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Child Abuse

Volume 87: debated on Friday 29 November 1985

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9.35 am

I beg to move,

That this House notes with grave concern recent cases of child abuse, some of which have ended in the death of children; acknowledges the urgent need to bring about a significant reduction in the incidence of this social evil; recognises that social workers, doctors, health visitors, school-teachers, police officers and all the others concerned with child welfare must be given the means by which they can become more highly skilled in the prevention, detection and treatment of child abuse and neglect; and calls upon the Government to encourage and facilitate such developments as are needed.
I am moving the motion on the Order Paper rather than that in the Order Book, as it seems that the Clerks in the Table Office have introduced a new hon. Member—a Norman Gordon—but that motion is also mine.

Recent cases of child abuse have shocked and angered the nation. It can be seen in the response of the press and on television. That fine and eloquent journalist, Mr. Keith Waterhouse, voiced his anger in his column last Thursday. He wrote a catechism for a dead child. We can see the anger in his writing. He said:
"Question: What reasons did there seem to be for not returning 22-month-old Gemma Hartwell to her violent father?
Answer: There seemed to be no reasons on the information available at the time, which was simply that he had two previous convictions for child abuse.
Question: Not until which point was Gemma handed over?
Answer: Not until there had been a careful appreciation of the situation by social workers.
Question: What did the social workers not know?
Answer: They did not know what was going on."
The catechism continues:
"Question: What kind of guidelines will be issued?
Answer: New ones.
Question: To what end?
Answer: To prevent a recurrence of this tragedy.
Question: And to stop further children falling through what?
Answer: The net.
Question: What, following this unforeseeable death for which nobody is to blame, will be made?
Answer: Recommendations.
Question: And finally, who will be fired, demoted, disciplined or a least reprimanded?
Answer: Nobody."
That is powerful and angry journalism and performs a vital role in a democracy, but bashing social workers is also a form of abuse—journalistic abuse.

Parliament has a duty to examine this dreadful issue with an equal concern. We can best do that by following the example of the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), who, in her Adjournment debate on 26 July, said:
"None of us can fail to experience a strong emotional reaction to the recent cases of child abuse and death which have been so widely reported. There have been errors of judgment and it is essential that lessons be learnt from those. Rather than simply adding to the sensationalistic and censorious responses to these recent appalling tragedies, for which simplistic solutions are too often proposed and social workers are more often than not used as whipping boys, I should like to try to redress the balance and see the problem of child abuse in clearer context"—[Official Report, 26 July 1985; Vol. 83, c. 1421.]
I want to follow that lead. I do so with some diffidence because I am much more at home with such esoteric subjects as shipbuilding, the offshore oil industry, industrial relations and, as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. MacKay) knows, the fishing industry.

Other hon. Members have also expressed their deep distress and concern over this issue. The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) has been prominent in seeking debates and legislation on both child and sexual abuse, and I am sure that he will catch your eye this morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker; he could hardly fail to do so. On Monday, the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) spoke in an Adjournment debate on the important problems surrounding handicapped children and their families. In addition, I think that I am right in saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) had hoped to raise the issue next week by means of a private Member's motion. Similarly, I believe that the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) intends to introduce a private Member's Bill to strengthen the position of children in care. Such a measure should receive all-party support, as every hon. Member must want to see a significant decline in the incidence of child abuse.

First, we should establish what we mean by child abuse. It has been suggested that the public perceive child abuse as being as it is portrayed by the press and television in cases such as the death of Jasmine Beckford. But it can also involve serious injury inflicted on a child, the deliberate physical maltreatment of a child, sexual abuse and chronic neglect due to the parents' or caretakers' apathy, inadequacy or ignorance.

It would also seem that there is no precise legal definition of child abuse, but the effects of child abuse are wide ranging. As we know, tragically some children die, and others suffer severely from brain damage, become mentally handicapped, or suffer from epilepsy or cerebral palsey. In 1974 Professor MacKeith calculated that there may be 400 children aged under one in the United Kingdom who suffer permanent brain injury as a result of violence inflicted on them.

Even those children who suffer no physical injury may well become emotionally demaged individuals due to some form of abuse. In some cases it comes to light in the classroom or playground through language difficulties or social isolation. The other day Professor Frederick Stone of the Yorkhill hospital, Glasgow, suggested to me that one significant child abuse case was diagnosed by paediatricians and other doctors every day in the United Kingdom.

For children, the most dangerous years appear to be between birth and five or six years of age, after which they are in a slightly better position to protect their interests, as they are then able to report physical or sexual abuse. I am not for a moment suggesting that children aged five or more are immune from physical, emotional or sexual abuse. That would be stupid. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children showed in a recent study that
"the number of children under 15 physically abused each year has increased from 4,699 in 1977 in England and Wales, to 6,388 in 1982. However, the fatal and seriously injured have declined in numbers from 822 in 1977 to 647 in 1982. The percentage of injured children aged 10 or over has increased from 16·4 per cent. in 1977 to 28·7 per cent. in 1982 with a corresponding decrease in the percentage of 0–4-year-olds".
Most physically injured children are still aged less than five. Incidentally, I am pleased that the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) is here. I believe that he is a member of the central executive of the NSPCC, which is a fine and honourable voluntary association.

