Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)

WEDNESDAY 4 JUNE 1998MRS M HUMPHREYS, OAM, MR I THWAITES, MR DSPICER, THE HON MRS J TAYLOR, MR M DALTON, MR J HENNESSEY, MR N JOHNSTON and MRS P IRELAND.

180. I do follow that because obviously some of the witnesses spoke of the importance of your independence. That would mean that in one sense you would be reluctant to share the data which is available to you with other agencies because that would imply some loss of your independence.

(Mr Spicer) Working appropriately with other professionals within agreed standards of professional confidence is not something the Trust has a difficulty with. That is really the answer I have to give you. The Trust operates to the very highest standards and the migrants know that the information which we get from them, for example, will not be bandied about and used for reasons other than for the purposes of the Trust. In our submission we told you that we had to spend a lot of scarce resources resisting an attempt by one agency to subpoena our records in order to help their defence of one of the legal actions. Had we conceded then of course that would have sent a very bad message to the very people we were asking to come forward and take the benefit of the services which are available.(Mr Thwaites) May I make a point on the issue of records? The Trust was approached last year by another of the migrating agencies, an Anglican agency in Western Australia asking us whether the Trust would in fact take their records and maintain their records for them because the Trust provides a service to former child migrants which they were aware they were not providing and really could not provide. As a precedent we saw that as a very positive move coming from one of the migrating agencies. As Margaret Humphreys said a few moments ago, we have also been given the database which was actually about 900 names—if I may correct you—not 9,000, from the Catholic Migrant Centre. As a practitioner I wish very much that the other agencies could follow the lead of the Catholic Migrant Centre in Perth which is an agency with which we work on the ground very well. We have contacted them very frequently for the exchange of records.

Dr Stoate

181. The crux of what we are talking about to do with databases is about trust, which Mr Hennessey is very keen on. I can understand why very many former child migrants are extremely wary of the sending agencies and the agencies involved. I can fully appreciate that. It is very important that if you do get the database you really can guarantee confidentiality, you really can guarantee that unauthorised people will not be getting hold of records for purposes which might be their own.

(Mrs Humphreys) Absolutely.

182. It is really important that we emphasise that.

(Mrs Humphreys) Totally.

Mr Austin

183. On the question of the relationship with the sending agencies and information which is available and released, clearly you emphasised the sensitivity with which the release of information has to be dealt with. In terms of your relationship with the sending agency, on page5, in section 2 of your memorandum you have actually said, "...a few agencies maintain policies and procedures which take little account of the potentially damaging impact of providing information to former child migrants without the option of counselling facilities being made available". To all of us that would clearly seem a very straightforward and sensible comment. Could you say which are the agencies which behave in this way, what sort of representations have you made to them and what kind of response have you received?

(Mr Spicer) May I just deal with a little bit of history of the issue? When attention was drawn to this issue now 10 years ago by the Trust and particularly by Mrs Humphreys, one of the very important issues then was that so many of the former child migrants had desperately sought information from the sending agencies for decades and been rebuffed. I should like if I have the opportunity to deal with the deceptions in a moment. They had no rights of access to their files. As a result of the publicity which was then engendered, a number of those agencies immediately began to make files available because that was the area they felt was subject to some criticism. To give you a very stark example, a lady we worked with from a very early stage in Australia, very early on in the formation of the Trust, suddenly had landing on her doormat in Sydney, with no assistance and help at all, the whole of her file and all the details of her formal adoption, her abuse by the adopters, her return to the adoptive agency, the change of her name back to her original name without regard to the court orders or the status which she then enjoyed and then the details of the reasons why she was then sent to Australia. That lady had hitherto been brought up to believe that she had been rescued from the bombs in the streets of London and found wandering. Suddenly to have that on the mat without any assistance gives you some indication of the concerns which we immediately had about this sort of stark reaction to an area of criticism. Mr Thwaites will be able to give you a little more detail.

