|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 1486the 24 employers' organisations who sent their responses to the Unit, those in favour of retaining the minimum wage system outnumbered those in favour of scrapping it by two-to-one. Those opposing Government plans included the CBI, the Institute of Personnel Management and the British Institute of Management Employers are concerned that people should not be subject to exploitation and that the social security system should not be used to subsidise low wages."
There is also a belief that wages councils improve industrial relations and a scepticism about the Government's claim that the abolition of the wages councils will lead to the creation of more jobs. It is worth quoting one or two of the various employers' organisations. The British Independent Grocers Federation disagreed fundamentally with the Government's assertion that wages councils were a barrier to employment growth, saying that
"there is no evidence in the Consultation-Document, or elsewhere for that matter, to support that contention."
The National Federation of Fish Friers made a statement worthy of any trade union :
"It is our view that if a business has to rely on cheap labour to be successful and profitable there is something wrong with the management."
I have already quoted the British Institute of Management, which also said that
"to suggest that the social security system should be the support structure for low-earners, at a time when the so-called poverty trap remains unresolved is unhelpful to managers seeking to encourage people into legitimate employment at realistic wages".
In a debate the other evening on social security regulations, the Minister refused to give an undertaking that those who are now forced under the new regulations to take work for which they believe that they are not suitable or trained, would not be forced to go to an employer who paid illegal wages. That is disgraceful.
The Government will get away with whatever they can. Their real purpose in abolishing the wages councils is to allow even lower wages than at present. I carried out a little research among employers. I had asked the Minister a question about employers, but it was like extracting teeth ; it proved very difficult to get straight answers from the Department.
Among the responses from 68 employers' organisations, almost half were opposed to abolition of the wages councils. Some of those who supported the abolition of the wages councils felt that the weakening of the wages councils in 1986, which they opposed, was the main reason for them to support abolition now. Clearly some employers favour abolition because that would allow them to exploit their workers even further.
I had some wonderful quotes from employers. To its shame, the National Federation of Self Employed and Small Businesses said : "The removal of Wages Councils would mean that the most deserving groups of employees would be able to start pricing themselves into jobs and that new and more flexible contractual arrangements could be introduced into the service industries."
The British Retailers Association referred to "inflationary minimum rates". As we are talking about £2 an hour, that is a clear sign that in an area with high unemployment some employers intend to get away with poverty wages and highly exploitive conditions of employment. Wages council rates leave a great deal to be desired. However, in the absence of any legislation giving people the right to a minimum income, they must be maintained to prevent wholesale exploitation. The vast majority of
Column 1487those responding to the Government's consultative document took that view. I hope that the Minister will convey to the Government the fact that there is real opposition to the plans to abolish the wages councils. I ask the Government to drop their proposals and instead to strengthen the wages councils so as to provide real protection for the lowest paid, who deserve nothing less.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls) : The hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) graced our deliberations today with a speech showing her usual and characteristic charm and generosity of spirit. In the very few moments that she has been kind enough to leave to me I shall do my best to answer at least some of the points that she has raised. I will deal with the wages councils, but, due to lack of time, I shall not be able to deal, as I had intended, with the general argument about low pay.
A point that is consistently ignored in these debates is that the economic and social situation today is vastly different from that in 1909 when the wages councils system was introduced. Average pay is far higher and hours worked per week some 10 to 15 fewer. The country also benefits from a comprehensive system of social security protection for those both in and out of work.
It is significant also that two thirds of wages councils workers are paid above the minimum and that the majority of wages councils workers work part -time, many of them contributing a second income to the family.
Councils now cover about 10 per cent. of the work force. The system is extensive only in retailing, hotel and catering and clothing manufacture and some other very small industries. It is not comprehensive in coverage. It is riddled throughout with anomalies--laundries are covered, but not laundrettes ; and the sale of cooked meats is covered, but raw meat is not.
As the House will recall, the wages council system was reformed and simplified by the Wages Act 1986. The Government were acting in accordance with the wishes of the majority of employer bodies. In addition to reducing councils' powers and removing under-21s from regulation, the legislation attempted to clarify the councils' role as setting minimum rates, not going rates, by requiring them to consider the employment effects of their decisions in areas where workers are generally paid below the national average for their trade or occupation.
