Orders of the Day — Marfords Remand Home, Bromborough

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th November 1967.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. loan L. Evans.]

4.4 p.m.

Photo of Mr Edwin Brooks Mr Edwin Brooks , Bebington

On 23rd August last Mr. J. K. Boynton, Clerk to the Cheshire County Council, issued a Press statement about the Mar-fords Remand Home, Bromborough, in my constituency. It stated that the home would be closed temporarily, and that the superintendent, Mr. Malcolm Deakin, had resigned.

The reasons given for this drastic and unexpected action were tantalisingly sparse. It was said that the Children's General Purposes Sub-Committee of the Council had considered a report from the Clerk of the Council following an investigation into the conduct of the remand home. It was not revealed on whose instigation, or when, or by whom, this investigation had been carried out. The subcommittee expressed their disapproval of a number of matters primarily affecting discipline and efficiency at the home. No details were given of the number, nature or timing of these incidents, nor was it said whether these criticisms applied to the superintendent alone among the staff. However, this seemed a reasonable inference from the reference —again in the Press statement—to substantial differences between the subcommittee and the superintendent regarding the conduct of the home. and from the fact that Mr. Deakin's resignation had been accepted from a post which he had assumed on 16th January, 1967, in a probationary capacity.

But such an inference seemed hard to square with the decision to close the home altogether, and to terminate the appointments of, as it was stated, "the majority" of the staff. Indeed, the word "majority" in that context, I submit was bound to provoke speculation.

The sub-committee made no secret of its regret that its decision would complicate still further the admitted acute shortage of remand home places in the area, and the public could only conclude that very serious reasons lay behind this severe and apparently hasty decision. Further to this suggestion of haste, it must be pointed out that the full Children's Committee of the Cheshire County Council was not to meet until 20th September, while the full Council met as recently as 26th October. That is, two months before the great majority of the elected members were asked, and were in a position to confirm the actions of the sub-committee, the irrevocable decision—for so it was—to close the home and disperse the boys had been taken.

One might, indeed, be forgiven for thinking that something pretty unsavoury had occurred at the home, and with curiosity met with secrecy it was inevitable that scandalous rumours should spread. These rumours were also nourished by the final sentence of the Press release, which stated that it had been issued with the knowledge and agreement of Mr. Malcolm Deakin. It seemed a classic case of "Operation Hush-Up."

But following such speculations led to a paradox. If the reasons had been all that serious, it seemed odd that the superintendent and his staff were now free to seek appointments elswhere without any apparent reservations in the public mind about their suitability for work with maladjusted boys. But if, in fact, the reasons had not been all that serious —as my subsequent investigations were, I think, to indicate—the secrecy made it difficult for any member of the staff to defend himself against erroneous suspicions.

These immediate considerations led me to approach the Home Office on 24th August, seeking clarification of the consultations which, as I then wrote, I presume will have taken place between the local authority concerned and the Home Office. Since the appointment of a superintendent to a remand home must be approved by the Home Secretary, under Section 49(3) of the Criminal Justice Act, 1949, it would have been reasonable to expect such consultations over an enforced resignation. But, as I was eventually to learn from my right hon. Friend at Question Time on 26th October, no such prior consultations ever took place over the decision to close The Marfords, and the Department was merely informed of the decision a week before it was effected, and before the Press release was made.

To return to the chronology of events, within 24 hours of the Press release it became clear that authoritative leaks had occurred to several newspapers which were damaging to the superintendent and his staff. The Sun, for example, referred to boys running around in the nude. The Daily Sketch had a prominent headline, Head resigns as pin-ups and blue songs close a home. Beneath, its story referred to, Twenty-nine alleged disciplinary irregularities at the home in a confidential report to Cheshire County Council. Some confidential report! I referred to these Press stories in a letter to Mr. Boynton of 24th August and expressed concern that rumours which could neither be denied nor confirmed were circulating locally. Apart from the reputations of the staff, I suggested that anxiety might be caused to the parents of boys who had formerly been at the home.

