Orders of the Day — Child Migrants

– in the House of Commons at 9:42 pm on 22nd November 1993.

Alert me about debates like this

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

10 pm

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Order. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) should delay for a moment while the Chamber is cleared. Will hon. Members please leave quietly?

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe , Wakefield

I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue tonight about which I have long been concerned. This issue, which has concerned many hon. Members, relates to the migration of thousands of British children. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) hopes to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Like most people in this country, I was blissfully unaware until about a year ago that from 1618 until 1967 my country had exported about 150,000 children to various parts of the old empire including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Caribbean. I learned of that policy when, a year ago last October, I met an Australian in Speaker's House who was attending a receiption on the eve of the rugby league world cup final between Great Britain and Australia.

The woman concerned told me that her late father had been one of thousands of British child migrants who were exported to Australia. She said that she hoped to learn about his ancestry and hers while she was in Britain—someting denied to vast numbers of migrants for generations.

I found what she told me astonishing. I also found it personally disturbing because, as the Minister is aware, prior to being elected to Parliament I worked in the social services. I began working in social work in 1968. Often I worked very closely with some of the agencies which, I discovered, had until only the previous year been involved in the export of British children in sometimes very questionable circumstances.

I want to make it clear at the outset that it is not in any way my intention tonight to attack those who currently run those agencies. I will obviously refer to the impact of schemes operated by a range of agencies including the Catholic Child Welfare Council, Barnardo's, the National Children's Home and the Salvation Army. However I, perhaps more than most hon. Members, am very conscious of the important contemporary work of those organisations and others. I am also very much aware that the whole story of British child care policy is one of subsequent generations viewing with concern and sometimes horror what was deemed good practice by our predecessors.

I am not here tonight to rake over elements of our history which some would say are best forgotten. I want to ask this Government to address seriously their responsibilities to those who, as we speak, face every day the emotional and sometimes physical implications of having been child migrants.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting in the House of Commons a former child migrant from Australia who is trying to repair the appalling damage that has been caused by this country's migration policies. He broke down as he told me how he was taken from his mother and family and had his name and religion changed. He has only recently had an operation on his ear to rectify a condition arising from physical injuries received while under what was deemed the care of one of the agency families concerned. He is fortunate to have an occupation that now pays him reasonably well as he has had to spend about £30,000 travelling to and from Britain making inquiries about his own identity, with the invaluable help of the Child Migrants Trust. He eventually found out who his mother was, but sadly experienced that of so many others with similar backgrounds, and found out that his mother had died not long before he managed to establish who she was.

I had that man's case in mind when I raised the issue of child migration at Prime Minister's Question Time recently. The House will recall that the Prime Minister replied: 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.] The former migrant that I met is a British citizen—one of hundreds and possibly thousands of former migrants who are British and for whom the British Government have a past, present and future responsibility.

Many of the former migrants, especially in Australia, have retained their British citizenship, as there was no provision made for child migrants sent there in the post-war period to automatically assume Australian citizenship. Many do not realise that they are still British and often find out only when their application for an Australian passport is rejected. It was not the policy to provide migrants with passports or full birth certificates when they left Britain and many of my age and older still lack a full birth certificate and the most basic of information about their real identity or personal background.

I do not have the time to do justice to a summary of the history of the child migrant scheme, but I urge the Minister to study some of the literature concerning the scheme and especially the detailed research in the book "Lost Children of the Empire" by Philip Bean and Joy Melville, first published in 1989. They made it clear that while migrants were usually called orphans, the majority were not and were more often abandoned, illegitimate or from poor or broken homes. When they were admitted to care, sometimes temporarily, their parents usually had no idea that they were likely to be dispatched to far outposts of the empire. Children were frequently told that their parents were dead and in many instances it was clear they were not.

Bean and Melville examined the reasons for continued existence of the schemes over and above the questionable argument that it was in the best interests of the children concerned. It is clear from their research that the reasons ranged from it being cheaper than keeping them in Britain to a deliberate attempt to populate the empire with what was deemed good British—that is, white—stock. Their book also alleges that the religious affiliations of certain concerned agencies was an important factor in some of the arrangements made. On Canadian migration, they state: Ontario wanted as many non-Catholics as possible to settle there, conscious of catholic expansion in adjacent Quebec and Quebec, eyeing the influx, called in turn for child Catholics Whatever the motivation, it is clear that thousands of child migrants were grossly exploited as cheap, virtual slave labour and were emotionally, physically and frequently sexually abused. The Bean and Melville study highlights how checks on the care and treatment of migrants were minimal and usually non-existent.

