I beg to move. That the Clause be read a Second time.
This is rather a departure from what we have been discussing so far, because the new Clause represents an attempt to consider best how Clause 1 of the Bill, embodying a new development in the work of local government, can be made effective. In particular, this is an attempt to answer the question, which was so often raised in Standing Committee and is often asked in the Press, of the way in which children who are taken out of the purview of the courts should be dealt with.
I suppose hat I am more prejudiced than most hon. Members in favour of courts because I have spent many years in juvenile courts and regard them as very effective bodies. Where they are, I think, more effective than many public authorities in looking at children's problems is that they have the advantage of always seeing the parties to the argument—the child, the parents, the complainants, the school teacher and the people whose reports are being considered. They are not dealing with it entirely as an exercise in administration on paper. They also have the ability to make sure, as far as it can be done, that both points of view are put and that each side in the argument understands the point of view of the other.
They can make a personal, individual effort to get the parents to accept the view which the court is taking. If they are doing their job effectively, they can get away from the purely external relationship of directing what should be done with a child; they can get the parents, as far as it is possible, to accept that as being a reasonable course to take. The importance of this is not only from the point of view of humanity and justice, but also from that of practical working, because if one wants to get successful treatment of a child, it is extremely important to obtain the co-operation and backing of the parents.
When my hon. Friends and I looked at Clause 1, we asked ourselves how best we could bring into the working of that Clause some of the general principles which have been found to work in the case of the courts while, at the same time, not having the tension of a juvenile court; in other words, having these problems looked at not as part of a trial, but as problems of juvenile welfare.
What is Clause 1? I remind the House that the new Clause begins:
For the purposes of section I of this Act".
I want to draw the attention of the House to the great step forward which Clause 1 makes, at any rate on paper. It places upon the local authority a duty—not an option—
to make available such advice, guidance and assistance as may promote the welfare of children by diminishing the need to receive children into…care…or to bring children before a juvenile court".
Those words were extended in the Standing Committee, and they are extremely wide.
In other words, there is a duty now on local authorities to take action to avoid the necessity of bringing children before a juvenile court. That is perhaps as important in the history of the care and treatment of juveniles as the famous Section 44 in the principal Act, which places upon juvenile courts the positive duty of looking to the welfare of children who appear before them. In other words, it is not just a rather wishy-washy, sentimental idiosyncrasy on the part of certain children's officers that they try to keep children out of court, something rather to be frowned on by hard-headed people. The duty is now placed on the authority to take steps to keep children from coming into court.
Consequently, in the new Clause we have tried to outline what seems to us to be the kind of machinery likely to be effective in this respect. The first thing we suggest is the establishment of a case committee. The importance of that is that we are trying to draw a distinction between the administrative responsibilities and the case work of the local authority.
A children's committee has laid upon it great responsibilities in dealing with problems of administration, the staffing and running of homes, the obtaining of foster parents and the arranging of all the detailed administrative work that makes it possible to run this service. But that is a different job—and a more impersonal job—from the job of dealing with individual children's cases. If children's authorities are to perform their duties effectively they must constantly recognise the need to consider each case as the case of a human being, involving a human life.
That requires an intensive personal knowledge of what is happening, an acquaintanceship with the children involved and an understanding of their problems. We therefore suggest that the case committee should be separate from the children's committee. That is no reflection upon the efficiency or competence of the children's committee. It simply recognises that there is a different job to be done, and that it is desirable that the problem should be looked at from a slightly different point of view.
One of the well-known difficulties is that there is always a temptation for a local authority which is trying to place a child to balance what seems to be best for the child as an individual with the administrative desirability of filling a place in a certain school or home in order to redress a possible maldistribution of cases within the various homes which are available. There can be a slight tension between the two viewpoints. It is, therefore, desirable that the question of what is best for a child should be considered in the same kind of independent way as it is by the best juvenile courts.
We suggest that there should be a case committee, consisting either of members of a local authority or members who are co-opted for their special knowledge and interest in the problems of children. We further suggest that within this case committee there should be what is referred to as an interviewing panel. That may seem to be a rather unnecessary refinement, but we must ensure that there is a committee which can continually watch over the general problems of the casework of an authority, on the one hand, and, at the same time, a small and rather informal group of people who will sit round a table on any given occasion to talk to individual children and to hear reports from their teachers and complaints from children's officers, and generally to listen to all the problems involved and sort them all out.
