Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered child abuse in the child migration programmes.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for allowing me to shine a spotlight on what I can only describe as a state-sponsored system of child abuse. The former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said recently that it was
“bigger in scale, bigger in geographical spread and bigger in the length of time that it went on undetected” than possibly any other national sex abuse scandal in our history.
For five decades from the 1920s until the 1970s, more than 130,000 children were sent into care overseas in countries including Australia and what was then Southern Rhodesia. Charities, churches and the UK Government participated in the scheme, known as the child migration programmes.
Many of those children were physically and sexually abused. Children as young as 12 were subjected to backbreaking work. Many were psychologically tortured. Some of those children were as young as three years old. They were separated from parents and siblings and many were wrongly told that their families were dead. Children reported being abused in institutions in England before they were then abused again in institutions in the countries that they were migrated to. They were abused by staff, by visitors and by other children. Some were also abused in transit. I will briefly share two of their stories. It is impossible to understand the full horror of this period in our history without hearing some of what happened. I apologise in advance, because it is extremely distressing.
Marcelle O’Brien was only four years old when she was migrated to Australia by Fairbridge. She was bullied. She was locked in cupboards. She was mentally abused. She was sexually assaulted and repeatedly raped by a succession of men. Like so many others, she continued to live with the horror of what had happened until well into adulthood, suffering mental breakdown and periods of manic depression. It was only when she found the Child Migrants Trust that she felt able to talk about what had happened.
Michael O’Donoghue recounted his horrific experiences at the hands of Christian Brothers in Clontarf in Western Australia. He was beaten. He was raped. He endured electric shock treatment. Along with 15 other children, he was forced to watch their pet horse murdered in front of them on what was known as “special punishment day”—one of a series of regular collective punishment days that those children had to endure.
What has since emerged is how many warnings were overlooked, ignored and covered up. For decades, successive Governments ignored those warnings and continued to send children to harm.
The hon. Lady is telling some very powerful stories. Has she come across the Lanzarote convention, which was produced by the Council of Europe and signed by the British Government in March, and is she aware of the work the Council of Europe has been doing to highlight the problem of child abuse among refugees? I think that would help her case enormously.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for attending this debate and for raising that point. One of the reasons why it was important for me to bring this issue to the House for the first time for a full debate is that many Members have a strong interest in this area and in pursuing justice for the affected families. It is important that those suggestions are heard, and I hope the Minister has heard them.
Like Marcelle O’Brien, many of those who survived that horrendous period are still living with the consequences. Four years ago, the Prime Minister—then the Home Secretary—commissioned an independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. MPs from various parties, including me, welcomed that decision. The inquiry’s first full report is on this subject, and it is damning.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this issue to Westminster Hall. It is a pity that there are not more Members here to contribute, but I commend her for leading the charge. Does she agree that, given that every child migrant was exposed to an equal level of risk due to the failings in the system she has referred to, they must all be entitled to an equal level of redress?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s interest in this issue. Although I agree that it would be great to see more Members of Parliament in the Chamber, one of the problems is that this issue did not get the coverage or attention it deserves until relatively recently. I hope that by bringing it to the House, I will help more Members to understand what is happening and more survivors to come forward so we can start to see action, which is long overdue. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point: the report recommends equal compensation for equal risk. I have no desire to see survivors and victims have to prove what happened to them and recount those horrific stories again. The report was absolutely right to make that recommendation, and I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to it.
I mentioned the first full report from the wide-ranging, comprehensive inquiry into child sexual abuse. It acknowledges the role of churches and charities in causing harm to children, but it concludes that the British Government were primarily to blame for the continued existence of child migration programmes after the second world war. They failed to act, even when warned about allegations of sexual abuse. The report is devastating in its conclusion that
“the main reason for HMG’s failure to act was the politics of the day, which were consistently prioritised over the welfare of children.”
The Government did not want to risk their relations with Australia or to offend the voluntary societies that participated in the scheme. Ministers in successive Governments were cowed by the patronage and power of those who were involved in the schemes.
