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Child Abuse

Volume 87: debated on Friday 29 November 1985

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Question again proposed.

It would be less than courteous if I did not say before continuing my speech how very sorry I was to hear the contents of that statement. I join every right hon. and hon. Member who has expressed sympathy for those who have suffered in the blast.

Before the statement, I was talking about sentencing and what the nation expected of it, and about the letters saying that we should fight fire with fire. However, we are not a barbaric nation and we do not behave in such a way. On the other hand, we do not expect a man convicted after the brutal death of a little baby to receive a sentence of only six years imprisonment, and the mother of that baby, who could have saved it, to walk free on probation out of the back of the court.

Back in the 1960s, when I was training as a magistrate, I was instructed that sentences should be designed to punish, reform if possible, and deter, while at the same time protecting society. The public do not think that those principles were satisfied in these cases. Two years and four years for the death of a baby who received nine broken ribs and a broken arm, and who was shut in a drawer with resulting brain haemorrhage, will not do.

The Charlene Salt case is just one example of how the Director of Public Prosecutions' department makes gross errors, as do the judges. When the father, David Salt, was interviewed, he said that he had banged baby Charlene's head on the hard arm of a settee and possibly, he said, on the wall, because she would not stop crying. Brain haemorrhage was the result of that. That was murder in anybody's book. It was not manslaughter. Broken rips and arms were the result not of wilful ill-treatment of a baby, but of grievous bodily harm. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has replied to me on this subject in a five-page letter, but I remain unconvinced, because Charlene was a little baby only a few weeks old.

The judge implied criticism of count one of cruelty, when he awarded the maximum sentence of two years, but it was open to him to direct a further indictment for murder. He already had a full and detailed summary of events, and, in my view and that of public opinion and editorial comment, the DDP and the judge between them let a barbaric child murderer off with six years when life imprisonment would have satisfied in the absence of capital punishment.

There is then the problem of parole committees. Alan Grant was recently convicted at Preston crown court of raping a 13-year-old girl for four hours while holding a pair of scissors to her throat. The three concurrent life sentences were most appropriate, but another judge had earlier blundered. Grant had previously been sentenced to only four years for raping a 13-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl at knife point. Grant had served a term of imprisonment for indecently assaulting a five-year-old girl and then served imprisonment for indecently assaulting a seven-year-old girl. There was then yet another blunder. The lenient four-year sentence was cut in half by the wisdom of the local parole committee, with the result that Grant struck twice again within seven months of his release—hence the life sentences imposed later.

Last week, another local parole committee released the mother of the four-year-old girl Jasmine Beckford, after only six months of an 18-month sentence. Beverley Lorrington, the mother, could have saved her child, as the mother in the other case could have saved hers. The child died from injuries that included 20 broken ribs.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister knows my deep feelings and concern on this subject, and is the mother of twins. She has written me a four-page letter on the subject of child abuse, which I received a few days ago. It is full of common sense and determination, and I shall quote one of the paragraphs:

"We share the horror shown by everyone in the community over recent tragic cases where children have been seriously injured or killed at the hands of their parents. None of us can fail to be deeply affected by the terrible sufferings of the children involved in these cases: they make it all the more imperative that we do all we can to avoid any recurrence."

I have been looking into these matters, as I follow the subject closely, and many helpful initiatives are on the way. If they were not, I would not mind laying into my Government. I have done it before and it gets me into trouble. That does not matter—if I think that my Government are wrong, I have a go at them. However, this time, the situation looks more promising. With my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's support, many changes will take place in the next year.

The consultations on the review of child law end after Christmas. The review of the child abuse guidance consultation document is expected next month. The child abuse inquiries consultations end tomorrow. New guidance on the review of children in care is imminent. The DHSS social services inspectorate has in hand the inspection of the supervision of social workers, and a report is expected next month. The proposals for the improvement of education and training, on which great stress has been laid, is taking place in social work, involving the central council. The improvement of education and training in social work is important, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with it later.

The DHSS is conducting urgent research into good child care practice, and I am pleased to hear that. Reports of public inquiries into previous cases of child abuse will be available.

The hon. Gentleman has listed a number of initiatives that are under way, but he failed to mention the investigation that the Lord Chancellor's Department is conducting into the possibility of establishing a family court, an important change on which there is now more or less univeral agreement. Should not this be dealt with at the same time that the substance of child law is being reviewed and changed following the review? Will not it be nonsense if there is a review of the substance of the law without any alteration of the procedures that cause so much delay, and which mean that cases involving children come before courts with no experience of dealing with such issues? Do not we need both the substance and procedures to be dealt with together? Would not that be more constructive than the reviews about which the hon. Gentleman has been talking?

I am grateful for those helpful comments. Yes, I agree with you, but I do not believe that it is any more helpful—

Order. I have not got involved in this at all.

Then I say to the hon. Lady that they are no more important than all the other items that I listed. It would, however, be sensible to deal with them at the same time. Yes, I agree with you. It is a very good point and now that you have got it recorded in Hansard it will not be overlooked.

Order. I have not recorded anything on this matter in Hansard. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will observe the well known practice of the House and will refer to hon. Members in the third person.

The hon. Lady has duly recorded it in Hansard and I am sure that now it will not go unnoticed. Parliament will do all in its power to assist the social services, the health authorities, the police, the probation service, the education authorities and the voluntary sector. I hope that Parliament will also support the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Children's Home. Without those agencies, the country would be the poorer. I hope that they flourish for many years to come.

Eventually we have to rely on the calibre of those who are recruited. If they use common sense and keep up to date with the lessons that have been learnt from earlier tragedies, they will be more useful. In the past I have been unkind to social services departments. The vast majority of social service workers are dedicated, hard working and caring. They work in a high-risk area. To educate myself, I went to their annual conference during this year's parliamentary recess, as did the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security. I was also pleased to see a number of right hon. and hon Members sitting in the audience. Parliament, therefore, is trying to be more understanding.

However, the social services attract doubtful recruits and "odd bods". They are armed with degrees and diplomas in the humanities, and many of them spend too much time handing out political propaganda instead of doing the job that they are paid to do. I have been on the receiving end of some of it. I should like a few mothers with grown-up children and some of the younger grandmothers to be recruited into the social service departments. They have experience; they know the signs; they are very competent.

The social service worker in Oldham who was responsible for the supervision of Charlene Salt recognised the dangers and was very anxious about that case. When the conclusions of the inquiry are made known it may be found that because of the law relating to access the system failed that particular social worker and that the social worker did not fail baby Charlene. However, we shall have to await the outcome of the inquiry.

Over the years, Parliament has delivered a host of severe powers relating to custodial sentences. It is now up to the Director of Public Prosecutions to bring the correct charges, to the judges to pass the correct sentences and to the parole committees to reach sensible decisions.

I make a plea to every judge in the United Kingdom. Judges have had powers conferred upon them by this honourable House. They have the power to punish, reform, deter and protect. I ask them not to reflect too deeply on the medical, psychiatric, probation and social reports when they pass sentence on those who have been convicted. I ask them to reflect on the innocent babies and children who have been injured or killed, whose cries were unanswered. I ask them to reflect on the victims of rape and sexual assault who must carry that cross for the rest of their lives. Only then will they begin to reflect the outrage and anger that is felt throughout the United Kingdom. Only then will children be protected by our legal system.

11.24 am

I join those hon. Members who have already congratulated the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) on his success in the ballot, and on choosing this subject for debate. When one sets his cool, measured and rational analysis alongside the excellent speech in this House on 26 July 1985 of the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), one recognises that in this House there is not just concern but expertise—concern and expertise that are free from the grinding of political axes. During this debate I hope that as far as possible we shall avoid those subjects that raise political issues between political parties.

I am afraid that it is a fact that in the past speeches such as those of the hon. Members for Greenock and Port Glasgow and for Surrey, South-West to which I have just referred have not attracted the attention of the more voyeuristic sections of the press. Some of this morning's contributions will attract that kind of attention. I regard them as unhelpful to the motion on the Order Paper and to the subject that is under debate. I do not propose to dwell upon such issues as sentencing because they are peripheral to the subject under debate.

The experience of the Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh shows that, if one takes a measured look at child abuse, one discovers that there has been a large increase in the number of referrals by parents who are abusing their children. That has to be regarded as a great success. If parents are frightened out of self-referral, we shall have taken many steps backward in trying to deal with this important problem. When hon. Members make their judgment about child abuse we should bear in the forefront of our minds what I believe to be a truism: that any society gets the parents that it deserves.

There has just been a detailed inquiry into the Jasmine Beckford case. The report of the committee of inquiry is to be published next Tuesday. I believe and very much hope that the committee's report will make a significant contribution to the understanding of the reasons for child abuse and—even more important—to the need for change in our approach to child abuse; in terms of training, the steps to be taken, and the institutions to be used in taking those steps, in our attempt to solve the problem of child abuse.

Many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak in this debate, so I do not propose to range over all the points that I would wish to make in a debate of this kind. I propose simply to take four specific issues, all of which were raised during the evidence in the Beckford inquiry. I hope that when the Beckford report is published next Tuesday it will deal with them.

The first issue that I wish to raise has already been mentioned. It concerns the training of those social workers who deal with cases of suspected child abuse. I agree with the sentiment that has already been expressed in this debate: that we should not indulge in social worker bashing. We must assist social workers to achieve the aim that I hope is common to all—the avoidance of child abuse.

A social worker involved with child abuse has an incredibly complex and difficult job. A balance has to be struck between the child's bond with its natural parents, and evidence that suggests it should be removed from its home. Such a job cannot be done satisfactorily on the basis of general social work training. Three years ago, the Department of Health and Social Security published a document entitled, "Child Abuse: A Study of Inquiry Reports 1973–1981." Paragraph 4 of the summary says:
"Workers who might encounter child abuse must have special knowledge, skill and experience to be able to recognise when it is taking place or is likely to take place. A major characteristic of many cases is the failure to bring together all available information and to use it in a structured, objective way by carrying out full psycho-social and medical assessments. These require continuous re-examination and revision. The need for health monitoring is important, particularly in cases of neglect. A common cause of inappropriate or inadequate intervention is the lack of a clearly formulated plan of action. Decisions should always be explicit and objectives specified … Several factors such as training, supervision and staffing influence professional practice in individual cases or affect the general level and quality of services … Cases can involve workers who are unqualified, untrained or inexperienced, sometimes all three."
The final part of the summary reads especially clearly. It says:
"There is a need for special training on child abuse matters and especially for in-service multi-professional courses."
We must act on those recommendations and observations, especially as they were based on close examination of no fewer than 18 major inquiries into cases of serious child abuse.

There are many examples of how proper professional training in child care, beyond general social work training, could assist. One of the issues discussed at the Beckford inquiry was the extent to which social workers sometimes focus attention on the parents, who are often plausible and even persuasive, rather than the child. That misfocus is susceptible to training. Social workers dealing with children can be taught how to use other disciplines such as those of general practitioners, health visitors and school teachers. Equally, those other disciplines can be taught how to use social workers.

Training in the judgment of parental behaviour is required, but always from the overriding standpoint of the child's interests. If there had been such training in regard to the Beckford case, that part of the controversy might have been avoided.

I quite agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman, but is not the problem much more widespread? Does he agree that there are many GPs, and even hospital consultants, who focus attention on the parents rather than the child? Although they suspect child abuse, though they have no evidence of it, they are reluctant or sometimes refuse to refer the case to the authorities because of an understandable but misguided sense that they will harm the parents.

I agree. I shall return to that.

