HC Deb 27 October 1989 vol 158 cc1346-55

No. 359, in title, page 1, line 5 after `fostering', insert 'child minding and day care for young children'.—[Mr. Mellor.]

Order for Third Reading read.

1.54 pm
Mr. Mellor

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I hope that my colleagues do not mind me going in to bat first in this Third Reading debate, but I want the opportunity to say how grateful I am to all hon. Members who have worked with me on the Bill, preparing it and advising us on it for all that they have done.

As I have said throughout the Bill, and it bears repeating one last time, it is not every day that one gets the chance to have a comprehensive reform of private and public law on children. It has been a major undertaking which has required the codification of a significant body of statute law and major reforms to that law to produce very substantial advances. For example, the law relating to the protection of abused children has been changed, as have the rights of other family members including grandparents and others that we discussed earlier today. Quite fundamental changes have been made to court procedure and other issues of law.

Therefore, I say with sincerity to those of my officials who have worked so hard on the Bill that they have carried out a herculean task with great patience, as have those outside the House who have helped and advised us. While I know that one or two of them feel a little dissatisfied with certain points, I believe that the overwhelming feeling will be that Parliament has done a good job. I hope that that does not sound complacent, but I believe it to be the case. I am grateful to them for helping us to do a good job.

I should also like to thank my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General for his stalwart assistance in all stages of the Bill, and I should very much like to thank the Opposition for the manner in which the Bill has been conducted.

It has been a real pleasure and a privilege to work with the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) on the Bill, because narrow partisan motives have never intruded in his consideration of the matter. It struck a blow for the ability of Members of Parliament to work together in that, notwithstanding our differences on other political issues, we were able to sit down together and have joint meetings with some of the interest groups. That shows Parliament at its best. While it is very important for people in politics to know when they disagree, and not to be afraid to say so, it is equally important that people know that there are issues which can bring us together. The leadership of the hon. Member for Monklands, West, assisted by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) has been exemplary. I should like to thank all the Opposition Members for their help, including the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones). I do not think that anyone could feel that their views had been shut out or who will not feel some pride in our collective achievement.

Obviously, what we have done goes for the other place. We have sent back a whole raft of amendments, but that reflects the seriousness with which we have considered the Bill, and the seriousness with which the other place started consideration of the Bill. I believe that the Bill returns to the other place the better for its Commons consideration, and I hope that those in the other place will forgive us for the volume of amendments and recognise that, with any luck, not only have we managed to make the policy lines in the Bill better, although in every particular we have not gone as far as the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) would like. However, thanks to the stalwart work of the parliamentary draftsmen, to whom great thanks are due, we have gone through the Bill ironing out little verbal infelicities and problems that can sometimes make lawyers a great deal of money if they slip into the finished product.

I conclude with a personal word. It has been my privilege during my time as a Minister to participate in a great deal of legislation. I remember with particular affection those on which the House was able to work together on a shared endeavour. I think particularly of working on the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986 with certain Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell). That was an important Bill which is standing the test of time. The same was true of the work on the Animals (Scientific) Procedures Act 1986 which has managed to give us the most modern system of animal law on the vexed, difficult and emotionally troubling subject of animal experiments. If those Bills are good, it is not because of anything that I did, but because hon. Members, with a few exceptions, joined to work sensibly on them. The Children Bill will join that little Pantheon as a happy experience for me.

Mr. Tom Clarke

I thank the Minister for his kind and generous remarks. I associate myself and my hon. Friends with the thanks that he offered to his officials and to the voluntary organisations. The voluntary organisations did much work and showed much commitment throughout our proceedings. Some of them may be disappointed, but none should feel that any hon. Members believe that they gave less than their best. I was delighted by the Minister's comments about the other place. It is not often that hon. Members can truthfully say that we are sending back a better Bill for the other place to consider.

I shall not rehearse the arguments about the guillotine, although I regret that I was not present for that debate. It is fair to say that the skill of the Minister for Health—the hon. and learned Gentleman was extremely skilful, as was the Solicitor-General, whatever disagreements I may have had with him—was not reciprocated by his ministerial colleagues. The Minister for Health will not complain, but I think that I am entitled to do so on his behalf. Given the time that the Minister spent on the Bill, whatever arguments we may have had about the guillotine it is overwhelmingly clear that the Government's legislative machinery was overloaded this Session. The noble Lord Whitelaw was certainly right about that.

It is remarkable that the Bill has reached its present stage. In all candour, given that there is such a gulf of philosophy between the Government and the Opposition, and given the constraints of time, it is remarkable that we are endorsing a Bill which represents such consensus. Future historians may find that a remarkable achievement.