In his reply, of 30th August, Mr. Boynton stressed that no criminal offence was involved, nor had corporal punishment been relevant. He accepted that such cases were difficult to handle, with the need to balance the interests of boys, public and council, and then said: There are cases where a judicial inquiry conducted by an independent person is the answer, costly though it is, and time consuming though it is. The sub-committee were prepared to and did act upon the report of a management investigation which was carried out by one of my legally qualified Assistant Clerks. He accepted that there were risks of rumour, but claimed that the county could not be … accused of trying to hush up the affair or of closing the home quietly and clandestinely. I accept that the sub-committee was seeking an honourable settlement of a difficult problem, but I cannot accept that the long-term interests of democratic local government are served by delegating to a tiny handful of members of a council the power to take decisions of importance and severity—and then refuse to explain such decisions on the argument that secrecy is essential.

Even accepting that this particular decision was difficult and delicate, I would have thought that the sub-committee should have consulted the Home Office, both over the merits of the proposal to close the home, and over the degree of confidentiality which should surround the decision.

My right hon. Friend replied to me on 18th September, two days before the full Children's Committee had had an opportunity to discuss the sub-committee's action. He disclaimed any responsibility for the decision to close the home, which he indicated must rest with the county council. But since the Home Secretary is empowered under Section 49(1) of the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, to prevent the opening of a remand home unless it is approved by him, I was surprised that my right hon. Friend should have felt that his discretion was irrelevant when a council sub-committee, let alone a full council, had decided to prevent a remand home from staying open. I found his attitude of detachment at variance with his very active and legitimate concern over Court Lees, where the problem of discipline over maladjusted boys was equally relevant.

I therefore wrote again, on the 21st of that month. By then I knew much more of what had happened at the management investigation, and my disquiet had sharply increased. The investigation had been precipitated by a document submitted by the deputy superintendent of the home, to the county's children's officer not later than 24th July, a Monday. Mr. Deakin was telephoned very late on Thursday evening, the 27th, and told to report to her, the children's officer, at Chester the following morning. Not until that meeting was he shown the allegations, for so they proved of his responsibility for indiscipline and unsatisfactory behaviour at the home. One allegation charged him with having once said, in the course of a private conversation at the home, that there was a relationship between corporal punishment and sexual perversion. Since this is a well-known fact, which the superintendent of any remand home would surely endorse, I felt that such a criticism implied more about the approach of the accuser than of the accused.

Mr. Deakin was told that an investigation would begin the following Monday, giving him precious little time to consult solicitors. Their request to postpone the inquiry for a few days was rejected by the county. At the inquiry, which lasted throughout the following week, no verbatim record of the proceedings was kept. Mr. Deakin, who was called finally on the Friday, was in no position to tell what further allegations, if any, had been made about him verbally, and of course he was in no position to respond to, or refute allegations whose precise form he could not ascertain. He was refused access to his files previous to his actual appearance at the investigation, and his solicitors were denied access throughout to the proceedings. The doctor who visited the home, as required under the Remand Home Rules, 1939, whose evidence was surely relevant, was never called, nor, to the best of my knowledge, was any lay member of the sub-committee present during the various interrogations.

With respect to the undoubted professional integrity of the investigating officers, this seems an unsatisfactory way to have conducted such a quasi-judicial inquiry. I have no competence to judge the validity of the allegations made, and I accept that the county had a duty to test such allegations promptly. But I suggest that the officers should simply have established whether there was a prima facie case for taking the allegations seriously, and then come back to the full elected sub-committee to seek guidance about the type of inquiry necessary. And such an inquiry should surely have given the superintendent an opportunity to know what was being alleged about him, and his solicitors to know what rules of evidence were being applied.

In this particular case, I find it extraordinary that even members of the subcommittee, if we are to believe a report published in the Sunday Times of 3rd September, which was never contradicted, apparently knew nothing of the reasons why the home was closed, and only just over half the members of the sub-committee, I understand, were present to take the decision.

