§ '.—(1) Grandparents shall have the right of access to their grandchild before he is taken into care.
§ (2) Grandparents shall have the right to be present or legally represented at any hearing or inquiry concerned with access to care, fostering and adoption of their grandchild or grandchildren.'.—[Mr. Ray Powell.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.11.30 am
§ Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)
I beg to move that the clause be read a Second time.
I am glad to have the opportunity of supporting new clause 10 this morning. I am sure that all hon. Members will appreciate the necessity for this change in the law and will embrace the new clause. First, I pay tribute to the work of the Lords and Ladies in the other place, where the Bill began, for the tremendous amount of work that they did. I pay tribute also to all hon. Members who served on the Committee, and to the Minister, for all the trouble, effort, energy and time that they have concentrated on the interests of children. Undoubtedly, that displays to the country that Parliament is not only about politics; it is about people. Parliamentarians of all parties care about children, and my speech will show the great number of hon. Members of all parties who have contributed in this Session to the campaign to grant certain rights to grandparents so that they can protect, care for and look after their grandchildren. Having said that about the Minister and the Committee, I must point out that having read in detail the letter that the Minister of State sent me earlier this week, I am not entirely satisfied that what he said is the answer.
I have been campaigning nationally and internationally for grandparents' rights for the past three years. However, we are here today primarily to consider and promote the rights of children, not of grandchildren, parents or great grandparents. As parliamentarians, we are here to protect the rights of children by law.
This morning right hon. and hon. Members will be rightly interested in yesterday's political manoeuvres, the resignations of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister's economic adviser and the other positions that were then on offer. Indeed, many hon. Members left the Chamber to get back to their offices or homes so that they could be near their telephones just in case they received a call. We also discussed the Prime Minister's statement on the Commonwealth conference in some detail yesterday, and all that that entailed.
This morning we should forget all about yesterday and about what happened earlier this morning and concentrate on this important Bill. Thousands of grandparents are 1297 suffering right now because of the complexities of the present law relating to child care. We must alter that state of affairs.
Because of the thousands of letters that I have received from grandparents on this subject, I can assure the House that grandparents are disinterested in the Chancellor's resignation, the state of the pound and in the slate for the new appointments. They are daily preoccupied with the grief, suffering, frustration and mental torture in which the law has trapped them. To love, care for and nurture one's grandchild for years and then for that grandchild to be taken away is so devastating that one cannot hope to attract responses to the matters that preoccupy hon. Members. I plead yet again that we spare parliamentary time for those less fortunate than ourselves and that we pass legislation to help them.
We are all aware of one-parent families, the increasing divorce rate and of the innocent children who are forced into the middle of a situation not of their making. We are all aware of the vile, repugnant, nauseating and extensive increase in child sexual abuse. The liberal attitudes of some people tend to condone some of those offences to a certain degree. Innocent children suffer not only from that abuse but from the after-effects and the resulting break-up of the family unit. When the stability of their family life is shattered, they soon realise that everything changes and they seek help. They search for consolation, comfort, protection and real, honest sexless love.
Let hon. Members try to imagine themselves as children again and abandoned for the reasons that I have described. To whom would they turn? Who else but the senior of the family? To whom but the mothers and fathers of one or the other of their own mothers or fathers? Children would not seek out the social services or a guardian. They would not seek anyone from outside their family unit, which is why grandparents should have the legal right to be the first people contacted. Grandparents should be the first to have a legal right to care for, protect and adopt their grandchildren so that we can avoid the escalation of such young people growing into disturbed adults, without stability in their lives and with little hope—unless we change the law.
Let the thousands of grandparents who have written to me have that right. Let the law be changed to stop the heartache, sorrow, stress, emotional unheaval, trauma, grief, mental torture and frustration that the present system inflicts not only on children, whom the Bill seeks to protect, but on their loving, caring and loyal grandparents. Grandparents are crying out with undoubted passion for something that is becoming uncommon. It is rare in this avaricious and mercenary society to find people crying out to be afforded the legal right to give something. Grandparents want to give their love, time, care and devotion. Those feelings can be understood by all who are grandparents or caring, loving and unselfish parents.
We should be grateful that the majority of people still enjoy good family life, but we are here this morning to consider a Bill to help protect family life as we know it and to protect children. That is why it is essential that we support the new clause.
The new clause is essential for all children and grandparents, but it is especially essential for those grandparents who are involved in laborious legal battles 1298 about allowing them access to their grandchildren or establishing their right to care for or adopt those children. The new clause is the only way in which it can be made abundantly clear that we respect grandparents' rights, that we appreciate their profound difficulties and are determined to rectify present injustices.
On Second Reading I referred to a ten-minute Bill that I had introduced on 17 February 1988. I also referred to an early-day motion that I had tabled, which had received 333 signatures of support from right hon. and hon. Members of every political party. Those signatures represented support from more than 60 per cent. of the House. That early-day motion read:That this House deplores the increasing frequency of grandparents being deprived of the right of access to, care, fostering or adoption of their grandchildren; notes with alarm the attitude of some social services employees; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to introduce early legislation to give legal rights to grandparents providing immediate right of access before children are taken into care and the right to be present or legally represented at any official hearing or inquiry regarding future access to, care, fostering and adoption of their grandchild or grandchildren.That early-day motion commanded the support of more than 60 per cent. of the House. Therefore, the majority have made a decision and it is up to the Minister to take due note of what they have signified.
