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Column 401Soley, Clive
Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Strang, Dr. Gavin
Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strgfd)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Wareing, Robert N
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Young, David (Bolton SE)
Tellers for the Noes: Mr. Stephen Byers, and Mr. Joe Benton.
Column 401Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Local Government Finance Report (Wales) 1995-96 (House of Commons Paper No. 140), which was laid before this House on 2nd February, be approved.
It being after Seven o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- put the Questions necessary to dispose of the other motions relating to local government finance in Wales, pursuant to Order [3 February]. Resolved,
That the Limitation of Council Tax and Precepts (Relevant Notional Amounts) Report (Wales) 1995-96 (House of Commons Paper No. 141), which was laid before this House on 2nd February, be approved. That the Special Grant Report (Wales) 1995 (House of Commons Paper No. 142), which was laid before this House on 2nd February, be approved.--[ Mr. Conway. ]
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have given the Minister prior notice of what I am about to say. Tonight on Channel 4, Eastern Electricity is being exposed as having perpetrated a disgraceful scam on 3 million customers by billing them three weeks in advance and virtually embezzling the interest. What I should like to see--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. What I should like to know is what is the point of order for the Chair? There has been none so far, although I shall listen a little longer to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Griffiths: Is it in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that to happen without a statement being made by the President of the Board of Trade so that he can take action tonight to ensure that that money is returned to all the customers?
That the draft Children (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 12th January, be approved.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): I understand that with this it will be convenient to discuss the following motion: That the draft Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 12th January, be approved.
Mr. Moss: The draft Children (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 1995 has been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, so I will confine myself to commenting on the substantive provisions of the draft Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 itself.
First, I shall draw the attention of the House to the general purpose of the order. I shall also say something about the consultation that has taken place and the changes made following publication of the proposal for a draft Children Order in July 1993. As I wish to afford hon. Members who wish to speak as much time as possible, I shall try to be brief.
The order is designed to bring together most of the public and private law relating to children in Northern Ireland in a single statutory framework along the lines of the Children Act 1989, which has been in operation in England and Wales since October 1991. The order is based on a clear and consistent set of principles designed with the common aim of promoting the welfare of children. It will uphold the view that, wherever possible, children should be brought up and cared for within their own families.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I appreciate the Minister's giving way to me, especially as he wishes to be brief. As he said that the order followed the Children Act 1989, which applies to England and Wales, will he tell us what lessons have been learnt from the working of that Act and how they have been incorporated in the draft order?
The order makes it clear that the welfare of the child is paramount where a court has to make a decision affecting his or her future, and that children should be protected by effective intervention if they are in danger.
The order will give practical effect to those principles by setting out the services to be provided to support the upbringing of children in need, including disabled children, within their own families. The new concept of parental responsibility that will be introduced will also help to maintain the integrity of the family by ensuring that such responsibilities will continue even when it becomes necessary for a child to be taken into care.
Where the courts intervene in family life the new legislation will provide a clear checklist of matters which must be considered in any family proceedings involving
Column 404a child. In particular, the court must ensure that the needs of the child are addressed when decisions are made regarding his or her future.
The order also paves the way for the creation of a guardian at litem service which will ensure that, wherever practicable, the voice of the child is heard in a wide range of care-related proceedings. As regards child protection, the introduction of new powers for the courts to make child assessment and emergency protection orders will provide for effective intervention where necessary, while ensuring that the intervention is open to challenge. A proper balance will thus be struck between the rights of parents and the duty of authorities to intervene where the child's welfare requires action to be taken.
Extensive provision is made for those cases where it is not desirable or practicable for a child to be brought up within his or her own family. Where children are looked after in accommodation provided by a health and social services board or trust, a voluntary organisation or any other type of home, the order will ensure that their welfare is promoted and protected through effective registration and inspection. Similar safeguards will be in place for children who are fostered, and detailed provisions are included to ensure that those providing child minding and day care services are subject to effective registration and inspection procedures.
Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North): With regard to the Minister's last statement, it has been widely canvassed in Northern Ireland that the order could carry great weight in relation to church work and Sunday schools, and could also affect the work of various youth groups with boys and girls. Will the Minister comment on that?
Mr. Moss: I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising that point. There was some concern about the implications of the registration and child minding measures included in the original draft. As a result of the consultation that my noble Friend Baroness Denton undertook in the middle of last year, it was decided to introduce article 121 (6), which now includes the power to exempt specified supervised activities from registration. Boards will now have the power to proscribe activities such as scout and church activities. I have mentioned that the proposal for a draft order was published for public consultation in July 1993. During the extended consultation period, in excess of 100 organisations and individuals responded. This was followed by a debate in the Northern Ireland Committee in February of last year. My noble Friend Baroness Denton, who then had responsibility for the Department of Health and Social Services, invited members of the Committee to discuss the issues. The outcome of that was an announcement by my noble Friend in July 1994 of the changes to be incorporated in the draft order to be laid before Parliament.