In the first year of operation, the average increase imposed by the councils on the previous lowest rate was 8.6 per cent. In the second year, the outcome was an average increase of 6.3 per cent. and settlements in the third year have averaged 6.5 per cent. Earlier this month, at the start of the fourth year, the council for licensed hotels and restaurants has proposed increasing its minimum rate by almost 10 per cent.
Settlements of that order of magnitude hardly suggest that the councils have operated with regard to their clarified remit. Moreover, a substantial proportion of workers covered by councils--probably as many as a third-- continue to be paid on the minimum rate. Such clustering of pay levels around a particular figure is evidence that council minimums continue to be above the levels required to fill jobs.
Column 1488The hon. Lady asked for evidence to be produced that the effect of wages councils was adverse employment implications. She said that she was unaware of evidence to that effect. I am bound to say that the evidence that the hon. Lady sought was in my written reply to a parliamentary question from her earlier this week. That answer stated :
"A large body of evidence exists on the implications for pay and jobs of the abolition of wages councils. This includes studies undertaken or commissioned by the Department".
I went on to say that the studies had been listed in various parliamentary answers, and I even set them out to help the hon. Lady in her deliberations. I went on to say :
"Virtually all of the research work on this subject conducted in the 1980s and known to the Department supports the view that removing statutory minimum wage provisions can be expected to have beneficial effects on employment."--[ Official Report, 21 July 1989 ; Vol. 157, c. 390. ]
That is the evidence that the hon. Lady said did not exist. Much of what the hon. Lady said was consistent, but, as often happens with the hon. Lady's contributions in the House and in Committee, it was consistently wrong. I will try to deal with two of the grosser fallacies. She tried to make some spurious capital out of referring to the prosecutions that had been mounted by the wages inspectorate over the years, and she referred to questionnaires. On prosecutions, the hon. Lady's attitude is that all things under Conservative Governments are wicked and all things under Labour Governments are good. That is a view of history that probably would not disgrace Noddy in Toyland. If the hon. Lady wants to conduct the debate in that way, and experience shows that she does, there is a slightly better ratio of prosecutions to underpaying employers under this Government than under the Labour Government. The hon. Lady referred to questionnaires-- again, more evidence of her Ladybird economics--as a dreadful thing, apparently drawn up by the wicked Tory Government. I have to tell the hon. Lady--she can giggle her way through this if she will--that those questionnaires were introduced by a Labour Government.
She should look at the response to the questionnaires. Ninety-five per cent. of them were completed accurately, and if they were not, there was a follow-up and a full inspection.
Mr. Nicholls : The hon. Lady chirrups from a sedentary position, "What about inspector numbers?" From her extensive research into the matter, she must surely be aware that the operation of the wages councils was substantially clarified in 1986. It was made a great deal easier, and the regulations were made a great deal simpler. I do not expect the hon. Lady to approve that--that would be asking too much. It meant that the work of the wages inspectors could actually be concentrated on carrying out a much narrower remit. To suggest that there was any loss of enforcement, where it was still necessary under the law, was quite wrong. The hon. Lady cannot grasp, no matter how many times Ministers try to get it across to her, that she is concerned only about low pay. In the real world, the issue for many of our constituents is not low pay but no
Column 1489job. The hon. Lady cannot understand or countenance that for many people the first step back into the labour market is a low-paid job which leads on to something better. A low-paid job for a person who has been out of work means a better passport in the labour market. That is the reality, but the hon. Lady is a complete stranger to reality.
It being half past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West) : In relating the tragic events surrounding the last four months of the life of the Rev. Terry Barr, who was vicar of Avonmouth, I must stress that I am not seeking to use parliamentary time to attempt to prove the innocence of a close friend. Nor am I seeking to show that the actions locally of the police, social services or local hospitals are to be questioned. My purpose in raising the debate is that I believe that many of the events that led, almost inevitably, to his death carry implications for national policy. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that national policy to prevent the recurrence of such events.