It is appropriate to repeat hon. Members' comments when they acknowledge the input of the Select Committee on Social Services, which used to be chaired by one of our former colleagues, Renee Short. It is a tribute to her and to her colleagues that they campaigned for many of the measures now in the Bill. The Minister will agree that her plea from the heart that future legislation should not be implemented in dribs and drabs should be acknowledged by the House. I am sure that the Minister will not mind if I pay tribute to my hon. Friends. In presenting the Labour party's views and policy, they did a service to Parliament and to the nation. They will agree that when the Bill is enacted, it will represent a framework for future legislation.

The Minister rightly said that the Bill does not go as far as we should wish in many respects. That was self-evident from our debate on family courts. As to children's rights, there is a case for the appointment of independent persons and for complaints procedures. My hon. Friends look forward to the time when we have a children's ombudsman, and I believe that the case for that has been made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who unfortunately has had to leave our proceedings having once again made an excellent contribution, raised the issue of training. Training is essential to reach all the objectives which hon. Members have set and which are included in the legislation.

Despite the Minister's clear co-operation, the House is bound to want to monitor how well the assessment orders work. That is important, especially in view of our complex discussions. In time we will want to look again at the ouster orders which were debated, albeit briefly, this morning and the important issue of termination of voluntary care.

It is appropriate that I should ask the Minister to give a commitment—if not this afternoon, then fairly soon—about the implementation dates that the Government have in mind. We understood earlier that they were thinking of April 1991, but more recently we have heard about autumn 1991. [Interruption.] I am grateful for the correction. Perhaps what was said the other night was a slip of the tongue as well.

On the issue of inspection of recreation and play areas, the amount of £10 was mentioned. If the Minister finds time, we should like to know whether that covers inspection as well as costs.

Some elements of the Bill have not yet taken into account some of the strong representations made to us. The representations that we received, especially from young runaways, made me feel that their plight was the most moving of any of the issues that were put to us during the Bill's passage. I hope that it will be seriously considered.

I know that there may be a struggle between the various Departments represented in the House and the Treasury, but resources are essential if the Bill is to have meaning. There is an acute shortage of social workers in many parts of the country. It is vital that those resources are made available for other aspects of social services and education.

On Second Reading I endeavoured to outline the simple fact that family life as we once understood it did not necessarily exist today. There are a huge number of single-parent families. There have been changes which suggest that society is changing. I hope that the Bill will reflect those changes and respond to the challenges.

My hon. Friends the Members for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), for Eccles (Miss Lestor), for Wakefield and for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) have made a major contribution to our discussions, and I thank them. I hope that in time, after we have listened to those responsible for the Bill's implementation, to children, families, parents and carers, legislation even more progressive than the Bill will be produced.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) is present because he provided distin-guished chairmanship of the Committee. Both sides of the House have been conscious of the sensitivities of children who, in many cases, are the most vulnerable in our society. We have tried to reflect that concern.

I know that my hon. Friends will approve if I say that it is, perhaps, appropriate to end my speech with a quotation from my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East. Although he is not present, he has shown a great interest in the Bill. On Second Reading he quoted Charles Dickens: In the little world in which children have their existence, whomsoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived or so finely felt as injustice. If, through this Bill, we have managed to remove some of those injustices, the whole exercise has been more than worthwhile.

2.11 pm
Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister was kind enough to refer to some of the outside organisations which have been interested in this measure. As a member of the central executive committee of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, it might be appropriate if, on its behalf and that of all the other organisations involved, I reciprocated and told my hon. and learned Friend how grateful they are to him and his officials for the way in which they have co-operated in producing the Bill. As an hon. Member who has served in Committee on this Bill, in turn I should like to thank all those organisations for keeping us acquainted with their views, which has assisted us in improving the Bill. I am sure that the House will understand if I make particular mention of Avril Wilson, who has quite literally been here day and night briefing Members of both Houses and of all parties.

We have sought, through the Bill, to achieve a balance between the rights of children, the rights of parents and, of course, the duties of the state. Perhaps it is the latter that is the most difficult to define and the most sensitive to administer. In what circumstances should the state intervene in family matters in the shape of a local authority social worker or an NSPCC officer? I hasten to add that an NSPCC officer is not an agent of central or local government; but, uniquely, the Bill gives such an officer similar powers to those of a local authority social worker. I hope and pray that we have the balance right. I hope that we have made it clear when and how such intervention should take place.

Our task will soon be completed, but that of the practitioners in the field has barely begun. They have to translate our words into actions—both those who administer social work and the social workers in the field. Let us be under no illusions; changes will cost money. It is essential that the resources are made available for the implementation of the Act. The figures quoted in the preamble to the Bill are, I am pretty sure, not a maximum estimate, so at least that amount will be needed.

