HC Deb 10 May 1990 vol 172 cc501-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Patnick.]

11.5 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Croydon, North-West)

It may be thought surprising that we in this country did not know earlier of the appalling tragedy of the Romanian orphans. In any event, since Ceausescu's death in December 1989, the tragic story of those child victims of a terrible regime has gradually unfolded, leaving people in this country and elsewhere in Europe deeply shocked and deeply moved.

The Ceausescu regime was cruel to women and children. It banned contraception and outlawed abortion, and women were expected to bear at least five children by law. With no means to prevent them, pregnancies came in rapid succession. Women also had to work, because a single wage was not enough to keep a family.

In a country that had hitherto treated infectious diseases as a state secret, the AIDS epidemic among young children, and the scale of mental and physical handicap that afflicted them, is truly heartbreaking. The scale of AIDS among children in Romania is unprecedented, and though it was thought that it was largely confined to children, a report in The Times today suggests that many adults are affected as well. It is likely that the epidemic was caused by infected blood transfusions given to newborn babies, who lack any immunity, or by the use of infected syringes. Romania's mortality rate was high, and underweight, frail babies resulting from starvation diets and overworked mothers were the norm.

Thousands of undernourished, unwanted and aban-doned children found their way into Romania's overflowing orphanages. They were treated with unscreened blood plasma taken from hundreds of samples. Thus were the children infected with the AIDS virus, resulting in probably the worst child AIDS epidemic in the world.

How many such children are there? A figure of 550 HIV positive infants was given in February, but it is thought by many to be only the tip of the iceberg. How many orphans are there now? Perhaps 200,000 of them—though as no one knows for sure, it is difficult to give an accurate figure. The orphanages vary in size, taking from 50 to 800 children. One is thought to have 1,400 children in it.

When people in Britain began to understand the scale of the tragedy, they wanted to help by making gifts of money, toys, food, and medical supplies—and by seeking to adopt young infants who lacked the security of parents. It is about those efforts to help, and the vital need to co-ordinate them, that I want to say a few words tonight.

The Croydon Advertiser, an outstanding provincial newspaper, has this year highlighted the tragedy of the Romanian orphans. It appealed to its many readers to help, in a series of deeply moving articles. That call has been answered. It was much encouraged by Mr. Speaker, who, as Member of Parliament for Croydon, North-East, has taken a deep interest in the problem and has visited Romania. The Croydon Advertiser appeal has raised more than £14,000.

Croydon's help has been practical. A most able and experienced Croydon Advertiser reporter, Hilary Brook, joined a group of Croydon volunteers who drove a truckload of food, clothes and medical supplies from Croydon to Romania in early February. Their destination was an orphanage 17 miles outside Cluj-Napoca, on the Dej road.

As Hilary Brook reported, the volunteers found an orphanage which was home—if one could call it such—to some 300 boys. Some were simply abandoned, some were genuine orphans, some were mentally or physically handicapped and most were crippled. Each child—they were aged between six and 18—had a metal cup containing water, a little bread, a little onion and a few cubes of fat, but no knives, forks or plates. It was freezing outside and not much better inside and they had nothing hot to eat or drink. Some children had twisted limbs so that they could hardly walk, others were in dormitories and were so handicapped that they could not move. Hilary Brook reported that they were unloved, unwanted and uncared for, but that their spirit was still unbroken. The incidence of physical handicap was extraordinarily high.

Later the Croydon Advertiser reported that a Croydon head teacher, Stuart Newton, from Selsdon High school, together with Ralph Osborne, was to take blankets, warm clothes and toys donated by readers, school pupils and others from the Croydon and Bromley areas to the orphanage. More volunteers will be travelling in a few weeks time.

A major concern is that, although a huge United Kingdom relief operation is under way, largely made up of individuals or small groups, many of those involved have little experience of such problems and simply follow their instincts. They worry that there is a lack of co-ordination here or in Romania. It seems that many voluntary bodies are acting independently with no central body to co-ordinate their efforts.

There is no doubt that the British Government are seeking to do what they can. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has told the House of the work done by the International Red Cross and of the large United Kingdom contribution to that. He also told the House about the Government's donation of a consignment of 1.8 tonnes of medical supplies on 24 December and several items of medical equipment since then, including 1 million disposable syringes worth £40,000. Five victims of the December fighting are in the United Kingdom for major surgery, at a cost yet to be determined. A further £53,000 has been made available to finance a project by Marie Stopes International to improve birth control services in Romania. He told us that we are contributing about £5.8 million to food aid and medical supplies packages sent, or so far agreed, by the EC. Further funds, as yet to be determined, will be made available, he told us, over the next few months for medical supplies.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health, Lady Hooper, is taking a keen interest in the problems. She recommended that priority be given to the work of the task forces to develop maternity and child health services, to build up missing skills through the provision of nursing and other health personnel and in developing a satisfactory management system for primary health care. She would also like funding to be provided for essential drugs and medical devices of which there is a considerable' shortage in Romania.

