We want local authorities to consider the placement of children with the wider family, including grandparents, when parents cannot adequately look after their children, subject to such a placement being in the best interests of the child. In addition, the Bill provides that grandparents can apply for a contact order. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice) for referring to the direct language of the Bill. It is saddening and disgraceful if grandparents have to resort to the subterfuges described by the hon. Member for Ogmore. They will be able to apply to the court for a contact order, if that would help the child in question. All those provisions represent a marked step forward in assisting grandparents in the way that hon. Members on both sides of the House would wish.
Column 1185encouraging local authorities to view that approach constructively as the proper way to treat a child in those circumstances. The question of family courts has been raised by many hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Southport (Mr. Fearn) and for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth and passionately by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin). I studied the subject carefully some years ago. While there is a huge weight of opinion behind the concept of the family court, there are almost as many opinions as to the meaning of that concept. The Bill contains some constructive steps towards a sensible family court and I shall quickly enumerate some of them.
First, as my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has constantly and rightly emphasised, if we are to have a sensible family court, first we must get substantive family law right and that is the primary objective of the Bill. As for the concept of a unified family court, we are not going the whole way, but the Bill consolidates all proceedings relating to the child and his family. All the remedies under the Bill are to be available in all family proceedings. That is a great step forward for anyone who has practised in this field. The Bill provides for each case to find its way to the right court--that has been a problem--on the application of a party, or if the court decides that the case needs to go to a higher court or sometimes to a lower court it can make that transfer. All parties, or those who believe that they should be parties, have a right to apply to be joined in those proceedings. As nobody wants a multiplicity of proceedings, that right is likely to fall on receptive ears.
The Bill is a beginning of a rolling programme of reform which will link the reform of the substantive law with procedural and jurisdictional reform. It is a major move in the direction which those advocating a family court have been urging which we can examine in further detail in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston and the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) raised questions about protecting children in local authority care. The Secretary of State will be able to make regulations governing the placing of children with local authority foster parents. My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston was particularly concerned about that. Everyone is anxious that that immensely valuable service, provided with such dedication by so many people, should not be tainted by placing children with those who are unsuitable.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East raised a number of very thoughtful points. He asked a rather technical question about the difference between the welfare duty of the courts in clause 1 and local authorities' duties in clause 18. But it is clear that the duty of the court is to the particular child before the court. Therefore, of course, one considers the best interests of that child. But the duty of local authorities in clause 18 is wider and more general and applies to all children in that category so the duty is sensibly and inevitably framed rather differently.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby), who was putting not only his own concerns as a constituency Member of Parliament, but those of the Police Federation, which he now represents--and I
Column 1186congratulate him--spoke of some of the anxieties of the police about the enforcement of powers and the sanctions against a parent who might refuse to produce a child or to allow access. A person who refused to do either of those would be ordered to come before the court, if it were one of the higher courts, and if he refused to obey he would be subject to all the penalties available for contempt. In the magistrates court, failure to comply would lead to a fine or imprisonment under section 62 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980. A number of hon. Members raised questions about wardship, including the hon. Member for Leicester, East. Wardship is no longer to be available as an alternative to care proceedings and that must be sensible. In my recollection, it was in some ways disruptive, but it may be of comfort to the hon. Gentleman, who is shaking his head, if I remind him that the more complex care cases will be transferred to the county court or the High Court and there is always an inherent jurisdiction in the High Court, which will remain available for serious cases in which there seems to be no statutory or satisfactory remedy. That provides a safety net and it is better that wardship should be used thus than in the rather wide way in which it tended to be used in the past. Again, we can discuss that point further in Committee.
Many hon. Members expressed interest in the child assessment order. It is a most complex and important matter and was dealt with earlier by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State. The connections of my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are long-standing. To him and to the hon. Member for Greenwich, (Mrs. Barnes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), I must say that we look forward to discussing those matters more fully in Committee.