We need a small body of people comparable to a juvenile court bench to do that. Just as we have a juvenile court panel and, within that panel, certain people who sit on certain occasions, so, we suggest, the interviewing panel, which will be part of the case committee, will be limited in number. We suggest that it should number not more than five and not less than three, sitting at any one time. We do not want to have a body which is too large, so that a child will have questions fired at it from odd angles by people whom it has not even noticed are in the room. We want a reasonably small group. On the other hand, we do not want it to be too small, so that it may become virtually a one-man show if a member does not turn up. We therefore provide that the quorum shall be at least three and that there can be as many as five.
What is to be the work of the case committee? Subsection (2) deals with its general responsibilities. We say that it
shall exercise a general supervision over the casework of the children's officer and from time to time receive from him written or oral reports on the progress of children in care, affording to him such help and advice as they can.
Those words to the right hon. Gentleman will be faintly reminiscent of the rules of the probation case committee. We have actually in the probation case committee something which is comparable to this case committee. It is not an entirely novel idea to the. Legislature that bodies of this sort should exist. Therefore, we suggest that the case committee should be there to get reports from the children's officer generally, about statistical reports, reports on particular problems and particular children, a general sort of running commentary, so that the children's officer feels that there is behind him the interest and experience of a committee which is dedicated to watching over these problems, advising on them, taking an interest in them and giving backing to the children's officer, in other words, that the children's officer does not just feel, as he is liable to feel in a big local authority, that he is the only person who has to take the responsibility of coping with intractable problems.
The probation officer can always go to the magistrates, and does constantly go along to discuss cases and to take advice from magistrates on particular matters, such as on the question of employment of which a magistrate may have special knowledge. This form of exchange of ideas is an essential part of the probation work. If the children's officer is to be effective, he ought to have the same kind of backing and support from the case committee that a probation officer can expect. Therefore, we suggest that, in general, the committee is there to give advice to the children's officer on problems.
Then we come to the particular duties, and these duties, which are to deal with individual children, we suggest, should be primarily the responsibility of the interviewing panel. Subsection (3) of the Clause states:
The case committee shall delegate to the interviewing panel the consideration of the welfare of any child.
I used the word"delegate" with intention, because I wanted to get over the sort of problems which town clerks raise when they murmur delegatus nan potest delegare—in other words, if one is given a duty delegated by the local authority, one cannot then delegate that duty to someone else. Therefore, we ought to make it quite clear that there is power within this Clause to give the interviewing panel power to make decisions and not report back to the main committee on matters requiring quick decisions.
What are the cases which particularly require this rather intensive individual attention? The first are, we suggest, those cases referred by a chief officer of police. That is, of course, to deal with the general problems of delinquency and near delinquency. In other words, if any chief officer of police feels that particular children in the area are troublesome, that he is dissatisfied with the care which they are getting, that they are in bad company, that they are playing about the streets late at night or that they have been involved in some troubles in the area, he can know that he has direct access to this committee. He does not just have to work through someone else.
Of course, it has to be"a"—not"the"—chief officer of police, because the young are mobile. They can get on their motor cycles and move quickly to another area to create their nuisance. Therefore, it is desirable that any chief officer who has worries about children should not have to say I can only deal with my own local authority. It enables him to go to any local authority. That, at any rate, is a protection for the public. The local authority cannot pretend that it does not know and, therefore, can avoid responsibility for the children who are causing difficulties in the area. It is to give a right to the chief officer of police, as the protector of the public, to bring cases to the attention of the committee.
Secondly, there is reference to cases:
referred to them by the chief education officer of their area…
I have in mind particularly children who play truant and are known to the education service not to be going to school regularly. These cases could be treated by the case committee. It could be responsible for taking steps to stop truancy, which is something that may bring a child into trouble not only in respect of delinquency but leading to his being taken from home to be brought before the court or placed in an institution. So if the committee is to work the provisions in the Clause there must be a realisation of the importance of truancy cases.
In many local authorities, certainly in the London authority, there is a special case committee where all the representatives of different welfare agencies consider cases referred to them by schools. There may be a particularly difficult child, perhaps one who is extremely violent or uses foul language, or who in some other way exhibits severe behaviour disorders. The committee is available to sort out these cases and advise whether psychiatric help is required and whether the child should be taken away from home. Such committees exist in progressive authorities, and so it could be the duty of the chief education officer to submit cases of this kind to the case committee.
