HC Deb 19 May 1999 vol 331 cc979-99

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

9.33 am
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

I begin by expressing my gratitude to you, Madam Speaker, that we are holding this debate on the report of the Select Committee on Health. In 1992, in your House, you hosted a function for the international board of the Rugby Football League at which I met Tilly Brasch from Queensland, Australia, who is the wife of an Australian rugby league official. She told me the tale of the British child migrants—about which I had previously heard nothing. Subsequently, I became involved with that issue and, on several occasions, was moved to press the Government about my concerns.

I express my profound thanks to Mrs. Margaret Humphreys who wrote the book "Empty Cradles"—now a bestseller—about her fight to uncover what she described as Britain's most shameful secret. The book is about the history of child migration and how Mrs. Humphreys came across it through her work as a social worker with Nottinghamshire county council. I express my gratitude to her and to the Child Migrants Trust which she formed and which has done a tremendous amount of work to bring the issue to light. It is also appropriate to record the Health Committee's thanks to Nottinghamshire county council for its work in supporting the trust financially and in other ways over several years.

I am grateful to the all-party parliamentary group on child migrants, some of whose members are in the Chamber today. I hope that they will catch your eye, Madam Speaker, as I know that they want to speak about their work. I sincerely thank my colleagues on the Health Committee for the support that they have given me during our inquiry, especially those Members who went to Australia and New Zealand for what was an extremely traumatic couple of weeks taking evidence. It would be wrong of me not to thank the staff of the Health Committee. Although I should not single out individuals, I especially want to thank Second Clerk John Whatley for his valiant work in helping the Committee to draw up the report, and Committee Assistant Frank McShane for his support in organising the visit to Australia and New Zealand.

I thank all the former child migrants who participated in the inquiry. I shall mention some of them later in my remarks. I thank the Canadian representatives of the Ellen Foundation Inc. and Home Children Canada, who came to the United Kingdom at their own expense to give evidence to the Committee. I sincerely thank the high commission and consular staff in Auckland, Wellington, Melbourne, Canberra and Perth for their efforts on behalf of the Committee and for the help that they have given to the former migrants. It is appropriate to give special thanks to the consul-general in Melbourne, Peter Innes, and his wife Robbie, for allowing their home to be used for two days while we took evidence from the former migrants. I also thank Ministers, politicians and officials in New Zealand and Australia for their co-operation.

Finally, I thank the British Government. Although there will be critical comment today, I realise that the Government's response to the Health Committee report has, in general, been extremely positive. That is appreciated by all those who are concerned about this issue.

I will say a little about the background to our report, but whatever we say in the debate will fail to do justice to the issue. All those who know about child migration will accept that point. I apologise to those affected by child migration for the fact that we will not be able to do justice to what they all went through. The debate is about one of the most shameful secrets of Britain's recent past. It is about the deportation, in effect, of thousands of vulnerable children and young people from our care system. It is about this country washing its hands of responsibility for its own citizens, who, in many instances, had the most appalling experiences as a direct consequence.

To illustrate that point, I refer to an answer that I received from the previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). I have always regarded the right hon. Gentleman as basically a decent human being, despite our differences. In answer to my question on child migration, he said:

Any concern about the treatment of the children in another country is essentially a matter for the authorities in that country."—[Official Report, 2 November 1993; Vol. 231, c. 147.] Those were British children, placed by British agencies and local authorities in a scheme authorised and encouraged by successive British Governments. Those children were, and still are, our responsibility.

The debate is about a top-level cover-up of the results of policies pursued by British Governments of different political persuasions. It is about the suppression of the scandalous consequences of a bizarre scheme that had clear undertones of racism and physical and sexual exploitation. Most important, the debate is about what we can do now to help those whose lives were affected and, in many instances, ruined by the child migration schemes.

I will touch on several of the key points of our report. Most hon. Members will be aware that, from 1618 to 1967, about 150,000 children were sent from the care system to various parts of the former Commonwealth. After the second world war, 10,000 children were sent to New Zealand and Australia. Most, if not all, of us here today could have been eligible to be one of those children. This week, I checked in the House of Commons Library to find the average age of Members of Parliament; somewhat surprising, but refreshing, was the discovery that I am one of the younger Members, the average age being 51.1 years. Therefore, given that the child migrant scheme ran until 1967, the majority of serving Members of Parliament could have been eligible for it and might have been sent abroad. We are talking not about ancient history, but about events that occurred within our own lifetime.

The scheme was ostensibly designed to enable children to have better lives, and I concede that we met some people in New Zealand and Australia who said that they had probably gained from the scheme, even though all of them were aware of how badly organised it was and how questionable were the motives underpinning it from the word go. In my view and that of the Committee, the real motivation for the child migration schemes was often to obtain cheap labour and, in Australia, to increase what was described as "good white stock"—a racist motivation to which our report refers.

The reality for significant numbers of the children involved was separation from their siblings: we heard tale after tale of brother being separated from sister, never to see each other again after arrival, especially in Australia. The reality was years of suffering, degradation and denial of the fact that most of the children had natural parents and families still living. For the natural parents, who were often persuaded to part with their offspring on the pretext that they would be adopted in good circumstances in Britain, the reality was years of lies and deceit.

Our report opens with a quote from the chief executive of Barnardo's, and it is worth repeating: It was barbaric; it was dreadful. We look back on it in our organisation with shock and horror.

I believe that his remarks are honest expressions of sincere regret that reflect the views of an organisation for which I have the greatest respect. Barnardo's is genuinely trying to face up to its past practices, but, sadly, not all the organisations and Churches involved in the child migrant schemes share that profound regret. Some are still anxious to avoid their responsibility and to obstruct the right of former migrants to know the truth about themselves.