I received letters from Ministers who said that they fully supported the early-day motion, but were unable, because of the protocol of the House, to sign it. If one considers the number of Ministers, shadow Ministers and others unable to sign that early-day motion who pledged their support, it is clear that about 80 per cent. of the House is in favour of what it advocates.
I have referred to that early-day motion because new clause 10 follows, word for word, what it said. We are not allowed to discuss early-day motions, but they are referred to at length in the press, which reports on how many hon. Members sign various motions. The fact that my early-day motion received such overwhelming majority support means that it is imperative for the Minister to accept the new clause. I am not interested in receiving letters from him regarding meetings that he has had with the Opposition Front Bench team. I want him to acknowledge the wish of the majority in this House and I hope that he will embrace new clause 10 in the body of the Bill. When it becomes law the grandparents of this country will be so glad to receive the help and the assistance for which they are crying out.
The campaign for grandparents' rights has continued for more than 10 years and, apart from myself, it has also been conducted by other Opposition and Conservative Members. The problem has not recently been thrown at us; it has been outstanding for more than 10 years. That problem could be solved by new clause 10 and I trust that the Minister will give us a pledge that he will embody it in the Bill.
Only yesterday Mrs. Hughes from Hertfordshire was lobbying the House on grandparents' rights. She has no access to her grandchildren, but she thought that she should because she had reared one child for 10 years. There was, however, a dispute in the family and the daughter decided that her mother should not have right of access and took the child away. Mrs. Hughes told me that she had saved £6,000 for her retirement. She is now a widow and she cannot afford the legal fees for solicitors.
1299 She asked me for advice to see whether she could apply for legal aid because she wanted to go to the courts to try to gain access. Her problem encapsulates what new clause 10 is all about. We can all imagine what she is going through after 10 years of trying to see her granddaughter, but being refused her wish.
My office is only just up the Stairs above the No Lobby and I could fetch bundles of heartbreaking letters that I have received. Some people have written to tell me that they have lost their wives through suicide because they were denied access to their grandchildren. We cannot allow this to continue any longer.
The Minister may quote amendments to the Bill where he has included the word "grandparent" and for that I am extremely grateful. That inclusion, however, does not cover the problem of immediate access by grandparents. That is especially important in cases where the wife and husband have been killed in a car crash but the two children in the back of the car survive. One child may be in hospital in intensive care and the other child may be released. That child, however, is not released to its grandparents, but is sent, after one week of probationary care, to social sevices. Social services staff immediately take that child into care and appoint a guardian. In no time at all grandparents have not only lost their own son or daughter, but have lost their grandchild to social services.
As a result of new clause 10 grandparents in such cases would be contacted immediately either by the police, social services or any other local or national Government officer. They would be contacted first to see whether they were able to take care of their grandchildren. They should be the ones called on to look after their grandchildren.
An organisation called LOGIC—the love of grandparents in conflict—was established about 12 months ago. I am glad to say that it was created by grandparents throughout the country to advise grandparents on how to get legal advice—some of it free, some of it at substantially reduced rates. I do not want to criticise the two lawyers who serve as Ministers on the Bill, but many of my constituents who are miners made redundant in the past 10 years find themselves looking at their bank balances to see whether they can knock on the doors of barristers and solicitors who charge high fees. Although grandparents want to extend their rights to look after their grandchildren most are prevented from engaging the services of solicitors for financial reasons. As a result, they lose their rights to their grandchildren.
A letter in the Manchester Evening News in September 1989 referred to a grandparent who had criticised other grandparents for demanding rights of access to their grandchildren or the right to adopt them. The letter says:I feel deeply sorry for Realistic Grandmother of Wythenshawe, who says that grandparents are interfering old men and women who should not have "rights" to their grandchildren.I have five lovely grandsons, aged 16 down to three, and I do not know what I would have done without them, particularly since I lost my husband three years ago.What a lot of love and happiness this embittered old grandmother is missing. Does she know what it is like to feel lonely and depressed, then suddenly the phone will ring and I hear one of my grandsons say, "Hello grandma"? It's music in my ears.They share their news with me, be it good or bad, and I share mine with them.She says she has not seen her grandson for 11 years and does not particularly wish to, but please, before it is too late, 1300 get to know him and get that chip off your shoulder. That is why your family leave you alone, but you don't know what you are missing … grandchildren are jewels in your crown.That is typical of thousands of letters about grandparents that I have received.
When we realise the pain of separation felt by grandparents we feel a responsibility as parliamentarians to do something about it. It is no legal fault of grandparents that they should be deprived of their grandchildren.
During the recess I had the great good fortune to go to Barbados to represent the House at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association's 35th annual conference. I went with many colleagues from both sides of the House, and there we discussed in great depth the rights of children. We were not out there for a holiday. We held an important debate on Thursday 12 October entitled:What can Commonwealth Parliaments do individually and collectively to promote the survival and rights of children?This was not the Commonwealth conference about which we heard a statement from the Prime Minister yesterday. It was a conference at which everyone agreed about what we should be doing about the survival and rights of children. All the representatives applauded the efforts being made in their countries and I took the opportunity to go to the rostrum to speak on behalf of the United Kingdom branch about what we are doing in Parliament. I underlined the fact that the Government have brought in the Children Bill, and that it was a lengthy Bill involving many changes and a great deal of protection for the people of this country.
Naturally, I mentioned grandparents and what the laws here mean to them—they deprive them of their rights of access and adoption. Commonwealth representatives at the meeting were appalled to hear that grandparents here are not recognised as the seniors of the family unit, to be consulted before any action is taken by anyone else, including the state.
