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Volume 22: debated on Friday 23 April 1982

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Wisbech Market

9.33 am

I have the honour, Mr. Speaker, to present a petition from my constituents of the town of Wisbech:

To the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled. The Humble Petition of the residents and retainers of the Old Market, Wisbech in the county of Cambridgeshire sheweth:—
That we the undersigned oppose the application by the Midland Bank to demolish two Georgian shops which it owns in the Old Market in order to build a small staff car park.
We give the following reasons.
1. The Old Market needs all its retail outlets to encourage custom to existing shops.
2. Although there have been continuous requests to the Midland Bank, either to sell or rent the said property, the bank has refused to permit them back on to the open market, but has allowed them to remain unused and unattended, consequently, this has affected their condition detrimentally.
3. If these two premises are restored and repaired, as they deserve, they would be viable retail outlets and residential accommodation in a prime trading area of Wisbech.
4. There is ample free car parking and the threatened shops are straightforward Georgian town houses of historical and social significance to Wisbech and in perfect architectural harmony with the Old Market.
Wherefore your Petitioners pray that the Minister of the Environment should proceed to protect these two buildings from destruction or further neglect by one of two means.
1. By permanently listing the buildings, as are the majority in the Old Market, and recommending their prompt repair and restoration.
2. By recommending their compulsory purchase for use as rented units, or resale in the open market subject to conditions of repair and restoration.
And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, etc. To lie upon the Table.

Children's Homes Bill

Order read for resuming adjourned Debate on Question[2 April], That the Bill be now read the Third time.— [Mr. Boscawen.]

Question again proposed.

9.36 am

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security
(Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg)

I was trying, Mr. Speaker, 21 days ago, before I was so rudely interrupted, to outline to the House something of the B ill's background. I hope that hon. Members will not mind, if, as briefly as possible, I conclude what I had intended to say so that the House realises the need for the Bill.

The Bill seeks to provide protection for an already vulnerable group of children, whom it has been necessary to take into the care of a local authority, and for whom residential care, away from their own families, is needed. As I described to the House a few weeks ago, most children in care can remain with their own or substitute families. However, some need time away from a family home, and mostly they are placed in community homes provided by local authorities or in homes run by voluntary organisations. All those types of accommodation are subject to some form of control or regulation designed to safeguard the welfare of the children.

However, a small proportion of children are accommodated in privately run children's homes, and those homes—alone out of all kinds of accommodation for children in care—are not subject to statutory control or registration. Although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has powers to inspect those homes, there is at present no power, when a private children's home is found to be unsatisfactory, to ensure that a home meets certain standards as regards conduct, the quality of care or the facilities provided.

The Bill would remedy the situation by introducing a system of registration by local authorities where the homes are located, and of inspection. Regulations will be drawn up that will include the standard of accommodation, the staff and equipment to be provided, and arrangements for the medical care and welfare of the children.

The scheme proposed by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) seems practical and workable. We envisage only a marginal effect on public expenditure. The cost of running the registration and inspection procedures will be incurred by the few local authorities in which the homes are sited. However, they will not be out of pocket because they will recoup those expenses from the registration fees that they charge the homes. The costs will be met by the much larger numbers of placing authorities, by way of a small increase in the weekly charges they pay to the homes for each accommodated child.

The registration and inspection provisions set out in the clauses, as the explanatory and financial memorandum indicates, are likely to increase local authority costs overall by some £100,000 in a full year at current prices. In the context of local authority expenditure as a whole this sum is, of course, minimal, though of concern in the present economic climate—a point touched on by the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) during the Committee stage of the Bill. The matter has been discussed with the local authority associations and the understanding reached with them is that the new arrangements will be introduced when they are satisfied they have the necessary resources. The commencement order provisions in the Bill will enable that to be done.

The Association of Independent Children's Households, many of whose members are providing children's homes which will be affected by the Bill, has consistently advocated a registration scheme. This is evidenced by its active participation in the London boroughs advisory service and the jointly produced handbook "Guidelines for Placement". The majority of privately run children's homes provide a valuable—and flexible—resource, and their particular strengths are appreciated by the statutory authorities.

This is the positive way forward, which I want to stress. But I must bring the House back to the original motives for legislation of this kind. As the hon. Member for Hartlepool said, my Department is aware of incidents—fortunately rare—in which young people living in unregulated homes have been exploited in some way, or where the establishments were inadequate as regards the standards of accommodation, staffing or equipment. The Bill sets out to provide a remedy for such abuses and I should like to thank the hon. Gentleman yet again for promoting a Bill on this subject and to offer him good wishes for its continued progress.

9.41 am

On behalf of the Opposition I wish to express our support for the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) on taking the initiative of introducing the Bill. It is a further step towards the protection of children who must sadly be in the care of a local authority instead of living with their parents.

Let us give an unopposed Third Reading to the Bill and hope that it will successfully complete its passage through Parliament.

9.42 am

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Davis) has taken me by surprise. Brevity is not a quality of Members of the House of Commons. I assume that, because of the unanimity of support in the House, he has chosen to be brief and to express the Opposition's support.

