Inquiries into Matters Affecting Children.

Orders of the Day — Children (Scotland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 1st May 1995.

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'. After section 6A of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 there shall be inserted—"Local authority inquiries into matters affecting children

  1. 6B.—(1) Without prejudice to section 6A(1) of this Act, a local authority may cause an inquiry to be held into their functions under this Act, or any of the enactments mentioned in section 5(1B) of this Act, in so far as those functions relate to children.
  2. (2) The local authority may, before an inquiry under this section is commenced, direct that it be held in private; but where no such direction is given, the person holding the inquiry may if he thinks fit hold it, or any part of it, in private.
  3. (3) Subsections (2) to (6) of section 210 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 (powers in relation to local inquiries) shall apply in relation to an inquiry under this section as they apply in relation to a local inquiry under that section, so however that, for the purposes of the application, any reference in those subsections to a Minister shall be construed as a reference to the local authority and any reference to an officer of his Department as a reference to an officer of that authority.
  4. (4) The expenses incurred by a local authority in relation to an inquiry under this section (including such reasonable sum as the authority may determine for the services of any of their officers engaged in the inquiry) shall, unless the authority are of the opinion that those expenses should be defrayed in whole or in part by them, be paid by such party to the inquiry as they may direct; and the authority may certify the amount of the expenses so incurred.
  5. (5) Any sum certified under subsection (4) above and to be defrayed in accordance with a direction under that subsection shall be a debt due by the party directed and shall be recoverable accordingly.
  6. (6) The local authority may make an award as to the expenses of the parties at the inquiry and as to the parties by whom such expenses shall be paid.".'.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton Lord James Douglas-Hamilton , Edinburgh West

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also Government amendments Nos. 200 and 216.

Photo of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton Lord James Douglas-Hamilton , Edinburgh West

The new clause would confer on the local authority a specific power to hold social work inquiries into children's issues. It would enable social work of concern relating to such issues to be investigated locally and in a credible way, removing the need for a full-scale inquiry to be conducted by the Secretary of State.

The powers are not intended to be used as a first resort; such inquiries are not designed to be undertaken lightly, but are meant rather to complement other measures available to authorities such as local inspection, management, consultation and informal investigations. Guidance will be issued to remind local authorities of those alternative options.

Amendment No. 200 would ensure that such an inquiry could be held without prejudice to the Secretary of State's power to hold his own inquiry under section 6A, and amendment No. 216 makes minor amendments to the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

If the proposed provision had been in place in 1991, would it have been for the local authority itself to set up an inquiry into the events surrounding the removal of nine children in my constituency, rather than for Lord Clyde to set up a judicial inquiry? That appears to be one possible consequence of the new clause, and, if it is, important considerations are involved.

As is well known, one of the issues involved in the case to which I have referred was the action of the council's own social work department. Whatever the nature of a case, however, and whatever the eventual outcome of action by a social work department, I do not think it satisfactory that the council involved should be responsible for initiating an inquiry.

Justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. If the initiative for such an inquiry came from a body whose officers and employees were closely involved in the matter to be scrutinised by that inquiry—however independent and distinguished the person appointed to conduct it—many might feel that it would not be as rigorously independent as was warranted by the circumstances.

Costs are important as well. The new clause looks to me like an effort to offload costs from the Scottish Office to local authorities in the event of a repetition of the circumstances surrounding Lord Clyde's inquiry. On that occasion, the Scottish Office underwrote most of the costs—certainly those incurred by the local authority—and provided assistance with some of the legal costs of people with a particular interest in the inquiry, but it was a hard-won fight.

If such inquiries are to achieve what they set out to achieve, they will often cost money. I can imagine the impact and the possible ramifications in my constituency if people had been told that they must pay extra council tax to finance that inquiry: although everyone considered the inquiry necessary, many Scottish local authorities are relatively small, and the burden would have been considerable.

