The progress of a country can be measured by the welfare of its children. Britain ranks very high by this standard but there are still serious gaps in the welfare services, and it is to these gaps that I want to call the attention of the House today. The local authorities take the view, as far as I can make out, that in most cases they are unable to take any action when their attention is drawn to children who are neglected in their own homes, unless the neglect is such that it can be shown that the neglect is likely to cause unnecessary suffering to the children; in which case the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children steps in and a prosecution ensues.
I do not know whether it is true of all the local authorities, but I have ascertained that the children's officers of some of the largest and, indeed, most progressive local authorities take the view that, even when their attention is drawn to serious neglect, and to the serious ill-being of children in their own homes, they are unable to take any action unless criminal neglect can be proved. This leads to a very serious state of affairs in heaven knows how many homes in the country. It is difficult to assess—in fact, it cannot be assessed—how many children are seriously suffering because no action is taken with regard to their home conditions.
I want to cite just one case, not, unfortunately, because it is an outstanding case, for it is typical of scores of cases to which my attention has been drawn all over the country. The home is admittedly a bad one. The father is serving a sentence of five years in prison. The home consists now, in his absence, of the mother; up till recently a daughter of 12 by a previous marriage; and five children under eight. The home place is dirty and vermin ridden. The children are in a terrible condition, and frequently it is alleged by their teacher that they go to school with bruises and cuts. The children are obviously frightened. A neighbour has alleged that one of the little boys was found shut in a dark cellar with his hands tied behind him. Over a period of years this home has been watched by the Family Welfare Association and by the N.S.P.C.C., but no notice has been taken of any advice given, and the mother appears to have no maternal feeling at all for any of the children except the baby. The children are obviously suffering from malnutrition, and have, on a number of occasions, been found rummaging in the pig bin for bits of food. Eight complaints from accredited organisations have been made to the local authority about these children. The care committee officer has complained time and again, the teachers of the children, who are of course in more than one class, have complained time and again, the health visitor has complained on a number of occasions, and finally the borough psychologist, who was asked to investigate the condition of one of the children, said:
[Mrs. Smith] will hit [Teddy] one of these days so that he really is injured unless something is done.
Teddy was the child the neighbour alleged was found in the cellar with his hands tied behind him.
It is perfectly obvious that these children ought to have something done for them, and should be looked after. I am the last person to advocate children being taken away from their homes, and one of the things I am most keen about is that the homes should be attended to before they have got into the state when the only thing that can be done for the welfare of the children is to remove them. In the case of the particular home I have mentioned, the N.S.P.C.C. inspector, who agrees that it is a very bad home and who would like to do something about it, does not feel that there is sufficient evidence for him to institute a prosecution, although nobody has been able to persuade the mother to improve her condition.
The eldest child, the girl aged 12, had been left at home on numerous occasions when the mother went out, in order to look after the younger children. As a result her attendance at school was so bad that on the advice of the attendance officer, she has been removed by the local authority in order that she may receive proper education. Unfortunately the other five children are now in a worse plight than they were before, because the influence and help of their elder sister who as far as possible acted as a little mother, have been entirely removed.
I want to draw the attention of the House to what seems to me a terribly serious state of affairs. Where, quite rightly, a child who is prevented from attending school is removed from the home so that it may be properly educated but where the other children are at home in the most squalid and deplorable conditions, being—I was about to say "brought up," but one can hardly call it that in this case—allowed to grow up under conditions which are likely to be a fertile ground for juvenile delinquency, and to do grave harm mentally, morally and physically to the children. Apparently no action can be taken to help and protect them until some harm, which may be irreparable, has already been done to one of them. Then the children's officer will step in.
I am not a lawyer, and I hoped that this would not be the position under the Children Act; whether it is a misinterpretation, or whether it is the correct interpretation and the Children Act does not go nearly as far as we hoped, I do not know, but the fact remains, as I understand it, that, in the view of some of the most leading and progressive children's officers of local authorities, if there is a mother in the home no action can be taken unless criminal negligence can be proved. Of course, one of the troubles is that in most places there are no care services which can be called upon to help these people before things have got so bad.
Some weeks ago I tabled a Motion, which was signed by Members of all
parties, calling upon the Government
to give consideration to the home conditions of neglected children who were outside the terms of reference of the Curtis Committee, with a view to strengthening the law and administration regarding them.
I know that I cannot today say anything about the question of strengthening the law, and the whole emphasis of my speech must be on strengthening the administration dealing with these neglected children in their homes. The Curtis Committee very strongly recommended that consideration should be given to these children, because they came outside the Committee's terms of reference. Since going into the matter in greater detail it seems to me vitally necessary that something should be done.
Some people have advocated that where cases have been brought to court the whole trouble has been that insufficiently heavy sentences have been imposed on the criminally neglectful or brutal parents. That may or may not be true. I do not know. But it does not seem to me to be one of the vitally important things, because by the time the parents have been brought to court the neglect may have been going on for years, and so much harm has already been done to the children that my feeling is that what happens to the parents, whether they receive longer or shorter sentences, does not very much matter. It is obvious that the children cannot go back to those parents and it is the children that matter.
What is needed is that the home should be rehabilitated wherever possible long before it reaches that state and proper supervision of the children given. In actual fact, the vast majority of cases of neglect, there is no direct brutality or criminal neglect; they are cases where the home has become bad, sometimes because the parents have had no training and are very ignorant, particularly the mother, sometimes because the parents are of no great intelligence; sometimes it is due simply to the bad health of the mother, perhaps owing to very impoverished conditions, so that she has simply lost heart and given up the unequal contest.
There are on record a number of instances—and I think this is a real indictment of the home conditions which are allowed to prevail—where mothers have been sent to prison for criminal negligence, but where the children have suffered very much because they have been parted from their mothers, even in those bad home conditions, and the mother has come out of prison very much improved in health because she has had better food and more rest. Now there is something wrong with our welfare services when the mothers are in such a state that criminal negligence occurs simply because their bad health has made them unable to run their homes.
Let me now deal briefly with the whole question of taking children away from home. Obviously, the ideal thing is to rehabilitate the home and let the children grow up in a home environment which shall be a good one. However, there are certain cases where that will never occur because the children are unwanted children; in some cases they are hated children. In these horrible cases, which are sometimes reported in the Press, almost invariably the children are found to be either step-children of one of the parents—very often an illegitimate child of the mother before her marriage.
I would make the test of whether we try to build up the children's own home and make life for them in it that of affection. If there is affection in the home and the mother loves a child, then with the right kind of help and advice she will ultimately co-operate and learn how to build up the right kind of home for her children; but if the child is hated there can never be a right kind of home for it. I think it is almost invariably true that so long as there is affection a bad home is better than the best institution, but where there is no affection that can never be true.
Another thing that haunts me is the question of the really bad cases. Some time ago we were all horrified to read in the papers of a case where a young policewoman happened to look up to a first-floor window of a slum home and see a miserable little face peering out between the curtains. She climbed up and got into the window, where she found a little boy of five who had been horribly burned and was suffering from ghastly malnutrition. The case was brought to the attention of the N.S.P.C.C., a prosecution was institued, and the parents were sent to prison. The inspector of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said in his evidence that he had never seen a child so frightened.
When we read of these cases, we are haunted by the fact that we do not know how long such a thing has been going on and how many cases of the kind there are which have not been found. We wonder what would have happened in that case if the policewoman had not happened to look up at that moment and the little boy also had not happened to be looking out of the window. It is horrible to think that this misery may be going on among the most deprived children of all, and that no one knows anything about it, with the result that nothing can be done. I am quite certain that these cases would be infinitesimal in number if every time a complaint were made by a school teacher—although this particular child was not going to school—or a welfare officer, that something was wrong with the conditions of the home, the matter was taken up by the local authority. If that were done, we should reduce these horrible cases of criminal negligence and cruelty to practically nothing at all.
