Children in Care (Hansard, 29 June 1987)
HC Deb 29 June 1987 vol 118 cc255-9 3.32 pm
Mr. Stuart Bell

(Middlesbrough) (by private notice) asked the Minister for Health if he would make a statement on the recent increase in the number of cases of alleged child abuse in the Cleveland health authority area.

The Minister for Health (Mr. Tony Newton)

Investigations into the way in which these cases are being dealt with have been put in hand by the Northern regional health authority. In addition, the regional health authority today announced that it is making arrangements for all cases of suspected child sexual abuse in the south Tees district to be discussed with other consultants drawn from a special regional reference group that is being established.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has asked for an urgent report on the findings of the regional health authority. It is extrememly important that if there appears to be a case of child abuse it should be carefully and sensitively investigated. If the current investigations confirm suggestions that there have been significant failings in achieving this in Cleveland, the Government will be ready to institute an inquiry.

Several Hon. Members

rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I should say to the House that some of these matters are sub judice and that questions and answers should not refer to individual cases that are before the courts.

Mr. Bell

I welcome the Minister's response to my question and also thank him for moves today by the regional area health authority. Does he accept that the Opposition are as anxious and determined as anyone to protect children from the infamies of child abuse? Is he aware that an area review committee consisting of representatives of the area health authority, social services, the police, the NSPCC and other services drew up draft guidelines for the handling of alleged child abuse in Cleveland? is he further aware that if these guidelines, drawn up in March, had been adopted there would not now be a question mark over the future of 204 children taken into care in Cleveland since May?

Is the Minister further aware that Dr. Marietta Higgs, a consultant paediatrician in health care on Teesside, and Mrs. Sue Richardson, of Cleveland social services, colluded and conspired to keep the police out of the allegations of sexual abuse whereby Dr. Higgs made the diagnosis, a social worker made out a place of safety order and a justice of the peace signed it without the intervention of the police, other agencies or any counselling procedures or corroboration?

Is the Minister aware that on 11 March, 11 June, 18 June and 23 June specific requests were made for the intervention of a police surgeon in cases of alleged sexual abuse, but all the requests were turned down by Dr. Marietta Higgs and the social services, thus impeding justice for the children and their families? Is he also aware that on 28 May, at a meeting with police officers who expressed their disquiet at the number of alleged sexual abuses not examined or corroborated by a police surgeon, Mrs. Sue Richardson implied that she did not see a place for a police surgeon at any stage in the proceedings and to this day the social services department is still holding out against such police involvement and has submitted its own draft guidelines which exclude the role of the police?

Finally—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has already asked a very long question.

Mr. Newton

I want to make three points in response to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell). First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has pursued this matter and for taking the trouble to see me for a full hour this morning to put me completely in the picture about his point of view in light of the investigations that he has carried out.

Secondly, I confirm that so far there has been a failure to adopt guidelines about the kind of co-operation that we believe is essential among health authorities, the social services departments, the police, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and others in handling these matters. However, I am happy to say that a further draft has been produced today, and I hope that that will lead to further progress.

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to comment off the cuff on the serious suggestions that he has made about two individuals. However, we will give very careful consideration to his points when considering whether an inquiry is needed and, if it is, what form it should take.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) and I represent a number of parents involved in this issue. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough has had my backing—although I did not comment publicly until the weekend—in calling for action to stop the two doctors at the centre of this matter until there has been a cooling-off period. Although I welcome the suggested guidelines, does my hon. Friend the Minister accept that it would be in everyone's interest—in the interests of innocent parents, of innocent children and of parents who are afraid to take their children to hospitals in south Teesside in case they find themselves in a position similar to that which exists—if the two doctors involved were suspended? Could my hon. Friend bring pressure to bear on the regional health authority to allow the volatile atmosphere on Teesside to cool off? There are other paediatricians in this world. Please use them.

Mr. Newton

I also want to pay tribute to the proper concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) in these cases on behalf of his constituents. My judgment at the moment is that the regional health authority has taken the.appropriate action by setting up the panel to which I have referred. However, I note my hon. Friend's comments and I will draw them to the attention of the regional health authority.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Notwithstanding the individual issue which might cause an inquiry to be established, does not the general question of child care proceedings identify the need for an inquiry into the way in which the system of checks and balances clearly has not been operating in many parts of the country? Does the Minister agree that far too often the watchdog is too closely identified with the burglar and that there is a need to re-examine the way in which the family courts operate and for a more independent objective element in the way in which we treat such cases?

Mr. Newton

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are well down the track of producing further and more formal guidance about the way in which we should deal with matters of this sort. My present view is that had the guidance, which was issued by the Department some time ago, been followed in the light of what has been happening in Cleveland, many of these difficulties would have been avoided. I should prefer for the moment to avoid the further delay of an enormous wide-ranging inquiry and instead to get on and produce the guidance.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

Is my hon. Friend aware that children in my constituency, which is covered by the South Tees health district, are being collected from their beds at 2 o'clock in the morning by social workers? Does not my hon. Friend see a clear parallel with the activities of another body which carried the initials SS? We may all applaud the wonderful job that the social services do, but what reassurance can he give that the practice to which I have referred will be stopped?

