HC Deb 24 February 1960 vol 618 cc533-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

11.28 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I have to unfold to my right hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department a sad case of child stealing, or kidnapping, which has caused great distress and suffering to one of my constituents, Mrs. Joy Harris.

In 1954, Mrs. Harris married an Australian, Mr. John Harris, who was a lorry driver. They had one child, Janette, who is now aged 4. I should point out that neither of these people are well off. In fact, Mrs. Harris really has nothing except what she can earn in a simple way.

Because of assaults by her husband, Mrs. Harris had to separate from him. She came back to England with the child and went to live with her godmother in Cornwall. She started divorce proceedings last year. On 26th May, 1959, her husband turned up unexpectedly at her home in Cornwall. They had a discussion together and they arranged to see Mrs. Harris's solicitors in Cornwall. While Mrs. Harris was arranging with a neighbour to look after the child her husband stole the child and disappeared. Mrs. Harris was very expeditious in this matter, and applied at once to have her child made a ward of court under Section 9 (2) of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act. On 28th May she actually got a temporary order from Mr. Justice Danckwerts and the child became a ward of court for 21 days, under the control of Mrs. Harris. She also obtained an injunction to stop her husband from taking the child out of the jurisdiction. She returned to London to find that Mr. Harris was about to leave the country. On 29th May, with her solicitors, she stopped her husband as he was about to embark on an aircraft at London Airport to go to Australia with the child. So she got the child back. Two months later, on the 30th July, there was a trial of the action in the High Court, with leading counsel and the cross-examination of witnesses. As a result Mr. Justice Danckwerts awarded the sole custody of the child to Mrs. Harris during the minority of the child, and made it a ward of court. At that time there was no formal request by the husband for access to see the child. In my view, at that stage in the proceedings the husband undoubtedly lost his rights of custody as a father.

Through his legal advisers Mr. Harris asked for access to the child on one occasion, on the ground that he was about to go back to Australia. He saw the child, and pleaded with Mrs. Harris for sympathy, and saw the child on another occasion. The scene then shifts to Birmingham, where Mrs. Harris was staying with her godmother's daughter. On 19th August Mr. Harris turned up again. Mr. and Mrs. Harris were together with the child; Mrs. Harris unfortunately went out to do some shopping, and Mr. Harris again disappeared with the child. This time he did so in defiance of the court order.

Mrs. Harris at once went to the Birmingham police, who looked into the matter and telephoned Mrs. Harris's solicitors at midnight on 19th August. The solicitors, with great promptitude and energy—and they have acted with enormous skill in this case—at once telephoned the duty officer of B.O.A.C. at London Airport, warning him that Mr. Harris had got hold of the child and might again try to fly the country. Next day Mrs. Harris's solicitors made application to Mr. Justice Phillimore in London and obtained an order committing Mr. Harris to prison for contempt of court. Straight away they informed the Home Office of this new child theft, and they then heard that Mr. Harris had been seen at Prestwick Airport, in Scotland. They went back to the judge, who made orders restraining three airlines—B.O.A.C., K.L.M., and S.A.S.—from allowing the child out of the country.

The next day, 21st August, an article and photograph appeared in the Scottish Daily Express, which showed that Mr. Harris had seen a reporter and had been to the police, with the child, and that the police had apparently warned him about the contempt of court. The solicitors went to Glasgow and saw the police, who rang up the Ayr police, who confirmed that Mr. Harris had turned up at the police station with another man they thought was the Scottish Daily Express reporter. The solicitors went to see the editor of the Scottish Daily Express and warned him against assisting a breach of the order making the child a ward of the court, and told him that he might be liable for contempt. The editor said that his reporter had picked up Mr. Harris and taken him to the police station at Ayr.

It is believed that the Scottish police at this stage treated the matter lightly, and said that they were waiting for a criminal warrant. On 21st August counsel for Mrs. Harris went again to Mr. Justice Phillimore at Oxford and got leave for Mrs. Harris to prefer a bill of indictment against Mr. Harris alleging child stealing. Mr. Justice Phillimore issued a criminal warrant for Mr. Harris's arrest.

In point of fact, I believe that the Scottish police must act on this warrant, because it is a criminal warrant. It seems extraordinary that they did not manage to arrest Harris at that stage. The warrant was sent to the Glasgow police the same day, a full description of the man and of the child was given to the police, and, of course, the solicitor and Mrs. Harris were duly awaiting for Harris to be arrested.

