HL Deb 25 May 1937 vol 105 cc227-32

LORD LLOYD had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government what, if any, arrangements are being made for the segregation of refugee children from Spain. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question which stands on the Order Paper in my name asks His Majesty's Government as to what, if any, arrangements are being made for the segregation of refugee children from Spain. My solicitude in this matter is not primarily political; it is of another order. It results from some correspondence that I have had with a great authority on the scourge of trachoma—namely, Dr. Andrew MacCallan, the famous ophthalmic surgeon, who for so many years has done so much to relieve blindness right through the Nile valley, and whose name will be remembered for many scores of years by hundreds of thousands of the beneficiaries of his devotion and skill in that country. He and the President of the Royal Society of Medicine, Sir John Pearson, have written to the Minister of Health pointing out to him how grave are the dangers of the introduction of these children unless a very careful examination and segregation are carried out.

As your Lordships may know, we only rid ourselves of this scourge of trachoma by the rigid application of the Aliens Act of 1920. It is a contagious disease; it is very obstinate to treat; and it leads ultimately to ulceration and blindness of the eyes. It is very hard in its first stages to detect except by experts and it ravages the whole of northern Spain. The President of the Royal Society of Medicine in his letter says that according to recent publications by Spanish medical authorities the contagious disease of trachoma affects 90 per cent, of the population of the provinces of Murcia, Almeria, Valencia and Castellon. Therefore the danger is very grave. We have seen quite recently, I am informed, a country that was trachoma free, Brazil, affected in just the same way as that which I have apprehensions about now. The disease is ravaging Brazil at the present time, introduced there by immigrants. In 1874 something like 50 per cent, of our poor law population was subject to trachoma.

I do not know what the Government are going to reply. I am a little anxious lest they should say that they have made full arrangements for the examination and segregation of these children. I see it is widely reported in the newspapers that the children are not being kept in one camp, but some are going to be sent to Salvation Army camps or homes, and others are to be put in charge of the Roman Catholic Church authorities. At any rate the children are going to be scattered in greater or lesser degree. It is very doubtful, I am advised, as to whether the necessary examination which shall render their introduction into this country safe can at the present time be carried out without the very gravest difficulties. The number of oculists in this country who are competent at the present moment to detect trachoma in its early stages is, I understand, very limited. Its detection in the early stages is quite an elaborate process—that is to say, each eyelid has to be everted and the whole process of disinfection has to be so fully carried out that it makes the task of the inspection of a number of cases very lengthy, because gloves have to be changed after each examination. It is very doubtful whether, owing to our immunity from this disease for so many years, there are many oculists in this country who are capable of detecting the disease in its early stages. In the later stages, I am informed, the presence of this ill is easier to detect.

I hope His Majesty's Government will be able to assure us that greater precautions than those with which we have been acquainted by the public Press are in fact being taken. I should particularly like to ask the noble Marquess who is going to be good enough to reply to me in a moment what in detail are the arrangements, if he is satisfied that there are the necessary number of oculists who are capable of carrying out this important and essential work, and if he could tell me where they gained their experience so to do. That is really all I have to ask.


My Lords, this is a matter which interests many people outside your Lordships' House and therefore, although I propose to reply on behalf of His Majesty's Government very briefly, at the same time I think I might try to be as comprehensive as possible. I would first of all like to remind your Lordships that all the arrangements for bringing these children to this country were not made by His Majesty's Government but were made by the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief, which is a purely voluntary body, and that Committee accepted all the financial responsibility on behalf of these children. It has, furthermore, accepted the principle that the selection of the children to be evacuated from Bilbao should be made without any reference to creed, without any reference to class, and without any reference to political belief. I would like to reassure some of those—not my noble friend who asks this Question—who in the public Press have raised a question of the danger of revolutionary doctrine being inculcated by these four thousand non-English speaking children, and to express the opinion of His Majesty's Government that at any rate for the moment these children are unlikely to influence the electoral results in the next five years.