A representative from the Cook islands, who was the islands' Prime Minister last year, told me later the same day that children are treated as flowers there. He said that grandparents are consulted on each and every issue to do with the family. When there is a dispute, the family unit is called in to resolve it. The Cook islands may be small but the people there obviously nurture their children well. It is time that we looked at the example of such countries and recognised that they have always regarded grandparents as the most important members of the family, to be consulted before anyone else.
The Commonwealth conference hosted an interesting and open debate to which many members contributed, and it would be wise of the Minister, before he proceeds any further with the Bill, to read extracts from the speeches and decide whether we can copy some of the Commonwealth countries that may look to us for guidance but to which perhaps we should also look for guidance. I was surprised to hear the Speaker of the Barbados Parliament tell the conference that 35 per cent. of the children born in Barbados are in one-parent families. That causes problems, but the people there still enjoy family unity and still recognise grandparents as the senior members of the family. It is essential that we recognise that same principle.
1301 12 noon
At the beginning of my speech I outlined the support that I have received. The Government should clearly understand that the law must be changed. It is time that they looked in detail at the proposals contained in the new clause. We know that we have to protect children and I recognise that we must also protect the rights of parents. However, it is sometimes necessary in the interests of children to protect also the rights of grandparents.
In the three-year struggle to have this burning problem recognised, people from all sides of the political spectrum, not only in the House and in the other place but throughout the country, have campaigned with me. First, I introduced a 10-minute Bill and then an early-day motion. That was followed by a national lobby of grandparents and following that, grandparents from all over the country held a meeting in Westminster hall. The meeting was addressed by 25 hon. Members representing all the parties in the House. I am sorry that the compassion and the pleas of those hon. Members were not recorded. It is a shame that television cameras were not present in Westminster hall for that meeting.
I look forward to television cameras coming into the Chamber. I do not know whether they will be able to take head and shoulder shots of me or whether I will have to stand on the Bench in order to be caught by the camera. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) has said that if I were to speak from the Dispatch Box I would need to stand on an orange box in order to be able to see over it. When I speak about my size I always think about Lloyd George. He had other problems although they may not have been connected with grandparents. He was very short but he was dynamic. I expect that he was a grandparent.
I continued my campaign by means of petitions, the first of which contained 12,000 signatures and asked for a change in the law. There was a further petition containing 8,000 names. I have also had Adjournment debates. Hon. Members know the ritual. Anyone who wants to promote something has to go through all the processes to get parliamentary support and approval to try to get the Government to understand that there is a problem that needs to be solved. I continually raised the issue in business questions and spoke on Second Reading of the Bill. The Government pulled up stumps at 1.30 on Wednesday morning, but if they had not I had enough material to keep the House going until the date set for the new Session. Perhaps the Government were aware of that and that was what made them introduce the guillotine.
I appreciate the work that has gone into the Children Bill and I am sure that all hon. Members appreciate the work carried out by the Committee. I pay tribute to the members of the Committee for the major concessions that they have won from the Government, such as the inspection of private schools, safeguarding runaways, registration of day care facilities, registration and inspection of private children's homes, restrictions on local authority powers to remove children from home without a court order and limited reform of the court system. Those are all excellent measures and I pay tribute to the Opposition team for ensuring that those concessions were made by the Government.
1302 I applaud the Government for recognising that they were advancing the rights of children by paying attention to those matters. I should be pleased if the Minister would now rise in his place and say, "Yes, the hon. Member for Ogmore can have new clause 10. We will put it on the statute book." Grandparents from all parts of the country—indeed, 10 million votes—are out there waiting to support such a measure. I hope that the Minister can give his support.
I have a great deal of further material on which I wish to speak. I realise that other hon. Members may wish to speak, but I wish to draw your attention, Madam Deputy Speaker, to an important matter on which I have made notes—the rights of grandparents. Society advocates that many groups of people have rights, most of which are inherent in the law of the land. We have laws to guard against discrimination on grounds of race or creed. We have unions to fight for workers' rights. Other groups, rightly, fight for more thought to be given to the rights of the handicapped. The laws governing the rights of children and parents are constantly evolving. Nearly every section of society is covered by laws guarding its rights against injustice. However, one vulnerable and defenceless group is sadly neglected by the law and by society. Grandparents are used, abused, forgotten or simply not considered. Yet they are the bedrock and back-up system of the family. They hold a unique place in everyone's heart and mind, either through their memory if they are dead, their presence if they are alive or a sense of regret and loss if they have never been known. They are the cord holding the different branches of the family together, keeping brothers, sisters, grandchildren and cousins, in touch with each other.
Grandparents are the safety net over which family life is played out, cushioning it against the knocks of living and loving. Their children bring their problems to them. Most often, that involves the grandparent taking an active part in finding a solution. Who looks after the children while mother has to go out to work? Who steps into the breach and keeps the household running smoothly when a new addition to the family arrives? Who shops, cleans, bakes, sews, knits and gardens to help out busy parents with young children? It is the grandparents.
Until 30 years ago, grandparents lived next door or close to a daughter, son or other close relative. Sometimes a street would be inhabited by many members of one family, providing a close sense of security and protection for everyone. If the grandparents did not have their own home, they usually lived as part of the family with one of their children. Thankfully, some still do. The effect was that each generation depended upon, cared for and loved each other. Among all the roles and relationships of mother, father, daughter, son and in-law, the overriding interests are those of grandparents and grandchildren.