(Mr Thwaites) I have had some considerable contact with the Fairbridge Society in Australia. The Fairbridge Society operated three institutions in Australia. They currently have two Old Fairbridgian Associations in operations but they employ no professional staff. The procedure to assist former child migrants to access their records has developed over time but has in fact now gone backwards. Some two years ago we were able to get some information from one branch of the Old Fairbridgian Association in Western Australia provided we do, as is standard practice, send a written authority, consent form, signed by a former child migrant authorising release of their documents to the Trust so that we can then take those documents personally and give them in a sensitive manner. The Old Fairbridgian Association in New South Wales has steadfastly refused to cooperate or to send files to any third party and have maintained their policy of sending client files directly through the mailbox as Mr Spicer explained. Sadly now the West Australian branch has also adopted the same policy so that for a former child migrant in Australia who was sent to one of the Fairbridge Society institutions, if they actually retrieve their file, the best that the Trust can do to support them in that is to try to coordinate when they may receive their file and hope they may be able to bring their file unopened to the Trust. I have yet to have somebody who can resist the temptation to rip open the envelope and see what is in there. The devastation that I have seen time after time after time is quite heartbreaking.

184. So agencies like Fairbridge will refuse to release information to you, even when the consent of the migrant themselves has been obtained.

(Mr Thwaites) That is correct.

Mr Gunnell

185. To quote from your paper again, the Congregation of Christian Brothers, a former receiving agency, has said that "existing agencies and organisations have not always been able to collaborate effectively or coordinate their efforts to best effect...there are politics at work, and it is a regrettable but sad fact that there has sometimes been hostility and rivalry, rather than cooperation, among various groups". To what extent is the tension between the agencies and the individuals becoming counter-productive and interfering with the achievement of improved welfare for the former child migrants?

(Mr Thwaites) There have been increasing difficulties in the last 12 months leading up to this inquiry. I believe that a number of former child migrants are being used by various interested parties, by members of some of the sending agencies, who I believe are fighting for their existence. A number of agencies are seeking funds to provide services. We have had a large number of people come into the Perth office requesting that the Trust meet with the agencies, in a state of deep confusion themselves because in fact they are people who have come into the Trust because they need the Trust's services and yet they have come in as the bearers of messages. Given this level of what I assess as secondary abuse for people who still have links to the migrating agencies, in a way they are being cut off from receiving the counselling support services of the Trust because they are being used and this has escalated in recent times.

186. Obviously there is some harm from the present circumstances. That gives me the answer to the next question which is whether it is necessary or desirable for a plethora of agencies, including the sending agencies we have spoken of, to be dealing with the repercussions of the child migrant schemes. Some of the other witnesses we have heard from have called for the establishment of a one-stop shop, which would "be in a position to help former child migrants with all of their needs" or at least "enable former child migrants to know where and how to access the help they are seeking". Is a one-stop shop, in view of what you said to us about the roles of the different agencies, an achievable idea? If it were, and if it were to have the status you yourselves have in terms of your independence, how could it be brought to fruition?

(Mrs Humphreys) That is a very sound point and one of the things we have discussed. Perhaps I can answer it this way. There has to be choice for people. There has to be choice for child migrants and there have to be choices for their families. When a child migrant decides that they want to find their families and learn more about themselves, they actually do not know anything about the circumstances of their families in England. They do not know anything. They are making the choice in the dark in a sense. When we look at reunions, when we look at people like Matthew and others coming home to meet their families for the first time, families, mothers in particular, require the independence of the Trust. I could talk to you for a long time about reunions which have been terribly sad, where the migrating agency has contacted the mother—and very recently a mother still alive, in her eighties—a letter from the migrating agency has gone back to Western Australia and the message was to tell this lad—this lad is now in his fifties of course—that his mother is 82 and he should go away, she does not want to know. Mr Gunnell, we visit those mothers when we are asked to afterwards. It is a very different story. A healing process takes place with the mother and she is helped to meet her son or daughter. There are people in this room today who can testify to that of their own experience. That is the risk, is it not, of the migrating agencies providing services? It is not just child migrants, it is their elderly mothers and fathers. It is people making choices when they really do not know what is occurring this end. It does require independence, it does require that. Going back to whether we should have a one-stop shop, it is a difficult issue, is it not, because there should be choice, clearly? It is a difficult issue. This is an area of work which requires considerable specialism and considerable experience. The Trust has been doing this work for 10 years. No other work. That is our work. There are no competing demands. That is our skill, our specialism and we are still learning.

