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9.55 am

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight): It is a tremendous privilege to follow the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), the Chairman of the Health Select Committee, in this debate. I endorse all of the tributes that he paid to the long list of people who have been concerned about this matter. I also thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has handled this sensitive issue.

What emerged most strongly from the Select Committee's investigations was the fact that this was an institutionalised use of institutions: it was a case of the establishment trying to deal with a problem. Committee members viewed many historical documents and the notepaper was always headed with long lists of names of the great and the good who were trying to do what they thought was best for the children, for the empire, and for the race that they wanted to perpetuate across the globe. It is chilling how national and local governments, the Churches and the charities conspired to forget the needs of the children.

Many people probably had the best intentions: they assumed that the children would be better off. They probably believed much of their own propaganda that they fed to badly off parents and to the children. However, the evidence revealed that the ends did not justify the means. The awful deception, the lies and the economic pressures made it almost impossible for parents--especially single parents--to keep their children. We have heard about the bullying and the trading of children as chattels in order to

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maintain the viability of institutions, especially towards the end of the regime. A most shameful element of the scheme is the way in which children were abandoned at age 16 because the institutions no longer received any income for them. Many people are stateless because they were abandoned at 16 and never received the paperwork that would have allowed them to acquire citizenship of either their adopted country or the country in which they were born.

The hon. Member for Wakefield detailed the Committee's recommendations and the Government's response. I endorse his comments in welcoming the positive aspects and in attempting to strengthen those areas where the Government could have gone a little further. I wish to spend a few minutes considering the lessons that we should learn from this investigation. Children are still placed many miles away from the communities from which they come. The Utting report had little to do with north Wales per se because it revealed that most of the children involved came from communities many miles away and that social services supervision was not as good as it should have been--just as it was not good in Australia, New Zealand or Canada. I share the concerns expressed about inter-country adoption. It is beholden on us to try to keep children with their families.

What is happening with our present social services system? Social services departments are so stretched for money that they tend to concentrate on their statutory responsibilities. In most parts of the country, the child protection teams--or the crisis intervention teams--are well resourced and work effectively. However, that success has been achieved at the expense of the child support and, more especially, the family support aspects of social services work. Social services has become an enforcement arm when there are accusations of child abuse. It is rare that such families are supported by their own advocate, such as their social worker, who will guide them through a difficult, complicated and often inevitable set of consequences that is almost Kafkaesque.

I still meet single parents who cannot afford to look after their children, and the recent change in benefit regulations certainly does not send out the right message. We need a structure in which parents who are accused of neglect or child abuse have the opportunity to get high-quality legal aid to make sure that they are aware of the grinding process that will inevitably take their child away from them. We seem to have a strange system in which parents cannot have their children back unless they admit that they have abused them, even if they genuinely believe that they have not abused them. Professionals, whether in social work or medicine, are not always right. I am aware of cases in which mistakes have been made with dire consequences, not only for the children but for the parents.

The debate is extraordinarily valuable and timely because we are witnessing a redetermination of access to the courts and to legal aid. There ought to be a system of checks and balances. The child migrants story demonstrates that we cannot, even now, rely on the establishment or on the professionals to protect children and their families. We cannot rely on the court system, as

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it is currently accessible, for that protection. There are too many delays, courts are too busy, and legal advice is not readily available and not always of sufficient quality.

I urge the Minister to review the working of the Children Act 1989 on compulsory removal of children from their homes, so that we can put as much effort into keeping families together--whether they have one or two parents--as we do, at present, into purely protecting children irrespective of what would be the right course of action.

10.3 am

Audrey Wise (Preston): When the Health Committee went to Australia and New Zealand, we were told, "You will meet only the hard cases, not the success stories." During our visit, I was struck by the fact that that was totally untrue. We were not meeting the hardest cases because many of them were in psychiatric wards or dead. We met relatives of some of those people, but many were completely unknown even to other witnesses whom we met.

We met people who felt that they had survived pretty well, but I was struck also by the fact that even those who were not physically abused or cruelly treated were extraordinarily critical of the system because they all suffered the trauma of separation, lack of knowledge and destruction of identity. That is true even of those who managed to reach good positions. They came to talk to us, so we certainly acquired good knowledge of what had happened, even though we did not meet people in the worst cases.

We were also told, "That is all in the past. You should be concentrating on the present." I became more and more aware that the past is never past; it is the present for those who have survived those events and for their relatives in this country. If we do not learn the lessons of past events, we will not make a proper contribution to improving the present.

A Conservative member of the Committee and I discovered, when we returned to Britain, that we each had a member of our local party who had narrowly and accidentally escaped being a child migrant. They realised that when we published our report and they found out what would have happened if, for example, they had not been unwell on the day and had been put on the ship. As well as not being entirely past, those events are also very near to us.

We were told also to be careful about making judgments because there was a "different social climate" at the time. That expression was used in the first memorandum given to the Committee by the Department of Health, so that idea was prevalent even in the Department. I am pleased that its attitude seems to have shifted during, and, in my view, because of our inquiry. When we met the Secretary of State, his attitude was very different from the Department's original view. Child migration went on until the late 1960s, and the Secretary of State told us that he was now chilled by the belated knowledge that it was happening when he was watching the world cup in 1966 and he did not even know about it.