Thousands of books and articles have been written on parenthood and the special bond between parent and child, but equally powerful in sweetness and intensity is the relationship between grandparent and child. It has a special kind of sacredness which has to be experienced.
I wish to refer to a book on grandparents' rights. Grandparents who have legal problems, as well as those who do not, should be invited to read and digest it. It explains to them some of their rights. It explains some of the rights that perhaps the Government would be wise to spend billions of pounds advertising instead of spending that money on privatisation. Grandparents should be 1303 acquainted with their legal rights and with the book that has been produced and edited by Jill Manthorpe and Celia Atherton. I hope that grandparents will obtain copies of it. It is promoted and backed by Age Concern. If grandparents read the book and if solicitors and others are prepared occasionally to give their time to advise grandparents, without asking them for the money that they have saved throughout their life, we might be able to establish the rights that I am seeking. If the clause is agreed to, however, grandparents would be entitled automatically to take up their rights through the courts.
As I have said, I prepared enough notes to allow me to make a three-hour speech. I did so because I have read and taken note of grandparents' claims. I have visited them. I have met them in the House and I have listened generally to their tragic circumstances. It is only by taking those steps that we in the House can recognise that the law needs to be changed.
It is not right for grandparents to have to travel miles to look from behind a shelter in a school yard just to have a glimpse of their grandson or granddaughter. It is not right for us to allow the law not to extend the right of access to grandparents, the right to be able to adopt and the right to be able to care for their grandchildren before the social services or other bodies allow them to be adopted.
I have a nephew. My sister died when she was 28 years of age and my nephew was brought up in my home with three of my brothers and four of my sisters, not as a nephew but as a son. He recently celebrated his 50th birthday. When I was congratulating him on reaching half a century I told the guests at the birthday party, "My younger brother is now 50." At 50, he broke down and cried. He did so because he had never thought of himself as part of a family unit. He had always realised that he had no mother at the age of three and that we had taken him in and cared for him. It was because he was loved and cared for in a family unit that he became a responsible and proper father, and he is now a grandfather.
People outside this place who have not had the love and care of a family unit because the law does not allow grandparents to look after them are becoming adult citizens daily. In addition, there are their children, their grandchildren and future grandchildren. Unless we change the law and allow grandparents automatically to have the rights for which I am asking, we shall deprive many people. I appeal to the Minister through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, with all the passion that I can muster, to accept that there is a need for a direct change in the law. The clause should be supported unanimously to ensure that grandparents have rights. I hope that the Minister will concede and ensure that the new clause is written into the Bill. In the interests of all grandparents, I plead for a change in the law.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
If ever there were an argument for having in the House hon. Members of grandparent age, we have just heard it. None of us can have failed to be moved either by the speech of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) or by the clear evidence that that speech was the product of an enormous amount of work. All of us owe him a very great debt.
I have absolutely no doubt that, over the past 20 or 30 years, in our anxiety to provide substitute parental care for 1304 many of our children, we have allowed the pendulum to swing far too far away from the natural family as that concept has been experienced in most countries of the world throughout history. Lamentably, the proposition that grandparents should, almost as matter of course, be last in the queue to be considered as suitable people to have children placed with them has held sway in far too many of our social services departments for far too long.
I have one reservation about new clause 10(1). I had in my constituency a really horrendous case in which a father had been sexually abusing his children for a very long time with the connivance and active assistance of his parents. The proposition that grandparents should have automatic right of access to a child before it is taken into care needs to be qualified in the light of such cases.
I hope that there will emerge from this brief debate an acceptance of the clear need to reinstate the position of grandparents. It should be an essential part of any social worker's training that he or she should be expected—indeed, required—to consider whether grandparents are not the best people to look after a child who needs to be taken into care. I have heard many stories of parents—often because they have formed an oppressive and unattractive liaison which is bad for the children—falling out with the grandparents and yet having their view as to whether the children should be allowed access to their grandparents and vice versa regarded as some kind of determinant.
One of the achievements of the Children Bill has been to re-establish—perhaps even to establish for the first time—the principle that the welfare of the child is paramount. That is a powerful instrument for ensuring that parents who have taken against their own parents, are not allowed to dominate the argument about whether the grandparents should have full rights.
§ Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)
My hon. Friend is on a very important point—perhaps more important than any other in this argument. I have a number of constituency cases directly affected by these matters and. tragically, the number seems to be growing. Does my hon. Friend agree that we can automatically assume that, if the grandparents are normal wholesome people—if I may put it that way without seeming to be patronising—the child can only benefit from a relationship with them? Does he agree that that should be conceded, even it the parents are being obstructive for the reasons that he so graphically described?
§ Mr. Rowe
I agree in principle. It is difficult to define "normal, wholesome people", because there are perfectly natural breaches between grandparents and parents on grounds of, for example, totally different religious or cultural beliefs. In those circumstances, and depending on the age of the child and how long the parents and grandparents have been estranged, and even on whether the grandparents are living in a different country, discretion must be retained.
The hon. Member for Ogmore is right to press for greater recognition by society of the importance of grandparents and of their rights vis-a-vis their grandchildren, but I have reservations about subsection (1), believing that grandparents' rights should not be automatic. However, I should like to see reversed the present situation whereby social services departments are entitled to take a 1305 decision which the grandparents, if they do not agree with it, must fight tooth and nail, against overwhelming odds. Very often, as we have heard, they lose that fight.
