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Charitable Support Work Romanian Orphanages)

Volume 567: debated on Monday 2 September 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Nicky Morgan.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House an issue that has, surprisingly, been subject to very few debates over the years, namely the plight of Romanian orphans, children and young adults living in institutions and, in particular, the charitable support work for them over many years.

Few of us will ever forget the awful images in the 1990s of the horrors of Romanian orphanages, which were exposed following the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in 1989. The world was stunned by the television and newspaper images of half-starved, abandoned children tied to their beds. Aid agencies rushed to help and Governments throughout the world condemned what they saw. I am sure that many Members will know someone who answered the call to offer help to those children and young adults. One such person was a constituent of mine, a lady called Linda Barr.

Although we called the institutions in the images orphanages, the reality was that most of the children in them had parents, but those parents were simply not able to afford to feed and care for their large families. The aim of the Ceausescu regime had been to increase the population of Romania to 30 million by 2000, with women required by law to have at least four children—a number that was later increased to five. Families who had fewer than three children were taxed heavily. That policy weighed heavily on the Romanian nation, and the long-lasting consequences of such a policy cannot easily be rectified.

The orphanages were staffed by the minimum number of people required to keep the institution operational, but no consideration was given to the developmental needs of the children. Children in the institutions grew up without any mental stimulation or physical activity, without any loving human touch and often without sufficient food, clothing or health care.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I spoke to him earlier about my intervention. He has mentioned the number of charitable organisations. Does he recognise the good work done by churches in my constituency, such as my own Baptist church in Newtownards, and many others across the United Kingdom, which made immense contributions to help the Romanian children?

Absolutely. I fully recognise that. That is not really a debate I wish to have this evening, but I recognise everything that was done by communities throughout the UK and further afield. Charities from other countries wanted to help the plight of Romanian children and young people at the time and they still do that work.

For the young adults, the consequence of growing up in state institutions has been an even more difficult adult life. Upon reaching adulthood, most of them were unprepared for jobs or higher education. Some former orphans joined the military or entered the secret service and some attempted to fit into society, but most found themselves homeless. It should be recognised that post-Ceausescu, great improvements were made by the authorities and support for the children and young adults came from many parts. The improvements were made possible in no small measure by the work of the many organisations and charities that developed within Romania and across the world, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned.

In my area, Linda Barr, who has worked with children and young adults in Romania for more than 20 years, along with her colleagues in the health service, set up the Dumfries Hospitals Romanian Support Group and then established the RAP Foundation. I know that the Minister is very much aware of the work of the foundation. It has successfully developed direct working links with colleagues in Romania to advance the education of children and young people with disabilities in the country, particularly in Bucharest, and to relieve their suffering and distress.

In July 2007, the foundation officially opened its first supported accommodation apartment, providing a family-style home for four young people: Aurel, Florin, Razvan and Virgil. The foundation works with its project partner, the Romanian Angel Appeal, and other agencies to support the apartment and to develop similar projects.

For 17 years, the foundation has arranged for children and young adults from Bucharest to go on seaside holidays of a lifetime on the Black sea coast. However, as the Minister is aware from the correspondence that I have sent him, this year’s holiday was in danger of not going ahead. It would appear that because concern was expressed by members of the foundation and others over the treatment of a number of young people with disabilities in the Gheorghe Serban district of Bucharest, the general directorate of social assistance and child protection of sector 2 sought to put in place what can only be described as a number of hurdles to prevent this year’s holiday from taking place. It delayed agreeing to the holiday to the extent that the original bookings had to be cancelled. It demanded that the RAP Foundation be registered as a “provider of social assistance”, even though its work as a sponsor does not require such registration and despite its long-standing collaboration with the Romanian Angel Appeal, which is a well-known non-governmental organisation working in Romania that is registered as a “provider of social assistance”. The general directorate also sought to block members of the RAP Foundation from attending the holiday as volunteers.

Due to the foundation’s persistence and, I have no doubt, the work of the British embassy in Romania after I raised the issue with the Minister, a way was found to allow the holiday to go ahead this year. I place on the record my thanks to the Minister and the British ambassador and his staff for their assistance. This year’s holiday was another major success for the young people, but it was not without its difficulties. Sadly, this is the second year in which the RAP Foundation has found the authorities in Sector 2 unwilling to be co-operative. It saddens me to say that when the young people eventually set off on this year’s holiday, the comment was made that it seemed as if it was the first time that many of the young people had been out in the fresh air since the previous year’s holiday.