The Seebohm concept of the generalist does not meet the requirement that social workers should be trained in matters such as child development. I was brought up with my father's general medical practice in a poor industrial town in Lancashire. I remember very well the role played by the children's officer, as she was called in those days. She knew what was going on in the town and was a specialist too. It was much easier for a GP such as my father to have regular contact with somebody whom he knew had the expertise to judge, and to help him judge, cases. We should revert to such specialism.

I should like to consider, too, the system for dealing with cases. I am afraid that social workers are heavily overloaded and there is virtually no system for dealing with cases in many parts of the country. In 14 of the 18 inquiries considered in the DHSS report that I have mentioned, the inexperience of social workers was noted. The problems were seen to be compounded when inexperienced social workers had to carry heavy case loads. Ten of the 18 reports mentioned big work loads leading to what was called a "siege mentality" which lowered morale and induced a tendency to gloss over problems.

The child Malcolm Page was visited by his social worker at least once a week during 1978 and was considered to be making reasonable progress when the last visit was made on 29 January 1979. One week later he died in hospital, aged 13 months, from severe neglect in the provision of adequate food, clothing, warmth and cleanliness. He had gangrene in five toes, urine burns on his face and was seriously under weight. The social worker was dealing with 54 cases at the time, 10 of which involved child abuse, and had no specific training in child abuse.

We must harness the work of specialist social workers and properly trained nurses, midwives, junior hospital doctors—and senior obstetricians, gynaecologists or paediatricians—health visitors, who already have special training in child development, and GPs. The inquiries in the DHSS report highlighted the times when a proper case conference could have had a significant impact on a child's future. One of the issues raised in evidence to the Beckford inquiry was the poor attendance at case conferences. There was reference to only four people from a much larger team attending. That is not good enough. We must establish a system that ensures that all of the disciplines concerned have appropriate training and use it in a satisfactory referential system. There is a clear need for strong and clear policy for action in such cases and it must be established that responsibility extends from the time that the mother becomes pregnant right through childhood.

This brings me to an important and related point. Anybody who has had children or whose wife has had children, and who has had contact with ante-natal clinics, knows that the attention given to the character of the parents is sketchy. I am sure that there are honourable exceptions, but by and large the attention given is sketchy. Many paediatricians are very much aware of that now, and are working to do something about it. But nurses, midwives, junior hospital doctors and consultants in antenatal clinics have a special responsibility to identify cases where they suspect that there may be some possibility of child abuse.

On 26 July 1985 the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), spoke of potential changes in child care law. He said, I thought with considerable understatement, that such changes had been a long time coming. They have taken decades to come. Indeed, I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) said from the Labour Front Bench. There is a need to look not just at child care law, but at the court procedures and the types of court that deal with children. As she said, there has for years been a consensus that family courts are needed. There has not been a consensus as to precisely what type, but let the Government provide a family court structure and we can sort out the details within that context. Until the House has legislation before it that provides for family courts, we shall not concentrate our minds on precisely what they should deal with. When we have that legislation, I suspect that we shall make a great improvement on the present situation.

A helpful report was published, on 4 October, dealing with child care law. To an extent, it is disappointing, because it dealt with half of the problem. It dealt with the DHSS side of the problem, but not with the court and procedural side of it; half an inquiry is a very incomplete inquiry indeed. Partly because of my professional experience and observation of court procedure, I believe that family courts are necessary. Although there are many excellent magistrates dealing with care proceedings, many others are insufficiently trained, inexperienced and insufficiently advised to deal with a lot of the cases. Without unduly criticising the lay magistracy, which does an excellent job, I believe that magistrates can sometimes be bemused by the adversarial atmosphere of care proceedings and by the inquiry into the credibility of witnesses, which often overshadows the real question of the child's welfare.

I shall be disappointed if the Beckford report does not consider the role of the magistrates' court in what happened during the months before Jasmine Beckford's death. I hope that there will be a valuable contribution towards the debate about whether the magistrates' court is the right place for such proceedings or whether we should have a system of family courts in which the platform of child proceedings can be unified.

There is, of course, considerable experience of child proceedings in other courts. The High Court deals with wardship proceedings, and county court judges deal on a day-by-day basis with custody and access proceedings. Indeed, a considerable body of expertise has grown up there. But it is time for all that expertise—from the magistrates to the High Court—to be harnessed into a single system.

Perhaps the Minister will consider the fact that I have been told by those who practise day by day in the county courts, in particular, that allegations of sexual abuse are increasingly being made in custody and access proceedings. The county court practitioners find that, because of the evidential rules of procedure in the county court, it is extremely difficult to obtain evidence as to whether those allegations are justified. An examination should be made into ways in which such matters can be properly ventilated and adjudicated upon in custody proceedings.

Finally, I shall concentrate briefly on inquiries into specific cases of child abuse. From events of recent years we know that where child abuse has occurred, not only public opinion but, far more importantly, our need to understand the reasons for child abuse and to decide what should be done have led to inquiries being set up. It does not matter much whether they are set up by the Government or by local authorities. However, it has become increasingly difficult for them to be conducted before judicial proceedings have been completed.

If there is a murder or manslaughter charge and a trial that involves a lot of expert evidence, there is often a considerable delay before that trial takes place. But the inquiry cannot realistically begin until the trial is over. Experiments and pilot schemes are now being undertaken to try to reduce the time between committal for trial and trial. Will the Minister investigate whether cases of child abuse are a particular area in which the tightest time limits should be set, not just between committal proceedings and trial but between arrest and trial? I am sure that he will agree that almost invariably such trials involve what has happened within a very restricted environment—the home. Outsiders may sometimes be involved, but their involvement rarely extends beyond the immediate friends of the family, babysitters or social workers who may have become concerned.

There is no excuse for any delay in police inquiries, or between committal and trial. The type of public inquiry that occurred in the Beckford case represents a vital contribution to our understanding of the problem. Such inquiries must take place as soon as possible after death or serious injury. Steps are available to ensure that that happens, and I urge the Minister to encourage his colleagues to take them.

11.47 am

Mention has been made of one of the problems found in the juvenile courts because of the adversarial nature of the proceedings. But sometimes the same criticism could be made of this Chamber. I would like to endorse many of the points made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). In the motion, the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow draws attention not only to the role of social workers but, importantly, to the role of other groups—for example, health visitors who have a particular acceptability with families. They are welcome at an early and crucial stage in a family's formation and when children are very young.

One of the tragedies highlighted by recent cases is that frequently the child has not been seen and, moreover, has not been seen without its clothes on. A health visitor is peculiarly able to ask the parent to undress the child and to give advice in an acceptable way to families. Thus, I support their work.

Mention has also been made of the work of the police. I greatly admire the role performed by police officers in child abuse cases. They have an ability to deal firmly and plainly with families, and in my experience it is rare for a family to complain about how the police have handled a case. Their communication skills and ability to put things over without jargon is invariably helpful. The police are often the first to make families recognise how serious a problem has become.

Teachers are not the happiest people in the community at present. Frequently they point out that the public regard them as a repository for all information and advice. In child abuse cases, their contribution is significant. They see the children every day. They see them doing PE and notice whether a child is late. They are not always aware of what they should be looking for—the indicators that child abuse may be occurring. Teacher training colleges could do more to highlight the teachers' role. In a school day, there are many signals that all is not well with a child.

Teachers also have an important role in preparing young people for the responsibilities of parenthood. As many have said, one of the few jobs for which one needs no training or experience is that of parent. Teachers often comment on how wide the public's expectation of them has become. Some understanding of child care and development should be part of the curriculum. Tragically in child abuse cases, the parents involved often have a patheticaly unrealistic understanding and expectation of the appropriate behaviour for children of various ages.

I agree that a preoccupation with punishment is irrelevant and peripheral in child abuse cases. My hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) drew attention to the public abhorrence and repugnance of child abuse cases—I congratulate him on that—but it is important to accept that deterrence is scarcely a relevant factor in punishment. Moreover, that punishment can be counterproductive. Edinburgh hospital has been mentioned.

My experience suggests that one of the problems about reporting child abuse cases is the fear that the perpetrator will be imprisoned. Sexual abuse cases are almost always within the family. There was a ghastly example recently of a case outside the family but such cases are so rare that they are of less signficance. An increasing number of child sex abuse cases within the family are coming to light. The fear expressed by both the mother and the child is that the father will be sent to prison if the abuse is reported. The father might even use this as a threat to the child.

Pioneering work in bringing in the law—no one denies that that is important—and collaborating on treatment for the family has been done in America.

It is easy to become over-emotional and to get the problem out of perspective. Reference has been made to the cries of children which go unheard. Many more children's cries went unheard in Victorian times. We must see things as they were. Children were, for example, sent off to babyfarms virtually to starve. The whole idea of children having rights and needs of their own is a new concept. Of course, every tragedy should be investigated, and I welcome the Department's guidelines for inquiries so that a common standard is applied.

It is important for social workers to move on in their profesional life. They cannot solve every problem and every ailment in society. When they try to become community agitators and befrienders, they devalue their professional currency. They need to stand up for what they can do. They need proper training. They should ensure good practice. No one should condone bad practice, but we do not want social work by political interference. In many recent cases, local councillors have taken direct case responsibility upon themselves. That is like asking a member of the district health authority to stand in an operating theatre when a difficult operation is taking place. Politicians are politically responsible and their job is to facilitate the work, but they do not have the professional judgment to deal with child abuse cases. It would be a retrograde move if politicians tried to take on that role.

Does my hon. Friend agree that elected councillors are becoming far too involved in the day-to-day running of social services departments? Does she agree that if they left the experts to implement policies, we should not have the problems uncovered during the Leeway inquiry in Lewisham as a result of there being far too little action too late because of political interference over the years?

I agree. In some areas, a naive view of racism is taken so that, whenever a black child is removed, a social worker is called to account and to explain. That is unhelpful. Social workers should not be social engineers.

Training is crucial. Surrey university, on the border of my constituency, is considering closing its social work course. That would be a retrograde step. Universities are worried that their social work courses might be driven away. I hope that that possibility will be urgently explored. A proper research basis is essential for social workers.

We have talked today about many aspects of training and the need for a fundamental understanding of child growth and development, and of emotional development. Direct experience in a paediatric department has also been discussed along with the ability to communicate with children. We are talking about people with responsibility for people's lives. Therefore, training is paramount.

We could do more about management. Too often inquiries reveal a shortfall in management. It is important to know at what level decisions should be made and exactly what the procedures are. I hope that the DHSS guidelines to be issued later this year will cover this aspect.

I support the provision of family centres. Many hon. Members have talked about contributions by voluntary organisations. I hope that no one will confuse voluntary organisations with volunteers. There is, in my opinion, no role in such cases for volunteers.

One of the excellent contributions that the Church of England Children's Society and others have made is the development of family centres which provide a place to go. Traditionally, social workers have seen their work in terms of a relationship. That is not always enough. Families need a place where they can be offered advice, help and training. At a family centre they can be observed and monitored. I pay tribute to the Surrey social services department for many of the exciting and innovative ways in which it is developing projects and initiatives.

There are many tensions in society. There is the question whether parents have rights or whether children have rights. The pendulum has gone a little too far. We are preoccupied with bonding and the parents' need for their children. We should think more about psychological parenting, and about a child's right not to be abused, but to grow up free from the torment and terror of abusing parents.

There is a lot of tension around confidentiality. Many of us feel strongly about the openness of information and access to files. Many hon. Members have spoken on the subject. It is difficult to record professional concern about how a child is being treated. It is too often forgotten that a professional person's doubts about a case can be difficult to communicate. He does not want to damage the family, but he must put something on record. My right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) spoke about the civil liberties implication of disclosing people's criminal records. Many of us feel that the balance needs to be redressed in the case of those responsible for children, either as parents or caretakers.