The hon. Member for Eccles took up the point made by a number of hon. Members about the suggested abolition of parental contribution. That sounds friendly and attractive when initially suggested and one wonders why parents should contribute, but the suggestion is for the abolition of a long-standing practice. The Bill follows the recommendation in the review of child care law consultation document that the current two schemes should be brought into line. It goes on to emphasise the aspect of reasonableness when it comes to considering which families are capable of paying and properly should pay and which should not.
The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) talked about excluding the alleged abuser, which is an important matter. In practice, it will be open to a person who obtains an emergency protection order to leave the child at home if the alleged abuser agrees to leave. We are considering whether a special exclusion order in addition to the emergency protection order may, in some instances, be helpful.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East and the hon. Member for Greenwich were concerned with the possibility of introducing amendments in Committee to modernise the provisions of the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948 relating to day
Column 1187care for the under-fives. We have it in mind to make the registration duty placed on the social services departments of local authorities simpler to operate and easier to enforce, in line with the proposals of the 1987 White Paper. However, we are considering, in response to suggestions made in the other place, whether the registration duty should apply to day care facilities for children up to the age of eight. Those provisions will be disapplied in relation to facilities for older children, but we intend to provide for the regulation of residential holiday activities, again in line with the White Paper. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East that the voluntary sector has an important part to play in all this work in co- operation with the statutory sector.
In conclusion, in whatever way the many matters on which hon. Members of all parties have commented are ultimately formulated, the Bill as a whole represents the most comprehensive and far-reaching reform of child law. It links for the first time the strands of private law on the upbringing of children and the public law on local authority services, compulsory intervention and private arrangements for caring for children to produce a single code of consistent principles of practice which will pave the way for further reform of family law and procedure. I commend the Bill to the House. Question put and agreed to.
Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).
That, at this day's sitting, the Ways and Means Resolution may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.-- [Mr. Maclean.]
Queen's Recommendation having been signified--
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Children Bill [Lords] , it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of--
(a) any sums required for the payment by the Secretary of State of grants under the Act ;
(b) any other expenses of the Secretary of State under the Act ; (
(c) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums so payable under any other enactment.-- [Mr. Maclean.]
That in the Children Bill [Lords] it is expedient to include provision--
(a) with respect to the financial provisions applicable on the cessation of controlled or assisted community homes or on the disposal of premises used for the purposes of such homes ; (
(b) authorising the payment into the Consolidated Fund of any sums received by the Secretary of State under the Bill.-- [Mr. Maclean.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Maclean.]
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) : I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for choosing this subject as the Adjournment debate for this evening. In speaking on the Adjournment of the House, I wish to draw attention to the plight of one of my constituents, Mrs. Moran, in claiming the attendance allowance. In so doing, I wish to refer to three heroes. The first is obviously Mrs. Moran herself who, over the past six years, has attempted to gain the full rate of attendance allowance. The second is Mr. Moran, who has given such an extraordinary degree of love and attention to his wife. The third is Nick Warren. I am unique in having a legal unit in my constituency which helps me with my constituents' legal grievances. That in itself would be worth bringing to the attention of the House, but the fact that that unit is staffed by the most talented welfare rights lawyer makes it doubly so and, I am sure, a pleasurable pain in the flesh of the Government.
I begin by recalling some facts about Mrs. Moran. First, however, I must say how pleased I am to see my neighbour, the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter), in the Chamber. My constituent, Mrs. Moran, has suffered from epilepsy since she was 17. She now also suffers from Parkinson's disease and part of her life is spent in hospital. She is also in danger from wounds and bears on her face severe burns. However, she is lucky in having the support of her family and especially of Mr. Moran. It is not going too far to say that Mr. Moran's care and attention has ensured that Mrs. Moran is alive today. Despite all those facts, however, Mrs. Moran has been refused the higher rate of attendance allowance, although there is no lack of medical evidence to support her claim.