Terry Barr had been the vicar of two parishes successively in my constituency for as long as I have been its Member of Parliament. In addition to his family of five children, his concern and care for children had been a feature of his life. For up to 20 years he had successfully fostered children, who were placed largely by the county of Avon for short or long periods. At no time during those 20 years had there been anything but praise from the county council for the love and care that he gave to his extended family. I visited the family on numerous occasions and always left with an impression of happy chaos.
Just before Easter this year, a third foster child, aged 15, joined the family, which included two foster children aged nine and seven. Like so many foster children, the boy had had a chequered past. He had been suspected of involvement in the making of pornographic videos and of procuring young children for that purpose. The boy was placed by the county with the Barr family, in what may have been regarded as a last attempt to provide him with some form of stable family background.
Within a week, on the Thursday before Easter, he had run away and had made what appeared to all the authorities concerned to be perfectly believable accusations of sexual abuse by Terry Barr of the children in his care. What followed had all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy.
The remaining children were questioned extensively by the police and, in view of the urgency inevitably involved, under what in retrospect must be seen as inadequate conditions. Terry was charged and bailed on condition that he never slept at home. At least in the early stages of the case he was not permitted to remain in a room with his children without another adult being present. His children were made wards of court and the two foster children were removed. The case dragged on and was eventually sent to the Crown court, during which time Terry was being forced to live in a seamen's hostel opposite the vicarage where his family lived, without the moral support on which he was increasingly coming to rely from them. Early in July, he penned three copies of a note to his bishop, to his solicitor and to myself. He said :
"If I could have come home to the love and care of my family, I might have been able to continue. I cannot spend another night on my own."
After writing that note, he attempted suicide. He spent two or three nights in the district general hospital, was transferred to the specialist supervised unit for potential
Column 1491suicides run by the district health authority and succeeded in committing suicide within a couple of days of his arrival. The case was still months away from any resolution of his guilt or innocence. Inevitably, the fury of local reaction in the community he served has turned on the actions of the local organisations which played a direct part in the events I have described. The police were first on the scene and asked to interview the two younger foster children and one of the Barr's sons. In the confusion of being informed that her husband was suspected of being a child molester and never having been in a police station before, Mrs. Barr declined to sit in on the interview. As a result, the police, quite properly under existing practice, asked a member of the social services department to do so. In the absence of any friend of the family at the first interview it is perhaps inevitable that the boy who was interviewed and his two brothers, who were interviewed later in the presence of Mrs. Barr, all formed the impression that the interview had consisted of their being bullied and accused of lying. I repeat that because no outside friend of the family was present and there is no evidence of any impropriety on the part of the police or the social worker. The police have made it clear in a letter to me that
"one of their primary objectives is to safeguard and protect the interests of any children who may be involved".
I have no doubt that they did that. The question to which I shall return is the fact that the police apparently have no duty to give equal consideration to the interests of the family.
As social services departments are inevitably at the forefront of cases involving suspected child sexual abuse, the Government have rightly issued- -and I believe re-issued--guidelines to local authorities. The latest guidelines that were issued only last week have laid down detailed rules on the manner in which all agencies working within the area of child protection should undertake an investigation when an allegation of child sexual abuse has been made. I have no doubt that the regulations were followed in scrupulous detail by officers of the social services department. However, the fact that they were so followed meant, in the words of the director of social services, that
"they were left with no alternative but to ensure that the Reverend Barr was separated from children."
The duty of social services is seen as relating solely to the children and not to either parent. It could be argued that because no allegation of sexual impropriety towards his own children had been made, the existing regulations forced social services even to be selective as to the children they had to protect. The result was that Terry Barr spent the last few weeks of his life believing that if he had put a foot wrong with the social services department, not only the children he had been fostering but his own children could be taken from him. After all, seen from his point of view, there had already been an attempt by the police and social services in the interviews to which I have referred to persuade his children to provide evidence against him.
In general, handling of the case by the local media has been responsible and there have been few--I regret that there have been any--of the predictable lurid headlines. Nevertheless, some concern remains that no protection is given to the defendant on being named in such cases. I have already raised this matter with the appropriate Minister at the Department of Health who has correctly pointed out that it is in the public interest to know whether
Column 1492a person has been accused of a serious crime. My concern in this case is that, whereas the anonymity of the defendant would have been available to the court under section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 in order to protect any child involved in the proceedings--that was not necessary here since the children involved had already been removed from the Barr home--no such anonymity is available to protect the Barr children. Fortunately, in both the schools the children attend they were offered the strongest possible support. However, that might not have been the case.
