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Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), if the standstill clause in the accession treaties does not mean that restrictions cannot be introduced after accession, will the Home Secretary explain what he thinks it does mean? Will he make it absolutely clear that he had specific legal advice on the part of his statement that said that

Did he have legal advice on that point?

Mr. Blunkett: That is what I said, and that is what I meant.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): The Home Secretary said that accession country nationals will have to be able to support themselves for two years. Does that mean a change to the habitual residence test for British-born citizens who have chosen to move to an EU country or to the United States, which would make it more difficult for people to return to this country from working abroad? I should be grateful if he clarified that.

Mr. Blunkett: The statement applies to accession country nationals, not to British nationals returning from overseas. Their entitlement remains the same.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): On access to social housing, can the Home Secretary confirm whether the restrictions that he spoke of earlier will apply purely to members of the accession countries, or whether they will apply to members of existing EU countries as well?

Mr. Blunkett: The changes that we are bringing about in benefits and housing apply to accession countries, but the restrictions that I have already described relate to those who are not working, rather than to those who are working. On that basis, what we are doing in relation to EU nationals as a whole is consistent.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): The Home Secretary is to be

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congratulated on his clear defence of legal, managed migration in the face of much media hysteria; but on the question of clandestine, illegal, exploited labour, the consequences of which we saw in the Morecombe bay deaths, may I again stress the importance of bringing pressure to bear on employers? If my right hon. Friend is looking again at the 1996 Act, will he look at how the law bears down not just on employers, but on those who employ the subcontractors and gangmasters who employ illegal labour? Those subcontractors could not tender successfully without their reliance on cheap, unregistered labour.

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, we will certainly do that, which is why we are backing the Gangmaster (Licensing) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan), which will be debated in the House on Friday. We shall give that Bill every support, and good passage.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), is the Home Secretary aware that officers of Kings Lynn and West Norfolk borough council, which covers all of my constituency and part of that of my right hon. Friend, have estimated that last summer there were roughly 2,500 illegal immigrants in Norfolk, many of them in the west of the county? Does the Home Secretary agree that, as many of those were probably working in a clandestine manner and being exploited in a sub-economy, it is crucial that he stick to his word and back tighter measures against the ruthless gangmasters who are exploiting those people?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, and if any of those 2,500 people are from the eight accession countries affected by my statement, we will ask them to come forward to declare themselves and be registered openly and properly, so that they will be entitled to the rights that go with that.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is right not to overreact to the tabloid hyperbole on this subject. Does he agree that there has been abuse? From the Czech Republic, over a five-year period, there were 6,000 so-called asylum seekers, less than 20 of whom were judged to have well founded cases. One of those came to my constituency after a long career in crime in Czechoslovakia. He came with a warrant out for his arrest, and he committed a dreadful crime in my constituency for which he is serving a long sentence now. Can we say that under this new balanced policy people with those intentions will not be allowed to abuse the system in future?

Mr. Blunkett: Certainly, committing crime will not be eligible for registration under the scheme, if I may lighten the tone for a moment. In response to my hon. Friend's question, yes, the scheme will enable us to do so, and we will be able to cross-reference in relation to registration, which will be helpful in that regard.

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Expert Witnesses (Family Court Cases)

4.20 pm

The Minister for Children (Margaret Hodge): I share the deep concern that has been expressed both in this House and by the wider public following the Court of Appeal's judgment in the appeal against the conviction of Angela Cannings.

This has been a tragic case and we recognise that there may well be other cases in which parents and children have been wrongly separated. With the passage of time, it is extremely hard to put right past wrongs. When such wrongs are identified, however, we must do what we can. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that there are cases in which children have properly been separated from parents who have harmed them or their brothers and sisters—cases in which intervention has served to safeguard the children.

Child abuse is a real issue, which can lead to injury and death. It is essential that we maintain our vigilance as a society in responding to this wrong. We must acknowledge the important contributions of all those professionals—paediatricians, social workers, police officers and others—who work to safeguard vulnerable children. I pay tribute to the vital work that those professionals undertake on our behalf.

The judgment of the Court of Appeal, however, made it clear that in relation to sudden unexplained infant deaths in which the outcome of a criminal trial depends exclusively, or almost exclusively, on a serious disagreement between distinguished and reputable experts, it will often be unsafe to proceed. I therefore welcomed the announcement by the Attorney-General on 19 January of his intention to consider 258 past convictions for the murder, manslaughter or infanticide of children under two, in order to ascertain whether the court decision may have been unsafe. The intention is that such cases might then be looked at further by the Criminal Cases Review Commission or be the subject of an appeal.

