§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]9.54 pm
§ Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)
I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting me this Adjournment debate which I am glad and honoured to share with the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) because this is an all-party debate and it is proper that he should share it with me.
I draw the attention of the House to the tragic plight of mentally handicapped children in Romania. In so doing, I believe that I shall paint a harrowing picture. The picture that I intend to paint is not the whole of the picture in Romania, but it is a symbol. It is perhaps the starkest and most extreme case of the immorality of communist policies and the evils that they created, even in the treatment of innocent children.
Before I became a Member of Parliament, I worked for the Save the Children Fund. The efforts of the Austrian Save the Children Fund led to the creation of a children's home in Romania called, most barely, home No. 6. I visited Romania as a member of an all-party delegation. We examined the plight of religious minorities, in particular the plight of the Jewish minority. While I was there I visited some of the hospitals and homes in which children were living. Pictures of the conditions in which they were living had been shown to devastating effect on Western television. I visited Romania, and other eastern European countries, last August, during the recess.
The conditions in home number six were so appalling that I feel that it is right and proper to draw the attention of the House to them. I understand that under the previous regime it was wrong to be mentally handicapped and that it was wrong also to have children who were mentally handicapped. It is not so long since this country regarded mental handicap almost as a disease. It is not surprising, therefore, that mental handicap was frowned on in a dictatorship where only the fit could flourish and where so much bribery and corruption was built into the system. It is for that reason that those children can truly be called forgotten children.
I do not speak now of the AIDS babies, of whose plight we know so well from the pictures on our television screens, or of the large orphanages that have recently featured in the press. These institutions are for delightful children, aged between seven and 14. Those children are there because they are mentally handicapped. Nevertheless, their handicap is only mild; it is of the order of an IQ of about 75, or a little lower. There is a boy in my constituency with an IQ of 70 who, in the wake of the Warnock report, is in mainstream education. Conditions in Romania bear no similarity whatsoever to the happy village school in Winkleigh where that boy is being educated. Conditions are far closer to those in Dartmoor prison, except that Dartmoor prison would be preferable.
I saw children whose heads had been shaved because of lice. There were open sores on their arms. There were six or seven staff for about 400 boys. The staff were worn out and they were pessimistic about what they could do for the children. The dormitories were filled with stench on account of filthy, squalid mattresses. There was no running 799 water. For about 40 boys there were a couple of taps. There were no main sewers and there was little electricity. The ceilings were black with swarms of mosquitoes. Most of the windows, covered with mesh, were broken because the boys played outside on the only playing field that they had, which was covered with concrete.
It was an extraordinarily miserable sight. In all my years with the Save the Children Fund I cannot recall seeing anything in the west to compare with it. I have seen plenty of comparable sites in the poorest parts of the world such as Africa, India or even South America. The shock of finding such sites in the wider world of Europe is what determined myself and other members of our delegation, particularly the hon. Member for Dumbarton, to do something.
Of course, we wondered what to do. Our next visit happened to be to the President. We asked his advice and I asked him whether he would be patron if we were to run an appeal. He readily agreed. We went on to see the Prime Minister and put the same point to him. He showed us the new committee that he had already set up. It was excellent. He also showed us the potential child care legislation which, in our eyes, was not so good. However, he has a soft spot for children and he said that he would be our vice-patron.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]
We went on to seek the guidance and support of leading members of the religious organisations in Romania. We asked the patriarch, the cardinal archbishop, the leader of the free churches, the chief rabbi, business men and other good people. We have formed an embryo committee in Romania which is willing to help in any way it can. We still have the help of the Austrian Save the Children Fund and, since we returned, we have been offered help by many of the small British organisations that have links with the Romanian community and are anxious to do all that they can. In addition, we must not forget the strong, although small, Romanian community in the United Kingdom. The Romanian community in Reading has been broadcasting in Romanian to Romania on the BBC world service for the past 20 years. That may well have been instrumental in the crucial revolution.
The purpose of our work is to effect change, to introduce good child care laws and practice and to start the ball rolling on training. There has been no training of special experts such as teachers since 1978. I understand that the last psychiatrist in Romania was trained in 1972. Under the old regime everybody was supposed to be entirely mentally healthy. We will pursue longer-term plans with organisations such as CARITAS—the Catholic agency for international relief. It is an agency of great size and integrity. It has a plan to break up the institutions. As I have said, there are 200 of them and the largest houses 700 boys.