My final area of concern relates to the period that Terry spent in hospital after his first suicide attempt. It is accepted that no level of care, however constant or stringent, can prevent suicide on the part of any human being who is determined enough.
What I think should concern the House is that there appears to be no intervening legal step between the full rigours of sectioning under the Mental Health Act 1988--which would have made Terry Barr a compulsory in- patient, and which would almost certainly not have been granted by the courts in this case--and the status of voluntary patient, in which he was free to come and go and to evade supervision as much as he wished. It was through a gap in the law that he was able to commit suicide, and I ask my hon. Friend and his colleagues to consider whether that gap is too wide.
I believe that there are two strands to the story. The first concerns whether, in our efforts as a society to protect the innocent victim of child abuse, we have gone so far down the road of considering only the interests of the abused child that we have entirely forgotten the potential interests of others involved in the case--not just the victim's family but the family of the defendant, and even the defendant himself. There was no official help, advice or care for Terry ; help came only from his family, his bishop and his friends.
The second strand is this. It is a principle of our form of justice that any defendant is treated as innocent until proven guilty. While that principle applies in the case of an accusation of child sexual abuse, the way in which it is applied under current law and practice makes it indistinguishable from an assumption of guilt. If Terry Barr was innocent of the charges laid against him, the way in which we as a society handle such charges makes our legal system responsible for the destruction of his family, and for leading him to a point at which death seemed the best course.
If we as a society have given such untrammelled power to the child accuser, how do we now protect ourselves against the misuse of that power? Is not our purpose in Parliament to prevent rules from operating in such a way as to pick up a potentially innocent man and destroy him?
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton) : We must all be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) for bringing to our attention these sad issues concerning the existing law and practice on child abuse. I need not rehearse the facts of this tragic case, as my hon. Friend has already given them eloquently and movingly ; let me simply say how sorry I was to hear of the sad events surrounding Mr. Barr's death, which was obviously the unhappiest possible outcome for all concerned.
Column 1493I should like to make some general observations, particularly from the point of view of the Home Office. An allegation of child abuse is a grave matter ; its consequences for the accused, even if he is acquitted, can be appalling. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree, however, that in the interests of the children the authorities cannot baulk at investigating and bringing proceedings when evidence warrants it.
In this case the police investigated carefully, involving the social services department as they did so. They decided that charges should be brought, and the Crown prosecution service agreed that the evidence and the public interest justified prosecution. The magistrates court imposed and sustained bail conditions, removing Mr. Barr from the family home. Those decisions were made and scrutinised carefully by responsible bodies.
Government's role is clearly to ensure that the general arrangements for investigating child abuse are as adequate and as fair as we can possibly make them. The investigation of allegations of child abuse is inevitably a difficult and sensitive process : important decisions must be reached which will have a profound effect on all concerned, whether it is decided to prosecute the suspect, to remove the child from its home or to give the family special help and support. The whole process of investigation and decision-making can be traumatic for the child and for its family, as the events in Cleveland clearly show, and as many of us know from constituency experience.
In some areas the police, social and medical services and voluntary agencies such as the NSPCC, have worked hard together for some years to try to ensure that they respond quickly and sensitively to allegations of child abuse. We have built on their experience in drawing up a guidance circular for chief officers of police about the investigation of child sexual abuse and we issued that in July last year. The circular, which also takes account of the recommendations of the Cleveland inquiry report, was prepared in consultation with the Department of Health and members of the social services, medical and legal professions and the forensic science service.
The essence of the guidance--my hon. Friend touched on this in his speech-- is that police forces and social services should work together in investigating cases of suggested child sexual abuse and should use specially trained joint investigating teams. The aim of this approach is to combine investigation of the facts with therapy. We think that professionals can benefit from each other's expertise. It is most important that the child is given the opportunity to tell his or her story to sympathetic listeners who have gained the child's trust. In turn, the child is spared the ordeal of having to repeat that story again and again in front of others because we recommend that interviews should be recorded on video tape. There is no undue pressure to provide evidence that can be used in court. The interests of the child rather than the aims of a particular professional organisation come first.