Despite that, the children were stronger. The truth began to emerge more than 30 years ago, thanks to their determination and courage. Even in the face of their bravery, successive Governments failed to accept responsibility. As the current Government recently acknowledged, the UK Government continued to maintain that it was a matter for the Australian Government until well into the 2000s. It is only because of the Child Migrants Trust, led by Dr Margaret Humphreys, who has rightly been described as the “conscience of Britain” on this important human rights issue, and a number of brave and persistent survivors here and across the world, many of whom will be watching this debate with interest today—some have had to stay up quite late to do so—that this became a matter of public attention that is still being pursued now.
The report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse was published four months ago. It recognised the importance of the public apology made by Gordon Brown in one of his last acts as Prime Minister, and of the family restoration fund, for which he and Andy Burnham, the then Health Secretary, found £6 million, and which has enabled more than 1,000 people to be reunited with their families. The current Government have since announced an additional £2 million for that fund, for which I am grateful. It is very welcome. I will return to that subject in a moment.
The report made just three recommendations: that the sending institutions that have failed to apologise publicly and in person to the children abused in their care do so; that all institutions that sent children abroad put in place robust systems for retaining and preserving easily accessible records of individual child migrants; and, finally, that adequate financial redress be made to the more than 2,000 surviving former child migrants. It also made it clear that this is urgent—many have died and others are dying, and it was unequivocal that the scheme must be up and running within 12 months.
In the four months since that urgent, devastating report was published, the silence from the Government has been deafening. Confusion about which Department is responsible has reigned. The Home Office made a short statement in March, when the report was published. The Department of Health and Social Care later responded to written questions. After four weeks of back-and-forth between those two Departments, I resorted to raising a point of order in the Chamber. In response, I was told that I could seek to raise the matter with the Prime Minister, which I did. I had to resort to going to the Prime Minister a month after the report was published just to get clarity from the Government about which Department is responsible. Four months on and multiple attempts later, the Government are still no clearer about their response and have still not told us when it will be made.
“We hand delivered a letter concerning this matter to the FCO on
That was two weeks ago. I ask the Minister, when will that firm get a reply on behalf of those former child migrants?
I want to say something really serious to the Minister today. The Child Migrants Trust tells me that, in the time that the Government have sat on the report, 10 former child migrants have died. Ten people died not knowing whether the Government will now draw a line under one of the darkest periods of our history, and whether they are committed to truth, redress, justice, and learning lessons to ensure this never happens again. That is the legacy those people deserve. Still now, the state, which did so much harm to them at the beginning of their lives, continues to do harm to them all the way through until their death. That cannot go on.
Will the Minister explain the reason for the delay within Government? Will she assure us that this is now the highest priority and is being dealt with a matter of urgency? As well as being a clear question of justice, this goes to the heart of whether any of us can have confidence in the child sex abuse inquiry that the Prime Minister established. She told the House when she set up the inquiry that she believed it to be essential that the lessons that come out are not only learned but acted upon. As the Minister knows, the inquiry has been beset by problems since. It has been through four chairs and has faced serious allegations of misconduct. It has cost £64 million so far—the costs are rising—and has lost the confidence of many victims’ and survivors’ groups, which have walked away over that time. Many, however, continue to invest time and energy in the inquiry, because they hope that it will make a difference. That first report must have been a sign of encouragement to them that the inquiry would not shy away from asking the difficult questions and telling the truth.
Now the Government must show that they are serious about taking action, and get on with doing so. It has been four months, and at least 10 people have died in that time, so will the Minister tell us today, do the Government accept the report’s three clear recommendations? If she cannot tell us today, will she at least commit to a full and formal response to the report before the summer recess? That request comes directly from child migrant groups, and I would be grateful for a clear answer.
The inquiry made huge progress in ensuring that apologies were made. Many organisations, including the Children’s Society, where I once worked, took the opportunity afforded to make a welcome but long-overdue apology. Will the Minister tell us, however, what progress has been made to ensure that the records are kept and made available? I have been told that the Prince’s Trust—it took over Fairbridge, which was involved in the child migration programmes—has not yet made all its records available. Have the Government contacted the agencies listed in the report to ensure that such measures are in place? What has been the response of those agencies? If the Government have not yet done that, will she commit today to doing so?
What progress has the Minister made on the question of financial redress? Has she assessed the numbers of those who might qualify? Has she done a scoping exercise to determine potential costs? In the past four months, what discussions have the Government had with the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse and the Child Migrants Trust about implementing the recommendations? Does she accept the principle, mentioned by Jim Shannon, of equal compensation because children were exposed to equal risk?
