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Tuesday 23 Sep 2014

Press Release

Former Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo OBE calls for recognition of children's rights in BBC One's Richard Dimbleby Lecture

As part of the BBC's Year Of Books, today the BBC will broadcast the 35th annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture, delivered by former Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo OBE, at 10.35pm on BBC One. Morpurgo will issue a plea to recognise the rights of children around the world as set out in the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Drawing on his personal experiences as a writer, teacher and most recently as an ambassador for the charity Save the Children, he recalls how his fight to give children a voice drove him to campaign against immigration removal centre Yarl's Wood: "Yarl's Wood was opened in November 2001. Since then thousands of asylum-seeking families and children had been effectively imprisoned there, sometimes for months.

"I was with a BBC film crew for the Politics Show. We wanted to go in, but it was not permitted. I am not surprised, for something deeply shameful to us all was going on inside that place.

"Although Yarl's Wood itself has not been closed, at least no children are locked up in there any more. Now at last we are promised an ending to the imprisonment of all such children in this country. But we have to ask, and we should ask this again and again, how on earth men and women, many of them no doubt parents themselves, sat down around a table and thought this was an acceptable idea in the first place?

"It was done, of course, out of pragmatism and political expediency, the interests of the child quite ignored. This was no petty case of right or wrong, but a flagrant abuse of the rights of children. A great wrong has, in part at least, been righted.

"One day, we will apologise for Yarl's Wood, just as we did over those children forcibly expatriated to Australia after the Second World War – another example of what might be called 'the bureaucracy of neglect', not intentional maybe, but cruel in its collateral damage, all the same."

In his exploration of the 'Right to Survival' set out in the United Nation's Convention, Morpurgo tells of his experience in Gaza – he was invited to the Middle East to visit children on both sides of the conflict in his role as Ambassador for Save the Children:

"I heard the shots, then the screaming, saw the kids running to help their wounded friends. Now I really was outside the comfort zone of fiction. There was blood, his trousers were soaked in it, the bullets were real. I saw the boy close to, saw his agony as the cart rushed by me. Many like him, the doctor told me, ended up maimed for life.

"Here was a child, his right to survival, the most basic of all children's rights, being utterly ignored. The boy I saw was called Shamekh, I discovered. He lives in a house with 15 family members, and was out there earning what money he could, in the only way he knew how.

"So, when on my return I was asked to give this lecture, I knew immediately that I would take this opportunity to speak out about the rights of not only Shamekh, but of all children everywhere.

"It's all too easy for each of us to feel helpless when we witness such appalling treatment. But if you think that one voice can't make a difference then remember that if it hadn't been for the campaign against Yarl's Wood – single voices added together – children would still be imprisoned there."

Morpurgo on children's 'Right to Education' and how the UK education system measures up:

"If we are to make real progress in enriching the lives of children, and enhancing their education, we have to put the people who are responsible for their upbringing first – that is, parents and teachers.

"How often I have come across a mother in a book signing queue who tells me, when I ask what she does, that she is 'only a mother'. And how often do we hear that tired old jibe 'if you can't do it, teach it'? This, about what is surely one of the noblest professions.

"If we are to change things around, really change them around, then we have to have greater respect and admiration for the people who do the work.

"The trouble is that the status of those who work with and for children in this country is low, and I'm not thinking here simply of the financial rewards, although that is part of the problem. Whether we are talking about children's theatre, children's television programmes, or children's films, or children's books, it is the same, you are at the bottom of the pile. It's just for children. And even within these worlds, the younger the children concerned, it seems, the less status there is for those involved.

"We must remember that we are preparing children not simply for employment (though that is important), and for the contribution they can make to the common good (which is also important), but for the difficult decisions they will have to make in their personal lives, in those moments when they have to take responsibility for themselves, when they decide whether or not to have sex with someone new, to be tempted into drugs, bully a school mate on the internet, carry a knife, or throw a brick through a window.

"In those critical moments their decisions, the choices they take, rely so much on the good relationships they made when they are young – with their parents and their teachers – built on self worth and self confidence – and there is no league table for relationships."

The 35th Richard Dimbleby Lecture: Set Our Children Free delivered by Michael Morpurgo will be broadcast on BBC One at 10.35pm.

Notes to Editors

1. The pan-BBC Year Of Books is a year-long celebration of literature which invites audiences to free their imagination through the exploration, enjoyment and discussion of books. The BBC is the biggest producer of books-related programming and throughout 2011 will highlight its continued commitment to literature and all quality arts programming. From regular literary stands to documentaries, series, dramas and readings, the year will offer a range of new and archive programmes.

2. Michael Morpurgo is the former Children's Laureate and best-selling author of over 120 books for children including Private Peaceful, Kensuke's Kingdom and War Horse, which was first performed at the National Theatre in 2007, and will be made into a forthcoming film by Dreamworks. Michael was awarded an OBE for services to literature in 2007.

3. The Richard Dimbleby Lecture has previously been delivered by Dr Rowan Williams, the Prince of Wales, Bill Clinton and, most recently, Sir Terry Pratchett.

RA

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