My final point relates to subsection (6), which says: The local authority may make an award as to the expenses of the parties at the inquiry and as to the parties by whom such expenses shall be paid. Discretion is pretty well unfettered. If parents are dissatisfied with what happened and the way in which social workers or other local authority employees have dealt with their children, and if they ask for an inquiry and one is granted, the council could say to them, "You have got to pay for it too." That is not a satisfactory outcome. It may inhibit some people from asking for an inquiry that they believe is necessary.

I am uncomfortable with the new clause. A much greater explanation than the purely technical one given by Minister is required.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) has raised some important matters, especially in relation to Lord Clyde's inquiry. I support what the hon. Gentleman says about the need for a more comprehensive explanation of the new clause's implementation.

The Minister talked about guidance given to councils on the holding of such inquiries. I remind him, if he needs reminding, that the Bill will become an Act of Parliament in the near future, and that, shortly afterwards, social work departments as we know them will be abolished and scattered. The new social work departments—and, more important, social work committees that will be set up by the new authorities—will need comprehensive guidance, especially in relation to new clause 10.

Less than 20 per cent. of the new members in the new Inverclyde unitary authority are regional councillors. Hence, some 15 per cent. or more have no experience in relation to the creation and implementation of social work policies, procedures and practices. I do not know what the case is in Aberdeen, but in Glasgow fewer than 20 of the new councillors, out of a total of 83, are regional councillors. Again, the majority of those councillors, unless they are ex-social workers, will have no experience in these matters.

On Friday 21 April, during the Report stage of the Carers (Recognition and Services) Bill—I refer to column 443—the Minister promised that the Government would table amendments on the assessment of disabled children's needs. I have experience of ships draughtsmanship, but not much of parliamentary draftsmanship. I should have thought, however, that new clause 10 could be amended in another place to take on board that promise. Does the Minister intend to amend new clause 10 to achieve adequate protection for disabled children?

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Aberdeen North

I apologise for missing the introduction to the new clause. The Bill seems to be moving rapidly apace. I have no intention of delaying the Report stage. I am, however, somewhat concerned about new clause 10 and how it will operate. We have all had experience in our constituencies of the particular difficulties in relation to the abuse of children. People find the crime of child abuse so impossible to comprehend that, instead of a presumption of innocence, there is a presumption of guilt. Once an allegation of child abuse is levied against a family or an individual, they are often damned for ever and must bear the consequences.

I do not want to go into the detail of the case in the city of Aberdeen, partly because it would take too long, but also because it may awaken memories in the city that are best not awakened. However, I can say that a child was taken into care who then made very strong allegations of sexual abuse against a number of families with whom she had been in contact. There was one incontrovertible fact—the child had been badly abused from an early age. What was less clear, certainly in the initial stages, was who had carried out that extensive abuse over a long period.

4.15 pm

The social work department felt it necessary to lay charges against six different families, and to take all the children of those families into care immediately, at 7 o'clock in the morning. By the Tuesday of the following week, all the children had been returned home, but it took almost two years before the charges against the six families were finally dropped.

Those families were devastated. In some cases, marriages split up; in others, people were so demoralised that they became alcoholics. I understand that, even today, people in buses that travel through Aberdeen and pass a house belonging to one of the falsely—as it turns out—accused families say, "That's where those bloody child molesters live." A charge of child abuse can have serious repercussions. Of course, I am not suggesting that, if there are suspicions of child abuse, they should be withheld, but inquiries need to be conducted with some care.

When one of the six families first contacted me, I made a private approach to a counsellor in the region, who was sympathetic and who knew all the background to the case. I wanted an internal inquiry, so that I could at least hear the side of the social workers involved. It was not possible to have a rational discussion. I was told, "It's a witches' coven, with ritual satanic abuse." It became clear that there could be no private local inquiry on which I could rely.