This is caucus government with a vengeance, and a form of benevolent despotism by those who act in the name of the council and then deny it any means of checking upon the use of such delegated, or usurped, executive powers. These may seem harsh words to use of a council with such a well-deserved reputation for civilised behaviour. But actions have to be judged in the light of their consequences and not solely in terms of their motives. Following a lengthy meeting which I had with the clerk and the Children's Committee chairman on the 30th October, I was given a characteristically courteous account of the motives of those involved on the county side, and I accept that had it not been for the unfortunate leaks to the press following the agreed statement, much of the subsequent turmoil might have been avoided.

Before I close I should like to refer to the final paragraph of a letter I received from the Clerk of the County Council today, after I had sent him a draft of my speech. It says: The procedure under which you can attack the County Council in a forum where the Council have no right of reply does not seem to me to commend itself as being particularly just, but depending upon how matters develop tomorrow"— the letter was written yesterday— the County Council may have to answer some of the points you make. I would entirely disagree with the interpretation you are placing on the course of events; in particular, the County Council would not agree with your strictures on the procedural aspects of the Sub-Committee's decision. The duty of a Member of Parliament is to his constituents and not to local authorities, which are generally well able to put their point of view. It is a strange doctrine that a Member of Parliament is being unjust when he feels that the activities of powerful institutions, whether public bodies or private organisations require to be debated in the interests of his constituents. There is a specific disagreement, which I deeply regret, between myself and the county over a constituency matter of some importance. But whether my strictures are justified or not I am bound to say that debate in the Cheshire council chamber, which might have enabled the council to weigh the merits or the procedural aspects was most strongly discouraged on 26th October. I doubt whether all the elected members of the county council have been in possession of the information on which alone can be assessed the merits of the procedure followed.

So I remain unconvinced that justice has been seen to be done, nor am I convinced that the form of the investigation led to justice being done. My right hon. Friend and the Home Office would be well advised to ponder the rôle he could and it should have played in this incident, which, however localised and specific it may be, raises perhaps the wider problems than can be debated here of the management powers of local authorities. There is surely no neat formula for dealing with all the varied situations which can arise. But the approach of bigger and yet more powerful local authorities makes it all the more necessary that democratic vigilance is not lulled into complacency, and that we insist that the onus of proof is upon those who seek to take their decisions behind closed doors.

4.21 p.m.

Photo of Mr Dick Taverne Mr Dick Taverne , Lincoln

I have under 10 minutes in which to answer the large number of points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bebington (Mr. Brooks), and he will realise that I shall not be able to deal with all the criticisms that he has advanced. In so far as they were criticisms of the county council, no doubt it will be given an opportunity to state its answers to the various points that he has made.

The important point first for the House is where the responsibility for remand homes actually lies. They are not Home Office establishments. Nor, as was suggested in some Press reports, are they administered by local authorities on behalf of the Home Office. Statutory responsibility for their provision rests with children authorities; that is, councils of counties and county boroughs. The Home Secretary's statutory responsibilities with regard to remand homes are very limited. His main concern is to ensure that the work of the courts is not impeded by lack of sufficient remand home accommodation. But he has no specific power to require particular local authorities to provide remand homes, nor is his consent required if a local authority decides to close one, whether it is a temporary or permanent closure.

My hon. Friend said that under Section 49(1) of the Criminal Justice Act the Home Secretary has power to say that remand homes should not be opened without his approval and that, therefore, he should have similar power to say that they should not be closed without his approval. My hon. Friend is wrong. Section 49(1) provides that as from such a date as may be specified in an order made by statutory instrument by the Secretary of State, no premises shall be used as a remand home unless a certificate of approval has been issued by him. But no such statutory instrument has been made, and approval is not required.

The Home Secretary has power to make rules, and it is his responsibility to ensure that they are complied with, but even this responsibility rests in the first place with the local authority concerned. Inspectors of the Home Office visit and inspect remand homes, but the main purpose of the visits is to offer help and guidance. As I have explained, remand homes are provided by major local authorities which have full-time professional children's officers, child care officers and other staff, and they are closely supervised by the council's children's committee or a subcommittee appointed specially for this purpose.