Let me compare the UK Government’s response and their position with Australia’s. In December 2017, a royal commission in Australia published the results of its five-year investigation into child abuse and recommended a national redress scheme. Within two months the Prime Minister had responded and set a deadline of
Surely it should shame us that the country the child migrants were sent to is responding, but not the country that sent them there—the country that was responsible for their care and welfare at the time. How can it be right that the Australian Prime Minister can respond to a report with 409 recommendations in only two months, but our Prime Minister cannot respond to a report with only three recommendations in more than double that time? Has the Minister made contact with Ministers and officials in Australia to understand how they established that scheme and to learn the lessons? Will she tell me today that the Government at least accept the principle of financial redress? Will she confirm that a scheme will be up and running by March next year, as per the IICSA’s recommendation?
The Minister is aware that when Gordon Brown made a formal apology in 2010, the full extent of the abuse was not known. He and many of the survivors therefore believe that a full apology is overdue. In this matter, I have to disagree with the conclusion of the independent inquiry’s report—not to recommend a further apology—because the harms caused by the migrant programmes are many and complex. That is why it matters that we recognise not simply the harm done to children by separating them from their families and countries, but the additional sexual, physical and emotional abuse laid bare so starkly by the report and the harm of our failure to confront it over successive Governments and many decades. Will the Minister commit to that today, or at the very least provide us with a date by which time the Prime Minister will respond to that specific request?
Another pressing need is a commitment to continue the family restoration fund beyond 2019. One thousand people remain to be reunited with their families, and there is a waiting list. I welcome the Government’s commitment so far, and the £2 million that they made available to the fund, but its continuation is of central importance. Many of the mums and dads of the former child migrants went to their graves not knowing what had happened to their children or even whether they were dead or alive. They never found out that they had become grandparents, and they never saw or got to hold their children ever again.
The family restoration fund has enabled some of those deep wounds at least to start to heal, and important work remains to be done before it is too late. The Minister knows, as I do—as we all do—that many of the former child migrants have died and that others are seriously ill and dying. Every day counts. The fund will enable nothing less than a restoration to families of the rights stripped away from them many decades ago. Will she give us a commitment that the fund will be continued until all the former child migrants have been able to seek to be reunited with their families?
This has been one of the most shameful episodes in British history. For 30 years we have known about the scandal but failed to act. The harm that was done then is compounded by our knowledge that it continues to cause harm to people in this country and across the world, yet still nothing is done. The secretary of the International Association of former Child Migrants and their Families, Harold Haig, put it movingly when he said on the day of the formal apology by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, that
“our thoughts are with those child migrants who have died and particularly those who ended their lives because the wounds were too deep and too painful”.
At least 10 people have died that we know of since the report was published four months ago. I hope that the Minister will tell us today that no more will die suffering harm from the British Government, and that we shall finally deal with one of the darkest periods in our history.
Lisa Nandy will have some minutes at the end of the debate to sum up. I call John Howell, but, in doing so, given all the blowers on in the Chamber this afternoon, I stress the need for the hon. Gentleman to raise his voice, so that I can hear and, more importantly, so that Hansard can record his words faithfully.
Great. Let me keep it at that level and say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I wanted to pick up on my intervention, which Lisa Nandy kindly took, and to raise an issue that has troubled us greatly at the Council of Europe. We are members of the Council of Europe and we shall still be so after Brexit. It is an important body. The convention that I mentioned is the convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, which is known colloquially as the Lanzarote convention.
The convention is important because the one thing that it requires above all is the criminalisation of sexual offences against children. It requires countries that have signed it to ensure that they have in law the necessary criminalisation of such sexual offences. It applies to Europe and to states beyond Europe. Its purpose is to protect child victims and to ensure that perpetrators are prosecuted. Those two things go together well. Forty-seven members of the Council of Europe have signed the convention—there are only 47 members of the Council of Europe, so all members have signed it—and 44 have ratified it. I think we ratified it in March this year.
We are very concerned about the sexual abuse of child migrants. If the hon. Lady looks at the Council of Europe website, she will see a huge raft of discussions and papers that have been produced on this subject, which will contribute strongly to her case. We have approached this from a human rights position, trying to protect the human rights of the children involved. The Council of Europe is the premier human rights organisation in Europe. What came out of the production of the convention was that this should be a political priority in every country that has signed and ratified the convention.
