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Thursday, 2 March 2006What are Commons debates?
Orders of the Day — Children and Adoption Bill
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Eric Pickles (Brentwood & Ongar, Conservative) | Hansard source
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a modest contribution to the debate. It is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). I hope she will forgive me if I do not pursue some of her excellent points, as I want to concentrate on a narrower aspect of the Bill, namely adoption. I want to say something about the secrecy of the family court. I think that some of the general rules on adoption concerning foreign nations are relevant to our own system. A particularly sad case in which I have been involved over the last few months has a direct bearing on how adoption works in practice, especially forced adoption, the most extreme of the many issues that we must consider.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) described the Under-Secretary of State as sparky. I am not sure that I can follow him down that avenue, but I want to record my enormous appreciation for the courtesy that she has shown me in connection with that case and my concerns about adoption. We have had three formal meetings and many more informal meetings. The Under-Secretary has changed my views on a number of important issues. She has also reinforced some of my prejudices, which is a nice feeling—but I am genuinely grateful to her, and grief-stricken by the fact that she is plainly suffering from a heavy cold. I wish her a quick recovery.
As I have said, I am concerned about the secrecy of the family court. I tabled an early-day motion on the subject. Looking around the Chamber earlier, I noted that almost every Member present, apart from Ministers and, obviously, the occupant of the Chair, had signed it. Early-day motion 869, entitled "Workings of the Children Act 2004", stated:
"That this House urges the Government to remove the veil of secrecy from the workings of the Children Act 2004; considers that the closed door policy of the family courts breeds suspicion and a culture of secrecy which does nothing to instil confidence in those using them, which affects not just the courts but the social services departments of local authorities; and believes that it is possible to preserve the anonymity of children involved in the proceedings without the cumbersome rules which obstruct parents from receiving advice and support, which in particular works to the disadvantage of parents with special learning difficulty."
The hon. and learned Member for Redcar spoke about the concept of the rights of the child being paramount. Her explanation was a good deal clearer than some that I have received from social services departments. However, I am less concerned with the effect on the courts than with the effect on social services. There is almost a process of Chinese whispers, whereby that noble concept becomes bastardised into an unwillingness to disclose, to justify, to listen to arguments, or even to see a need to explain decisions. The law was changed because of Members' difficulties in obtaining information from social services departments. At one time, they were threatened with contempt proceedings and prosecutions for pursuing constituency cases. Since the beginning of April last year, however, we have been able to look at case files and discuss the issues. I may be wrong but I think that I was the first Member of Parliament to take advantage of that, after a constituent who was going through the process brought it to my attention in the early part of April last year.
The change in the law seems to have wholly passed by Essex social services department. Despite the will of the House and the change in the law, it led me through quite an elaborate dance when I wanted to get some basic information from it. At one point, it insisted that I went to court to get special permission, when by Act of Parliament I already had that right. Had it not been for my noble Friend Lord Hanningfield, who happens to be the leader of Essex county council, I do not think that I would have been able to pursue the case to the full.
I cannot go into the details of the case, but I can talk about it in the abstract and discuss the way it affects the law. It concerned the decision by Essex social services to remove two children from a family because they considered the mother to be stupid and incapable of bringing up the children because of her lack of intellect. The mother had an IQ of around 60. Social services sought to present her as stupid to the point of being unable to understand maternal feelings. In my view, she was a little slow but someone who clearly loved her two children. She was faced with an unending stream of social workers dealing with her case—at one point, I counted 16—who were pushing her in different directions. She was left bewildered and unable adequately to rebut social services' allegations. I want to say a few things about people with learning difficulties and then move to the general question of social services. I want to stay firmly within the terms of the Bill.
A problem has been identified recently with the Meadow case. I do not want to go down that route but it illustrates the fact that, sometimes, proceedings have been initiated because hospital consultants or social workers have been a little over-zealous. It is typical for the person who initiates proceedings to see the complaint through. There is a need for a separation of powers between those who take the decision to initiate an investigation and those who actually conduct it. I am worried—I will come to this a little later—about the targets for adoption and the obvious financial benefits that accrue.
The principal problem is that social services departments cannot be entirely non-partisan in the way in which they identify the issues. Few people who initiate a serious chain of events are likely to admit it when it goes wrong. The temptation is to tailor evidence to fit the complaint. That should be resisted.
I can give a few brief examples of how that happens. As I said, I think that I was almost certainly the first MP to go through the process of wading through a social services file concerned with a forced adoption. It was thick, repetitive and at times confusing. I have talked to the Minister about that. I speak as a former chairman of a social services department and was used to seeing that kind of thing. I was shocked at the sloppiness of record keeping, the shoddiness of the process and the basic injustice. In that file—this is directly relevant—there was misinformation, embellishment and inappropriate assigning of motives.