I argue that, through regulations or a code of conduct, or perhaps by an amendment being made to the new clause introduced in another place, social services should be required to explain to grandparents and to the court why they hold the view that the grandparents are not the right people with whom to place the child.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell). I appreciate the amount of work that my little friend has put into the problem, with a view to persuading the Government to do the right thing by children and grandparents. I have worked with my hon. Friend on that problem for a number of years. I watched carefully the faces of the Ministers on the Treasury Bench as they listened to my hon. Friend's impassioned plea. It was impassioned because my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore lives with the problem night and day, 24 hours a day. We discuss it together regularly. If one goes into his little office, one can see all the information that is stacked on his desk, on chairs and on the floor, relating to the problems of grandparents.
I welcome the day when my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore stands as a Labour Minister at the Government Dispatch Box—though I shall not be here to see it, because I am retiring at the next general election.
§ Mr. Ray Powell
I am most disappointed to learn that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) will not be found in his place after the next general election. However, I hope that the message will go out to all concerned that, if he is not in this House, it only means that right hon. and hon. Members will have to walk down the corridor to see him speak in another place.
§ Mr. Haynes
I shall ignore my hon. Friend's remark, but I look forward to seeing on television my little hon. Friend standing at the Dispatch Box and fighting for another cause. I hope that that cause will not be grandparents but that the Minister will tell the House today, "The hon. Member for Ogmore can have his new clause 10." Nevertheless, I hope to see in the televised proceedings of Parliament my hon. Friend speaking as a Minister in a Labour Government. I shall provide the orange box on which he will probably have to stand if the television cameras at least are to be able to catch sight of him.
Let me say at the outset that I have an interest to declare. I am a grandparent. Many of the 650 Members of the House are grandparents, even Mr. Speaker himself; I have often talked to him about his grandchildren and mine, for any hon. Member can approach Mr. Speaker and have a private discussion with him.
I remember a day when Mr. Speaker beckoned me to the Chair and asked me whether, at 4 o'clock that afternoon, I would go upstairs and act as a grandparent, because he had 24 little toddlers in to tea. I said, "Of course I will." At five minutes to four he beckoned to me and pointed upstairs, and I said, "It's all right, I'm going." I went upstairs and found 24 children seated round a long 1306 table, having tea with Mr. Speaker's good lady. They were having a whale of a time. That is the kind of thing that goes on outside this place—deep in the community.
As I have said, I shall be retiring at the next election. My wife Vera and I are preparing for that day right now. We are moving to a new home, across the road from our daughter, son-in-law and two beautiful grandchidren—Anna, 10, and Edward, eight. I am down here all the week, and the only contact that I can have with those two grandchildren is by telephone—with a bit of luck. I only get to see them when I go back at the weekend.
You know, Madam Deputy Speaker, when Vera and I see those kids, we melt, because it is so beautiful. I must explain why I feel like that, because I am trying to express a view on behalf of the grandparents of this nation. They feel, justifiably, that they are getting a raw deal. It comes over loud and clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore has said, when we have meetings both inside and outside this place. I well remember the meeting in the Grand Committee Room to which my hon. Friend referred: it was plainly solid with grandparents, who were pleading with the 25 Members of Parliament who found the time to go and listen to their views and to those of my hon. Friend because not everyone could do so.
Before I came to this place I was a magistrate for 15 years, and I served a fair amount of that time in the juvenile court. I saw the pleas of grandparents being completely ignored, because the law was not on their side. That is why we are appealing as we are: we wanted to do it the other day and did not get the opportunity, but we are doing it this Friday morning. We followed the debate on the Football Spectators Bill—because it was very important—but we were dying for this debate to start so that we could express our views. We have been holding ourselves back: we knew what we wanted to say, and what should happen about the Bill.
There are millions of grandparents out there looking for a fair deal and hoping that the Minister will say the right thing this morning. I know that the Minister has passion within him, although he can be a hard man—as he needs to be from time to time. There is a bit of softness and feeling in the bones of that Minister.
I hope that the Minister will come to the Dispatch Box and give us what we are pleading for, as it is essential. I realise that there is a time factor here and that there are other things to discuss, but I wanted to express my view and to say where I stand on the important issue of grandparents. I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me that opportunity.
§ Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)
I think that I am the first person to speak in this debate who is not a grandparent. I hope that I have not insulted the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) by that remark.
I have found this debate very moving, particularly the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell). I know how passionately he cares about this issue. I have had some correspondence with him about individual cases in my constituency. Many other right hon. and hon. Members have expressed their concern about this issue and would have liked to be here today. Many of them were here at 1 o'clock in the morning a few nights ago, and they were ready to speak at length on the new clause.
1307 I will mention one of them—my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney)—who is the youngest grandparent in this place, I think. 1 know that he feels passionately about this issue. He is a couple of years younger than I am and, if my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore would need an orange box to stand on at the Dispatch Box, my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield would need a stepladder, as he is a good deal shorter.
I shall take up one issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore about the new clause. He knows that I have a background in social work. On many occasions I have had to take children into care. While I do not take exception to what he said about certain people who work in social services, I assure him that I know that the vast majority of practising social workers would turn first to the solid, ever-present figure of a grandparent if they have to take a child into care.
I can think of many cases when I have turned to grandparents straight away when children come into care. They have cared for the children in all sorts of circumstances. I have come across so many cases where grandparents have been the only solid, consistent figure in some children's lives, and that is why I support the new clause.