I approached the then Under-Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth)—I have rather lost track of where he is now, but that is neither here nor there. I do not want to make any cheap points. Coincidentally, I approached the right hon. Gentleman at the time of what became known as the Orkney child abuse case, which will be uppermost in the memory of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). He will know that there was a strong demand for a public inquiry in that case. I believed that my case was equally deserving of a public inquiry.

There were two differences between the cases—in the Orkney case, the people concerned were, generally speaking, middle class; they were certainly articulate. I make no complaint about that. They were able to put together a network of people throughout the United Kingdom to support their claim for a public inquiry. With my case, the people concerned came from six ordinary working-class families. I am sad to say that the only person on whom they could rely to articulate their case was me. Perhaps I failed them in not putting their case strongly enough. There was certainly no question of a public inquiry in that case, nor was there any question of it being conjoined with the Orkney inquiry, which is what I had sought.

I am almost sorry that I have raised the case again today, because I do not want it widely reported in the city of Aberdeen. The families concerned are now, with great difficulty, beginning to settle down.

The issue of inquiries being held either in private or in public is very serious. I share to some extent the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) that the new unitary authorities have no experience of social work, but it must be remembered that, when we set up the social work departments, we had no experience, either. Although the new social work departments will be a different size, I strongly urge my colleagues in the unitary authorities to make certain that there is a properly qualified—I think that this is already in the Bill—

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

I hope that all the social workers employed in the regional and island authorities are re-employed by the unitary authorities. The point that I was making was that, if the Minister is to issue guidelines to social workers—to chief social work officers—he should also issue guidelines to councillors who are unfamiliar with the mass of legislation which has been passed since 1974.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Aberdeen North

I do not disagree at all with my hon. Friend, but I was pointing out to him that I was a councillor in the city of Aberdeen following the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, when social work departments were set up. Those of us who were lay members of authorities in those days had very little experience—well, we had no experience of social work departments—although some of us gained experience through the health and welfare committees.

I agree that since then a great deal has happened, so I hope that my colleagues in the unitary authorities—as I said, I believe that the Bill requires only that the director of social work is a qualified officer—will appoint not only a qualified director of social work, but a highly qualified director of education, and that the councillors will take an active interest in social work matters.

With regard to matters in the new clause and to other matters surrounding social work, the Scottish Office certainly ought to hold a series of seminars, at which experienced councillors who know social work and those who have never worked in the area because of the split of functions may share their experiences.

The ability to obtain proper advice—legal advice, if necessary—representation and expenses to enable people to put a case is of absolute importance. I frankly do not mind who pays for that, as long as the access of people who feel aggrieved to proper legal advice is not impeded or inhibited in any way.

When the Under-Secretary makes his winding-up speech on the new clause, I hope that he will address in a little more detail the circumstances in which he believes proceedings should be held in private and in which they should be held in public. There is certainly a balance to be struck between publicity, which is necessary to show that nothing is being hidden, and privacy, which is necessary to try to protect people against whom false allegations may be made. I hope that such false allegations—or mere allegations, since they are proved false or otherwise only once the investigation is completed—will always be taken seriously.

In the case to which I referred—I shall finish on this note just to show how serious the matter is—allegations were made not only against the six families, but against a senior social worker and a general practitioner. I found it particularly reprehensible that the allegations made against the working-class families were investigated, but not a single question was asked of the GP or the senior social worker; they were apparently above reproach. Yet we know from bitter experience that, in some places which are regarded as safe for children, such as residential homes, people have been employed whose abuse of the children in their care has been absolutely disgraceful and terrible.

I hope that we shall not take the attitude that if people are professionals they should be—necessarily—free from suspicion. However, we should not say the alternative. We should not say that, because an allegation has been made, it must be true.

I hope that the possibility of inquiries under new clause 10 will open up the scope for proper investigations, so that the interests of the children, which must always be paramount, will be protected. The interests of children are not always necessarily met by an investigation. There are sometimes innocent third-party children.

