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Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster): I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for bringing the order to the House tonight. It has been awaited for a long time and with keen interest by all bodies involved in the care of children. I also put on record our deep appreciation of the courtesy shown by Baroness Denton when she received the elected representatives and our deep appreciation of her personal interest in this need of the Province. I am sure that the Minister will ensure that our thanks are passed on to his noble Friend. I also take this opportunity to thank the Children Order Group which represents various organisations with a wide range of experience and expertise. Its constructive comments were a tremendous help not only to me, but to other health spokesmen of the parties represented in the House. These organisations did the children of the Province a signal service in gelling together their comments and presenting a cohesive argument for action by the Minister. All those involved in the care of children, from both the voluntary and statutory sectors in Northern Ireland, broadly welcome the order. They acknowledge that many of their recommendations have been accepted and are included in the order. However, they regret that other key matters have been left out. It is felt, for example, that the opportunity to learn lessons from the implementation of the Children Act 1989 in England and Wales has not been fully taken. It is hoped, however, that any relevant and appropriate amendments made to that Act will also be made to this important order without delay. One of the recommendations made by the Children Order Group was that there should be provision for an exclusion order to oust from the home a parent or caretaker who is suspected of abusing a child. That recommendation was not accepted by the Minister although it had the support of the Children Act advisory committee in its 1992-93 annual report. As this opportunity has been missed, can the Minister assure me that if the law in England and Wales is amended, a similar amendment will immediately apply to the Province?
Displeasure was also felt at the failure by the Department to make a change in the definition of disability. The definition in the order uses the term "deaf and dumb". Surely it was not beyond the Department's ability to use other terms. It is hoped that more acceptable terms will be used in the regulations and the guidance. Two major issues arising from the order will be vital to its success or failure. An order is not, in itself, the end of the matter; rather, it is a very important beginning. It has taken many years and much lobbying to get to this important juncture; we are glad that we have arrived. To ensure success, the Department must give vibrant leadership in carrying forth the vision contained in the
Column 410legislation and in putting it into action. Such detailed and complex legislation will not implement itself. It requires proper co-ordination by the Department and it demands effective planning from the beginning. The Department must display initiative and leadership skills. Those within the Department who front the implementation of the order will carry a heavy responsibility in ensuring its success. Half-hearted leadership will make the community resentful because those people will have been filled with expectations without having them realised.
Some people in the statutory and voluntary sectors have serious doubts about the Department's approach as they fail to see a strategy for implementing the order. Surely it is appropriate that statutory agencies work to a common agenda. Social services, education, housing and leisure services all have a range of responsibilities under the order. Only by joint planning within Government Departments can operational effectiveness be achieved. I trust that the Minister can assure the House tonight that the order will be put into operation with determination and that no effort will be spared in making it work effectively and efficiently.
The various Departments have had knowledge of the progress of this legislation; they are not starting from tonight. We expect, therefore, that much of the groundwork has been done in terms of co-ordination and planning so that it is ready for smooth implementation. When did this co-ordinated departmental planning begin? Can the Minister assure me that all the Departments are ready for action? I was a little concerned when I heard the Minister mention another year. That has caused me concern and will worry interested bodies and those who are keen to move forward because we have waited so long to get this legislation. We expected that the Departments involved would want to move forward. Urgent implementation is essential.
The second area of concern, the resources issue, is vital to the order's success. The provisions in the order, especially those relating to children in need, must not be hampered from the outset by a lack of resources. Indeed, having studied documents relating to the matter, I am certain that considerable resources will be needed to finance the order because of the low baseline of the preventive services being operated in Northern Ireland.
I am sure that the Minister can understand the hopes raised for children and families by the order. Those hopes cannot become a reality without essential investment from Government. This point is vital. The present level of funding is inadequate. We dare not rob Peter to pay Paul in this operation. The demand is clearly for a commitment from the Minister.
Rev. Martin Smyth: The hon. Gentleman talks about robbing Peter to pay Paul. Does he agree that it is a mistake to think that under our combined health and social services system, money can be moved around more easily? The reality is that the big battalions gather a greater percentage of the money. In view of the recent news of the money needed to develop the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast, is he fearful that not only other hospital services, but the social services budget could suffer?