The vast majority of cases are not as bad as this. They are cases where complaints are made of the poor condition of the children, of the misery of the children, and of the immoral surroundings of the children. What happens then, as with the family I have cited that I called the "Smiths," is that people complain, not just neighbours but responsible people, and still the matter goes no further. If we take the report of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for 1949, we find that they have dealt with nearly 100,000 cases, but that only 626 prosecutions were instituted. They actually investigated and followed up nearly 100,000 cases.
I have the report with me. The number of cases investigated by the Society was 40,000 for the year. I think my hon. Friend is referring to the total number of children concerned in those 40,000 cases.
I should have said that the number of children dealt with was nearly 100,000. I should like to pay a tribute to the work of the N.S.P.C.C. They do extremely fine work, but they are hampered by the fact that they have not got nearly enough money and have too few workers. I think that the whole thing has got beyond the possibilities of any voluntary society, however good. Originally, all the welfare services for children were dealt with by voluntary bodies. Education, school meals, school milk, medical attention and everything to do with child welfare originally started on a voluntary basis, but now we have to build up our system on the basis that if we are to be sure of dealing with all the children in the best possible way, it has to be done administratively through the authorities and not left to voluntary societies, however good and however efficient.
I think the time has come when we as a nation should make ourselves responsible for all children, not only for the education and well-being of children who come directly under the Children Act, but for all children in their homes as well. It has been suggested that we cannot do anything about this because an Englishman's house is his castle and no one is prepared to put up with snooping. I suggest that there is no question of snooping. Properly accredited people are already calling at the homes, finding out the bad conditions and giving help where it is needed. In some places very valuable work is being done under the local authorities.
For instance, in Norwich they have a home advice system. A series of people under the local authority, some voluntary and some on a paid basis, go to the homes and make themselves welcome to the parents. They do it not just by giving advice but by being prepared to help, by "getting down to it" and scrubbing the floors and then suggesting that the place looks rather brighter after the kitchen floor has been scrubbed. Ultimately, in most cases they obtain co-operation from the mother who is perfectly willing and anxious for someone to help to get her and her home back to a status of self-respect. We want to encourage this sort of thing, but we cannot do it and give the necessary directions unless a duty is laid on local authorities to follow up complaints from accredited teachers, health visitors and welfare officers, so that they can go into the homes and find out what can be done and what is necessary for the children. It is appalling that there is no protection for a child in its home unless great harm has already been done, perhaps over a period of years, to its health, morale and spirit, which may have been ruined for life. But that is the state of affairs today.
In conclusion, the Curtis Committee, out of which came the valuable Children Act, was set up because the whole country was shocked by what came to be known as the Neill case—the case of the little boy who was put out with foster parents, and who died as a result of ill-treatment. I hope we shall not wait until there is a Neill case in a child's own home before we deal effectively with this question. Neglected children are a challenge to the nation and sympathy is not enough. The time has come when we must accept responsibility for these unhappy, miserable and lonely little beings—the most deprived children of all. I ask the Minister to deal with it administratively, and to ensure that a duty is laid on every local authority to follow up these children in their own homes. If it is not possible to do it by administrative action, I hope the matter will be dealt with in another way in the House before very long.
I think the House and the country owe a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould) for raising the important matter of the ill-treatment of children who do not come within the categories which were dealt with in the Curtis Report. The importance of the problem is, I think, even greater than what she put before the House would seem to show. I am a member of the Central Executive Committee of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children—an honour I share with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Pembroke (Major Lloyd George). During the year's working it has been abundantly brought to our notice that the problem of cruelty has become more and more divorced from its physical aspect. There are ordinary maltreatment cases, and very bad ones such as the one quoted by my hon. Friend, but there are even more cases, and through all classes of society, where the cruelty is of a mental nature, where there is a sad psychological misunderstanding of the needs of the child. It is for that reason that it behoves us to be extremely careful in our approach to the problem of entering the home and influencing the family.
Generally speaking—and I have had over 22 years' work among young people and children, a good deal of it in a very poor neighbourhood—it is lack of understanding of the needs of the child which is the supreme tragedy of their parents. The phrase "When intervention is necessary in the interests of the child," in connection with the Children Act, seems to be comprehensive enough to make it possible for effective action to be taken not only where physical violence is concerned, but certainly where mental cruelty is concerned, and it should be possible to intervene on behalf of the health of the children who are being hurt either mentally or physically.
I was reading from a speech made by Professor Allan Moncrieff who is, I believe, Chairman of my hon. Friend's Advisory Committee on Child Welfare, and he quoted those words from the Act. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon stressed in her admirable statement of the position, wherever possible we want to retain the child in the home, however misguided it may be, where there is fundamental affection for a child. That is the aim of every children's society and organisation with which I have been associated for a quarter of a century.
We want to preserve the family basis of love because I am sure that amid a family a child has a much better opportunity for full development than in any institution, even if the institution provides more efficient amenities. The fundamental thing to which we must hold on is the love of the parent for the child and the natural love, respect, and trust of the child for the parent. Because of that the N.S.P.C.C. feel that it is sometimes badly misrepresented, and I have heard the same complaint from family welfare advice centres. We tend to have our failures underlined and our successes not known. Our few prosecutions are publicised but our remedial work is unsung.
The House may be interested to know some of the figures from the part of the report, quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon, which bears on that point, particularly the cases which were, to use a familiar idiom, "settled out of court" happily and, in most cases, finally. My hon. Friend said that some 100,000 children came to the notice of the Society in the 12 months ending 28th February of this year. They came from 40,246 homes or families. It is interesing to note how readily officials, as well as neighbours, seek the advice and help of the Society as a natural step to take immediately a case of cruelty, neglect or psychological maladjustment is brought to their notice.
Of the 40,246 cases there were reported by the general public—often by a kindly passer-by, who accidentially met the child looking into a window or wandering disconsolately in a park, late at night—24,956 cases. That shows that the voluntary societies are playing a very much bigger part in the cracking of this problem than is generally recognised. The police also know how valuable it is to have an unofficial society, which can mend rather than an official organisation which must prosecute. No fewer than 2,934 cases were brought to the attention of the N.S.P.C.C. by the police, and the police also brought cases in their hundreds to other voluntary societies.
School officials do—and here I speak with absolute knowledge—because of the efficiency of their service to the children, take very careful notice of the physical and mental weakness of children so that they can take immediate action to safeguard their pupils. I know that does not cover the point of the child who has not reached school age, but it is one more figure in the general picture I am trying to present of how the problem is being rationally tackled now. School officials in one year alone were responsible for reporting 1,164 cases.
Other officials connected with local authorities and the medical officers of health reported 6,862, and the actual discoveries by the society's 267 inspectors in their 200 odd districts of this country only amounted to 1,330. I submit while there is every reason to strengthen the hand of local authorities in cases where punitive action is essential for the sake of saving the child, it is wiser to proceed as we are doing in this country, with an overall responsibility on the part of the authorities and with the help and assistance of voluntary organisations, whose main intention is to safeguard the child and to restore its environment to what should be more normal.
It may interest the House to know that the categories of neglect or cruelty which were investigated in the group of cases mentioned by my hon. Friend. Cases of neglect or physical cruelty were 24,420 out of 40,000 cases. Ill-treatment and assault actually accounted for fewer than 3,946. It is important to get our perspective right. Where there is neglect and psychological maladjustment between the child and the parent then there is hope for a friendly co-operative, useful agent to get to work to remedy the position. The cases of abandonment, I am glad to say, were extraordinarily few, only 53. The number of exposure for begging has dropped to 39, probably as a result of better conditions in the country. Of course, today there is something of a problem owing to influences at work, which are not particularly good for the children. It is extremely difficult to preserve the "beyond control" child in normal home conditions, but I am glad to say that only 201 of those difficult problems were presented. Corruption of morals accounted for 512 and in other classifications there were 45.