I shall give just two examples, which illustrate the general problem. In the first example, the husband did not have learning difficulties but was, by mistake, described as having them. The mistake was recognised and corrected in the file but subsequently, such allegations continued to be made, as though it was a proven fact. More seriously, it was suggested that the child had witnessed domestic violence. It became clear that this was a single incident in which the husband, in a moment of pique, had picked up his slippers and thrown them against the wall. He is a gentle and passive man and at no time were the slippers aimed at anybody; nor was any damage caused, except, perhaps, for a slight mark on the wall. However, the file on that family states that the female child
"has witnessed domestic violence and this will have an impact towards her development".
Following close scrutiny on my part, social workers told me that there was no evidence of any violence toward either child in the family. No doctors or casualty departments had expressed concern, and there was no evidence of repeated accidents involving the children. Yet the allegation remained on the file.
An allegation was also made of poor parenting and I asked for various examples. I was given two. First, the female child had been given sandwiches and a packet of crisps for her lunch, and because she chose to eat the crisps first, she was too full to eat her sandwiches. That was deemed sufficiently important to be regarded as an example of poor parenting. The second example—we should bear in mind that at this point, I was pressing for another such example—involved allowing one of the children to stay up late at night to watch television. I asked whether "late" meant 10 o'clock at night, or perhaps 9 o'clock. I was told that she was allowed to stay up until 8 o'clock to watch the end of "EastEnders" or "Coronation Street". I have many middle-class friends with children of a similar age who are allowed to have crisps and to stay up until 8 o'clock. None of them is subject to a care order.
I turn to the issue of stories being embellished. By this point, the social worker was finding me a tad provocative. He said that the mother had screwed up a baby-wipe tightly in her fist and had repeatedly rubbed it against the genitals of the young male child, to the extent that they were "red raw." However, the report actually said that the mother had used heavy pressure, and that the genitals were flattened and "very red". There is a world of difference between "red raw" and discoloured.
I found distressing the way in which motives were ascribed in the report, without any obvious discipline. The father was criticised because he had refused to leave his job of some 23 years to become the full-time carer. It was said that that showed a lack of commitment. I believe that holding down a job—in his case, a humble job—for 23 years and putting bread on the table week in, week out sets a fine example to one's children. The social workers wanted the father to live off benefits. That might have been a solution, but if someone can set an example to their children by working hard, that is something to be proud of.
I want to return to the way in which the primacy rule can be bastardised. I confess that by this time I was beginning to irritate people, although I am sure that hon. Members will find that hard to believe. I found myself being lectured by a very senior person whom I shall not name, as that would be embarrassing. He said, "We have to consider the welfare of the child. That is absolutely paramount; whatever is best for the child is what we do."
I replied, "OK, but if that rule is applied generally, let's apply it to your children. If I arranged for them to live in the house of Mr. Bill Gates, they would get enormous intellectual stimulation—probably more than you can offer—and they would certainly enjoy much greater financial well-being." The very senior person did not seem to like that, which made me glad that I had not used my second choice of example—Michael Jackson.
I have talked these matters through with people who really understand them. They have said, "Look, Eric, what about the guardian? The guardian is there to look after the interests of children and to be impartial in the process."
I put that approach to various leading counsel with an interest in the matter. Although some guardians may exist who are prepared to stand up to social services departments and act as bastions of freedom, they are very hard to find. Generally speaking, guardians act as cheerleaders for social services departments. They are entirely compliant, and seem incapable of doing more than being a cheering section.
I had the opportunity last night to speak about such problems to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), and I shall give one example of the role of guardians. A leading counsel on these matters—who, by the nature of things, acts sometimes for the local authority and sometimes for parents—told me about one occasion when he was acting for the local authority. Just before proceedings began, people started to gather round the table. He was not paying attention to who came through the door, and was about to begin his contribution when he noticed that the guardian was sitting in the room. "What are you doing here?" he asked, to which the guardian replied, "Well, you know, I'm here as part of the team."
That person should not have been in the room, because the guardian's presence could demonstrate partiality. The system needs to make sure that the different strands of the process can be separated.
I was enormously surprised to find that there is no national system for the regulation or disciplining of social workers. No royal charter exists that sets out professional standards or disciplinary procedures and thus allows peer judgment to take place. The social work profession needs to address that defect. The solution does not need to be elaborate, but peer evaluation among social workers on relevant matters is important. Without that, there is enormous variation between authorities, which can be as slack as the one involved in the Climbié case, or as tough as Rochdale in the face of ridiculous accusations of satanism.