We must, of course, treat the statistics on child abuse very cautiously. In a brief that I was given by the parliamentary officer for the British Association of Social Workers, it is stated:
"Family life is private, and so reliable data on the extent of violence against a child is hard to obtain."
The Select Committee that considered violence in the family in 1976 suggested that in England and Wales 3,000 children are severely injured each year and a further 40,000 are moderately or mildly injured. Indeed, 250 children will die from their injuries and 400 will become brain damaged or mentally retarded. But those are now thought to be conservative figures.

Mr. Norman Dunning, of the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, informed me that he and his colleagues were convinced that there was vast under-reporting of the less serious sort of child abuse. He also told me that, in his opinion, it was a false notion that such cruel and heartless behaviour was peculiar to poor and deprived families. That view is supported by Professor Stone and Dr. David Pithers of the National Childrens Home. Professor Stone told me that social classes four and five featured predominantly in cases, and especially in those that led to criminal prosecutions, but that abuse and cruelty were not confined to a particular social milieu. But middle-class abusers are much more skilful about concealing abuse when confronted with it than a young and woefully immature unemployed couple.

It must be pointed out that the NSPCC study revealed that the parents of abused children were much more likely to be unemployed than other people. In 1982 almost two thirds of abused children's families were in receipt of supplementary benefit. Furthermore, more than 45 per cent. of male and 18 per cent. of female caretakers of abused children had a criminal record before the violence took place. A large percentage of those known offences involved violent crimes.

There are, of course, numerous causes of violence to chidren, including alcoholism, marital problems, immaturity, inadequacy, unemployment, poor housing and poverty. For many of those inflicting pain and abuse on young children there is a mingling of psychological, social and economic causes. One can feel only pity for a young girl who is already the mother of one or two children but who is still herself navigating a course through adolescence. The stress that she suffers may well be aggravated by living with an unsympathetic partner—not necessarily the biological father—and by living in poor and inadequate accommodation that is submerged in a bleak and large housing estate.

Some feminists believe that child abuse is a form of violence in which fathers and male partners predominate. In last month's New Socialist, Michelle Barratt and Rosalind Coward said:

"we see, too, some uncomfortable reminders of the more well known pattern of male brutality towards women. In one case the mother of two children, one blinded and brain damaged and the other killed by the father, was herself also regularly beaten but remained loyal to the man. It is a feature of male power in the relationship of marriage that such a level of brutality towards both women and children can be endured. Other cases reveal that a father or stepfather's jealousy of the child is a salient factor in the motivation of the cruelty."

Having outlined some of the elements of this social evil—and I apologise for the sparse mention of the scandalous crime of sexual abuse—I shall turn to the circumstances surrounding the prevention, detection and treatment of child abuse.

We are all deeply anxious to see a dramatic decline in the incidence of child abuse. The easiest way to occupy the headlines of both the tabloid and quality newspapers is to malign social workers. I am married to a conscientious and highly skilled senior hospital social worker, so I understand some of the problems. Theirs is a difficult and demanding job. Social workers deserve, at the least, a fair hearing by editors and others who know little or nothing about the immense problems that social workers are expected to solve but who are ever eager to criticise them when they make mistakes. Moralists in the pulpit in the editor's room and on the political platform should hesitate before attacking such a soft target.

I have no wish to defend the lazy, irresponsible or incompetent social worker. If such people make mistakes because of their neglect, they should be severely disciplined.

Is there not a danger of the community as a whole shifting the blame to social workers when it is the responsibility of each of us to ensure that no child goes to bed bullied, battered or bruised?

I cannot disagree. The extended families of children suffering abuse have a very important role and responsibility.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the poorly trained, poorly managed and inexperienced social worker attempting to deal with a heavy and varied case load. The British Association of Social Workers' brief, given to me on Wednesday, says:
"The basic social work training—a one year course for graduates and two years for people without any academic training—does not prepare a young worker to cope with the demands of violent and disturbed families. Because of their painful early histories abusing parents will lie to obscure what has happened. Abusive parents are often very resistant to help. They feel threatened by the visits of a social worker. They will test out the worker over a considerable period before they can risk any trust … Social workers are all working under great pressure. Even the most experienced ones can and do make mistakes under the strain, especially of the kind induced by child abuse cases which are often deeply disturbing to the staff involved in them. The greatest danger is that a risk in a particular case is not recognised or actually denied. If the risk is acknowledged the system will usually monitor it effectively."
I have some reservations about that last comment.

I am deeply interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying and I agree with him. Will he comment on the fact that much of the publicity is about child abuse in England? The statistics for Scotland are significantly better than they are for England. Perhaps the system in Scotland which involves a supervision requirement rather than a care order has something to do with that.

As a Yorkshire man happily long domiciled in Scotland, it is even easier to me to spell out the superiority of the Scottish system than it is for the hon. Lady, who is a native of Scotland. I shall deal later with the difference between the two systems.

First, I shall deal with the Government's responsibility and their response to recent cases. Following the death of Jasmine Beckford, the chief inspector of the DHSS social services inspectorate wrote to all social service departments about their responsibilities to children in their care. The missive states:
"Social workers who have day to day responsibility for such children should be provided with the necessary support, guidance, supervision and management. You may wish to consider in addition administrative procedures to ensure that effective mechanisms exist to arrange for the removal of a child if necessary."
In July, the Government published a consultative paper on child abuse inquiries.

