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Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I take pleasure in presenting a petition on behalf of the Federation of Small Businesses in my constituency, which was brought to me by members of the "Don't Let Dunstable Die" group.
The Petition of members of the Federation of Small Businesses and others,
Declares that the House of Commons All-Party Small Shops Group estimates that there will be no independent retailers by 2015; declares that this equates to the loss of 50,000 small businesses; declares that the petitioners believe that small shops are struggling to survive because of local, regional and national government policies, together with the failure of the competition authorities to deal with the aggressive policies of the supermarkets.
Further declares that the loss of the UK's Independent retailers has far-reaching socio-economic and environmental implications for the whole community; further declares that superstores and small independent shops should not be considered as two separate markets.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to take steps to secure the future of small shops across the UK and to safeguard the choice and competition that people expect on the market place; to create an independent regulator to ensure that local retail planning decisions do not have a negative effect on the interests of the local community; and to prohibit unfair pricing advantages such as below cost selling.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I present this petition to the House on behalf of a number of my constituents-all affected in one way or another by the Equitable Life assurance society fiasco-headed by Mr. Colin Rivington. They remain loyal subjects of the Queen and petition this Parliament to take action on their behalf.
"The Petition of the residents of the constituency of Portsmouth South,
Declares that the Petitioners either are or they represent or support members, former members or personal representatives of deceased members of the Equitable Life Assurance Society who have suffered maladministration leading to injustice, as found by the Parliamentary Ombudsman in her report upon Equitable Life, ordered by the House of Commons to be printed on 16 July 2008 and bearing reference number HC 815; and further declares that the Petitioners or those whom they represent or support have suffered regulatory failure on the part of the public bodies responsible from the year 1992 onwards, but have not received compensation for the resulting losses and outrage.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to uphold the constitutional standing of the Parliamentary Ombudsman by complying in full with the findings and recommendations of her Report upon Equitable Life.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): I welcome this chance to raise on the Adjournment of the House my deep concerns about the adoption of very young children. In particular, I wish to expose the policy of Suffolk county council in cases where the birth parents do not wish to give up newly born babies for adoption. The council actively seeks opportunities to remove babies from their mothers. Its social work staff do so in a manner that in my view is sometimes tantamount to child kidnapping.
I also wish to raise related concerns about custody decisions in cases where the parents are separated, and about the role of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. Individual CAFCASS officers exercise substantial influence over the outcome of court hearings. They are often extremely unhelpful, both to birth parents who wish to be able to bring up their own children and to fathers who wish to retain access to children following the breakdown of a relationship.
I have suspected for some time that an explicit if unpublished aim of the staff of Suffolk county council is to remove very young children from the care of their parents wherever possible. My anxiety results from a growing number of families in my constituency who come to me for help when Suffolk county council staff threaten to take away their children. I shall illustrate my concern by describing just one family, whom I have got to know well in the past 18 months. I wish I could believe that their case was exceptional but, alas, I fear that it may be typical of the practices followed by social workers throughout Suffolk, and possibly elsewhere in the country.
For legal reasons, I cannot use the family's real names. I first met Carissa when she came to my constituency surgery in July 2008, with her partner Jim. At the time, Carissa was seven months' pregnant. I formed the view, which has been confirmed on every subsequent occasion, that although Carissa had a difficult and unhappy upbringing herself, she is potentially a loving and responsible mother, and that Jim would be a supportive and caring father.
Carissa and Jim were concerned about the threats of Suffolk county council staff to take away their unborn baby soon after its birth. I therefore wrote to the then director for children and young people to ask why her staff had threatened this action, only to be informed that the county council was bound by confidentiality rules that prevented it from disclosing anything about the case. That was despite the fact that both parents had authorised the council, in writing, to disclose all information to me, however damaging it might be to them.
Their daughter Poppy was born early in September last year. Suffolk county council social services monitored Poppy's progress minutely during the first few weeks of her life. Happily, she prospered at home under the loving care of Carissa and Jim. However, the fact that no fault could be found in the physical and emotional care provided by her natural parents did not deter the council from destroying this fragile family.
On 27 October, the county council staff, having first ensured that Jim would be away from home, arrived unannounced and without warning at Carissa's home, accompanied by police. They snatched Poppy, then only a few weeks old, from the arms of her distraught mother. I immediately protested to the council about that unjust and cruel act. I received a letter in reply containing the chilling, and completely ungrammatical phrase
"I can confirm that the infant was removed without notice with the assistance of the police however no force was used."
