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Margaret Hodge: Whether there is credibility in the evidence given by a particular individual is a matter not for the Department but for the courts. The issues with which we have to deal are incredibly difficult. With judgments in relation to child proceedings in the courts there is often disputed medical evidence, and it is difficult to say that the science is certain. Furthermore, as our understanding of the science proceeds, matters change. There is increased understanding of the issues surrounding the unexplained deaths of children, which has led to review by the courts, and to the decisions of the courts on which we are now acting.
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I, too, thank the Minister for her courtesy in providing an early discussion, and for making her statement available in advance. I associate myself with her comments about the tragic cases and extend my sympathy to all those involved. I also associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), which I shall not repeat.
I accept that each case is individual, but people will want reassurance that all councils are following the same procedures. For example, the phrase "best efforts" occurs in the statement, but what monitoring will there be to establish the performance of councils reviewing current cases over the next four weeks? What monitoring will there be across councils to establish uniformity of approach as a result of the review both of current cases and of those cases where a final care order has been made?
Many people face uncertaintybirth parents, adoptive parents and adopted childrenso will the Minister consider setting up a national helpline for the first point of contact, with clear routes for further advice?
Has there been, or will there be, any research into child deaths that have occurred after an adoption that itself took place because the natural parent was judged to have Munchausen syndrome by proxy? That might shed further light in respect of expert witnesses.
What discussions has the Minister held with colleagues in the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Home Office in the light of the review of the coroner service and the lack of paediatric pathologists? What efforts are being made to fill the vacant paediatric co-ordinator positions in regions throughout the country? It is important that people are not deterred from applying for those vital positions.
Finally, does the Minister agree that, despite the great concern that we are expressing today, if justice is to prevail, the police, social services and other professionals must not be discouraged from fully investigating all cases of suspected child abuse?
Margaret Hodge: I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position as the Liberal Democrat representative on children's affairs. I concur entirely with her final statement: it is extremely important, in the prevailing climate, to re-state our commitment to all the professionals who work in the extremely difficult field of trying to detect and prevent child abuse and who have responsibility for safeguarding children. Indeed, one of my concerns throughout the process has been to support many of the paediatricians who work in that field, who feel vulnerable and threatened by much of the criticism that has been levelled against them. There are difficulties in recruiting high-quality paediatricians to support the work of safeguarding children. We cannot tolerate that, and we want to support the profession in recruiting and keeping high-quality individuals to work in that field.
The hon. Lady asked whether councils would do as we asked. We are issuing guidance and that will form the basis of the requirement that they act as we have asked them to do. She asked whether we would establish a national helpline. We considered that, but, as a range of support agencies is in situ, we decided that it was better to work through the helplines and organisations that already exist. All local authorities have adoption support facilities and a number of national organisations offer support to all the groups of people who might be involved. Such organisations include NORCAPthe National Organisation for the Counselling of Adoptees and Parentsthe Family Rights Group, After Adoption and the Post-Adoption centre. There is a whole range of such groups and we thought it better to work through them.
Any child death, whenever it occurs, will of course be investigated, so I did not quite get the point that the hon. Lady was making about that. Any child death will be the subject of investigation by the relevant professionals. With that, I think that I have dealt with most of the hon. Lady's questions.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): I commend my right hon. Friend for a balanced and wise response to a very difficult situation. Will she assure me that the independent reviewing officers, who have a crucial role in chairing the six-monthly statutory reviews
Such situations may involve children who are settled and who cannot possibly be disturbed, but given that care situations and adoptive placements are more open these days, will she assure me that the president of the family division and her colleagues will look more sympathetically upon applications for contact from parents who have been placed in such dreadful and tragic situations?
Margaret Hodge: First, I acknowledge my hon. Friend's important role in supporting social workers in their work of safeguarding and protecting children and the wide professional experience that he brings to the House.
Secondly, I confirm that the independent reviewing officer will play a key role. My hon. Friend knows that we are developing advocacy support arrangements in all local authoritiessome arrangements are more developed than othersso that the child's interest and voice are heard in difficult proceedings. There are also a number of national organisations and children's rights officers in local authorities. I hope that the National Youth Advocacy Service and others will play their partChildLine is, of course, the first port of call for many young children.
Finally, my hon. Friend raised the issue of contact for adopted children, where it may be appropriate for them to re-establish contact with a birth parent. Again, the matter is for the courts, where children's cases may be taken. I am sure that the courts will examine such situations sympathetically where it is appropriate to do so.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): May I press the Minister on the matter of Sir Roy Meadow? Will she assure the House that every case in which he has been an expert witness will be re-examined? There is wide public disquiet.
Margaret Hodge: The hon. Gentleman probably knows that we do not keep central records of local authority care proceedings, so there is no way to detect the number of cases in which the advice of one particular individual was used. It would be inappropriate for me, or indeed for him, to pass judgment on all the cases in which Sir Roy Meadow gave evidence, and in particular those involving children, before the General Medical Council has examined Sir Roy Meadow's professional competence and his evidenceSir Roy Meadow is currently subject to GMC proceedings. I assure the hon. Gentleman that under the guidance that I am publishing, local authorities will review cases in which the decision to take a child into care rested wholly or mainly on disputed medical evidence and make sure that the child's best interest is promoted and protected.
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I compliment my right hon. Friend on the care that she has taken over the weeks to ensure that this difficult matter is dealt with correctly and fairly. Will she consider this possible further step? The local authorities that are being guided
Margaret Hodge: I compliment my hon. and learned Friend on the work that she has done on this difficult issue and the positive contribution she has made to the deliberations on how to move forward on these complex matters. I will certainly consider her suggestion of asking the Law Society family practitioners group to give advice to parents and I will come back to her on that point. We will keep under review her suggestion that we should take further action in relation to one particular individual and his expert witness activities.
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): In anticipation of the Minister's welcome statement, I spoke not two hours ago to Councillor Judy Seager, the cabinet member responsible for social services for Wiltshire county council. She raised the important issue of what happens when a case has to be reviewed but the evidence was heard in camera. What guidance would the Minister give in those circumstances?