I leave that as an explanation of my earlier intervention on the hon. Lady and of how this may help. It is also an indication to the Minister of how we are activity pursuing a line, in association with our Council of Europe colleagues, of taking this matter further.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I sincerely congratulate Lisa Nandy on securing the debate.
This is a distressing and shocking subject that has not had the attention that it deserves since the IICSA report in March. She has done us and, more importantly, the victims of this appalling treatment a good service by bringing it to the House, ensuring that what happened in the child migration programmes is spoken about in Parliament and ensuring that action is taken to redress the grave injustices. I thank John Howell for highlighting the significance of the Lanzarote convention. I am not particularly au fait with it and will have to consider it further.
I agree that the IICSA report was comprehensive in its investigation of these programmes. It was thorough and thoughtful, and its conclusions entirely reasonable. I support the calls made today for the implementation of its key recommendations. Like the hon. Lady, and as a member of the Home Affairs Committee, I had considerable concerns about how the inquiry was operating in its early days. This report is a sign of encouragement for victims and it gives us an indication that the inquiry has got its act together and will be able to carry out the function that was intended for it.
Similarly, we should not forget the inquiry established by the Northern Ireland Executive into historical institutional abuse, which was chaired by Sir Anthony Hart. Its report contained a very thorough chapter on the child migrant programme that saw children from Northern Ireland sent to Australia. In Scotland, the work of the child abuse inquiry under Lady Smith is to include a specific investigation on child migrants, and work is under way to identify those who may have suffered abuse in Scotland or after being sent abroad.
The reports from the IICSA and Northern Ireland acknowledge that there must be some caution in criticising 20th-century conduct through the lens of the 21st century. Some people quite clearly did believe that migrating children was right, whether because of misguided beliefs about safeguarding the child’s moral or religious wellbeing, removing the child from danger or being economically sensible, or because it was thought that there was a need—believe it or not—to populate the empire with white British stock. As the reports make clear, even looked at by the standards of the time, the programmes were shockingly ill-conceived and the actions and supervision fell drastically short of the expected standards. Concerns about the programmes were repeatedly ignored and little effort was made to ensure that the children “exported” were safe.
The pattern that emerges in the reports is similar. Many had already suffered forms of abuse in institutions on these shores. The process of selection itself was a form of abuse. Overwhelmingly they were being separated from family and they were often lied to about what had happened to their family members or even their own identity. The views of the children and their parents were ignored. Many were abused in transit and many more were abused on arrival in Australia and other destinations. Thousands of children suffered that fate.
Both the IICSA and the Northern Ireland inquiry reports remind us that there is no substitute for the testimony of those who were put through this awful process—we have already heard that from the hon. Lady. It is only because of the courageous testimony of survivors that their reports are so thorough and comprehensive. I pay tribute to all those witnesses and to the Child Migrants Trust for supporting them through the process.
The Northern Ireland report highlighted this particular passage as typical of what all survivors of this process would say:
“We were exported to Australia like little baby convicts. It is hard to understand why they did it. I know the theory—to populate Australia. I still cannot get over the fact that I was taken away from a family I never got the chance to know. I was treated like an object, taken from one place to another. I found it very hard to show affection to my children when they were young. I have improved as the years have gone on. I have a nightmare every night of my life. I relive my past and am happy when daylight comes."
That witness died before he could sign his witness statement, which emphasises the hon. Lady’s point about the urgency of a response from the Government, especially in the light of the 10 deaths since the IICSA report.
As has been said, successive Governments were outrageously slow to respond. The hon. Lady already emphasised the IICSA’s conclusion, which states:
“it is the overwhelming conclusion of the Inquiry that the institution primarily to blame for the continued existence of the child migration programmes after the Second World War was Her Majesty’s Government”.
The programmes were
“allowed by successive British governments to remain in place, despite a catalogue of evidence which showed that children were suffering ill treatment and abuse, including sexual abuse.”