Before I detail those changes, I must take the opportunity to thank all of those who commented during the consultation period. I also thank hon. Members who participated in the debate in the Northern Ireland Committee for the consideration that the Committee has given to the issues.
A significant number of changes have been made to the draft order since the publication of the proposal. I will draw attention to the substantive matters. One of the issues which gave rise to concern was that the proposal included a requirement for those providing child minding
Column 405day care to be registered only where the children concerned were under the age of eight. Many considered the age limit in the proposals to be too low. The order will now require registration where the children concerned are under 12.
Concern was expressed that by requiring registration for anyone providing child minding services for more than two hours in any day the order would require registration in circumstances where it would be inappropriate--for example, where a child was looked after for a short period by a neighbour. The order will now require only those providing child minding services for reward to register.
Sir James Kilfedder (North Down): I understand that problems have arisen with the operation of the Children Act 1989. Has the Minister made sure that those problems have been dealt with in relation to this order?
Mr. Moss: That is a similar question to the one asked by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), which I answered by saying that if I did not cover the points in my initial speech I would certainly do so in winding up the debate. If the order goes through today--I am led to believe that there is all-party support for it--I would expect a period of consultation lasting about a year to build up the regulations. Any difficulties which have occurred in the implementation of the Children Act in England and Wales will certainly be addressed in the way in which we formulate the regulations in Northern Ireland.
Concern was also expressed that by requiring all those providing supervised activity to be registered the proposal would place an unreasonable burden on some organisations. This point was raised by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). The order will now enable the Department of Health and Social Services to make regulations exempting certain supervised activities from registration requirements.
The Government recognise the importance of voluntary organisations in the provision of services to children in Northern Ireland. While we wish to ensure, through regulation and inspection, that voluntary homes for children maintain a high standard, we have decided that the imposition of registration and inspection fees would place an undesirable burden on voluntary organisations. We have therefore dropped those provisions from the draft order. The provision for fees to be imposed on those providing child minding and day care services has also been dropped.
In response to the concerns raised in Committee that a children's home for fewer than four children would not be required to register, a change has been made to ensure that all children's homes will be subject to registration, regardless of the number of children. A change has also been made to article 21 to ensure that where a health and social services board or trust provides accommodation for a child, this should be in a proper care setting.
A large number of drafting and technical changes have been made since the publication of the proposal. Many of them relate to changes brought about by the Health and Personal Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1994, which provided that the statutory functions of health and social services boards may be discharged by trusts. The remaining substantive changes include changes to the jurisdictional arrangements designed primarily to ensure that appeals from magistrates courts will lie to the county
Column 406court rather than to the High Court, and additional provision to allow for the establishment of care units within existing training school complexes.
One final and most important addition to the order has been made in recognition of the fact that hon. Members and others will have a continuing interest in the new legislation. The order will now provide for an annual report to be published by the Department of Health and Social Services in consultation with the Lord Chancellor, the Department of Education and the Department of Finance and Personnel.
The order is the first step towards providing Northern Ireland with a modern framework of child care law. Much remains to be done to give effect to the new legislation, and we are keen to see that process under way. I look forward to hearing the views of hon. Members. I am confident that the order will have widespread support and that the changes to which I have referred will be welcomed. I commend the order to the House.
Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen): The House will welcome the comments of the Minister and also, of course, the changes that have been made. Hon. Members will also welcome the fact that--at last--the order is before the House.
During the past few months, Northern Ireland has dominated the news and this House so far as the peace process is concerned, and it is inevitable and natural that that should be so. But sometimes in talking about that we tend to forget that in Northern Ireland--as in Wales, England and Scotland- -the quality of life of the people has to be discussed. That has been forgotten as far as Northern Ireland is concerned.
Life goes on. Children have to be educated. Hospitals have to be built. Jobs have to be provided. There is no question but that the vast majority of people living in these islands believe that the quality of children's lives, the need to stop exploitation and prevent abuse, and the need to educate and prepare children for the future must lie at the basis of our beliefs.
We welcome the order, but we wonder why it has taken so long to appear. After all, six years have intervened between the Children Act 1989 and the order for Northern Ireland today. Indeed, there have been 16 years of discussion since the matters were originally discussed on various professional committees. The Minister said that there would be yet another year of consultation. I hope that that consultation does not mean that implementation of the legislation will be held up. That is very important.
I understand that the United Nations committee on the rights of the child has already said that the delay has disadvantaged children in Northern Ireland especially in view of the levels of poverty in the Province. I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is important to put on record our congratulations to all the people and bodies in Northern Ireland who have badgered the Government and pushed the importance of the order. Child care professionals and members of the voluntary sector have worked so long in a statutory vacuum. The children's organisations in Northern Ireland have influenced the shape of the order. The Children Order Group, which was formed by people from the public and voluntary sectors of child care to work on the drafting and shadowing of
Column 407the legislation, deserves the particular thanks of all Members of the House of Commons and especially those who represent Northern Ireland.