I widely endorse hon. Members' remarks about the reform needed in the courts system. The child care law review is a good simplification, but it needs developing. The concepts of respite and shared care are helpful. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) can do more on that important subject.

We must move towards a family court system. The rules of evidence under our present court arrangements are unsatisfactory, as is the standing of parents. We have talked about it for too long. I do not want to follow the Scottish system of children's juvenile hearings, although I know that that system has some advantages over our system. We must operate on a number of fronts so that the children may be free of the terror and damage being inflicted on them.

Once more I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow on taking a balanced and appropriate attitude to the subject. Neither sentimentality nor populism will solve the problem. We must work at it in a professional, responsible and, above all, urgent fashion.

12.1 pm

It is a great pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Surrey. South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), whose speech provided an excellent, comprehensive and thoughtful agenda for the future. I could not disagree with any of the points that she made, although I should like to discuss some of them further—for example, the current Scottish system and the system that the hon. Lady would like for England.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) for introducing this important subject for debate. Before coming to my main comments, I must say that as a Member of Parliament representing a Brent constituency, and with the report of the inquiry into the Jasmine Beckford case due next week, I regret that it is not possible to read the report, think about it, discuss it and reach views and conclusions about the way in which the Government, my local authority and other local authorities should act in the light of that report. Therefore, of necessity, my remarks will be general and not lengthy. I hope that other people, both here and in my borough, will wait for the report and consider it.

It is in that spirit that I must say how saddened I was—and that is a mild expression—to hear that there will be three separate party political press conferences in my borough next week on the publication of the report. Quite apart from the fact that there should be no press conferences until the report has been studied and responded to in the appropriate fashion—that is, in committee—I cannot for the life of me understand why a report of that nature should give rise to three separate press conferences by councillors. I am not picking on any particular party—the whole concept of what is proposed disturbs me greatly.

Another matter reported to me within the past couple of days also concerns me. I want to explain it as fairly and considerately as possible. I regret that, because of certain fears of members of NALGO working in the Brent social services department about possible decisions by councillors on their jobs, they have issued a statement directed at the council saying that any disciplinary action taken as a result of the Jasmine Beckford report could lead to industrial action. I do not want to be involved in any possible dispute. My concern is that such action, and the press conferences to which I have referred, should be taken against the background of the Jasmine Beckford case. That appals me. I hope that everyone in my borough, no matter which side they take, will cool down, reflect a little more, study the report when it is published and concern himself more with the substance of the matter than with how we should behave either prior to the report or when it is published next week.

My first general observation on the subject before us is that Parliament has a difficult task, and that fact has been highlighted by the different natures of the speeches made this morning. Hon. Members must follow a careful and delicate line. Naturally, we all feel and reflect the passion and anger of our constituents about such cases as that of Jasmine Beckford. Many other cases have been mentioned in the debate, but we must remember that they form a minority of the cases dealt with. Our main concern, as people who lead on policy and action—whether in this place, the town halls, the institutions or the professional bodies—must be to encourage thought and reflection rather than, however unconsciously, undue over-reaction and anger. We must think about the things that need to be done.

We must avoid generalised attacks on social workers, the police and the courts—just as we do not want generalised attacks on our institution, although plenty of them are made. We must look not only at the responsibilities of the social services departments, the police and others, but at our responsibility as a Parliament and a Government. It is our job to encourage understanding. We must ensure that the best practice—and there is some good practice—is adopted throughout the country.

It is our job as parliamentarians, especially Ministers, to ensure that the necessary resources—as well as the policy and administrative guidelines—are provided for more training, in-service training and, where necessary, the reorganisation and expansion of social service departments and related services.

It is the job of Members of Parliament, and especially Ministers, to ensure that much greater specialist attention is given to child care. I make that point in support of similar points already made by hon. Members this morning. It is our job to ensure that the resources and facilities are available to encourage the greater provision of playgroups, day nurseries, nursery school classes and, more appropriate family housing.

Reference has been made to high-rise housing. Much that is going on today in the housing sector, apart from high-rise housing, will result in child neglect and abuse continuing. With families living in 14 and 15 storey blocks, and with local authorities not having suitable houses with gardens at ground floor level into which those families should be moved, eventually something will break and there will be cases of neglect and abuse, and those cases will be hidden or reported in the courts, to the press or to the town halls.

Hon. Members who represent inner city areas where high density housing exists—not only high-rise flats but inadequately converted private accommodation—will be well aware of the accommodation that is going into decline and of families who, even today, are living in attic rooms without access to gardens and space for the children to play and without proper facilities in their homes. We and the Government know that those conditions exist and that action could be taken to rectify the problem.

In my constituency alone, there are hundreds of houses in the pipeline waiting to be modernised and converted into decent family accommodation, yet nobody knows when that work will be done. The property is owned by the local authority or housing associations whose budgets have been cut severely, some by 50 per cent., in recent years. Those properties awaiting modernisation represent families with young children living in inadequate accommodation.

From the people we see in our surgeries, from our correspondence and from the visits we pay to constituents, we know that there is stress and pressure and that eventually something will break and there will be problems. I agree that even at our surgeries parents slap their children as they are waiting. That happens because people are under stress. That is no excuse for their conduct, but we must try to understand the physical pressures that cause people to break and turn on children as well as on each other.

We in office have a responsibility to make sure that resources are available for the provision of nurseries and nursery schools, housing and other amenities so that people can move with their children out of high-rise blocks of flats into accommodation where they can live in a way in which they are entitled to live.

The hon. Member for Surrey, South-West spoke of the need to encourage family centres. More resources should be put into joint projects between health authorities and local authorities with social service responsibilities so that family centres may be provided in the right places jointly, not run on a departmental line. That would result in all the relevant departments being concerned for child and other aspects of family care. They would then be working together at the grass roots, not through a series of reports prepared in the town hall or in Whitehall. We need the hospital services, social service departments and the education and community services all working together at a neighbourhood level. That is why we should encourage family centres, but that, too, requires resources as well as policies.

Reference has been made to the difficult balance that must be struck by social workers and policy makers between the interests of parents, in law and in practice, and the interests of children. There has been a tendency, it has been suggested, to give greater emphasis to parental rights, needs and concerns than to children suspected of being at risk.

In my view, the interests of the less powerful—in this context, the children—must be protected no less, indeed rather more, than those of the more powerful, who in this context are the parents. I appreciate that a difficult judgment must be made in particular circumstances in that connection, but as a guiding and firm principle it is right for us to say that those who act on our behalf in the community—social workers and others—should take the view that the interest of the child must be considered above all others.

I appreciate that in complex situations that is often a difficult judgment to make, but as a policy posture it must be established without doubt. If that principle needs to be written into a statute or guideline, it should be written in simple terms and we should be prepared to stand by it. It must be the rule not just for social services or social workers; it must apply to all concerned.

If we gave children greater recognition of their rights, there would be less abuse and neglect. When we talk of rights in this connection, we are talking about protecting children from all forms of abuse and neglect. Those rights must assume overwhelming importance.

Much has been said about the running of social service departments and the training of social workers, and I will not go over the excellent points that hon. Members have made in that connection. I have long held the view—not simply from my concern about child care but about the social services generally—that there has been a tendency to fail to distinguish between the concept of generalist or generic departments of social service and the way in which they are organised internally to meet particular social needs, in this case child care.

That is not new. We began to see it happening in the early days of what were then new comprehensive departments. I recall telling a Minister 20 years ago that we did not need the Seebohm committee to reach a conclusion that we should put all the social services under a common umbrella. In adhering to that view still, I do not believe that we should allow the generalist approach to be adopted in every activity of social service departments.

The right hon. Gentleman has spoken of social services coming together under one umbrella. I realise that Brent has followed that practice for many years. The right hon. Gentleman may not know that the Dickens who was chairman of the Brent council of social services before he died was my father. If he were alive today, I am sure that he would wish to support the right hon. Gentleman's advice to NALGO, which was "Please do not strike".

I do not wish to backtrack, and I must not allow the hon. Gentleman to require me to do so. I wish to adhere to my remarks about social service departments.

It is true that Brent was one of the first authorities to bring social services under one umbrella. It did so as soon as it was created, and even before the Seebohm report. I was the first chairman of the authority and I sought to implement the policy, as far as I could influence matters during the year of reorganisation under the London Government Act 1963. I advocated the policy during the authority's first meeting and it began to be implemented. That implementation was reinforced by a statutory policy change at national level. I remain of the view that social worker divisions within social service departments should not become generalist divisions and that social workers should not become generalist in their approach.

I support entirely the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow that we should require the establishment, or re-establishment, of children's officers and child care units within social service departments. If we were discussing other areas of social welfare, I would advocate the same approach. It is of great importance that there is specialism as an out-front activity within the general remit of social service teams in areas such as Brent and elsewhere.

On a shelf in my office at home I have a report which became known as the Longford report. I am not making a party point when I say that it was published by the Labour party in 1961. A committee of inquiry was set up by the Labour party's national executive at about that time under the chairmanship of Lord Longford to look into child care services. It was established long before the Seebohm inquiry. One of the central recommendations of the report, which is now well over 20 years old, was that we should establish family courts. It is sad that in 1985 we are about to consider further whether we should establish family courts at a statutory level.

There is little difference of opinion both inside and outside the House that we need statutorily to establish family courts. We do not need to wait until we have formulated the perfect model. The system must be initiated and then it must be allowed to evolve. There can be built-in methods of revision. Let us not wait another year, five years or 20 years before we bite on the bullet and create a framework within which family courts can be developed.

Even on this quiet Friday afternoon in the middle of a debate on a Back Bencher's motion, I hope that we shall be given a policy undertaking by the Under-Secretary of State on behalf of whoever he speaks for. I hope that we shall be told that that is Government policy and that very soon we shall proceed to enact legislation to establish family courts, although no commitment to do so was included in the Gracious Speech. Of course, there will be arguments about detail.

In the hope that we shall have such legislation introduced, I venture to suggest that we should adopt the Second Reading Committee procedure. If a Bill is introduced and voted on in principle, I doubt whether there will be very much difference of opinion. It will then be discussed in Standing Committee in the normal fashion. There are many views on the way in which a family court system should operate, and I believe that the proposed legislation should be tested in Committee so that expert witnesses can be called and questioned and so that there can be discussion before the legislative process. I hope that that can be done. I believe that it is an approach that we should adopt increasingly in our proceedings. It could be a source of important reform of our procedures. The proposal to establish family courts would be eminently suitable for such a procedure, and I hope that it will be employed.

When the Beckford report has been published, I hope that we shall have an opportunity to pursue its recommendations and the evidence and conclusions that will accompany them.

12.26 pm

I warmly endorse the closing remarks of the right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) on family courts. Had I been fortunate in the ballot on private Members' motions on this occasion, or previously, I would have sought a debate on that very topic. Alternatively, perhaps Opposition time could be used for such a debate. I hope that we shall soon have an opportunity to discuss the matter in the House. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there are a number of ideas on how family courts should be run. Many of these ideas have come together over the past few years. There is much more unanimity now on how such a system could be established, and all that is needed is some good will to get things moving.

I hope that it will not be too repetitious if I repeat what others have said in congratulating the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) on his success in winning the ballot and initiating the debate. It is often a temptation for a Back-Bench Member to choose a topic which is politically "sexy" when he has the good fortune to win the ballot. Instead, the hon. Gentleman has chosen a subject that unites both sides of the House and which is very much in the public eye.

We do not know whether there is more child abuse now than previously. The nature of it is such that we may see only the tip of the iceberg. The figures that are published reflect only the information that is to hand. The facts and figures that are now being produced may well reflect what was happening previously but which was not made public. We know that the NSPCC reports a 70 per cent. rise in child abuse over the past six years and a disproportionate increase within those figures of sexual abuse of children.