To my mind the most hopeful figure of the lot and one on which the N.S.P.C.C., and other like agencies, which do not occupy the same large predominant position in the affections of the country, can pride themselves is that out of 40,000 families or cases examined last year up to 29th February, 11,210 were brought to the society's inspectors by the parents themselves. That is an extraordinary thing. It shows that there is hope in the position. It shows that parents are at times able to bring themselves up short when their tempers run away with them or when the lure of the dog track or the cinema persuades them to neglect their children for their own amusement. There is a general feeling in the country of responsibility for children, which brought over 11,000 parents voluntarily to the N.S.P.C.C. inspectors to whom they said, "I am not doing right by my children. Will you advise and help me before the thing gets out of hand?"
The N.S.P.C.C. has, with the able assistance of the Home Office, completed the training of its first contingent of women visitors, who are willing to collaborate fully with all local authorities in the area to which they are assigned in order that preventive treatment will be possible under the direction of skilled trained women. We are adding to their number this year. I want to pay this tribute to the Home Office, and to the police and other authorities—there is no sign whatever of competition or of jealousy between the various agencies working at this moment for the welfare of the deprived, unwanted and cruelly treated children in this country.
This matter was touched upon recently in a letter to "The Times" written by Mr. Thomas H. Band who said:
Local officials can and do deal with cases where definite crisp action is wanted—e.g. the reception of a child in a hostel, the removal of a child to hospital, the cleansing of foul premises and clothing, the grant of money, etc.—but they are not trained nor are they suitable for the weary process of visiting, helping, criticising, teaching, threatening and even bullying the ignorant and vicious parents with whom we have to deal in their own homes. The parents will tolerate and often react to the advice of an N.S.P.C.C. inspector when they would resist 'the man (or woman) from the Town Hall'".
May I in conclusion quote to the House a few words from the prologue of a book which contributed to the happy childhood of many of my hon. Friends as it did to myself—the prologue to "The Golden Age" by Kenneth Graham, which will reinforce in my last few words the statement which I made at the beginning, that the question of cruelty is not a class question; it is not a question of a particular economic stratum; but it is very largely a question of misunderstanding between the adult mind and the child mind. It is in some cases, true enough, produced by poverty, but it may equally proceed from a wilful neglect by people who ought to know better and who live in happy circumstances.
It is therefore going to be extremely difficult to enforce the right treatment of children in their own homes by official action which must, by its very nature, arrive at the home when too late to mend. The words which stuck in my mind when I read them as a lad and which have been repeated quite recently by the Chairman of the Advisory Committee for Child Welfare are these, from "The Golden Age"; talking of uncles and aunts:
They treated us, indeed, with kindness enough as to the needs of the flesh but, after that, with indifference, an indifference as I recognised the result of a certain stupidity, and therefore with a commonplace conviction that your child is merely an animal. At a very early age I remember realising in a quite
impersonal and kindly way the extent of that stupidity, and its tremendous influence in the world.
Stupidity can be beaten only with education, and education can be made effective only through a kindly understanding on the part of the educator.
For that reason I plead with the House to come to the conclusion that, while punitive measures may be necessary and extended powers, indeed imperative, we should not divorce from our minds the main objective of building and retaining a nation of happy homes. For that reason I submit that the work of kindhearted people, whether gathered in voluntary societies or working in some cases, as I have shown the House that they do, individually for sheer love of a single child, is what we need. We want to keep everyone aware that there may be cruelty and misunderstanding of children. We do not want them to say: "It's no concern of mine now, because the local authorities are going to do it." In this, the love for and care of children, we are each of us a local authority, whether official or unofficial.
I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for East Harrow (Mr. Skinnard) and to agree with him very heartily indeed that punitive measures are by no means enough. My own approach to this problem differs slightly from that of my hon. Friend, and that of the hon. Lady the Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould), who opened this Debate. Some years ago, and for many years, I was a medical inspector of schools in London and I did a great deal of work in the training of children in London. I obtained an intimate knowledge of children and of their homes and of the conditions influencing their lives.
One thing which impressed me very much indeed was that only once in the whole course of that experience, when I saw and personally examined many thousands of children in the presence of their mothers, did I find a mother who was vicious and brutal to the child. The ordinary mothers were sometimes ignorant and were very often circumscribed by poverty in what they could do. When enough care was taken to explain to them what needed to be done for their children, there were practically no mothers, even the poorest, who did not make every effort to carry out what was necessary and desirable for the health and well-being of their children. I say that because, at the present time, the situation in our country is improving rapidly with regard to children, whose conditions are, to a very large extent, very much better indeed than they were even just before the war. The nutrition of children is better on the average than it was before the war, but even now there are circumstances in which children suffer very grave disadvantages.
I should like to ask the Minister who is to reply whether he can answer a question with regard to the possibilities of administration. Let me take the cases of two mothers which came to my immediate attention just recently, in regard to housing. Over a period of years during which I have been representing North Islington, there has been a considerable number of houses in which people are living in overcrowded conditions. The houses are in bad repair and some are without an adequate water supply and without good lighting. They approach slum conditions, in fact, and in certain areas they reach very serious slum conditions in which, for practical purposes, children cannot be brought up in a healthy way. In those conditions we get cases that come within the immediate purview of the Curtis Report. The way to deal with those cases is not to wait until they come to a stage when proceedings have to be taken but to try beforehand and get at the people concerned so as to improve the conditions and by prevention, avoid the worst environment.
I want to put to the Minister who is to reply, this question with regard to homes: should not a greater priority be given in applications for accommodation and homes in the London area, to applicants who have children than is given at present? A priority is given, but I believe that a greater priority should be given, and that it should be greater still if the children are ill. I have had correspondence within the last week or two with parents whose children are suffering from tuberculosis and other diseases and are living under conditions which all responsible persons agree are unsatisfactory. If we gave higher priority in such cases, we should tend to get rid of many difficulties and complexities of life, in addition to physical difficulties which I, as a doctor, would never dream of underestimating.
Another matter has been called to my attention which is inevitably part of our present conditions—the state of the rest houses in which parents and their families are obliged to live if they have no homes. Some of those local authority rest houses are, I am afraid, very overcrowded. I have it on good authority in a statement made to me by a person of official status that in one of these rest centres mothers of children are lying bed to bed with no interval between them, very overcrowded and not very clean, that mothers and fathers are separated, and that the mothers with the children are not always as conveniently situated as they should be. Conditions exist now owing to overcrowding in some of those institutions which cannot be excused by anything but sheer necessity. Cannot something be done to provide alternative accommodation to those rest centres which are badly overcrowded? I believe it is a problem which applies not only to London; but to what other cities it applies, I do not know.
I hope that something can be done to clear up some of the difficulties to which I have referred. In these matters we must help the children by helping their parents. As has been emphasised by the two previous speakers, the best way of helping children is by seeing that they live in happy homes where their parents love them and where they have an ordinary friendly environment. That is by far the best solution. In my experience mothers always do their best for their children although they are caught up in quite impossible circumstances.
A great deal can be done in this direction through the school authorities. School doctors could, when inspecting the children, bring to the notice of the appropriate branch of the local authority concerned, the fact that the children are living in conditions which are damaging their health. It would then be reasonable for the local authority concerned with housing to see what they could do about giving a greater degree of priority to the housing needs of that particular family.
I think that children under school age should be visited much more frequently by health visitors, N.S.P.C.C. representatives and others to see what help can be given in preventing undesirable circumstances from affecting those children. I also consider—and urgent priority should be given to this—that more residential nursery schools should be set up so that when conditions in the home are bad, or when home conditions do not exist owing to the death of a parent, or the separation of the parents, the children may be provided with some place to live where they can be healthy and happy.