I recognise that the mayor and the director general of sector 2 are upset and angry at the documentary shown on Romanian Antena 3, “The Irrecuperable Romania – Bucharest”, which was broadcast on national television in May of this year, but there was absolutely no need for them to accuse members of the RAP Foundation, through media releases, of having “occult intentions” or to say that

“the Scots should go home and look after their own sick people”.

I do not know many of those involved with the RAP Foundation, but I assure the Minister that I would trust those I do know implicitly. Two local people, Linda Barr and John Glover, have both received awards through the honours system for their charitable work.

Former employees of one of the homes told members of the foundation that severely disabled young people are kept tied to their beds, and many are showing signs of severe malnutrition. Beatings and other forms of physical and mental abuse were also described—I really thought we had got past what we witnessed under Ceausescu. Examples are given of residents lying on their backs and being force fed by nurses. Patients’ mouths are open while food is stuffed in so quickly that they try desperately to resist. Two female residents have recently died of pneumonia in the institution after allegedly being denied emergency medical care.

After having viewed what was televised, Professor Michael Kerr, professor of learning disability, psychiatry and honorary consultant in neuropsychiatry at Cardiff university, provided his independent professional opinion:

“All the individuals with a disability seen on camera appear to be seriously, most probably dangerously, underweight. Such a degree of underweight needs urgent assessment as it is associated with a very high mortality. As all the individuals show such underweight there must be serious concerns that the cause is systemic. That is related to dietary practices or environmental stress.”

Professor Kerr recommended an urgent assessment be made by specialists outside the current care team and said:

“In fact, refusal of entry to such assessors would simply increase the gravity of my concern”.

The RAP Foundation has funded all the work it has undertaken in Romania over these years, and has never at any time sought financial support from the authorities in Romania. It is funded through charitable donations raised from people of all ages who live in Scotland and south Wales. What is so distressing is that after the Ceausescu regime, the country made significant progress, so much so that in September 2005, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, the European Parliament’s rapporteur for Romania, went so far as to claim:

“Romania has profoundly reformed—”

from top to bottom—

“its child protection system and has evolved from one of the worst systems in Europe to one of the best.”

In an accession report published prior to November 2005, European Union observers were positive regarding the child care system in Romania.

The Minister has indicated that he would be prepared to meet representatives of the RAP Foundation, and I suspect they would wish to take up such an offer if it is made. The foundation is delighted at the progress that it and so many other charities have been part of over the years, to bring a better quality of life to children and young people resident in those orphanages and institutions. It is worrying, however, that after all the progress, excellent work and support experienced in other parts of Romania, the Gheorghe Serban sector is not being as open as many organisations would wish it to be.

This debate was secured by me with a degree of reluctance, and I recognise that our Government have no control over what happens in institutions in any other country. I hope, however, that the Minister will recognise that all that is being requested by many charities, and the RAP Foundation in particular, of authorities in the Gheorghe Serban sector of Bucharest, is for them to be open and allow an independent team to look at what is happening within the facilities under their control. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I hope he will be in a position to report back to the House on this matter in the coming months.

I thank the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) for raising the important issue of conditions in Romanian orphanages. You will know, Mr Speaker, that the promotion and protection of human rights are at the heart of UK Government foreign policy objectives. All hon. Members would agree that orphaned children have a right to be cared for appropriately and with compassion, and that we in government should do what we can to support work to that end. I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said about the efforts made by the British embassy and the team under Ambassador Martin Harris. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s comments are relayed to the team.

The hon. Gentleman remarked on the fact that we first became aware of the unspeakable conditions that prevailed in Romanian orphanages in 1989, when the regime of President Ceausescu was overthrown. Thousands of children lived in appalling conditions in state institutions. It is good to be able to say that, since that time, a large number of substandard institutions have been closed, and that many of the remaining institutions have improved both their services and their standards. As the hon. Gentleman has said, there is work to be done, but we should acknowledge the progress that has been made and the part played in that by British charities, which have actively worked towards such improvements in Romania ever since the revolution.

Charities from this country have provided support and facilities to Romanian orphanages, and have helped to raise awareness, both nationally and internationally, of the poor conditions still encountered there. I shall refer to the list of such charities. The Hope and Homes charity for children has its largest programme in Romania, and has worked with national and local authorities there to improve services in certain orphanages, and to close substandard ones where appropriate. It has worked with the Romanian Government and its partners, Absolute Return for Kids. Hope and Homes has pledged to end institutionalised care for children in Romania by 2020.

Other British charities operating in the field include SOS Children’s Villages, the Foundation for the Relief of Disabled Orphans—FRODO—Children in Distress and Muzika. FARA has worked in Romania since 1991. I was delighted to see that FARA’s chairwoman, Jane Nicholson, was awarded an MBE earlier this year for her work in Romania.