The appalling truth is that, in Suffolk in 2008, social workers and police could burst unannounced into a home to snatch a nine-week-old baby from the arms of her mother-a mother who is not only totally innocent of any offence but who is not even suspected of having harmed her child. Such is the extraordinary power of the social workers that all of that happens in a way that cannot be challenged. When the innocent victim asks her Member of Parliament for help, his inquiries are met with a wall of silence. This wall of silence is said to be in order to protect the privacy of the child. The truth is that it serves to conceal the actions of social workers from public gaze.
It is very probable that if social workers had to operate with the same level of transparency and public scrutiny as every other profession takes for granted, some of the terrible cases where a failure to intervene, as opposed to the problem of unnecessary and unjust intervention in the case that I am describing, would not take place.
To make matters very much worse, the circumstances of the raid were seriously misrepresented when council staff gave evidence in August this year to the adoption panel considering Poppy's future. Following the removal of Poppy from the care of her parents, a bitter legal battle took place, which continues to this day. Throughout this process Suffolk county council has repeatedly changed the grounds for removing Poppy, alternating between blaming one parent and then the other.
The council's search for a justification for its cruelty became increasingly frantic as one initial diagnosis was overturned and replaced with another. Numerous contradictions arose which cast serious doubt on the soundness of the case against the couple. The first doctor's psychological assessment of Carissa declared that she qualified for a diagnosis of factitious disorder. Then a consultant forensic psychiatrist decided after the briefest of assessments that she fulfilled the criteria for the much more catch-all narcissistic personality disorder. The first doctor assessed that Jim was "a pathological liar". Later, a consultant clinical psychologist
"would not endorse the expression".
"as being very concerned about the fragmented process of this case".
"disadvantage to the professional assessment as each had only part of the picture".
Astonishingly, however, at no point has the ability of Carissa and Jim to care for Poppy been questioned. It is acknowledged that in the few weeks in which they were allowed to look after her, they did so in an exemplary manner.
The final favoured rationale given by social services for Poppy's adoption order was based on nothing more than the possibility of future emotional abuse of her by either Carissa or Jim. The council staff claimed that only if Carissa received two years of therapy, and if Jim received at least six months', could they become responsible parents. Accepting that advice, and using wording that betrayed his own prejudices, a judge concluded that that would be too long a period to wait and that Poppy should therefore be taken away from her loving parents.
The consistent thread running through this horrifying story has been the evident determination of social services staff to prevent an infant from being brought up in the care of her natural parents. There have been many other contradictions and inconsistencies in the case-far too many to list in this debate. Throughout the process Carissa and Jim have co-operated fully with social services, which is a reflection of how desperate they have been to retain their role as Poppy's parents. They were often caught in Catch-22 situations. Initially, Carissa was told she would have more chance of keeping Poppy if she separated from Jim. When she reluctantly complied with this suggestion temporarily in order to keep Poppy, however, the alleged instability of their relationship was cited as an additional reason for adoption.
In August this year, when the Suffolk county council adoption panel held its hearing about the case, Jim and Carissa asked me to attend as their McKenzie friend, the first time I have undertaken this role. A kangaroo court would be a better title for the so-called panel. I inquired about its members and was told that they were
"people with an interest in adoption-either adoptive parents themselves or people who had been adopted".
Put another way, that meant that the panel consisted of people who were emotionally in favour of adoption, regardless of the merits of any individual case. I later learned that the panel almost always recommends that babies are adopted and practically never returns them to their birth parents.
The procedure followed by the panel involves its members meeting first in private to consider the evidence. Neither Carissa nor Jim was permitted to know what information was being considered by the panel at this stage. This was particularly alarming because extensive and detailed notes were regularly written up after various meetings with council staff, CAFCASS employees and so on. Neither Carissa nor Jim ever had an opportunity to see these notes, to check their veracity or to comment on the judgments that they contained.
This process would not, of course, be permitted if Carissa and Jim were facing criminal charges. The panel process equates to trying someone for an offence without giving them the chance to know on what the case against them is based. It is such a flagrant breach of natural justice that it would not be tolerated in any other legal process and should not be tolerated in adoption cases.
