Select Committee on Health First Report


Letter from Dr Barbara Kahan OBE to the Clerk of the Committee

Child Migrants (CM 183)
When I saw the articles in The Times 18 May on the child emigration scheme I felt I must write to Mr Hinchcliffe as Chair of the Health Committee because the fact that there are now admissions of misguided policies, in my experience is not the whole story.I was a young Children's Officer in charge of Oxfordshire County Council Children's Department from 1951. One of the members of the County Council at the time was a patron of the Fairbridge Society which was undoubtedly pursuing a policy of peopling the colonies with white emigrants. I had not been in Oxfordshire long before pressure was put upon me via the Clerk of the Council, who had been asked to do this by a County Councillor, to consider sending some children in care to Australia. I was told that they would need to be healthy and intelligent but if they were the opportunities for them would be some much better there than here. My reply was that if they were healthy and intelligent, with my help and the new legislation—their opportunities would be good here—and I had no intention of considering any such proposal and I never did.Later a child whose intelligence was at the time measured at about 88—and who was happily settled with foster parents, became the subject of a request by the foster parents to take her with them when they emigrated (as they intended to do) to Australia. For her this was the right thing because she was by then a member of their family—but Australia House, to which I went to discuss it, argued that because her IQ was less than 90—the lowest they would accept, she could not go. (Intelligence Quotient as measured by certain tests was still accepted at the time as a reliable guide to a person's overall ability. No allowance was then made for the effect on overall functioning of a wide variety of influences and factors which are now accepted).In the end I succeeded in persuading Australia House that she should be with her foster parents and after an enforced separation of about 18 months after they left, during which the foster family and my staff kept up the pressure, she was eventually allowed to join them. Reports back fortunately showed that the reunion was very positive.However the worst aspect of my experience was that it was clear from discussion in Parliament around that time that the emigration scheme was seen as cost cutting. When Children's Departments were set up in 1948 the intention was to achieve drastic reform of a dreadful system. Inevitably this led to more expenditure and more children in care because need was much greater than Public Assistance had ever recognised. In 1950, only about two years after the new Departments were set up, a Select Committee on Estimates report pointed out that they were costing more than anticipated. One of the consequences was that great pressure was put on Children's Officers to board children out—the Committee's rhetoric being that not only was it better for the children (through even the Curtis Committee's report had counselled against pressure which led to breakdowns) but it was also much cheaper. Inspectors from the Home Office Children's Department spent a lot of time urging Children's Officers to increase boarding out—and "league tables" were set up statistically to encourage this. (The pressure was so great that in the early 1960s the Children's Officers Association set up its own research into boarding out and found that breakdowns were much more frequent than was in the children's interests. It was then that a more balanced view of the need for both residential and foster care was taken, until the pendulum once more began to swing hard against residential care after Social Services Departments were set up.)It was also around 1951-52(?) to the best of my recollection, that there was a debate in the House of Commons when certain MPs urged the Government to put pressure on "these sticky fingered Children's Officers" who were reluctant to emigrate their children. These are the words that remain in my mind. My memory is that one MP told the House they should know that whereas it then cost £5 a week for a child to be in care in Britain, if they were emigrated the cost to Britain would only be 10 shillings. Unfortunately I cannot give you the date of the Hansard—but I can vouch for the sentiments expressed because I was very much aware of the pressure in my own experience in Oxfordshire. The figure of £5 a week for a child in care is evidence of how early it was in the life of Children's Departments.The emigration schemes where, in my opinion, a shameful, disgraceful policy and in my memory the financial motivation was quite overt in the early 1950s. How far the big voluntaries would have been influenced by that would be hard to say—but in the early 1950s they were probably still supporting some children financially although later almost every child in their care was financed by a local authority.The abuse of children who were emigrated was widespread—not only through using them as cheap labour and physical abuse—but also sexual abuse. There have been films/quasi documentaries on this subject, particularly in Catholic institutions.I am deeply thankful that at last the whole thing is to be examined. Several years ago I worked briefly with some London lawyers who wanted to open it up—and I met one or two ex-emigrants in the process. Unfortunately the progress hoped for was not achieved then.I have never forgotten that blatant financial motivation and thought you should know because it is too easy to plead good intentions on behalf of poor children! The lies the children and their families were told still amaze me. The whole policy and the way it was carried out were at total variance with everything the Children Act 1948 stood for and required.

2 June 1998

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