One witness felt that the consequences of the schemes had been overdramatised by television—the term he used was "sensationalised". He referred particularly to a television drama-documentary called "The Leaving of Liverpool", which some hon. Members will have seen. That programme showed a child being torn from his mother by a nun and put on to a train at Liverpool station. We met that child, now grown up and living in New Zealand, after having been sent to Australia by the system. We spoke to him and he told us that those events had not been sensationalised, but that they actually happened. He described his memories of having been placed in care by his mother, who could not afford to keep him; she had to go out to work, so she placed him in a Catholic institution. She found out that her son was, in effect, to be deported and he has a vivid memory of, as a youngster, seeing his mother wrestling with that nun at Liverpool station. All those things happened; we must face up to that and do something about it.

Most of the report's recommendations have been addressed in the Government's response, and I welcome the fact that the Government have responded so positively to an extremely difficult issue which has not been satisfactorily addressed by previous Governments. However, I want to press my hon. Friend the Minister on certain specific concerns relating to the Government's response.

I am concerned about the continued failure properly to resource the Child Migrants Trust—the agency which, in the Committee's view, is carrying out the most important work of rehabilitating former migrants in their natural families, counselling them and supporting them. The increase of £130,000 on last year's grant, which was £20,000, is welcome, but the actual increase is only £70,000. That is because although Nottinghamshire county council has supported the trust with Nottinghamshire taxpayers' money, it has now reduced its grant to the trust. It is commendable of the council to have supported the CMT so positively, but perfectly reasonable for it to have reduced its grant now, because Nottinghamshire has no responsibility whatever in this matter.

The result is that the overall funding increase is nowhere near as large as the Government anticipated, or anywhere near the £500,000 annual revenue costs that the CMT needs to meet the demands placed on it. I do not know how its staff have continued their work through the years—their dedication, passion and commitment to dealing with this awful issue should be recognised, as should their need for proper support.

The other issue about which the CMT and others are concerned is the imbalance between the resourcing of the family research element of their work and the travel fund. It has been put to me that the cart has been put before the horse: there is no point having a travel fund unless people are found and rehabilitation with natural families is possible. I am not arguing about the sum available for the travel fund, although I think it is insufficient, but the imbalance between that money and the sums given for research must be redressed and more money made available for research. The CMT is desperately frustrated by having insufficient resources to make the links between people. Many former migrants have parents who are still living, and every day is crucial in making the links between them and enabling former migrants to return to Britain and meet their natural families.

There has been criticism of the travel fund, especially from the International Association of Former Child Migrants and their Families, saying that £1 million is inadequate. The Minister has told me that about 300 applications have already been made to the fund, which shows the extent of people's interest in making use of it. There is also concern that the issue will not go away in three years—it will continue for some time to come. Many of the migrants in Canada have grown old and died, but many of those sent to Australia and New Zealand are younger, being of an age similar to or less than that of hon. Members present here today. The adequacy of the sum in the travel fund is questionable.

The organisation of, and practical arrangements pertaining to, the travel fund remain unclear, so I hope the Minister will give some clarification on that point. In addition, the criteria for eligibility need to be examined within the context of the problems being encountered. The issue is a completely new one—we have never had to deal with anything like it before and I hope we never have to do so again, so we are in unknown territory.

There is concern that funds are available only for a first visit. Some people who would have been eligible for travel funding had already spent their entire savings on coming over to this country before the fund was established. Having visited once and perhaps found a member of their family, surely they deserve help to come again? Do we not have an obligation to give them that help? There is also concern about funding being restricted to visits to close family only. Some people do not fit into those criteria, because their natural parents and siblings are dead and their only living relative falls outside the definition of "close family". For goodness sake, that relative is as important as a mother or father to those people and we should recognise that. Finally, there are concerns, of which I know my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, about the operation of the means test. No doubt, he will respond to those concerns.

An issue to which the Government did not respond, but where their response might be helpful, was the Committee's proposal that there should be an international conference. Because so many countries and agencies were involved in the scheme over the years, people have tended to blame each other and pass the buck, saying that it is not their responsibility, but someone else's. To be frank, it is entirely our responsibility—a collective effort landed us in this mess. That is why we, as a Committee, felt strongly that an international conference might be able to resolve many of the inter-country issues.

One good example of such an issue, which was raised with me by former migrants in New Zealand, is the concern about International Social Service, which is responsible for the travel fund, having subcontracted the travel fund in New Zealand to the New Zealand Department of Social Welfare—a receiving agency. That contradicts the Select Committee's recommendations. We recognise that the migrants have no confidence in dealing with any of the agencies that placed or received them, so they will not access a travel fund operated by an agency that was involved in this devious scheme.

This is a tragic affair. It has been a traumatic experience for all those involved in the inquiry and I pay tribute to my colleagues for the courage that they have displayed. I place on record what an honour it has been to meet so many former migrants. We saw their tears, and were impressed by their incredible sense of humour—despite the many problems that they have experienced—and their immense courage in the face of appalling adversity.

I have one recollection of a former migrant's sense of humour—I cannot do the Aussie accent, which ruins my story somewhat. At a public hearing with migrants—I think it was in Perth, but we had many such sessions—a guy got up and said something like, "For 50 years I thought I was an orphan, but I was delighted to discover recently that I am actually a bastard." He made a very important point, which all Committee members will understand.

For an example of real courage, I refer hon. Members to the testimony of John Hennessey, the first witness to appear before the Committee. He travelled from Australia to give evidence in the Grand Committee Room. John has a terrible stammer, acquired as a result of the beatings that he received from the Christian Brothers. His courage at that first session was an example to us all, and I will not forget it for as long as I live.

For me, there was no better conclusion to the inquiry than the discovery that the Child Migrants Trust had found Mr. Hennessey's elderly mother, alive—although not particularly well—at 87. She lives in this country and John was reunited with her two months ago. He had last seen her when he was two and he was sent away at age 10. He did not know that his mother was alive and he knew nothing about his background.

