John Hemming MP is campaigning for greater transparency in our family protection system.
The high-handed power of social workers and the courts, working in tandem, threatens even the privileges of Parliament, writes Christopher Booker.
Last week a heavily pregnant woman, whose name is known to millions but whom I am forbidden by law to identify, was summoned to the High Court at very short notice to show why she should not be imprisoned. The charges against her, brought by a local authority I cannot name, were that she might or might not have been in breach of a court order restraining her freedom to speak about a matter which, again, I am prohibited from identifying.
One of these charges was that she attended a meeting, held last month in Westminster Hall, of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on family protection issues, at the invitation of John Hemming MP. He has been campaigning for greater justice and transparency in our highly secretive family protection system, on behalf of families torn apart by social workers for what appear to be no good reasons.
The main speaker at the meeting, the theme of which was transparency in the family courts, was Anthony Douglas, the chief executive of Cafcass (Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service), the state body which purports to represent the interests of children. When the woman raised concerns over the conduct of her case – which, as she understood it, was the meeting’s purpose – it was reported back to the council concerned. This contribution was listed among her alleged breaches of a court order which dictates that she must say nothing about her case to anyone outside the system.
In open court last week, it was stated that the local authority had agreed not to demand her imprisonment, providing that she also obeyed new conditions that forbid her to speak about her case to the media or to any “other persons as the parties may think fit”.
In addition, as I learned from John Hemming, a letter “agreed by all the parties” was sent to him by the woman’s solicitors, requesting him not to make any reference to her case in Parliament. By ancient parliamentary privilege, MPs are entitled to raise in Parliament cases where they believe that the conduct of authorities or the courts has been so questionable that normal rules of secrecy should not protect them from public disclosure. Mr Hemming replied to the lawyers that they were “clearly seeking to influence what I say in Parliament. The case already has aspects which are in contempt of Parliament” and their letter added a further element which “I am inclined to ask should be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee”.
It is difficult to believe, he continued, “when a mother has been threatened with imprisonment for talking to me, that an agreement come to in a court is come to willingly by all parties. It strikes me as an agreement arising as a result of duress.” Mr Hemming went on to say that, before referring to the Speaker a letter which he saw as being “in contravention of the law of Parliament”, he wished the lawyers to explain why he should “feel comfortable that this is something your client should have agreed to without having been threatened with imprisonment and/or the removal of her child at birth”.
He emphasised that he had no intention of disclosing any “information relating to the care proceedings which could be linked to your client or the child”. But from long experience of such cases, he saw the letter “as an attempt by the system to bully your client in an attempt to influence proceedings in Parliament”. He concluded that he would be entitled to “debate the constitutional issues raised simply by naming your client and raising the issues of her treatment by the police and the authorities’ attempts to punish her for her comments to the All-Party Parliamentary Group” .
The mention of the police referred, inter alia, to a recent episode where the mother, who is seven months pregnant, was arrested and held on and off in police cells over a period of 60 hours. Three times she was rushed to hospital in serious distress due to complications in her pregnancy. She was then dragged from her hospital bed after midnight to spend several more hours in a dirty cell, before finally being released.
As Mr Hemming sums the situation up: “There are many very disturbing aspects of this case, about which I cannot yet say as much as I would like. But it appears to be a very extreme example of the lengths to which the family protection system will go to hide its activities from responsible scrutiny by Parliament and the media.”