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.