I will never forget taking John to meet the Prime Minister at Downing Street—I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for finding the time to see us. The Prime Minister arranged for John to be shown around No. 10. Hon. Members who have been to Downing street will know that there are stairs with photographs of previous Prime Ministers along the wall. John identified Clement Attlee, who was Prime Minister when he was deported to Australia. He said something like, "Hello, Prime Minister, I'm back; it's taken 50 years, but I'm back." I pay tribute to John and to all his fine colleagues who have shown so much courage.

I end with a final plea. We must learn the lessons of this episode and it must never be repeated. I am afraid that, in years to come, people will look back on present events and ask, "Why did that happen?" I remember travelling to Romania shortly after the revolution in the early 1990s when there was a lot of pressure to adopt Romanian orphans. I visited an orphanage where I asked how many of the little kids piled on top of me were orphans. I was told that 99 per cent. of the children up for adoption overseas had parents or families. I believe that we should have tried to reunite those children with their families and assist their parents in caring for them.

I do not want to make a political point, but, not long after our report was produced last summer, the former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, said in a speech that we should place the children of one-parent families in the care of religious organisations. That is exactly what happened under the child migrant scheme: children were sent to those sorts of organisations and we all know what happened to them. The Select Committee sent a letter and a copy of our report to Baroness Thatcher, but we never received a reply—just like the migrants never received replies to their questions over many years. They want to know who they are, what went on, why it happened and what went wrong. I think they deserve those answers today.

9.55 am
Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

It is a tremendous privilege to follow the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), the Chairman of the Health Select Committee, in this debate. I endorse all of the tributes that he paid to the long list of people who have been concerned about this matter. I also thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has handled this sensitive issue.

What emerged most strongly from the Select Committee's investigations was the fact that this was an institutionalised use of institutions: it was a case of the establishment trying to deal with a problem. Committee members viewed many historical documents and the notepaper was always headed with long lists of names of the great and the good who were trying to do what they thought was best for the children, for the empire, and for the race that they wanted to perpetuate across the globe. It is chilling how national and local governments, the Churches and the charities conspired to forget the needs of the children.

Many people probably had the best intentions: they assumed that the children would be better off. They probably believed much of their own propaganda that they fed to badly off parents and to the children. However, the evidence revealed that the ends did not justify the means. The awful deception, the lies and the economic pressures made it almost impossible for parents—especially single parents—to keep their children. We have heard about the bullying and the trading of children as chattels in order to maintain the viability of institutions, especially towards the end of the regime. A most shameful element of the scheme is the way in which children were abandoned at age 16 because the institutions no longer received any income for them. Many people are stateless because they were abandoned at 16 and never received the paperwork that would have allowed them to acquire citizenship of either their adopted country or the country in which they were born.

The hon. Member for Wakefield detailed the Committee's recommendations and the Government's response. I endorse his comments in welcoming the positive aspects and in attempting to strengthen those areas where the Government could have gone a little further. I wish to spend a few minutes considering the lessons that we should learn from this investigation. Children are still placed many miles away from the communities from which they come. The Utting report had little to do with north Wales per se because it revealed that most of the children involved came from communities many miles away and that social services supervision was not as good as it should have been—just as it was not good in Australia, New Zealand or Canada. I share the concerns expressed about inter-country adoption. It is beholden on us to try to keep children with their families.

What is happening with our present social services system? Social services departments are so stretched for money that they tend to concentrate on their statutory responsibilities. In most parts of the country, the child protection teams—or the crisis intervention teams—are well resourced and work effectively. However, that success has been achieved at the expense of the child support and, more especially, the family support aspects of social services work. Social services has become an enforcement arm when there are accusations of child abuse. It is rare that such families are supported by their own advocate, such as their social worker, who will guide them through a difficult, complicated and often inevitable set of consequences that is almost Kafkaesque.

I still meet single parents who cannot afford to look after their children, and the recent change in benefit regulations certainly does not send out the right message. We need a structure in which parents who are accused of neglect or child abuse have the opportunity to get high-quality legal aid to make sure that they are aware of the grinding process that will inevitably take their child away from them. We seem to have a strange system in which parents cannot have their children back unless they admit that they have abused them, even if they genuinely believe that they have not abused them. Professionals, whether in social work or medicine, are not always right. I am aware of cases in which mistakes have been made with dire consequences, not only for the children but for the parents.

The debate is extraordinarily valuable and timely because we are witnessing a redetermination of access to the courts and to legal aid. There ought to be a system of checks and balances. The child migrants story demonstrates that we cannot, even now, rely on the establishment or on the professionals to protect children and their families. We cannot rely on the court system, as it is currently accessible, for that protection. There are too many delays, courts are too busy, and legal advice is not readily available and not always of sufficient quality.

I urge the Minister to review the working of the Children Act 1989 on compulsory removal of children from their homes, so that we can put as much effort into keeping families together—whether they have one or two parents—as we do, at present, into purely protecting children irrespective of what would be the right course of action.

10.3 am

Audrey Wise (Preston)

When the Health Committee went to Australia and New Zealand, we were told, "You will meet only the hard cases, not the success stories." During our visit, I was struck by the fact that that was totally untrue. We were not meeting the hardest cases because many of them were in psychiatric wards or dead. We met relatives of some of those people, but many were completely unknown even to other witnesses whom we met.

We met people who felt that they had survived pretty well, but I was struck also by the fact that even those who were not physically abused or cruelly treated were extraordinarily critical of the system because they all suffered the trauma of separation, lack of knowledge and destruction of identity. That is true even of those who managed to reach good positions. They came to talk to us, so we certainly acquired good knowledge of what had happened, even though we did not meet people in the worst cases.