We know that some of the worst treatment of migrants has taken place since the last world war—in the lifetime of most hon. Members present. It is of the utmost concern that the powers of successive Governments in the Children Act 1948 to control the immigration arrangements of voluntary organisations were not used. It was not until the implementation of the Child Care Act 1980 in January 1982 that the consent of the Secretary of State was required before agencies could send children abroad.

In my recent question to the Prime Minister, I referred to the fact that, in a couple of weeks' time, a British woman, Mrs. Margaret Humphreys, will become the first British citizen—apart from members of the royal family—to receive the prestigious Order of Australia medal. She is to receive that award because of Australia's recognition of the unique role that she has played in helping migrants to be reunited with their former families and to adjust to the trauma that they have experienced.

Mrs. Humphreys established the Child Migrants Trust in 1987 after uncovering the extent to which migrants exported under the scheme were desperately seeking help. Clearly, many of the migrants felt unable to seek such help from the agencies that originally exported them because of the very damaging experience that had resulted. I pay sincere tribute to Margaret Humphreys and her colleagues at the Child Migrants Trust for their work.

I also feel that the country owes a great debt to the Nottinghamshire county council social services department for substantially funding the work of the trust. I pay tribute to the chairman of the social services committee, Councillor Joan Taylor, and to the support given to her by her Conservative shadow chair, Councillor Brenda Borrett and the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman on the committee, Councillor Sue Bennett. The Minister is well aware that this is not a party issue. There is all-party support in the House, as in Nottingham, for the proposition that we should attempt to address the issue seriously.

I am grateful that the holding of this Adjournment debate has resulted in the trust being visited for the first time in six years by a representative of the Department of Health. I hope that an important consequence will be a substantial increase in the funding made available by the Government for the work of the trust. The current grant, although welcome, goes nowhere near to paying for even a small part of its very important work. I hope, too, that the Minister will tell me why his Department suggested in its press release of 24 August that the child migrant issue would be considered during the Secretary of State's recent visit to Australasia, when in subsequent parliamentary answers on 25 October and on 1 and 4 November, we have been told that that would not have been appropriate.

Will the Minister comment, too, on the Government's obvious reluctance to make available to those concerned with rehabilitating migrants all the relevant records within his or other Departments or the agencies concerned? It has been put to me that the Government are reluctant to be more open and active on the matter because of their contacts at the very highest level with some of the voluntary organisations concerned, which fear the possible implications for their current activities and fund raising if more information were made public. I hope the Minister agrees that it would be very wrong were such attitudes to prevent former child migrants from obtaining the information necessary to repair their lives.

By an interesting coincidence, on 15 July—the day on which the BBC showed the first part of its drama documentary on the child migrant scheme, "The Leaving of Liverpool", which shocked and angered many people in Britain—the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was standing in the Chamber with the Prime Minister at his side, launching his White Paper on open government. If the Government are genuinely committed to open government, they will without delay establish a full public inquiry into the British child migrant scheme, surely one of the greatest scandals of our time.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping , Sherwood 10:13 pm, 22nd November 1993

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) for allowing me a few minutes.

These important issues are not just history. Some argue that, as the events took place 20, 30 or 40 years ago, they can be forgotten. That clearly cannot be the case. The children who went abroad want to understand their history. They need to understand and make sense of their past and look forward to their future. Many families here in the United Kingdom still grieve about that past and it is important that some action should be taken. People are aging, memories are fading and records unfortunately are not being released.

The Minister will know that on 18 May I came with representatives of the Child Migrant Trust to see his predecessor at the Department of Health, who undertook to have discussions with the child care charities involved in those activities.

The present Minister wrote to me on 2 July to say that he shared the concerns of the trust, that there was an issue and that there would be speedy action. I hope that the Minister will not mind my reminding him that six months have passed since that initial meeting at the Department. I should be grateful if he would tell us what discussions there have been with the child care agencies involved.