187. I accept what has been said and there were hands up when you appealed to people. I do think that obviously meetings of the sort you have talked about must take place with counselling available. I accept the particular way in which you do it and I accept what you say about therefore the limitations of working with others in order to bring about the sort of counselling at the time which is quite obviously essential and particularly if, as you said, agencies are actually in one sense making matters worse by even at this stage passing on information which is not correct about the attitudes of parents.

(Mrs Humphreys) Absolutely. I have to tell you that I have sat with elderly mothers, as have all my colleagues, those who work with the Trust now and those who have left. We have sat with mothers and have had to tell them how their sons and daughters have been abused; not just that they were migrated. If that is not bad enough, we have had to tell them that we are bringing back their son or daughter who has suffered enormous abuse both physical, sexual and emotional. That is quite different from somebody who, for example, has remained in this country and been in care, been fostered, been adopted, who wants to know about their roots, who wants to meet their mother. It is quite, quite different and different skills are needed.

188. Which is why I think you have made that point very clearly and it is why in a sense, if this Government or the Australian Government want to make sure that their funding is going to an organisation which is sensitive to the needs of the people it is dealing with, it is obvious why we have to argue that it is your Trust which receives the funding and which actually can be strongly supported through the work you are doing. It is very important to bring that out in this Committee.

(Mrs Humphreys) Yes; quite right.

Dr Stoate

189. One or two factual matters really. What would be the appropriate cost of a package of measures for an individual such as allowing them to come over with the air fares, subsistence, the amount of work they would need to do to dig out their roots and make some progress. What do you think would be an appropriate package?

(Mrs Humphreys) I have thought about that. I hope digging out their roots and finding their families is something the Trust is providing so that when people come home they are well prepared, they are not just put on planes, unchaperoned and unprepared as happened two weeks ago because an air fare was available in Western Australia. A man got on a plane, unprepared, unchaperoned, to meet his mother who had not even seen a counsellor. When we talk about air fares, air fares need to be, may I suggest, part of an integrated service.

190. That was what I was saying; exactly that. It needs to be a package. That is why I used the word advisedly.

(Mrs Humphreys) Yes, a package. It has to be linked to the service. If we say what is the cost of an air ticket —-

191. That is not what I am asking. I am asking the cost of the package of measures.

(Mrs Humphreys) For somebody to come over here and to meet their families and to stay here two or three weeks for the first time and go back we really are looking at £3,000 per person.

192. That is very useful.

(Mrs Humphreys) Does that answer the question?

193. It does answer the question. That is what I am really concerned about. If we are to make recommendations on this Committee then obviously money cannot be divorced from what we look at and we need to know the sorts of recommendations we are receiving from our witnesses, so we have to have some broad figures. The next question is: what do you think could be done to assist former child migrants who encounter legal complications with regard to inheritance matters, social security claims, pension rights and so on, which obviously we have heard in some of our evidence is a real barrier for some of them.

(Mrs Humphreys) Absolutely.(Mr Spicer) That is an interesting point, is it not? Members of the Committee have touched on and obviously understand the deficiencies in the arrangements for the former child migrants when they were sent. It is not difficult to make a list, even if you accept that migration was a proper thing to do, you can make a quick list of what ought to be put in place to ensure that these people have a proper caring upbringing and a start in life and citizenship and all those things. Part of that would be, would it not, ensuring that they do not lose their rights to inheritance, the distribution of estates, because there is no adoption, where that would come to an end, and medical histories and so on? You would say surely that we would at least ensure that their medical advisers in Australia would have access to all this relevant material and that there was some flow of information which ensured that their legal rights which they would have had had they remained here do not suddenly get lost at the dockside when they depart. What to do about it is a much more difficult question because of course the estates of the parents of many of the people we do work with, who have sadly died, have been distributed many years ago. It is very, very difficult to unpick those bits and pieces.