Rev. William McCrea: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. What he says causes grave concern. I know that there will be a scrabble for resources and that there will be in-fighting to try to win resources. The order
Column 411is something above the resources already allocated. It is vital that we get additional resources because without them, it will not take the House or the Province long to realise that the order is pie in the sky. We shall have an order, but we shall not be able to put it into effect. It is vital that the Minister gives tonight a commitment that there will be extra money to implement the order. The order emphasises supporting families who care for their children in the home; that is not a soft and easy financial option. The order endeavours to develop a preventive framework for families rather than relying solely on child protection. Unfortunately, during the past year, family support, day care and after care services have been poorly developed and underfunded, and have been provided in the main by the voluntary sector.
I put on record that the people of the Province owe a tremendous debt to the voluntary sector for all its efforts over the years. It has made those efforts with few resources at its disposal. If we are really to support and strengthen families, new funding is an urgent must. Family support services are in urgent need of development in Northern Ireland.
I make no apology for relying on the expertise of the Children Order Group to advise me on the details that need attention. I genuinely feel that it is evident to all in society that, over the years, preventive work with families has been neglected in Northern Ireland and that the high rates of poverty and deprivation experienced by many in the Province make the need more pressing than any other matter within the United Kingdom.
The population of Northern Ireland has a higher proportion of children than any other region of the United Kingdom. Statistics provided for me amply express the need. For example, 19 per cent. of families in Northern Ireland are headed by a lone parent; 95,000 children live in lone-parent families; 33,000 lone parents receive lone parent support; and at least 62,000 households with dependent children receive income support. Northern Ireland has the highest unemployment and the lowest average growth in disposable weekly household income, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). Northern Ireland has the lowest state pre-school provision in Europe.
When all those and many other adverse factors are considered, it is not surprising that the odds on a child coming into care are one in 10 compared with one in 7,000 if those factors are not present. Resources, therefore, will be an essential ingredient in the success of the action proposed in the legislation. The House welcomes the legislation that has been brought before it but resources are required to enable many aspects of it to be implemented, for example the registration and inspection of day care centres, child minders and children's homes, as outlined in the order. There are already long waiting lists for registration.
Another area requiring resources is the accommodation necessary to meet the needs of young people within the community and those leaving care. The order requires health and social services boards to provide for such, if they feel that the young people's welfare is likely to be seriously prejudiced by failure to provide accommodation. The number of people in that category is greatly
Column 412increasing year by year, and the budget to cover that must be adequately financed if the order is not to remain meaningless. The order regards children with disabilities as children in need and sets out statutory obligations towards them, not only in service provision but in the promotion of opportunities for such children to lead as normal a life as possible. To take steps to fulfil the obligations under that part of the order will cost some £6 million, covering day care and after-school care. It is essential that such provision for the disabled is properly co-ordinated across the Province lest we are left with the current patchy, haphazard approach.
Taken as a whole, the order is complex and deserves the closest possible scrutiny. I am glad that, in Committee and now on the Floor of the House, we can comment on it. I have no doubt that it covers a wide remit concerning both collective and individual responsibilities for children. It therefore requires a partnership approach between parents and statutory and voluntary bodies.
The order demands a proactive role by the courts, with legal representations for parents as well as children. It also requires the appointment of a guardian ad litem for the child to deal with all those and other relevant matters. If this legislation is to be carried through, an important area is the appropriate and proper training of staff. Boards will be faced with tremendous costs in addition to all other previous burdens. That begs an important question: will the Minister assure the House that additional money will be made available and earmarked to enable boards to make the order a success?
Resources need to be stable for the foreseeable future. We need not just initial funding but consistent finance linked to careful and detailed long- term planning for the service. I am concerned that, while we may be given some initial funding to prime the pump, the boards may be left to find funding in years to come. We shall then return to patchy provision throughout the Province.
It is important to put on record tonight that the health and social services boards have estimated that they require approximately £45 million to implement the Children (Northern Ireland) Order fully. When I saw that, I thought that it was a lot of money. But I was present during the previous debate on local government finance in Wales. I listened carefully to the Minister's reply, when he stated that £43 million had been set aside in the Welsh budget to finance local government reorganisation, which is one of the Government's pet subjects. If £43 million can be set aside to fulfil Government policy on reorganising local government in Wales, there will be little problem for the Secretary of State in getting £45 million--if he can get only £43 million I suppose that I could be pushed to accept it--for Northern Ireland.
There is no reason why the Minister cannot make a clear commitment properly to implement the order. Funding is essential not only for health and social services boards but for Departments inter-related in the order's operation, such as the Department of Education, which also needs additional funding to ensure that the measure is meaningful.