Many child migrants will not accept help from those former charities. They believe that the charities are in the dock and they accuse the charities. They will not take help from a party that they feel is implicated in events from which, although history, many people still bear the scars.

It is important to fund the Child Care Trust adequately. I note the enormous help that the Australian Government have given the Child Migrants Trust. That organisation is extremely highly regarded in Australia and it would be fitting if it had similiar recognition here.

The Government could help immediately by making sure that records are available. They could put pressure on the child care charities that have been involved. They could provide finance, as they have in the past. I believe that £45,000 has been made available from the Department of Health over recent years. However, the real funding for and the real commitment to the Child Migrants Trust has come from Nottinghamshire county council. Over the past seven years it has made almost £200,000 available to the trust. It really is time for action. It really is time for the Department of Health to match the commitment of the trust, its volunteers and Nottinghamshire county council because it is vital that, for people to have a future, they must make sense of the past, and the Child Migrants Trust can ensure that.

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea 10:16 pm, 22nd November 1993

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on choosing to remind the House of the work of the British Child Migrants Trust and on drawing our attention to the problems of former child migrants. I also acknowledge the contribution by the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping).

Child emigration had its origins, as hon. Members know, in the latter part of the 19th century. At that time, it was mainly to Canada and linked to employment opportunities on farms and as domestic servants when industrialisation was depopulating rural areas in this country. In more modern times, Kingsley Fairbridge founded the Child Emigration Society with a vision in 1909 to bring future farmers to Rhodesia by, as he said, shifting the orphanages of Britain to the shores of Greater Britain. His vision was that little children would shed the bondage of bitter circumstances and stretch their legs and minds amid the thousands of interests of the farm. Western Australia presented the first opportunity to contribute to what he said was the problem of how to combine the work of Child Rescue with that of Emigration". Churches and other voluntary and charitable organisations took up the idea and ran migration schemes approved by the Parliaments of the day. In the 1930s, the schemes flourished, perhaps partly because of the depression. It was accepted then that orphans or poor children around the age of 10 could go to the dominions, learn to farm and have a better chance of securing permanent employment and finding a decent life than if they remained in institutions in the home country.

In Australia, there were about 1,000 applications for the 100 or so children who were leaving the farm schools each year. I stress that at the time the schemes were seen as opportunities and not as dumping grounds for unwanted children. Child emigration continued after the war and on into the late 1960s. I have no doubt that most of those involved in the church and voluntary organisations that ran the schemes had sincere motives and the best interests of the children in mind. No Government of any party at any time questioned the schemes.

For most former child migrants, there is little doubt that their life chances were improved. It is certainly apparent that many, and perhaps most, children who emigrated over the years managed to settle well, flourished and led contented and successful lives. Indeed, many reached the top of their career trees in their new countries. But some did not prosper and, alas, it is clear that some suffered at the hands of those in whose care they were placed.

Attention has recently been drawn to a darker side of the story, dramatically portrayed in the television film "The Leaving of Liverpool". Looking back over the last century, of course we can now say that it was clearly insufficient to have good intentions, and we now have the stories of cruelty and abuse related by some of those migrants.

We now have a more civilised and caring framework for child welfare. The Children Act 1989 makes the welfare of the child paramount. It reminds us that parents are the best people to bring up their children and requires local authorities to help parents bring up their children at home whenever possible. Most importantly, the child's voice must be heard when decisions about his or her future are being taken. The courts now have responsibility for approving the emigration of children in care.

The United Nations convention on the rights of the child underlined those points. It is not sufficient to think what would be best for the child—children must have the right to say what they think about anything that affects them. Attitudes have changed and the law has changed to protect today's children from those aspects of the treatment of former child migrants which we now find distasteful. Our recent White Paper on adoption, coupled with current practice on inter-country adoption, takes that protection a stage further.

Unfortunately, no law can eradicate all forms of abuse, as we know only too well from recent incidents in children's homes in this country, when children are supposedly in the care of local authorities. It is salutary to be reminded of what can happen today and what happened on occasions in those distant lands to which the children were sent. The abuses that occurred there are of course a matter for the authorities of the country concerned to investigate and take appropriate action. But there are ways in which authorities and agencies in this country can respond to some of the wishes of the migrants themselves. The Government's main concern now is to ensure that former child migrants who wish to make contact with their families are able to do so.