I shall now deal with what I hope will be a short-term effort because I hope that the CARITAS plan, the Prime Minister's plan or others like it will take effect quickly. I want to define it as short-term aid from Westminster. We are forming an all-party group for mentally handicapped children in Romania. That group will run the first ever 800 all-party appeal—the parliamentary all-party appeal for Romanian children. We plan to launch our appeal on 3 December.
I offer my thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, for generously lending us your patronage and to the Lord Chancellor who has followed your lead. We have a long list of eminent Back-Bench names from both sides of the House who are flocking to join us. I believe that our eminent supporters in the outer world will include Bishop Carey and the other religious leaders. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton has written to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, and I am sure that the other religious leaders will come forward, too.
This is the simplest of appeals—a Christmas appeal. Our aim is to obtain money for presents for the children which will be delivered on our behalf by the Austrian Save the Children Fund, which visits them regularly. Longer term in Romania, the charitable efforts could be devoted to creating local leagues of friends or perhaps sending United Kingdom volunteer experts overseas. I pay warm tribute to the many people in the United Kingdom who have already given generously of their money, time and skills.
Our parliamentary group will concentrate on building up good relationships with our colleagues in the Romanian Government and on their Back Benches to bring about the best possible legislation for children and to see that it is put into practice nationally.
What are we asking our Government to do? I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that there is an overwhelming case for continuing humanitarian aid, for considering use of a know-how fund, for medical and teaching experts from the United Kingdom and for easement of visa payments and time delays for similar Romanian experts. After all, we seek the backing of the Government for our own initiative to put these children high on the political agenda, so that the rights of the Romanian child are never violated again.
I spoke earlier of the evils of communism, as displayed by the horror and tragedy of these lovely children. As parliamentarians, we pride ourselves on being omnipotent and omnicompetent, yet we cannot expect to solve all Romania's problems. We can and should, as the mother of Parliaments, be firmly associated with the relief of suffering. We shall be in touch with all our colleagues and we seek the sympathy, forbearance and understanding of this place.
§ 10.5 pm
§ Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this Adjournment debate. As the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) said, this appeal stems directly from a visit of the all-party group on eastern European Jewry to Romania. My hon. and learned Friend the member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) and the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) participated in our visit to children's home No. 6, which is a home for seven to 16-year-old boys. There are 400 boys in the home, 370 of whom are termed socially abandoned.
The hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West has more international experience than me, but as a former schoolteacher I was horrified by the sight that greeted us 801 in home No. 6. It was almost a three-dimensional step into a world that I did not believe existed, except in a celluloid representation of Auschwitz and Belsen.
The children whom we met were dressed in dark blue uniforms. Some of them had their heads shaved and others had full heads of hair. Those who had their heads shaved were more energetic, more kinetic, in their appearance. The only conclusion that I could draw was that those children had had their heads shaved for one reason—that if they escaped from the home, if they penetrated its barriers, they would be easily identifiable by the community at large and could be returned to the home. It was as barbaric as that.
In one dormitory, there were more than 40 beds for enuretic children. They were huddled together and had no blankets. The stench of urine that met us was overpowering. The care workers—I would call them warders—were graduates of the school. They were two or three years older than the children and had keys on their belts. The doors were locked at night and the children were left to care for themselves. Given the corporate denial of human rights, it was not surprising that there were marks on their heads.
As a result of that experience, we put our points to the President and to the Prime Minister. I know that the political situation in Romania is unstable, but they are taking the children out of the wilderness, out of the darkness, and into the 1990s. Children have been part of the darkness in Romania because Ceausescu decreed a healthy society. Therefore, there was no need for child care specialists or for child care policy; everyone was healthy. Therefore, the children were completely abandoned.
There is a high degree of mental handicap in Romania, but, from the contacts that I have had with the medical and social experts who have been there, I understand that that is because the children have been given no environmental stimuli. One group of psychologists from Ireland who visited Romania said before they went that they thought that it would be hard to make proper assessments of the children's intellectual potential. However, after their visit they said that they could not make any assessment of the general level of retardation by western standards, simply because of the lack of environmental stimulation. There were no children in Britain with whom to compare them.
It has been said that a society can be judged by the way in which it treats its children. If we judged Romania on that basis, it would have no future. However, it does have a future: it is in a changing political position with an embryonic political democracy, and it needs western assistance, both material and professional. It was that realisation on our part that set us to work on the idea of a parliamentary appeal for Romanian children. By establishing the group, and by obtaining your support, Mr. Speaker—we are all very grateful to you for giving your time—we will send a message to Romania saying, "No, you are not forgotten: there is a future for you, and we are ready to help."