What recognition has the Minister given to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which has expressed concern that there is no effective independent co-ordination mechanism for ensuring the convention's
Column 413implementation in United Kingdom law, policy and practice? Has he recommendations to make to the House on that matter?
The order is important and I seek to take nothing away from the broad welcome that many hon. Members have given it, or from the Minister in presenting it to the House tonight. Two key issues have been raised in the debate: first, leadership in implementation; and secondly, resources to make implementation possible. How the Government react to those will reflect overall Government policy towards our most precious investment--our children. I earnestly trust that this golden opportunity to make a vital difference will be grasped willingly and prove to the world that we cherish our children whom the scriptures tell us are the heritage of the Lord. I have already told the Minister that, unfortunately, an urgent constituency matter has arisen and I must return to my constituency as soon as possible. I therefore mean no discourtesy to the House by leaving. I shall read carefully every response that the Minister makes. Even though I shall not be present, I trust that the Minister will carefully take matters I have raised on board, because they will make all the difference for the children of our Province.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): This is an historic occasion in many ways. It takes us back through the history of child care in the United Kingdom to the Children Act 1908, which was the starting point for the care of children. It was a landmark in the development of policy in the United Kingdom. It is significant that it remained the principal Act in Northern Ireland until 1950, so it cannot be said that we rush things too much. The pattern of developing child care legislation is still continuing. It is interesting to note that under the 1908 Act the interests of the child were not the most important; rather parents could not be deprived of their rights unless they were found guilty in some sense. I believe that the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 is a new landmark because the emphasis is placed on the child rather than the adult, who has certain responsibilities.
The order is historic for other reasons, not least because it has had a long gestation. The children and young people review group, known as the Black committee, which was established in 1976, published its findings in December 1979. It is 12 years since I came to the House, so we have been pressing for almost 13 years for the implementation of the Black committee recommendations.
We had a fair bit of discussion on the order in the Northern Ireland Committee and subsequent discussions with Baroness Denton, who proved not only to be a listening Minister, but a heeding one. The reaction to those discussions was welcome. I welcome without hesitation the changes that have been made to the order as a result. In Committee, however, we pressed that we should take on board some of the lessons learnt from the implementation of the Children Act 1989 of England and Wales. I hope that before the end of the debate the Minister will gain further inspiration and tell us what lessons have been learnt from England, or whether no lessons can be learnt. If that is the perception of advisers, it does not match that of professionals. It is important that we do not wait too long before the order is implemented.
Today's debate is historic, because although the debate in Committee was on the original draft proposals, we could have had today's debate in Committee as well. That
Column 414debate would have been noted by a few enthusiasts, but by recording today's debate in Hansard , people will learn much more easily about some of our concerns. That is the best that we can do with this type of legislation.
We should have had the opportunity to examine the order in Committee, line by line, clause by clause, so that we could have amended it. All that we can do tonight is stupidly vote down the order. Since the Government introduced it and we have waited for it for such a long time, we would not want to do that, not least because the Government have a majority and would get it through in any case. In any case, if there was a Division, and I doubt that there will be, my party would vote in favour. We have waited far too long for the order, but to suggest that the order is perfect would imply that it is the only piece of perfect legislation ever to go through any Parliament. Even during my sojourn in the House I have been amazed at how Government Bills have been amended by hundreds of Government amendments, never mind by Opposition pressure to table yet more amendments. The tragedy is we have been unable to scrutinise the order, so a degree of unaccountability has slipped into the machinery of government in Northern Ireland.
I thank the Government for meeting our request to have a debate on the Floor of the House and I welcome the modifications that have already been incorporated into the order. It is proposed that registration will be required governing the supervision of paid staff. I hope, however, that because church volunteers are normally unpaid that does not mean that they do not require supervision. I recognise the tremendous work done by those groups and acknowledge that the standard of it is remarkably high. I welcome the fact that they are not required to be subject to the same registration, but I am sure that the Minister and others would agree that even in such quarters we must watch carefully those who have been entrusted with the care of our young people.