In response to the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), said:

"The Government are determined to introduce by Christmas a new set of guidelines for the entire social work profession that will be based on the … points that I have mentioned. We hope that this will minimise further tragic cases of the sort that have so appalled the nation."—[Official Report, 26 July 1985; Vol. 83, c. 1432.]

On the broad subject of guidelines, I commend to the House a document entitled "The Management of Child Abuse" published this week by the British Association of Social Workers. It contains a code of practice for social workers and their managers which outlines a series of duties which social workers should perform.

Stress is placed on the importance of qualifications—appropriate qualifications—of recognising the high level of anxiety generated by cases of child abuse and of making precise arrangements and ensuring that there are clear lines of responsibility. The importance of guiding and advising families is also emphasised, as is the need to respond immediately to a child abuse referral, to work closely with other professionals and to keep proper and sensible records. I hope that the Government and local authorities will study the document with care since, as a layman, I believe that it deserves close scrutiny.

I emphasise the point made by the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West, that no single professional group can hope to deal with the problem on its own. That is why I stress in my motion the need for all concerned,
"social workers, doctors, health visitors, school teachers to be given the means by which they can become more highly skilled"
in their important work.

The paediatrician needs the social worker, the health visitor and the school teacher just as much as they depend on him or her. If we accept the need for highly efficient interdisciplinary teams of professionals, we should acknowledge the need for interdisciplinary training programmes for such teams. Paediatricians should be trained by social workers and health visitors, and vice versa.

For example, it is vital that social workers and health visitors have some understanding of child growth and development. It was put to me by several members of the British Paediatric Association that this is crucial, since amongst social workers and health visitors there is a genuine lack of understanding of the growth and development of young children. This ignorance means that early and predictable clues and signals are missed. For example, social workers and health visitors know little or nothing about the size and weight of a three-year-old child. Other signs, such as language delay and neglect, often go together. Child growth and development are ideal subjects for both practical placement and post-qualification training. Similarly, general practitioners would benefit from vocational treatment in child development.

I was told recently by a social worker in Glasgow whom I know fairly well that she became concerned when one of the young boys in her charge began to show signs of failing to thrive. She took the wee laddie to his GP, who asked her what was the average weight for a boy of that age. The social worker said, "That is why I am here." The doctor telephoned the health visitor on the case, but she had no idea either. Eventually he telephoned a more experienced GP and was given the information. That might be an anecdote, but it reveals the ignorance to be found among professionals directly concerned with child abuse. I understand that the medical professions have made recommendations about the training of doctors at primary case and consultancy levels. Will the Minister comment on those recommendations?

I am a layman, but I do not believe that a social worker in a generic social work department can be an expert across the whole area of responsibility. Specialisation is impossible. There are no magical skills in that demanding occupation; experience is surely the best feature, especially if the novice has received some basic training and then works with a highly experienced colleague. Dealing with child abuse and neglect requires a long apprenticeship based upon sound and systematic training.

I wonder how many directors of social work or line managers have received thorough training in the treatment of child abuse. For that matter, I wonder how many have received thorough training in drug and alcohol abuse, in the treatment of those suffering from senile dementia or in the way to deal with offenders. I suspect that some of those at the top of the tree are also poorly trained.

I was told of a recent and tragic case of child abuse, where the basic grade social worker involved had had three years training in the treatment of child abuse. Her supervisor was an American specialist in mental health. Both were managed by a young man who was a line manager with sparse practical experience. How can we harshly criticise a young person in those circumstances? In-service training should be an integral element of the work and career structure of social workers. Should we not think about setting up children's units within social work departments?

Recent cases of child abuse have clearly shown, among other things, that there is a need for post-qualification training in child care. Social workers keen to specialise in that area should be subjected to rigorous selection and training, followed by the right sort of experience, or we simply perpetuate incompetence.

I received a letter yesterday from the assistant director of the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, a Mr. R. C. Wright. That organisation has responsibility for the training of social workers in this country. Mr. Wright's letter does not reassure me greatly about training. He said:

"It is essential that qualified social workers are released for post qualifying studies in child care social work and especially in work involving the risk of non accidental injury and of sexual and other abuses.
In 1983 and 1984 the total number of social workers released by social services to undertake CCETSW validated post qualifying studies (PQS) programmes of all types was respectively 212 and 235, and this was the highest figure since such courses began in 1976. This constitutes less than 1 per cent. of all qualified social workers in post in the U.K. personal social services."

Mr. Wright claims that the total number trained is inadequate to meet demands to cover the whole range of client needs—children, the elderly, the socially and physically handicapped, the mentally ill and handicapped, offenders and so on. Mr. Wright said that his association has
"already stated its intention to extend to three years the minimum period of training leading to the new single qualifying award in social work (replacing the Certificate of Qualification in social work and the Certificate of Social Service) to be introduced with effect from 1990. To be effective this longer period of training will require better facilities for supervised practice learning in the services. It will also make possible a degree of specialist learning in, for example, work with children, which is at present impossible in generic social work courses of two years which have to meet the wide range of social work staffing needs in the personal social services."
All the professionals I have interviewed during the past 10 days have, without exception, emphasised the need for additional training. I am grateful to them for all their help, and for the assistance given to me by the parliamentary panel on personal social services.

