HC Deb 04 February 1944 vol 396 cc1576-82

Order for Second Reading read.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peake)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The purpose of this Bill is clear from its Title. There are, approximately, 12,500 children now in this country who have come here either as war refugees or else on account of persecution—that is to say, children from the Channel Islands or Gibraltar or the Continent of Europe. Approximately 8,500 children came here in the years 1936–1939 from Central Europe under arrangements ma de by the Refugee Children's Movement, and 3,500 have come here from the Channel Islands since the outbreak of war. There are still about 400 of the children who came to this country during the Spanish civil war, and there are a few, as I have said, evacuated from Gibraltar. There is nobody at the present time who stands in the place of a parent to these children.

We all know from our experience the troubles that arise through lack of parental control, but in regard to these children it is not so much that the children themselves have been in mischief; it is that there is no authority to settle questions which arise from time to time concerning them. There are, for example, dis- putes as to their custody. These children have been found homes, voluntarily for the most part, in this country. Sometimes the home is, in the view of the persons who brought the child here, unsatisfactory and it may be desirable for the child to be moved. But there is no one who can insist on that being done. Again, in the case of young persons desirous of getting married under the legal age, the consent of a parent or guardian is necessary and there is no person by whom such consent can be given. There is also, of course, the difficult question—in regard to which certain Jewish organisations have recently expressed some anxiety—of the religious education of these children.

The Bill provides, in Clause 1, Subsection (1), that the Home Secretary may appoint a guardian to any person who fulfils the conditions laid down in that Clause. These are, first, that the person came here after the end of 1936 in consequence of the war or of religious, racial or political persecution; secondly, that there is no parent of the child in the United Kingdom and, thirdly, that the child has not attained the age of 21 years or, in the case of a female, is already married. Sub-section (2) provides that, where a guardian is appointed under this Bill, that guardian shall, to a certain extent, be able to delegate his powers to such societies or persons as he considers suitable to act on his behalf.

I want to make it quite clear that it is not the intention under this Bill to appoint separate individual guardians for each child. There is a large number of children here, and if the Home Office had to pick individual guardians for each child, and satisfy itself that these guardians were carrying out their duties properly, we would have to set up a separate administrative division of the Home Office. What we intend to do is to appoint suitable persons for suitable groups of children, and, for that reason, we desire the appointed guardians to have certain limited powers of delegating responsibility. Of course, if any important question arises which affects the welfare of the child directly, then a duty will lie upon the guardian to give personal consideration to the case. Sub-section (4) of Clause 1 provides for the revocation of the appointment of a guardian by the Home Secretary at any time, and it imposes a duty upon my right hon. Friend to revoke the appointment if the parent of the child at any time applies. It is always possible that the parents of these children will turn up, or that they may be able themselves to make certain arrangements. In that case, upon application, the Home Secretary will revoke the appointment of the nominated guardian.

Mr. Montague (Islington, West)

Will or may?

Mr. Peake

The precise words of the Clause are these: He shall revoke such appointment on the application of a parent of the ward unless he is satisfied that proper arrangements have not been made by the parent for the care of the ward. I think that is satisfactory. We also make it clear in the Clause that the powers of the High Court in relation to guardians are fully retained, that is to say, on application to the High Court a guardian may be removed by the High Court. The proposals in the Bill do not, in any way, override or interfere with the duties and responsibility of the High Court in regard to the guardianship of the child. I do not imagine there are any other points in the Bill which hon. Members would wish me to refer to at this stage, but if there are either I, with the leave of the House, or my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General will do our best to explain them.

Commander King-Hall (Ormskirk)

In regard to the appointment of these guardians, is the Home Office likely to be in touch with certain organisations specially concerned with children? I have in mind the "Save the Children Fund"

Mr. Peake

Most certainly. We have consulted all the organisations connected with these children in preparing this Bill. They are all favourable to the proposals in the Measure and we shall consult them in regard to the appointment of guardians.

Mr. Maxton (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

It seems that there is to be a sort of public trustee for refugee children. What sort of person has the right hon. Gentleman in mind? Is it to be a public official?

Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)

I do not want to detain the House for more than a minute or two. Everybody recognises that this is a useful and pro- per Bill to bring forward at this time. It makes one wonder how the Government have managed to do without it up to the present, because I am sure there have been considerable difficulties. Merely for elucidation, I would like to ask the Solicitor-General to explain further the idea of block guardianship. Are we to have a large number of these children, coming from the Channel Islands, put under the care of some responsible citizen form those Islands, who will be responsible for them or, alternatively, will they be allocated, so far as may be, with friends and relatives of their parents who have no local standing but who are on terms of friendship and intimacy with them? Another question I would like to ask is about the guardianship of those children who are not of British nationality. Is it proposed that the guardians appointed for them shall be of British nationality, or persons of the country of origin from which the children came?

The Solicitor-General (Major Sir David Maxwell Fyfe)

With regard to the appointment of guardians there will be clear and obvious groups into which the children will fall—the Channel Islands group, the Czech group and so on—and they will, of necessity, be divided into geographical groups according to where they are situated. The supplementary idea is that there will be guardians for the children who are in different parts of the country. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) as to the type of person, the suggestion is that the people who have been doing this voluntary work, with great success and sacrifice and kindness on their part, will be used for this purpose. I think it would be convenient that they should be of British nationality, but the overriding idea in their selection will be to use people who have already devoted themselves to this admirable work.

Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)

I want to impress on the Home Office the great importance of a Bill of this kind. It is one of the great tragedies of the war that thousands of people throughout occupied countries have lost contact with their parents and relatives. I have no doubt that the Home Office have in mind that, as the enemy are driven further back and we open our Second Front, it is possible that a large number of refugee children may be thrown on our hands. This is a work of mercy and I would like to congratulate the Home Office on having the foresight to bring in this Bill. But the human factor does come in and they have a great responsibility to think out very carefully the kind of foster-parents to whom these children will be entrusted.

From my own knowledge, I can say that some magnificent work has been, and is being, done by people in this country in looking after children who have lost their homes and parents. Nevertheless, there is a danger—and I am sure the Home Office is aware of it—of unsuitable people becoming the guardians of these children. The point about block guardians ought to be cleared up. Have the Government in mind groups of persons and organisations being made guardians or will individuals in every case be personally responsible? The idea of farming out their responsibility is rather distasteful. If they do this, they have a responsibility to see that the persons who take over are equally competent. At a time when there is a great shortage of persons free to do this work, and when almost every married woman is up to her eyes in work at home and elsewhere, it must be very difficult to find suitable people. It makes the task of the Home Office very difficult. What we all wish to ensure is that nobody should exploit this work for financial gain.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

As many A these children are of the Jewish faith I would like to make one or two observations on this matter. I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) said with regard to the care which is being and has been shown by so many people towards these children, in striking contrast to what they have had to undergo in less happy lands. As a result of what has taken place in so many countries in Europe, many Jewish children have, unfortunately, died. Therefore, it is all the more necessary to safeguard the religious faith of those who have been fortunate enough to survive, particularly those who have been fortunate enough to come to these islands.

I would like the Government to give an assurance that proper arrangements will be made, so far as is practicable, to see that these children are entrusted to guardians who will have regard to the religious faith of the parents of these children, so far as this is known. Many Jewish children here have been living in Christian households and I know how extremely careful their hosts have been to see that the children were able to follow their own particular form of religious faith. But there have been others who, from a zeal one can understand, and perhaps because opportunities for Jewish observance were not easily accessible, felt it was right for the children to attend other places of worship and who have acted in a way which has been disturbing to those who wish these children to be brought up in the faith of their parents Therefore, I should like to ask my right hon. Friend if the religious authorities of the Jewish community are being consulted about the choice of guardians for Jewish children and if everything will be done to safeguard the religious faith of these children. We are all extremely grateful for what has been done in looking after the material side of these children's lives and we hope that their spiritual welfare will not be neglected.

Mr. Montague

I do not find in the Bill any special attention being given to religious education, as applying not only to Jews but to other sections as well. I do not know whether the Under-Secretary has anything further to say on the matter.

Mr. Peake

New arrivals of children in this country will, of course, be covered by the Bill. We intend to appoint separate guardians for large groups of children, but the guardians will not be corporate bodies or committees. They will be individuals with a high degree of personal responsibility for the welfare of the children. There will, certainly, be different guardians for the different national groups, Spanish, Czech, German and so forth, There may also be separate guardians according to the geographical situation of the children, that is to say, whether they are in Scotland, England or Northern Ireland, but on that point I should not like to be dogmatic at this stage, because we have not yet selected the persons who are to be appointed.

Sir P. Harris

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that suitable persons will be available?

Mr. Peake

I do not think there will be any great difficulty about that. The duties obviously will be responsible and onerous, but we have such excellent organisations which have been taking care of the children already, that I do not doubt that from those bodies suitable personnel can be found. In arranging for the care of these children, one of the most important considerations is that regard shall be paid to their religious persuasion and that care shall be taken to ensure that children belonging to a particular persuasion shall not be deprived of facilities for religious training and shall not be subjected to any form of proselytising which would be obnoxious to the views of the religious body to which the child's parents belong. The organisations responsible for the care of these children are fully conscious of the importance of this consideration and there has been no failure on their part to keep this principle prominently in mind; but as things stand at present, if any organisation should find that some foster-parents are failing to observe this principle, the organisation has no authority to remove the child if the foster-parents are obstinate.

One of the advantages of the Bill is that, when a legal guardian is appointed, that guardian will have authority to take any necessary steps to safeguard the child's religious education and, moreover, win have a legal duty to take such steps. This is a matter to which the Home Office has given close attention and the question was considered whether any express provision on this subject should be inserted in the Bill. We are, however, advised that under the existing law a child should be brought up in the religious faith of the father unless the father has waived his rights by allowing the child to be brought up in some other religion, and that in effect therefore there is a legal duty on the guardian to bring up his ward in the religion to which the child belongs. An express provision in the Bill is, therefore, unnecessary and it is undesirable to attempt to embody the principle in the Statute. I hope hon. Members will be satisfied that this important question is fully covered.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House.—[Mr. Drew.]

Committee upon the next Sitting Day.