However, the question of co-ordination of effort remains. The British Red Cross confirms that no body exists to co-ordinate the contribution of voluntary organisations. It describes children as one of its top priorities in Romania, now that the emergency medical aid has been provided, and is concentrating on providing long-term help to improve standards in orphanages whilst working to have those institutions dismantled altogether. It is providing aid in the form of toys, cots, blankets and so on, and attempting to see that heating is provided in the winter. The orphanages do not have any form of heating. The British Red Cross is acting together with the International Red Cross, and each country has been allocated a particular area of the country within which to work. The British Red Cross is the largest organisation involved in providing aid.

Other organisations working to provide aid to Romanian children include the Romanian Orphanage Trust, the World Vision of Free Romanians, the Terrence Higgins Trust and the Flanders Scottish Alliance of Edinburgh. Kevin Ernshaw, the project director of Flanders, has visited the orphanages in Romania extensively, pointing out the need not for more children's homes, but to empty those that already exist, and the need for specialist nurses and nursing homes and specialist training. He says that we should help in the specialist training of Romanians so that they can provide appropriate care and treatment.

The Terrence Higgins Trust has worked magnificently and has been acting as an informal contact point for the various organisatons providing aid to Romania.

One issue concerning those poor children that has been highlighted in the press is adoption. I understand that the British agencies for adoption and fostering know of no voluntary or official body to approach with regard to possible adoption, as there are no approved adoption agencies in the United Kingdom dealing with foreign adoption. All such adoptions are arranged by private agencies. They are referring inquiries to the Romanian embassy which, apparently, has no information but is advising inquirers to contact the Flanders Scottish Alliance.

My message to my hon. Friend is that there are so many people—not just in Croydon but throughout the country and in many other places—who are willing and wanting to help in so many ways that surely there is a need for those people to have some co-ordination here and in Romania.

The Croydon Advertiser reporter, Hilary Brook, recently went to a national conference organised by a Southampton group called Starvation Aid for Romania, which is trying to get together a database for all United Kingdom groups involved in relief work. Surely that is a sensible move and the right approach. There is an argument for the Government to provide funds for a contact point which can collect facts, information and views centrally, and advise those many people who are willing to help but struggling for guidance, so that effort is neither duplicated nor wasted.

I raise the subject tonight on the Adjournment because it is of great importance locally in Croydon and nationally. I know that my hon. Friend is deeply concerned with the issue and I hope that he will be able to say something on the important question of co-ordination of British efforts to provide some desperately needed help for those poor children.

11.17 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) has generously allowed me a couple of minutes to take part in this short debate. Everyone in the House tonight has listened with gratitude and sadness to his moving account of a terrifying situation.

My hon. Friend was kind enough to refer to the work of the Romanian Orphanage Trust. My wife is one of the trustees and on her behalf I should like to express the thanks of the trust to all those Members on both sides of the House who have contributed personally to the work of the trust and who have involved their constituents in fund-raising for that work. A great deal of money has been raised, and a great deal more will be needed to send the medical teams, paediatricians and nurses to whom my hon. Friend referred to help the orphans in Romania. Foremost among the Members of Parliament who have contributed to that work has been Mr. Speaker.

My hon. Friend referred to the work of that outstanding provincial paper, the Croydon Advertiser. I hope that he will not mind if I couple the work of that newspaper with the work of the Daily Mail, and with the name of the estimable Hilary Brook the name of Bob Graham who has turned an assignment into a crusade. We often criticise the press for various aspects of its work, but it is only right that in this case we should praise those newspapers which have dedicated their efforts to keeping the plight of those desperate children in the forefront of our thoughts.

It is a sad fact that the plight of the orphans may depend on the outcome of elections in Romania in which the opposition parties are denied all access to free media by Ceausescu's successors. Unless the elections in Romania are free and fair, and unless a free Government are returned, one fears that the orphans there will face a new dark age. It is therefore vital that newspapers such as the Croydon Advertiser and the Daily Mail continue their work to keep the matter in the forefront of people's minds and to try to ensure that democracy prevails and that those children receive the help that they need. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West, I wish them well.

