Sir Nicholas Winton at the ceremony in Czechoslovakia
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Leader: Lessons of the Kindertransport

On 28 October, the day Britain ­announced it would not support search-and-rescue ­missions aimed at preventing migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean, Sir Nicholas Winton, who is 105, was honoured at a ceremony in Prague.

When a senior minister speaks of our towns and cities being “swamped” by immigrants you know two things: that the government is rattled and that an ill wind is blowing through the land. Nations turn inwards when people feel unhappy and insecure. The outsider, welcomed in good times, is perceived as a threat, an agent of change, even of chaos.

The remark made by Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, has since been withdrawn. Apparently, he did not mean what he said. Mr Fallon is not a bad man but he has the buffoonish manner of a small-town alderman who doubles up as captain of the local golf club. And he is meant to be one of David Cameron’s more sensible and reliable lieutenants.

What is clear is that our politics is becoming ever more fragmented, with no one party able to command the kind of support that would guarantee a strong majority government in next May’s general election. This fragmentation is testament to the collapsing authority of the political class and to the havoc being wrought by the forces of globalisation: the free flow of capital and people, open markets, the dominance of a deracinated plutocracy, instantaneous digital communication. Ed Miliband used to say, in the depths of the Great Recession, that the latest crisis of capitalism had provided a “social-democratic moment”. It had created the space in which to build a new society and political economy and he would lead that change.

That was then. Today, with Labour’s poll ratings so poor, Mr Miliband is fighting insurgencies on several fronts – against the Greens and the UK Independence Party in England, and the Scottish National Party and an assortment of leftist pro-independence groupings in Scotland. The age of two-party politics is over and that, at least, should be welcomed.

Mr Miliband is also reported to have instructed his MPs to address the issue of immigration and engage candidly with voters about their anxieties. But we would caution him and his party against making a right turn and of indulging the prejudices of Ukip and its supporters.

On Tuesday 28 October, the day that Britain ­announced that it would not support search-and-rescue ­missions aimed at preventing migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, Sir Nicholas Winton (pictured), who is 105, was honoured at a ceremony in Prague. As a young man, Sir Nicholas had arranged for hundreds of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to escape Nazi terror and find safety with foster families in the UK. Some of those whose lives were saved and who travelled to Britain on the Kindertransport were at the Prague ceremony.

Today’s refugees, whether they are fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, the torment of life in Gaza or the poverty of the sub-Saharan African interior, want no less than what anyone would want for their families: security and stability. So forlorn are most of those seeking to make the perilous journey from North Africa to southern Europe that they are compelled to submit to the demands of nefarious traffickers and risk their lives on the high sea.

The challenges of immigration and the mass movement of peoples will not be solved by Britain seeking to leave the EU or by nations closing their borders to refugees from failed or crumbling states. Nor will the pledge by the EU to limit search-and-rescue missions deter the desperate. The people will come or attempt to come.

The world’s population is seven billion; it is forecast to reach 11 billion by 2100, by which time the pressures of overpopulation and resource scarcity will be even greater. In an interview with the NS in 2009, ­David Miliband, then foreign secretary, said: “Foreign policy is ­inseparable from domestic policy now.” The interconnectedness of the world today means that analysis was broadly ­correct – and, consequently, we must not retreat into fearful ­nationalism and protectionism, but engage with the world in and through multilateral organisations. And as politicians talk of immigrants “swamping” our island, we should heed the example of Nicholas Winton, a true and compassionate ­humanitarian. 

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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Testing migrant children’s teeth for their age is not only immoral – it doesn’t work

Ministers have flirted with this idea for over a decade. It’s bad policy, as well as poor ethics.

This week, the Home Office finally ruled out the use of x-rays to establish the age of childhood migrants.

It’s welcome news, but this story predates the dispersal of the Calais “Jungle” camp. 

For over ten years, ministers in Conservative and Labour governments have flirted with these tests. And it’s been up to us – the practitioners who’d be expected to administer them – to pick holes in a policy that’s a great way of securing headlines, but simply cannot deliver on the claims made by its cheerleaders.

It goes without saying dentists are health professionals, not border guards. But our objections run deeper than that. And it’s worth revisiting the arguments, just in case future governments start grasping for silver bullets.

It’s ineffective

We can talk about philosophy later, but let’s start with a pretty fundamental objection: dental x-rays are simply not a reliable way of establishing age.

No two mouths are alike. I’ll add my own to that list, as I still sport two of my baby teeth.

Children and young people mature at different rates, so the level of accuracy in these tests changes with time. And these x-rays can estimate age in younger children much more accurately than in adolescents. So as children mature at different rates, the potential margin of error gets ever larger with age.

For example, the third molars, commonly known as wisdom teeth – the last permanent teeth to develop – can form any time between the ages of 16 and 23, and a small proportion of individuals never develop third molars at all (I’ll have to pop my name to that list too).

A 2010 study of 300 young people aged between 11 and 25, whose age was determined based on dental x-rays, showed this method of testing consistently over- or under-estimated age, with a two-year average difference between dental and known age.

So if you are searching for a litmus test that will tell you whether a subject is 17 or 19 years old you won’t find it here.

It’s inappropriate

A few MPs and pundits have found it hard to acknowledge the codes health practitioners sign up to, which make this test a no go.

We must always act in the best interest of our patients when providing a medical procedure. And it is beyond question that the process of radiography is a medical procedure that should be carried out only for medical purposes, and where the patient stands to benefit.

Now many people might not consider this test an invasive procedure. However, x-rays do carry a small risk of possible long-term physical impact, and current best practice in this area dictates that exposure to radiation should be kept as low as reasonably possible over a lifetime. They should be carried out sparingly and where there is a well-defined potential clinical benefit, which must always outweigh the potential clinical harm.

As taking x-rays to determine the age of an individual carries no clinical benefit, it frankly isn’t appropriate to expose a patient to the potential clinical harm it can cause.

It’s unethical

Our lawmakers cannot simply dispense with fundamentals like consent to show they are “taking action”.

It is a legal principle that before practitioners carry out any medical procedure, the recipient – or someone who can consent on their behalf – must be given a full understanding of the nature of the procedure, its significance, impact and potential consequences before signing up to it.

For the children arriving from Calais, this would be a difficult task without English as a first language. Consent may also be required from a suitable adult. Yes, these children may be unaccompanied, but it does not mean the need for valid consent and protecting the child’s best interests can simply be ignored.

The letter of the law might be inconvenient, but it is a requirement that can only be compromised where the urgency and necessity of the circumstances demand rapid action in a patient’s best interests. And even in these circumstances the validity of treatment has sometimes ended up being challenged in the courts.

Given that taking x-rays in order to determine age is not medically justifiable in the first place, the urgency justification really doesn’t come into play. And that means dental colleagues – in the absence of valid consent – could find themselves performing an act that constitutes a criminal battery.


In the past, ministers have debated whether there is a credible “public interest” case that might override these little legal or philosophical objections. But these practical and ethical concerns can’t really be separated.

But why bother constructing a case for a test that frankly isn’t much cop? Dentists can only hope the latest message from the Home Office marks the beginning of a consensus, which draws a line under a decade of wishful thinking.

Judith Husband, Chair of the British Dental Association’s Education, Ethics and the Dental Team Working Group.