I shall quote briefly from Andrew Scott, an admittedly newly qualified barrister who deals with these matters on a daily basis. I suspect that he may be known to some hon. Members, as he has made quite a reputation for himself. He said:
"I don't think the public appreciates how low the threshold is. When children are taken from their parents, it is not because there is a certainty of future harm or even that, on the balance of probabilities, those children could be harmed. It is enough that there will be a possibility of future harm. If there is a 70 per cent. risk of a child being harmed and every child with that risk was taken into care then, in 100 such cases, 30 children would be taken from families where they would come to no harm. Sometimes, I wonder whether children are being protected, or whether it is social workers' careers."
Those are wise words. There may be a temptation for local authorities, possibly because of the financial advantage, to move towards adoption when other solutions may be possible.
Mr. Scott goes on to say:
"There's an unspoken fear that children from poor backgrounds are being freed up for middle-class adopters."
I would like to give an illustration which, of all the features of the case, has really chilled me. It is about the question of duty of care. In the April before the children were finally taken with a view to an enforced adoption, there was a case conference. The second child had not yet been born. The conference was considering whether to put the child on the at-risk register. The daughter was already on it. On the basis of the facts before it, the conference decided that it was not necessary to put the young boy on the register and furthermore that it was appropriate to take the young girl off it. Somebody at that conference, notably the chairman, did not like that decision. There was no change of circumstances and no other substantial incidents had taken place. Yet the same circumstances were seen as making it appropriate to put the children into care with a view to permanent adoption.
Let me say what I think needs to be done. Those who investigate a complaint must be independent of those who initiate it and those who may in due course be called on to care for the children. A proper code of conduct for social workers is long overdue. I certainly believe that those with special learning difficulties deserve special care. We are told that in 1 per cent. of all families one partner or the other has learning difficulties. We are also told that 20 per cent. of children in care have one parent with learning difficulties. There is some dispute over the figures, but whether they are precisely right or not, they demonstrate a problem.
The secrecy of the family courts needs to be opened up. We wait for the consultation document. I believe that there is a strong case for judgments to be published and that they can be published while retaining the anonymity of the child. I have one additional suggestion. It goes back to the Meadow case. There is a question whether the professional witnesses should be identified. If the Government take the decision that they should, I will generally support that. Once you become involved in a case you get e-mails from all over the country. Some are heartbreaking, but they all have strong emotion running through them. Very normal people sometimes become irrational. I recognise that there might be a problem obtaining witnesses if they are routinely named.
As an absolute minimum, each professional witness should be given a unique identifying number. I think that that is important—I suspect that hon. Members understand—because we need to establish a pattern so that if we get a problem with the veracity of a witness we can have another look at them.
We need to change the rules with regard to advice. Parents are put in the dreadful position of being unable to seek advice. They cannot talk to their county council or unitary authority; they cannot talk to friends or members of their family. Only recently could they come and talk to us. I can give examples of where there is a problem. In care or adoption proceedings it is understandable that parents want to take a fair amount of time off. Under the existing rules, parents cannot tell their employer why they are absent from work without going back to the court. Psychiatric evaluations are also often necessary in such proceedings, but people cannot make full disclosure without first going back to the court. We have to find ways to solve those problems, and I wholeheartedly endorse the Committee's recommendations for greater transparency.
It might be slightly controversial to say so, but some cases resemble attempts to make bricks without straw. Once the facts have been established, the courts are reluctant to revisit those facts or their interpretation. However, if adoption has resulted from fraud or seriously erroneous evidence, we should have a procedure to enable that adoption to be overturned, although the period in which that could be done should be limited. In care proceedings, any carer who is accused of abuse should have an automatic entitlement to legal aid; the opportunity to instruct an expert of their choosing; a right of appeal against any findings; and legal aid for any appeal.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these issues, but I wish to make one final point. I hope to be a Member of Parliament for many years to come—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Well, that is marvellous and makes me feel wonderful. However, the case I have described will haunt me, because a grave injustice has been done and the system has let those people down. Those two young people now live in my constituency in a flat that is spotlessly clean and well maintained, with a bedroom full of toys that their children will never see. The beds are made up and presents are waiting for them. While there will be an attempt to overturn the original care proceedings, everyone understands that the likelihood of reversal is not great. When the state intervenes in people's lives, we must ensure that it does so fairly. In the case that I have dealt with over the past few months, that intervention was "intervention beyond the humane."