Last year, more than 7,000 children under 14 suffered physical abuse—a frightening figure. This is not a topic on which I would profess to have expert knowledge but it is one about which I am worried. Before I entered the House I sat for some years as chairman of my local juvenile court and had to deal with care cases. I have worked for some years with the NSPCC both locally and as a member of its central executive committee. The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) has recently joined me on that committee. I know that he would have participated in the debate if his constituency interests had not prevented him from doing so.

Hon. Members—not least my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley)—have said that parenthood is the one role in life for which one requires no experience or qualifications. From the early teens, anyone, provided he or she has no physical or medical problem and can find a willing partner, can become a parent. People do not need to be married. They can become parents regardless of their intelligence, knowledge, emotional maturity, financial means or accommodation; yet the lack of any one of those qualities can present enormous difficulties to parenthood.

As the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) pointed out, there is a basic need for education, starting at school. Not only girls need education in parentcraft, the changed relationship between a couple that occurs when a child arrives and the practical problems of feeding babies, changing nappies and coping with a baby who just goes on crying or is sick. Unfortunately, many people are not given that sort of education at school.

Couples need help and advice when a child is on its way or when it has arrived. That help and advice may be available from the district nurse or health visitor, but those people have limited time and many other duties to perform. A number of organisations offer facilities—for example, the NSPCC has half a dozen family centres and other organisations run similar centres, offering counselling and training. Often that training is fairly basic, teaching mothers how to prepare simple foods for their children. Those organisations would do more if their funding allowed it.

Even with the advantage of education or assistance, many people find that being a parent is hard work and sometimes very stressful. That is especially true of fathers. A husband may come home after a heavy day at work to find his wife exhausted and the baby crying. Some fathers simply go off to the pub, making matters even worse for the mothers. Other fathers stay put but tend to vent their exasperation on the child.

It is easy to criticise but can any one of us who has been a parent say that there was never a time when his patience with his tiny offspring was sorely tried? We may have felt like hitting the child even if we did not do so. It is encouraging that many people realise when they are nearing that stage. Of some 30,000 children involved in cases handled by the NSPCC in each of the last two years, about a quarter were referred by parents who felt that they were reaching the end of their tether and that, unless something was done, a tragic incident might occur. They turned to what is popularly known as "the Cruelty' for help, which they received.

Last year, 45 per cent. of the cases were referred by neighbours who were concerned about what was happening down the road. Social workers concerned with these cases face a real difficulty. A social worker may receive a report about what is believed to be happening in the house down the road. He or she may knock on the door and be told to go away in the sort of language that I would not repeat in the Chamber. In those circumstances, the social worker must persist. He or she must try again later in the day, must contrive to arrive on the doorstep when one of the other children returns from school, or happen to meet the mother while she is shopping. Every effort must be made to discover what is going on in the home. If he or she is unsuccessful, the social workers can apply for a constable to be issued with a search warrant. To do that, the social worker must satisfy the court that there is reasonable cause to suspect that the child has been or is being assaulted, ill-treated or neglected, which is difficult to prove, if one has been refused access.

It is not necessary to prove that to get a search warrant. Suspicion supported by evidence on oath that it is reasonable is enough. If proof were required, the police would never get a search warrant for anything. A belief founded on suspicion, provided it is reasonable, is enough to be granted a search warrant by most magistrates' courts.

I do not disagree with that. My point is that a court will not necessarily grant a warrant, nor should it be expected to do so, on a bit of local tittle-tattle. A social worker may find it difficult to make that application to the court. I am seeking to point out the dilemma whether social workers could or should have stronger powers in that regard. There would be all sorts of inherent dangers in stronger powers of entry.

The interdepartmental working committee, in its review issued a little earlier this year, studied the matter. Paragraphs 3·17 and 3·18 state:
"We see no need to introduce new provisions aimed at increasing identification and notification of cases of suspected harm to children. Such matters in our view are best achieved through education, training and improvements in communication and co-operation between the various agencies involved, rather than by laws which permit or require reporting to a particular person or body. …
Local authorities are already under a duty to cause enquiries to be made. … We see scope for widening this duty to cover any child feared to be at risk."
I agree broadly with those conclusions. There is some attraction in the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) to make an order on parents to produce the child to the court, although I can see that that may be open to criticism.

Social workers, during their training, should learn how to analyse circumstances, follow them up, identify families at risk and help them. If a social worker feels that a stage has been reached when a child must be taken into care regardless of the wishes of the parent, he must produce evidence to the court for a care order to be made. When I was a juvenile court magistrate I found those cases particularly distressing and by far the most difficult to deal with. To act on behalf of the state and to decide to take children from a mother and, perhaps, a father, who may be inadequate but, nevertheless, loving parents, and to put those children into care, is not something undertaken lightly.

Once the social worker of the local authority or agency has obtained an order and has the child in care a decision must be made on how to deal with the child, bearing in mind that the eventual aim must be to return the child to its parents. Meanwhile, it will probably have to be looked after in a community or foster home.

A real problem can arise when it is decided that the child should go home for some sort of trial period. What is the child's status? The parents have found that the council has taken their child from them, perhaps against their wishes, having obtained a care order. The council is looking after that child and then the parents are told that they can have the child home. Yet the child is still in care. What exactly is the position of the child and the parents?

I am attracted by the suggestion in the review, to which I have already referred, of shared care. That seems to be a meaningful concept as well as a euphonious expression. But it is a difficult judgment to know when that child in care should be returned to its family.

Many factors will have contributed to the situation in which the abuse originally occurred. In the NSPCC's study the factors were listed as marital discord, unemployment, debt and lack of self-esteem—all fairly evident. But the social worker will have to judge whether those factors are still present or to what extent they have been ameliorated and whether the circumstances have altered sufficiently to justify the child going back home. That must inevitably involve some risk-taking.

A director of a large maximum security hospital said that statistics showed that only 10 per cent. of his patients would kill again if they were discharged and that he would be delighted to release the remaining 90 per cent. if somebody could reliably tell him who they were. That is the dilemma that the social worker has in the situation that I have described.

Several references have been made to the case of Gemma Hartwell which is summarised in this week's issue of Social Work Today. It would be hard, having read that report, to say that any social worker took a wrong step. Nevertheless, Gemma Hartwell died.

This week some publicity has also been given to a new code of practice issued by the British Association of Social Workers. To the layman some of the items seem obvious, although one accepts that this is a relatively new field. For example, it is suggested that social workers should in future take the child's needs as the primary concern rather than concentrating on the family. One would have hoped that that had always been the case. It is also suggested that children should not be returned to their parents after being injured without a special case conference of all the people involved, chaired by an independent person. Again, that is not a very revolutionary idea.

I was interested to see reported, again in this week's issue of Social Work Today, a reference to a new policy in Birmingham of surprise unannounced visits by social workers to families on the at-risk register. One would have liked to think that that would be a general practice. Certainly, the child abuse register has been one of the most worthwile developments of recent years and is an area in which the NSPCC has been playing a leading role.

At the end of the day every case is individual. That is why it is so important that the social worker dealing with those individual cases should have the widest possible training and experience in the field. The most valuable training is for social workers to join local authorities and non-statutory bodies as trainees to learn the job by doing it and then to obtain qualifications. It is a pity that some local authorities have found it necessary to reduce, if not discontinue entirely, that form of training.

I shall not become too involved in the discussion about the sort of social workers we need—the generic or specialist argument—or whether the so-called Seebohm changes were what his lordship intended when he issued his report. But I ask, if a social worker is working with the elderly, the mentally handicapped, the physically handicapped, children and others, how can he build a specialist knowledge and expertise, especially with children? There must be some specialisation.

Much of our debate has centred on the physical abuse of children, but, as we know, there is also, alas, sexual abuse, which is far more difficult to detect since it often takes place within the family. I was encouraged to hear of the proposal by the Greater Manchester council to set up a sexual abuse unit. I gather that it has had some blessing from the relevant Departments and I hope that it will be set up, because it plans to offer counselling to children and parents, to train those especially involved in this area and to provide educational programmes. It is extremely important that children should be warned about, yet not alarmed by, this danger. Recently, I saw a preview of an effective video for children, accompanied by appropriate notes for teachers or whoever shows it, which I hope will soon become more widely available.

I have referred several times to the NSPCC because of my involvement with it, but I recognise that it is but one of several non-statutory bodies that do extremely good work in training, in developing child protection teams and in conducting academic studies from which we can learn. It is right that such work should be shared by local authorities and the non-statutory bodies. The latter have the advantage of specialist knowledge and experience, and they enjoy moral and financial public support. Ratepayers' and taxpayers' money can be used better by non-statutory organisations than by official central or local government bodies, not least because clients are often inclined to go to the former for help since they are not automatically associated with the establishment—they are not "the Government" or "they"—and some services such as the NSPCC operate on a 24-hour basis.

Those organisations deserve our thanks and our support. To drop a broad hint in the direction of my hon. Friend the Minister, they deserve as much central Government support as they can be given. Local authorities should also support them, and I urge some local authorities that seem to be reluctant to work with organisations such as the NSPCC to reconsider their position.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a contradiction for the Government to say that they wish to enhance the role of voluntary organisations, as do the Opposition, but at the same time to limit the opportunities for local authorities to provide grants to such organisations by imposing financial cuts and penalties on local authorities? Is not local authority funding of voluntary organisations as important as central Government funding, and are not the voluntary organisations suffering as a result of the cuts?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security
(Mr. Ray Whitney)

I am reluctant to intervene in a partisan nature into such a constructive debate. I point out that our support for voluntary organisations has increased from £7·5 million when we came into office to about £30 million a year now, which, taking into account all the effects of inflation, is a substantial increase.

I shall respond to two interventions, as I am sure that either the hon. Lady or the hon. Member for Oldham, West will have an opportunity to speak later. I have no wish to bring any partisan note into the debate. It has not been heard so far and I do not want it to be introduced now.

It is up to local authorities to decide how they spend their funds, and some local authorities seem reasonable while others are a little eccentric in the way in which they issue money to voluntary organisations. Generally, certain organisations such as those that I have mentioned could have more funds directed at them by local and central Government because it will be money well spent.

I fear that there will always be inadequate and incompetent parents, so there will always be some cases of child abuse. Because social workers are human beings with strengths and weaknesses, dealing with others who sometimes behave unpredictably and irrationally, they are bound sometimes to make mistakes. But with vigilance by us all, co-operation and extensive training of social workers drawn from a growing body of experience and knowledge in this sector, such cases can and must be reduced.

12.51 pm

I strongly commend my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) on his choice of the topic that we are debating and congratulate him on the balanced, fair-minded, dispassionate and forceful way in which he presented his case. It is widely felt that he has done the House a service. The debate is particularly timely because it comes just before the publication of the Blom-Cooper report on the Jasmine Beckford case, which is expected in four days' time.

Given the recent string of well-publicised cases that add up to a horrifying picture of abuse, torture and murder of helpless children on a scale that represents an indictment of any society, and the complexity of the background and causation of some of these terrible human tragedies, it is crucial that the House concentrates unerringly on the problem and on how it can be remedied. We should not succumb to the hysterical and populist sensationalism of which there has been more than a flavour in some of the contributions this morning, and which has muddied so much public perception of the issue.

At the root of the problem is the unpalatable choice that has to be made between excessive state control and the likelihood or the actuality of seriously injured or murdered children. It might be said, although it has not been today, in over-reaction to the recent catalogue of tragedies that the only answer to the problem, on identification of any prima facie evidence of the abuse of a child, is to remove that child and put it in care.