I put on record the special thanks of the Labour party to my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), who spoke on Northern Irish matters until recently. He was instrumental in ensuring that small private children's homes of four children or fewer would be required to be registered. I am delighted that the Minister made reference to that this evening. We also welcome the removal of the registration fee, which the Minister has stated will be further changed.
We are worried about the lack of a common strategy in implementing the order, especially when so many bodies and agencies in Northern Ireland, including social services, education, housing and leisure services, have to work together. It is important that joint planning by relevant Government Departments in Northern Ireland and those agencies, local authorities and bodies should be a matter of priority for the Government.
We are worried about trusts and their lack of accountability. We often hear about the quango state. In my constituency in Wales and in the rest of Britain there is great disquiet about the growing number of quangos and the non-elected members of those boards. There are four health and social services boards in Northern Ireland, with 12 community units. Six trusts have already been established. I am given to understand that the Government are insisting that the other six must now apply for trust status. That is a mistake. Nowhere else in the United Kingdom are social services administered by trusts. They are generally administered by people who are elected by the people. It would be a bad move.
In a sense, Northern Ireland has been treated as a guinea pig on trusts. We had the poll tax in Scotland and local government reform in Wales. Now we have social services trusts in Northern Ireland. I hope that the areas on the fringe of the United Kingdom will not be used as testing grounds for Government philosophy. I would be disappointed if that were the case. We do not want to see the fragmentation of the child care system in Northern Ireland. A single Northern Ireland body, not the number of bodies that the Minister suggests, should look after child care.
The Minister did not say much about resources. So often in the past decade or so Acts of Parliament have been passed with all the good intentions in the world but the money has not been there to service them. It is wholly pointless to pass legislation setting up a plethora of bodies if the money does not come from central Government, in this case to Northern Ireland, to implement the legislation. There is one advantage in looking at what has occurred under the Children Act 1989 in Britain. We can see what it has cost local authorities. There is not a shadow of doubt that the costs of social services departments in local authorities throughout Britain have increased. They have rightly done so as a result of the imposition of new legislation by the House. I hope that the Minister will tell us precisely what money is being made available to ensure that aspects of the order which are to be implemented as soon as it is passed by the House are properly resourced.
Column 408It is absolutely necessary that family support services, family centres, pre-school and after-school care, holidays, support from social workers and health visitors, preventive work, and so on are properly resourced if only because, like many parts of Britain, Northern Ireland--especially its children and young people--is severely socially deprived. I will not go through all the statistics, but I will give a few. In Northern Ireland, 27 per cent. of the population is under 18 years of age. That is a higher proportion than in Britain. There is a high birth rate in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, 19 per cent. of families are headed by a lone parent and 95, 000 children live in lone- parent families. Some 62,000 households with dependent children were in receipt of income support in 1992. Northern Ireland has the highest level of unemployment and the lowest level of average growth in disposable weekly household income. Poverty is possibly worse in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland certainly has the lowest level of state provision of pre-school places in Britain. If we take all those factors into account, it is clear that the need for family support in Northern Ireland must be greater than in any other part of Britain. It has been estimated that at least £20 million extra must be spent in Northern Ireland on that aspect of child provision alone. When we add to that a further £6 million for children with disabilities and another £3 million for other aspects of the legislation, a total of £45 million is needed. That is the estimate of the professionals who work on the ground, so to speak, in Northern Ireland. That is what it will cost for the legislation to be implemented properly.
We can give figures because we have the experience of Britain. In one London borough with a population of just under 200,000, a 51 per cent. increase in the budget was needed to deal with the Children Act 1989. That amounted to about £4 million in one London borough alone. In that borough, there was a 36 per cent. increase in social work time, a 114 per cent. increase in home and day care support and a 45 per cent. increase in substitute care. Those are the figures that we have to consider.
We talk about a peace dividend. Money will be saved because, happily, the peace process is continuing in Northern Ireland. Surely that money should go back into the Province to ensure that children are looked after properly. I am sure that everyone would agree that there is no better place for money from the peace dividend to go than into the protection of children.
The professionals in Northern Ireland have also expressed worries about court organisation, exclusion orders and emergency protection orders. I hope that the Minister will refer to those matters and give assurances to those who have to deal with those problems. I am glad that he said that there would be a proper annual report to the House of Commons. That is excellent. It was missing from the original legislation. There is a case for some monitoring to take place in Northern Ireland. I hope that that will be taken into account in the consultation process in the next few months.
Northern Ireland has had 25 years of misery with all the troubles. In all that time, the people who have worked in the care and protection of children must have had the worst and hardest time of child care professionals in any part of the United Kingdom. Their morale will be boosted
Column 409by the passing of the order, but only if it is passed with consequential increases in the resources necessary to make it work properly.
We welcome all that is included in the order. Work still needs to be done. Changing needs and circumstances should be reflected both in the resources and, if necessary, in further legislation. At least this is a start. Even though years have passed, the Minister can be assured that he has the good will and support of the Opposition in the legislation before us today.