Other charities operate to help not only orphaned children but children more widely within Romania. Those charities include The Little People, which helps children with cancer; Hospices with Hope, which has been building palliative care facilities; Light into Europe, which works with the blind; and Nightingale’s, which works with orphaned children and young adults who have HIV. That is just a snapshot; it is not an exhaustive list of what the British charity sector does in Romania. Like the hon. Gentleman, I pay tribute to Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne for her energy and dedication in championing at the highest level the fight to improve conditions for children in Romania.

The UK Government, too, are active. We have supported and worked with the Government of Romania to improve conditions in their state-run facilities for both vulnerable children and adults. To give a few examples, our embassy in Bucharest, with Romania’s National Authority for the Protection of Children’s Rights, has facilitated workshops for 90 practitioners from all over Romania on handling disabled children in their care. We have also helped to foster links between Romanian and British non-governmental organisations through a networking event held at the Romanian Prime Minister’s office. The fact that the Prime Minister of Romania was willing to host such an event indicates that the Romanian Government, at the highest levels, recognise that there have been and continue to be problems with the conditions for children in at least some Romanian orphanages, and that the Romanians are determined to continue to drive through further improvements.

Earlier this summer, the Romanian Ministry of Labour, through its national agency for social inspection, carried out an inspection of 51 neuropsychiatric recovery and rehabilitation centres throughout Romania. As part of that exercise, it visited the two facilities with which the RAP Foundation has had such difficulties, including the Gheorghe Serban centre. Gheorghe Serban received 19 specific recommendations for improvement from the Romanian inspectorate, including the need to provide more space for patients and more nutritious food. The inspector’s report says that the centre is currently undergoing maintenance to improve living conditions. I understand, too, that the state secretary from the Romanian Ministry of Labour visited the centre in June this year and was made fully aware of the situation.

Let me turn to the work of the RAP Foundation and start by paying tribute to the dedication and leadership that Linda Barr has shown over so many years. If the hon. Gentleman would like to bring a delegation from the RAP Foundation to see me, he would be welcome to do so. RAP works to reduce social exclusion, to support higher standards of care and to increase the skills and opportunities for disadvantaged children and young adults in Romania, particularly in the capital city, Bucharest. The Government appreciate enormously the RAP Foundation’s work in two care facilities in Bucharest sector 2.

For many years, the RAP Foundation, together with its Romanian partner, the Romanian Angels Association, has been taking disadvantaged children and young adults on much needed and very well received summer breaks to the Romanian Black sea coast. I was concerned when I heard earlier this year of the possibility that the local authorities might refuse permission for this year’s holiday to take place. I subsequently instructed the British ambassador to meet the local mayor as a matter of urgency. That meeting took place on 24 July, and on the following day the mayor granted permission for the holiday to go ahead. I was very pleased to hear that Linda Barr wrote to the British Embassy on 26 August to say that their party was at the Black sea enjoying the holiday, and was in high spirits.

I know too, as the hon. Gentleman has told the House, that the RAP Foundation has had difficulties with Social Services—the DGASPC—in Bucharest sector 2, in gaining access to two facilities, especially the Gheorghe Serban centre. Under Romanian law, services within state institutions can be provided only by a registered provider of social care. That means that RAP has no legal right to insist on access to these institutions. As the hon. Gentleman said, it has traditionally worked through its Romanian partner, the Romanian Angels Association. It is also the case that while the central Government in Romania have responsibility for overall policy regarding state institutions, including orphanages, individual institutions fall under the responsibility of local government within Romania. For that reason our judgment is that difficulties are usually best tackled, at least in the first instance, by direct contact between our embassy team in Bucharest and the local mayor and others at local authority level, because they are the people who have direct responsibility for the surveillance and management of those Romanian state institutions.

I have asked the British Embassy to continue to support the work of RAP and to try to mediate dialogue between the foundation and the social services in Bucharest Sector 2. I very much hope that, following the successful holiday this year, the relationship will be put back on the right footing and developed further in an effective manner, and above all in a way that provides the greatest possible opportunities to the children, whose interests should lie at the heart of all our considerations.

In conclusion, I am aware that the scale and complexity of the problem of Romanian orphanages have been reduced significantly since the 1989 revolution, but there is still cause for concern about the standards of care in some Romanian facilities and a lot still to be done. The efforts of the Romanian Government—combined with the contribution and support of British and international charities, and with the encouragement of the international community to improve the situation—remain necessary to ensure that the work to drive up standards continues.

I would like once again to thank the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway for raising this important issue and to reassure him plainly not only that we will continue to monitor the situation closely, but that we stand ready to take action where it is needed, at whatever level in Romania is most appropriate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.