Apart from the huge increase in the number of children in care, such a policy would seriously infringe, in at least a number of cases, on justified parental rights to look after their own children and in many cases might damage the long-term welfare of the child as well. To that extent it is important—and the remarks of the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) are relevant; I commend them—to acknowledge that there is no ultimate answer to this problem. Child abuse, horrifying though it is, can never be completely eradicated. I do not, however, say that it cannot be reduced. Again, I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Chislehurst.

While further action can and must be taken to reduce the appalling toll of suffering by helpless children, there is always a constant tightrope to be walked between the undesirable overriding of parental rights, often to the detriment of the child, and the acceptance of a degree of risk for the child who lives with his or her parents. Policies during the last 40 years have oscillated in both directions. History shows that, sooner or later, whatever action is taken will be criticised on the other count.

The conflict of duties is enshrined in the legislation. The Children and Young Persons Act 1969 requires children who are shown to be at risk to be protected, while the Child Care Act 1980 requires local authorities to work to prevent children from having to go into care. The social worker, the person at the sharp end, has to identify which of these two contrary models is appropriate in each case. Sometimes there is an extremely difficult balance to be drawn between the rights of the child and the rights of parents. Although decisions may frequently have gone in the parents' favour during the past few years, which I support, the balance should not be redressed to the extent of rehabilitation with the parents not being attempted in most cases.

I am glad that, as I feared might happen, there has not been a degree of social worker bashing in this debate. The evidence shows that it is not true that social workers have failed to make an impact upon the incidence of child abuse. The NSPCC figures show that the numbers of fatally or seriously injured children declined from about 820 in 1977 to about 650 in 1982. It is still a very high figure but it shows that there has been a decline. It suggests that children's lives are being saved. An analysis of re-injuries within one year of the initial incident shows that there has been a fall from over 11 per cent. in 1977 to under 7 per cent. in 1982. That, together with the virtual disappearance of children with multiple injuries, shows that the preventive measures that have been taken have had some success, but they have to be set against the background of an overall increase in physical abuse since 1977.

None of this is to deny that the scale of abuse today is still horrifying and that more effective action desperately needs to be taken. In 1976 the Select Committee on violence in the family suggested that in England and Wales 3,000 children are severely injured each year, that a further 40,000 children suffer moderate or mild injuries, and that about 250 children die from their injuries, while 400 suffer brain damage or become mentally retarded. By any standard, these are frightening figures, but they are regarded by the profession as conservative.

What action should be taken depends upon one's view of the fundamental causes of child abuse. Certain people—the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) is one of them—believe that it is the result of the collapse of family life and of the decline in law and order. They say that we need to return to the stable families of the Victorian era and to strong deterrence for those who breach the bounds of decency. I am glad that the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) said that what such people tend to forget is the scale of child abuse, exploitation and outright slavery in the real world of Victorian values. I understand that rather more than 3,000 children under five died in 1870, more than 200 of whose deaths were officially attributed to manslaughter and nearly 100 of which were attributed to neglect.

The causes of child abuse have been shown by repeated analyses to be associated especially with unemployment, a criminal record before the abuse, and stress. Social stress that precipitates violence includes poor housing, financial difficulties, unemployment and illness. I do not imagine that any of us is surprised at that. I am not suggesting for a moment that such factors cause abuse, but they can act as a trigger. An ill or fretful child being looked after by a mother who is herself ill is bad enough, but the problem can become intolerable if there is a sudden bereavement, redundancy notice, or threat of eviction.

All of those factors associated with abuse require remedies to wider social problems. Anybody who is serious about such remedies must recognise that there must be a significant increase in resources if we are to get to the root of the problem. Short of that, substantial administrative improvements can, and I believe must, be made.

The British Association of Social Workers has proposed that local authorities should have a statutory duty to provide adequate family support services, including respite care and sufficient places in child nurseries. My hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) has made that point eloquently yet again today. The child care law review report to Ministers recommends the wider use of respite care, but the omission of any statutory duty to provide it is presumably explained by the Government's reluctance to commit resources to such work. If that is so, I can only observe that their reluctance is extremely odd as the DHSS will spend far more picking up the pieces resulting from child abuse in having to provide institutional care and funding lengthy and costly court cases.

I am not making a party political point—

I am happy for the Minister to reply in due course. It is ironic to hear Conservative Members advocating strengthening family life—which we all believe in—when, three days ago, they used their overwhelming majority to crush an EEC draft directive which would give parents the legal right to paid leave to be with their children. I hope that the Government will reconsider that decision as the vast majority of people will regard the draft directive as desirable.

I do not want to make a partisan point, but it is no use imposing a statutory obligation on local authorities, however worthy and commendable, unless they are given the money necessary to implement it. Such has been the case with the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970: many local authorities are flagrantly disobeying the law because they cannot afford to obey it.

Any pretensions to better provision must be accompanied by extra resources or the claim is hollow. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act is a good example, and provisions concerning homeless people is another. It is impossible for local authorities to tackle these tragic human problems unless they are given adequate resources.

Extra resources should be directed towards more post-qualifying training which, it is widely agreed, is most effective for child abuse work. Too much of the time allocated now goes on basic social work training. If mandatory awards were given for basic training, the social services could then concentrate on better targeted and more cost effective in-service training.

Supervision is crucial for all field workers, and never more so than in child abuse cases. Yet at present there is not enough and it should be increased. It is right to say that social workers work under great pressure and even the most experienced can, and do, make mistakes under the strain. The greatest danger is perhaps that the risk may not be recognised, or may even be denied. That may even happen in the case of experienced workers and is clearly a symptom of anxiety. Another danger is that, if a client fails to keep an appointment on a busy day, it may generate a sense of relief rather than giving a warning light. For those reasons, supervision is vital and needs to be more systematic than at present.

My next point concerns the DHSS and does not require any extra resources. I say again in measured tones that a less panicky and steadier response is needed from the DHSS. Contrary to the practice in any other profession, a single instance of bad practice by a social worker or social work team can lead to a missive being issued by the DHSS. By contrast, can one imagine that, because a woman was recently sent home from hospital with seven broken ribs and later died, a letter was sent from the DHSS to advise doctors to X-ray motor accident victims? The medical profession would be outraged. Yet that is what has been done to the social work profession after each child abuse tragedy.

Without in any way condoning mistakes, I suggest that in the face of large swings of public opinion during the past decade or so we need a carefully considered evolution of policy and not, after a tragedy, the simple discharging of directives which relate to particular problems while perhaps not being relevant to the rest of the country.

If the Government take one message away from the debate it should be that attention must be paid to the big public campaign to introduce family courts. One problem is that court proceedings can and do take a long time. When I was preparing for the debate, I read of one wardship case which recently took six years to resolve. Children can be exposed to risk pending the conclusion of court proceedings, and the delay can act as a disincentive to pursuing care or wardship applications.

If family courts were set up, their composition could be rearranged quickly if the need arose in order to minimise delay. The excellent practice in matrimonial proceedings of having the originating application followed by an initial hearing could be extended to child care cases in a family court, which would also minimise delay. All of those things are eminently desirable and would be widely supported throughout the House.

Co-ordination between professionals, which includes teachers, general practitioners and health visitors as well as social workers, still breaks down although that is now less common. General practitioners, for example, still attend only one in ten, or fewer, of the case conferences to which they are invited, even though the work of the area review committees that co-ordinate the work of different practitioners is central to good case management.

Indeed, BASW has now gone further in recommending as part of its three new codes of practice, which were issued a few days ago, a child abuse consultant in each area independent of case line management to service and stimulate the area review committee, and to run the register which I believe covers the sexual abuse of children as well. I understand that a MORI survey showed that up to 10 per cent. of children experience some sexual abuse.

The third recommendation is that consultants should offer expert advice. That could help to standardise best practice throughout the country. Procedures must be tightened before children are returned to their parents after being subjected to injury. BASW suggests in its latest code of practice that a child should not be returned

"without a special case conference of all the people involved, chaired by an independent person."

The hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) has decided to introduce a private Member's Bill on the subject and suggests that the approval of a magistrates court should be required in such cases. Perhaps that is right, but there can be no foolproof solution. In 1977, for example, in the Wayne Brewer case, Somerset social services department was stridently opposed to the return of the four-year-old Wayne to his mother and stepfather. It was overruled by the court and Wayne later died at his stepfather's hands.

We should consider why other European countries such as France and West Germany do not experience the problem on such a scale. Is it because we have a privatised attitude to children? Perhaps children are regarded as the private property of their parents. I do not know, but allegations from the public are often well-founded and should he followed up.

The courageous neighbour in the Heidi Koseda case persisted in trying to get something done and was branded a Nosey Parker. The sanctity of the family is often regarded as inviolate.

In many cases neighbours hear screams but do nothing to intervene. The most striking example is the tragic case of Leoni Keating who roamed a camp site at I am looking for her mother. The newspapers condemned her hippy-like mother for leaving her at night. They did not condemn those who saw and heard the child but did nothing to protect her. The absence of any sense of social, collective or community responsibility for children in any society is truly callous and inhuman.

It is over 10 years since the Maria Colwell tragedy. Since then dozens of ad hoc inquiries have investigated subsequent deaths. It is more than 40 years since the Curtis case which led to the 1948 children's legislation. Despite training for social work being at record levels, and despite regular and anguished post-mortems, Britain's relative record in European is frankly appalling.

I offer a proposal. In the light of the intense public disquiet, the Government should set up a Royal Commission to examine all aspects of child abuse and the provision for children in care because they are at risk. It would be time-limited and out of the hands of party politicians. It would certainly cost less than all the public inquiries that will take place over the next 10 years.

Only such a commission will match up to the intense public concern and anxiety. Only that will draw together on a sufficiently comprehensive and authoritative basis the new and systematic reconsideration of the whole issue that is clearly needed in the light of the recent series of horrifying tragedies. I strongly recommend that course to the Minister.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security
(Mr. Ray Whitney)

I join other hon. Members in warmly congratulating the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) not only on his good fortune in coming top in the private Members' ballot, but on the motion that he tabled and the intelligent and sensitive way in which he moved it, which has promoted a debate of extraordinary quality.

We always have very good debates on Fridays when, to a large extent, the toing and froing of partisan concern is often absent. On no occasion has that been demonstrated more clearly than today, and that has contributed to the very high quality of the debate. The contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House showed knowledge, considerable experience and, above all, sensitivity and compassion about a subject which moves us all.

I wish to highlight one or two points that have put this issue so high in the public concern. In this year alone, there has been the case of the 22-month-old girl who was killed by a ball of wool being pushed into her mouth; the case of Jasmine Beckford, aged four, who after 10 months of terror, was finally beaten to death by her stepfather; the 21-month-old baby Tyra Henry, who was battered and covered with 57 bites; the child Christopher Stock who was bitten and beaten by his mother; Heidi Koseda, whom many hon. Members mentioned; and Charlene Salt, who was shut in a drawer and died of brain haemorrhage. Against such a background, the public concern, which we all share, is not only entirely understandable, but well accepted on both sides of the House.

I wish to underline a point made by a number of hon. Members—that without resiling for one moment from that concern, I must emphasise that, sadly, child abuse is by no means a problem new to British society. Only last year the NSPCC held its centenary celebration. That society has made a remarkable contribution to British life. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims), who is a leading member of that organisation and, indeed, contributes in many other areas of social policy that go well beyond this House.

