Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Norfolk County Council has denied accusations that it deliberately misled a “vulnerable young mother” to stop her getting help from her MP.
North-West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham used parliamentary privilege to accuse the authority of conspiring to stop him “going about his duty” in the contested adoption case of his constituent, “Miss P”.
He told the House of Commons that the family at the centre of the case had wrongly been emailed by Norfolk County Council to tell them that if they showed him the documents, they would be in breach of family procedure rules and in contempt of court.
He said he needed to see the statements and assessments from social workers relating to the family court case in order to help.
He told parliament that either Norfolk County Council had been ignorant of a recent law change, or they had “conspired to stop MPs going about their duty”. Sheila Lock, interim director of children’s services at Norfolk County Council, said the authority was disappointed that it had been raised in the House of Commons when the council had already written to him to accept that it had made an error, apologising, and assuring him it had taken steps to ensure it would not happen again.
She added: “We greatly value the work our local MPs do to represent the interests of their constituents and the wider interests of Norfolk.
“We are always keen to work with them in those same interests and it certainly has never been our intention or desire to act in such a way as to hinder their work in any way at all.”
But Mr Bellingham said he would refer the case to the Committee for Privileges and will also put his complaint in writing to the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow.
“I take the matter very seriously, because I have been prevented from getting full and considered advice to Miss P,” he added.
But Ms Lock said: “As we have explained to Mr Bellingham, our first priority always is to act in the interest of the child and given the very nature of such cases, this sometimes requires a difficult balancing act between the need to protect a child’s confidentiality and the information desires of adults.
“What we know is that this matter raises issues that go wider than Norfolk, which is why we discussed with him that we would be raising this matter with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services in the eastern region and seek further advice.
“We are waiting for that advice but we have told Mr Bellingham that we will share it with him and respond positively to any matters that it raises.”
Justice minister Simon Hughes said the matter was of “great constitutional importance and significance”, adding that local authorities needed to know the law.
He said: “It is clear to me that the solicitor acting for Norfolk County Council was wrong in what she said, which was that it would be clearly in breach of the family procedure rules and a contempt of court for the documents to be disclosed to the Member of Parliament of the person in question.”