In several areas the views of professionals have been ignored and the Government must take note of that. How will the great changes in the Province be co-ordinated? The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) has already alluded to that. Who will steer the order's implementation through? I am not thinking about the Minister but about those behind-the-scenes co-ordinators. As I understand it, and unless something has happened recently among those who know more about this than some of us, no proper consultation has occurred between the court services, the Department of Health and Social Services and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland. I understand that little effort has been made up to now to educate the various Government Departments and boards, which all have a part to play in the successful introduction of the order. I admit that members of one of the trusts under the control of the Department of Health and Social Services recently gave a talk on what might be involved. That lack of co-ordination is reflected in the fact that it will take a year to introduce the regulations, whereas we believe that, by now, it should have been possible to implement the order. The concept of co -ordination, to which the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster referred, relates to links between social services, education, housing and leisure services. Each has responsibilities under the order. Within the Departments, however, there appears to be little understanding of what will be involved and certainly little visible enthusiasm. Social workers responsible for child
Column 415care are already stretched to breaking point and they are short-staffed. Because of the lack of co-ordination--I can put it no other way--things are done at one level that have no relevance to those working on the ground. For example, the joint protocol system on child abuse involves the police, social workers and others. They are trained together, yet one trained person from social services was also supposed to be responsible for Kidscape, a vital element in child care. She could not undertake her work on Kidscape for months. She had to look after the joint protocol outwith her area because there were not enough trained folk in the service to undertake that protocol work. I urge the Minister to, as we would say in Ulster, "gee up" such Departments a little and ensure that a system for co-ordinating efforts is introduced.
Some hon. Members have mentioned resources. I would sound one caveat. I am glad that the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), the Opposition Front- Bench spokesperson, has returned to his place. He referred to Northern Ireland being the poorest part of the United Kingdom. It might be the poorest region according to some calculations, but, if one examines the statistics of social surveys, we are not the worst. The hon. Gentleman may have alluded to another poor part of the UK when he referred to the London boroughs problem. However, I believe that the level of deprivation on Merseyside would cause some of us to be thankful that we live in Northern Ireland. We must be careful when we make comparisons, because sometimes we do not compare like with like. That is not to say that I would argue with the hon. Member for Torfaen about his anxiety about resources, which was echoed by the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster. I noticed that the Minister was using his calculator at that moment. We may find out before the end of the debate whether he has come up with an offer or whether he has sent messages to the Treasury so that he may tell us how we might reach the target.
We are all familiar nowadays with tight budgets and the need for effective and efficient use of public money, and few people would disagree with that requirement. However, there is genuine anxiety that the effective implementation of the order will be hampered by a lack of available resources.
That is one reason why we ask what lessons have been learnt from the implementation of the Children Act 1989 in England, and which parts of that Act have not been implemented; for I do not want the House to go down the road of our Italian colleagues in the European Union, who have an art of passing legislation but not implementing it. When they are asked, "What do you do about this?" they reply, "We have it!" but the folk who require it have not had it. The legislation has not been implemented. We do not want to go down that road. We want to go down the road where there is implementation. The emphasis in the order is on supporting families to care for their children at home--developing a preventive framework for families rather than relying solely on child protection. We have heard that, in Northern Ireland, family support day care and after-care services are poorly developed, underfunded and provided mainly by the voluntary sector. Indeed, much of those services continue
Column 416to be provided in places by the extended family. That level of community care is to be welcomed, but it is not an excuse for society to abrogate its responsibilities.
We ask, not rhetorically but factually, how can that requirement in the order be fulfilled without appropriate and adequate resources--resources not provided in the current plan? That might be the reason why the regulations will not come into force for a year; it might enable us to reach the next financial year.
The euphemism of a three-year start-up is but a euphemism. It highlights the problem. The early years development scheme has been promised £310,000 for three years, which appears to be a sizeable amount, but there were already 180 applicants to that scheme alone in response to a public advertisement in a newspaper.
The order brings in the much-welcomed registration and inspection of day care, child minders and children's homes. There are already long waiting lists for registration, as the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster said, and adequate funds to support the measure are not provided.
Under the order, health and social services boards are required for the first time to provide accommodation if children's welfare is likely to be seriously prejudiced by a failure to provide accommodation. That is not simply accommodation in Housing Executive property but accommodation with care; yet evidence from England and Wales demonstrates that 96 per cent. of social services departments considered that they had inadequate resources to comply with that aspect of the Children Act 1989.
If the measures in the Children (Northern Ireland) Order are to function in the way in which they are intended to, adequate funding must be made available. Stable resources and strategic long-term planning are needed.
The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster referred to the concept of a lack of definition of disability. Surely the Government and those who have advised them should by now be aware of the reaction among those who are disabled and their supporters when we use such outdated terminology. It is a patronising approach to people with disabilities.
