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Child Migration

Volume 717: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2010


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement. Until the late 1960s, successive UK Governments had over a long period of time supported child migration schemes. This involved children as young as three being transported from Britain to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

It was hoped that these children, who were aged between three and 14, would have the chance to forge a better life overseas. But the schemes were misguided. In too many cases, vulnerable children suffered unrelenting hardship and their families left behind were devastated. They were mostly sent without the consent of their mother or father. They were cruelly lied to and told they were orphans—that their parents were dead when in fact they were still alive. Some were separated from their brothers and sisters, never to see one another again. Names and birthdays were deliberately changed so that it would be impossible for families to reunite. Many parents did not know that their children had been sent.

The former child migrants say they feel that this practice was less transportation and more deportation: a deportation of the innocents. And when they arrived overseas, all alone in the world, many of our most vulnerable children endured harsh conditions, neglect and abuse in the often cold and brutal institutions which received them.

Those children were robbed of their childhood—those most precious years of life—and the pain of a lost childhood can last a lifetime. Some still bear the marks of abuse; all still live with the consequences of rejection. These wounds will never fully heal, and for too long the survivors have been all but ignored.

When I first was made aware of this wholly unacceptable practice, I wrote to the Prime Minister of Australia to urge that we do more to acknowledge the experiences of former child migrants. It is right that today we recognise the human cost associated with this shameful episode of history—this failure in the first duty of a nation: to protect its children.

Shortly, I shall be meeting a number of former child migrants here in the Palace of Westminster to listen first hand to their experiences. And as Prime Minister I will be apologising on behalf of our nation.

To all those former child migrants and their families, to those here with us today and those across the world—to each and every one—I say today we are truly sorry. They were let down. We are sorry that they were allowed to be sent away at the time when they were most vulnerable. We are sorry that, instead of caring for them, this country turned its back. We are sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded. And we are sorry that it has taken so long for this important day to come and for the full and unconditional apology that is justly deserved.

I should like to recognise the work of the Member for Rother Valley as chair of the Health Select Committee and of his predecessor, the former Member for Wakefield. And, for their commitment to this cause, I should also like to praise all past and present members of the Commons Health Select Committee and the All-Party Group on Child Migrants.

I should also like to pay tribute to the work of the Child Migrants Trust and the International Association of Former Child Migrants and their Families, which have campaigned for justice over many years. And I know that the House will join me in paying special tribute to Margaret Humphreys, who founded the Child Migrants Trust and who has been a constant champion of, and fighter for, child migrants and their families.

Although we cannot undo the events of the past, we can take action now to support people to regain their true identities, to reunite with their families and loved ones, and to go some way to repair the damage inflicted. I can announce today support for former child migrants. This includes the establishment of a new £6 million family restoration fund.

There are many painful memories as a result of the child migration schemes and, for many, today’s apology will come too late for them to hear it. We cannot change history but I believe that, by confronting the failings of the past, we can show that we are determined to do all we can to heal the wounds. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister. I fully associate this side with that full and whole-hearted apology, as has my right honourable friend David Cameron. We also join the noble Baroness in sending those very sincere apologies to those affected who are attending all the events today. We share the respect rightly accorded to Margaret Humphreys and the Child Migrants Trust. They have not been able to reverse injustice but they have made sure that it has been exposed and some wrongs righted. I also welcome the family restoration fund that has been announced.

All governments of all parties do things, or turn a blind eye to things, of which they should be ashamed. Perhaps we brazen things out too much without admitting our mistakes. That does not serve politics in general. It is always easier to apologise for past events for which we were not responsible. In this profoundly shocking case in which many of those affected are still alive, it is right that we should publicly atone for the lies, abuse and cruelties involved and apologise unreservedly.

We should judge a society on how it cares for its most vulnerable, especially its children. We must do all we can to make sure that the lessons from these appalling events are learnt and applied so that nothing like this can ever happen again. I am sure that the whole House will unite behind these sentiments.

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for repeating the Statement. I am very glad to be able to respond to it on behalf of these Benches and I say that for one reason. Quite by chance one night I happened to flick on to a television programme about Margaret Humphreys and the establishment of the Child Migrants Trust. I commend that programme to Members of the House. It was one of the most searing television programmes that I have ever seen and it sparked my continuing interest in this issue.

As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, governments atone for things that have occurred well in the past and they do their best to make amends. I welcome very much the establishment of the family restoration fund. That will enable many people to visit their existing families and, in some cases, it will enable them to visit grave sites. The damage that we are talking about is that searing.

I vividly remember listening to a gentleman in the programme who had done very well for himself and his new life in Australia and had made a lot of money. With that money he bought all the Beatles memorabilia that he could find because the only thing that he knew about himself was that he came from Liverpool. That goes right to the heart of this question. The single most important thing to these people who are now adults is to know their identity. There is one particular thing that this Government could do to enable them to achieve that. That is to change the law on access to care records for former care adults. It applies to adults who were in care as children in this country too and is a matter that I have raised with successive Ministers in this House.

If the Government feel that they cannot do that, will they ensure that every social services department in the land has a copy of Access to Information for Post-Care Adults: A Guide for Social Workers and Access to Records Officers, which has been produced by a lady called Julia Feast, an expert in this field, who works for BAAF. It enables social care workers today to understand the good practice that they should follow in enabling people to deal with the hurt of not knowing their identity and having their identities concealed from them for so long as they have been in the past. Were the Government to take that step it would be as profound in its effect as the establishment of the fund and would make this sincere commitment to make things better in the future all the more worth while.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for associating themselves with the apology. I am also grateful for their welcome for the family restoration fund. I take on board the points made by the noble Baroness. However, I cannot change policy at the Dispatch Box in relation to access to care records but it would seem to be a very good idea to ensure that social services departments have a copy of that good practice document. I certainly undertake to follow that up.

