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Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): First, I thank the Minister for the advance copy of her statement and for the opportunity that she gave me, and doubtless others, to discuss these matters before she came to the Dispatch Box. She is right when she says that this is a very serious matter, and I welcome the decision to facilitate the local authority review and provide an indication to local authorities of how it should be carried out. It remains a matter of huge public concern, and it relates to what could be one of the worst miscarriages of justice seen in this country for a very long time.
The Minister said that the number of cases is likely to be in the few hundreds, but it is clear from her statement that that relates specifically to cases in which the medical evidence was contested by other medical evidence. Can she give us any indication of how many cases in all there might be that depended on the medical evidence of Sir Roy Meadow, even if that evidence was not challenged? Is she aware that, in many casesI have this on good anecdotal evidence from within my profession as a barristerand especially cases heard outside London, when an eminent expert such as Sir Roy Meadow was involved, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service commissioned joint reports from that expert with local authorities, and individual solicitors representing families did not feel readily able to challenge, or to go about the process of finding somebody to challenge, his opinions?
That is evidenced by the fact that in the answers given to the questions of my noble Friend Lord Howe on 12 February, it was pointed out that Sir Roy Meadow was the preferred lecturer of choice at the Judicial Studies Board for nominated child care judges between 1997 and 2001, and his opinion was taken as gospel. Is there
Concerning the mechanics, the Minister said that local authorities are required to make an informed criticism of their own past actionsthat is clearly implicit in the process that she has set in train.
While I hope that they will be able to do so, my experience in representing local authorities in care proceedings and appearing against them suggests that bureaucracies are often ill placed to review their own past assumptions and the errors flowing from them. I appreciate that the Minister can only give a steer in these matters, but should there not be some mechanism for an independent review of the process, particularly if the numbers are as small as the Minister hopes they will be? As I understand it, CAFCASS, as the guardian of the child's interest in court proceedings, would be involved only if the case went back to court. Should there not be a mechanism for enabling its earlier involvement if that were appropriate?
What resources will be made available to local authorities to carry out the review? I am mindfulI am sure the Minister is mindfulof the fact that local authority social services are enormously stretched. Services are often dependent on locum social workers and often come in for criticism because they are so stretched. Will further resources be made available to local authorities that have to carry out this delicate and self-searching process to ensure that they reach the right decision on whether to return to court?
In reviews of cases where a final care order has been made and an adoption may be imminent, can the Minister give the House an assurance that the adoption process will be frozen until the review is completed? The same applies, to some extent, where current care proceedings cases are pending, but it is much easier to deal with them than cases where the date of the formal adoption may lie at the end of the next week.
It is likely that the review will leadperfectly properly in some casesto local authorities taking the decision not to reopen some cases. In those circumstances, what notification will families be given of the basis on which the decision was arrived at? Clearly, in some cases, families may wish to challenge the decision, and I am sure that the Minister would acknowledge that, before they embark on what may be harrowing and difficult litigation, it is important that those families have some idea of the reasoning behind the local authority's decision not to go back to court. Will the Minister give an assurance that proper notification of the background reasons for a local authority decision will be given? Will there be an opportunity for legal aid to be made readily available to families wanting to go to court?
Finally, in cases where adoption has taken place, there may be circumstances in which there is no going back, even though a court might otherwise have wanted to reopen proceedings. However, that inevitably raises the possibility that claims for compensation will be
When the Solicitor-General made her statement in respect of criminal cases, I said that this is not a party-political issue. It is, however, an issue of great seriousness for the Government, who have to ensure that good government is carried out, and for Parliament, because we have to ensure that injustices are righted. I look forward to continuing to co-operate with the Minister to achieve that end.
Margaret Hodge: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and I assure him that I also view this as an extremely serious matter, in which the House has huge interest and concern. I shall report back as regularly as is appropriate, as I fully intend to keep the matter under review in the forthcoming period.
The hon. Gentleman asked about cases where the evidence was not disputed and the sole basis for undertaking care proceedings for a child was the conduct of a particular individual. He asked whether there would be a review of those care proceedings and he will know that all care cases are reviewed every six months. I have no doubt that in cases where one particular individual was the sole expert in the proceedings, local authorities will act in a sensible and rational manner and review them.
I also draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention a fact that, as someone who has practised in that field, he will already knowthat on the whole, when care proceedings are taken, although medical evidence is one of the issues on which the decision is based, the best interests of the child are seen in the round, and the courts have regard to many other factors before coming to a decision.
In asking local authorities to review cases, I am mindful of the fact that the Cannings judgment and what has arisen from it do not constitute a criticism of local authorities' conduct of care proceedings. New information has come to light, and it is in the context of that new information that we are asking local authorities to proceed as they have done in the past in reviewing the cases of children who are subject to care orders. The issue is therefore not a challenge to the local authority process or procedures. The hon. Gentleman will also know that in every local authority review process, an independent review officer will have a role to play in determining how to go forward with a case, and I think that that provides sufficient independence to give us confidence in the procedure.
The hon. Gentleman asked about local authority resources, and we shall watch that issue closely, because we have always said that we would compensate local authorities for new burdens. What happens will depend on the extent to which additional work falls on local authority departments, especially social services departments. We shall have to keep the matter under constant review.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether legal aid would be available for families. The answer is yes, on the usual means and merits tests that exist for current civil proceedings. He also asked whether we had thought about claims for compensation. We have considered that matter, and I entirely agree that we must keep it under close review, so that should such action be taken by individuals against particular local authorities, it would come as no surprise.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab): Frankly, my question is based on gossipbut it may be informed gossip. Were there points at which the Government machine raised the proverbial eyebrow at the decisions of Sir Roy Meadow, given the fact that many people could not swallow the figure of one in 73 million? Why on earth one in 73 million? Small oddities often reveal bigger oddities, so my question is: were there warnings inside the Department, as there certainly were with other cases in the Scotland Office, about that so-called medical expertise? I am not challenging the medical expertise, but we must ask questions about anybody who could be so silly, statistically.