Both hon. Gentlemen referred to the files. I have looked carefully at this issue. My officials have examined all the files on child migration kept in the Public Record Office in class MH 102 and those transferred from the Home Office. There are 122 such files. Fifty-one are already available at the Public Record Office under the 30-year rule for anyone to inspect. Another 15 are still subject to the normal 30-year limit. There is a third group of 56 files which are being held at the Public Record Office on extended closure under standard rules.

It is unlikely that information in the third group of files could be of help to the Child Migrants Trust in its work of counselling former child migrants and tracing their origins.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney , Makerfield

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea

I shall give way when I have completed this point.

Nevertheless, the recent White Paper on open government encourages Departments to reconsider the need for extended closure of files. We have therefore looked again at all the files. My view is that 30 of the files could be opened now and I intend to ask my departmental records officer to seek the Lord Chancellor's approval for accelerated opening.

I have also decided to recommend that the Child Migrants Trust be given privileged access to all 26 remaining files in this group held by the Public Record Office, subject to certain safeguards to ensure confidentiality for those who do not want their names to be known as former child migrants.

That leaves the 15 files that have not yet reached the 30-year limit. By definition, they include matters relating to the final years of the scheme from 1964 to 1968. After careful consideration I have decided to recommend the early opening now of 12 of the 15 former Home Office files. To ensure that there is no doubt or speculation regarding the remaining three, I have also decided to give privileged access to the British Child Migrants Trust to the remaining three, which refer to individual migrants.

In that way, the British Child Migrants Trust will have access to all the files held at the Public Record Office or transferred from the Home Office. I hope that that significant step towards open government, while safeguarding the interest of private citizens, will be welcomed by the House and the migrants themselves.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe , Wakefield

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to speak again. I thank him genuinely for his response tonight. I shall briefly mention one other subject that he may or may not want to touch on—the records that we know exist in certain voluntary agencies. Would it be possible, in the spirit of attempting to do something about that issue—which I believe he is—to obtain those documents through the Department of Health so that they are in the public domain, rather than leaving it to the Child Migrants Trust or to the individual child migrant to approach the agency concerned for the information that they require?

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea

The hon. Gentleman is asking me to go a little further than it is in my power to go. I am sure that the organisations to which he referred will have heard his request that the records be passed to me and to my department. I hope that they will also have heard the lead that perhaps I have been able to give in terms of openness with those files, but it is on privileged access and we must protect the interests of individuals who may not wish their names to be known. I will leave it by saying that I have heard what the hon. Gentleman said and no doubt others outside the House will have heard, too.

The Government support the work of the British Child Migrants Trust and the Australian Government support work in that country. Government funding for the current year is £25,000. Total funding has so far been £45,000. Like all funding for voluntary organisations, we expect the Child Migrants Trust to seek other funding sources and it has been most successful in doing just that. The Government grant currently contributes to about one third of its expenditure.

A further application for a three-year section 64 grant is now being considered, together with similar applications from many other voluntary organisations. The House would not expect me to give any specific funding commitment today either to the British Child Migrants Trust or to any other voluntary organisation working in that area, but I will of course take into account the views that were expressed by the hon. Member for Wakefield and hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the visit to Australia by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. I simply say that, although my right hon. Friend has taken a close interest in the problems of former child migrants, in that brief visit she did not need to mention the subject because it was a matter that I was raising directly with my opposite number in the Australian Government. Happily, as a result of that, we have agreement with the Australian Government that our officials can work together to seek co-operation and to further the work.

Lastly, the hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to Margaret Humphreys on being awarded the Order of Australia medal. I join him in congratulating her on that. The hon. Gentleman referred to other organisations. Following his meeting with my predecessor, contact was made with other organisations in an attempt to get them working together with the trust, given all the problems that there may be in encouraging that to happen. Many of them, such as Barnardo's, the Children's Society, the Catholic Child Welfare Council, the National Children's Homes and Fairbridge have contributed to giving us all a much clearer understanding of the history of these schemes than we would otherwise have had.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the measured way in which he introduced the debate and for the way in which he clearly accepted the high standing of those organisations today. Nothing that we say today must undermine that in any way. Many former child migrants are grateful to those organisations for reuniting them with their families and their roots and that remains our closest wish as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.