We must remember that social workers are human beings and, like all of us, occasionally make mistakes and misjudgments. That is especially true as they are dealing with people who, perhaps, have more than the average quota of weaknesses and are sometimes unpredictable and unstable. Mistakes are bound to happen. I fear that the Bill cannot entirely remove the possibility of further cases of the kind that have featured in our discussions, but I hope that there will be far fewer of them.

The Bill will soon be an Act and our job will be done. Others will have the task of learning the changes and additions that have been written into the law and will have to put them into practice in their everyday work. As they do so, they can be certain that our thoughts, prayers and good wishes will be with them.

2.14 pm
Mr. Fearn

There is no doubt that the Bill is to be welcomed. It brings together many different areas of both public and private law relating to children. Its central theme is the interests and welfare of children. That is what we have all had at heart. The objective is to achieve that through a balance between a child's right to be protected and the rights, responsibilities and duties of parents and the state.

During our proceedings, there has been a consensus and a willingness to co-operate from all sides. A tremendous number of amendments have been tabled at all stages. Some were accepted by the Government and many were withdrawn on promises of consideration by Ministers. In many instances, the Government have honoured their promises and have tabled amendments to cover such points. I believe that that is what has happened in relation to grandparents' rights. However, not all the Government's amendments have been completely satisfactory and a few have upset the balance in favour of intervention. Nevertheless, on the whole the result is welcome.

One of our main complaints relates to the speed with which the Bill has passed through the House. Some crucial Government amendments were tabled at a very late stage, making it difficult for us to assess their full implications. I know that the people responsible for the children's lobby are exhausted. The number of amendments tabled and selected on Report highlights the amount of work and effort that has gone into the Bill.

The Bill is obviously a vast improvement on the present legislation, but it is a great shame that such legislation, which is so important to the welfare of our children, did not include that all-embracing item for which hon. Members of all parties have been crying out. I refer to a family court system. That is to be regretted. Nevertheless, the Bill has almost got it right and I am pleased to see its historic passage today.

2.16 pm
Mr. Rowe

Although I welcome the Bill hugely, one is bound to feel some disappointment that one intractable problem has still not been dealt with satisfactorily. I refer to what are usually known as fathers' rights. It is still too easy for children to slip away from one parent and it is often extremely difficult for that parent to have access to those children. Although the Bill has done its best to address that difficult problem, I am sure that the House will have to return to it.

I pay warm tribute to the voluntary organisations that have done so much work. The way in which they have worked together is a model which I very much hope that the voluntary sector will take on board for our discussions on the White Paper on community care. The same collaboration throughout the voluntary sector will improve the debate enormously.

Finally, we have all been concerned with the casualties of society and the Bill is an attempt to provide a more just way of dealing with those casualties and to strengthen some of the bulwarks against them ever happening. One of the great issues of the next decade will be how we are to create the kind of society that will make it easier for parents to discharge their responsibilities in such a way that there will be no need for state intervention. We shall have to consider how we, as a society, are responsible for all our children.

2.18 pm
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) who was right to say that the Bill is a consequence of the many tragedies to which we have referred throughout our proceedings. Those of us who followed the Cleveland child abuse crisis, such as the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin), were always struck by the way in which it brought about new events and new circumstances beyond anyone's imagination. Indeed, who would have imagined that this week, when dealing with the Children Bill, we would have learnt so much about the Associated British Ports Bill? Who would have imagined that in the middle of a debate on a guillotine motion my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), whom I am pleased to see in his place, would announce the resignation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer? It was kind of him to do so. Even the new Foreign Secretary, who writes thriller novels, could not have written a script more perfect and more full of whodunnits than the events that occurred last night.

The Minister of State was kind enough to refer to the variety of Bills on which it has been a pleasure to work with me, but he did not mention the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which was one of the earlier Bills on which we worked together. There were 69 sittings of that Committee, but I will not go into the connotations of 69 as my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clark) is sitting on the Front Bench. We changed the law in such a way, however, that cases such as the Guildford Four might not happen again.

Clause 1 talks about the interests of the children being paramount. That is absolutey right and essential. Lord Justice Butler-Sloss said in her report: A child is a person and not an object of concern We must all agree with that.