We were also told, "That is all in the past. You should be concentrating on the present." I became more and more aware that the past is never past; it is the present for those who have survived those events and for their relatives in this country. If we do not learn the lessons of past events, we will not make a proper contribution to improving the present.

A Conservative member of the Committee and I discovered, when we returned to Britain, that we each had a member of our local party who had narrowly and accidentally escaped being a child migrant. They realised that when we published our report and they found out what would have happened if, for example, they had not been unwell on the day and had been put on the ship. As well as not being entirely past, those events are also very near to us.

We were told also to be careful about making judgments because there was a "different social climate" at the time. That expression was used in the first memorandum given to the Committee by the Department of Health, so that idea was prevalent even in the Department. I am pleased that its attitude seems to have shifted during, and, in my view, because of our inquiry. When we met the Secretary of State, his attitude was very different from the Department's original view. Child migration went on until the late 1960s, and the Secretary of State told us that he was now chilled by the belated knowledge that it was happening when he was watching the world cup in 1966 and he did not even know about it.

That dark secrecy that has shrouded the consequences of child migration is another significant aspect of the issue. Some people knew about those consequences. Officialdom in this country knew about them as long ago as 1875, when a report said that child migrants were being mistreated and used as cheap labour. Those who did not know were the people who would be most intimately affected: the families to whom child migration would apply. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), the Chairman of the Select Committee, has already said, those children could have been many of us here today. Our families managed to escape that fate, but it could have happened to us.

We are not discussing a dim and distant time about which we can say, "Wasn't it awful then?" These events occurred in the very recent past when many of us were politically active. The Secretary of State was politically active in 1966 and he knew nothing about them. I was a mother and I had been politically active for many years as a councillor, but I knew nothing about what was happening. Some people knew, and kept it secret.

Why did those events occur? I do not want to impute too many motives, but one point that clearly emerged in evidence was that, for some voluntary organisations, child migration was a means of getting income; for others, it was a means of cutting costs. We are lucky that there was such resistance to the policy within professional social work and local authorities that few children in the care of local authorities migrated. Most of the child migrants were in the care of voluntary organisations.

The evidence to the Committee made it clear that, at the time, the Government were putting pressure on local authorities and children's officers to send children abroad because it would be cheaper than caring for them here. Those professionals were tackling issues involving human considerations and being told that the existing policy was too expensive and there were cheaper policies. I do not know whether the term "cost-effectiveness" was used then, but that term rang in my head as one which would be used now. That confirmed my deep suspicion of policies that are primarily driven by the wish to cut costs.

The question of secrecy is also very much in the present, and I welcome the Government's response to the index and the data and the understanding of their importance that was shown. Although the Chairman of the Committee quoted the striking repudiation of his organisation's policies by the Barnardo's witness, which we were pleased to hear, other witnesses did not always share his view. Some attempted to defend what happened, and the standards of the time were rolled in again. I was a mother when this happened—it might have happened to me or to my kids if I had been a single parent.

Our inquiry took place around the time when there was controversy about single parents. I was pleased about the attitude that I took towards single parents, because we also heard about the insufferable moralising that took place. Women who were unmarried single parents were told to put their babies in the orphanage, forget about them and be good girls in future. Those whose marriages broke up had to struggle financially because there was no state support. I am glad that I support state benefits for single parents and for low-paid people in general. That is another respect in which the past is certainly in the present.

What we discovered was utterly harrowing and our report is explicit—much more explicit in its language and descriptions than any Select Committee report I have seen. We discussed that earnestly, because we were not sure whether it was proper to say some of the things that we said in an official report, but we decided that it was absolutely proper and that we should not contribute to a veil being drawn over the matter. Despite that, the report cannot provide the full flavour of what we learned.

The Chairman of the Committee has said that the experience was traumatic, and I do not know how the Child Migrants Trust has managed to endure dealing with this issue for so long. We found it traumatic to talk to the victims and survivors for only a couple of weeks, but the CMT has been talking to them for years and years. The experience showed us what happens when power is abused, although several other concepts, such as secrecy, are involved.

Awful things are happening in the world, frequently around a war situation. People are demonised—one race against another, one colour against another—and made to seem less than human. The most chilling aspect was that hearing about this process was like hearing about war crimes without the war and without even the shallow justification that people were being misled in the heat of the moment. The process was very cold and involved children and people like us, which was the most chilling realisation. That means that we have special responsibility.

I was pleased, but not ecstatic, about the Government's response, which was a good start. I welcome the setting up of the £1 million fund, but we should not put a top limit on it. Taxpayers' money was used to subsidise the process, and I want taxpayers' money to be used to try to do something to rescue some of the survivors' lives. I do not believe that it is appropriate for the Government to say that there is £1 million and that is it. There is £1 million for the moment, but we should not have a top limit because there was no top limit on the suffering of those kids.

We should look again at the social security issue. The worst aspect is that the people involved are frequently deprived of entitlement, when they come here, on the ground that they do not pass the habitual residence test. Whose fault is that? They were forcibly deported. They wanted to stay here, and it is not their fault if they have not lived in this country—it is the fault of successive Governments and agencies and to compound the crimes that were committed by saying that people are being deprived because they did not live here is the most profound insult.

I hope that the Government's response, welcome though it is, is not their last word. If it is, the case will not have been sufficiently met. If it is their first word and their first attempt to remedy the matter, it is a good first word. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, who was not in post at the time, will study the evidence that we took and our report to try to get the flavour of what we learned.

I also hope that my hon. Friend will then use that knowledge and understanding in considering present policies as a member of the Government and to try to repay those people. There is a difficulty of wording here—we cannot repay them, but we must at least acknowledge properly the awful process that went on in our name and which was cloaked in secrecy. If we do that, we shall be able to say that we have done our best and, although it was not our fault, we are trying to remedy the matter. I hope that the Government will look at it in such a way.