That dark secrecy that has shrouded the consequences of child migration is another significant aspect of the issue. Some people knew about those consequences. Officialdom in this country knew about them as long ago as 1875, when a report said that child migrants were being

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mistreated and used as cheap labour. Those who did not know were the people who would be most intimately affected: the families to whom child migration would apply. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), the Chairman of the Select Committee, has already said, those children could have been many of us here today. Our families managed to escape that fate, but it could have happened to us.

We are not discussing a dim and distant time about which we can say, "Wasn't it awful then?" These events occurred in the very recent past when many of us were politically active. The Secretary of State was politically active in 1966 and he knew nothing about them. I was a mother and I had been politically active for many years as a councillor, but I knew nothing about what was happening. Some people knew, and kept it secret.

Why did those events occur? I do not want to impute too many motives, but one point that clearly emerged in evidence was that, for some voluntary organisations, child migration was a means of getting income; for others, it was a means of cutting costs. We are lucky that there was such resistance to the policy within professional social work and local authorities that few children in the care of local authorities migrated. Most of the child migrants were in the care of voluntary organisations.

The evidence to the Committee made it clear that, at the time, the Government were putting pressure on local authorities and children's officers to send children abroad because it would be cheaper than caring for them here. Those professionals were tackling issues involving human considerations and being told that the existing policy was too expensive and there were cheaper policies. I do not know whether the term "cost-effectiveness" was used then, but that term rang in my head as one which would be used now. That confirmed my deep suspicion of policies that are primarily driven by the wish to cut costs.

The question of secrecy is also very much in the present, and I welcome the Government's response to the index and the data and the understanding of their importance that was shown. Although the Chairman of the Committee quoted the striking repudiation of his organisation's policies by the Barnardo's witness, which we were pleased to hear, other witnesses did not always share his view. Some attempted to defend what happened, and the standards of the time were rolled in again. I was a mother when this happened--it might have happened to me or to my kids if I had been a single parent.

Our inquiry took place around the time when there was controversy about single parents. I was pleased about the attitude that I took towards single parents, because we also heard about the insufferable moralising that took place. Women who were unmarried single parents were told to put their babies in the orphanage, forget about them and be good girls in future. Those whose marriages broke up had to struggle financially because there was no state support. I am glad that I support state benefits for single parents and for low-paid people in general. That is another respect in which the past is certainly in the present.

What we discovered was utterly harrowing and our report is explicit--much more explicit in its language and descriptions than any Select Committee report I have seen. We discussed that earnestly, because we were not sure whether it was proper to say some of the things that we said in an official report, but we decided that it was

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absolutely proper and that we should not contribute to a veil being drawn over the matter. Despite that, the report cannot provide the full flavour of what we learned.

The Chairman of the Committee has said that the experience was traumatic, and I do not know how the Child Migrants Trust has managed to endure dealing with this issue for so long. We found it traumatic to talk to the victims and survivors for only a couple of weeks, but the CMT has been talking to them for years and years. The experience showed us what happens when power is abused, although several other concepts, such as secrecy, are involved.

Awful things are happening in the world, frequently around a war situation. People are demonised--one race against another, one colour against another--and made to seem less than human. The most chilling aspect was that hearing about this process was like hearing about war crimes without the war and without even the shallow justification that people were being misled in the heat of the moment. The process was very cold and involved children and people like us, which was the most chilling realisation. That means that we have special responsibility.

I was pleased, but not ecstatic, about the Government's response, which was a good start. I welcome the setting up of the £1 million fund, but we should not put a top limit on it. Taxpayers' money was used to subsidise the process, and I want taxpayers' money to be used to try to do something to rescue some of the survivors' lives. I do not believe that it is appropriate for the Government to say that there is £1 million and that is it. There is £1 million for the moment, but we should not have a top limit because there was no top limit on the suffering of those kids.

We should look again at the social security issue. The worst aspect is that the people involved are frequently deprived of entitlement, when they come here, on the ground that they do not pass the habitual residence test. Whose fault is that? They were forcibly deported. They wanted to stay here, and it is not their fault if they have not lived in this country--it is the fault of successive Governments and agencies and to compound the crimes that were committed by saying that people are being deprived because they did not live here is the most profound insult.

I hope that the Government's response, welcome though it is, is not their last word. If it is, the case will not have been sufficiently met. If it is their first word and their first attempt to remedy the matter, it is a good first word. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, who was not in post at the time, will study the evidence that we took and our report to try to get the flavour of what we learned.

I also hope that my hon. Friend will then use that knowledge and understanding in considering present policies as a member of the Government and to try to repay those people. There is a difficulty of wording here--we cannot repay them, but we must at least acknowledge properly the awful process that went on in our name and which was cloaked in secrecy. If we do that, we shall be able to say that we have done our best and, although it was not our fault, we are trying to remedy the matter. I hope that the Government will look at it in such a way.

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10.17 am

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