There is at present great overcrowding in London, into which hundreds and hundreds of people are coming every week. There is now no longer in operation the provision in the Poor Law about place of domicile which enabled any persons coming to London to be returned to their place of domicile if they had not got work here. There is nothing now to prevent people coming, as many do, from other parts of the country into London—people who have no work here. They throw themselves, so to speak, on the mercy of the public authorities. They are creating a serious and grave problem which will intensify the adverse conditions under which children are living. They often bring with them large families, and there is now no legal provision to enable them to be returned to the place from whence they came. A lady who recently came to seek my assistance in North Islington had come from the Isle of Arran off the West of Scotland. There are others who have also come from distant places.
I urge that by every kind of administrative measure which can be applied whether by the education authority or the health authorities or any other department of local government or of the State, there should be an intensified drive to improve the conditions of child life. While I hold that conditions are much better than they were before the war, there is still a time lag; there are still dark places in our social system. I wish to see the time come when we can proudly lift our heads and say that there are no dark places in our social system where we compel children to live.
Not only all Members of the House but all the children of our land have cause to be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould) for bringing this matter before us today. We have all been appalled by the number of cases of cruelty and neglect which we read in the newspapers. Whether the explanation is that these cases have greater news value—as we all hope—or whether it is that they are more numerous than used to be the case, I do not known. The really sad aspect is that most, indeed nearly all of them, are not just cases of recent cruelty, cases in which the father or the mother has lost his or her temper; they are cases in which the children have been neglected either mentally or physically for a considerable time.
One thing which has emerged clearly from today's Debate has been that there are many causes of these deplorable conditions. My hon. Friend the Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest) singled out housing. I would say in reply that certainly in London, and I believe in most places, credit is given, in the allocation of housing accommodation, to large families and particularly to cases in which illness exists. Then there is the relatively rare case, I am glad to say, of deliberate cruelty. There is also the very frequent case of a mother who is perhaps not mentally very alert, and who is overcome by the constant struggle to keep her house clean and her children respectable, who has also to struggle with poverty or who perhaps has a husband who is difficult.
There is not just one type of case but many, and they have all to be dealt with differently. I cannot help feeling that the law as it now stands gives local authorities ample powers to deal with all these cases in the appropriate way provided, and only provided, that they know of them in time. That is the point I wish to stress. The great consideration in relation to these cases is to learn about them and that early. As I have already pointed out, so many cases which have been reported in the Press are cases in which cruelty or neglect has been going on for a long time. Had the local authority had knowledge of those cases right at the beginning matters might have been different. I know of the most valuable work which the N.S.P.C.C. have been doing. As a member of the Curtis Committee I can say that we were constantly coming upon cases not only of children deprived of normal family life but of children from among the general population that needed care and we regretted that our terms of reference did not allow us to deal with anything except the cases of deprived children.
I feel that it is essential there should be a sort of centralised authority in each area, a sort of clearing house which can take advantage of all the services rendered by local authorities and voluntary agencies, an authority which everyone knows to be a children's authority, to which cases even of suggested child cruelty or neglect can be reported at once. I believe that that authority will be the children's committee. I know intimately the work of only one children's committee, that in London. I am a member of that committee. We are trying to decentralise our work; we are providing at least nine district offices, and we are trying to get premises so that they may be in positions which people will recognise and know. We hope that when these district offices are working anyone who suspects cruelty or neglect of children will know that it is the right thing to report such cases there. I believe it is possible under the law. If it is not I hope that the law will be changed accordingly.
I feel that some central authority should exist, some well-known agency, in every area. Then, the schoolteacher who suspects that something is not well with the home of a particular child will be able to send a note or ring up the local children's officer and report the matter. Then should there be a person who thinks that the child of a neighbour is not as well looked after as he should be he will also know to whom he should report such a case. If we could get early knowledge of these cases and if we were ready to use all the machinery now in existence, a great deal could be done without further legislation, although I agree entirely with the hon. Member for North Hendon that if, as a result of experience, further legislation is proved to be necessary, the House must reconsider the position.
Before the hon. Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould) had developed her theme, and before the hon. Member for East Harrow (Mr. Skinnard) had spoken, I was a little nervous that statements would be advanced today which would militate against what so many of us feel to be essential—that we should at all costs avoid breaking up family units. Having heard that all who have spoken are at least as fully aware of this danger as I am myself, I feel reassured. The hon. Lady said that we should let affection be the test. Where there is affection between parents and child, then all can be saved, a remedy can be offered and improvement effected. But if one is quite certain that there is no affection, then indeed I agree with her that other steps must be considered.
I was most interested in the speech of the hon. Member for East Harrow, who spoke with such authority and knowledge of a great voluntary institution, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I have seen that society at work for many years and I have a great deal of admiration for its efforts. However, I hope that it will not be out of place, and I hope that I do not offer a discordant note, when I point out that it is possible even for the N.S.P.C.C. to make of itself an agent in bringing about an injustice. We all know that it is the last thing that they would willingly wish to do, but I am very conscious of the fact that when they prosecute they always make use of the services of a skilled lawyer. It so happens that many of the parents prosecuted are not only of poor mentality but also not equipped educationally so as to be able to speak up for themselves in a court of law.
More than once I have seen people standing in the court almost dumb. They have been punished on an accusation that they have neglected their children or been cruel to them, when afterwards one has found that the facts were lien, different from those submitted to the court.
I think my hon. Friend will do me the justice to admit that I made out the case that the last thing in the world which the N.S.P.C.C., or any other child guidance or care organisation, wants to do is to prosecute. They want to mend and to save whatever affection is there. Actually, not more than just over 1,000 prosecutions in 40,000 cases investigated is proof of that. Would not my hon. Friend agree that whatever agency has to bring to book unnatural parents—be it Government agency, through the Home Office, Ministry of Health or the police—they use skilled advocacy, so that the injustice which he mentioned is one which he would permit as a member of a local authority when they prosecute?
My hon. Friend did not allow me to finish, or he would have realised that I give him his point. I was going to develop from that an argument not so much for his ear as for that of the Under-Secretary. I should like to point out to him that it is our duty to consider every section of the family. Where a mistake has occurred and something has gone wrong, parents as well as children require protection when the matter is being investigated. I stress that it is possible for injustice to occur because parents are not represented in the court and there is no skilled person who can get the full history of their case.
I do not apologise for giving an example of what I mean. In North Staffordshire I learned from the Press that a mother had performed a most unnatural act. With a red hot poker she had burned her child on the leg. This was reported by a neighbour to an inspector of the N.S.P.C.C. who instituted proceedings, and she was sent to prison for, I think, six months. The outcome of this was that the three children in the family were taken away to a home and the father bruised and bewildered and not understanding why all this should happen, was left alone.
It appeared to me when I investigated this matter that there had been a misunderstanding in the court and that the full history had not been brought out. Both the man and the woman had been virtually dumb and unable to defend themselves through terror. People are terrified of a court. Honest, normal, decent people do not know how to speak up for themselves when they appear before a court. In fact, the circumstances were that the little boy who was burned, and on whose account the mother was sent to prison, was nine years old. He had been left at home with a little boy aged four. He had been told to look after him for an hour. Apparently, the little boy had been singing in bed and the older one had heated a poker and had burned him. He had done this not once, but on two different occasions.
Then he threatened the tiny child and intimidated him to such an extent that he agreed to say that another boy who lived further along the street had burned him. The older boy would not admit the true facts. The mother had tried to find out. She had cajoled him and offered him a bribe. She had said, "I will take you to the pictures and give you a shlling, but you must tell me who did this. We know it was you. You must admit it. Otherwise, we shall not feel safe in leaving you and your little brother together." The child still insisted that another boy was responsible and, after the father had had a quarrel with the parents of a boy living further along the street whom he had falsely accused, the mother said, "If you do not tell the truth I shall heat a poker and I will do to you what you have done twice to your little brother."