Therefore, for at least a century, people in British society have been acting and working against the evils of child abuse. By 1945, there was deep concern following the death in care of the child Dennis O'Neill, which led to the Monckton inquiry. In 1973, there was the case of Maria Colwell.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) reminded the House of the figures produced by the NSPCC on the killing and serious injury of children. There are difficulties in collecting such figures, as the NSPCC would be ready to accept, but they show that in 1977 there were 822 cases, and in 1982 there were 647. During that six-year period there was a fluctuation in the figures, but at least there was no increase over the total period.

Hon. Members have recognised that some public concern may be a reflection of the more effective services resulting in the discovery of those horrible cases, whereas, in days, years, decades and generations gone by, they may not have been discovered.

I join hon. Members in recognising the good work that is done by the great majority of social workers. As the hon. Member for Oldham, West said, this is a question not of bashing social workers but of recognition of a national problem.

Another reason for the heightened perception of this whole problem is the greater readiness to discuss the phenomenon of child sexual abuse. I am ready to believe that a great deal of it went on in years gone by and that only now are people prepared to talk about it and bring it into the open.

Thus, we cannot say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst said, whether there is an explosion or what level of incidence there is. We only know that it is happening. Whether 647 children are killed or seriously injured, as the NSPCC recorded in 1982, or whether the figure is seven, that is seven or 647 too many.

I agree with the hon. Member for Oldham, West that it must be recognised that this phenomenon, desperate and horrifying though it is, can never be totally eradicated. Against that, whether we are in Government, in local authorities, in the voluntary organisations or are neighbours or parents, none of us can be satisfied. We must take action and keep working at the problem so that we go on reducing its incidence.

I shall catalogue briefly some of the actions that the Government are taking, and taking urgently. I had intended to list them in more detail, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) for spelling out a number of the initiatives that have been taken.

The Government's range of action must be limited, important though it is. One of our main functions is to provide the legal framework, and that responsibility we well accept. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) referred to the prolificacy of current laws. There is some confusion because no fewer than seven statutes are relevant to this area. There is no doubt that good, sound and clear laws are essential to the handling of child abuse cases.

We believe that, on the whole, the present system provides adequate powers, though important changes, in addition to simplification and clarification, are necessary. In April 1984, the Select Committee on Social Services produced an excellent report on children in care in which it recognised that the law was ripe for reform. The Department, responded quickly by setting up in July a working party to review child care law. That produced a comprehensive and thorough report, and it did so with commendable speed. It was published on 4 October this year. That working party also produced 12 interim discussion papers. The report recognised that a considerable clarification and simplification of the law was needed so that all could easily understand their responsibilities and the framework in which they must operate in this delicate area.

Major improvements must be made to correct serious failings in the system. In essence, the law should encapsulate what is good practice. There are areas where the law is lagging behind practice as it is found in the better local authorities and among the better agencies. There is no need to wait for the law to be changed. We must change some areas of the law, but, with the best will in the world, and with the mechanisms that our constitutional arrangements necessarily and rightly impose upon us, we are talking inevitably of a longer time scale than we accept is desirable in meeting the problems with which we have to deal.

I shall offer three examples of the changes for which we are looking. First, it can be difficult to take children into care where serious harm is thought likely in future, or to retain children in care where a return home may be dangerous. The working party has recommended changes so that children can be committed to care more easily by reference to a magistrates' court where substantial harm is thought likely in future. We are anxious not to provide a carte blanche for removing children, and important safeguards are proposed for the court to test properly the evidence on which such plans are made. This is a difficult area, as reflected by the exchanges between the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Ryman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst.

Secondly, the working party recommended that the present duty of social workers to investigate reports should be strengthened to provide for investigation wherever there is actual or likely harm to the child, and to take whatever action is necessary. In this instance the law lags behind good practice which is even now followed in a number of areas.

Thirdly, there are regulations which protect children who are placed with foster parents and the administration of children's homes. But there is no power to make regulations covering children at home on a trial basis. The working party recommended that there should be a general regulation-making power covering all children in care no matter where they are placed.

That is a comprehensive set of proposals and we look forward to the consultation process. We must proceed with due measured tread, taking account of the responses, much as we should like to move forward with still greater speed and a greater sense of urgency. The law is not susceptible to the rate of improvement that we should like to introduce by administrative measures. Building on the existing legal foundation, we are taking steps to develop a procedural framework for dealing with child abuse.

The message that emerges from all the inquiries that have taken place refers to the critical need for good and improved collaboration between all the agencies that continue to be involved. Over the past 15 years a series of guidance notes have been issued. The notes have reflected increasing knowledge and the development of experience of those dealing with the problem, as well as a change in the nature of the problem itself.

I am sure that the time is now right to bring the guidance up to date. Our aim is to provide a broad collaborative framework within which we can develop the best practice of child care.

There have been a series of discussions with experts which have produced a number of useful ideas. Within weeks we shall be issuing a consultative paper on the recommendations. This basic collaborative machinery includes the use of child abuse registers and case conferences to which the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) referred. The review has included the prevention of and handling of cases of child sexual abuse. This is a relatively new type of case for professional staff. Clearly, a great deal of experience and skill must be acquired and developed in that highly sensitive area.

Another area of guidance about which we have been concerned is the way that local authorities carry out their existing statutory duty to review the cases of all children in their care at least every six months. Recent research has shown that practice varies considerably from one local authority to another, not only in the conduct of the review but in the frequency, who attends and what is seen to be the purpose of the review. A consultation exercise was carried out at the end of last year and comments have now been received on all aspects of reviews. There is broad agreement on the need for minimum standards to be laid down and accepted. We shall be issuing a circular of guidance and regulations with a view to improving the management and planning of the situation of all children in care.

Within the framework of law and guidance, quality of care is important. Whatever the number of laws we pass and however well worked out the guidance issued by DHSS, the delivery of care is what matters. The knowledge and skill of the professional staff in a wide range of disciplines and professions are important. The continuing development of professional expertise is essential. Responsibility for the content and organisation of training rests with the professions, the various bodies responsible for professional training and the management in agencies.

Training for social workers is especially important. They must understand and learn to recognise potentially harmful situations. They need to be familiar with the law and their particular responsibilities as well as local policies for dealing with cases. The training of social workers falls into two main groups—initial or basic training and specialist in-service training. Initial qualifying training leads to either the certificate of qualification in social work or the certificate in social work. The courses include both teaching the basic knowledge of working with families and the law and practical experience. Responsibility for the approval of these courses rests with the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work. To complement this basic training there is a wide range of opportunities for specialist in-service training, some provided under the auspices of the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work and much organised by local authorities.

We were pleased that the central council gave special attention at its recent meeting to training on child abuse. We very much welcome its intention to review, with those providing the courses, the need for additional teaching and practice on child abuse. The council will consider also the need for other training initiatives. Much new input is needed. I very much look forward to having discussions with the central council to consider ways in which we can continue to improve co-operation between the Department at the centre and the central council. Co-operation with local authorities and their social security department is another vital element that we must obtain. Everyone involved in this work recognises the need for yet another new look to be taken at these problems in the light of worrying developments.

This week, a policy document by the British Association of Social Workers has been published. The paper has been developed to provide a code of practice for the social work profession. While there will obviously be some differences between the Department and the BASW regarding the detail, in general I would give its major thrust a warm welcome, particularly the list of proposals. The first proposal states:
"The Association's Codes of Practice stress that the child should always be considered the primary client in an abusing family."
We accept and wholly endorse that as the basic principle of this work. That point was made by the right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson), whose long experience is recognised. The importance of the child as the primary client must enlighten all our work and our approach.

The other point that I wish to choose from the general digest of proposals is number four—the suggestion of a child abuse consultant. That may not necessarily be the right way to proceed, but the recommendation stresses that there should be expert advice on child abuse available to authorities. That must be right, and we happily endorse it.

Those two steps—the proposal by the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, and the document produced by the BASW—are to be greatly welcomed. They suggest that everyone involved in the work is moving quickly in the right direction together.

Before the Minister concludes his remarks, will he reply to what I said about what I am sure he agrees is the substantive point of the debate? That is the demand that the Government should take seriously now the establishment of a family court, first to minimise the wholly unacceptable delays in court and wardship proceedings, and, secondly, because of the inconsistency in having a child care law review, but not altering the background in the court where the law is applied. What are the Government's proposals in that regard?

I was not about to end my speech. I shall return to that point later, and I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety.

I was about to deal with the question of specialists. We have had an interesting series of exchanges on what is now developing into a rather sharp debate about the generic versus the specialisation issue. We shall take careful account of all the points made, but it is not for me to pontificate now from the Dispatch Box about such a profound and important topic. We shall take note of what has been said and, clearly, we are keeping in close touch with the subject. We are well aware that some local authorities are developing their area teams, and increasingly identifying the need of some social workers to concentrate on services to protect children. We await the results of the study of ten social services inspectorate in that area.

Local authorities and voluntary organisations have developed a wide range of facilities. Many of them have been mentioned, such as day and family centres, and their provision of help and advice to children and families is welcome. Reference was made to the importance of the under-fives and to nursery provision. That objective is extremely desirable, and, if resources were unlimited, we should like to make more progress than has already been made.

I have seen a good deal of the work that has been achieved by the under-fives initiative, working in co-operation with many of the voluntary agencies which do such good work in the field. About £6 million has been made available over three years and that is a good example of co-operation between the Government and the taxpayer and the local authority and voluntary agencies to mobilise the good will and commitment that exist. That under-fives initiative is something to which we should attach importance.

Local authorities have also encouraged the development of self-help groups in various areas in the community which offer counselling services to families under stress, such as telephone help lines. The NSPCC has a special place in this story of success with its pioneering work to find new ways to help children and families. Its intention to develop child protection teams to complement services provided by local authorities is an optimistic sign for the future.

But no profession is an island and, as I said earlier, the crucial need is to develop the collaboration and the inter-professional understanding between all concerned—social workers, doctors, health visitors and the police. A great deal has been achieved by the local child abuse review committees in developing multiprofessional training. I was concerned to hear one hon. Member suggest that some of those committees were rather poorly attended and we must ensure that the best practice is followed everywhere.

I want to mention two areas in which we are doing work to help in the development of expertise. The first is, as I said earlier, the work of our social services inspectorate which is undertaking an urgent inspection of the supervision of social workers in the assessment and monitoring of child abuse. The aim is to identify models for good practice to produce a format which social services departments can use to scrutinise their services and to explore the implications for training. The conclusions will be based on the examination of a large number of cases and discussions with social workers and managers. I am looking forward to receiving a report on that work by the end of the year.

Secondly, we have in hand a continuing programme of research—I think that that was requested by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman)—into various aspects of child care activity, including child abuse. A major programme of nine pieces of research, which was completed at the end of last year, dealt in various ways with social workers' decision making in child care.

A number of common themes can be drawn from the research which have implications for practice. One example is the need for improved planning when a child enters care and during its time in care. We consider that it is important that the lessons for good practice which have emerged from the research be conveyed to local authorities and organisations, not just to management, but to individual social workers and voluntary workers. Therefore, the Department is mounting a national dissemination exercise which includes a series of regional seminars and the development of training aids and material to promote the messages of that research. The first national seminar will take place early next year.

I have been on my feet far too long, but I want to refer briefly to a number of points to which the hon. Member for Oldham, West has drawn my attention. We have heard two broad views on sentencing, not necessarily from opposite sides of the House. There is undoubtedly public concern and that I am sure must be recognised. My right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) in his usual passionate and informed way evinced concern about employment policies, particularly in respect of those who had some record of convictions, and their employment in child work.

Several hon. Members mentioned the length of court proceedings, and the hon. Member for Oldham, West and others mentioned the family court. The House will recognise that those matters are outside the responsibility of the DHSS. They affect the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office. Therefore, all that I can undertake to do is to ensure that the anxieties which have been expressed forcefully during the debate are brought to the attention of the Secretaries of State responsible for such matters.