11.19 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Sainsbury)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) on bringing the plight of the Romanian orphans to the attention of the House and on doing so movingly and eloquently. As my hon. Friend has described, over the months since the revolution in Romania, efforts by the western media, especially British television news and, of course, such excellent newspapers as the Croydon Advertiser, have unearthed one of the most horrifying human legacies of the years of the Ceausescu dictatorship.

In orphanages throughout Romania, babies and young children, some of them mentally handicapped, have been languishing in terrible conditions, as my hon. Friend has described. The shocking scenes, for example, of the Brincovenesti Castle institution, which were shown on BBC television earlier this year, were scarcely to be believed. In many other locations around the country, as my hon. Friend has so graphically described, children and babies have been found living with barely the minimum of health care, food and attention.

Some of the young children in those institutions are doubtless there because their parents are dead or physically incapable of looking after them, but many are there for other reasons. For many years, Romanian women were denied access to contraception because of Ceausescu's desire to increase the size of the Romanian population. They were forced into either back-street abortion, with all the horrendous risks to health that that entails, or into abandoning the babies that they could not afford to look after. Many families could scarcely feed themselves, let alone a new arrival, and we should pause before criticising too fiercely parents who abandoned their unwanted children in such hopeless circumstances.

Ceausescu's policies exerted a baleful influence on every aspect of Romanian life. Such news as managed to leak out from the country pointed to arguably the worst human rights record in eastern Europe—and that was well beforethe revolution of 1989. Political life was ruthlessly suppressed and would-be dissidents were harassed and jailed. Freedom of expression and religion was severely circumscribed by decree. The press and television were totally controlled by the state apparatus. Ordinary Romanians were forced to conform to the will of the dictator and his wife by the Securitate secret police, who ruled by fear.

In the economy, 25 years of Ceausescu's policies had brought the system to a virtual standstill. His obsession with generating hard currency even led him to order that food supplies, badly needed in Romania—by the children more than anyone else—should instead be exported. Weand other western countries did what we could to support ordinary Romanians through the provisions of the Helsinki process, but the suffering was widespread. The regime's indifference to human rights was perhaps epitomised by the fact that it even incarcerated the United Nations human rights rapporteur, Dumitru Mazilu.

The discoveries that I have mentioned are heartrending, but, as my hon. Friend has said, the response to them in Britain has been magnificent. Around the country, British people have given freely of their time and money to bring aid to the Romanian orphans. The British Red Cross's "Help Romania" appeal elicited a huge response in the early days of the revolution. Bristol Mencap and the Romanian Orphanage Trust have brought desperately needed aid to orphanages, and the Daily Mail, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) said, has just launched a £1 million appeal for the same purpose. The Flanders Scottish Alliance, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West referred, the Romania Aid Fund and many other groups have organised convoys to take food and medical supplies into Romania. My hon. Friend has described this and, more particularly, the splendid efforts of the people of Croydon in response to the appeal by the Croydon Advertiser, supported by my hon. Friend and by Mr. Speaker himself. The generosity of the British people has been wonderful.

My hon. Friend has outlined some of the ways in which the Government have also been glad to contribute to the solution of this great problem. Our aid to Romania since the revolution, direct or via the EC, totals £6.6 million. We have funded a family planning programme which will contribute towards removing one of the causes of the problem of unwanted children. As my hon. Friend said, one of the most distressing aspects of the problem of the orphans is the number of children who are HIV-positive —up to 50 per cent. in some orphanages and schools. 'The Romanian practice of giving blood transfusions to undernourished babies has led to widespread infection. We are doing what we can to help. We have given I million disposable syringes and needles. We are also paying for the transport to Romania of generous donations of disposable gloves from the Far Eastern Group of Chesterfield and of contraceptives and syringes from London International Group. We have given equipment for the testing of blood for the HIV virus.

Our help has not, however, been confined to tackling the AIDS problem. We have made contributions to two of the British charities that I have mentioned, to help send doctors and nurses to Romania and bring for training in this country Romanians responsible for looking after mentally handicapped children at the Brincovenesti Castle institution. We have also donated funds to transport, and reassembled in a children's hospital in Bucharest, some £250,000-worth of used X-ray equipment, kindly donated by Walsall Manor hospital. The arrangement was made by the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), to whose efforts in this field I also pay tribute. Finally, I should add that we brought to this country for surgery at our expense five young victims of the fighting at the time of the revolution.