I ask that Ministers make a commitment tonight that the terminology will be amended, not simply when the amendments are made to the Children Act 1989, but as soon as possible. That commitment was given earlier, when the Government were pressed from the Ulster Unionist Bench about the Wildlife and Countryside (Registration and Ringing of Certain Captive Birds) (Amendment) Regulations 1984, when they were caught with their pants down, if I might use that metaphor, not having done their homework properly. They gave us that commitment on that occasion.
The exclusion orders are there, and many child care organisations have emphasised the importance of introducing them, but to introduce them so that the abuser, rather than the victim, is removed from the home environment. The Minister referred to the fact that the child would be removed only as a last resort, but sometimes we forget the links between children and parents.
I remember speaking to a colleague who had a problem with a father who was not the best type of father. I asked him, to help me in my pastoral work, "By the way, how did you react to your father's death?" I shall never forget his words. He said, "He was my father." To take a child from home, or, for that matter, to move a mother and child from home into a hostel, with all the degradation that that can be
Column 417associated with, is not the way, in the 20th century, to care for children who are being abused. I believe that the abuser, whether it be father or mother, should be removed from the home, even temporarily, until things can be sorted out rather than uprooting a child from its roots, from the environment that it knows so well. I know that those of us who travel become used to strange places, but I think that you will agree with me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, even for those of us who travel, no matter where we roam, there is no place like home. If it is true for us, how much truer it is for a child. I regret that the Government have ignored the wisdom of that key measure.
As I draw to a close, I consider several other matters, especially the concept of guardian ad litem. The Black committee recommended that a guardian ad litem be appointed to safeguard the children's interests. That has emerged repeatedly. Even in 1987, the Northern Ireland Adoption Order, which was implemented in 1989, did not make the guardian ad litem role independent of the agencies. One area board can still be the placement agency and provide the guardian ad litem report. Admittedly, the boards try to ensure that the guardian ad litem is not an officer for the same placement district. That at least is an attempt to do something about it.
However, we live in a small world. The people work in the same services. They might even be wanting promotion. The human reaction is not to trample over people when trying to climb up, so as to avoid problems with them when falling down. It is equally true that one should not start arguing with the boss who might be on the interviewing panel for promotion. There is not the degree of independence required of somebody who is there to protect the child's interests.
I regret that the recommendation does not seem to have been taken up. Admittedly, there has been a limited introduction of the guardian ad litem system. It seems unfair that, where a parental dispute has gone to private law, the rights of a child to independent representation are not recognised. Will the Minister reconsider the decision not to extend the guardian ad litem system to cover private law cases?
I understand that the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee has kept reviewing the implementation of the Children Act 1989. But up to now there has been little evidence that the lessons learnt from that Act have been applied. At the British Association of Social Workers conference in Northern Ireland on the subject not long ago, it was suggested that there was no strong sense of leadership in that area. I understand that the management executive was represented on the co-ordinating body, which also included the chief social services inspector and the deputy director of court services, but there was no education representative. The question was asked: how do the professionals in that sector feed into the organisation?
On 22 November there was, apparently, a stab at setting up an implementation group, but its functions and membership are not yet clear. I believe that it has met once and that working groups in different sectors are being set up to provide guidance and regulation. That might explain why it will be a year before we get anything.
The four boards are now invited to participate, but where do the voluntary groups fit in? At a time when the provision of child care is increasingly coming from the voluntary and private sectors, surely voluntary groups
Column 418should be involved in the discussions at an earlier stage. In east Belfast it is proposed to close Firbreck children's home--a statutory home with places for 12. The figures show that the statutory home costs about £500 per child. The voluntary home costs about £1,000 per child. The voluntary home is large, taking 30 or 32 people, but only half its places are filled and the costs are much higher. Why is it that a statutory home, which provides a useful and excellent service, is being closed? At Christmas, its 12 spaces were occupied by 14 people. Nobody can deny that there is a need for such care and, when the order is implemented, the need to co-ordinate it effectively will be even greater.
Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West): I thank the Minister for introducing this important legislation. I was delighted that he used a calculator earlier. I hope that that is a good omen for the finances involved in the implementation of the order. Naturally, I am delighted to support the order. I wish to congratulate all those organisations in Northern Ireland which have made such a significant contribution to the debate over the past couple of years. They include the Children Order Group, which has already been mentioned, Child Care, Gingerbread and the Save the Children Fund.