I am very glad to be able to tell the House that even at that late stage after the mother had been sent to prison, all the facts were brought out and action was taken by one of the most sensitive and kindly magistrates I have ever known. The Home Office acted upon his recommendation and within 48 hours the mother was allowed to go home. I give that as an example of how a home can be broken up if we are not very careful. Those who have spoken in this Debate would be the last people in the world to fail to recognise the disaster and catastrophe which might be caused by unwarranted and undue interference.
I have only one other point to make. I think it has been stressed already, but it is most important. It is that the genius of our people is to use the voluntary agencies for work of this type. There are no people anywhere else in the world who have had the same experience as folk in Britain in the use of voluntary agencies for the care of the unfortunate. We already have machinery in existence in the children's committees. Local authorities have certain limited powers especially where children are concerned. I should like to ask the Under-Secretary whether he has power to recommend to local authorities that they should ask the children's committees to set up in every part of the country panels of people who will act, under the instructions of the children's officer, as friends to parents and children. I am sure that if they were asked to do so, they would readily act in this particular way.
What I was saying was not so much for the ears of my hon. Friend as for the Under-Secretary. I know that that is the case, but I want to make quite certain that there are normal ordinary people, who are not paid and who do not wear uniforms, but who have contacts with the inspectors of the N.S.P.C.C. or the children's officer, in the way to which the hon. Member himself referred in regard to Norwich.
This should be fostered throughout the whole country, because there may be circumstances where a mother is ill or is not very well equipped mentally and cannot face up to the problem, or it may be that she lives in surroundings which make life very difficult for her. The house may be infested and the property of the slum type, or her husband may be ill and she may become impoverished, with the result that the children become neglected. In all these cases, such an arrangement as I have suggested would prove most useful.
Let us never forget that it is true that a suffering child, who suffers unnecessarily, is a reproach upon us all, but let us also remember that there is something more even that the child in this problem, and that is the family in which that child lives. If a child needs our help, we should do everything we can to help it, but let us remember that the parents themselves have their rights, and that, if they need assistance, we should help them as well.
The House is greatly indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould) for bringing to our attention today the cause of the ill-treated and neglected child, and it is good that the House on this occasion has an ample opportunity to discuss this very fundamental problem affecting child life.
Much has been done in recent years to improve the physical and mental standards of our children, and one can receive evidence of that great improvement when one undertakes visits to our schools. The great change for the better in the physical and mental make-up of the children in our schools today, compared with that which existed in the 1920's and 1930's, is most remarkable, and it is therefore somewhat sorrowful that there are, here and there, black spots. Nothing is more tragic than to see, against that fine background, the neglected and ill-treated child, and I am sure that all of us who have had that experience must feel overwhelmed with sympathy and distress that there are, here and there, innocent children suffering from causes, which ought not to exist, arising very largely from the ignorance and indifference of parents and others.
I am one of those who believe that we must start to some extent with the responsibilities of the parents. There are, unfortunately, today parents who are bringing children into the world who are not fit for the responsibilities which follow, and I feel that much could be done, in the stage before men and women marry, to bring home to them the responsibilities of parenthood. Nothing is more tragic than to see an unwanted child brought into the home or a child ill-treated and neglected because of the indifference of its parents.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest) mentioned particularly the difficulties in congested areas, particularly in London, not to mention the provincial cities, where the housing problem appears to be a directly contributing factor to this social evil. Let us take a typical case, one of many, of a family consisting of mother and father and five children trying to live in two small rooms in which they do everything for themselves—cooking, washing, sleeping and all the rest. A family of seven, five of whom are children, in which, despite all the difficulties, additional children are brought into such an environment, constitutes a problem into which we must inquire. Therefore, I feel that the responsibilities of parents are important, and I also know that we must look to wider spheres than merely intelligent parents to overcome these difficulties in our congested areas.
It is quite true that more and more people are migrating to London. It has been so through the ages, and we are now attempting to arrest that trend by the building of new towns, and so on. Nevertheless, London is a great magnet, and people and children are being attracted to it from all parts of the country. When they come to London, they face a serious housing problem, and the first thing they do is to look for one or two rooms into which they can crowd with their children. It may be in a great built-up area in which a family of small children is herded together in one or two rooms, probably in a tenement block, in which other people who live there may complain of the noise and interference from small children, and this does result in great trials and difficulties for the parents in trying to bring up their children in the fullest and wisest way and in the manner in which a child is entitled to grow up.
I feel that we must do something in our congested areas to look after these small children. It is not sufficient to say to the parents who have five children living in two rooms, "There it is; we are very sorry for you, but they are your children and you must do the best you can." We know that the statutory minimum age for the admission of children to school is five, but local education authorities have power to bring in children at the age of three plus, and to cater for them in nursery classes and nursery schools as a preliminary to the infant stage. I wonder how many local authorities are taking upon themselves that responsibility.
I know that, in my constituency, the local education authority is anxious to encourage as many children as possible, especially from congested parts, to come along and attend nursery classes before they reach the age of five. But quite recently the higher education authorities have seriously handicaped us in carrying out that arrangement. In my constituency we have a technical college which serves a very wide area of the county, and attached to it is a junior technical school. Of course, in the realm of technical education there is a considerable increase in the number of young men and women desiring to take advantage of those courses.
We are faced with the fact that in Acton we have a very rapidly expanding junior technical college drawing to it boys and girls from wide areas of the county. The education authorities have insisted that we hand over to them nine of our classrooms normally used for primary and secondary education. They have given priority in accommodation to the technical school over and above the needs and the necessities of local children including the under five's. We are very sore about that because we feel that the responsibility for providing additional accommodation for the junior technical school and for the Acton Technical College lies in decentralising the functions of the technical college into areas outside the constituency, because, as the position exists at present, it means that, in the interests of technical education, our smaller children are being elbowed out of the school accommodation which is rightly theirs. This, in turn, intensifies the problem of trying to help the younger children, who live in overcrowded conditions, by bringing them into nursery classes, and, by that means, to ease the problem of child welfare with which we all have to wrestle in built-up areas.
There is another point I wish to mention. We have been encouraging—and I suppose rightly—women to enter industry, and to take part in our drive for increased production. I am wondering whether that is always in the best interest of the children, because it means that when both the husband and wife are out at work all day the small children are left to fend for themselves. I know of many cases where the children are turned out on to the streets at half-past eight in the morning and remain there until six o'clock at night when their parents come home.
That may not be too bad when the schools are open, but what are these children going to do during the long summer vacation? I think that more should be done during the school vacations by way of throwing open to the children the school playgrounds, and, further, that local education authorities should provide games organisers in the school playgrounds, in the parks, in the open spaces or anywhere where they can be taken off the streets and can come under some form of control.
This question of the summer vacation is a real problem. A number of parents have come to me, strange as it may seem, and complained that the school holidays are too long, and that the children are left to roam the streets for too long a period. I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education is present because this is a subject which affects the Ministry of Education as well as the Home Office. I feel that much more could be done by the education authorities to cater for the children during the vacation period in the way I have suggested.
I am glad to have had this opportunity of saying a few words in support of my hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon. I believe that we are doing a great and valuable service this afternoon in bringing to the attention of the House and of the country this very sore problem, this blot upon our very fine standard of child welfare. After all, it is the children of today who will be the citizens of tomorrow, and it is upon them that we as a nation shall rely for our integrity and our greatness. We cannot do enough to see that our children are given every opportunity to develop into manhood and womanhood rich in the knowledge which leads to clean and healthy lives. I do not think we can spend too much—either in starting new services or in augmenting our existing services—with a view to seeing that not a single child shall be uncared for and unwanted, and that, so far as the State is concerned, the least of our children shall receive our maximum care and attention.