That continued even after the damning Ross report of 1956. It is stomach churning to read in the IICSA report that that was because, as the hon. Lady said, politics trumped child welfare. I quote it again:
“HMG was reluctant to jeopardise relations with the Australian government…and also to upset philanthropic organisations… Many such organisations enjoyed patronage from persons of influence and position, and it is clear that in some cases the avoidance of embarrassment and reputational risk was more important than the institutions’ responsibilities towards migrated children.”
One of the things that is important to many former child migrants is that this never happens to children again. The story that the hon. Gentleman tells, of a Government cowed by the power and the patronage of those involved, is a story that quite honestly could be repeated today. We have seen it time and again throughout history. That is why it is so important that we get a full formal response to this report from the Government. The inquiry was set up to learn the lessons from history, to make sure this never happens again. I fear that we are not doing that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be really helpful for the Minister to respond specifically to that point when she replies?
I absolutely agree and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
On compensation payments, both the Northern Ireland report and the IICSA report recommend compensation for those sent abroad on the child migration programmes, over and above the compensation they might receive for other wrongs and abuse suffered. The Northern Ireland report says that would be in recognition of
“the injustice they suffered as young children by being sent to a far away land and losing their sense of identity as a result”.
Similarly, the IICSA recommends a redress scheme for all surviving former child migrants, with each awarded the same sum in recognition that they were all
“exposed to the risk of sexual abuse”.
Because of the age of the surviving migrants—there are 2,000 or so alive today—the IICSA report rightly suggests that the scheme be established urgently, so that payments can be made within 12 months. None of that should interfere with or affect any other forms of ongoing support that are being provided.
This was a truly appalling episode in British history and it will be until we have resolved it. The Government must do what is right by the survivors and other children, and compensation should be paid urgently as per the recommendations of the inquiries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy for securing this very important but long-awaited debate, for her excellent speech and for her campaigning on this issue for many years.
I pay special tribute to Dr Margaret Humphreys for bringing this terrible issue into the public domain back in 1987—more than 30 years ago—and for her work and campaigning ever since with the Child Migrants Trust. Having been let down, it has to be said, by successive Governments, her work has changed the lives of so many families for the better. The bonds that families have made, having been reunited, are irreplaceable and she has played a huge part in that. I know that they all thank her deeply.
I pay tribute to those who have been affected by the child migration programmes and echo the words of the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who in 2010 said:
“To all those former child migrants and their families...we are truly sorry.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 506, c. 301.]
The stories we have heard in the debate and over the years have been incredibly moving and heartbreaking. It is inconceivable that over several decades more than 130,000 British children, some as young as three years old, were deported from UK children’s homes and their families without consent, and sometimes even without their parent’s knowledge. That was despite concerns being raised about how those children were being treated not only while abroad but on their journey, including, as we have heard, physical, emotional and sexual abuse. They were also completely dehumanised by having their names and birth dates changed, and even by having any records they had destroyed.
These children did not have regular access to basics such as food, water, shoes and underwear. It is important to remember that they were just children and they had done absolutely nothing wrong to find themselves in that position. They were taken away from their homes to a foreign country where all around them were strangers, and almost all were perpetrators. It is no wonder they were intimidated and scared even to speak out about how they were being treated. My heart truly aches for those victims, and I am sure the Minister’s does too.
It is now time for the Government to take action. There have been many opportunities for successive Governments to take action over the years, but sadly they have all been missed. In March this year, when the report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse was published, the Government had another opportunity to take action. Four months on, the Government risk missing yet another opportunity to make a change.
It is thought that about 2,000 former child migrants are still alive today, but they cannot afford to wait much longer. The report recommended that financial redress payments should start being made within 12 months, so the Government have only eight months left to take action. When will they publish a formal response to the report? Will the Minister ensure that that is done before the summer recess?
As has been mentioned, many of these children had their records destroyed, so how will the Government ensure that everyone who was affected receives justice and recognition? Similar to the Windrush scandal, we cannot allow victims to go without justice just because they do not have the documents to prove it, especially when those documents were destroyed by the parties involved on an industrial scale.
The victims have suffered for too long at the hands of successive Governments who made the choice to turn a blind eye. The last Labour Government recognised the victims and apologised to them, but will this Government take steps to grant financial compensation to victims and their families, as recommended by the recent inquiry report? Will they take steps to ensure that siblings and other family members who were separated because of the programme are reunited here in Great Britain?