Does the Minister's Department support the council's proposal that the basic training course be increased from two to three years? When will the Department respond to that new policy on qualifying training for social workers? What research is currently being sponsored by his Department into the assistance that could be given to social workers dealing with the problems of child abuse?

I have even more questions for the Minister—I might as well keep him busy. Are any new research programmes being planned in that area? Is the Minister assured that the training and professional developments of health and social service professionals are adequate to meet the most difficult and sensitive cases of child abuse and the needs, both emotional and physical, of such children and their families?

I know that both in Scotland and south of the border voluntary associations play an important role. The Minister is well aware that the voluntary child care associations are often the main providers of direct preventative services in communities where domestic violence is prevalent. Those services, which certainly save the lives of numerous children and protect many more from serious injury, are often the first to suffer when voluntary funds are reduced. Does the Minister agree that the Government should support those voluntary services by exempting child care charities from VAT? Has the Minister any plans to set up within his Department a central monitoring and evaluation unit to regulate the quality of services to children suffering abuse or at risk?

Time is against me, so I apologise for my failure to discuss the possible introduction of a system of family courts in England and Wales, and the importance of such a system to the effective review of child care law. As I said in response to a question from the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mrs. McCurley), as a Yorkshire man living in Scotland I think that I am permitted to point out the important role of the children's panel and hearings in Scotland, as well as the valuable work of the reporter to the panel, in the treatment of child abuse. Indeed, the reporter himself can receive referrals. Although employed by the regional or island councils, only the Secretary of State for Scotland can hire or dismiss him. That is a powerful safeguard for both children and families.

The close working relationship between children's hearings and social work departments in Scotland means that we have a more effective system than the English juvenile courts system. Thus, parents and children have a crucial legal safeguard in children's hearings and in the role of the reporter, as introduced by social work legislation in 1968 and amended in the 1970s.

That is not to say that we do not have cases of child and sexual abuse in Scotland—it would be stupid to say that such cases do not occur—but there is general agreement that the close detailed attention given to any reported suspicions of child abuse provides children with a slightly stronger defence against abuse in Scotland than is the case in England.

I can recall cases about which my wife has telephoned me to say that she would not be home in the evening because of her attendance at children's panels. Such panels are held in the evening, often within three days—sometimes within 48 hours—of a referral, and then the case goes to the sheriff court and back to the children's panel. Those are first-class safeguards that I recommend to hon. Members who represent English constituencies.

There have been many gaps in and omissions from my remarks. For example, I have not even mentioned the important role of case conferences in this whole area. I have attempted, however vainly, to emphasise the training needs of social workers, health visitors, doctors and others.

More efficient training, a higher degree of specialisation and increased emphasis on the inter-disciplinary approach to child abuse will not abolish this social evil. There will always be psychopathic fathers and caretakers. But such measures, coupled with more resources, added to a greater awareness on the part of the community, particularly among the extended families of abusers, could enable a more competent and confident approach to be made to the social evil of child abuse.

10.12 am

I wish at the outset to congratulate the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) on his good fortune in winning first place in the ballot, on selecting a subject for discussion that is causing deep and widespread concern, and for opening our debate with such great insight, sensitivity and compassion and considerable knowledge.

One cannot pick up a newspaper, national or even local, these days without being aware that not only is violent crime of all kinds increasing but that it is getting nastier and ever more cruel. Child abuse is only one aspect of a spreading disease. One reads of attacks, often multiple attacks, against women and assaults of a kind that seek to defile and humiliate. Not even an 80-year-old is spared. This appalling state of affairs must cause us all the deepest concern.

Rape, which was a rare occurrence in my youth, certainly before the last war, has become commonplace. Ordinary people, as hon. Members will testify, are not only bewildered by what is happening but are boiling over with rage because of the inadequate sentences passed by some—I hasten to add not by all—judges on criminals when they are caught.

We even have the spectacle of such people in the dock grinning and showing contempt for the whole procedure, and certainly not showing any remorse. My constituents—I guarantee that it is within the experience of every hon. Member—are boiling over with anger at the lack of any uniformity in sentences for this type of crime, often of the vilest nature. I am boiling over too, and I hope that the Minister will take that message, which I am sure will be supported by many hon. Members in this debate, to the Home Secretary.

I well understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making and share his view that sentences for crimes such as rape must be severe. However, does he not agree that in cases of child abuse the only real purpose of long sentences is punishment of the individual and reflecting society's disgust with that individual? The deterrent effect of such sentences in child abuse cases is negligible, and possibly nil, because the process of rational thought is rarely present in such cases.

The process of rational thought is absent in a great many forms of crime, particularly those involving the infliction of suffering on other human beings. I appreciate the point that the hon. and learned Gentleman makes, but I do not agree with his conclusion. I shall return to that subject later. Indeed, I thought that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) spoke for us all when she expressed her horror last week at the drop in the severity of sentences for rape.

I appreciate that the relationship between what we say and do here and the courts is a delicate one, as it should be for reasons that I need not spell out. But in the end the voice of Parliament must be heeded not only by Ministers but by the judges. It is high time that the Lord Chief Justice laid down tough and strict guidelines for sentencing. I hope, therefore, that the message goes out from the House today that we and our constituents want him to act and to act quickly in this matter.