I am very glad to have the opportunity of speaking in this Debate, and I hope that what I have to say will not unduly delay the reply of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. I think everybody agrees that it is a very serious crime on the part of the community to see ill-treated or neglected children. No political barriers intervene in a case of this kind, and I speak with a considerable knowledge of the treatment of neglected children in a very great city. Therefore, I am at one with the hon. Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould) who raised this subject today, in trying as far as possible still further to improve our approach to the treatment of children.
I have the fear, however—and I have got to face it—that there are occasions on which there may be too much interference. The hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks) referred to education and mentioned that school holidays were far too long. I think that if it were suggested that they should be at school during the holiday period, the children would regard that as a form of ill-treatment.
I do not know a parent in any part of the country who has not been worried at one time or another at the length of school holidays, and who has not said that if little Johnnie were at school it would be much better because then they would know where he was.
That is one of the problems which arise from intruding on child life—that one attempts to judge the approach of the child to certain matters by one's own approach. We have to be very careful there. Even the teaching profession would start to complain if the suggestion to restrict holidays was persisted in. I was a member of a child welfare committee for many years, and I remember one case in which a woman had her three children taken away from her because they were illegitimate. In the opinion of some of the members of that committee the woman was unworthy of and unable to rear the children. It may surprise hon. Members to know that it was only after a very serious debate and after a vote had been taken that it was decided that the woman should retain her children.
I myself boil over when I see people exercising physical punishment on young children. I have seen it happen in all manner of places, as no doubt other hon. Members have—people hitting out at a youngster, not always because of his fault but because of the fault of the parent. I can say with much pride that I have never lifted my hand or used any violence against my children. Of course, one cannot always be too rigid in that respect. Sometimes when there are large families the rule of the sergeant-major must operate to some extent to keep the children in their places; one cannot always avoid that.
Who is to be responsible for this question, other than the organised bodies which are already doing it? If we look over the past 40 years we discover that there has been tremendous progress even in Government Departments. There is close co-operation between the Ministries of Health and Education and the Home Office in watching the development of child life. But who is to be the judge? I can remember magistrates during juvenile court proceedings saying to a boy, "If you were my son I should give you a damned good thrashing, and you would remember it for the rest of your life." Such a person is regarded as an authority on the law of the land and in seeing that people are properly protected in one way or another; yet as soon as a young delinquent goes before such a person, the best thing he can say to the boy is, "You require a good thrashing." Is that the best authority to look after children?
Whom are we going to choose to look after the neglected and ill-treated child? The usual practice is that charitable organisations go into the working class and overcrowded areas. They do not go into residential areas to see whether there is any child neglect there.
No, they do not. There are various forms of neglect and ill-treatment. While I agree with the hon. Member for North Hendon who raised this matter, that we should try to give greater comfort, care and kindness to children, I hope that the Under-Secretary for the Home Department will not ask for increased powers; I think we have sufficient powers. Therefore, when we consider the question of ill-treatment and neglect, we, as responsible people in authority either in national government or in local government, must ask ourselves how far we have contributed to the neglect and ill-treatment of children. It is easy enough to find the dull mother and punish her when somebody says that she has neglected her child, but it is difficult to punish a local authority.
I remember the case which was responsible for the appointment of the Curtis Committee. The parents were punished, but the local authorities, who in my view were primarily responsible for handing over the children to those parents, were not punished because it is difficult to punish a corporate body. Therefore, while I welcome anything that can be done to improve child life and make children stronger and healthier and give them a broader outlook in life, I hope that great care will be taken to see that there is no undue interference with family life and that parents are not punished if such punishment would not compensate the children.
I only intervene for a few minutes to ask the Under-Secretary for the Home Department to clarify one point of law in regard to the treatment of children. Hon. Members who have spoken hitherto have covered nearly all aspects of child ill-treatment and neglect, and there is very little that can be said further to make the case of the hon. Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould) more clear and more definite.
I had a case brought to my notice—no doubt, it is one of many—of a small family consisting of a man, his wife and daughter of 11. They had to take in a lodger, and the lodger interfered with the child. The child complained to her father, the father called the doctor and the doctor verified the truth of the child's allegation. Yet because there was no other evidence from a witness who had seen this interference, no action could be taken under the law as it exists at present. That seems to me to be a dangerous weakness in our legal system and one which, in my opinion, and I am sure in the opinion of every other hon. Member in this House, should be rectified. I thought it was only right that I should bring to the notice of the Government the existence of that defect in the law, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to say something to help us in this matter.
I intervene in this Debate with some diffidence because practically all the hon. Members who have spoken represent in this House large urban areas, and therefore it may be wondered why a Member who represents a very widely scattered rural constituency should want to intervene. My belief is that although the number of cases may not be so high because the population is not so high, the need for attention to this mattter is quite as great in rural areas as in urban areas. It is that which justifies my speaking in this Debate, in spite of the fact that I have not the experience, such as medical experience, which some other hon. Members possess.
My belief is that the matter which we are discussing raises a very important question of principle. It is the principle whether we should put upon the State or the local authority the first responsibility to look after children whose parents are not looking after them properly, or whether we should make the parents look after the children. My feeling is that wherever possible we should follow the latter course. In other words, the first people to go to in order to get kindliness and proper care for a child, is the child's own family. We should always do that, even though we may think at first that the child's family is past praying for. We should examine each case on its merits and go back to that family to see whether something can be done first by the family itself.
If one accepts that as a principle, it is important to realise that before a parent commits cruelty or neglect towards his or her child, there is probably something in the circumstances of that parent conducive to cruelty. Sometimes, of course, it is hereditary, on which I am no expert, but more often it is due to the circumstances in which the person is living. Those hon. Members who have mentioned the conditions of over-crowding under which some families are living, have made a substantial point.
Anything which is likely to make the lot of the housewife or the lot of the father more difficult at home is likely to make the children in their more mischievous moments, more irritating to the parents. There are some people whose patience has been sorely tried over many years, and often cases of cruelty are due first to the fact that the parents themselves are having difficulty in making ends meet, in keeping the household together, or in managing to live with the people who are sharing the house with them.
All these things are human problems. Both sides of this House are intensely determined to try to solve the housing difficulty. We do not agree on the best way to do it, but we realise that shortage of housing today is one of the greatest evils and is causing more unhappiness to children than perhaps any other single factor. I believe that housing must have over-riding priority from any Government which tries to rule this country although some people believe that it is still more important to build new schools. I am glad that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education is here because I believe that we are devoting too much of our building resources to things other than housing. That, of course, is not the responsibility of either of the two Under-Secretaries on the Front Bench at the moment, but I hope that what I am saying will be brought to the attention of the Minister of Health because it is fundamental to what we are discussing. When there is a shortage of material for building, it is essential that we concentrate the right amount on the right thing. I believe that we are not concentrating enough on housing, with the result that we are making family life more difficult for far too many people and are getting unnecessary cruelty and neglect of children.
There are many things relevant to this Debate which have been said in the Report of the Royal Commission on Population, and I hope that those responsible for seeing that as much as possible is done to facilitate proper family life will study carefully what appears on pages 182, 183 and 184. The remarks about sitters-in, day nurseries and nursery schools are of the utmost relevance to this Debate, though I do not propose to read them to the House because hon. Members can perfectly well read the report for themselves. I certainly think that local authorities in particular would be well advised to pay attention to them.
There is one aspect of this distressing problem which I hope the Home Office will consider, moral delinquency, particularly in relation to those mothers who have a series of illegitimate children. I know of astonishing cases, even in small rural areas, of a series of illegitimate children with the same mother, and the measures which exist for dealing with these people are not as good as they should be. I cannot discuss legislation on the Adjournment, but there is need for backing the work which is being done by the moral welfare societies in this connection.