Since the Court of Appeal judgment, I have given careful consideration to its consequences for cases dealt with by the family courts. The implications are not straightforward. In a criminal case, the court is concerned only with the guilt or innocence of the accused. If there is any reasonable doubt about the guilt of the accused, he or she should go free. By contrast, in care and adoption cases, the best interests of the child are made paramount.

Although it is ultimately a matter for the courts to determine individual cases that come before them, it is right for me to give proper guidance to local authorities as to how they should proceed. I will therefore write shortly to councils with social services responsibilities to ask them to take the following action. First, I will ask them to consider those cases that are affected by the Attorney-General's review. In those cases, councils should stand ready to act in the light of the outcome of that review.

Secondly, within the next four weeks, councils with social services responsibilities should identify and review current cases. Those are cases in which they have commenced proceedings in relation to a child and in which the court has not yet made a final order. In those cases, councils should consider with their lawyers the implications for those proceedings of the Court of Appeal's judgment in the Cannings case.

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Thirdly, within the next 12 weeks, social services departments should, together with their lawyers, identify cases in which a final care order was made in the past which involved harm to the child or a sibling, and in which the grounds for the making of an order depended exclusively, or almost exclusively, on a serious disagreement between medical experts about the cause of the harm. In such cases councils should again consider, with their lawyers, whether there are now doubts about the reliability of the expert medical evidence. If that is so, they should—bearing in mind the child's current circumstances and current best interests—consider whether to apply to the court for the care order to be discharged, or whether to support any application that may be made by the parents or the child. When reviewing cases, councils will also need to take into account any fresh case law judgments from the Appeal Court that may be relevant.

The number of cases falling in the category that I am asking councils to review is likely to be manageable, although I do not intend to speculate about the precise number. Our best estimate is that it may number no more than the low hundreds, rather than thousands. I am not suggesting that it will be appropriate in every case, following a review, to apply for the discharge of the original care order. The decision must depend entirely on the circumstances of each case.

Councils already have a duty to review the cases of children who are the subjects of care orders at least every six months. Given the range of public concerns that have been raised, it would not be right to impose an arbitrary limit on the types of case that should be reviewed. The key determining factor is that the making of the care order depended exclusively, or almost exclusively, on a dispute between medical experts.

When applications are made to the court, whether by the local authority, the parents or the child, it will be for the court to decide in all cases whether the care order should be discharged. The president of the family division has set out the arrangements to be followed by family court judges in the light of the judgment in the Cannings case. When applications are made, cases are to be listed as soon as possible for directions before a High Court judge in the family division.

Let me now consider cases in which a child has been adopted. There will be cases in which children taken into care in those circumstances have since been adopted. We all accept that adoption is the best option for many looked-after children who cannot live with their birth families. In the overwhelming majority of cases, adoption gives a child the chance to be part of a loving family for life. I recognise that following the Appeal Court's judgment, there will be concerns in cases in which an adoption order followed a care order that had been made on the basis of disputed expert medical evidence. As I have said, however, the position in civil cases is quite different from that in criminal cases.

After adoption has taken place there are, of course, the paramount interests of the child to consider, and the interests of the adoptive parents, as well as those of the birth parents. The whole basis of adoption is that it ensures permanence and finality for all parties. For that reason, only in the most exceptional circumstances have courts been prepared to set aside an adoption order. It is not for me, or for any of us, to say whether any of the cases with which we are concerned would fall into this category. These are very complex issues, and are of course a matter for individuals and the courts.

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It would be wrong of me today to give a false impression of the scope for reopening existing adoption cases, when in truth it is extremely rare. That would give false hope to those who might wish to argue that the original adoption was based on flawed evidence. It would risk causing distress to adoptive families where children are happily settled.

If birth parents are worried, they should take their own legal advice and that of a number of organisations that provide support for such parents. If adoptive parents are worried, they should get in touch with the agency that arranged the adoption to seek further information and support. If adopted children are worried, they should talk first to their adoptive parents or, if that is difficult, to another responsible adult.

Under the Government's new adoption support regulations, which came into force last October, every local authority is required to have an adoption support services adviser, which may be an appropriate point of first contact.

These are difficult and sensitive issues, and there are no easy answers. I have set out a route forward for the period ahead, within the limits of my ability to act. With this review, and with the current and forthcoming judgments in both care proceedings and appeal cases in the courts, we will ensure that we are acting in the best way possible to protect the interests of children, both today and in the future.

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