Orders of the Day — Child Migrants

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

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Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe , Wakefield 9:42 pm, 22nd November 1993

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.