The next case is that of a child
whose parent or guardian is dissatisfied with a decision of the local authority not to receive him into care…
That is important. Although it is true that the Clause is designed mainly to keep children out of care, it is possible to overdo the insistence on a child being better off at home than in care. No problem arises when a child is in care if it is a voluntary arrangement, because the parent can take the child out of care. But there is no remedy where an authority refuses to take the child into care. It may happen that a parent is desperate and is faced with the problem of what to do with the child. On the advice perhaps of some comparatively junior child welfare officer the parent may go to the police, or to the Family Welfare Association or the Citizens' Advice Bureau, and be told that the only thing to do is to take the child to court as being beyond control.
The beyond control proceedings are being abolished and there is no remedy except to appeal to the local authority. If it is proposed to keep children out of the court there must be a quick way for the parents to come to a case committee and to be able to tell the committee that they are desperately worried about their children; that there is no vacancy in the child guidance clinic; that it is impossible to keep the child at home because the parents are ill, or suffering from a nervous breakdown and they cannot accept the decision of the local authority. Then the case committee could talk to parents and the children's officer to see whether the decision could be sorted out. In that kind of case the committee could give a form of preventive service.
Finally, there is the case of any child
whose welfare, in the opinion of the children's officer, presents special difficulty".
The committee should be available in cases where a children's officer is worried about what is happening and requires advice, or is looking for assistance from the panel about a particular child. Such an officer would be able to go immediately to the case committee.
The next case relates to a child:
in respect of whom the children's officer is unable to secure the agreement of the parent or guardian for the care, training or treatment which he thinks appropriate…
In other words, where a child is in care
and it is a voluntary arrangement and it would be generally agreed that it would be unfortunate to take the child out of care. The children's officer thinks that it should go to a maladjusted school, or have a certain type of training, or go to a child guidance clinic, and the parent does not agree. It ought to be possible for the children's officer to ask the parent to go with him to the case committee to discuss the matter there and for that committee to go into the problem of what is the best thing to do.
We have picked out what seemed to us to be particular examples of cases likely to lead to trouble or a breakdown in the family, or likely to lead to children coming into care. These should be the direct responsibility of the case committee. What"teeth" are there in these proposals? They would not alter the law about criminal responsibility, nor about taking children into care. The law is left as it is in that respect. What we suggest is that where the child is brought before the court as being in need of care and protection or control, if the child has not come before the case committee, or the parent has not come before it, or neither of them has come before it, that would be evidence—no more than evidence—in proof that the parent was not exercising the care and guardianship which should be exercised.
It would then be possible to go to the court and to say,"We are not getting the co-operation of the parent in this case. The parent will not come and talk about it." It would then be up to the parent to justify his position. The parent may be able to do so. There may be a good answer. Then the court will find the case not proved. Making the non-appearance of the parent evidence of not fulfilling parental duties would probably be providing enough bite in the Clause to make it effective. We all recognise that the weakness of all these attempts to deal with these problems outside the court is that they are all right so long as one has the parental co-operation. The difficulty is when parents do not co operate and there is a long battle to get the problem solved.
Without necessarily saying that we accept the present rules about the age of responsibility, about approved schools and soon, and while reserving our position, we say that against the existing background this new Clause offers an effective way of making Clause 1 work. It would make it, not just something which gets on to the Statute Book and is then forgotten, but something which is a really effective instrument for doing what we all want to do and what the Bill says has to be done—keeping children out of court.
I have listened with great interest to what the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) said, with his excellent knowledge of the subject, and the very detailed explanation he gave of this new Clause. I am with him to a certain extent. I should like to see the establishment of a case committee.
If the hon. Member had ended on line 4 of the new Clause:
interest in the welfare of children.
I should have considered that he had gone far enough. It is very difficult to lay down exactly how local authorities should carry out this work. The hon. Member has done a great service by his explanation of what the Clause means. That will be of enormous help to children's officers who will be reading Hansard and will now know what he has in mind.
On the other hand, I feel that to tie down a local authority to carry out this Clause in its entirety would be a great mistake. Many local authorities already have co-ordinating committees. For example, the co-ordinating committee of Plymouth dealt last year with problem families involving 228 children, most of whom were known to a number of representatives of the organisations on the co-ordinating committee. These cases were discussed and, after discussion, certain lines of policy were agreed. Of these, 37 families involving 146 children were said to have improved to such an extent that the children were no longer considered to be likely to be neglected and the possibility of their needing to come into the care of a local authority was removed.