It may seem somewhat remote from this Debate, but I believe that wherever we are dealing with children we should look first at the parents. I think it was H. G. Wells who said that before you can educate the children you must re-educate the parents. That problem of re-education is the greatest educational problem existing, and we should take first the worst case of parents who do not know their proper duties and have not had any instruction in how to behave as parents. Thoses cases are not receiving the attention they should have, and it is the direct responsibility of the Home Office. I do not know how much attention has been given to this matter since the present Government have been in power, but certainly the voluntary societies are in need of considerably more assistance than they are getting.
Finally, we have to decide for ourselves whether the State, through its social services, and the local authorities through the responsibility they take, are the right people to deal with matters which are their respective responsibilities. Social services are of the utmost importance and have done an immense amount of good in the past. They should do an immense amount of good in the future, but one thing they must never do—which there is a tendency for them to do at present—and that is to make the individual members of the community imagine that it does not matter how much they neglect their duties because there is always the State or the local authority to do the job.
If that mentality grows, the structure of our country will crumble. The people who neglect or ill-treat their children are often those who believe that even if they fail in their obligation as parents, there is always some one to look after the children. That is obviously not true of the majority, but it is true of the minority of the population. There should be a concerted effort by all voluntary societies and local authorities to try to make what I might call the delinquent parents realise their responsibilities. We have to get at the root of the problem, and I do not think it will be reached if we confine ourselves to delinquent children who have been neglected or ill-treated. We must get to the people who have neglected their children, and we can only hope to achieve anything through them if we concentrate on re-education and make it as easy for them as possible to look after their children.
It is not a matter which is the responsibility of the Home Office only, and it is not a matter of the responsibility of the Ministry of Education only. It is a matter which concerns the whole of the Government, and particularly those responsible for housing, health, education, and for seeing that the local authorities are given sufficient grants to carry out their obligations in such matters as these that the State places upon them. So I hope the Under-Secretary of State will give us some indication of what is the view of the Government, and of what the Government ought to do to help the societies doing their best to overcome some of the difficulties, particularly in re-educating the less responsible parents in the country. I should like him to say, too, if he thinks the local authorities are carrying out their work in the re-education of those people.
When we detect cases of the neglect of children we consider them to be some of the most appalling features of our national life, and it is right that we should; but let us always remember that, compared to what some other countries do for the care of their children, we have a very high standard indeed. Let us, therefore, not be too pessimistic. I have noticed a rather pessimistic strain in the Debate. Let us remember that much has been done already, and most of it voluntary, and what has been done is magnificent, and would stand examination by any test and pass with flying colours. I hope that the hon. Gentleman who is to reply to the Debate can give us some indication of the work that has been done over the last few years, and of what he considers ought to be done in the future to implement what I believe to be the sincere and right suggestion of the hon. Member for North Hendon.
think that the quality of the speeches which have followed that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould) is enough proof of the great interest which is taken in this subject she has raised, and we would all wish to congratulate her both on having raised it and on the manner in which she raised it. I think it will be necessary for me to return to the problem as she raised it, for since then the Debate has ranged extraordinarily wide. I think the problem with which she was anxious I should deal was that covered in a report, a copy of which I have here, and which must be known to many hon. Members here. "The Neglected Child and his Family," a report compiled by the Women's Group of Public Welfare, as a result of investigations over quite a long period some two years ago. That certainly is the basis of very much of my understanding of this problem, and I think my hon. Friend would agree that it is a very valuable Report.
I am sure the House would wish me to express our very great regret at learning of the sudden death of Mrs. Eva Hubback, Chairman of the Committee, who was, perhaps, more than any other person responsible for its report. The House may know that she wrote a long and useful letter to "The Times" just before her death, and I myself saw her just before that, and on several occasions in the course of the past year. Her departure is a very great loss to the study of this as of many other subjects.
The House will realise that this problem goes well beyond the responsibility of the Home Secretary as the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) said. It is true to some extent that no one person is responsible for just the things which my hon. Friend wished to discuss. I have done my best in preparation for this Debate to consult my colleagues, and I hope I shall be able to go a little wide of what normally would be Home Office business. At the same time, I must say that some of the instances which have been raised, relevant though they are to the problem, are instances which would be inappropriate for me to deal with in any detail today, because they raise questions of the whole social structure of the country—of all the social services and such matters as education and the building of houses. In particular, some of the specific instances which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest), although very relevant, were things I cannot be expected to answer fully.
Such, for instance, was the question of the degree of priority given by local housing committees in the allocation of houses to persons with children as against persons without children. I have never myself envied the job of any housing allocation committee. I think that such committees have an almost impossible task in present circumstances. I should have thought from my own experience that very considerable priority was given to people with families, but just how much should be given must be a matter of opinion. So on that side of the subject all I would wish to say is, that, quite clearly, a big element in the neglect of children in their homes is the difficulty which many mothers have in living a reasonable life, and having reasonable facilities for running their homes and bringing up what may be large families.
All the social services will contribute to ease the mother's task, and so we may hope that, as the social services develop, they will have incidentally a big impact on the rather narrower problem to which I now wish to devote myself. It is a problem difficult in itself in that what we are trying to deal with are the conditions existing long before the stage at which there is an offence or cruelty. It is difficult because we are trying to deal with the child when it is with its own parents who, in the ordinary way, would be entrusted exclusively with the authority for looking after the child, and we must be careful about interfering with that parental responsibility.
Public authorities can take action in a pretty wide range of cases, as in all cases where the child is in need of care and protection. The definition in the 1933 Act goes, I think, a little wider than simply the cases where parents have been themselves guilty of criminal negligence. If my hon. Friend looks at the definition she will find it goes a good deal wider than that in defining responsibility and in making it possible in some, though not in all, cases to take preventive action. Under the Public Health Acts, too, there are wide powers for dealing with the child who is with unsuitable foster parents, That is rather a different thing—a very different thing—than the case of the child who is with its own parents.
Under both types of legislation the normal form which public intervention would take would be to remove the child from the family with which it is. That would break up the home. If I have understood my hon. Friend correctly, what she wishes to promote is a rather different type of intervention, in a class of cases which are certainly harder to define than those I have mentioned, and are probably also hard to recognise in individual cases. The type of intervention envisaged is principally that of help and advice to the mother in making the home a better home.
Reference was also made to the need for some change in the power of authorities to remove a child from its own parents. That, I think, would inevitably require legislation, and I therefore do not propose to discuss it now. What was principally envisaged was intervention in the form of skilled help and advice by trained social workers, in the class of cases where the signs of trouble are visible but where there has as yet been no offence, where there would be no ground for any order to be made under the 1933 Act; that is to say, if I may put it in a colloquial form, cases where there is reason to suppose that the parents are falling down on their job. Now that is a very difficult criterion to apply for administrative purposes. We all think we know what we mean by it; it is easy to say, but it is not at all easy to turn it into good administrative practice.
What I suggested was that in the cases where accredited responsible people, such as schoolteachers, health visitors, hygiene visitors, and various people of that sort had complained, action should be taken. I would suggest that that confines the cases to those where there is definitely something wrong.
I take my hon. Friend's point, but the fact remains that, even the complaint of responsible people would have to be based on something which is, in itself, difficult to define. Normally when they would make a complaint—certainly in their official capacity—it would be because they had reason to suspect an offence, something which was at any rate reasonably definite. Here we are trying to secure suitable intervention in cases where nothing so concrete has occurred.
The first thing I want to say is that I admit immediately that there is this class of case, that if we could give the right help we would prevent a great deal of suffering which goes on at the present time, and that there is a gap in the mechanism of the social services in dealing with that type of case. Therefore in putting forward, as I am bound to do, some of the difficulties which face the Government in trying to devise the right administration for a matter of this kind, I do not want the House to think that I am in any way seeking to shirk the problem, or to pretend that it is a problem which does not genuinely exist. It does exist.