I have been in medical practice in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years and I should like to think that I have first-hand experience of the deprivation of my constituents and patients. That deprivation extends not merely to west Belfast, but to sections of north, south and east Belfast, as well as other parts of Northern Ireland. The deprivation is concentrated in west and north Belfast where, according to the registrar general's classification, most of the population comes from social class groups 4 and 5. By any criteria of social deprivation, west and north Belfast have suffered greatly. The debate is about family poverty--children, their needs and how they have been treated in various ways over the years. In west and north Belfast, more people have died through violence over the past 20 years than anywhere else in western Europe, excluding the terrible conflict in Bosnia. There are more people on social security benefits, and there are probably more people with alcohol problems and illnesses.
Unfortunately, I do not have the figures in front of me, but childhood illness, even asthma, occurs more among those in deprived areas than elsewhere. There are also more children coming under the influence of paramilitary organisations. All those factors have an important effect on children, especially when they reach 12 or 13 years of age.
The Save the Children Fund has done great work over the years in highlighting the problems involved in the care of children. Both the voluntary and statutory sectors in Northern Ireland have broadly welcomed the order and will be pleased for it to pass on to the statute book. But the Save the Children Fund believes that it is important that, rather than simply paralleling the Children Act, lessons should be learnt from its implementation in England and Wales and applied in Northern Ireland, through the regulations and guidance drawn up for the implementation of the order.
There are two main issues: the success of the order in practice and ensuring that the outstanding issues raised by the United Nations committee on the rights of the child
Column 419are monitored and considered in future. There is a need for resources--about which much has rightly been said--and the need to extend the philosophy and principles underpinning the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and the order to other areas of law, policy and practice affecting children. There is concern that the effect of implementing the order will be hampered by lack of available resources. Further resources will be required to enable the registration and inspection of day care, child minders and children's homes as outlined in the order.
I believe that the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) mentioned the accommodation needs of young people in the community and of those leaving care. Those needs must be seriously considered.
In its concluding observations following the examination of the UK Government's first report on the implementation of the convention in the UK, the UN committee on the rights of the child raised a number of issues which are pertinent to the welfare of children. If left unaddressed, those issues could restrict the effectiveness of the order. The committee expressed concern that there was no effective independent co-ordinating mechanism for ensuring the implementation of the convention in UK law, policy and practice. The order is very much in keeping with the UN convention, particularly in its emphasis on seeking the core principles-- ensuring that children's best interests are safeguarded and ensuring that children can express their views and have them taken into account.
The subject of co-ordination is so important that I have no doubt that all the public representatives involved in the debate--especially those of us in Northern Ireland--will consider it carefully. I appreciate that the Minister cannot do that himself, but I am sure that some organisation or person will co-ordinate all those services. We are concerned that children who are placed in care in Northern Ireland under the social welfare system may be sent to training schools which are institutions for the detention of children. Much has been said about the Children Order Group. I am personally indebted to that group, which has done much work in this area and has provided us with valuable documentation. The group largely comprises social workers. The hon. Member for Belfast, South spoke forcefully about the physical and sexual abuse of children. I believe that social workers, not just in Northern Ireland but across the United Kingdom, have performed outstanding work in that area. Unfortunately, sometimes chances must be taken in allowing children to return to the home or to visit a particular relative and, when things go wrong, social workers seem to take most of the blame. In my experience--which has been gained over many years--social workers, health visitors, nurses and all those who work with children through the statutory and voluntary services do an outstanding job.
The Children Order Group pointed out that a lack of commitment by Government in implementing the legislation is evidenced by continual delays in bringing forward the order. I understand there may be a further delay of one year, but perhaps it cannot be helped. The United Kingdom Government have been criticised by the United Nations committee on the rights of the child. The delay of more than five years between the Children Act 1989 for England and Wales and the
Column 420introduction of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order has disadvantaged children in Northern Ireland. Despite strenuous complaints by statutory and voluntary bodies, the Government have no apparent strategy for implementing the order. I know that the Minister will address those important points.
Successful implementation of the order will depend upon a number of statutory agencies working to a common strategy. Social services, education, housing and leisure services will all have
responsibilities under the order. However, at present there is no evidence of joint planning by the Government Departments which are responsible for those services.
The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) made the point about additional funding. We are aware of the funding problems within the trusts and health boards, especially the Eastern health board. I am also aware of the financial problems within the west and north Belfast trusts. I do not criticise the executives or the staff who work for those bodies, but funding levels are very important. Other hon. Members have already emphasised that point.