10.17 am
Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East)

I do not propose to say a great deal. Most of what I wanted to say has already been said very well by my hon. Friends the Members for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and for Preston (Audrey Wise), but I think that I have something special to add to the debate.

I was one of the councillors who voted to give money to the Child Migrants Trust back in the mid-80s, but I have to be honest and say that most of the credit for what happened is not mine. It belongs to Margaret Humphreys, the social worker involved, and the then chair of social services, Joan Taylor. We were strapped for money and things were tight, but she persuaded the leader of the council and other councillors that we should be doing something about this matter. We said, "It's not our responsibility, but if it isn't ours, whose is it?" That is the message that I want the Government to take on board.

Someone has to take responsibility for what has happened and take account of this tragedy. I remember my utter disbelief back in the 80s when we heard about the case. We could not believe how recently it had happened and we could not believe the stories, but they were true. At first, it was difficult to grasp what had happened and to think about how some of it could be put right. I congratulate the Committee on making recommendations that will help to put things right. We cannot ever put them right completely, but we can try to help some of the people who have suffered.

Hon. Members have talked about how the issue was shrouded in secrecy. It happened not only because the organisations involved wanted to keep it secret, but because the child migrants themselves wanted to keep it secret because they felt stigmatised. John Hennessey described himself as one of the devil's children, and we could see how their self-esteem had been destroyed by the system, by the Government, by the voluntary organisations and by the way that they had been treated. If nothing else, they deserve to have their self-esteem back.

I make a plea to the Government. I share the concerns of my hon. Friends the Members for Wakefield and for Preston that the £1 million limit may not be sufficient. If it proves to be insufficient and more people apply to the travel fund than there is money for, will the fund be bolstered in the future if that becomes necessary? I am not asking for a guarantee of extra money, just that the matter will be reconsidered if there are problems in the future.

10.20 am
Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

I should like to add my congratulations to the Select Committee on Health on its report and the way it went about its inquiry. Having spoken to some members of the Committee, I know that they were drained and exhausted and found the many tales harrowing.

I have also spoken to some former child migrants who gave evidence to the Health Committee, and they were pleased with its handling of the issue, its sensitivity and understanding, and the fact that it gave them time. The Committee was determined to go to Australia and New Zealand so that as many as possible of the people who had been treated appallingly could have their say. However, it was symbolic that the former child migrants came to the House of Commons, because the state was ultimately responsible for shipping those children abroad. It was important for them to come back to make their case and to tell their story in the House of Commons.

I should also like to congratulate and acknowledge the work of the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). He has, for many years, been the driving force in the House of Commons on this issue. As he rightly said, he would not have done anything had it not been for the work of Margaret Humphreys and the Child Migrants Trust.

The report tells what happened to those British children at the hands of their abusers, and leaves nothing to the imagination. Many of those abusers purported to represent God. We should never hold back our condemnation of the treatment of those British children. Part of the responsibility must lay with the state—with the House of Commons.

I am one of three or four former social workers in the Chamber—there are no corduroys—and, like my colleagues, I have had to remove children from their parents. That was carried out with the approval of the courts and partnerships agencies, and for the right reason: to protect children. It is not a pure science. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) said, we can get it wrong, and that has been proved. But we had authorisation, records and files were kept, and there were hurdles to overcome. Removing a baby from his mother at birth, for whatever reason, is the hardest thing I have ever done. Deciding that a child should not be brought up by his parents and removing him from his mother is the ultimate state intervention. Hurdles must be overcome before that intervention can be made, and that is absolutely right. That is the best we can do, and we must continue to review the process and ensure that we are getting it right.

When the children that I took from their parents grow up they will be able to understand the reasons for that decision. They may not agree with them, but they will be able to read the files and the court records and understand why the decisions were made. We have been following such procedures for a long time—they have improved over the years—including the time when British children were shipped to Australia. People may say that it was different back then, but that is not so. What was afforded to children in Britain did not apply to children who were subject to forced deportation without the permission of their parents, and without birth certificates and passports. Children as young as four were condemned for years to an existence of abuse and fear.

I should like to draw on some remarks made to me by one of the former migrants who came here, Mr. Norman Johnston. As I am the secretary of the parliamentary group, I had the privilege of meeting some of the former migrants and giving them support when they were giving evidence. Like so many others, Mr. Johnston suffered at the hands of the Christian Brothers. One of the brothers attempted to drown him. I asked him why they tried to drown him, and he said that they did not need a reason, because they had carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. There would not have been an inquiry if he had died. The beatings were harsh and frequent. He also told me that if he witnessed a child being beaten or whipped—or whatever form of abuse we care to imagine—there was a sense of relief, because at least it was not happening to him and he was out of the frame for a little while.

Mr. Johnston

also said that living in such a climate of fear took away all emotional feelings, which made the children perfect recruits for Nazi officers. They became bereft of all feelings of human suffering. It was a matter of survival. He was taken from the institution to a farm in South Australia, and the passing comment from the person in charge of the institution was, "Next time I see you boy, you'll be in Fremantle jail." As my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) said, we have not heard evidence from many of the former migrants who have had a life of alcohol problems and have been led into crime. They did not fit into society.

Mr. Johnston

said that there should be an inquiry into the well-being of people who were in those former institutions. Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider that? Perhaps a note could be sent to the Australian Government asking them to hold an inquiry. Mr. Johnston spent two and a half years on a farm working 14 hours a day, seven days a week but earning less than he would if he were unemployed. That was slave labour, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preston said. He even contemplated cutting off his finger to get off the farm. He shared his bathroom with farm animals. He served three tours in Vietnam with the Australian army. The irony was that he was serving the country in which he lived but of which he was not a citizen because he had no birth certificate and no passport.