Apart from my professional interest in the subject, as a Member of Parliament I have come across many constituency cases in which the treatment of grandparents by local authorities and the courts left a great deal to be desired.
In the debate on the guillotine motion yesterday, I mentioned briefly that I had fought for a woman who is the grandparent of a six-year-old child. She brought up the child, was the only figure in the child's life and loved and cared for him in the absence of a mother. Then he was adopted, and she had no rights. She could not get legal aid, because she had no right to be heard in court. I am angry about that. The law is wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore knows of more cases, as he is very involved with this issue.
The law is wrong. I appeal to the Minister to take on board the consensus in the House on the Bill, and particularly on new clause 10, and to ensure that it is incorporated into the Bill.
§ The Minister for Health (Mr. David Mellor)
The speech by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) reflects his great commitment to this issue, which I recognise. I join those right hon. and hon. Members who have paid tribute to him for the strength of his convictions and the eloquence with which he has put them across. Other hon. Members have rightly paid respect to his contribution and to the emotional strength of the case.
There is no doubt that, when the relationship between grandparents and children works well, there can be few better relationships. I speak as a father of young children; coincidentally—I did not arrange it because of this debate—they are spending the weekend with their grandparents, so I am well aware of the benefits of the relationship.
I do not seek to challenge the essential planks of the hon. Member for Ogmore's case, which are that the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is vital—when it works well it has so much to offer both sides—and that the law on grandparents, as it was before the Bill, was unsatisfactory, as it did not recognise what grandparents' rights should be. I have no real quarrel with the hon. Gentleman but I will remind him of something 1308 that used to be said to me in court on the rare occasions when I was on a winning wicket but going on a little more about my case than I needed to. The judge would say, "You are pushing at an open door."
The hon. Gentleman has not recognised how far we have taken on board already, in the work done on the Bill, the points to which he attaches importance. We have made changes to the law on grandparents to which, because of his assiduity and persistence in bringing forward his private Member's Bill, he is entitled to make some claims of authorship. If the hon. Gentleman looks closely at the Bill, rather than finding cause for continued dissatisfaction he would find cause for real pride in the shared achievements.
I want to persuade the House that the impact of the Bill is marked in relation to grandparents and other close relatives. If there is any hedging or equivocation, it is only because it is necessary for us to recognise that there are some bad grandparents just as there are bad parents. The court has to take account of that possibility. However, we wish to dwell, for obvious reasons on good grandparents rather than bad.
Just as the Bill is about protecting children from bad parents, we also need to protect them from bad grandparents. We must not give grandparents rights that in some instances parents would not enjoy, just because there is, rightly, a sentimental attachment to the relationship. We have taken on board and accept the hon. Gentleman's central point that the legal rights and entitlements of grandparents must be improved, and we have improved them. I shall explain how we have done that, because many hon. Members are interested.
§ Mr. Mellor
I listened with great care to what the hon. Gentleman said. It may be more advantageous if I set out the heart of the matter and if the hon. Gentleman then wants me to give way I will. There comes a time at which one has to concentrate on line-by-line issues that translate our good will into effective action. I am anxious that the hon. Gentleman should not under-estimate how much has been done.
The present law is unsatisfactory. In the Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Act 1986, grandparents are made parties in care proceedings where they can demonstrate a sufficient interest in the child. However, they cannot under the Act obtain anything like the range of orders that we would like to see. For example, they cannot participate in access proceedings by asking for an access order. They cannot participate in parental rights proceedings or obtain custody on the discharge of a care order. In future care proceedings, the court of its own motion will be able to give the care of the child to a grandparent rather than to the local authority—that is, it will be able to make a residence order. That is a major step forward.
The court can also make a contact order under the Bill, even if no application has been made. That links up with the requirements laid on the court to consider specifically the contact arrangements planned by the authority and to invite the parties to the proceedings—who could include grandparents—to comment on those arrangements. In other words, in future there will be plenty of scope for grandparents who can demonstrate a reasonable 1309 connection with or interest in the child to make a case for a contact order, which is the new terminology for an access order.
Where the child is not in care, part II of the Bill very much widens the circumstances in which grandparents may apply for contact. The hon. Member for Ogmore described cases where grandparents were standing outside a playground watching a child play because that was their only contact with him. I too consider that unacceptable, if the grandparents were people that a court would want to have contact with a child. Part II of the Bill widens the circumstances in which grandparents may apply for contact.
In allowing them to do so, we recognise the close bonds of affection that ususally exist between children and their grandparents. For the first time, we have recognised in an overt way that it can be in the best interests of a child to maintain contact with grandparents, even if there is parental opposition—for example, on the break-up of a marriage. For the first time, a court will be able to deal with those issues and maintain a contact even against parental opposition. It is a great step forward. In so far as I have any troubles or concerns about the debate this morning, I feel that the hon. Member for Ogmore has not realised how far he has pushed open the door. The door has been pushed wide open due to the impact of the hon. Gentleman and others on those of us who have been working on the detail of the Bill.
At present, a grandparent's right to apply for access is arbitrary and restrictive. The Bill provides that grandparents may apply for a contact order at any time. The only proviso to screen out undesirable circumstances is that they must first get the court's permission by showing that they have a good reason. Some may ask why that is necessary. The reason is that there may be some instances where parents are justified in preventing or limiting contact between children and their grandparents. Some grandparents may attempt to interfere in the relationship between their children and grandchildren. Given that we are dealing with vulnerable children—this is, rightly, a child-centred Bill—the court should have the ability to satisfy itself that there is a good reason for doing so.