Given all the problems that the House faces and the major issues before the country, it is remarkable that our parliamentary system allows so much attention to be given to such a Bill. There has been a tremendous degree of cooperation both in the House and in the Department of Health and Social Security. Great care has been taken to try to get the Bill right. My constituents, and no doubt those of other hon. Members, are often impatient about the time taken to do things in the House. However, an enormous amount of time is required for provisions dealing with the care of children, because a whole range of interested professional bodies, organisations and individuals with a special interest in the subject have to be consulted.

I must stress the fact that it has taken about 10 years to introduce the Bill. The working party was set up in 1972. Motivated by the initiative of the officials of the DHSS, long discussions and consultations were held so that agreement could be reached on a draft Bill. Parallel with that, hon. Members on both sides of the House, with the Department's co-operation, had Bills drafted ready to present to the House. More than one attempt has been made, but, because of the way in which we have to deal with matters in the House, the most valiant attempts fell at the last fence.

Therefore, I am lucky that my Bill has received its Third Reading on St. George's day. The country does not give St. George's day as much attention as it should. It is a special day and this important Bill signifies the temper, tone, character, nature and concern of our people. Our child care and social service system is second to none. Therefore, I am pleased that on Second Reading there was the fullest co-operation. In Committee some interesting, constructive contributions were made. On Third Reading we have the opportunity to give the Bill our blessing in the hope that it will be speedily dealt with in the other place by those who are just as concerned as we are.

During that 10-year period questions arose about the need for the Bill. There is a remarkable infrastructure of legislative requirements, particularly in relation to the Child Care Act 1980, the provisions of the Education Act and the provisions for the mentally handicapped. Many of those who run homes may feel that the Bill is unnecessary. That might seem an interesting psychological reaction from those dedicated to the care of children, but they want to know whether Parliament is questioning their high standards. Admirably enough, throughout my learning curve with the Department such reactions have been kept to a minimum. However, it is worth emphasising that we are greatly impressed with the high standards of social care and, in particular, child care. That applies to voluntary, private, controlled and local government homes.

It is remarkable that there should be such a high standard. That is why we get annoyed when something goes wrong on the odd occasion. Therefore, the Bill seeks to confirm rather than to negate our belief that we are dealing with a truly established and dedicated child care service. As we had the advantage of consulting the service, at any time we have been able to pinpoint one small area that needed some tightening up.

The minister referred to several occasions during the past 10 years—the working party was set up in 1972 for that reason—when the best standards were not established in some privately run homes. In some cases food standards, furnishings and equipment could have been improved. Fire precautions were a little less efficient than they might have been and, unfortunately, no mattter how much care has been taken, there have been some cases of abuse of children. Cases of sexual aberration are not new in the real world in which we live, but we must always be vigilant about that aspect of behaviour involving children.

The Bill tries to deal with the few cases where children are placed in homes in other local authority areas because of a lack of accommodation in the placing authority. About 50 local authorities are in that position. The conurbations, especially London, have a problem. It is sensible that if the available accommodation does not fit the needs of a child who must be placed in care, the local authority, with its normal prudence in such matters, should be free to place the child in a home in another authority's area.

About 175 homes are privately run for commercial purposes and about 2,500 children have been placed in such homes. However, the legislative requirements and regulations do not apply in those homes and they do not have the same controls as have been established elsewhere. That is not a criticism of the private homes, local authorities, Parliament or the Department of Health and Social Security. This is a wide and complex area of child care. Concentration on providing an infrastructure of care and proper supervision enabled the discovery of the loophole. It would not have been discovered had it not been for the diligence, efficiency, scrutiny and monitoring of our system which is the forte of local authority social service departments and of the children's division of the DHSS.

It is commendable that the Bill provides that the placing authority, which, because of the tremendous work load in some of our social service departments, cannot accommodate the child, can send him to a home in another authority's area. The link of supervision is somewhat breached because of the inhibiting physical and time scale problems. Although the local authority to which the child is sent has some powers, it does not have the remedies of the placing authority. The Bill tries to deal with that problem.

Little has been altered in the Bill. We have tried to make it abundantly clear that it will be an offence if the privately run and commercially organised home does not register with a local authority. However, prudence has suggested that the Bill should provide that, if a home is not up to standard at the time of registration, it should be given 28 days to put its house in order. The appeal procedure allows six months. The home may continue to be run once an appeal is lodged, and that may also bring some pressure to bear on it to improve standards. The balances and checks are thus established.

Clause 8 provides regulations for the children. Those regulations will be issued by order. Proper records must be kept of the children—medical records, records of abnormal behaviour, absences and accidents. It is important that a proper record should be kept if children are seen with bruises that cannot be explained. There is a duty upon a home to ensure that the registering local authority is satisfied that there is real, continuous care for such children.

It gives me great pleasure, on St. George's day, to find that the Bill has such complete support in the House. I am grateful for the support of the Minister, the Government and my colleagues. I am also grateful for the hard work and co-operation of the officials of the children's division of the DHSS.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Food And Drugs (Amendment) Bill

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.