I hope that the Minister will tell us a little more about how the procedure will work, to ensure that the interests of children are properly looked at and to ensure that the interests of families are not destroyed because of prejudice in respect of particular allegations.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith , Strathkelvin and Bearsden

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has said, new clause 10 reiterates a theme that I raised several times in Committee. That theme is the protection of other persons and third persons involved in allegations of child abuse. I am not certain whether the proposal will deal with the problems.

I have no confidence in internal investigations by social work departments. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North, I have personal knowledge of a case which was brought to me by a person who was wrongly accused of abuse. The matter was pursued by the social work department, and it held an internal inquiry based on its various methods of operating.

That internal inquiry amounted to an examination of whether the procedures had been followed. No one challenged the basic evidence on which the charge was brought. That was the issue. People do not worry too much about the procedures, but if the basic premise is wrong, it does not matter what procedures are followed: in the end, the result will be wrong. We could not have that issue challenged. At the end of the day, I received a perfunctory half-page letter saying that all was well, when clearly it was not. Like many others, I have no faith in internal procedures. I have tabled amendments in an attempt to deal with that problem.

With regard to new clause 10, we would like an undertaking from the Minister that he will at least consider tabling two amendments in another place. The first amendment should state not that the inquiry may be held in private, but that it will be held in public unless the local authority gives a good reason for not doing that.

The second amendment should state that there must be an independent person running the inquiry, not a member of the social work department. If the latter is the case, there will be a social work department investigation into the procedures and not into the facts. Without those two criteria, involving some form of independence and a presumption towards public hearings, the proposal will be of limited value.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I join my colleagues in welcoming new clause 10. I want to comment briefly on the circumstances in relation to the Ayrshire child abuse case, which has received an inordinate amount of publicity. My view might differ somewhat from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), but it is certainly not diametrically opposed to it, because I agree with much of what he said.

In relation to the Ayrshire child abuse case, I have great sympathy with the problem facing social workers when they are confronted with allegations of child abuse. For example, if a mother, who may be hysterical, reports child abuse and, after some examination and investigation, the social workers shrug it off and say, "No, no, this woman is hysterical. No child abuse is taking place," and it is subsequently found that child abuse has taken place, those social workers are likely to be, and in some cases in the past have been, pilloried by the press, by the media and, on occasion, by Parliament, for not following up those allegations.

With regard to the Ayrshire case, where social workers have pursued the allegations, have believed them and have taken some action, the press obviously felt that they knew a great deal more than the social workers, the medical people, the sheriff and everyone else involved. The press make their judgment and decide that they are absolutely right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North knows, the media never get it wrong.

The media decide that no abuse has taken place, and they pillory the social workers in that instance as well. If social workers take action and are proved wrong, they are pilloried. If they do not take action and are proved wrong, they are pilloried. It is very difficult, as the Minister will know. He has great experience of such issues as a lawyer and as a parliamentarian. It is a difficult problem for social workers, and difficult decisions have to be made.

4.30 pm

In the case of Ayrshire, however, those decisions were made in the first instance by individual basic grade social workers, but in every instance they were reported right up the line to the senior social work managers. Of course, before any action could be taken, it had to be reported to the children's panel. The children's panel had to make a decision on the report from the reporter. In the Ayrshire child abuse case, the ultimate decision was made by Sheriff Neil Gow, after very careful thought and after hearing the children themselves.

It is quite astonishing that, after all that careful consideration by social workers, by members of the children's panel and by a sheriff who had gone into the matter in great detail, someone—in that case, it seemed to be only one person, in the press—who knew better than every one of them said that no abuse had taken place.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith , Strathkelvin and Bearsden

I do not want to pillory social workers. My hon. Friend and I are not in great disagreement in this matter, but he must realise that the initial charge on which the case is based is generally made by one person. That is rarely challenged. By the time it comes to the report of the children's panel, decisions are based on the initial report, which is often done by a fairly junior individual, yet that is taken as gospel and never challenged. That is where the problem lies.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. If he looks at that case—there is voluminous paper that he can look at—he will see that it was not only questioned very seriously by the children's panel but corroborated by two doctors. That might impress him a little more than the views of social workers. It also went to the sheriff, who tested the evidence very substantially. It went through very well tried and tested procedures.