Just as the political position in Romania is embryonic, so are hopes. We have no master plan for action in Romania, but it is worth setting up a group at the highest level to say that we—at the highest level—will do something. We are not acting merely on the one-off basis of a Christmas appeal for home No. 6; we intend to act on a continuing basis to help to establish political democracy in Romania.
802 In Bucharest, I was fortunate enough to speak to Church leaders. I spoke to Rabbi Rosen, the Chief Rabbi of Bucharest; I also had an audience with the patriarch of Romania and Archbishop Ion Robu, the Catholic Archbishop of Romania. From all three came the message that they could not do it on their own; they needed outside help and assistance.
As Archbishop Ion Robu So graphically said, those Romanian children are deprived because they have no love. No one has ever put their arms around them; no one has fondled them; they have never been told that they are loved. That is what is missing. We must put some light into that society with our deeds in this country, and we can do that only by having a link with Romania involving church leaders, community leaders and politicians. The politicians must be subject to scrutiny from the church leaders, and from British volunteers.
I hope that we can prosper in our work at parliamentary level; my experience so far suggests that people have greeted the intiative with a good deal of enthusiasm. I am sure that, with your assistance, Mr. Speaker—and that of the Government—we shall be able to do something for the children, and for Romania as a whole.
With my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths), I hope to become involved with church leaders in Scotland, and to highlight the plight of children's home No. 6. My hon. Friend has also been working with the Comber Romanian orphanage appeal of Ireland. That appeal has already exceeded 50 per cent. of its target of £500,000. It is working in conjunction with the Jubilee campaign in England. That group has been in Romania for a number of years, and since the December revolution has refurbished four orphanages. It has sent specialist volunteer forces, using material bought in Britain.
It has not given the Romanian Government money. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South agrees that we do not want money to be given to the Romanian Government because one cannot guarantee how it will be spent. We need to have monitoring in Romania by people from Britain. I stress that money raised here will not be handed over to the Romanian Government but will be used, where we can, as approved by Church leaders in Bucharest and the president, to obviate suffering in a direct way in accordance with our priorities.
This Adjournment debate is but the first step. I am delighted that you, Mr. Speaker, have given us the opportunity to raise this subject. Let us hope that it is the first of many steps whereby we can do something with the many good people of Romania.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)
This debate has been filled with tragedy. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) and the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) for bringing this important subject before the House.
I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in the welfare of children, and she knows that I am aware of her work in the Save the Children Fund. All the activities reported to me have shown that anything to 803 which she sets her mind is carried out with the greatest possible zeal. I am sure that the same can be said of the hon. Member for Dumbarton. I wish them both the very best of success in the appeal which they have set up for this worthy cause. I hope that the appeal will thrive and grow. I hope that my hon. Friend's contribution to the welfare of these children will be recognised in years to come.
Hon. Members described the appalling conditions in some schools in Romania. I, too, saw some of those reports on television. No one who observed them can fail to be moved by those pictures. The plight of so many abandoned children is certainly one of the most dreadful and unforeseen legacies of the Ceausescu dictatorship.
After the revolution in Romania, Her Majesty's Government moved immediately to provide substantial amounts of humanitarian aid, much of it to improve standards of care for mentally handicapped children. We provided £500,000 for the World Health Organisation's programme of aid to the Romanian health service. Following the shocking revelations about the large numbers of Romanian children diagnosed as HIV positive, we donated I million disposable syringes and we have since supplied £75,000-worth of AIDS diagnostic equipment. We have also encouraged longer-term projects, such as a family planning programme organised by Marie Stopes International. The total value of the humanitarian assistance which we have given, both directly through the European Community and through other international organisations such as the World Health Organisation, now stands at over £6.6 million. That must be a sign of the Government's commitment and concern.
None of us should forget the immense generosity of the British people in response to the situation and especially the efforts of all those who are involved in private initiatives to help Romanian children. We have, of course, taken care to ensure that our aid reaches those who need it most. For that reason, we have made contributions to British charities working in Romania. Some have many years' experience of caring for the mentally handicapped. I cannot mention them all tonight, but prominent among them is Mencap, which has been working to improve conditions in the Brincanovesti castle institution and is deeply concerned with education of mentally handicapped children. Our contributions to charities have enabled British doctors and nurses to work in Romania and have provided training in this country for Romanians responsible for the care of mentally handicapped children. We welcome this exchange of expertise and support any initiatives designed to broaden and consolidate contacts between British specialists and their Romanian counterparts.