Now let me address myself to three questions, all of which are inter-related. First, how are we to find out what is going on?—a problem particularly stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Hastings). Secondly, once somebody has found it out, no matter who it may be, to whom is it to be reported? Thirdly, and very closely allied with that, who is to take action after the report has been made?
The question, "How are we to find out?" at once raises the problem of the relationship between public authorities and the homes of private persons. It is one thing to investigate specific offences which go on in homes, such as the one referred to by the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir T. Moore); it is one thing to supervise foster homes where children are living with persons other than their parents; but I think hon. Members will agree that it is quite another thing to set up some kind of official machinery for supervising ordinary homes, and to watch for apprehended dangers, for things which, as far as everybody knows, have not yet occurred in the homes which are run by the parents of the children themselves.
Nobody who has spoken today has suggested that we should set up a special service to do this. I think that it would cause very great difficulty to set up a special service whose only job was to look into the broad mass of ordinary homes where nothing is known to be wrong, to investigate whether or not they are being well run. Nobody has suggested that, and I think we are all agreed that the right way to get the information is to make better use of the vast bulk of existing information which is already available, if only it can be co-ordinated.
Hon. Members have mentioned most of the sources and I will just enumerate what seem to me to be the main ones. First of all, on the education side there is the teacher in the school who may be put on inquiry by what he or she sees in the school. Then there are the school attendance officers, or school welfare officers as they are sometimes called, who in the ordinary course of their duties have access to very many homes. However, I do not think I should be going too far in saying that both the teachers and those other education officers will want to be very cautious in doing anything which lays them open to a charge that when they go round the homes they are in any sense snooping. That is a charge from which we have to protect all officers, no matter who they may be, whether of the local authority or of a voluntary body, if we are asking them to take part in an organised system of reporting their information.
On the health side there is a very considerable organisation which is in touch with these matters. There are welfare centres, clinics and nurseries; there are the health visitors, whose powers I understand have been considerably increased under the National Health Service Act; there are the home nursing service, the domestic help service, and so on. All those things are at the present moment very much in their infancy, and I certainly should not like to be required today to tell the House just how far we can cover this problem by means of the development of some of those services, and how far they would still leave a gap even when they are fully developed. They are in their very early stages.
Then there are housing managers, sanitary inspectors and, finally, children's officers. That again is a post which is in its infancy. I have no doubt whatever that children's officers can play a very big part in this, but I would point out that of all the officials I have mentioned the children's officer is possibly the one who at the moment has the fewest facilities for actually being in touch with a very large cross-section of the homes in a particular town or area. He or she has not the staff, nor, indeed, the occasion to visit anything like the number of homes which are visited by health visitors, and school attendance officers.
Finally, we have the voluntary organisations, of whom the N.S.P.C.C. have been particularly mentioned, and to whom I should like to pay a tribute for the work they do. In other words, we have many sources of information already, and no doubt large numbers of active officials do already report what they see either to their colleagues or to voluntary bodies. The question is whether we put a duty on them for this purpose. I am not quite clear what can be meant by that. It might mean something that involves legislation, or it might be a form of instruction from the local authority to the officer that when he sees certain things he should report to some one. Here again it is necessary to give a word of caution. It is important it should not appear that the principal function of any of these officers is to go round and collect information. It would not be good for their own job if it were thought that a school attendance officer was really going round, not for school attendance purposes, but to see how the home was run. That might shake confidence.
The second question is to whom it should be reported. I do not think there is a consensus of opinion on this. There was an interesting suggestion made during the Debate, that there should be an unpaid panel of child advisers to consider what should be done when cases were reported. If such a panel were set up, presumably they would be the body to whom all reports would be sent. I was asked whether the children's officers could set up such a body. I think the position is that while the children's officers can certainly promote the voluntary formation of a body of this kind, there would be no statutory power to spend money or set up staff; it would have to be done by local voluntary effort. There are a number of authorities that have already made an experimental start in centralising information, and they have done it in different ways. Some, I understand, centralise it on the children's officer, and others on the education service. I think the home advisers, to which reference has already been made at Norwich, are attached to the health services.
So there are a number of ways in which this can be done. It may be that uniformity is not necessary, but probably what is necessary is that in any given area it should be generally known by all the voluntary societies and the general public to whom reports should be made, even if it is not always precisely the same official or body throughout the country. This brings me to the question as to who should take action. It is not necessarily the same person upon whom the information is centralised. The person on whom the information is centralised may simply be a clearing house to parcel out the work according to the case and the type of work to be done.
I think that this is the crux of the whole question. I am sure the House will realise that at the present time nearly all the local authority services which may be called upon to take action in this matter are very fully stretched and are very short of trained social workers. The supply of trained social workers is increasing, and we hope it will go on increasing at a fast rate, but nevertheless the job we are seeking to get done is one which requires highly trained people. It is not one which can be done by anyone, however good may be his knowledge of the work of a doctor or a nurse or a school attendance officer. It is no reflection on any of these people, in their capacity to do their own jobs, to say that this is a job which goes rather wider than what most of their qualifications qualify them for. There are, of course, people doing these jobs who have social science qualifications and experience, but that is not the general rule. We are looking for a rather rare type of bird to do this job.
May I say a word or two about the possibility of getting the job done by voluntary societies? I do not wish to minimise the work done by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or the specialised bodies which have done magnificent research work like the family research units and the pacifist research units who have done case work which is valuable in connection with this subject. On the whole, I think this looks like being a problem which is too large to be covered entirely by the voluntary societies. Under the Children Act we established what I hope will prove to be a very satisfactory partnership between public and voluntary bodies. I have not heard, since the Act came into force, any serious objection to the form of the partnership, and I think both public authorities and voluntary organisations are doing very valuable work.
I think it will probably prove necessary—and I go no further than this—for local authorities to take some direct part in addition to playing the part of liaison with voluntary societies who, undoubtedly, will still have a very large part to play. I do not think they need fear that if any action were taken in this matter it would result in a diminishing of their functions. It is much more likely that they would be very fully strained in what they would be called upon to do.
My difficulty is to say what can be done. I have said enough already to show that the solution of this problem lies in consultation between a number of central Departments, the local authorities and the voluntary societies. During the past year the Home Office have thrown out one or two hints in circulars which have been sent to local authorities. A paragraph in the circular on juvenile delinquency related to the question of collecting information and trying to get at the root of the trouble before it went too far. There was also a paragraph in the circular which was issued following the introduction of the Children Act, calling attention to this type of work in homes. No more than hints were made, and at the moment I do not know what local authorities have thought about these hints.
One of the things we would have to do would be to get in touch with them and try and take this matter one stage further. One of the reasons for our tentative approach was that both the Children Act and the National Health Service Act, which might provide facilities for dealing with parts of this problem, had not been in existence long, so that it would be rather difficult to put on to local authorities any great new burden for a comprehensive service of child care beyond what was already laid upon them by existing Statutes. We have to tackle this problem by stages, partly because of its administrative burden and partly because of lack of trained personnel.
I have, however, been in consultation with my colleagues at the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education and, as a start, we are prepared to enter into consultation, as we did for the purposes of those circulars, to see whether it is possible to bring the solution of this problem a little nearer. It is largely a question of administrative difficulty and finding the best way to get hold of a person on the spot, at local authority level, to do the job. We undertake to consult again on that, and I hope we shall be able to make some progress. In the meantime, I have no doubt whatever that my hon. Friend who raised this has done great service in doing so. I hope what has been said in this House will be reported and studied, and that, therefore, we shall get all the people who are concerned seriously thinking of what is a possible solution for this difficult and important problem.