I remind the House that the Select Committee on Social Services recognised that, whatever the ultimate decision may be, it would take a long time to set up a family court. The Select Committee believed that the review of child care should not await a decision on the family court.

Why does the Minister say that it would take a long time to establish the legal framework for a family court?

The hon. Gentleman knows much more about the law than I do and has been in this place for longer than I have. He will accept that the constitutional processes cannot be hurried.

Although I recognise the views that have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, the points that we made in our review of child care law could fit into the present court system and into any future family court system. I recognise the support for family courts that has been expressed on both sides of the House, but my immediate priority is to introduce as quickly as possible improvements in dealing with cases of child abuse. We should remember that the best may be the enemy of the good.

The Minister said that it would take a long time to establish a family court. Is he aware that, following the Courts Act 1971, the Crown courts, which represented an enormous change, were set up at the beginning of 1972 without undue difficulty? When it was decided to abolish the probate, divorce and admiralty division of the High court, the family division was set up almost overnight. The Minister is wrong to suggest that a proper family court could not be set up within three to six months.

The hon. and learned Gentleman is trying to take me far beyond the responsibilities of the DHSS. There is by no means complete agreement on the nature and scope of a family court. But that is not a matter for me; what is a matter for me is to ensure that the DHSS takes every action possible to support social security departments, the voluntary agencies and all workers in this area.

This is a challenge not just for the Government or for my Department—although we are taking quickly every necessary action that is possible within our sphere—but for the whole of British society. British society must mobilise itself to meet this evil and deal with it. The debate will, by the very non-partisan nature of our deliberations, have given a signal to the nation that the House of Commons is determined to do everything possible to combat the evil of child abuse.

1.50 pm

The hour is late and I do not want to repeat any points that have already been made in this excellent debate. However, I was appalled by the nonchalant complacency shown by the Under-Secretary.

I recognise the seriousness of the problem, about which two things must be done. The crux of the matter is that there is both a long-term policy to be followed with such factors as education, improved housing and so on, and a short-term, urgent policy of taking immediate steps to prevent further child abuse through the lessons that we have already learnt.

I make an extremely simple, practical and sensible suggestion that has not yet been mentioned. I recognise the conflict between the privacy of the home, and the suspicion raised by child abuse and the need to enter the privacy of the home by either a social worker or a policeman. Would not a more simple and better solution be to have regular medical check-ups on children of school age and, with the consent of their parents, on children of under shcool age? Many physical illnesses and abuses could be detected at an early stage.

Child abuse is an appallingly difficult problem. It is difficult to obtain satisfactory evidence to place before a court in child abuse cases. All the talk about improving the legal machinery is justified. One cannot bring a case to court unless one has satisfactory evidence to place before it. One of the difficulties in child abuse is the lack of a complainant because nobody makes a complaint, unless they happen by chance to come across the abuse that is the subject matter of the subsequent proceedings.

Recently I came across a case that appalled me concerning a responsible member of a profession, a consultant doctor in a leading teaching hospital. She was examining a child on a routine matter when the nurse told her that she suspected that the child had been physically maltreated by the parents. An X-ray revealed certain injuries. The doctor took on the matter and made inquiries. She interviewed both parent, who denied any abuse of the child. She accepted those denials, although evidence to the contrary was staring her in the face from the X-rays that had been taken.

The doctor refused to refer the matter to the police or any other authorities and referred it simply to the community health doctor, who visited the parents, who again denied having abused the child. Subsequently the child was so badly treated by the parents that it was necessary for the local authority to intervene.

I mention that anecdote because here was an example of a responsible person, a consultant doctor, with evidence staring her in the face, who, for understandable and genuine reasons, flatly refused to make a complaint to the police because she thought it would upset the parents. It is far better for the parents to be upset. The paramount interest is the welfare of the child. We do not want similar incidents to occur again.

Social workers have been criticised for being slow to make complaints to the authorities, but that applies not only to social workers but to many professional people, including the clergy and doctors. We are faced with the practical difficulty of finding out what happened behind closed doors in homes where it is suspected that there is child abuse.

I disagree with those who say that unless there is evidence we should be slow to intervene. One can never obtain satisfactory evidence; one has to act upon suspicion. It would be far better to act on suspicion and to be over-cautious than to run the unjustifiable risk of allowing children to be harmed because of the fear that parents or neighbours may be offended. A fine balance has to be drawn between the right of parents to look after their children and intervention by the authorities. However, it is far better for the authorities to intervene and for the child to be safeguarded before there is abuse than to be slow off the mark because of the risk of offending parents.

Reference has been made in this debate to the difficulties that arise before a child can be taken away from its parents. I recognise those difficulties. I have experienced several such cases in my constituency. However, it is better to intervene promptly and to take children into care on a temporary basis and hope to reunite them with their parents later than to risk appalling tragedies.

Does my hon. Friend agree that what was said by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State about family courts is quite wrong? The Association of County Councils, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the British Association of Social Workers, the Association of Directors of Social Services, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, the Law Society and the Children's Legal Centre agree that the differences between them about what family courts should be like are narrow. All of them are prepared to collaborate with the Government in setting up family courts. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State's argument that there are differences and that family courts cannot yet be set up is not good enough for those who are involved in this work.

I have advocated for many years the establishment of family courts. That was before all those eminent organisations came to that view. I thought that I had already condemned the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State's complacency and his reluctance to establish family courts. He has shifted the responsibility on to the shoulders of other Ministers because of some real or imagined difficulty.

Reference was made in the debate to Crown courts having been transformed overnight by the Courts Act 1971. That was an over-simplification. All courts of quarter sessions and assize were called overnight Crown courts. A similar over-simplification took place when the former Prime Minister of a Labour Government, Mr. Harold Wilson, produced 10 new universities. Overnight he created universities from what had previously been called technical colleges. That is not, perhaps, a fair point. However, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has exaggerated the difficulties that are involved in establishing family courts. Many learned and experienced organisations have given a great deal of thought to this matter. They are unanimous in wanting family courts to be established. I do not understand the Government's reluctance to push this matter forward quickly and forcibly.

This is a debate in which robust thinking should be expressed. It should not contain the wishy-washy, emotional claptrap that has crept into the speeches of certain hon. Members. I refer to sentencing policy. The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) had the impertinence to say that he was addressing judges and speaking on behalf of millions of children. He epitomised his ignorance by saying that judges should take account of the feelings of victims. Of course they do that. The judge is the best person to pass an appropriate sentence because he knows the full facts of each case. He also knows the antecedents of the defendant. Parliament should not interfere with the judiciary's sentencing powers, although it can make people's feelings about certain cases quite clear.

Newspapers wrongly exaggerate the disparity of sentences. No newspaper reporter knows all of the facts but hears only what is said in court. Much of the evidence in child abuse cases is not discussed publicly to save embarrassment or because matters are sensitive or complex. Pages of the statement are referred to. It is quite wrong for hon. Members who do not know the full facts of a case to attack the judiciary. We all agree that child abuse demands severe sentences but the decision must rest with the judiciary.

The right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) can be relied upon to be a moral crusader in any cause that happens to come along on a Friday, whether it be liquor, sex, abortion or anything else. In his evangelical fervour he made the point, which I simply could not understand, that there is some difficulty finding out about previous convictions in Scotland when children are put in charge of parents in England. I cannot see any difficulty.

The police can easily find out about previous convictions on their computer if the offence was committed in Wales, Scotland, Ireland or anywhere else. I cannot see why the same machinery should not work for child abuse cases. It is not difficult to obtain details of convictions in Scotland, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested. The police can find the information if asked to investigate.

I did not understand at all the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock). He said that a child had been sexually abused in care, that the complaint had been made by her father who is serving a sentence for murder in a prison near his constituency and that the police had refused to act. I do not believe that the police would flatly refuse to investigate such an allegation. I suspect that the complaint might be frivolous or based on unreliable evidence. If such a complaint really is not investigated, the hon. Gentleman has a remedy.

That case is being investigated. I have called for an inquiry and understand that the responsible social service department is looking into the matter.

I am grateful to the Minister.

The Government's thinking on these matters is awfully woolly. The Minister boasts, and by implication takes pride in the fact that lots of organisations have produced lots of reports, there is a vast amount of documentation floating around, lots of committees are being formed, inspectors are being appointed and lots of organisations are talking about the issue. That is commendable in the long term, but does nothing to deal with the immediate problem, which is to prevent further incidents of child abuse in so far as that can be done.

The Government's attitude is complacent, nonchalant, woolly and feeble. What disturbs me is that the Government recognise that resources must be allocated to deal with such problems, yet flatly refuse to allocate them. It is no use the Government saying that they will do this or that if, by the same token, they refuse to provide the money to deal with problems as they arise. That is a false economy, as those problems subsequently become much more expensive to resolve.

The Government must make up their mind. If they are to deal with the matter realistically, as they profess that they want to, they must provide the resources. Incidentally, the Minister seems to have disappeared. I hope that I have not driven him out of the Chamber. I am sorry that he is not here as I was about to criticise the Government. I see no reason not to be partisan in this debate. I do not know why he has disappeared, but perhaps he will do us the honour of returning in a moment.

The Government have done nothing to be proud of. All these pompous platitudes and sanctimonious sentiments are expressed from the Treasury Bench, yet the Government do not have the decency to provide sufficient resources. They criticise everybody and pay the highest tribute to people who are doing excellent work, yet they have not got the courage of their conviction to provide the money necessary to deal with these matters. How can one say that one has done everything to prevent child abuse if an area has very poor housing, high unemployment, appalling social conditions and shortages of everything?

Happily, the Minister has returned to his place, so perhaps I can give him one example. To some extent the many cases of incest occur because of poor housing conditions. Many such cases are not prosecuted, and what we see in the Crown courts are simply the tip of the iceberg. Many cases of incest are not discovered for years. There are cases before the court where the sexual abuse of the child occurred several years ago, although nobody knew about it because the child did not complain until she was much older. Such cases are a direct result of the appalling social conditions in which many of our people have to live. The Minister should come to grips with that problem instead of waffling away about the vast amount of documentation produced by various Departments.

I shall in a moment, but I wish first to finish my point. I was hoping to obtain some sort of reaction from the Government, not from the Back Benches. The Government should make specific proposals instead of simply talking in generalities and making irrelevant comments.

Did the hon. Gentleman hear the recent phone-in on sexual abuse which made it clear that many instances of child abuse had nothing to do with housing conditions? Indeed, the existence of separate rooms made it easier for offences to occur. One should be wary about drawing too facile a comparison between social conditions and that sort of offence.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is trying to be obtuse or whether he cannot help it. I did not hear the programme but it is plain as a pikestaff to me that no general conclusion can be drawn. However, it is also equally clear that adverse social conditions such as exist in my constituency in the north-east of England make it more likely for such difficulties to occur. I should have thought that it was obvious to anybody that I am not for a moment suggesting that these things occur because of adverse social conditions. Of course they do not. There are other causes, but against a background of poor social conditions they are more likely to occur. That is the point.

Existing legal procedures have been justifiably criticised. Practical difficulties are caused because the courts have so much work and because of the long delay before cases are brought to court. There has been an improvement in recent years. The waiting period between committal and trial is now much shorter. The Government have done much to achieve that in London and elsewhere. However, wardship proceedings are still interminably long. One of the many reasons why family courts should be established urgently is that the existing procedure is too tortuous and too slow.

2.10 pm

The abuse of children is one of the most horrifying of crimes for many reasons. Chief amongst the reasons is the relative helplessness of the victims and the abuse of trust that is so often involved.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) on giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject. In the main, the debate has been constructive.