I agree that the valuable work which is under way to provide assistance to the children of Romania should not be hindered unnecessarily by bureaucracy. However, hon. Members will understand that we are not yet ready to abolish visas for Romanian citizens, although we are, of course, willing to do all that we can to ease the way for Romanian experts to visit the United Kingdom.
I hope, too, that the Romanian authorities concerned will help facilitate the work of British specialists in their country. In that connection, the Government warmly welcome the Romanian ambassador's interest in the 804 question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West. The Romanian embassy in London has been immensely helpful already in arranging visas for a group of Department of Health and Home Office officials who will be visiting Romania later this month to discuss with their counterparts our countries' positions on inter-country adoption. We shall pursue further with the appropriate Romanian authorities ways of cutting through red tape.
Turning now to international efforts to help Romania, I should like to draw the House's attention to the imaginative programme of Community aid drawn up in July by the EC Commission. The programme has been drawn up with the active involvement of European non-governmental organisations, including the Save the Children Fund, and aims to provide help directly to children's homes in Romania—in answer to the point raised by the hon. Member for Dumbarton. We are contributing generously to this programme.
In July, the Commission immediately provided £100,000-worth of aid supplies and sponsored a study to assess the medical and sanitary needs of physically and mentally handicapped children. This made a number of specific recommendations on which the Commission is acting. A special representative has been appointed to work with the Romanian Ministry of Health and to help co-ordinate the efforts of non-governmental organisations and European Community member states. Some £140,000 has been set aside to provide experts and to assist in the management of institutions for mentally and physically handicapped children, and a further £1.9 million has been donated to non-governmental organisations working in Romania. In addition, the Community is setting aside £2.7 million for improved heating and sanitation for 17 orphanages. Aid worth a further £5.25 million has been earmarked for early 1991, and a Romanian request for an additional £4.6 million for the purchase of foodstuffs is currently under consideration.
We wholeheartedly welcome that initiative, which will build on the good work that has already been done by the organisations that have provided emergency relief. We shall continue to work closely with our partners in the EC, as that has proved the most efficient means of co-ordinating humanitarian aid to Romania. Furthermore, I shall ensure that the problem of children in state educational institutions is brought to the attention of the Commission and I hope that that will provide a further basis for future co-operation.
The only solution to Romania's long-term problems, including proper provision for its children, is through good government and a sound economy. As my hon. Friend is aware, this Government have made it clear that we will consider extending the know-how fund to Romania once democratic and free market reforms have been introduced in that country.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
Emese Gabor is the one mentally handicapped child I know of who has been adopted in this country, and a parliamentary answer on 22 October confirmed that. The Minister mentioned Mencap, which has been assisting in connection with that adoption. The director of Brincanovesti, Dr. Delast, was in this country with the support of Bristol Mencap and visited Bev and Ruth Smith in Killamarsh in my constituency. Bev Smith had to go 805 four times to Romania to arrange Emese's adoption. Tomorrow I shall send a copy ofHansard to my constituents, who have great expertise in these matters.
§ Mr. Lennox-Boyd
The hon. Gentleman has made his point. I invite him also to send his constituents a copy of our earlier Adjournment debate on the subject, to which my hon. Friend the Minister of Health replied.
As I was saying, we shall consider extending the know-how fund. Similarly, in the interests of encouraging good government, we have pressed for strict conditionality in the granting of technical co-operation and other developmental assistance and aid by the G24 nations. The strict conditionality does not apply to humanitarian aid, but the policy that we have enunciated for the other forms of aid is shared by many other western countries. It is intended to encourage the Romanian leadership to follow the path of political and economic liberalisation, and there are already some encouraging signs that it it beginning to have some effect.
806 The effects of the Ceausescu regime's appalling policies will take many years to erase from Romania. In the shorter term, the humanitarian aid supplied by this and other western countries, and the tremendous effort of so many groups and individuals, will help to relieve the sufferings of the most vulnerable of the dictatorship's victims. My hon. Friend's initiative is particularly welcome as it envisages not only immediate assistance but a programme of education and training which will be of lasting benefit and will enable the children concerned to live fuller lives and perhaps even to contribute to the rebuilding of their country. Most of all, it is to be hoped that the political will exists in Romania to enable the necessary reforms to establish democracy and economic freedom which are the best guarantees for the country's future.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.