Mr. Newton

A wide variety of allegations have been made and we shall be considering them all. I would not wish to comment on specific instances this afternoon, but I undertake to take account of what my hon. Friend has said, as I shall take account of the remarks of others.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Is the Minister aware that the problems of child abuse seem to be growing? In the south Leeds part of my constituency there have been instances of child abuse that have led to court cases. Apart from what has happened on Teesside, as important as it is and notwithstanding that it has been properly raised in the media over the weekend, should there not be an appropriate investigation into guidelines, the way in which social services operate, legal considerations and police involvement? The issue has been worrying many of us for some time and suddenly it has come to the surface. Should we not consider the problem overall, bearing in mind that there is something wrong if the statistics are not telling us an untruth?

Mr. Newton

In producing the new guidance we shall, of course, take account of what is said to have happened in Cleveland. Proposals have been made for some changes in the law, and in taking account of those proposals we shall be considering what is alleged to have happened in Cleveland.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chiselhurst)

Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the difficulties that is confusing public discussion is the absence of any objective assessment of the extent of child abuse, other than the register which covers less than 10 per cent. of the population? Does he think that recent events emphasise the need for his Department to be undertaking a careful and objective assessment of the extent of the problem or for an expert body such as the NSPCC to be funded to enable it to do so?

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend takes a close interest in these matters through his connections with the NSPCC and he will be aware that we are intending to begin to collect statistics centrally in a way that I hope will shed further light on exactly the problem about which he is concerned.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

As a former assistant director of social services, I am deeply shocked by some of the remarks which have been made in the Chamber this afternoon. It might be helpful to the Minister and the House if the hon. Gentleman understood the magnitude and severity of the abuse of some children in Cleveland. For example, a young girl under five years of age is suffering from gonorrhoea.

Mr. Newton

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me when I say that everyone in the House would agree to the proposition that none of us wishes to condone or see the continuation of child sexual abuse. I am sure that that is not the purpose of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) or of anyone else who has spoken from either side of the House. The issue is how we are to strike the right balance between differing considerations, and the query that has been raised is whether that is being done. It is essential that that issue should be inquired into and that it is established as something that commands the respect and support of us all.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that this issue has arisen as a result of professional advice given by two consultants employed by the National Health Service? As he has rightly decided to seek a second opinion, will he ensure that the cases of children who are still in care are examined no later than by lunchtime tomorrow?

Mr. Newton

I do not think that I can give precisely that undertaking, but when the present panel has completed its work on 20 of the cases we shall urgently consider how to proceed with the remaining 200 cases.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

Will the Minister confirm that the evidence of the research is that at least 10 per cent. of children in Britain are sexually abused? Two thirds of them are girls and one third are boys. An overwhelming number of cases involve the children's fathers, although stepfathers and neighbours are sometimes involved. Does the Minister agree that the problem has been massively neglected for years and that the social and health services are now trying to deal with the problem, which has caused enormous harm to the generation of children who have been neglected. Does he not agree that rows like this simply put us back? If there is a need to review individual cases, let them be reviewed, but let us not have cheap publicity in the press and in this place. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a massive amount of child sexual abuse continues to be neglected and will he confirm that he intends to take steps to ensure that it is not?

Mr. Newton

I recognise, as does the whole House, that there is a widespread view that the problem has been underestimated over the years. There is now some argument about how far the incidence of child sexual abuse has increased and how far there has simply been an increase in the reporting of previously unrecognised child sexual abuse. Either way, we all have to tackle the problem, but it will be tackled effectively only if there is public confidence, which appears to be lacking in Cleveland at the moment, that it is done sensitively and carefully.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

On a day when yet another public inquiry into the way in which social services departments carry out their business is in progress, will my hon. Friend assure us that during the inquiry he will remember that society leaves many of the most difficult, painful and confusing cases to be dealt with by social workers? When from time to time they make a mistake, we all rush to condemn them and turn them into a scapegoat. That is an unhelpful way of dealing with the matter and it is sure to destroy the social workers' confidence.

Mr. Newton

I am very conscious of that, and I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend's remarks.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

Does the Minister agree that, while the safety of children must have the highest priority, their interests are not secured by procedures that are faulty or not properly carried out? Investigations of wrongful allegations of child abuse would be extremely damaging not just to the parents but to the children involved. The Minister said that we were well down the track in producing final guidelines for social services departments and that changes in the law had been proposed. As everyone in the House recognises the difficult role of social services departments and, indeed, of medical consultants who are called in to advise, will the Minister tell us when he expects the final guidelines to be issued and proposals for changes in the law to be brought before the House?

Mr. Newton

Obviously we shall want to consider both those points further in the light of what has happened. I aim to issue the guidance within the next few months, taking account of the events in Cleveland and of any further information that we gain about them. Draft guidance exists on these matters. It has clearly not been fully reflected in the events in Cleveland and I am concerned that it should be.

Several Hon. Members

rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.

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