The Committee of which I am speaking went a little further than that, and I think they met my noble friend's point very fairly; because before any of these children were evacuated each and every one of them was medically examined by doctors sent out by the Committee. My noble friend has referred to trachoma. I am glad to be able to tell him that in the opinion of the British medical officers appointed by the Committee to go to Bilbao the presence of trachoma is very uncommon in the Basque country, and I may add that any cases of trachoma they did discover were cases of children who came from other parts of Spain. In fact out of the children who were selected to be evacuated they found only two cases of this admittedly very dangerous and contagious disease, and of course those two cases were ruthlessly excluded from the ship. I think that so far as the Committee are concerned they made every effort to meet my noble friend's point. They sent out their doctors and they made every effort to make sure that no child should come into England bearing contagious or infectious disease.

Furthermore, they have taken responsibility for the care and maintenance of these children while they are in this country. They have given an undertaking that no charge shall fall in this respect upon public funds. It is clearly understood by the Committee, and by all those responsible for this evacuation, that the presence of these children, as we hope, will be of short and temporary duration. Having said that, my Lords, I think it becomes quite clear that the interest of the Government itself is very limited. It is limited to the Home Office, which I have the honour to represent, and the Ministry of Health. It is limited to securing that practical plans have been made by the Committee to put these children and maintain them in institutions and places and homes which can be responsible for them, and also to make sure that on arrival these children were medically examined for any contagious or infectious disease.

So far as placing the children in homes is concerned, the Committee have given assurances, or rather have furnished actual particulars showing that the majority of the children are already cared for, and that plans are rapidly advancing for the care of the remainder. For the moment they have been placed in a temporary camp in Southampton, but this camp is not accessible to the general public. On the contrary, no one can get into it without a special pass and the children are not allowed to leave the camp without special permission. If they do leave the camp they will only leave it no doubt under the advice of the medical officers in charge of them and of the local health authorities. When that permission has been given they will go in large units, where they will be supervised and taught by their Basque priests and teachers, who incidentally have given a guarantee not to take one side or the other so far as propaganda is concerned while they are in England.

Finally, I would like to say this. As your Lordships have read, the disembarkation of the children was carried out without a hitch and with great success only the other day. These children on arrival were far more carefully medically examined than they would have been if they had come individually. Every single one of them went through a far more searching medical examination than if they had come over singly with their own mothers. The medical officers in charge were in fact agreeably surprised to find how little a month in a beleaguered city had affected the health of these children. Only a very few had to be removed to hospital. Therefore, my Lords, I think you will agree with me that, while the Government were not responsible for the initiation of this plan of evacuation of these children, at the same time they have taken every conceivable precaution they could to make sure that our own people should not be infected by any disease that might be brought. Having done that, I think most of your Lordships will be glad that we have been able to offer these children a refuge from dangers which we in this country have not known for over a thousand years.


My Lords, as I omitted to ask for Papers I can only by leave of the House ask one question on a matter to which the noble Marquess has not made specific reply. I thank him for the reply he has made but I should like to ask him if he can say whether the doctors appointed by the Committee to carry out this examination were experienced in the disease of trachoma. That, I understand, is the real point of medical anxiety.


I am not a doctor and it is obviously impossible for me to give an answer to that question. I doubt if my noble friend really has very much knowledge on that point.


I am sure my noble friend does not wish to misrepresent me. Neither of us is a medical expert, but I thought he might have knowledge as to who were the doctors sent out by the Committee to examine the children. I was asking whether they were competent from the medical point of view to detect trachoma.


I was only expressing my own ignorance. I am not sure how much medical knowledge is necessary to discover trachoma, but I thought until my noble friend made this suggestion that there was no difficulty in diagnosing the disease. If he desires it I will certainly make inquiries and find out the names of the doctors sent out by the Committee to examine the children. I know the Committee acted in good faith, and I think he will find that the doctors were fully competent.


I am very grateful to the noble Marquess.

House adjourned at twelve minutes before six o'clock.