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Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I want to pay tribute to a number of people. It is important for us to recognise those who brought about the Select Committee's report and today's debate and enabled us to uncover and publicise this scandal.

I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). He helped to uncover the scandal, not just in his capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee but through his work on the issue in the last Parliament. I know of his personal dedication and the efforts that he and his fellow Committee members have made. Their work is a credit to the Select Committee system, and shows how well it can function. We can all be proud of the Committee's report.

It is a source of great pride to all of us from Nottingham, and Nottinghamshire, that we have been at the forefront of the support for efforts to uncover the scandal. We have heard of the work of the Child Migrants Trust, but the trust would not exist without the support of Nottinghamshire county council. It cannot be said too often that that council has worked, and paid, to uncover a national scandal. I also pay tribute to individual members of the council: its leader, Sir Dennis Pettitt, and Joan Taylor.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) was very modest, but he worked hardfor many years in Nottinghamshire, as well as in Parliament--supporting the efforts of the all-party group--to bring this about. I also think that Margaret Humphreys should receive an honour for all the work that she has done in uncovering the scandal.

I became involved in the issue as a new Member of Parliament, and became chairman of the all-party group. I have been proud to work with the group in supporting the Select Committee's work. When we hear the stories that we are told, we find them incredible; we cannot believe that such things can happen. My hon. Friends have spoken of the incredulity that they felt. It is impossible to believe that this has taken place--and that it has taken place while we have been doing ordinary things, such as watching television and going shopping. Horrific things have been done to children. They have been taken abroad, split from their families, and lied to; they have been told that their parents were dead, or that they did not want them and had abandoned them--and there was no supervision when they were sent away.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield said, one of the worst things is that the policy was explicitly said to be about ensuring that good white stock was put into some of our former colonies. That is unbelievable: "good white stock" was being exported in the form of children, and that was officially sanctioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) pointed out that the process has been justified on the grounds that it took place in a different social climate, and in different times. That is ridiculous; it is scandalous; it is rubbish. When has it ever been right to abuse children and take them from their parents? I do not believe that it has ever been right, or that, in any times, it has been thought right to do that to children simply to provide "good white stock" for our former colonies. I say again: in tackling that scandal, the Health Committee report has been a credit to Parliament.

The Government response generally has been good; it is a credit to them. At least they have recognised that there has been a huge problem and a huge scandal. They have

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not ducked the issue, or tried to hide it away. This morning's debate is a credit to the Government and to Parliament. It is taking place in the full glare of publicity; we are debating and discussing the report.

There are some points that I should like to raise. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, if he cannot address them in his brief remarks, to look at them afterwards. The Government have set up a travel fund, which started in April, but the procedures for people to access the fund are not yet properly in place, and people are finding it difficult to access it. I therefore ask the Minister to try to speed up that process.

My hon. Friends have mentioned the grant to the Child Migrants Trust. If we bring these people back, which is obviously what we have set out to do, clearly, they will need support and counselling; they will need help when they find their lost relatives. We need to ensure that the trust, which does an immense amount of work, is funded properly to provide that help. The county council will soon start to withdraw the money that it provides to the trust on the basis that it has done it for years and it is a local authority. It is now up to the Government to start to put in that amount of money. I ask the Minister to find out whether more money could be made available.

The database that is being set up is welcome, but there are concerns about the sharing of information. We are going back many years. When people come back to try to find lost relatives, accessing those records will be important. Ensuring that people have easy access to the database is important. The Government will have to take the lead in co-ordinating the agencies and ensuring that all of them provide the necessary information.

I reiterate the point that was made by, I think, myhon. Friend the Member for Preston. An international conference would be important and helpful to everyone. Speed is of the essence. These people are not getting any younger. They need access to their families quickly. The Government need to do everything that they can to act quickly.

We must ensure that such a scandal never happens again. How many times, after reports and debates, and after such scandals emerge, do we say, "It must never happen again"? How many of us can be absolutelysure that, in children's homes and in various families throughout the country, children are not being abused and that all the things that are scandalising us today are not still happening? We must learn the lessons and do all we can to ensure that such things never take place again.

It needs to be stated again that, for all of us who have been involved in the matter, it has been personally traumatic to listen to people's harrowing stories while working with them to restore them to their families and to help them to find their past--but it has also been a privilege. As I often say, when people are in the most terrible adversity, we are inspired by their courage and by the way in which they can face the most desperate circumstances head on. All that those people ask of Parliament is that we show the same courage in ensuring that, at long last, they can meet their lost families, and in supporting them with counselling and with all the other things that will be needed. Let us show that courage.