On 23rd August, Mr. John Gordon of the Sunday Express entered the proceedings with a rather caustic article about Mr. Justice Phillimore's first order, asking: Isn't it about time the English High Court recognised the legal fact that it has no authority in Scotland? Nothing more happened after that, except that a letter dated 24th August, from Harris, reached Mrs. Harris. That letter was posted in Fleet Street on 2nd September, which is rather remarkable. On 6th September, the Sunday Express reported an interview with Harris in New York, and said that he had the child there. On 12th September, the Daily Express reported that Harris had arrived in Australia. Incidentally the Express at no time mentioned the criminal warrant obtained from Mr. Justice Phillimore on 21st August. All the other newspapers mentioned it, and that omission is rather significant in the light of what I have to say.

How did Harris get out of the jurisdiction? He went to Scotland and stayed for some days. He then went to Ireland, then on to New York by B.O.A.C., and thence to Australia. How did he find the money for his stay in Scotland and the trip to Ireland? I ask, because he told the Press on reaching Australia that he knew of the injunction against him, said that he had only 30s. in his pocket but had one friend. On the evidence, I believe that the friend who possibly paid his expenses in Scotland and Ireland was the Express group of newspapers.

However that may be, the Birmingham police then sent the file of papers to the Director of Public Prosecutions who, however, did not institute any proceedings for extradition against Mr. Harris, who was then in Australia.

At the end of October, after the General Election, this case came to my notice in my constituency, and I raised the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, asking for an extradition order to be enforced against Mr. Harris. I have a letter from my right hon. Friend, in which he says: This is a matter of some complication and I have every sympathy with Mrs. Harris in the difficult position in which she is placed. Before, however, an application could be made to the Australian Government for the return of Mr. Harris under the Fugitive Offenders Act, 1881, there must be evidence that he has committed a criminal offence and that in the circumstances it is right to bring him back to this country to stand trial. The Director of Public Prosecutions who has had the facts of this case brought to his notice, is unable to take the view that this is a suitable case for the making of an application under the Fugutive Offenders Act, and in these circumstances I am sorry but I do not feel that there is any action which the Home Secretary could usefully take. There was further correspondence, and the next thing was that the Director of Public Prosecutions obtained a nolle prosequi from the Attorney-General to drop the case. In my view, the Director should have brought extradition proceedings against Mr. Harris in Australia to face the criminal warrant issued by Mr. Justice Phillimore. Harris had committed a criminal offence and should be liable for contempt, and certainly had no rights as a father. The Director of Public Prosecutions at one stage, I think, rather thought that Harris had some fundamental rights as a father, but in my submission those rights were lost.

One of my complaints is that the Scottish police seem to have acted negligently in this case, in that Harris stayed for several days in Scotland and they never arrested him, or took any notice of the criminal warrant. I do not think that they fulfilled their duty. I feel that the Director of Public Prosecutions should have brought proceedings against Harris in Australia. Thirdly,—if, indeed, it did—the Express group should not have financed or assisted Harris while he was really committing a criminal offence.

This is a very sad case. Mrs. Harris has suffered much pain and suffering since last May. She has lost her child, Janette, who is in Australia, and her only remedy, apparently, is to go to Australia and try to recover the child there. Further, a child of only 4 years has, by the act of her father, lost the care of her mother during her formative years.

I raise this case tonight in the hope that other mothers will be saved suffering, loss and expense in the future, and I ask my right hon. Friend to see whether the authorities can take these matters more seriously and stop wards of court leaving this country or, if wards of court are taken away by persons against whom criminal warrants have been obtained, that action should be taken by the authorities to bring these criminals back.

I understand the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) has had a similar case, and no doubt he wants to say a few words.

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) for giving me this opportunity to mention a similar case. I must be brief and quick because there are only a few minutes at my disposal.

This is a case of a boy aged about 3 who was made a ward of court in London and who is now living in Sydney, Australia, with his mother. His name is Alfred Santanastaso, the son of an Italian father and an Australian mother. He was born in Sydney and spent his first two or three years in Sydney. Towards the end of last year the three of them, father, mother and child, were living in Naples. Suddenly the wife absconded with the child and they arrived in England at the Port of Tilbury as stowaways aboard the ship "Orsova". That was on 17th December, 1959. As soon as the husband got word of this he flew to London, saw a judge in chambers and had the son made a ward of court.