Tonight I share one of the Minister's advantages, in that I have a prepared brief from Nick Warren to which I shall pay careful attention in presenting the details of the case to the Minister and to the House. In 1983 the attendance allowance board sent a Dr. Husain to interview Mrs. Moran. He reported back that she could not safely be left at night because she might have a fit and choke. About a year later the board sent another doctor, Dr. Mann, who agreed with the first doctor sent by the attendance allowance board.
Dr. Raymond, the family's general practitioner, has reported to the attendance allowance board in the following terms :
"This lady has the most severe and least well controlled epilepsy of any patient on my list, and I am quite sure that she requires the full time care and supervision provided by her husband."
Dr. Chadwick, a consultant neurologist at Walton hospital in Liverpool, has also examined Mrs. Moran and has expressed the following opinion :
"It would seem irresponsible to underestimate the anxiety generated by her problem for a caring family. Their desire to be able to provide round the clock supervision is entirely understandable and, in my view in this particular instance, entirely reasonable." The doctor who took the decision for the attendance allowance board also accepted that a risk of substantial danger attended any and every fit which was accompanied
Column 1189by a loss of consciousness and that during her fits, of which she had no warning, Mrs. Moran needed supervision to avoid danger. What does the law say on this point? Why did that doctor not award the higher rate of attendance allowance? Following general attendance allowance board guidance, he refused the higher rate because he did not accept that a person who was merely on standby, ready to take action when a fit came on, could be described as giving supervision. Mrs. Moran challenged that interpretation of the law and was successful in the Court of Appeal in March 1987. The court sent the case back to the attendance allowance board for a fresh decision according to law. Regrettably, the Government chose to reverse the court's decision so far as it concerned night-time supervision by section 1 of the Social Security Act 1988. Fortunately, however, the old law still applies to Mrs. Moran's claim and to all other claims and reviews prior to the Royal Assent. The Minister who is here now and who answered that debate made it very clear in the House and in Committee that that was so, and I am grateful to him for that. One might have hoped that that would have been the end of the story when the case was sent back from the Court of Appeal and that the board would have seen the error of its ways and awarded Mrs. Moran the full attendance allowance, but it did not do so. Looking at the case again, it altered its doctor's previous finding that there was a risk attached to an epileptic fit and decided that the risk of any harm coming to a person from an epileptic fit at night was so remote as not to be worthy of attention. That was, to put it mildly, an odd conclusion. Most hon. Members will have had the experience, unhappily, of constituents with a relative who died in a fit. The decision ran contrary to medical evidence which I mentioned earlier, and it ran contrary to the view that the board had expressed previously in relation to all claims involving people with epilepsy. It also contradicted the evidence of Mr. Richard Pugh, the director of social work for the British Epilepsy Association, who told the board in a statement that a rough search through his files for the past two years had produced 12 examples of people found dead in bed as a result of epileptic fits.
Mrs. Moran has appealed against the decision of the attendance allowance board. There is no appeal from the board's decision on questions of fact--a point to which I shall come in a moment. Only if there is an error of law can the social security commissioners intervene. Fortunately for Mrs. Moran --and, I believe, fortunately for justice--the decision was littered with errors of law. A tribunal of commissioners last month set aside the board's decision due to various breaches of the rules of natural justice and errors of law in the board's approach to the question of what risks should be disregarded--a point that lawyers describe as remoteness.
There are now some important questions for the Minister which relate not just to Mrs. Moran's case, important though that is, but to the general performance of the attendance allowance board. First, I want to put to the Minister the claim of Mrs. Moran herself. This has now been referred back to the same attendance allowance board which wrongly refused her twice. This time it intends to hold an oral hearing of the
Column 1190case, and the Secretary of State will be represented at that hearing. The finest words that the Minister could say today are that the Secretary of State's representative at that hearing will invite the board to award Mrs. Moran the 24-hour attendance allowance for life--I accept that the Government's representative cannot himself award the allowance, but he can support Mrs. Moran's claim. Will the Government do that?