It is also high time for Parliament to take a closer look at the causal relationship between the rise in pornography, the increasing lack of responsibility among film makers and those responsible for television programmes, who put out a continuous stream of screen violence and brutishness, and the increasing volume of violence in society. There is no escape from what was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) in an intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow.

Does my right hon. Friend think that the churches have a role to play in continuing their campaign against the so-called permissive society and the slackening of moral constraints that have resulted in people being given less support by the bonds and discipline of family life? Does he also believe that in this debate we should place more emphasis on that aspect rather than on the need for more social workers and so on? In other words, we should concentrate on the need for more self-reliance and self-discipline within the family.

I do not think that any of us would disagree with that. However, I would not wish my acceptance of that observation in any way to weaken what was said by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow about the necessity for social workers to receive more training. Ultimate responsibility does not rest with the judges any more than with any other section of society. Ultimate responsibility starts in this place with the framework of law that we enact. The high priests of permissiveness—we have had quite a few over the years that I have been a Member of this place—have for years thrown up their hands in horror at the slightest suggestion that there is a causal relationship. They have had their day. Like the rest of us, they should now be able to recognise the carnage and social wreckage that they have helped to encourage.

The motion is especially timely because, for most of us, the most revolting aspect of the increasingly dirty and pitiless scene that confronts us is child abuse. I shall not add to what the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow said about that. I see colleagues in their places on both sides of the House who have devoted themselves over the years to various campaigns aimed at protecting children. I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman's analysis and especially with his remarks about the necessity for those engaged directly in the welfare and care of children to receive better training.

There have been mistakes by social welfare departments but I would be the last person to criticise the dedicated men and women who are involved in this area of society. I am aware of the work that is undertaken by welfare workers in my constituency.

I wish, however, to draw attention to one feature of the appalling problem we face that is causing considerable anxiety to local government and to those who are concerned directly with the care and welfare of children. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security that it is a feature the Home Office could take on board and act upon straight away. Children—and here we should add the frail elderly and the handicapped, for whom local authorities have responsibility—are often under the care or in the charge of individuals with criminal records as a result of ignorance on the part of the authorities employing them.

Last month, the Association of County Councils drew our attention to the fact that many who come within the categories of the elderly, the frail elderly, the handicapped, and children run the risk of being abused physically or financially by people with convictions for serious offences despite a Home Office review of current rules following the Colin Evans case. Admittedly, in accordance with the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, those who want to work with children are not allowed to conceal convictions, and, to help the employers to check whether there has been any concealment, the police are allowed under the Home Office guidelines to reveal certain convictions.

The association tells us, however, that the Colin Evans case shows that the existing guidelines are inadequate in that they do not apply to volunteers or to those who switch jobs within the social services. As I understand it, the Home Office review proposes to extend the voluntary guidelines to allow local authorities to ask the police for details of convictions of all persons who are involved in child care. The House should take note that the association is on record as saying that it believes that the review has not gone far enough. For one thing it does not extend to voluntary organisations that work with children and it ignores the fact that there are many others apart from children who are vulnerable, such as the confused elderly or the mentally handicapped, who can be physically or financially abused by the unscrupulous.

I understand that the association welcomes generally, as we all do, the proposals to close some of the gaps in the provisions on child care. It is clear that the review will not deal with examples of the sort that the association has collected from various sources, examples of vulnerable adults and children being open to abuse by those with relevant convictions. This is a serious matter but it is one that the Government can do something about if they have the will.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the best way of dealing with the issue might be to introduce legislation, perhaps in the form of an amendment to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which would lay down clearly the responsibility of the police and other organisations to pass information to the social services, the probation service and other organisations that are responsible for dealing with vulnerable and dependent people, whether children or the elderly? Does he agree also that such legislation should enshrine the rights of individuals to ensure that information about them which is being passed is at the very least accurate? Does he accept that a statutory framework would avoid the pitfall of the awful web of circulars, which is part of the problem at present?

Yes. I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady, who anticipated what I was about to say. There is certainly a need for legislation. We need a statutory code of some sort. I shall not try to spell out here what it should contain. It is on this very point that the association has made its representations to the Home Office. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State intervenes, I hope that he will have something to say on that score.

It is interesting that the proposed rules will relate only to England and Wales. The association tells me that examples have been quoted to it where a person has taken up work in England after having been resident in Scotland. Apparently there is no arrangement for tracing convictions back to Scotland in such circumstances. Presumably the same arrangement applies to Northern Ireland. Clearly that gap must be closed. I accept that there must be a balance between the civil liberties of the offender and the purpose of the 1974 Act and the need to protect children. However, I believe that our constituents—I am sure that this applies to the overwhelming majority of hon. Members—would surely consider that the balance must be swung in favour of protecting the child. The House has always been jealous in the past of the safety of children. We protect children against uncaring, neglectful and cruel parents. We have a right to interfere in the so-called family circle when evidence is given that harm is being caused to the child, whether physical, mental or moral.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that our protection of the child could be strengthened by making a simple change to the framework of law to enable social service departments to apply to the magistrates' courts for warrants for custodial care and the production of the child in question? Social workers often suspect that a child might be at risk but cannot act because the custodial parent does not produce the child, which means that they have no evidence to pass on to others. A simple change could be made to the present legislation in the interests of protecting the child.