Hon. Members have spoken of many examples of the physical and sexual abuse of children. Almost every day we read in the newspapers about cases which are so horrific that they must turn every parent's heart cold with horror and apprehension. Precisely because the subject is so emotional, it is important that we in Parliament address it with a clear and calm mind.

These terrible cases are increasingly well highlighted and where they reveal gaps in the protection offered by the law or in social services procedures, remedial action must follow. Hon. Members have made many suggestions which I hope will be taken up as part of that process.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury, (Mr. Walters) on the choice of his private Member's Bill which is aimed at plugging one gap. He proposes that magistrates' courts should give approval before a child in local authority care is returned to its parents or to the home from which it was removed. That will not solve all problems, but it is a clear and important step forward and I wish it well.

I shall deal not with matters that have already been discussed today, but with an entirely different aspect of child abuse which is widespread but which only exceptionally captures the headlines—and that is usually in combination with another tragedy such as a fire, a burglary or a case such as that involving Leoni Keating. At what age should a parent leave a child unattended? How old should a person be before he or she is allowed to look after young children? Those questions are important because neglect of responsibility is as much an abuse of a child as a physical assault.

The law is not generally backward in laying down minimum standards of behaviour and yet when the opportunities for avoiding a tragedy are so obvious there is a curious and inexplicable gap. There are many myths about when it is legal to leave a child and with whom. The myths are contradictory and none has the force of law.

The matter first came to my attention when a constituent came to my surgery and said that she had been looking for a babysitter. She had been offered the services of a neighbour's 14-year-old daughter. She had it in mind that this would be illegal, but she could not find out whether it was. She had been unable to find any official guidance on the subject.

Any parents leaving their children either alone or with another person must exercise personal judgment about suitability. Responsible parents will always err on the side of caution. Are they not also entitled to some official guidance? We have heard repeatedly that parenthood is the one activity for which no training is given and about the need for guidance and codes of practice.

On 1 April I tabled a question asking my hon. Friend the Minister whether
"he has any proposals for legislation or a code of conduct concerning the minimum age at which a child can he left unsupervised."
He replied:
"No. Wilful neglect of a child aged under 16 by a person aged 16 or over with responsibility for the child is already an offence in certain circumstances (section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933).—[Official Report, 1 April 1985; Vol. 76, c. 495.]
What are those circumstances? I looked at the Act, which states:
"If any person who has attained the age of sixteen years and has the custody, charge, or care of any child or young person under that age, wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons, or exposes him, or causes or procures him to be assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, abandoned, or exposed, in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health … that person shall be guilty of a misdemeanour."
That creates a general responsibility on the person over 16 not to neglect someone in his or her care who is under that age. But does it mean that someone cannot use a 15-year-old babysitter? Does it mean that a parent cannot leave his 15-year-old son unattended? Where is the borderline? What is the guidance for parents?

The importance of the question is highlighted by research that suggests that a large number of children aged between seven and 11, from all social groups, are left alone—not only after school, but for days on end during school holidays. There are obvious difficulties in laying down minimum standards, and I fully recognise that. I understand that problems arise when both parents work. But is it right that children should suffer as a consequence?

I can understand the logic of creating a general duty of care without defining the details, leaving each position to be decided on its merits, but I do not agree with that approach. If we create a criminal offence, people are entitled to some guidance. It is not good enough to lay down a proposition in general terms and leave its interpretation to individual judgment, while reserving the right to come down like a ton of bricks if that judgment is exercised wrongly.

Some say that it is impossible to be more specific. The Act does not share that view. It lays down a curious patchwork quilt of details and guidance. Under section 1, neglect is defined as failing to provide
"adequate food, clothing, medical aid or lodging."
There is no mention of care and supervision, even for a babe in arms.

Were the framers of the Act reluctant, perhaps, to distinguish between children of different ages under 16? That was not the case. Section 3 provides specifically that it is forbidden to take a child of four and over into a brothel. Section 5 forbids the giving of alcohol to a child under the age of five. Under section 8, a pawnbroker is forbidden from dealing with a person under 16. Most specific of all, section 11 makes it an offence to allow a child under the age of seven to be in a room with an unguarded fire, but only if the child is killed or seriously injured as a consequence. Are there not many other serious dangers in the houses of the 1980s? Must we wait for children to be killed or seriously injured? Surely the key is the need for supervision, at whatever age the law deems it necessary.

Parents need some clear, objective and practical guidelines on which they can rely. The law would back them when the kids argued that they were old enough to be left alone, but the parents rather doubt that. The law would be useful ammunition when an employee needs to take time off to look after an eight-year-old who is home because of illness, but the employer will not give permission. If we want clear and consistent standards that are fair to our children, surely it is our responsibility to establish a base for them.

I seek to highlight some of the inconsistencies and omissions in the present law. There will always be those who argue that we cannot set standards of behaviour by law, but that is not true. The legislation on the wearing of seat belts, for example, has manifestly saved many lives by changing behaviour patterns dramatically. Should we do less for our children?

I seek to bring an important area of law up to date to provide guidance to parents and to reflect changes in society in the last 50 years. I am not making detailed proposals on what that law should be, but merely raising the subject as a matter which is suitable for public debate. If, in so doing, we can save the life of one child burned to death in a fire from which a responsible adult could have saved him, is not that effort worthwhile? Is it not our duty to try?

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is the convention of the House, as I am sure you are aware, for speakers to be called from either side—

2.21 pm

Child abuse is regarded by society as the most obscene of all offences, but it is a frightening fact that any parent—no matter the background from which that parent comes, be he or she rich or poor, kind or stable—can become a culprit.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) on initiating the debate, thereby doing a service not just to the House but to the country because far too many children are being abused nowadays. The problem is that parents do not see that they could become culprits. In most cases the parents concerned are under emotional stress or financial or physical stress—

The father's job may be on the line or the house may be in need of urgent repair and there is not enough money available—

and the child is considered to be in the way. The child perhaps does something wrong, and stresses are at a peak. The child, not the parents, then suffers. After hurting the child, the parent or parents need immediate help, though help is not sought in the vast majority of cases. People must be encouraged to get help prior to any further assault.

They need to talk to people urgently. They need neighbours to come forward to help them.

It is no good feeling remorse after the attack. They must seek help, and it is no embarrassment for them to seek it. Social workers have an even greater role to play.

This has been an excellent debate up to now in that hon. Members in all parts of the House have been united in considering this vital problem.

Social workers attempt to secure the removal of the child at the right time, when it is certain that the child is at risk. It may, however, be better to leave the child where it is, because it might do more harm than good to remove the child from its home at that time. The child's interests must always come first in all abuse cases.

Recent research has revealed that one in ten children in the United Kingdom suffer some form of sexual abuse before the age of 16. An article in the Leicester Mercury on Thursday 26 September last pointed out that the problem existed not just in Leicestershire and that it was growing at an alarming rate. It said:
"In Leicestershire, the problem is described by the experts as 'stable', but the County Council's register of children at risk shows 803 children in the firing line—26 of whom are recognised as being at risk from sexual abuse. A further breakdown of the figures shows that 18 are living in the same household as a known child abuser, 53 are suffering from or are at risk from physical neglect, and 34 may be at risk of 'failing to thrive'—not putting on weight or growing healthily."
For that reason, the teacher's role must be understood, and it is a tragedy that the teachers' dispute should still be going on, for teachers can spot the problem in many instances. The teacher, on seeing bruises, can ask the child how they occurred.

Jesus said:
"Suffer the little children to come unto me",
but in 1985 we must ask how much the children are suffering and for how long they must suffer. We recall the cases of Heidi Koseda and Jasmine Beckford. It is a privilege, not a right, to have children. Many parents are emotionally unprepared to have children. It is often too easy to become pregnant. Indeed, some say that it is a good way for a young girl to leave school. I see the mother in such a case as a child, but for her to become pregnant and to give birth to a child, with no back-up and no mothercraft experience, is often bound to lead to trouble. Many people have little time to attend child care centres for advice and counselling prior to giving birth.

It is exciting to be expecting a child, but mothers-to-be should be wary and cautious of life after the birth of their child. Childbirth and what it means thereafter should feature in the school curriculum. Having a child and rearing it will cramp the style of the parents. The child will expect 100 per cent. plus devotion and attention at all times. As a father-to-be, I appreciate fully the undertaking that I am entering into. It will not be so easy to go out in the evening. That applies to all potential parents. It will be very much more difficult for them to go to a disco or the theatre. There are bound to be money problems as a working couple readjust their financial arrangements, there being only one breadwinner instead of two. As the child grows up it will need comfort and love in ever-increasing quantities.

Rows may begin as the child keeps its parents awake during the night. It may be tempting for the working father to take it out on the child. He should remember that a child cannot fight back. That is where child abuse begins. If only the child could fight back and say, "Pick on someone your own size, you bully". Unfortunately, that is not possible.

A report appeared in the Leicester Mercury of a probation officer who basically saved the life of a five-year-old child, Nigel Vernon, who was being battered. The parents admitted assaulting him and occasioning actual bodily harm. The court was told that the doctor's examination revealed that Nigel had suffered extensive bruising to his face, head, arms, legs and genital area. He is a constituent of mine. Nigel's mother was put on probation for a year. The case was discovered only because a senior probation officer visited Nigel's home in March and noticed his injuries. The social services were informed and a place-of-safety order was sought immediately and obtained. That is a credit to the social services.

There are 6 million males under 16 years and 5¾ million females under 16. Marriages are breaking down all the time and 80,000 couples a year enter into marriage when one of the partners is under 20 years of age; 62,000 of them are girls. There are 93,200 children in care. That is a shocking figure. We must do everything in our power to look after these children. The House will be aware that 37 per cent. of married women under 20 years are divorced before they are 20. What happens to the children?

On 4 July I asked the former Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), who is now Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction, what he intended to do in respect of the consultative paper which I asked him to produce, which I urged should contain new guidelines on follow-up action in cases of serious child abuse. The Government admit that these cases are distressing and that a great deal of care is needed. All cases must be thoroughly investigated. The most immediate need is for local management. Responsibility should be local. We are looking forward to hearing the changes that are proposed in procedures and services.

School teachers have an important role. They should ask questions if a child is a regular late arriver. They should take note of his appearance and ask themselves whether he has been assaulted at home. There must be liaison between the schools and the social workers. In 1984, 20,000 children left home. Fortunately, most of them turned up eventually.

On 18 September 1985 Viscount Tonypandy said:
"But today, because of new dangers, the exploitation of children is still widespread. Even within the family we have children being used consciously and unconsciously as pawns in the struggles between parents.
With rapidly rising divorce rates youngsters can face the pain and humiliation of seeing their parents with a confusing succession of partners or spouses."
It is always the children who suffer.

I asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 14 January about co-ordination between the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Security to ensure that probation officers or childminders who have had a problem or a criminal record are discovered at an early stage. I am pleased to say that there is co-ordination. I, too, want the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 to be withdrawn or amended so that if someone has a record of offences against children he or she will not be allowed to become a childminder, probation officer or social officer. Such individuals must be properly trained as well as properly vetted. The Government have said that crimes against children are viewed with the utmost concern. Senior officers share that view and respond to such offences accordingly.

In 1984, 10 children were stolen. There were 102 instances of cruelty or neglect. That is a shocking figure. Acts of gross indecency were committed against 226 children in 1984.

We must act quickly. It is not a matter of admitting defeat by calling for fostering. We must encourage people to foster. We must get the neighbours to help. If they spot a problem, they must declare it. A child is private property, but it may need help. I should like a central record to be kept of all child abuse victims. Responsibility for protection from abuse lies with—

It being half past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.