These people are remarkable because their main preoccupation is not to obtain compensation—and goodness knows they have an overwhelming case—but to allow those who were taken from this country to be reunited with their families, to have some peace and to understand the circumstances in which they left Britain to go to a world of abuse. Without the completion of the picture, many of them have a void in their lives. For the reasons given by all hon. Members who have spoken, we must do everything we can to fill that void.

For many child migrants time is running out. Every day that goes by is another lost opportunity. There are people in Australia who can trace their parents, but it requires a great deal of work, which must be done by the Child Migrants Trust.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, I hope that this is just the Government's first response. While I welcome their response to the Committee's inquiry, we need to take further steps. We must look at the travel arrangements, and ensure that the trust is adequately funded. A simple apology is not enough; to apologise properly, we must fund the trust properly.

10.30 am
Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead)

I shall be brief, because I know that the chairman of the all-party group wants to speak. I am grateful to the group for bringing this matter to our attention. I also echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) said about Margaret Humphreys and Joan Taylor, without whom we would not be having this debate.

I must admit that when the Chairman of the Select Committee first suggested that we should conduct an inquiry, I was a little sceptical. I wondered why the matter should be so high on our agenda, given the number of pertinent issues of the day; but the Chairman persuaded the Committee.

Our visit was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. The Committee contains some very hard cases—former social workers, general practitioners and people who have been in politics and local government for a long time. They are not short of experiences of human misery. However, no one who reads the evidence presented to us—evidence of years of wholesale, systematic, institutionalised abuse—could fail to be deeply moved and shocked by what was done in our name. This House of Commons is responsible for what happened, and has a duty to those British children. As the Committee Chairman said, these are members of our generation.

When I arrived in New Zealand, a man came up to me and asked, "Are you the Member of Parliament for Erith?" I was surprised that anyone in New Zealand had heard of Erith. He said, "You are my mother's MP." For 50 years, that man had thought that he was an orphan; then, having discovered that he had a mother in her eighties living in England, he was reunited with her after all those years. We must provide the Child Migrants Trust with the resources to enable further such reunions to take place. I hope that if the demands on the trust and the travel fund are such that they cannot be satisfied, my hon. Friend the Minister will be prepared to review the position.

This is on-going: it is here and now. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) and I spent some time conversing with a young woman who was not a child migrant herself, but who had been placed for adoption in Australia and was the daughter of a child migrant. She wanted to know why her mother had been taken from her own mother, and whether that had influenced her mother's inability to continue to care for her. There was a void in her life, and there were questions that needed answers.

I am pleased that the British Government have issued an apology. Some of the child migrants did not want an apology, but for others it was all-important, as was the fact of the Select Committee's visit. It was the first time that these people had been listened to and that their horror stories had been believed.

All this happened after our Parliament had passed extensive legislation in the 1940s and 1950s, and after we had signed conventions on human rights protecting children. We denied these children those human rights. Let us leave aside the question of sexual and physical abuse; we took away their human rights by removing them from their families.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) spoke of the lies and deceit, the falsified names and falsified birth certificates. All that makes the trust's job of tracing people and their families that much more difficult. An apology for the deceit is needed, not only from the Government but from the voluntary organisations that were involved. Why will Barnado's not issue an apology? Have its solicitors and insurers told it not to? Why will Fairbridge not own up to its responsibilities? Has it changed the terms of reference in its constitution, and is it now looking after a different group of children?

The state and the voluntary organisations ought to own up. We in the House of Commons have a responsibility to provide the Child Migrants Trust and other organisations with the resources to enable them to ensure that families can be reunited and supported. As my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) said, for many time is running out.

10.35 am
Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

I want to pay tribute to a number of people. It is important for us to recognise those who brought about the Select Committee's report and today's debate and enabled us to uncover and publicise this scandal.

I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). He helped to uncover the scandal, not just in his capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee but through his work on the issue in the last Parliament. I know of his personal dedication and the efforts that he and his fellow Committee members have made. Their work is a credit to the Select Committee system, and shows how well it can function. We can all be proud of the Committee's report.

It is a source of great pride to all of us from Nottingham, and Nottinghamshire, that we have been at the forefront of the support for efforts to uncover the scandal. We have heard of the work of the Child Migrants Trust, but the trust would not exist without the support of Nottinghamshire county council. It cannot be said too often that that council has worked, and paid, to uncover a national scandal. I also pay tribute to individual members of the council: its leader, Sir Dennis Pettitt, and Joan Taylor.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) was very modest, but he worked hard for many years in Nottinghamshire, as well as in Parliament—supporting the efforts of the all-party group—to bring this about. I also think that Margaret Humphreys should receive an honour for all the work that she has done in uncovering the scandal.

I became involved in the issue as a new Member of Parliament, and became chairman of the all-party group. I have been proud to work with the group in supporting the Select Committee's work. When we hear the stories that we are told, we find them incredible; we cannot believe that such things can happen. My hon. Friends have spoken of the incredulity that they felt. It is impossible to believe that this has taken place—and that it has taken place while we have been doing ordinary things, such as watching television and going shopping. Horrific things have been done to children. They have been taken abroad, split from their families, and lied to; they have been told that their parents were dead, or that they did not want them and had abandoned them—and there was no supervision when they were sent away.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield said, one of the worst things is that the policy was explicitly said to be about ensuring that good white stock was put into some of our former colonies. That is unbelievable: "good white stock" was being exported in the form of children, and that was officially sanctioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) pointed out that the process has been justified on the grounds that it took place in a different social climate, and in different times. That is ridiculous; it is scandalous; it is rubbish. When has it ever been right to abuse children and take them from their parents? I do not believe that it has ever been right, or that, in any times, it has been thought right to do that to children simply to provide "good white stock" for our former colonies. I say again: in tackling that scandal, the Health Committee report has been a credit to Parliament.