Secondly, this case highlights the difficulties that claimants face when there is no appeal on questions of fact against the attendance allowance board's decision. At the hearing before the social security commissioners it was said that the board considered that there was no risk of death from an epileptic fit at night. The only evidence produced to support that extraordinary assertion was a study in 1979 of eight people with epilepsy in one district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. No evidence from this country was presented at that hearing, and only two of the eight were recorded as having died in bed. It is shocking that a general policy should be overturned on such slender evidence. The board might not have been in such a hurry to reach that conclusion had it known that there was an independent right of appeal on questions of fact and that its findings would have to be justified by the evidence.
The Minister should introduce a right of appeal on attendance allowance decisions to the social security appeal tribunal, which consists of a lawyer and two ordinary members of the public who are well used to weighing medical evidence. Perhaps equally important, they are used to having oral hearings at which a patient or carer can explain the case in ordinary language. The attendance allowance system of adjudication is practically unique within the DSS in hardly ever offering the citizen a chance to explain his or her case in person. The appeal would do precisely that.
The third question is perhaps more immediate : what about the other cases involving people with epilepsy which have presumably been decided by the board or its delegates in the same erroneous way? I am pleased to say that several cases were held back by the Government pending the first Moran decision. Will the Minister check the files and invite and support late applications for appeal by claimants who have or may have been wrongly refused the allowance?
Fourthly, the problem is wider still because the decision of the tribunal of commissioners has cast doubt on the guidance that the attendance allowance board has given to doctors who take decisions concerning the legal question of remoteness. In paragraph 5.12.4 of the guidance, the board has told doctors that they can disregard hazards which are unlikely to occur. That is unlawful, because it takes no account of small risks with disastrous consequences. An event might be unlikely in the sense that it has, say, only a 5 per cent. chance of happening, but if that 5 per cent. chance involves someone else's or one's own death it would be sensible and reasonable to take precautions against it. It appears, therefore, that many other cases have been wrongly decided on the issue of remoteness since the board issued its guidance last June. It follows that the benefit has not been hitting its target--a particular aim of the Government's social policy. What does the Minister intend to do in such cases?
I hope that the Minister will be able to give assurances that Mrs. Moran will win her private fight for justice. I hope that he will also give an assurance that the files will
Column 1191be searched to ensure that justice is done in other cases. I hope that the Minister will give the further assurance that there will be change in future.
I end my speech with one last question. It is not my question but that of Mr. Moran who is closely following the debate. I asked him what one message he wished me to give the Minister before the Minister replied to the debate on the long battle that Mr. Moran's wife had been fighting for the attendance allowance. Mr. Moran's question can be put quite simply. He recalled, as I have recalled, all the events--including going to the Court of Appeal where he and Mrs. Moran went in their fight for justice--and his question was, "Where else do we have to go for justice?" I hope that the Minister will answer that question and start giving justice to Mrs. Moran. 10.13 pm
Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South) rose --
Mr. Porter : I share two things with the hon. Member of Birkenhead (Mr. Field). First, we both live in Birkenhead. He has the privilege of being my Member of Parliament. He has made a powerful case in respect of Mrs. Moran. I do not wish to repeat what he has already advanced. His case does not seem to create a precedent which would involve enormous public expenditure. It would involve justice, which the Government should accept. It would not involve the Government in any great difficulty.
Secondly, I have the privilege of sharing with my Member of Parliament a trusteeship arranged by Mr. Nicholas Warren who deals, in Birkenhead and in appropriate places, with all sorts of difficulties that people have with the Department of Social Security. The trusteeship has been an enormous success. I pay tribute to my Member of Parliament and to Mr. Warren, a solicitor who does not need a large amount of money to do anything.
It is important that justice is seen to be done and that the Government show compassion. That can be done without great expense to the public purse. Surely, on the arguments advanced by my Member of Parliament, the difficulty can, should and, I trust, will be overcome.