I suggest that the kind of work which the hon. Member has put forward to us in detail is already being done by local authorities through co-ordinating committees. I agree with him that it would be a good idea if my right hon. Friend considered the possibility of a definite direction from him as Home Secretary that there shall be a case committee, or possibly that a case committee should be included in the Bill, but without elaborating it to the extent suggested by the hon. Member. In other words, the proposal would end at"the welfare of children" in the fourth line.
I also agree with the hon. Member that it is essential for the children's officer to have some form of protection and probably guidance, too, because Clause 1 opens up an entirely new field for the children's officer and the local authority, who will have to make very important decisions. It is essential that the children's officer should have the support of a very understanding committee. The children's committee usually meets once a month, but I believe that more detailed work will be necessary than can be done by a large committee, such as the children's committee usually is. I would therefore welcome some form of committee which would help, although I do not think that the detail given by the hon. Member should be included in the Bill, laying down that every local authority must carry out this procedure exactly in the way in which he has suggested.
In implementing its work each local authority has to draw up its own programme. Circumstances vary considerably from area to area. For this reason I am not anxious to have a provision in the Bill which would tie local authorities when their circumstances might differ considerably, for example, from urban area to country borough, to town council and so on. I do not think that they should be forced to set up a committee exactly as suggested by the hon. Member. I agree that we need a committee which can work fast and which can help with the families at risk, and I believe that this committee should be concerned not only with the children but with the problem of the family's welfare. For this reason I feel that it would be much better to leave the details of the composition of a committee to the local authority concerned.
There is a good example in the fact that most local authorities have a housing committee but also have a tenancy subcommittee to deal with problem families and other cases which the housing manager wishes to refer to them for extra guidance. I visualise the committee which the hon. Member has mentioned as being one for which the children's officer will be the co-ordinating officer; heor she will get on to her committee the type of person mentioned by the hon. Member, who will help in giving guidance. I therefore suggest to him that it would be better to have a case committee but that to detail it in the way in which he has suggested would be unwise, and that it would be unwise to write it into the Bill. In supporting the idea of a case committee, I hope that the hon. Member will not press his suggestion that this type of case committee should be written into the Bill, because I do notthink that that would be to the advantage of the working of the service.
It would be superfluous to reiterate all the arguments that we went into in Committee about the desirability or otherwise of children going to court at all. I would like to record the concern that I still have, at the one end of the scale about the child who goes to court, is treated leniently, and then returns rather pleased with himself at having been treated leniently, and at the other end of the scale about the child who goes to court, is overawed by the proceedings, and returns with perhaps some rather sly and shifty traits added to his character. Both results might be equally undesirable. It is for this reason that I support the suggestion of case committees which has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl), in the hope that it will help to keep young people out of court.
We all want to keep children out of court, if we can. That is the object of Clause 1. The hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) said that it was our duty to consider how best Clause 1 may be made effective. I believe that it is the primary duty of local authorities to consider that. I have a great deal of sympathy with the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) that it would be unwise for us to tie the hands of local authorities in great detail as to the manner in which, in the circumstances of their own area, they should carry out the general purposes laid down by Parliament.
I agree with my hon. Friend, too, that today's debate will be read with great interest by children's officers, chairmen of children's committees, town clerks and others. I hope that they will read the speech of the hon. Member forWidnes and study the ideas that he developed. I hope that they will gain ideas from his speech which will be valuable in their own localities. That, surely, is the better way, rather than tying the hands of local authorities in advance. If I have learned anything in my local government experience, it is that one does not get better local government if Parliament dictates in great detail the precise machinery by which local authorities should carry out their duties.
I appreciate that the hon. Member for Widnes is anxious to devise an alternative system to bringing children into court. We all desire to do that, but I remind the hon. Member of paragraphs 68–77 of the Ingleby Report. The Ingleby Committee, having very painstakingly examined these possibilities, reached the conclusion that there was no real alternative of a social welfare character to taking a number of children into court.
I could call attention to technical defects in the Clause, but my main reason for advising the House not to accept it is that I do not believe that we shall get better administration by local authorities if we tell them in such precise detail as this the exact machinery which Parliament requires them to operate, whether or not it seems to the elected members of the local authority the most appropriate for the problems of their own area.
I am amazed that the Home Secretary should treat this matter in the manner in which he has done. My hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) advanced a substantial argument. The Home Secretary has some important questions to answer. I gathered from his speech that he is endeavouring to get the matter disposed of without giving a full reply to the points which have been raised. The proposal contained in the Clause is extremely important. We should look very foolish indeed in the eyes of the country if we were to dispose of such an important matter with only a short speech from the Home Secretary.