Because the media made up their minds that the social workers were wrong, they harassed and threatened the social workers concerned. There was doorstepping of the social workers in the early morning—their lives were made an absolute misery. All the social workers had been concerned about were the interests of the children, protecting the children, and carrying out the job that was given to them by Parliament.

The media try to get everything into black and white—it is either right or wrong; it is either clearly proved or it is not clearly proved. I mean no disrespect to the Minister, but lawyers get the same perception; that everything is either right or wrong, and that it can be proved or disproved by evidence. I am afraid that in such cases it is much more difficult to prove.

In family circumstances where abuse may have taken place, the only witnesses are the children who have been abused or other members of the family who may themselves be children. It is very difficult to obtain evidence. It is certainly very difficult to prove something beyond a shadow of doubt. That is why the issue is very complicated. Social workers deserve our sympathy.

In the Ayrshire case, an independent inquiry was carried out. We are talking about inquiries by two outside members of staff of other local authorities. They came to the conclusion that the social workers in the case had acted in an honest way, without any collusion. They certainly said that there were some faults in practice. Of course matters are difficult, and practice is not easy. Advice and guidance are needed as experience develops, as we have more cases and social workers can talk to each other about them.

The social workers did not do everything perfectly—we know that—but they acted honestly and there was no collusion, yet the media are still persecuting those social workers. They are asking the Lord Advocate to take up a prosecution against them. I shall see the Lord Advocate later this week, to tell him that he should make it clear that there will be no prosecution of those social workers, who have been cleared by that independent inquiry, and that it is intolerable for the threat of prosecution to continue to hang over their heads.

I have a couple of questions which the Minister may be able to answer. I wrote what was, for me, a reasonable letter to the Secretary of State some weeks ago about the case, because I take it seriously and I am deeply concerned about the way in which the lives of social workers and their families have been affected. My letter contained a number of questions, but I have not yet had a reply from the Secretary of State. My assistants have contacted the Secretary of State's office to ask for a reply as soon as possible, and the Minister may be able to use his good offices to say when I will receive such a reply.

I am no expert in this matter, although I served on a social work committee in Lothian region many years ago and saw the reports on such cases. My wife was a member of a children's panel for some time, although she has had no dealings at all with the Ayrshire abuse case. I was on a children's panel advisory committee for some time, and chose the members of those panels in Lothian. However, I do not pretend to have any expertise on the matter at all.

As a result of the Ayrshire abuse case, I have had to try to understand some of the procedures, and that has caused me to ask one question. Is it compatible with the caring role of social workers for them also to be investigators in child abuse cases? It must be at the moment, because only the police and social workers—with their statutory role—can carry out that task.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) that I doubt whether doctors would be keen to take on the role, because it is very difficult, and there are no other obvious people to take it on. It is difficult for social workers, who have other responsibilities in communities and in society for supporting vulnerable people, to take on that investigative role.

My main concern is that we in Parliament should not jump to conclusions in relation to such cases. When a reporter phones a Member and explains what he understands to have happened, it is far too easy to accept that as gospel and say that it is disgraceful and that there ought to be an inquiry, and that the social workers ought to be charged. That is what has happened on occasion in the past.

In this instance, particular sections of the Scottish media have done themselves a great discredit by pressing in that way without looking at all the facts in a reasoned and objective way. I use this opportunity to call on the media to try to deal with these cases more sympathetically and to understand the dilemmas and difficulties for social workers and social work departments.