We will be watching for co-ordination among the bodies responsible for implementing the order. At the end of the day, the Minister must use his calculator and, together with his colleagues, ensure that there is enough funding to implement this extremely important piece of legislation.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I apologise for missing most of the speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) and some of the speech of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). What I did hear, I fully endorse and wish to be associated with.
I suspect that this important debate will not be reported in the press because the subject does not make news headlines. As an English Member of Parliament, I will use this occasion to acknowledge the diligent work of all 17 Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland. They perform the same duties as other hon. Members, while addressing and accommodating additional constitutional and security problems. I hope that I do not sound patronising as I wish to acknowledge their role. I do not think that it is often commented on or properly understood by the media.
I believe that the order is a farce in law-making terms. I am interested in scrutiny in this place, and this process is a charade. We would be taking the mickey to suggest that we are performing a proper law-making role this evening. It is a nonsense and I am not prepared to acquiesce, by my silence, to this charade.
In every other context, an order of this size would constitute an Act of Parliament. It is a nonsense to suggest that we are paying adequate attention to the contents of the document, or indeed to the people who will, we hope, benefit from it. Regardless of whether there is a devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland, so long as we are responsible for making orders in this place that affect Northern Ireland we must ensure that they are examined properly and on the same basis as legislation for England, Wales and Scotland.
Column 421My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) referred to "Great Britain" legislation, but I think that he meant legislation for England and Wales. At present, the House of Commons is considering the Children (Scotland) Bill in Committee. That legislation parallels this order and it is being dealt with line by line. Hon. Members are able to probe every detail, and that is the correct procedure. However, that process is not followed for Northern Ireland legislation. That example underlines the nonsense of the situation to which I have referred.
Rev. Martin Smyth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because I meant to refer to that point in my speech. Does he accept that the Scottish legislation is a separate corpus of legislation which the House is able to handle well? I do not understand why it is claimed that it cannot handle legislation for Northern Ireland in the same way.
Mr. Mackinlay: The hon. Gentleman and I are as one on that point. I hope that the time will come when Northern Ireland legislation is treated in the same way as legislation for Scotland and for other parts of the United Kingdom.
Naturally, hon. Members want to see this order on the statute book. However, I urge them to hang on because I believe there are a few omissions. I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that I have read every page, but I have certainly done my best to scrutinise the document. Unfortunately, it is a vast volume with no pictures, so it takes some time to read.
The document is flawed because it does not take account of the fact that we share a land border with the Irish Republic. Christian denomination and voluntary organisations, as well as statutory organisations, perform many social work duties in Northern Ireland, and I do not think that the document fully takes account of that or the interface with the Republic.
People who have abused children have in the past absconded to the Republic to avoid justice. The Attorney-General recently complained that I had tabled 25 questions about Father Brendan Smyth. I make no apology for that, because it goes to the heart of the Government's stewardship of children's services.
I am critical of the Government on that issue, among many others. I do not think that they ensure good stewardship of social services in Northern Ireland. Not many people lie awake at night worrying about it--except for hon. Members from Northern Ireland and my friends on the Opposition Front Bench--but the Government's stewardship, as represented by the Northern Ireland Office and the Attorney-General, has been shown to be flawed. I think that the Attorney-General has been dilatory in his handling of the celebrated case of Father Brendan Smyth. He has refused to acknowledge that he and the Church have failed the victims of Father Brendan Smyth and their families. It is time to look at why that has occurred. I believe that the legislation should be beefed up to take account of those circumstances.
I am indebted to Ulster Television, which produced the documentary "Suffer Little Children" as part of its Counterpoint series. It was broadcast on 6 October 1994 and it showed how Church and state had failed to ensure justice for children and their families in Northern Ireland. I regret that, so far, the other independent television companies have failed to network this important programme elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I have
Column 422tabled an early-day motion suggesting that they should do so. If they did, it would alert other hon. Members to the fact that the justice and social work regimes in Northern Ireland are not satisfactory. I urge hon. Members not only to study that programme, if they have not already seen it, but to support me in the suggestion to independent television companies that it is networked. The House will be aware that Father Brendan Smyth is now in prison having been found guilty on child sex abuse charges--there is therefore no question of sub judice-- of which he had a long history, yet for some time he was able to escape justice by going to the Irish Republic.