Clause 2 deals with parental responsibility. I agree with the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) that we must get the balance right between the rights of children and of their parents. The Bill goes some way to achieving that end. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) will be happy that clause 9 enables grandparents to apply for a section 7 order at any time, provided that they first get the court's permission by showing that they have good reason. Grandparents will almost certainly expect to be allowed to make representation under the new complaints procedure in clause 23 relating to access to children. My hon. Friend must feel a great sense of satisfaction at some of the changes contained in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Chislehurst also referred to social workers and the great responsibility that they bear. I refer again to the Butler-Sloss report which stated: no single agency—Health, Social Services, Police or voluntary organisation—has the pre-eminent responsibility in the assessment of child abuse generally and child sexual abuse specifically. Each agency has a prime responsibility for a particular aspect of the problem. Neither children's nor parents' needs and rights can be adequately met or protected unless agencies agree a framework for their inter-action. The statutory duties of the Social Service Departments must be recognised". Social workers therefore, will not be obliged to take full responsibility. The hon. Member for Chislehurst also mentioned the family court and on that the Butler-Sloss report noted: We recognise the considerable procedural advantages of the ability to move cases at any time from one tier of the Court to another, which would be achieved by the setting up of a Family Court. We have not got a family court from the Bill, but as the Solicitor-General knows, we have unified jurisdiction under new clause 1. We also welcome the child assessment orders contained in new clause 13. They will be a new tool for social workers and we are pleased to note that clause 38 and the emergency protection orders get rid of the dreaded place of safety order which was used to such ill effect in Cleveland. We also welcome the rights of access contained in the Bill.

The final debate on the final day of our deliberations on the Children Bill takes place during the mid-term holiday and children are able to follow our proceedings. Recently I reviewed a book about children who had been abandoned throughout the ages. The message of the Bill is that we are not abandoning children's or parents' rights. We are seeking, with foresight rather than with hindsight, to look to the future. I am glad to have been part of the parliamentary team that considered the Bill, which now goes back to the other place before appearing on the statute book.

2.23 pm
Mr. Devlin

I commend this excellent Bill to the House and to the country. We nearly lost it earlier in the week and it is with a sigh of relief that I note that it is now moving safely out of the House into the other place before proceeding to the statute book. The Bill is long overdue and its effects are much awaited.

As I come from Cleveland it was an especial honour to serve on the Committee. During my first year in Parliament I was witness to much suffering, which will now be alleviated by the measures we have introduced. It is of particular pleasure to me that the place of safety order has been abolished and the emergency protection order has been introduced along with a number of new measures, not least those pertaining to grandparents. The most beautiful part of the Bill, however, is that the interests of the child are paramount. That is stated unequivocally at the beginning of the Bill.

I pay tribute to the officials who served the Committee so well and to all the voluntary organisations—particularly Peter Smith of the family courts campaign—which have been of great assistance to members of the Committee and of the all-party children's group headed by Baroness Faithful]. I also pay tribute to the one unsung hero who has not been mentioned today—the Chairman of the Standing Committee——

Ms. Armstrong

He has been mentioned.

Mr. Devlin

I refer to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James), who may have been mentioned when I stepped out to answer the phone. This is a subject close to his heart.

It has been of great interest to me go serve on a Bill which until recently was approached in a non-partisan way. I have a high regard for many Opposition Members who served on the Standing Committee, so it was with some regret that I learnt from the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette yesterday that I had been criticised by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) for failing to support an amendment on family courts, since I gave clear and good reasons for doing so.

The Bill goes from here to another place with a large number of amendments. I know that their Lordships will welcome it even though they are going bananas about the amount of work that they will have to do.

2.27 pm
The Solicitor-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell)

I am glad to wind up a debate on what has been a happy Bill and to which, I am the first to acknowledge, all sides of the House have greatly contributed. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) for the major contribution that he and the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) made to our common objective.

The hon. Member for Monklands, West was kind enough to say that if we had had our differences we had made them up, and I concur with that. It is curious that our differences were due to a common over-enthusiasm to reach our goal and the speed at which we could properly reach it.

I join other members of the Committee and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State in thanking the officials who gave us so much help throughout the Bill and the outside organisations which played such a constructive role in its creation. My part has been to deal with the early clauses, which cover crucial aspects such as the fact that the welfare of the child should be paramount, as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) said, and important concepts to do with parental responsibility, which should never be forgotten. All too often we deal with problems because parental control and responsibility have broken down.

The one great area of debate on Report was the family court. On that we are divided not as to objectives but merely as to the speed and means at which we should reach them. We can congratulate ourselves, however, on having created a unified body of child law which will apply at every level—to the High Court, to the family division in the county courts and in the magistrates courts. That paves the way for a unified jurisdiction, with the possibility of cases moving from the magistrates courts up to the county or high courts and commencing at, or rapidly moving to start at, the appropriate level for their decision.

By creating this model and sending it back to the other place, we can say that we have created what may prove to be a model for a wider form of family court of the future, once the important reports from the Law Commission and from other bodies—and the important report from Newcastle university on conciliation—have had time to be properly digested.

As for how long all this will take, I confirm what I said the other day—the Bill should be up and running in the next two years, so by the autumn of 1991 we should be well down the road. I hope that that is of assistance—

Mr. Devlin


The Solicitor-General

No, I shall not give way to my hon. Friend, who is looking at the clock with all the intelligence that he usually brings to these occasions.

I am glad to commend the Bill on Third Reading to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.