I make a final plea, and in this I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North, who believes that the views of the children ought to be taken into account. It is easy enough to get the views of parents, but the views of the parents and of the children in child abuse cases will in some cases—by definition—not necessarily be the same. We must get the children's views, not only in an evidential way but also on what should happen to them in future. If different options are being considered for the future of the children, we must get their views.

Above all, we should not rush to an early judgment on the cases, which are very complicated. We must make sure that—wherever possible—the abuse cases which we know have taken place do not recur. The interests of the children who have been abused must be paramount on every occasion.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

In following the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), I register some sympathy for the front-line social workers who were involved in the Ayrshire case. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that they had to make difficult decisions. The social workers were on a knife edge. They could have made an error if they had not taken into account the needs of the children. On the other hand, we ended up with a situation in which, for five years, the children were without their parents, and that gives me grave concern.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Sheriff Gow, but failed to acknowledge that other sheriffs were involved. For example, Sheriff Crozier found in another case a fortnight later, after the first cases were taken into account, that there was no case to answer. In those instances, the children went home with their parents. Then we had Sheriff Miller's findings. Here, I find a problem with the position in which the social workers were placed in those hearings. They were left isolated. I wonder how much responsibility their masters in the regional social work department should have in the matter.

I also wonder what examination has been made of the managerial structures in the social work department. I do not believe that the problem—if there was a problem—lay with the front-line social workers. I think that it lay behind, with the management structure, but I am not entirely convinced. Perhaps the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley feels differently.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

It is perhaps too easy to criticise the social work department. The inquiry that took place at Western house at the racecourse was unprecedented. The social work department was guilty only of not understanding the magnitude of the inquiry it faced and the strength of legal support, advice and representation that the parents would have. The inquiry turned into a far more legal investigation than the department had realised. It was entirely wrong that it did so. The QCs took it over and made it into a legal hearing, when it should have been much more informal. If the social work department was guilty of anything, it was guilty perhaps of innocence and of being caught unawares rather than of negligence.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

I am not sure that it was guilty of innocence. In my involvement in the case over several years, I was perhaps guilty of naivety, if Sheriff Miller was to be believed. I did not follow issues through. I took assurances from senior members of Strathclyde social work department. I have a nagging doubt now that perhaps I was wrong. I am still not convinced, either way, precisely where the truth lies. If the children had been believed, perhaps they would have been back with their parents at an earlier date, but that is another matter.

The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley has highlighted another difficult case in which there are many questions. It emphasises the overall difficulties of the issue.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe , Glasgow Maryhill

This brief debate on new clause 10 has demonstrated the difficulties that a Minister can get into by throwing down new clauses and amendments at the last minute without giving people time to consider them. The Minister can see for himself how many serious concerns have been raised even in the short space of time that we have had to examine the new clause. I want to ask him a few questions about that.

What advice has the Minister sought on the general content of the new clause? I for one am not entirely clear whether the inquiry mentioned in newsection 6B(1) is intended to be an inquiry into the conduct of a social work department under the Act, or into its functions as such. I am not sure whether the purpose is to criticise the functions or the way in which a department fulfilled those functions.

A key question was put at the start of the debate, which I do not want the House to lose sight of. Is the new clause an attempt to pass the buck from the Secretary of State to the local authorities for inquiries into cases such as Orkney? Let us remember that it cost more than £1 million to inquire into the Orkney case. That is a lot of anyone's money. For a small, new unitary authority, it could be an impossible amount of money to find to conduct an inquiry as fully as necessary.

The Orkney case was of interest and concern far beyond the bounds of Orkney or, indeed, Scotland. It hit international headlines. Therefore, it would seem unfair and unreasonable to expect any local authority, especially one of the smaller new unitary authorities, to bear such a cost.

My last point, which I do not think any hon. Member has raised, relates to subsection (4) of the new clause, which refers to expenses being defrayed by such parties as the inquiry may direct. It is not clear what the Minister envisages by "such party". Could it mean parents? Could there be a circumstance in which parents were expected to pay the cost of an inquiry, which was necessary not only in the interests of the children for whom they had direct concern but in the wider public interest? Such an inquiry might seek to set a general principle on which to base the functions of social work departments.