10.44 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Hutton): I congratulate all hon. Members who have spoken in this short debate on their

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thoughtful and well-informed comments. The subject has raised some powerful and strong emotions as all of us have a deep concern to ensure the welfare of children, past as well as present. The contributions of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) have borne witness to that concern.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on raising the subject in Parliament. I pay particular tribute to both him and the Select Committee on Health, which he chairs, for its landmark inquiry into the misguided policy of child emigration. It is estimated that, during the period that the policy was in operation, as many as 150,000 children were transported to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as to some former British territories in central and southern Africa.

The largest number of children went to Canada. Child emigration there had more or less ceased by the end of the 1930s, but emigration schemes to New Zealand were still in progress in the post-war years and, as many hon. Members have commented, some emigration occurred to Australia up to the late 1960s. Those schemes have no defenders today.

The greater understanding of these issues that now exists in Parliament and in Government is largely thanks to the work of the Health Committee. As the Committee itself recognised, it was able to draw on valuable research by a number of workers, authors and voluntary groups, not least the Child Migrants Trust.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield will know from the Government's response in December to the Select Committee report that they accept the Committee's adverse judgment of what happened. We deeply regret what happened and the anguish and misery that many child migrants must have experienced. We strongly support the Committee's view that the prevailing mood is to move forward positively and to concentrate on improving support for former child migrants.

We have therefore committed ourselves to action on a number of fronts. We have set up a support fund to help former child migrants who have not previously visited this country to have a first reconciliation with their close families here. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield raised a number of concerns about access to the fund, including the definition of "close families." We will look sympathetically at all cases where people seek support, including cases involving grandparents, half-brothers and half-sisters.

We have committed ourselves to financing the scheme to the tune of £1 million over three years. It is now in operation. It is being administered for us by the International Social Service in the UK, which has branches and contacts in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

We fully accept that it has taken slightly longer than originally anticipated to finalise the financial eligibility criteria that feature in the local application forms for the fund--my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) referred to that. That was because, although it had been agreed that the same formula for assessing financial eligibility should be applied to everyone concerned, the differences in living conditions and costs between the countries where the child migrants now live had to be recognised and taken into account.

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In Australia, for example, considerable research, involving many different state offices, was required before a national mean was identified. The ISS has now authorised its branches in Australia, Canada and New Zealand to send out the application forms. We understand that those have begun to be distributed. As far as I am aware, the scheme is now fully in operation. The application forms are out and we anticipate a response.

There has already been a considerable number of inquiries of ISS branches in those countries, most notably in Australia, where I gather that more than 300 have been received, but there have also been a number of inquiries of ISS contacts in both New Zealand and Canada. Applications will be decided by the ISS in London, to which they will eventually be sent. I hope that we shall soon see the first arrivals in this country under the scheme. Obviously, cases that are urgent, due to the age or health of either the former child migrant or their close relative, will be given priority. Several hon. Members have spoken about the need to prioritise cases. I assure them that that will be done.

The arrangements for running the scheme were foreshadowed in our December reply, where we made it clear that we were in discussion with the ISS over its administration. Since then, after further discussion in the three countries, the role of the ISS has been confirmed and agreed, and the scheme opened formally early in April, as we had intended.

I wish to explain how we have publicised the new arrangements, as concern has been expressed about that. The Government issued a press notice here in the UK which was picked up by many of the media and led to some central inquiries. More importantly, however, we have liaised very closely, through the Foreign Office, with the overseas posts in Canada, Australia and New Zealand to ensure that there has been appropriate publicity in all of the receiving countries. A great deal of effort has gone into this, and I shall detail some of the activity that has taken place to date.

We are keeping all the arrangements under review, as we want the scheme to be properly and effectively publicised. We will make sure that that happens. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield raised other questions about the operation of the scheme which I will deal with in a few moments.

In Australia, there was a strong response to the press release issued there. The British high commissioner conducted a number of interviews, both on television and radio, to publicise the fund, and the news was picked up by a number of national and local newspapers. A press release was issued in New Zealand, where the Department of Social Welfare is in any case seeking to notify individually all known former British child migrants about the fund.

My hon. Friend also asked whether £1 million will be sufficient for the support fund over three years. It is hard to be certain what the level of demand will be from those who come within the scope of the scheme--that is, those wishing to have a first reconciliation with their close families here and who, without support from the fund, would not have the means to bring that about.

Our rough estimate is that, over three years, the sum would be sufficient to bring some 450 people to this country. As time passes, we will be monitoring the scheme carefully. My hon. Friend will understand, I hope,

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that with the pressures on my Department's programme, I am not able to give any commitment today to increase the funding for the scheme. However, we would, of course, welcome any contribution that any of the other agencies involved in child migration might wish to make.