The status of staff is important. They are employees of the local authority, and the only power and responsibility in relation to them which the Home Secretary has is to give his approval to the appointment of a superintendent, but this is merely on the basis of information known at the time to ensure that someone appointed should not be unsuitable for the post. The fact that my right hon. Friend approves an appointment does not prevent an employing authority from removing a superintendent from his post if there is good reason for doing so. There is no right of appeal to the Home Secretary against dismissal. Indeed, there are adequate rights of appeal under nationally negotiated conditions of service for local authority employees, and these were available to the superintendent in this case if he had decided to go for an appeal and had not agreed to resign.

The Home Office has a general responsibility, but this does not mean that it has to supervise every aspect of day-to-day administration. It is a general responsibility for remand homes and for the children. If the children are not being neglected, if they are not being ill-treated, and if the authority responsible is not being negligent, it would be quite wrong for the Home Secretary to order an inquiry or to take any action, and quite wrong for Parliament to interfere with the day-to-day running of homes if there is no ground to suppose that those who have been given the responsibility by Parliament are not carrying it out satisfactorily.

So why, in this case, should my right hon. Friend have taken any action? This is a home which has been administered satisfactorily for several years. There were then complaints made after the appointment of the superintendent, and there was an inquiry, which was a management inquiry. The purpose of the investigation was precisely what my hon. Friend would have desired. It was to see whether there was a prima facie case for the superintendent to answer.

The Report was presented to the General Purposes Sub-Committee of the Children's Committee. It was decided that the superintendent was not apparently carrying out his duties in a satisfactory manner and that steps would have to be taken to terminate his appointment, but the committee was ready to give him a chance to resign provided that there was no attempt to hush the matter up. It was also quite ready to face an inquiry in the form of an appeal procedure if it became necessary.

The committee also decided that there had to be other changes amongst the staff and that, in order that the state of the home could be improved, it would have to be closed temporarily. The committee did not require my right hon. Friend's approval for any of these steps, and it did not consult him before reaching its decisions. However, quite rightly, it informed him of them, since the loss of the 25 places provided at the home might have caused difficulties about accommodation. I am glad to say that, so far as we know, none of these difficulties has arisen.

There were no reasons for my right hon. Friend to intervene under any of his specific statutory responsibilities for remand homes. But what about his general responsibility? This is to protect the interests of children. In fact, there was prompt action. The Report was sent to the Home Secretary. He saw it. In the light of it, he was fully satisfied that the action taken was right and that there was no reason for him to require any further inquiry to be made.

As for the specific points raised by my hon. Friend, I can refer to a few of them only. As he said, there was no question of an offence in this case. There was no question of corporal punishment. He criticised the secret nature of the inquiry. The result was published, with the consent of the superintendent. But, in inquiries into questions involving children, it is not necessarily always in the interests of the children that every detail of the inquiries should be made public. That is particularly so in the children's services, where open proceedings might have a bad effect in the young people concerned and cause their personal problems to become generally known.

Throughout, the superintendent was advised by solicitors. He was given details of the complaints and the general grounds on which disciplinary proceedings would be taken if it became necessary. The solicitors were advised that, had this course been followed, the superintendent would have the right to appear before an appeals committee. But it was his choice to resign and subscribe to a public statement. As a result, by right hon. Friend felt that no further inquiry was necessary.

In fact, there have not been many complaints about this. Apart from those received by my hon. Friend, only one other person has written to the Home Office about the matter, and that was on a quite different point relating to planning permission for a new remand home to replace The Marfords.

The question about the procedure of the county council is a matter for the council. Members of the County Council do not seem to have been particularly concerned at the action taken in their name. When a meeting of the Children's Committee was held on 20th September, all members of the Council who were not members of the Committee were invited to attend. In fact, only 15 out of 70 did so.

Here was action within the powers and responsibilities of the county council.

They sent my right hon. Friend a report which showed him that they had taken responsible action and that this was not a case where there was any ground on which my right hon. Friend would have been justified in taking further action, and he does not propose to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.