I should like to make one thing absolutely clear. I and my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, who has had to go out for a moment but has been following the debate with great interest, are in no doubt whatsoever that in cases where grandparents have maintained a close relationship with the child, permission is unlikely to be much more than a formality. That is how we would wish it. That is a major advance, in which the hon. Gentleman can take pride.
He should take pride in that achievement, rather than feel dissatisfied. I really do not see how we could go very much further without running the risk of giving grandparents rights that we do not give to parents or other close relatives. Just as there are circumstances in which grandparents have to look after a child whose parents are tragically killed, so there are circumstances in which an elder brother or sister has had to do so. Other close family links should also be encouraged. In grouping grandparents with a range of other close relatives, one is not demeaning 1310 the position of grandparents. One would be in danger of demeaning other close relationships if one gave grandparents more rights than certain other key people.
§ Mr. Mellor
Perhaps in a moment.
The Bill cannot be criticised for referring to close relatives rather than singling out grandparents. Although it greatly widens the rights of grandparents, the hon. Gentleman may have missed some of its impact on those rights. My only criticism of the hon. Member for Ogmore is that he many not be aware of the good provisions in the Bill, which he provoked us into making.
§ Mr. Powell
When grandparents apply to put their case to a local authority hearing, the people conducting the hearing say, "You are not entitled to be legally represented." If they take the matter to court, they are told, "The court will not recognise your rights as grandparents." From the cases with which I have dealt, I understand that that is the problem with the law. New clause 10 suggests that they should be offered automatic rights of representation. I am not trying to convince the hon. and learned Gentleman that the law should be changed to give grandparents more protection than parents. I am pleading for grandparents' rights to be represented and for the court to be able to make a decision.
I am saying that the law should be clear, so that grandparents can interpret it without consulting barristers or solicitors. The law must be plain, so that people can understand it without continually having to consult the legal profession. I am pleading that new clause 10 should be accepted. The Minister's argument as to why it should not be accepted falls when we consider the requests that have been made by grandparents and the difficulties that they have experienced.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who mentioned social care cases, will confirm what I am saying. Unless the new clause is accepted, that will continue to happen.
§ Mr. Mellor
I do not mind long interventions. Happily, after a few problems on Tuesday night, we are discussing the Bill properly, with hon. Members giving their views with sincerity and vigour.
I am concerned that the hon. Member for Ogmore should not under-estimate the extent to which his case has been met by the Bill. He was primarily concerned about care proceedings, but he made some wider points, which is why I described the extent to which grandparents will benefit from the open-door policy of the Bill, which will allow them to apply for all relevant orders in most proceedings relating to their grandchildren.
§ Mr. Mellor
No. My hon. Friend should allow me to answer the intervention, and I am halfway through doing so. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I shall allow my hon. Friend to be helpful in a moment, but first 1311 I shall try to be helpful. In so far as it is necessary for someone to sweep up after that, I shall allow my hon. Friend to do so.
Care proceedings are the subject of the new clause. Under the Bill, for the first time, grandparents will be able to apply to appear before the court. The court's permission will be necessary to screen out undesirables. There may be grandparents with criminal convictions whom none of us would say should be given locus standi.
The grandparents about whom the hon. Member for Ogmore is concerned will be able to apply for a residence order—what used to be called care, custody and control of a child. That will discharge any care order. Grandparents can also apply for a contact order, with the court's permission. Even if the child went into care, they could have right of access determined by the court, and therefore one could not interfere with it. That is so much better than the position under the Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Act 1986 and a sign of how far forward we have moved.
In future care proceedings, a court of its own motion will be able to give the care of a child to a grandparent rather than a local authority. The court will be able to say, "Something needs to be done about this child. It is better that he goes to the grandparents than into local authority care." That is a major step forward.
The problem with the new clause is that it has an unintended effect, in that it does not sit well with the Bill. That is why I could not accept it, even if I thought that the principles were right. It is much better that rights of access are sorted out by a court. It will be able to look at the grandparents' influence as an alternative to the care order which is being sought.
I have regarded the new clause—I hope rightly—as a way of bringing these issues sharply into focus. Sadly, it is not possible to include it in the Bill because it does not dovetail in. The new clause has given me the opportunity to say that the position on care proceedings, like any other involving grandparents' rights, has been so transformed that the hon. Member for Ogmore should be able to walk happily out of this court—I should have said House. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has never had to walk into a court. I am getting back into my bad old ways. The hon. Members for Ogmore and for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) can leave the House feeling that they have participated in a great step forward for grandparents' rights. I am sorry if I bang on about it, but I should hate it if the hon. Member for Ogmore should fail at the moment of his triumph to realise how considerable that triumph is.
Lest I have left anything out, I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin).
§ Mr. Devlin
My hon. and learned Friend has dealt in his usual comprehensive way with almost every point. I wanted to draw attention to a clause providing for rules of court to be made. One provision is that rules should be made about a court's ability to say who is and who is not a party to the proceedings and to give them legal representation. That would extend to grandparents. The precise objection of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell)—about grandparents turning up at court and being told that they have nothing to do with the proceedings—has been met entirely.
§ Mr. Mellor
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He points to another excellent reason why the hon. Member for Ogmore should feel well pleased.