I entirely agree. A few years ago, there was a tragic case in the neighbouring constituency to mine in Essex. A social worker had paid a number of visits to a home where a child was known to be at risk. The other children appeared to be happy and well fed, but that particular child in danger was never produced for the social worker. Yet it was neglected and malnourished and in fact was dying in a filthy room at the very time the social worker was calling. An inquiry was held. I certainly will not blame or name anyone but it is manifest that present arrangements are totally unsatisfactory.

The Association of County Councils has given specific examples. It is not necessary to give names, although we need to know what happened. Its spokesman has said that the cases it had collected were probably just the "tip of the iceberg". About a week ago, The Times reported some of these cases which

"included a man with convictions for sexual offences against children being employed in a local authority hostel and abusing children again, a teacher dismissed for sexual malpractices moving to a private school, a driver convicted of acts of gross indecency with mentally handicapped children, after which earlier convictions for similar offences were discovered, and people with convictions for sexual offences volunteering to work with children."

How will the Home Office respond to the association's plea? We wish to know. I hope, too, that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will say that although the Home Office cannot issue directions to judges and magistrates—we all know that—my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will draw the attention of the Lord Chief Justice to public anxiety about the disparity between sentences for these atrocious crimes against children, the elderly and women generally. The House is disgusted with what some of the courts have been doing. It is as though some judges do not live in the same world as the rest of us. I hope that my hon. Friend will convey that message to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and that he, in turn, will convey it to the Lord Chief Justice who, I am certain, is well aware of these matters and will in his wisdom take appropriate action.

If the debate succeeds in injecting a greater sense of urgency into this distressing, disturbing and dangerous state of affairs, it will have served a useful purpose. But having regard to the growing toll of social misery which present trends reveal, it is particularly late in the day for effective action to be taken by those who have the power to take it.

10.32 am

The speeches that we have heard this morning show clearly that there is concern about these problems. The right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) loudly and clearly expressed on behalf of the majority of hon. Members the outrage at the way in which the courts apparently deal leniently with many cases. The statistics speak for themselves. There is a horrifying catalogue of disaster after disaster. Between 1979 and 1984 child abuse increased by 70 per cent. According to last year's figures, more than 7,000 children are affected.

That is the incidence of "reported" child abuse. The actual number of fatalities has been decreasing.

The statistics go on to say that. That is a justifiable point. Nevertheless, the number of children involved in cases of abuse has increased by 70 per cent.

The most striking increases in abuse have occurred with respect to what the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children categorises as "moderate" physical abuse and sexual abuse.

I should like to refer to some of the cases that I have encountered in the past few years, the most recent of which occurred when I was with two young policemen in my constituency. I spent a Friday night with them. We were called just after midnight to what appeared to be a domestic incident. We arrived at the top floor of a tenement block. On entering the flat we saw one chap who was suffering from either withdrawal from drugs or a drug overdose and was semi-conscious. There were two women, both of whom had two young children. One child was well under a year old. There was no furniture, and the babies were sleeping in a blanket and a sleeping bag on a mattress on the floor. A three-year-old was wandering around and going out on to the balcony. When the police attemped to take action, the younger of the two women picked up her baby and said that if they attempted to arrest her and take her out of the property she would throw the baby over the balcony. That was a horrifying experience for those two young policemen. They managed with great tact and understanding to calm the situation.

The following day, I attempted to contact the social services department about the case, but had no success. On Monday I spoke to the social workers. They were well aware that the children were at risk. It would not take anyone more than five minutes to ascertain not only that the children were at risk but that they should not have been there. It took the efforts of the police, myself and other agencies to step in to get the children taken from that environment. The children were at risk from general neglect, although perhaps not physical abuse.

I should like to refer to another incident which involves not physical abuse but another type of abuse which is not often seen. It is difficult for anyone to come to grips with it. The matter was brought to my attention when, as a member of the social services committee in Hampshire, I was responsible for special cases involving children. There was the tragic case of an 11-year-old boy who had killed his mother—not because he had been physically abused but because he had been mentally abused. His mother got the boy and his brother up at 5 am and, for three or four hours before he went to school, she made him do school work. This happened every day without any let up. Eventually, the boy's capacity to absorb that abuse, which was not known outside the household, ended and he rebelled by stabbing his mother with a bread knife which was on the table. The boy has spent the past 12 years in various homes. He has not been able to come to terms with females. No one could have stepped in to avert that incident.

We need a better understanding of the problems that we all face. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) referred to the various types of abuse that occur and the incidents that go unchallenged. I have a letter from a life-sentence prisoner held in Kingston prison in Portsmouth. He admits in his first sentence that he murdered his wife and has been in prison since 1979. His two children have been in the custody of the courts since then. He has been given evidence that his daughter, who is in the care of a local authority nearly 250 miles away, is being sexually abused. Despite his repeated attempts to get the police or the social services department to intervene on his behalf, no action has been taken. Because he is so desperate, and because no one will listen to him, he is petitioning Parliament to take action. He can do nothing about the matter from his cell in Portsmouth.