194. I appreciate that is certainly true of inheritance matters but the more practical matters like social security, because if you do not have citizenship or a birth certificate, then presumably you cannot register for social security and you cannot register for a pension very easily. We have heard from some of the witnesses today how difficult that is.(Mr Spicer) That issue can be dealt with as a matter of policy rather than law. Certainly for example the arrangements for former child migrants to achieve citizenship in Australia have, as a result of the representations made by the Trust, been streamlined and made much more effective, specifically for former child migrants. I do not see any reason why governments cannot ensure that this special group—and that is always the argument which has to be made, does it not?—this group which has suffered such injustice, really do need special attention and that could be done as a matter of administration and government policy.

195. That is reasonably straightforward as far as you can see.

(Mr Spicer) Yes.

196. You do not see any big hurdles or things we have not thought of.

(Mr Spicer) No, there is discretion wide enough to allow that to happen if the will is there.

Mr Gunnell

197. You tell us in your report that you received a Lottery grant in 1997 and you have implied that provided social workers and it sounds as though the grant has now been used. Is it a grant which is renewable? Have you applied for it? Is there any way in which the support of this Committee would help you?

(Mr Spicer) There are still two years of funding available from the Lottery funding. The arrangement for Lottery funding, as I am sure you will be aware, is that they are for specific costs. So it is very easy for people to see a headline in a newspaper and see £200,000 for the Child Migrants' Trust from Lottery funding, but it is money which is available only if you have people in post and those people are being paid. It does not alleviate your continuing funding difficulties and the hand to mouth existence which you will be familiar with. I know in this Committee members have made comments about small organisations' difficulties in having to put too much emphasis of their time on trying to seek funds to continue going tomorrow.

198. I would not be suggesting that we would think any money from the Lottery relieves government responsibility but presumably it is a source which you can continue to apply to.

(Mr Spicer) Yes.

199. How you do that is clearly not something which ought to affect government policy.

(Mr Spicer) No; that is correct.

(Mrs Humphreys) That is correct.

(Mr Spicer) May I have your indulgence for a moment, just to deal with the issue of deception which Dr Stoate questioned people on very carefully? Of course the accounts which you have heard from the former child migrants here have both common points to them but also very peculiar ones to their own experience and that is what we found as we worked with former child migrants. Their own individual stories differ very greatly and that may depend on the agency which they have been sent by, it may depend on their own individual and personal circumstances. Of course we can draw themes from the numbers which we deal with across the agencies. A very persistent theme which became apparent to us very early on in the development of the Trust, was the deception which was practised, not just deception on former child migrants but deception on the families, not just deception on the mothers, though we have very many mothers we have worked with who on enquiring about their children were told that they had been adopted. That is a consistent theme, that was a way of stopping any further enquiry. Also any other family members, aunts, uncles, who have desperately made enquiries, have been told children have been adopted or in some instances that the children have died as a way of stopping further enquiries. That does seem an incredible account to give but I have to say that is drawn from experience of consistent accounts and when one hears it the first time one thinks that is terrible, that must be an individual experience. When you hear it time after time after time and you read it time after time after time from within the files concerning those former child migrants and their families themselves, then you recognise it as a consistent theme. The next question of course is why? Certainly to some extent it must have been a lot easier to deal with an institution with 200 children by telling them all that they were orphans, that none of them had any family, because if you acknowledged that they all had individual needs and requirements life becomes very, very complicated. That must be an issue. Similarly, if you are having to deal with very many parents, relatives and other people making enquiries, then life becomes terribly complicated. I am sure there is an element of that. As well, behind the schemes, as is often the case on operations which have a cloak of charity and wellmeaningness, as it were, they are often driven by political and economic factors. The political factors have been touched on here, to do with the former empire and the need to populate it. There were economic factors generating the movements in this country. Immediately after the war the local authorities had enhanced powers and responsibilities to protect children and of course they had to place the children who then came into their responsibility in children's homes operated by those agencies and of course they paid for them. If children were sent to Australia, the places in those institutions were to be paid for by the local authorities. I am sure behind these approaches there are different ones.


 
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