Neither Carissa nor Jim stands accused of any offence whatever. The punishment that they face, however, is one of the most terrible any parent can face-the forced
removal of their baby. The awful truth is that they would have more legal rights and would be treated more humanely and justly if they were on trial for murdering their child.
It all meant that when Carissa and Jim eventually met the panel, they had no idea what points they should try to make because they did not know what they were accused of. Equally seriously, the accuracy of the allegations put before the panel by council staff is extremely questionable. One allegation, based on evidence from a council staff worker, was that Jim had been present when Poppy was snatched from her mother's home. It was said that a man's voice making threatening comments was heard from another room in the flat where Carissa was living with Poppy. That was not just a fabrication but must have been known by council staff to be a fabrication when it was included among the items for consideration by the panel.
I am not qualified to assess the suitability of my constituents to parent their own child, but I am very concerned about the case. In bringing it, Suffolk county council has followed a procedure that should be outlawed in any civilised country. It is a process that denies parents the most basic human and legal rights.
I am also concerned about the apparent contortions that county council social services and their appointed medical practitioners have gone through to justify their intervention and to find grounds for adoption. It is clear that far more accountability and scrutiny are required for social workers, CAFCASS officials, expert witnesses and judges. That is particularly the case when many of the same people are frequently involved. For example, the judge who oversaw a previous private law proceeding relating to Carissa's former husband also dealt with the case of Poppy. The CAFCASS practitioner who is Poppy's guardian was also involved in a custody dispute about Carissa's first child.
Before concluding, I wish to mention briefly another constituency case involving this same CAFCASS worker. I consider the actions of that worker to be so damaging to the families she is appointed to help that, as soon as I am legally permitted to do so, I shall name her publicly. In the meantime, I strongly advise CAFCASS that she should be suspended.
In that other case, a previously stable relationship between Richard and his partner, who together had a young daughter, broke down in distressing circumstances when his partner's older daughter physically attacked Richard. Unable to return to the family home, for which he had paid, and unwilling to bring charges against his stepdaughter, Richard moved out.
At first, despite regular threats of violence against Richard and his family from the family of his former partner, threats that were so serious that significant protection measures had to be taken, Richard continued to enjoy almost daily access to his daughter-that is, until this CAFCASS worker arrived on the scene. In flagrant contradiction of the merits of the case and very much against the interests of the young girl concerned, the CAFCASS officer persuaded a court to cut Richard's access to his only daughter to a supervised session of no more than three hours a week. In the process, Richard's personal safety was seriously compromised. The result has been the destruction of the previously close and loving relationship between Richard and his daughter.
Great distress has been caused to the whole of his family and Richard's health and well-being have been gravely damaged.
To sum up, I believe that the current procedure for resolving adoption cases when the natural parents wish to retain care and custody of their children is unfair, unjust and should not be tolerated. The secrecy surrounding the process, together with the appalling lack of scrutiny and accountability in the social care and family court system, is made worse by the fact that Members of Parliament are prevented from having proper information in relation to "child protection" cases.
Like other hon. Members, I am daily supporting constituents who have been let down by some branch of the state. Uniquely in the area of child protection, I am expected to trust that public officials are doing everything absolutely correctly. I am not allowed to make an informed judgment about that myself.
Sadly, we know from the terrible baby P case that sometimes social workers make grievous errors. How, therefore, can we believe that every time a child is forcibly removed from a loving home and from his or her natural parents, the judgment of the social workers is so perfect and faultless that it should not be open to any outside scrutiny?
In the case of Poppy it was only in September, after a court had ruled that she should be permanently and forcibly adopted, that I was finally allowed access to the detailed case notes. Poppy's parents themselves are still struggling to see the data held on them despite wanting to mount a private appeal. Once again, the rights of people accused of crimes, however serious, are far greater than those of parents of children whom social workers want to seize for adoption. In criminal cases, defendants have a right to receive copies of case conference notes and all the evidence that is used against them in court.
There are, of course, many cases in which removing a child from the care of its parents is necessary and right, and tragically decisions about whether to return an abused child to abusive parents may literally be a matter of life or death. The category, however, of emotional abuse is more complex, but in any circumstances it is surely true that, if the professionals involved were made more accountable, decisions about permanent removal would be a little easier to justify. The problem of accountability is complex, but as award-winning journalist Camilla Cavendish, who has studied the subject, points out:
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