The Government response generally has been good; it is a credit to them. At least they have recognised that there has been a huge problem and a huge scandal. They have not ducked the issue, or tried to hide it away. This morning's debate is a credit to the Government and to Parliament. It is taking place in the full glare of publicity; we are debating and discussing the report.

There are some points that I should like to raise. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, if he cannot address them in his brief remarks, to look at them afterwards. The Government have set up a travel fund, which started in April, but the procedures for people to access the fund are not yet properly in place, and people are finding it difficult to access it. I therefore ask the Minister to try to speed up that process.

My hon. Friends have mentioned the grant to the Child Migrants Trust. If we bring these people back, which is obviously what we have set out to do, clearly, they will need support and counselling; they will need help when they find their lost relatives. We need to ensure that the trust, which does an immense amount of work, is funded properly to provide that help. The county council will soon start to withdraw the money that it provides to the trust on the basis that it has done it for years and it is a local authority. It is now up to the Government to start to put in that amount of money. I ask the Minister to find out whether more money could be made available.

The database that is being set up is welcome, but there are concerns about the sharing of information. We are going back many years. When people come back to try to find lost relatives, accessing those records will be important. Ensuring that people have easy access to the database is important. The Government will have to take the lead in co-ordinating the agencies and ensuring that all of them provide the necessary information.

I reiterate the point that was made by, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Preston. An international conference would be important and helpful to everyone. Speed is of the essence. These people are not getting any younger. They need access to their families quickly. The Government need to do everything that they can to act quickly.

We must ensure that such a scandal never happens again. How many times, after reports and debates, and after such scandals emerge, do we say, "It must never happen again"? How many of us can be absolutely sure that, in children's homes and in various families throughout the country, children are not being abused and that all the things that are scandalising us today are not still happening? We must learn the lessons and do all we can to ensure that such things never take place again.

It needs to be stated again that, for all of us who have been involved in the matter, it has been personally traumatic to listen to people's harrowing stories while working with them to restore them to their families and to help them to find their past—but it has also been a privilege. As I often say, when people are in the most terrible adversity, we are inspired by their courage and by the way in which they can face the most desperate circumstances head on. All that those people ask of Parliament is that we show the same courage in ensuring that, at long last, they can meet their lost families, and in supporting them with counselling and with all the other things that will be needed. Let us show that courage.

10.44 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Hutton)

I congratulate all hon. Members who have spoken in this short debate on their thoughtful and well-informed comments. The subject has raised some powerful and strong emotions as all of us have a deep concern to ensure the welfare of children, past as well as present. The contributions of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) have borne witness to that concern.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on raising the subject in Parliament. I pay particular tribute to both him and the Select Committee on Health, which he chairs, for its landmark inquiry into the misguided policy of child emigration. It is estimated that, during the period that the policy was in operation, as many as 150,000 children were transported to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as to some former British territories in central and southern Africa.

The largest number of children went to Canada. Child emigration there had more or less ceased by the end of the 1930s, but emigration schemes to New Zealand were still in progress in the post-war years and, as many hon. Members have commented, some emigration occurred to Australia up to the late 1960s. Those schemes have no defenders today.

The greater understanding of these issues that now exists in Parliament and in Government is largely thanks to the work of the Health Committee. As the Committee itself recognised, it was able to draw on valuable research by a number of workers, authors and voluntary groups, not least the Child Migrants Trust.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield will know from the Government's response in December to the Select Committee report that they accept the Committee's adverse judgment of what happened. We deeply regret what happened and the anguish and misery that many child migrants must have experienced. We strongly support the Committee's view that the prevailing mood is to move forward positively and to concentrate on improving support for former child migrants.

We have therefore committed ourselves to action on a number of fronts. We have set up a support fund to help former child migrants who have not previously visited this country to have a first reconciliation with their close families here. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield raised a number of concerns about access to the fund, including the definition of "close families." We will look sympathetically at all cases where people seek support, including cases involving grandparents, half-brothers and half-sisters.

We have committed ourselves to financing the scheme to the tune of £1 million over three years. It is now in operation. It is being administered for us by the International Social Service in the UK, which has branches and contacts in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

We fully accept that it has taken slightly longer than originally anticipated to finalise the financial eligibility criteria that feature in the local application forms for the fund—my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) referred to that. That was because, although it had been agreed that the same formula for assessing financial eligibility should be applied to everyone concerned, the differences in living conditions and costs between the countries where the child migrants now live had to be recognised and taken into account.

In Australia, for example, considerable research, involving many different state offices, was required before a national mean was identified. The ISS has now authorised its branches in Australia, Canada and New Zealand to send out the application forms. We understand that those have begun to be distributed. As far as I am aware, the scheme is now fully in operation. The application forms are out and we anticipate a response.

There has already been a considerable number of inquiries of ISS branches in those countries, most notably in Australia, where I gather that more than 300 have been received, but there have also been a number of inquiries of ISS contacts in both New Zealand and Canada. Applications will be decided by the ISS in London, to which they will eventually be sent. I hope that we shall soon see the first arrivals in this country under the scheme. Obviously, cases that are urgent, due to the age or health of either the former child migrant or their close relative, will be given priority. Several hon. Members have spoken about the need to prioritise cases. I assure them that that will be done.

The arrangements for running the scheme were foreshadowed in our December reply, where we made it clear that we were in discussion with the ISS over its administration. Since then, after further discussion in the three countries, the role of the ISS has been confirmed and agreed, and the scheme opened formally early in April, as we had intended.

I wish to explain how we have publicised the new arrangements, as concern has been expressed about that. The Government issued a press notice here in the UK which was picked up by many of the media and led to some central inquiries. More importantly, however, we have liaised very closely, through the Foreign Office, with the overseas posts in Canada, Australia and New Zealand to ensure that there has been appropriate publicity in all of the receiving countries. A great deal of effort has gone into this, and I shall detail some of the activity that has taken place to date.