My hon. Friend spoke about respecting the rights of parents. None the less it is right that we should always put the child's interests first. Working together in joint investigations is a new and difficult skill which requires special training. Many hon. Members will agree with that. We have agreed with the police and representatives of
Column 1494social services guidance on the organisation and content of general training, and hope to issue that guidance next month.
Obviously, close liaison with the local medical services is also essential. Our circular urges chief officers of police to work with them. It is important that there should be sufficient doctors who are skilled both in examining children for sexual abuse and in the presentation of forensic evidence. To that end we have asked the forensic science service to help the police organise joint training for police surgeons and other doctors and interested professionals. I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that the response to our circular has been positive and we believe there is now a genuine recognition of the need to work together.
What about cases which come to court, and the question of anonymity of defendants? The fundamental principle of our criminal justice system is that justice is done openly and in public. As my hon. Friend knows, only in exceptional circumstances will a trial take place in private or the court order that an accused or witness should not be identified in the press. Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. That is a truism that remains true. Publicity helps to safeguard the integrity of the justice that is dispensed, and it is in the public interest to know whether a person has been accused of a serious crime, just as it is in the public interest to know whether there is subsequently an acquittal. I certainly understand the distress that can follow from being accused of a crime, even if the accused person is subsequently acquitted. This is particularly so for sexual offences. However, I do not think that it would be right in principle to provide anonymity for all persons accused of crime, nor do I think that it would be acceptable to Parliament or to the public. It is true that defendants in rape cases for a period enjoyed anonymity. The argument that because the woman should have anonymity--in order not to deter her from reporting a rape--so should the man, was always misconceived, and at our instigation Parliament removed the anonymity of defendants by last year's Criminal Justice Act. A rape defendant can be named, like any other defendant.
My hon. Friend suggested, and I fully understand his feelings in suggesting this, particularly in relation to this case, that the duty of social services is seen as relating solely to the children and not to either parent. Guidance issued to directors of social services in response to the Cleveland inquiry report stressed that although social services departments must give first and highest priority to protecting the child, they also have responsibilities in relation to the child's parents and other family members. They also have a particular responsibility to consider whether it is in the child's best interests to keep the family together. I understand that in this case the social services department tried to achieve that but that the Reverend Barr, on his solicitor's advice, declined to co-operate with the social services department, and when he was charged by the police the social services department decided that it must act to protect the child, and initiated wardship proceedings.
As to my hon. Friend's point about the need to protect the Barr children, I fully understand that there is no general provision to protect the anonymity of the defendant's children if they are not involved in the proceedings, which is at the heart of the point that he was making. The general rule is that defendants can be named,
Column 1495and this may inevitably lead to the identification of their children. Children of a person accused of rape, murder or armed robbery may suffer when the accused is publicly identified. However, there would not appear to be any justification for singling out for special attention the children of those accused of the sexual abuse of other children.
My hon. Friend said that the press coverage in this case had been moderate or reasonably well balanced and I am delighted to hear that. It is important that we should strike a balance between the freedom of the press to report matters of legitimate public interest and the need to protect justice from interference. I think that the law already strikes this balance through the Contempt of Court Act 1981. It provides that any publication that creates a substantial risk of seriously impeding or prejudicing the course of justice in active proceedings is in contempt of court, regardless of whether there was an intent to interfere with the course of justice. The 1981 Act serves to deter the media from irresponsible reporting of cases and, if such reporting occurs, provides suitable penalties.
Column 1496We would all agree that, far from being easy, these are difficult matters. We have to consider the interests of those accused but not convicted of crime, but we must also consider the need to protect children against those who abuse them. We must have regard to the traditional openness of British justice, which we all greatly and rightly value. I am sure that my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Health will take note of the points affecting them that my hon. Friend has raised, and in particular his point about the possible gap in the Mental Health Acts between the rigours of the compulsory inpatient and the voluntary outpatient.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing these matters to the attention of the House and I am only sorry that it was against the background of such a tragic case.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Three o'clock, till Tuesday 17 October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House [27 July].
|Written Answers Section