For the next three or four weeks the father used every endeavour to trace his wife and child, but all his efforts were of no avail. At all events, he felt assured at least that the child would not be allowed to leave the jurisdiction of the High Court without the permission of the High Court. Imagine his dismay and distress, therefore, to learn early in January that the mother and child were living in Sydney, Australia. He subsequently learned that a passport had been issued to her at Australia House, that she had crossed the Border into Scotland and had left the country from Prestwick Airport. No doubt, a foreigner would have difficulty in appreciating that decisions of the High Court in England are meaningless in Scotland. I find it difficult to appreciate myself, particularly in cases like this which are not only cruelly unjust but manifestly absurd.

I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will say that this is an aspect of the case about which he can do nothing at the moment. I suppose a change in the law would be necessary. In that case, the sooner the law is changed the better. But I must say that there are certain other aspects of this case which the Home Office ought seriously to consider. Every obstacle was placed in the way of this man in his endeavour to trace his wife and child, and every facility was offered to the mother. I will cite only one instance.

When the mother arrived at Tilbury without a passport and without a ticket she was given the most privileged treatment. She was allowed to leave the ship at 1.30 a.m., seven and a half hours before the normal time of disembarkation. A car was waiting for her, which we understand was arranged between the ship's authorities and the police, which drove her and the child away at that strange hour to some undisclosed destination; whereas the husband, when, on the advice of Scotland Yard, he went to meet the ship an hour before the passengers were due to land, saw all the passengers come off except, of course, his wife and child. He remained there all morning and until the afternoon before he was told that his wife and child had left all those hours ago.

I do not know what Mr. Santanastaso is thinking at the moment about British laws and customs. I think that he has been shamefully treated, and I want to know why. I appreciate that, because of the shortness of the notice the right hon. Gentleman has had, he may not be able to give me full replies on these points tonight, but I hope that he will at an early date give me a reply and ensure that justice is done in the matter.

11.45 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

I think it is well known that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is always ready to do what he can to vindicate the orders of the High Court in cases such as those described by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy). It is equally well known that the Home Secretary's powers do not always suffice for this purpose. First of all, I want to deal with the case of Mrs. Harris, to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

This case was brought to notice of the Home Office at an early stage, as my hon. Friend said, and the usual precautions were taken. In fact, I understand that those precautions, together with the activities of the solicitors, were instrumental in frustrating an attempt, the first attempt, by Mr. Harris to take his daughter out of the country from London Airport in May. At that time—and this is important—Mrs. Harris' solicitors were warned that the precautions which the Home Secretary was in a position to take could not be guaranteed to prevent the child's removal, particularly if she travelled to Scotland, Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. This is the crux of the matter. The reason is that, while there is no restriction on travel to those other parts of these islands, the jurisdiction of the High Court, as the hon. Member for Thurrock said, extends only to England and Wales, and its orders in civil cases are not enforceable outside the jurisdiction.

I come now to what I think my hon. Friend described as Mr. Harris's second attempt, in August last year. My information is roughly in accordance with that of my hon. Friend. On 19th August, in contravention of an order of the High Court, Mr. Harris removed his daughter from the care and control of his wife. On 20th August, he came to the notice of an immigration officer at Prestwick Airport in Scotland, where he was trying to book passages to America. When this was reported by the Home Office to Mrs. Harris's legal advisers, they brought the facts to the notice of the High Court, as my hon. Friend said. The High Court did several things. It made an order committing Mr. Harris to prison for contempt of court. It granted an injunction restraining Mr. Harris from taking the child out of the jurisdiction and ordering him to return the child forthwith to Mrs. Harris. Thirdly, it granted injunction restraining the airlines operating at Prestwick from carrying the child in any of their aircraft save to bring her into the jurisdiction of the High Court.

This last action of the High Court, the injunction against the airlines, succeeded in preventing Mr. Harris from leaving Prestwick by air for America. But the other orders—I am not sure that my hon. Friend is clear about this—certainly had no force in Scotland, and the Scottish police at this time had no power to intervene, although they were in touch with Mr. Harris on one occasion on that day, 20th August. I make that point because, while I have no responsibility for the activities of the Scottish police, at this stage they were unable to take any action because the proceedings were of a civil nature.