The problem is not limited to the family.

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that a complaint has been made to the local police that a child has been sexually abused while in the care of a local authority, and that no action has been taken? It is extraordinary if a complaint has been made to the police and no inquiry or investigation has been held. Could it simply be that a man who has been in prison for a long time is making a complaint without arty real evidence to back it up?

I shall quote from the letter. It states:

"I have made a formal complaint to the chief constable concerned and as of yet, some six weeks, have not received even a reply."
In other words, the man has endeavoured to have the matter investigated, and now, in desperation, has sought the help of the House in resolving the case.

In the course of only a week, one of my constituents, Mrs. Janet Hewitt, and her group, PACA—People Against Child Abuse—got 10,000 signatures on a petition to urge the House to take more positive steps against child abuse. The rage to which the right hon. Member for Castle Point referred is, indeed, boiling over. There is genuine public anxiety, and perhaps ignorance and a lack of understanding of the pressures on the aims of society that attempt to deal with the matter. From conversations with social workers, I know that they face impossible difficulties. They have case loads which would fill a Bench and a half. We place an impossible burden on them. Moreover, they lack facilities and colleagues. Some people may regard that as an excuse for what is happening, but no one is trying to make excuses. Insufficient resources are being made available to enable social services departments to react properly. The two young policemen in the incident to which I referred have probably never been trained in recognising child abuse. We need to consider their responsibility. Other hon. Members have already mentioned the position of the courts.

Child abuse takes many forms. I am horrified when I see how the local authority in my city commits a form of child abuse by condemning families with three children under the age of five to live on the fourteenth floor of a tower block with nowhere to play. The parents must try to cater for those children in that difficult environment. The deprivation of play is as much an abuse of a child as being physically harmed, and, in the long term, the harm can be as great. We fail to recognise or understand our obligation to provide that sort of facility.

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention, not only to society's feeling of collective responsibility when a child is abused, but to the importance of collective responsibility for supporting families with young children, and particularly for providing play facilities and nurseries. Shortly, when I publish the national pattern of play and nursery provision, I hope that he will join me in condemning councils that turn their backs on the needs of children under five by failing to make proper collective play and nursery provision for them.

I could not agree more, and I should welcome the opportunity to support the hon. Lady. I am sick to death of local authorities paying lip service to children and then not providing the necessary facilities.

No, I should like to develop my argument further before I give the hon. Lady a chance to intervene. I am sure that she will have ample opportunity to cover my points and many others.

It is undoubtedly true that local authority after local authority ignores its responsibilities to youngsters.

To be fair, I would not like to suggest that they are all Conservative-controlled local authorities. My experience leads me to believe that that is not the case. In most local authorities children are deprived of proper play facilities. I do not defend authorities which condemn families to live in high-rise blocks, and many authorities commit that crime against the family.

Social services departments also have a role to play, but many of them have wholly inadequate facilities to find out the size of the problem, let alone to manage the problem.

May I please make one comment to the hon. Gentleman? From my experience as a councillor, it is evident that child play facilities and all those additionals to family life are irrelevant. The type of families who have children who may need those facilities are not the families that seek them.

I do not believe that for one minute. It is nonsense. That is not my experience, and I continue to be a member of a local authority. That is an arrogant attitude to adopt to the problem.

The real problem of the family is that we do not train people to be parents. It is the one area of life for which we do not educate youngsters at school. We do not teach them how to look after children. If parents on an estate do not push for play facilities for their children, it is because we have not taken the time and trouble that we should have taken to educate youngsters in the art of being a parent. If we did, we would have fewer problems than we have today. Perhaps the Minister and his colleagues in other Departments would consider making it compulsory for youngsters at school to study child care and child development. They will then see the benefits that can undoubtedly accrue from giving youngsters that experience.

Too often, an 18-year-old comes to my surgery and tells me that she has major problems with one child, another one on the way, no husband and no one to turn to. She is completely unable to cope. I have seen such mothers smack a young child because the child has cried. That is ludicrous. I have two children and they cry at times when they want or need something, but I do not bellyache, smack or harangue them. I well remember their early years of development when crying was part of growing up. One should not smack a child every time it cries, but, unfortunately, people do and those habits do not change because we have not tried to educate people out of them.

We must consider child abuse within the family. I am horrified at the statistics of sexual and physical abuse within the family. They paint a ghastly picture. Most of it is founded on jealousy. Often it occurs when a new father, stepfather, boyfriend or lover joins the household and resents the attention given to the child. It also occurs with a father who has children when a new woman comes on the scene and is denied attention because of them.

I have experienced the jealousy of youth. As we grow older—perhaps we cannot all admit to this—we are at times jealous of youth and what youth has. In some cases that jealousy is shown in physical abuse of youngsters. I have seen people turn their back on the activities of the young simply because they did not want to know. It is a form of jealousy. They were denied those opportunities themselves and see fit to deny them to others. We all have an enormous catalogue of experiences and nightmares.