Perhaps I may commend to noble Lords an exhibition in Westminster Hall about child migrants, which I visited this morning. It is very informative and deeply moving. I urge all noble Lords to have a look at it.

My Lords, I speak for this Bench in saying how deeply moved we are by the stories of former child migrants who were deported to the colonies as part of the misguided policies of the 20th century and in affirming the Prime Minister's view that the first duty of the nation is to protect its children. We, for our part, recognise, respect and express our gratitude for the Prime Minister's apology. The events described in the Prime Minister's Statement are a reminder of how people of good will, sometimes acting with the best of intentions, can have unintended, dire consequences for other people. That is why it is so important for Governments always to pay careful attention to the consequences of legislation or initiatives that they take.

Perhaps I may speak as the chair of the Children's Society trustees in acknowledging the regret of some 30 charities and private bodies which agreed to migrate children abroad, acting out of what seemed like the best intentions at the time. I know that the Children's Society and some other charities now offer a service to child migrants to help them to gain access to their records and after-care counselling. Can the Minister assure the House that the conditions which allowed that gross injustice to be perpetrated although those years ago could not conceivably be repeated under any circumstances today?

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for the support of his Benches. He is absolutely right to say that we, as a Government and as legislators, must pay attention to the consequences of legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said earlier, we have to learn from our past mistakes and I hope that is exactly what we are doing today. I trust that we would never, ever repeat what was done in the past in our name but give a firm undertaking that that would not happen. I trust that it will not happen and I am sure that all in this House will do everything we can to ensure that it will not happen again.

My Lords, I welcome the apology. I have met Margaret Humphreys and many former child migrants who came to the Palace of Westminster. I know the good work that she has done. I also know that money cannot compensate for the terrible things that happened to the children who were sent to Australia, Canada and the former Rhodesia. Is it Her Majesty's Government’s intention to pay compensation to those former child migrants?

My Lords, we have not spoken about compensation. Today, we have set up the restoration fund which we believe will enable families to be reunited; it will enable people to come together with their loved ones. We believe that that is the best way of healing the very deep wounds of the past.

My Lords, I strongly support what was said by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. Can the noble Baroness give any information about whether a review is taking place into why those appalling events have taken so long to come into the full light of day and for pronouncements of this kind to be made? Are there not lessons for us all to learn here about the fact that sometimes early warning signs can be lost, put aside or ignored and sometimes rather irritating observations can also be brushed aside? Should we not be very careful indeed to ensure that if anyone, even a small voice, challenges what is going on in the public domain or in their personal life, officialdom should take heed or should be alert and examine carefully and objectively what is being put to it?

My Lords, there are many lessons to be learnt from this horrendous episode in our history. The noble Lord is right in saying that we must pay heed to all early-warning signals and that they should not be lost or ignored. I do not know whether a review has taken place but I know that we will all learn the lessons that are there to be learnt. In today’s world, things are so much more transparent and while, as the noble Lord says, we must pay heed to early-warning signs, it is more difficult than it was in the past to cover things up and brush them under the carpet. I hope that we will take pride in the new transparency, which we all welcome.

I welcome the Statement very warmly indeed. Speaking as the treasurer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Trafficking of Women and Children, I thank the noble Baroness for drawing this House’s attention to the exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall and confirm the importance to Members of both Houses of seeing that exhibition. We should recall that at the time the children were sent to Australia, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child did not exist. A simple statement—a 10-point plan—was brought up in 1927 by the League of Nations and repeated in the United Nations but the full United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was not begun until 1979, not put in place until 1988, and not implemented until 1993. Therefore, the child’s rights were not at the centre, as they are today.

Given that child migration, or transportation, is now the fastest growing sector of organised crime, and given the horrifying statistics of the thousands of children that are now travelling unaccompanied, unknown, unidentified, and for malign purposes, across the globe, including to and from European Union member states, are the Government prepared to put their hand to the plough today and not just look to the past and apologise for something which was undertaken in a different legislative framework and which, although abhorrent, was acceptable according to norms then? Are they going to work today to stop the trafficking that is going on at present? In central and eastern Europe, particularly on the perimeters of the EU member states, the Government have withdrawn funding from the Foreign Office and not invested in assistance on the ground. The main sources of trafficking now are Transnistria, Ukraine and Moldova. Children are pouring through and I urge the Government to act.

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes some important and valid points about child trafficking today, which is a crime just like the crime of the past that we are apologising for. I assure the noble Baroness that, together with our partners in the European Union, we are doing as much as we can and should be doing. Clearly, the noble Baroness does not agree, but we are doing an awful lot of things. I cannot cite them today at the Dispatch Box but I will certainly write to her to explain what we are doing to try to ensure that this evil practice of child trafficking ceases. I recognise that it is a blot on our consciences and it is a great crime which we must stop.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has, with commendable caution, stated that she will not be able to give an absolute guarantee that no authority would ever replicate what has happened in this situation. Does she accept that the statutory provisions of the past 20 years for childcare, the making of care orders, and adoption make it virtually impossible for it ever to happen again?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for pointing out the important progress that has been made which should ensure that these evil things do not happen again.