Gordon Brown said in 2010 that
“successive governments have failed in a duty of care”.
These victims have been let down all their lives. The Government now have the power to address those decades of failure, and I hope they do so very soon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I thank Lisa Nandy for securing the debate. It is difficult for me to disagree with anything she said. It is four months since the report came out and, dare I say it, we are all a bit distracted by the soap opera that is Brexit, which means that on some of these issues the eye has been taken off the ball. One reason I am grateful to her, therefore, is that this debate helps me to focus some of my colleagues’ minds. She alluded to the fact that this issue affects not just my Department and that we need agreement across Government. I thank her for the opportunity to say where the Department of Health and Social Care is on the issue.
I am pleased to hear that some of the child migrants are watching the debate with interest. I would like to convey to them that we are taking this seriously and will respond to the issues raised in the report. I thank the hon. Lady for showing such interest and passion in speaking on their behalf, because they deserve our support.
I do not think anyone in the Chamber disagrees that the child migration policy was so misguided and harmful and caused such suffering and distress. For us as Members of Parliament in the 21st century, it beggars belief to think that any British Government could think that was a reasonable policy. It clearly caused great suffering and distress to children, who should be protected by institutions of the state. It is crucial that we learn from the mistakes of the past in order to protect and safeguard future generations of children from abuse.
We should never be complacent. We have seen with the likes of Savile how organisations can collude to protect themselves from the worst kinds of allegations, and that continues to this day. Only last week we heard about Gosport, where there was massive collusion on real harm, which causes such distress. All citizens require our support as Members of Parliament to make sure that never happens again.
The hon. Lady told the most harrowing stories, perpetrated by organisations that purport to be Christian, and we heard many examples of cover-ups of abusive behaviour towards children, which I sincerely hope will be further highlighted by the child abuse inquiry. Mrs Hodgson, who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, used the term “dehumanising,” which conveys exactly what we are talking about. That is what was done to those children.
We are four months on from the publication of the report, which asked that we take action within a year, so there are eight months to take action. I would like us to give a formal response much sooner—I intend to do so before the summer recess, as everyone has asked. Perhaps in some respects it will be useful to reflect on the points made in this debate for that formal response. All the questions that hon. Members have asked deserve to be answered as part of that, so I thank them for making those points.
We will indeed consider that. As the hon. Lady will be aware—she alluded to this—we are supportive of the family restoration fund and continue to work with the Child Migrants Trust to ensure that we are supporting that work as effectively as possible. Ultimately, we cannot apologise enough for what we have put these people through. We will pick that up as part of the response.
I talked about how institutions collaborated to cover up harm generally. That is why the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse is so crucial, and why we need to look at historical abuse as well as more recent events; otherwise, we will end up turning a blind eye to the same behaviours. As the whole House knows, this is very much an interest of the Prime Minister. She established the inquiry and she wants to shine a light on all such practices so that we can genuinely protect people from sexual abuse in future. Only by getting to the truth and exposing what went wrong in the past can we genuinely learn those lessons. We have now given a voice to victims and survivors. We have given them a chance to tell their stories, which will enable them to start moving on and to draw a line under the suffering that institutions of the state allowed to happen.
As we have heard, the number of children who were migrated is significant: 130,000 in total and 9,000 since the war. As the hon. Lady says, 2,000 of them are still alive today. The intention was well-meaning, but we know that, despite the good intentions, many children suffered terrible emotional, physical and sexual abuse. As she says, although it happened far from our shores, the fault does not lie entirely with overseas Governments. Having established the policy, we owed a duty of care to those people.
As has been mentioned, some children were sent from this country without their parents’ knowledge or consent and without any necessary approval. The obliteration of individual rights in such circumstances is truly abhorrent, and it shocks me that Great Britain, the mother of the free, could behave in this way to any one of its subjects. It is utterly shocking. We know that some parents were even told that their children had died, when in fact their names had just been changed when they were sent abroad. That is totally unthinkable.
It is right that the child migration programme was captured by that inquiry and very important that we looked at it as a matter of urgency, given the age of some of the survivors. All hon. Members will know that the Department of Health collaborated fully with the inquiry, as it did with all other investigations. We responded to all requests for information and gave full access to our files and records, as well as giving comprehensive evidence to the inquiry hearings.