Mrs. Harris's remedy at that stage would have been to begin separate proceedings before the appropriate Scottish court. I understand that, on the following day, a voluntary bill of indictment was preferred against Mr. Harris and a warrant for his arrest was issued. Whether or not it would have been possible to have had that warrant enforced in Scotland I do not know. The question does not seem to have arisen because, by then, according to my information, Mr. Harris had disappeared from the view of the authorities in Scotland. It is possible—I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend said about this—that he had already left Scotland by sea. I am told that very soon afterwards he was back in Australia. That is the sequence of events as they are known to me.

My hon. Friend has told us tonight that he has reason to think that one of the national newspapers intervened in this dispute and helped Mr. Harris to make off with the child. I personally have no information on that point and I am not in a position to comment on it, except to say that no doubt any person who assists or incites another to contravene an order of the High Court places himself in danger of an attachment for contempt of court.

The situation is that Mr. Harris and the child are now in Australia as a result of his third and, unfortunately, successful attempt to get out of the country. My hon. Friend has asked in correspondence, and possibly again tonight, whether there is any procedure by which Mr. Harris and his daughter can be brought back to this country. I can only repeat what I have told him in correspondence, that the Fugitive Offenders Act. 1881, provides a method by which a person accused of having committed an offence in one part of the Commonwealth can be brought back to another part to stand trial. The procedure is that the Director of Public Prosecutions, being satisfied that the case is one in which the Act ought to be invoked, asks the Home Secretary to arrange for a request to be sent to the authorities of the Commonwealth country where the person whose return is required is believed to be.

But, and this is a point which I think my hon. Friend appreciates, the Act can be invoked only if the person concerned is accused of having committed an offence punishable by imprisonment of twelve months or more and if there is a warrant in existence for his arrest. In this case of Mr. Harris, as far as I am aware, there are no criminal proceedings pending, and the Director of Public Prosecutions did not feel justified in initiating proceedings under the Act. I cannot comment on my hon. Friend's criticisms of the decision of the Director of prosecutions in this case.

A voluntary bill of indictment was preferred against Mr. Harris, as I have said, and a warrant for his arrest issued. This is where I slightly differ from my hon. Friend. These criminal proceed ings were brought to an end last year when Mrs. Harris and her legal advisers informed the Director of Public Prosecutions that they no longer wished to proceed with the prosecution and the Attorney-General directed an entry of nolle prosequi. My right. hon. Friend the Home Secretary has no responsibility in connection with the initiation or conduct of criminal proceedings and it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on this aspect of the case.

If I may turn to the case raised by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy), here too there was an order of the English High Court prohibiting the removal of a minor from the jurisdiction. The situation seems to be further complicated by the existence at the same time of conflicting orders by courts overseas as to the custody of the child. I do not think that I have time to go into the story in detail.

The hon. Member referred to the incident at Tilbury. I could possibly look further at the point, but from inquiries I made this evening—for the hon. Member was courteous enough to give me notice—it is true that the purser on the ship made arrangements for the woman to go ashore in the early hours of the morning of 17th December. I gather that the object was to protect her from the attentions of the Press and of other people gathered at Tilbury. I have no information about the activities of the police in this connection.

It seems clear that at that time the child was not a ward of court. This case came to the notice of the Home Office when it was reported that the child's mother intended to remove the child from the jurisdiction in contravention of the High Court order. She took the child to Prestwick in Scotland and there, despite all the immigration officer could do to persuade her to submit to the order of the High Court, she embarked with the child for the United States. This again was a civil proceeding and there was no power to prevent the child leaving, and I am afraid that there is nothing that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary can do to secure the child's return.

I hope that I have said enough to show that in both cases the authorities did all that that was in their power under the law as it stands to ensure that the orders of the High Court were carried out. I am only sorry that it was not enough to prevent the removal of the children concerned. The crux of the matter is that at present there is no machinery for the reciprocal enforcement of orders for custody or wardship made in various parts of the United Kingdom. This was one of the problems to which attention was drawn by the Committee on Conflicts of Jurisdiction Affecting Children whose Report was published last September, as Command Paper No. 842.

The Government welcome the Report, but it does raise a number of difficult questions which will have to be con sidered before any decision on legislation can be reached; and I cannot say at this stage what those decisions are likely to be. I repeat that we regret that the considerable activities of the authorities to try to prevent these unfortunate events from happening were unsuccessful. If there is anything further that I can deal with, I shall be glad to do so by way of correspondence. We are very sorry that it was not possible to assist further the deprived parents in this case, but we shall give most careful consideration to the Report of this Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Twelve o'clock.