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House of Commons

Wednesday 19 May 1999

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

British Child Migrants

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

9.33 am

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): I begin by expressing my gratitude to you, Madam Speaker, that we are holding this debate on the report of the Select Committee on Health. In 1992, in your House, you hosted a function for the international board of the Rugby Football League at which I met Tilly Brasch from Queensland, Australia, who is the wife of an Australian rugby league official. She told me the tale of the British child migrants--about which I had previously heard nothing. Subsequently, I became involved with that issue and, on several occasions, was moved to press the Government about my concerns.

I express my profound thanks to Mrs. Margaret Humphreys who wrote the book "Empty Cradles"--now a bestseller--about her fight to uncover what she described as Britain's most shameful secret. The book is about the history of child migration and howMrs. Humphreys came across it through her work as a social worker with Nottinghamshire county council. I express my gratitude to her and to the Child Migrants Trust which she formed and which has done a tremendous amount of work to bring the issue to light. It is also appropriate to record the Health Committee's thanks to Nottinghamshire county council for its work in supporting the trust financially and in other ways over several years.

I am grateful to the all-party parliamentary group on child migrants, some of whose members are in the Chamber today. I hope that they will catch your eye, Madam Speaker, as I know that they want to speak about their work. I sincerely thank my colleagues on the Health Committee for the support that they have given me during our inquiry, especially those Members who went to Australia and New Zealand for what was an extremely traumatic couple of weeks taking evidence. It would be wrong of me not to thank the staff of the Health Committee. Although I should not single out individuals, I especially want to thank Second Clerk John Whatley for his valiant work in helping the Committee to draw up the report, and Committee Assistant Frank McShane for his support in organising the visit to Australia and New Zealand.

I thank all the former child migrants who participated in the inquiry. I shall mention some of them later in my remarks. I thank the Canadian representatives of the Ellen Foundation Inc. and Home Children Canada, who came to the United Kingdom at their own expense to give

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evidence to the Committee. I sincerely thank the high commission and consular staff in Auckland, Wellington, Melbourne, Canberra and Perth for their efforts on behalf of the Committee and for the help that they have given to the former migrants. It is appropriate to give special thanks to the consul-general in Melbourne, Peter Innes, and his wife Robbie, for allowing their home to be used for two days while we took evidence from the former migrants. I also thank Ministers, politicians and officials in New Zealand and Australia for their co-operation.

Finally, I thank the British Government. Although there will be critical comment today, I realise that the Government's response to the Health Committee report has, in general, been extremely positive. That is appreciated by all those who are concerned about this issue.

I will say a little about the background to our report, but whatever we say in the debate will fail to do justice to the issue. All those who know about child migration will accept that point. I apologise to those affected by child migration for the fact that we will not be able to do justice to what they all went through. The debate is about one of the most shameful secrets of Britain's recent past. It is about the deportation, in effect, of thousands of vulnerable children and young people from our care system. It is about this country washing its hands of responsibility for its own citizens, who, in many instances, had the most appalling experiences as a direct consequence.

To illustrate that point, I refer to an answer that I received from the previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). I have always regarded the right hon. Gentleman as basically a decent human being, despite our differences. In answer to my question on child migration, he said:

Those were British children, placed by British agencies and local authorities in a scheme authorised and encouraged by successive British Governments. Those children were, and still are, our responsibility.

The debate is about a top-level cover-up of the results of policies pursued by British Governments of different political persuasions. It is about the suppression of the scandalous consequences of a bizarre scheme that had clear undertones of racism and physical and sexual exploitation. Most important, the debate is about what we can do now to help those whose lives were affected and, in many instances, ruined by the child migration schemes.

I will touch on several of the key points of our report. Most hon. Members will be aware that, from 1618 to 1967, about 150,000 children were sent from the care system to various parts of the former Commonwealth. After the second world war, 10,000 children were sent to New Zealand and Australia. Most, if not all, of us here today could have been eligible to be one of those children. This week, I checked in the House of Commons Library to find the average age of Members of Parliament; somewhat surprising, but refreshing, was the discovery that I am one of the younger Members, the average age being 51.1 years. Therefore, given that the child migrant scheme ran until 1967, the majority of serving Members of Parliament could have been eligible for it and might have been sent abroad. We are talking not about ancient history, but about events that occurred within our own lifetime.