The hon. Lady will also be aware that the inquiry heard harrowing testimonies from former child migrants. She has referred to some of those stories today. Essentially, everyone turned a blind eye to allow the conditions for that abuse to flourish. It is quite right that the inquiry concluded that systematic hardship and abuse did indeed occur as part of the programmes, and that insufficient protection and safeguards meant that they were allowed to continue for far too long.
The physical and emotional damage in childhood has had a lifelong negative impact on many former child migrants. I know that those watching today will agree that some still struggle to overcome their experiences, which continue to blight their lives and those of their families—not to mention the health consequences. I hear the hon. Lady’s message that since the report was published we have lost a further 10 survivors. That underlines the case for our responding to the report as soon as possible, and I give her my undertaking that I will do my level best to get that out as soon as possible.
One thing that we are grappling with within Government is whether there are issues of precedence in how we address the recommendations of the report. In particular, given the breadth of what the inquiry will be looking at, we have to be careful how we pitch it. That discussion is taking place at the highest level among Ministers. The spirit in which we established the inquiry will be ruined if we do not take those discussions seriously. I convey that message to all hon. Members. In her speech, the hon. Lady referred to a letter from solicitors pending legal action. I have seen that correspondence and it is receiving attention, so I can give her that assurance too.
I appreciate that I am not giving the answer that hon. Members would like, because they are all rightly impatient for the response. I hope that they will accept that we are carefully considering the report’s recommendations and are committed to responding as soon as we can, given the advanced age and declining health of the people we are talking about. Frankly, that is the only way to avoid neglecting them further. We should not shy away from our responsibilities now and there should be no dispute about the Departments that are responsible. The Department of Health and Social Care and its predecessor Departments have led the Government on these issues since they were first identified by Margaret Humphreys in the 1980s. I add my voice to those who have paid tribute to her today. She provided the challenge that made us all face up to what went on in our name in the past.
To conclude, the work of the child sex abuse inquiry brings to our attention the need for change in our approach to child sexual abuse. We should never turn a blind eye. We should always listen. We must also acknowledge that, since the moment when Gordon Brown first apologised for the treatment of child migrants, successive Governments have ensured that we have done our best to support and do right by them. The cross-party formal national apology to child migrants in 2010 was testament to how committed we all are across the House to righting some of the wrongs of the child migration programmes in a way that is meaningful to child migrants themselves. It is what they told us they wanted.
As the hon. Lady said, we have funded the Family Restoration Fund, which has funded around 1,200 trips to reunite families and rebuild family ties. It is important that we continue to support that work and to work with the Child Migrants Trust to deliver it.
Finally, I will say some last words to the former child migrants who, despite enduring such a damaging start to their lives, have managed with great courage to overcome their past and to positively shape their future. We owe it to them to learn the lessons of the past, and the inquiry’s work is designed to do that. I do not think that anyone can pay sufficient tribute to their stoicism and courage in moving on and shaping their lives—but they are quite right to remind us how we failed them.
I wish again to thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate, and I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to it. We will note the points that have been made as we develop our response to the child migration report, which I hope to share with everyone in the not-too-distant future.
I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, and I thank the Minister for her honesty in how she has approached this, given the serious delays and their impact, which we have discussed. I thank her, too, for her personal assurances on this matter; I believe they are genuine and I am encouraged by that. I hope that others listening to the debate will also be encouraged. I am particularly grateful to her for committing to a formal response before the recess and for considering the additional requests that I made during the debate.
Given the importance of this subject and the fact that it was the British state that caused this harm and continues to cause this harm, I hope that the formal response will also be made as a statement in the House, so that colleagues have the opportunity to question Ministers about it and it is given the prominence by Government that it deserves. When this matter was finally given to the Department of Health to respond to, there was a concern—and it remains—that the fact that the Department was historically responsible for child welfare but is no longer might mean there would be delays and that due expertise would not be brought to bear. I am grateful to the Minister for recognising that this is a cross-party issue that demands attention at the highest levels, from the Prime Minister and Cabinet colleagues.
We will not let this go. It was one of the darkest periods in British history, and it affected not just those former child migrants, but their families. They deserve redress; they deserve a full apology; and all of them, whether they are alive today or not, deserve a legacy of ensuring that this never happens to another child.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered child abuse in the child migration programmes.