My hon. Friend raised the crucial question of how aid to Romania should be co-ordinated. Proper coordination, accurate targeting and effective delivery of aid are top priorities for the Government in our own aid programmes worldwide. I know from my dealings in other areas with the United Nations agencies and non-governmental organisations how important it is to channel aid through bodies that know what is needed most, and by whom, and how to get it there. It is for that reason, and because the problem is so large, that we believe that the main humanitarian effort to help Romania must come through the international community and the international bodies, whose resources and expertise are essential.

The EC Commission has already allocated £35.5 million for general medical and food aid since the revolution. The 12 Governments of the Community last week expressed their concern to the authorities:in Romania about conditions in Romanian orphanages and homes for mentally handicapped children. The Romanians said that they are determined to improve conditions, and have already started to do so with the help of aid provided by friendly Governments and organisations. The European Commission now proposes to send a medical specialist to Romania to examine conditions in orphanages there. In the light of his findings, they have offered to organise joint action with non-governmental bodies in member states. That will be a valuable role in co-ordinating the international effort, as my hon. Friend rightly said. Once their plans are clear, we shall be happy to advise all the voluntary organisations with which we are in contact.

Several other international bodies are very experienced and efficient in co-ordinating and supplying aid. My hon. Friend has already mentioned the Red Cross. The Romanian authorities are co-operating with the United Nations Children's Fund to help orphans and mentally handicapped children. Finally, the World Health Organisation has organised a large-scale programme of assistance to the Romanian health service. My right hon.

Friend the Minister for Overseas Development announced on 5 April that the Government would donate £500,000 to the WHO programme. We shall make sure that the organisations are fully aware of the scale of the generous response of the British public—and, indeed, the public in other countries—and play their part in ensuring that the total aid effort is satisfactorily co-ordinated.

My hon. Friend has spoken of the group in Southampton called Starvation Aid to Romania, which is organising a database for all United Kingdom groups involved. This should clearly be of great help, and we shall be delighted to pass to the group whatever useful information we can.

I have outlined some moves that are in progress, which I hope will go some way towards meeting my hon. Friend's concern that all the help provided—and particularly that provided by the people of Croydon—will always be directed where it is most needed. These measures, and the other help in train, will go some way to overcoming the problems in Romania. However, my hon. Friends will agree that, in the long term, there can be no substitute for Romania itself coming to grips with the problems. That can be done best in a free society which can call on the resources of a flourishing economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North mentioned his concern about free elections. We regard free elections as a rightful contribution to the creation of a free society and, therefore, of a flourishing economy.

As a step towards assisting Romania to develop the abilities in this respect, we have taken measures to help the new and recently reformed Romanian political parties to organise for the elections that are to be held shortly. We have invited a group of their representatives to visit the United Kingdom for a political seminar organised by the Great Britain-East Europe Centre and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. We later donated 118 tonnes of paper, which, I regret to say, is in short supply in Romania, to the main parties for use in the elections. My hon. Friends will be well aware of the amount of paper that is used in elections. The British Government are ready and willing to help Romania more extensively, once there is a clear commitment to democracy and economic freedom.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North raised the subject of adoption. I am not competent to speak in detail about that which is strictly the preserve of my colleagues in the Department of Health and the Home Office. I am sure that the House would agree that, all other things being equal, it is better for children to be looked after in their own country. This is, indeed, a principle of the United Nations declaration on adoption and fostering. But I can certainly sympathise with the sincere reaction of the many British people who wish to give one of the Romanian orphans a home and family here. I wish to make it very clear that the Government have no desire to put obstacles in their way.

We have to apply the same rules and procedures as we would for an adoption in the United Kingdom. These are safeguards to protect the children. I know that they can seem slow and cumbersome, but my colleagues in the Department of Health and the Home Office are reviewing them to see if they can be streamlined and improved. We have done our best to clarify requirements on the Romanian side as well. I can assure the House that applications are, and will be, dealt with as quickly as is consistent with the welfare of the child, which must be the concern of us all.

I have run through, I hope without repeating too much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West said, the causes of the tragic plight of Romanian orphans, to which he drew the attention of the House. They lie in the inhuman policies of the unlamented Ceausescu regime. I have paid tribute to the sterling work of British individuals and groups in sending aid, and outlined the Government's contribution. I have referred to some of the ways in which the aid effort is being co-ordinated and will be further co-ordinated in future. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important subject, and hope that what I have said has gone some way to reassuring the House that the Government are committed to doing what they can to help.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.