There is other work for us to do, so I shall conclude. I think that the Opposition Front Bench support my view that in the Bill we have substantially advanced the cause of grandparents and other close relatives in terms of their ability to participate in hearings about the future of a child whom they love, and to be entrusted with heavy responsibility if that is right in the circumstances. That is a major step forward. If, after the Bill becomes law, and after taking such a great step forward, it appears that there are still deficiencies, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not find many people who would object to further refinements.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give us the benefit of the doubt on this occasion. I could continue speaking about this matter for a great deal longer, but there would be no advantage to doing so. I hope that he recognises that there have been considerable advances—indeed, a. transformation of the rights of grandparents—and the hon. Gentleman has played his part in achieving them. The Bill takes a substantial leap forward, but if, with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clear that further steps need to be taken, that should more readily he possible because of the great tide of sympathy on this issue. We have gone a great way forward, and I cannot think of any hiatuses. Almost all the examples give by the hon. Gentleman are met by the Bill.
I have no objection to the thrust or the hon. Gentleman's case, but I believe that his points have been incorporated in the Bill. I hope that he will not feel it necessary to press the new clause, but should he do so, and for reasons that I am sure he will understand, I cannot advise my hon. Friends to accept his new clause.
§ Mr. Powell
I regret that you were not in the Chair earlier, Mr. Speaker, so that you could listen to all the debate, but I assume that you were listening elsewhere. I have been fortunate in that you have often been in the Chair when I have spoken about grandparents' rights. You have been most sympathetic in granting a great deal of time to me to elaborate on the issues involved.
In my opening remarks I referred to an early-day motion that was supported by 333 hon. Members—the 11th highest total of signatories since 1926. If the Minister is a democrat and believes in democracy, which I am sure he does, surely he should accept a new clause that embraces the wording of an early-day motion that has been signed by more than 50 per cent. of hon. Members. I would have expected the Minister to be sympathetic towards the incorporation of that early-day motion into the Bill. I cannot understand how he can claim that the Bill embraces the principles of my new clause. That is not the case; the Bill does not give us what we want.
I am grateful for the Minister's explanation. I am extremely grateful to the Committee for its work on extending certain rights, such as naming grandparents. Nevertheless, I am still perturbed. Although grandparents will benefit by substantial advanced rights and naming 1313 under the clauses that provide for them to be consulted—which is a great step forward—I remind the Minister that we have been campaigning for that for 10 years.
New Acts have been introduced, but as I mentioned them on Second Reading I do not need to do so again today. Although they embraced children's rights and the rights of child care, they were introduced piecemeal. So we pleaded on Second Reading that this Bill should be all-embracing to ensure that we will not have to come to the House year after year, trying to amend legislation to put right a wrong.
The Minister's final comments were directed to me. He urged me to accept what is already on in the Bill and to wait to see how the legislation works. He said that, if it proved necessary to alter the legislation, we could come back and do so, but that we should see how it worked first. However, if these provisions were enacted now, there would be no need for us to come back in a couple of years——
§ 1 pm
§ Mr. Mellor
That is precisely what I am saying. I am sugaring the pill for the hon. Gentleman in case he is doubtful. That is the main burden of my case. Let it be clearly understood that what the hon. Gentleman is asking for today is already, in effect, provided for in the Bill. I put that point to him as plainly as I can.
§ Mr. Powell
That may be so, but if in 12 months or two years when the Bill is on the statute book, we find that we have to come back on behalf of grandparents to try to change the law because it is not direct enough, it will be on the Minister of State's head. It will be on the Government's head.
If it is the wish of my hon. Friends, I am quite prepared not to force a vote. However, I warn the Minister of State that in all probability—God willing—I will still be around in two or three years' time. If grandparents have the same problems and difficulties as now, and if they still have to call upon the legal profession to help them out of their difficulties, it will be because the Minister of State has not incorporated into the Bill the new clause that I and my hon. Friends are requesting. It will be on the hon. and learned Gentleman's head. It will not matter to me whether he is in the other place by then: he may be the Lord Chancellor, but I will still condemn him for today's performance and for not ensuring that a straightforward new clause was accepted and put on the statute book so that grandparents' rights were protected.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)
This has been an excellent debate. The introductory remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and the subsequent comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) were compelling, moving and realistic. If ever we have heard an argument about agism, that was it. They put their points most effectively.
My hon: Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney). It reminded me that only a week or so ago the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield—Hugh McCartney, a former Member of the House—came to Twechar in my constituency. It is a mining community with which my hon. Friend the 1314 Member for Ashfield will have much in common. We were delighted to see him. Incidentally, he is a great-grandparent. The folks at Twechar presented him with a little bronze miner, showing the unity of purpose among my hon. Friends.
In many ways, this has been the year of the grandparent. It was the year when the Prime Minister stood outside No. 10 Downing street, between reshuffles, and announced, "We are a grandmother." Then a few days later, my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), whose contributions to our discussions on this Bill have been outstanding, announced in the House, "We too are a grandmother." That may well have had an influence on events.
I want to be fair to the Minister of State and to confirm what he has said. It is true that substantial progress has been made towards realising many of the objectives that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore outlined this morning and for which he has campaigned so nobly for many years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore was absolutely right when he said that we shall watch carefully how the Bill is implemented. The Minister acknowledged the improved access to court proceedings and improved circumstances of care which were achieved as the Bill progressed.
In the spirit of the concluding remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore, which we seriously heed, I believe that it would reflect the wishes of the House if we did not press this matter and, therefore, I seek leave to withdraw the motion.
Mr. Ray Powell: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
§ Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.