The problems are related to several things. The swings in public opinion cause legal and professional opinions to change frequently, thus making it difficult to make consistent decisions and plans. The Department of Health and Social Security has produced some ill-considered policy directives that have been based on individual cases which received much publicity at the time. Thus social workers are constantly caught between conflicting legislation. The Children Act 1975 advocates taking the child out of the home. The Health and Social Services and Social Security Adjudications Act 1983 advocates keeping the child in the home while rehabilitating the parents. That is simply not a practical framework in which to work. It fails to get to grips with the problems. Too many children are left too long in families with known problems. My experience leads me to believe that it is safer to remove a child immediately rather than to delay. Yet, because of constricting legislation, that is sometimes not possible.

In many instances court proceedings are far too long. Many cases drag on indefinitely. The introduction of a family court could help—a simple one-court system where all child care and family matters could be dealt with more efficiently and more effectively in less time. The child's welfare is about time. In some instances that precious time between discovery and action is the critical period during which the child's life is literally hanging on a thread. We should react to that situation.

There is no doubt that staff quality should be better. Those hon. Members who have stressed that point have been told time and again that training and more training is vital. Sometimes cases are given to inexperienced people because of restrictions on resources. More post-qualifying training should be provided and there should be much more supervision of cases. Much speedier case conferences should be brought into being. I was heartened by the experience described by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow in Scotland where case conferences are sometimes held 48 or 24 hours after the recognition of a problem. All too often case conferences do not take place because the people needed to attend them are spread around so thinly.

There should be more co-ordination and communication between social workers, teachers, family doctors and health visitors. The general practitioner should be able to recognise such problems and often does, but takes little or no action. How many of the cases that we have read about in the past 12 months could or should have been recognised by the general practitioners who in many instances visited the people involved but most of whom took no action? They failed to do so because they found excuses for their own inability to cope with the problem.

We need from the Government and the House a clear directive to the courts that the perpetrators of serious crimes of child abuse need to be punished hard. We need from the House and Ministers positive action in the form of resources to help local authorities to deal with the children in their care and to do away with much of the deprivation that breeds child abuse.

The most sickening fact of all, the statistic that sticks in my gullet and, I imagine, in that of many other hon. Members, is the one that shows the relationship between child abuse in the family and the father's state of employment. In 1980 53 per cent. of the fathers of abused children were unemployed. In 1984 that figure had increased to 70 per cent. That alone should give the Government a real incentive to get the British people back to work. Perhaps next time we debate this subject that statistic will be much smaller.

10.53 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) on tabling this motion and on the delightful, kind and serious way in which he put his case. I am certain that he has added to the national debate on the subject. Back-Bench time is so precious that we are delighted that this subject has been chosen at a time when the nation is so angry.

Children face two great dangers. The first is the danger from adults who have a sexual attraction to children and who want a sexual relationship with them. Sadly, children are often killed as a result of that. The second danger is one that we have explored even more fully today. Youngsters may be injured or killed within their family unit by a parent, step-parent, common-law partner or simply a parent's casual lover.

I should like to think that I am speaking on behalf of 2 million parents who have signed petitions in support of my child protection campaign which has run for many years and for the thousands of parents who have written to me, pledging their support, putting forward ideas and providing a steady trickle of information leading to arrests and convictions.

I speak also for the little children and babies whose cries for mummy have to remain unanswered and for the little ones who are meant to be unheard by barbaric adults who mask their cries with cotton wool in the mouth, by closing a dark drawer or by wedging a door closed with wood. I speak for them all, so that their cries of anguish will be heard and they will not have died in vain. Out of their lives will come many important lessons.

Let me deal first with the adults who are obsessed with the thought of sexual relationships with children. They are evil and dangerous and, sadly, vast sums are exchanged for child-adult pornography. The noose around my neck grew tighter after I named a former high-flying British diplomat on the Floor of the House. Hon. Members will understand that where big money is involved and as important names came into my possession so the threats began. First, I received threatening telephone calls followed by two burglaries at my London home. Then, more seriously, my name appeared on a multi-killer's hit list. So the threats went on.

Child pornography is evil for two reasons. First, children have to be procured to produce this disgusting material, be it a photograph or a video film, and, secondly, adults can be corrupted with this material into wanting and desiring the real thing. It cannot be right to allow to exist any organisations that interest themselves in adult sex with a child. It is alien to our way of life, our thinking and our family units. I still call for them to be proscribed in my Paedophilia (Protection of Children) Bill. We have smashed the organisation known as PIE, the Paedophile Information Exchange. In its bulletin sent out to members it named my Bill, which has had its First Reading, as the reason for winding up the organisation. Some of its members are now in prison. Others have escaped to Holland, but we shall have them. However, other organisations are springing up and it is important that we should crush those in the same way.

It is common knowledge in this honourable House that I have put our judges on trial. I know that it is a sensitive area and I know that we in Parliament have to be careful because we make the laws that the judges administer. If it were in my gift I would hang anybody who killed a child, but Parliament has decided otherwise and we must acquiesce. Recently letters have demanded fire for fire. Referring to the case of Heidi Koseda, they say that the man convicted should be made to eat wallpaper only and starve to death. Other letters said that the man who killed baby Charlene Salt should have nine ribs and one arm broken and be shut in a dark drawer and that Gemma Hartwell had a ball of cotton wool put in her mouth and a scarf put over her head so that she could not cry.

Those letters illustrate how passionate and angry the nation is. I shall develop that theme after the statement.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 5 (Friday sittings).