If the Minister is to reassure the House that the new clause is not an effort to pass the buck, he must amend the new clause to make that clear.

Photo of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton Lord James Douglas-Hamilton , Edinburgh West 4:45 pm, 1st May 1995

We will take on board the points that have been made on drafting and look closely at the new clause in subsequent stages. The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) raised the Ayrshire case. We have looked carefully into the case. I can well understand their concerns about it.

The procedures adopted for the proof re-hearing were in accordance with the framework set out in the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968. The reporter to the children's panel and the families were represented as parties to the proceedings. The social workers were called as witnesses and, as such, were not separately represented. Following the proof re-hearing, the Court of Session ordered the return home of the children, and appointed curators to oversee the process of their return.

I understand that Strathclyde regional council fully co-operated in the implementation of the court's decision. We are now looking carefully at Sheriff Miller's report to see what lessons can usefully be drawn for the future. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Lord Advocate commissioned some time ago guidance for social workers and police involved in the investigation of allegations of child abuse. They expect to receive those proposals shortly.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I am grateful to the Minister for what he has just said. It is a step forward. As well as examining the outcome of the proof hearing at Western house, will he examine the procedure? As I said in an intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), it was a rather legalistic inquiry. It became intimidating for witnesses and created many problems. The witnesses were cross-questioned almost as if they were accused. The QCs—I know that the Minister is a distinguished lawyer—took over.

That is not necessarily the best procedure for such hearings, in which much of the information is obtained in an informal way, not the formal way that we understand for trials. Could the Minister have a look at that as well?

Photo of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton Lord James Douglas-Hamilton , Edinburgh West

I will look closely at the case in general to determine what lessons can be learned. I will take account of the hon. Gentleman's points.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) asked the relevant question whether the Orkney inquiry might have been handled differently if the new clause had been in place. It would have been possible under the new clause for a local inquiry to be held. However, the issues were of wide significance, and other local authorities were involved.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will certainly retain his inquiry powers. The background to the new clause is that, when the events with which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is so familiar took place, a review of the arrangements was ordered by the then Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth). One of the principal conclusions of the review was that local authorities should properly be equipped with a specific power to hold social work inquiries.

The new clause would increase the options available where matters of concern arose. However, a full-scale inquiry by the Secretary of State, with its burdensome consequences, was hitherto regarded as the sole option. In some cases, in which the issues are primarily minor and local, it is perhaps more appropriate for the local authority to be involved.

It is certainly not the purpose of the new clause to offload the burden of the costs on to local authorities. It would be for local authorities to weigh up the costs in deciding whether to exercise their powers to hold an inquiry. We believe that local authorities would act responsibly to their electors.

I can tell the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) that there is no intention to amend new clause 10 to provide for the assessment of disabled children. However, we shall amend the Bill as and where necessary to take account of the needs expressed in the Carers (Recognition and Services) Bill for which the hon. Gentleman and I were present during a Friday debate.

In reply to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), I believe that the interests of children must be central in the determination of these matters. There is a need to save children added pain and trauma, and under the clause local authorities will have three possibilities to consider. They can decide whether the whole of an inquiry should be in private, whether part should be in private and part in public but with limits on the identification of children, or they can decide to have no inquiry at all.

The clause gives power to appoint an independent person to hold an inquiry, which need not be internal. I am also covering the points raised by the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith). Like the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, I have been a councillor on a social work committee. If I were still such a councillor, I would be inclined towards privacy.

Under the clause, I think that local authorities will use their powers responsibly. The essence of the matter is that there will be new powers for authorities to hold inquiries into matters related to children, and they will complement measures that are already available to them to deal with local problems. The powers will be available where the local nature of matters or problems make it inappropriate for the Secretary of State to hold a national inquiry.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.