My hon. Friend has raised the question whether there should be a means test for support fund applicants. I understand very well why he makes that point. However, we have a responsibility to ensure that the fund operates effectively and is targeted on the former child migrants who most need and deserve the support that we are able to provide. I cannot say with any confidence that it would be realistic to expect taxpayers in this or any country to finance visits here by people with the means to pay their own expenses, even with the unhappy legacy of the child migration policies.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the Government responded positively to the Committee's recommendation that a central database should be established as soon as possible, containing basic information that will direct child migrants or their representatives to more detailed sources. This project is now well advanced in the hands of the National Council for Voluntary Child Care Organisations. The sending agencies, which hold most of the detailed records, are, generally speaking, co-operating satisfactorily with this project. The index will be available by the autumn.

Finally, the Government responded positively to the Committee's recommendation for a larger grant to the Child Migrants Trust. My hon. Friend mentioned that we have increased the grant from £20,000 last year to £150,000 in the present year. This is less than the trust requested, but it was a very large increase indeed compared to the grant that it has had from the Department in the past. It is, of course, the case that quite a number of the bodies that we fund would like larger grants than we can afford, but I am very glad that we have been able to make so large an increase in the grant to the Child Migrants Trust.

The first instalment of the grant was paid at the beginning of May. The grant had been on a cycle of quarterly payments starting in May of each year, with subsequent payments being made in August, November and February. If the trust would prefer a different cycle of payments, we should be glad to discuss that with it.

In its report, the Committee made a number of recommendations about the trust's accountability and the audit of its accounts. In the Government's reply, we said that we were in discussion with the trust about those issues and expected a positive outcome. We spent a good deal of time with the trust on these matters, and a small audit team visited it in Nottingham. I am very happy to say that, as we anticipated, there are no outstanding anxieties of that kind. We received the auditor's final report of the financial appraisal on 7 April, and a letter confirming the grant offer and conditions was sent on the same day.

I understand, however, that because of the withdrawal of other funding from the Nottinghamshire county council, the Child Migrants Trust is nevertheless struggling to cope with the demands placed on it and still needs additional funding. A number of my hon. Friends referred to that today. I very much take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield that there

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has to be an appropriate balance between the money made available to help child migrants to be reunited with their families, and the resources available to help them to trace and make contact with them in the first place, which is the trust's main concern. Clearly, without the tracing, there can be no reunions. That is an important point, and we will consider the suggestions made by my hon. Friend about how we address that.

I should add that my officials have been looking for other sources of funding outside of Government resources which might be available to the trust, and we will be in touch with the trust about this shortly. If this situation cannot be resolved, or there are other problems which the trust would like to discuss further, I shall of course be very happy to meet it.

I should make it quite clear, however, that any adjustments to the funding that the Government have made available for increasing the availability of tracing and counselling services for child migrants and to support reunions must be made within the same overall resources which we have already committed and which we announced in December.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield asked about the contributions being made by the sending agencies. The agencies have already agreed--in addition to providing the information for the new central information index for child migrants--to expand the tracing and counselling services that they offer to meet any increase in demand. This should ensure that child migrants have a choice about where they turn for such help, although I recognise that many child migrants may prefer to conduct their search through an independent agency, such as the Child Migrants Trust.

A number of my hon. Friends asked specific questions to which I shall try to respond. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield referred to intercountry adoptions. I remind him that the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Bill, sponsored by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), will allow the UK to ratify the Hague convention and make sure that those adoptions are placed on a sound legal basis in the future, with full and proper safeguards for the children placed at the centre of our concerns.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight referred to the existing problems with social services in the UK. I should remind him that the Government are determined to improve the quality of children's services. That is why we have introduced our "Quality Protects" programme and why we are supporting it with an additional £375 million of targeted resources to help local authorities improve their children's services. I am confident that the programme will make a significant contribution.

I wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) for his role in supporting the Child Migrants Trust. I can assure him and the House that the Government take our responsibility seriously. He is right that we cannot rewrite history, but we can try to do the right thing for the former child migrants in the future. That is what we intend to do.

In conclusion, I emphasise the Government's determination to stand by the commitments that we gave in our reply of December last year to the Committee's report. The historic policy of child migration was tragically misguided. We acknowledge that, along with the Governments of the receiving countries, we have an

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obligation to do what we can realistically to improve the welfare support of former child migrants who can still be helped. That is involving us in a complex international programme which we shall carry forward and monitor carefully.

I am grateful to all hon. Members today who havemade their comments known to us. We have a clear responsibility towards the former child migrants. The Government intend to discharge that responsibility to the best of our ability into the future.

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