We are keeping all the arrangements under review, as we want the scheme to be properly and effectively publicised. We will make sure that that happens. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield raised other questions about the operation of the scheme which I will deal with in a few moments.

In Australia, there was a strong response to the press release issued there. The British high commissioner conducted a number of interviews, both on television and radio, to publicise the fund, and the news was picked up by a number of national and local newspapers. A press release was issued in New Zealand, where the Department of Social Welfare is in any case seeking to notify individually all known former British child migrants about the fund.

My hon. Friend also asked whether £1 million will be sufficient for the support fund over three years. It is hard to be certain what the level of demand will be from those who come within the scope of the scheme—that is, those wishing to have a first reconciliation with their close families here and who, without support from the fund, would not have the means to bring that about.

Our rough estimate is that, over three years, the sum would be sufficient to bring some 450 people to this country. As time passes, we will be monitoring the scheme carefully. My hon. Friend will understand, I hope, that with the pressures on my Department's programme, I am not able to give any commitment today to increase the funding for the scheme. However, we would, of course, welcome any contribution that any of the other agencies involved in child migration might wish to make.

My hon. Friend has raised the question whether there should be a means test for support fund applicants. I understand very well why he makes that point. However, we have a responsibility to ensure that the fund operates effectively and is targeted on the former child migrants who most need and deserve the support that we are able to provide. I cannot say with any confidence that it would be realistic to expect taxpayers in this or any country to finance visits here by people with the means to pay their own expenses, even with the unhappy legacy of the child migration policies.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the Government responded positively to the Committee's recommendation that a central database should be established as soon as possible, containing basic information that will direct child migrants or their representatives to more detailed sources. This project is now well advanced in the hands of the National Council for Voluntary Child Care Organisations. The sending agencies, which hold most of the detailed records, are, generally speaking, co-operating satisfactorily with this project. The index will be available by the autumn.

Finally, the Government responded positively to the Committee's recommendation for a larger grant to the Child Migrants Trust. My hon. Friend mentioned that we have increased the grant from £20,000 last year to £150,000 in the present year. This is less than the trust requested, but it was a very large increase indeed compared to the grant that it has had from the Department in the past. It is, of course, the case that quite a number of the bodies that we fund would like larger grants than we can afford, but I am very glad that we have been able to make so large an increase in the grant to the Child Migrants Trust.

The first instalment of the grant was paid at the beginning of May. The grant had been on a cycle of quarterly payments starting in May of each year, with subsequent payments being made in August, November and February. If the trust would prefer a different cycle of payments, we should be glad to discuss that with it.

In its report, the Committee made a number of recommendations about the trust's accountability and the audit of its accounts. In the Government's reply, we said that we were in discussion with the trust about those issues and expected a positive outcome. We spent a good deal of time with the trust on these matters, and a small audit team visited it in Nottingham. I am very happy to say that, as we anticipated, there are no outstanding anxieties of that kind. We received the auditor's final report of the financial appraisal on 7 April, and a letter confirming the grant offer and conditions was sent on the same day.

I understand, however, that because of the withdrawal of other funding from the Nottinghamshire county council, the Child Migrants Trust is nevertheless struggling to cope with the demands placed on it and still needs additional funding. A number of my hon. Friends referred to that today. I very much take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield that there has to be an appropriate balance between the money made available to help child migrants to be reunited with their families, and the resources available to help them to trace and make contact with them in the first place, which is the trust's main concern. Clearly, without the tracing, there can be no reunions. That is an important point, and we will consider the suggestions made by my hon. Friend about how we address that.

I should add that my officials have been looking for other sources of funding outside of Government resources which might be available to the trust, and we will be in touch with the trust about this shortly. If this situation cannot be resolved, or there are other problems which the trust would like to discuss further, I shall of course be very happy to meet it.

I should make it quite clear, however, that any adjustments to the funding that the Government have made available for increasing the availability of tracing and counselling services for child migrants and to support reunions must be made within the same overall resources which we have already committed and which we announced in December.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield asked about the contributions being made by the sending agencies. The agencies have already agreed—in addition to providing the information for the new central information index for child migrants—to expand the tracing and counselling services that they offer to meet any increase in demand. This should ensure that child migrants have a choice about where they turn for such help, although I recognise that many child migrants may prefer to conduct their search through an independent agency, such as the Child Migrants Trust.

A number of my hon. Friends asked specific questions to which I shall try to respond. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield referred to intercountry adoptions. I remind him that the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Bill, sponsored by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), will allow the UK to ratify the Hague convention and make sure that those adoptions are placed on a sound legal basis in the future, with full and proper safeguards for the children placed at the centre of our concerns.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight referred to the existing problems with social services in the UK. I should remind him that the Government are determined to improve the quality of children's services. That is why we have introduced our "Quality Protects" programme and why we are supporting it with an additional £375 million of targeted resources to help local authorities improve their children's services. I am confident that the programme will make a significant contribution.

I wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) for his role in supporting the Child Migrants Trust. I can assure him and the House that the Government take our responsibility seriously. He is right that we cannot rewrite history, but we can try to do the right thing for the former child migrants in the future. That is what we intend to do.

In conclusion, I emphasise the Government's determination to stand by the commitments that we gave in our reply of December last year to the Committee's report. The historic policy of child migration was tragically misguided. We acknowledge that, along with the Governments of the receiving countries, we have an obligation to do what we can realistically to improve the welfare support of former child migrants who can still be helped. That is involving us in a complex international programme which we shall carry forward and monitor carefully.

I am grateful to all hon. Members today who have made their comments known to us. We have a clear responsibility towards the former child migrants. The Government intend to discharge that responsibility to the best of our ability into the future.

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