The bitter legacy of child trafficking

Inquiry into colonial policy that shames Britain
Click to follow
They were the young and defenceless subjects of a social experiment on a grand scale which left a bitter and tragic legacy. Around 150,000 British children, some just babies, were shipped off to populate far-flung parts of the Empire with pure, white stock. Some became victims of appalling abuse.

Yesterday, in a landmark decision, the House of Commons Select Committee on Health decided to begin the first official investigation in Britain into the trafficking of children, which started early in the 17th century and continued until as late as l967.

In the past, the Government has maintained that it was the responsibility of the receiving countries to investigate the matter. In l993, the then prime minister, John Major, told Parliament: "Any concern about the treatment of the children in another country is essentially a matter for the authorities in that country". The MP who pressed him for action at the time, David Hinchcliffe (Labour, Wakefield) is now chair of the health committee, and with a new government in power an official investigation of the affair has been authorised.

Although the terms of reference have not been finalised, it is believed the inquiry will look into how returning migrants can have access to the social security benefits in this country, and find members of lost families, as well as address the question of compensation.

Documentation obtained by welfare agencies has revealed that until l967, children's homes in Britain sent boys and girls to the colonies, especially Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Rhodesia, and the Caribbean. They were told that their parents were dead. The families in turn were led to believe their children had been successfully adopted.

Successive governments encouraged the scheme which was used by a raft of well-established charities including Barnardo's, the Catholic Child Welfare Council, the National Children's Home, and the Salvation Army.

The theme of racial purity was ever prevalent. The Archbishop of Perth said in l938: "If we do not supply from our own stock we are leaving ourselves all the more exposed to the menace of of the teeming millions of our neighbouring Asian races."

Margaret Humphreys, founder and director of the Child Migrants Trust, said yesterday: "This is wonderful news. This is the first time that Britain has officially acknowledged it has a duty to look into this dreadful scandal ... There were beatings, rapes, and criminal neglect."