I recently asked the Attorney-General a question, but it has not been answered satisfactorily. I asked him to
"explain why Cardinal Cahal Daly, in his detailed statement, reported that Brendan Smyth had been interviewed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary early in 1990 in connection with child abuse complaints, that the priest had admitted wrongdoing, but was not arrested".--[ Official Report , 16 January 1995; Vol. 252, c. 447.]
The words "admitted wrongdoing" are taken from the cardinal's statement. I therefore want to know why the RUC did not arrest that priest early in 1990. Why did it take from then until 1994 for that man to face trial? We know that he did not abscond to the Irish Republic for many months after that interview. No adequate explanation has been given of the stewardship of this matter by the RUC or the Attorney-General.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. It is perfectly proper for the hon. Gentleman to allude to certain cases. This is not the primary cause of this evening's debate, so I hope that he will only make allusions to it rather than further develop any particular case.
The measure is voluminous. If it were English or Scots legislation, the matter to which I am alluding probably would require an entire morning in Committee. I appeal to you to consider my point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I promise that I shall not labour it too long, but this matter probably would have been discussed in Committee and alluded to in consideration of many of the articles. It goes to the heart of whether there is adequate social work support. The hon. Members for Belfast, South and for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) referred to measures to protect children from abuse. The matter has to be aired.
I take your point Mr. Deputy Speaker, but if I can demonstrate that the matter is relevant, I might consider dividing the House because the order is deficient. The parent of one of the victims of Brendan Smyth has raised with me whether the order should, as the lid has been lifted on Brendan Smyth's activities--he is only one example; there are probably others-- allow the RUC and the social work authorities that are subject to the order to investigate matters that are some years old. That certainly is the view of the aggrieved parents who feel that the authorities, the Attorney- General, the RUC and, to some extent, the Northern Ireland Office want to keep the matter under drapes and do not want to go back too far. If the order were a Bill, I would move amendments to that effect in Committee. My second point concerns the Northern Ireland Secretary. I addressed it to him recently in a written parliamentary question. There has been inordinate pressure
Column 423from some members of religious communities to prevail upon aggrieved parents of children who have been abused to withdraw their complaints.
My written question referred the Northern Ireland Secretary to the specific case of the parents of one of the victims of Father Brendan Smyth, who were approached by a member of the Norbertine order to see whether they would withdraw their complaint. In fairness to the Northern Ireland Secretary, he wrote back to say that the matter continues to be investigated to see whether there has been an attempt to pervert the course of justice.
Will the Minister give us a progress report on that matter, as it is extremely important in view of the failure of Church and state to protect the interests of those families?
It is documented that the Church knew about the activities of Brendan Smyth, not for months but for years, and covered it up. I am of the Catholic faith, so there can be no suggestion in any sense of my demonstrating any spite. I am proud of my faith. The overwhelming majority of pastors are well-motivated people, but there have been one or two bad eggs and there has been a propensity to cover things up, which I very much regret. These matters need to be brought out into the open.
Obviously, it has been a difficult matter for my friends and colleagues from Northern Ireland to articulate, but I have at all stages kept in touch with my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker), whose constituency was primarily affected by the matter that I have raised. He and I have worked in concert and I know how concerned he has been about it. In view of the sensitivities in the Province, it is probably better that a lad from Essex raises it rather than one of my colleagues from Northern Ireland, and in that spirit I have done so tonight. The Secretary of State and the Minister really have to address what is happening.
In conclusion, let me endorse the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen made. We hope that there will be a considerable peace dividend. There is much ground for optimism. I believe that we should talk up Northern Ireland. It is a tremendous place to visit, the quality of life there is first class and the hospitality is superb, but it is battered and bruised after 25 years of strife. Children, in particular, have suffered indoctrination as well as the pain and anxiety of the troubles.
Generally, Northern Ireland needs to enjoy the dividend that will come from a reduction in the security services. Those resources need to be reallocated in Northern Ireland, particularly to the national health service and social work. It would be appropriate, prudent and fair if a large amount of those resources were channelled into promoting the welfare of children in the cities, particularly in the constituency of my Labour colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West and other colleagues, who have many inner-city problems and who, in my view, would be Labour Members if they represented other parts of the United Kingdom. I am aware of the problems faced by children in their constituencies.
The Government have an obligation to take advantage of the new atmosphere, to build up cross-community relationships between children--which already exist thanks to the tremendous work that has been started--and