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Mr. Clifton-Brown: I accept the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I am probing the Minister as to how that will work in practice. We have all heard of shocking cases of children falling through the net and being abused. The West case, which occurred in my constituency, was one of the worst in history. Obvious mistakes were made, but having discussed the matter in detail with Gloucestershire social services, I am sure that such a thing is unlikely to happen today. Let us all hope and pray that it cannot. We welcome the amendment in principle, but we want to see how it will work.

The amendment makes it clear that social services can act only with the consent of the applicant. Again, the question is one of understanding and of who said what at a particular time. For example, what will happen if a child, for whatever reason—they might be fearful or might not understand what is going on—does not give consent for social services to act on their behalf? The child could still be vulnerable, but the import of the amendment will be circumvented if they do not wish to give consent. What will happen in such situations?

If local government is to be reorganised along more regional lines, will regional assemblies have a role in this matter? The sharing of such responsibilities between a plethora of local government tiers would lead to increasing difficulties. I ask the Minister to explain, when she winds up the debate, how the amendment will work in practice.

Glenda Jackson: I seem to be speaking to an entirely different amendment from the one that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) has just defined. My hon. Friend the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that the amendment will ensure that a child cannot be taken away from its family under the current statutory requirements of the Children Act 1989. If, for a variety of reasons, a family is deemed intentionally homeless, it will be the duty of the housing authority, working closely with social services, to ensure that the family can be kept together. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that the amendment deals with abused children, but I suspect that they are already protected under the 1989 Act. I am aware of only one instance in

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which someone who was in desperate need of housing refused to approach the local housing authority because that person had been told that its response would be to place the children in care. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of a growing belief—I speak from my direct experience in London—that if a family with children are deemed to have become intentionally homeless, the housing authority's first step will be to contact social services to take the children into care. I understand that the amendment would prevent that.

Close working between the social services and housing departments—I am happy to say that such a relationship between the departments already exists in Camden—that will have a responsibility to assist such families means that the family will not be marooned and left to attempt to find their own housing and that children will not be taken into care. Children should be taken into care if there is clear evidence that they are being abused or are in danger within the family, but they should not be put into care simply because of a shortage of housing.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Lady will realise that no hon. Member would wish to see children taken into care purely for housing reasons, but surely she recognises that in some cases—happily small in number—a social issue that could lead to a child being taken into care comes to light only because of a housing issue. The housing department may be the first to get wind of a problem.

Glenda Jackson: I have already told the House that I have had only one direct experience of someone who refused to approach their local authority because they believed that their children would be taken into care. I am not clear about the case that the hon. Gentleman makes. I have already said that if clear evidence shows that a child—whether homeless or not—is in danger from their family, for whatever reason, social services have a responsibility to act. However, if the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that the danger to the child was the fact that the family had nowhere to live and that the child should be taken from an otherwise caring family and put into care, I would strongly disagree. It is my perception that the amendment would ensure that that could not happen.

Chris Grayling: I do not wish to describe the case I mentioned in detail, for obvious reasons, but a social issue that should have led social services to question whether to take a child into care arose only because of a housing-related matter being dealt with by the housing department. That is a very specific example.

Glenda Jackson: The hon. Gentleman makes the case for much closer working between housing and social services departments. I know from my experience of my local authority that such close working already takes place. When housing families, local authorities should work more closely not only with the Department of Health—as my hon. Friend the Minister said—but with education departments. It is almost impossible for local authorities in Greater London to rehouse every family within their own borders, so they must work closely with all the boroughs within the London conurbation.

I welcome the amendment. It will do much to allay the genuine or perceived fears of family members—not all local authorities have Camden's excellent record—and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to disseminate its

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contents, even before the Bill receives Royal Assent, to local authorities that have not yet introduced closer working between social services and housing departments. Families should not fear that if they present themselves their children will be taken from them and put into care, and they will still be homeless. That can create enormous tensions and strains in a family and, inevitably, it is the children who suffer.

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is right that there has been relatively little discussion during the passage of the Bill of children and homelessness. Today, we have already heard about the many homeless households, and recognise that a large proportion of them live in inappropriate temporary accommodation. Indeed, many homeless households live in extremely inappropriate bed and breakfast accommodation. We must recognise that those households include many children. The recently published Shelter report "No Room to Play: Children and Homelessness" states:


It is therefore right that the House should address concerns about the support that legislation can provide for such children.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) rightly hoped that the Lords amendment would go a long way towards addressing some of the current problems. We must recognise that there are already many examples of good practice, whereby local authority housing departments and social services departments work together to meet the needs of homeless children and their families. However, that is not true of all local authorities, so we should include in the Bill a requirement that all local authority housing and social services departments co-operate in a way already practised by the very best departments.

I therefore welcome the Lords amendment, but I am conscious that it will not solve all the problems. During deliberation on the amendments in another place, reference was made to difficulties resulting from the Children Act 1989 and a number of court cases and judgments that have led to homeless families being under threat of their children being taken into care. I understand that the Government have made a clear commitment to reverse the effect of those judgments by amending the Children Act through an amendment to the Adoption and Children Bill. I should be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that that remains the Government's intention and an explanation of the way in which the change will be introduced.

I am conscious that the Lords amendment will require sensitive handling by social services departments. If a local authority social services department is to become involved, the agreement of the family concerned will be required, so sensitivity is essential. In another place, Lord Falconer said on 24 January at column 152 that he fully accepted the need for sensitivity and gave an assurance that appropriate guidance would be issued on the way in which that sensitivity would be exercised by local authorities. I should be grateful if the Minister told the House a little more about Government intentions on that guidance.

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6.45 pm

The issue is important, but it is wrong of the hon. Member for Cotswold to suggest that there has been no deliberation on it during the Bill's passage. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that on a number of occasions in Committee I spoke to amendments I had tabled, expressing considerable concern about, for example, a parent's behaviour leading to a family being refused priority housing. Lord Falconer and the Minister expressed concern about that, and promised to amend the Bill. I am delighted that as a result of subsequent deliberation, Lords amendment No. 3 was tabled, but by itself it will not be sufficient to meet all the concerns of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate. I hope that the Minister will give us assurances and guarantees that the amendments to which I have already referred will be made.


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