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The scheme was ostensibly designed to enable children to have better lives, and I concede that we met some people in New Zealand and Australia who said that they had probably gained from the scheme, even though all of them were aware of how badly organised it was and how questionable were the motives underpinning it from the word go. In my view and that of the Committee, the real motivation for the child migration schemes was often to obtain cheap labour and, in Australia, to increase what was described as "good white stock"--a racist motivation to which our report refers.

The reality for significant numbers of the children involved was separation from their siblings: we heard tale after tale of brother being separated from sister, never to see each other again after arrival, especially in Australia. The reality was years of suffering, degradation and denial of the fact that most of the children had natural parents and families still living. For the natural parents, who were often persuaded to part with their offspring on the pretext that they would be adopted in good circumstances in Britain, the reality was years of lies and deceit.

Our report opens with a quote from the chief executive of Barnardo's, and it is worth repeating:

I believe that his remarks are honest expressions of sincere regret that reflect the views of an organisation for which I have the greatest respect. Barnardo's is genuinely trying to face up to its past practices, but, sadly, not all the organisations and Churches involved in the child migrant schemes share that profound regret. Some are still anxious to avoid their responsibility and to obstruct the right of former migrants to know the truth about themselves.

One witness felt that the consequences of the schemes had been overdramatised by television--the term he used was "sensationalised". He referred particularly to a television drama-documentary called "The Leaving of Liverpool", which some hon. Members will have seen. That programme showed a child being torn from his mother by a nun and put on to a train at Liverpool station. We met that child, now grown up and living in New Zealand, after having been sent to Australia by the system. We spoke to him and he told us that those events had not been sensationalised, but that they actually happened. He described his memories of having been placed in care by his mother, who could not afford to keep him; she had to go out to work, so she placed him in a Catholic institution. She found out that her son was, in effect, to be deported and he has a vivid memory of, as a youngster, seeing his mother wrestling with that nun at Liverpool station. All those things happened; we must face up to that and do something about it.

Most of the report's recommendations have been addressed in the Government's response, and I welcome the fact that the Government have responded so positively to an extremely difficult issue which has notbeen satisfactorily addressed by previous Governments. However, I want to press my hon. Friend the Minister on certain specific concerns relating to the Government's response.

I am concerned about the continued failure properly to resource the Child Migrants Trust--the agency which, in the Committee's view, is carrying out the most important

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work of rehabilitating former migrants in their natural families, counselling them and supporting them. The increase of £130,000 on last year's grant, which was £20,000, is welcome, but the actual increase is only £70,000. That is because although Nottinghamshire county council has supported the trust with Nottinghamshire taxpayers' money, it has now reduced its grant to the trust. It is commendable of the council to have supported the CMT so positively, but perfectly reasonable for it to have reduced its grant now, because Nottinghamshire has no responsibility whatever in this matter.

The result is that the overall funding increase is nowhere near as large as the Government anticipated, or anywhere near the £500,000 annual revenue costs that the CMT needs to meet the demands placed on it. I do not know how its staff have continued their work through the years--their dedication, passion and commitment to dealing with this awful issue should be recognised, as should their need for proper support.

The other issue about which the CMT and others are concerned is the imbalance between the resourcing of the family research element of their work and the travel fund. It has been put to me that the cart has been put before the horse: there is no point having a travel fund unless people are found and rehabilitation with natural families is possible. I am not arguing about the sum available for the travel fund, although I think it is insufficient, but the imbalance between that money and the sums given for research must be redressed and more money made available for research. The CMT is desperately frustrated by having insufficient resources to make the links between people. Many former migrants have parents who are still living, and every day is crucial in making the links between them and enabling former migrants to return to Britain and meet their natural families.

There has been criticism of the travel fund, especially from the International Association of Former Child Migrants and their Families, saying that £1 million is inadequate. The Minister has told me that about300 applications have already been made to the fund, which shows the extent of people's interest in making use of it. There is also concern that the issue will not go away in three years--it will continue for some time to come. Many of the migrants in Canada have grown old and died, but many of those sent to Australia and New Zealand are younger, being of an age similar to or less than that of hon. Members present here today. The adequacy of the sum in the travel fund is questionable.

The organisation of, and practical arrangements pertaining to, the travel fund remain unclear, so I hope the Minister will give some clarification on that point. In addition, the criteria for eligibility need to be examined within the context of the problems being encountered. The issue is a completely new one--we have never had to deal with anything like it before and I hope we never have to do so again, so we are in unknown territory.

