HL Deb 07 December 1943 vol 130 cc105-9

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. Either as a result of the war or in consequence of the diabolical persecution—religious, racial or political —which has been pursued by certain Continental Powers, there are in this country to-day 12,500 children of both sexes who have arrived here without their parents and are being cared for in various ways. The Refuges Children's Movement which has as its chairman my noble friend Lord Gorell, is responsible for some 8,000 children. It is a voluntary organization, and although this movement is now mainly dependent on Government grants, a certain amount of work is still being done on a voluntary basis. The Czech Refugee Trust Fund is maintaining about 400 Czech children, and the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief is responsible for 400 children who have not been able to be sent back to Spain. The Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland are jointly responsible for some 3,500 children from the Channel Islands and a small number of unaccompanied children from Gibraltar.

The arrangements for securing the welfare of these children are, generally speaking, working satisfactorily, but on occasions difficulties have arisen because those upon whom rests the responsibility of the children's welfare have no legal status as guardians. The cases of dispute which I have in mind are many, but let me give some instances of what has occurred and what might occur again. For example, the Refugee Children's Movement might conceivably decide that a foster parent is unsuitable and therefore wish to transfer the child elsewhere, but if objection was raised the Movement has no legal power to remove the child. Again, difficulties might occur concerning the religious persuasion in which the child should be brought up, or cases might arise with regard to granting or withholding consent to the marriage of the child. Further, I am advised that troubles might occur with regard to apprenticeships or the necessity for operations on these children. For these reasons it has been decided that it is necessary to introduce legislation which is analogous to the Temporary Migration of Children Act, passed for the benefit of British children who had been evacuated either to the United States or Canada.

Clause 1 of the Bill empowers the Secretary of State to appoint a guardian to a child who is in England and who arrived in this country under the age of sixteen at any time after the end of 1936. The power to appoint a guardian arises only if the child has no parent or guardian in the United Kingdom or if such parent or guardian is of unsound mind or has been deprived of the custody of the child by a court of competent jurisdiction. I understand that my right honourable friend proposes to appoint suitable persons as guardians for each of the various groups of children in both England and Wales. As regards the 8,000 children who, as I have stated, are under the care of the Refugee Children's Movement, such appointment is to be made after consultation with the Executive Committee of the Movement. As regards the children who are here who come from the Channel Isles or Gibraltar any appointment will be made in consultation with the Minister of Health. A certain number of these children who are concerned are in Scotland. Problems have not so far arisen in connexion with them, but we do take the view that it would be right to confer on those responsible for refugees in Scotland powers similar to those which are being conferred in England, but, of course, according to Scottish Law.

The proposals which are embodied in this Bill have been the subject of full, and indeed of prolonged, discussion with those interested in refugee children in this country. In particular, the Refugee Children's Movement, which is responsible for some two-thirds of the children affected, is very anxious for the help which the Bill will give in meeting the difficulties that occur from time to time owing, as I have said, to the fact that there is at present in this country no one who is entitled in law to exercise the functions of guardianship. I might add in conclusion, that as a large majority of these children are of Jewish extraction, the Jewish authorities welcome the means of settling the disputes that sometimes occur as to the religious upbringing of the Jewish refugee children. I do not think I need worry the House further with this measure, which I feel sure will be welcomed by noble Lords of all Parties, and which, subject to your Lordships' concurrence, I should like to pass through its remaining stages on the last day of the present series of sittings. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Munster.)


My Lords, I am sure the House will welcome the general statement which the noble Earl has just made, but I have a recollection of matters which came to my knowledge as Chairman of the Spanish War Children's Refugee Movement concerning the number of children who came to this country as a result of what happened in Spain, and the troubles that arose in consequence as to the responsibility which had to be assumed by people in this country for their custody and so forth. I would like to ask the noble Lord if he can tell us what steps will be taken to ensure that the guardian proposed to be appointed is a suitable person. So far as the Bill goes it states: The Secretary of State may appoint a guardian of any person who is for the time being in England if it appears to him—

  1. (a) that that person … arrived in the United Kingdom at any time after the end of the year nineteen hundred and thirty-six in consequence of war (whether foreign or civil) or of religious, racial or political persecution, and had not at the time of his arrival attained the age of sixteen years;
  2. (b) that no parent or ward is in the United Kingdom; and
  3. (c) that the ward has not attained the age of twenty-one years.…"
It may well happen, as in fact I remember that it did happen in a number of cases, that friends or relatives of the children were in this country, and we only undertook the custody of these children on the terms that these people would look after them. We of course assured ourselves that these were good and trustworthy persons to act as guardians of the children, and I submit that in view of what was done in such a large number of cases then it would not be reasonable to exclude the possibility of guardians of that type being given the care of the children whom we are now discussing. I think, therefore, that the noble Earl might perhaps ascertain from the Department and tell us at a later stage what steps it is contemplated should be taken to enable the Secretary of State to assure himself as to the character and quality of the guardians proposed to be appointed. I am sure that he will be very careful, but at the same time I am also certain that we do not want what I might call machine guardianship substituted for guardianship on the basis of friendly relationship, which might reasonably be expected to work very well. I am a little bit afraid of the machine-made type of guardian taking the place of guardianship on a more personal basis, which is sometimes exceedingly advantageous.


My Lords, I have endeavoured briefly to explain to your Lordships how the Secretary of State will endeavour to appoint these guardians. With regard to the greater portion of these children—namely, those who come under the care of the Refugee Children's Movement and who, incidentally, represent two-thirds of the refugee children in this country—I can assure my noble friend that the Secretary of State intends to appoint a guardian only after full and careful consideration with the Refugee Children's Movement, which, as I have said, is responsible for at least two-thirds of the children in this country. I feel quite sure that the Secretary of State will certainly consider the difficulties which might arise through appointing what has been called a machine guardian, as distinct from the normal guardian or foster parent as those terms are generally understood by noble Lords. I will certainly be in a position to communicate to my right honourable friend the views which have been expressed by Lord Addison, and perhaps I shall be in a better position to give my noble friend a fuller statement at a later sitting, when the Bill comes up for further consideration.

On Question Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.