There is concern that funds are available only for a first visit. Some people who would have been eligible for travel funding had already spent their entire savings on coming over to this country before the fund was established. Having visited once and perhaps found a member of their family, surely they deserve help to come again? Do we not have an obligation to give them that help? There is also concern about funding being restricted to visits to close family only. Some people do not fit into those criteria, because their natural parents and siblings

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are dead and their only living relative falls outside the definition of "close family". For goodness sake, that relative is as important as a mother or father to those people and we should recognise that. Finally, there are concerns, of which I know my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, about the operation of the means test. No doubt, he will respond to those concerns.

An issue to which the Government did not respond,but where their response might be helpful, was the Committee's proposal that there should be an international conference. Because so many countries and agencies were involved in the scheme over the years, people have tended to blame each other and pass the buck, saying that it is not their responsibility, but someone else's. To be frank, it is entirely our responsibility--a collective effort landed us in this mess. That is why we, as a Committee, felt strongly that an international conference might be able to resolve many of the inter-country issues.

One good example of such an issue, which was raised with me by former migrants in New Zealand, is the concern about International Social Service, which is responsible for the travel fund, having subcontracted the travel fund in New Zealand to the New Zealand Department of Social Welfare--a receiving agency. That contradicts the Select Committee's recommendations. We recognise that the migrants have no confidence in dealing with any of the agencies that placed or received them, so they will not access a travel fund operated by an agency that was involved in this devious scheme.

This is a tragic affair. It has been a traumatic experience for all those involved in the inquiry and I pay tribute to my colleagues for the courage that they have displayed. I place on record what an honour it has been to meet so many former migrants. We saw their tears, and were impressed by their incredible sense of humour--despite the many problems that they have experienced--and their immense courage in the face of appalling adversity.

I have one recollection of a former migrant's sense of humour--I cannot do the Aussie accent, which ruins my story somewhat. At a public hearing with migrants--I think it was in Perth, but we had many such sessions--a guy got up and said something like, "For 50 years I thought I was an orphan, but I was delighted to discover recently that I am actually a bastard." He made a very important point, which all Committee members will understand.

For an example of real courage, I refer hon. Members to the testimony of John Hennessey, the first witness to appear before the Committee. He travelled from Australia to give evidence in the Grand Committee Room. John has a terrible stammer, acquired as a result of the beatings that he received from the Christian Brothers. His courage at that first session was an example to us all, and I will not forget it for as long as I live.

For me, there was no better conclusion to the inquiry than the discovery that the Child Migrants Trust had found Mr. Hennessey's elderly mother, alive--although not particularly well--at 87. She lives in this country and John was reunited with her two months ago. He had last seen her when he was two and he was sent away at age 10. He did not know that his mother was alive and he knew nothing about his background.

I will never forget taking John to meet the Prime Minister at Downing Street--I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for finding the time to see us. The Prime Minister arranged

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for John to be shown around No. 10. Hon. Members who have been to Downing street will know that there are stairs with photographs of previous Prime Ministers along the wall. John identified Clement Attlee, who was Prime Minister when he was deported to Australia. He said something like, "Hello, Prime Minister, I'm back; it's taken 50 years, but I'm back." I pay tribute to John and to all his fine colleagues who have shown so much courage.

I end with a final plea. We must learn the lessons of this episode and it must never be repeated. I am afraid that, in years to come, people will look back on present events and ask, "Why did that happen?" I remember travelling to Romania shortly after the revolution in the early 1990s when there was a lot of pressure to adopt Romanian orphans. I visited an orphanage where I asked how many of the little kids piled on top of me were orphans. I was told that 99 per cent. of the children up for adoption overseas had parents or families. I believe that we should have tried to reunite those children with their families and assist their parents in caring for them.

I do not want to make a political point, but, not long after our report was produced last summer, the former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, said in a speech that we should place the children of one-parent families in the care of religious organisations. That is exactly what happened under the child migrant scheme: children were sent to those sorts of organisations and we all know what happened to them. The Select Committee sent a letter and a copy of our report to Baroness Thatcher, but we never received a reply--just like the migrants never received replies to their questions over many years. They want to know who they are, what went on, why it happened and what went wrong. I think they deserve those answers today.

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