HC Deb 22 December 1983 vol 51 cc610-6 1.30 pm
Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

In a Christmas Adjournment debate last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) drew the attention of the House to a child abduction case involving three small children aged six, four and two, who had been abducted from the United Kingdom by their father. One year later I have the sad task of addressing the House in a Christmas Adjournment debate about a constituent of mine called Barbara Miller. She has not heard or seen anything of her son Ross, aged four, since 12 October this year. He was abducted by his father, Peter Ballance. My constituent does not even know whether Ross is alive or dead. Other parents will sympathise with her desperation, particularly at this time of year, when they are enjoying their children.

I can do no better than repeat the words with which my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge opened his Christmas Adjournment debate last year: In the course of his duties every hon. Member who takes a personal concern for his constituents as individuals can give testimony to his experience of human unkindness and even cruelty."—[Official Report, 23 December 1982; Vol. 34, c. 1091.] No words can better express my feelings about the conduct of Ross's father towards my constituent.

Barbara Miller has every reason to suspect that Ross has been removed from the country. His father, who applied some time ago for Jamaican citizenship, is also an experienced flier, having made many trips to France in light aircraft. I have been advised that Ross's name was added to his father's passport in August this year, unbeknown to his mother. Barbara Miller and Peter Ballance are both United Kingdom citizens. Although they lived together for five years, they were not married. When the child was born, his birth was registered by both parents with the surname Ballance. When they parted, Barbara Miller was awarded legal custody of Ross. Mr. Ballance was allowed two days' access per week to the child by the court. He exercised his right of access to the child on 12 October. There has been no trace either of him or the child since that time, despite exhaustive efforts by Barbara Miller's solicitors, the police and the immigration authorities. She is desperate. She prays that as Christmas approaches, the heart of the man who has done this dreadful thing to her will soften. She prays that someone, somewhere, will contact her to let her know at the least whether her son is alive or dead.

I welcome the Child Abduction Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Mr. Wood), which was given a Second Reading last Friday. It seeks to make it a criminal offence to remove a child from the country without the consent of both parents. On a number of occasions child abductions have been debated by the House. It is hoped that the Bill will facilitate the return of a child removed from the jurisdiction.

I am concerned to make it more difficult to abduct a child in the first place. So far as I can see, it can be done only by making it more difficult to obtain a child's passport or to have a child's name added to the passport of either parent. To have a child's name added to a United Kingdom passport, either parent has only to supply to the Passport Office his or her own passport, the birth certificate of the child and the appropriate application form. The written consent of the other parent is not required. I remember that when my children's names were added to my passport, my wife was astonished that it could be done without her written consent.

The application form states that, in the case of an illegitimate child, consent should be given by the mother, but there is no way of knowing whether the child is illegitimate if the child bears the surname of the father and if the short form of the birth certificate is supplied. It is suspected that that is what happened in the case of Barbara Miller's son Ross. The addition of his name to the father's passport could have been avoided if the long form of birth certificate had been supplied, showing that the parents had different names. However, I do not believe that that reform would go far enough. There are many cases in which the parents are married or even unmarried, and bear the same surname.

To avoid the child's name being added to one parent's passport without the consent of the other, I consider it absolutely vital to amend the form to provide for the written consent of the other parent to be included on the application form and to have the form countersigned by a Member of Parliament, justice of the peace, minister of religion, lawyer or a person of similar standing. That is the case with a full United Kingdom passport application made by yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or myself.

If one parent is dead, or separated or divorced from the other, a death certificate or court order would have to be produced to support the signature of the sole parent having custody. With regard to a British visitor's passport, which is obtainable from post offices, it should be necessary for both parents to apply unless the death certificate or court order is produced.

The Minister may also wish to consider whether it would be advisable for the child to attend in person. That happens to applicants for passports for citizens of the United States, who are under the age of 18. There, the child must attend in person. Additional protection introduced in the United States in 1979 provided that the children had to have their own passports. That means that if a couple were married and then separated the judge, when awarding custody, could order that the child's passport be surrendered to the parent to whom custody was awarded. Of course, those new arrangements would cause some inconvenience to parents, but in view of the large number of abduction cases that are reported, I have every confidence that they would understand the reason, which is to avoid the heartbreak suffered by my constituent, Barbara Miller, and many others like her this Christmas.

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this matter to the attention of the House and hope that the Minister can give a positive and helpful reply so that the number of tragedies that cause such suffering to parents who have been deprived of their children in that way can be reduced.

1.37 pm
Mr. Timothy Wood (Stevenage)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) for allowing me to intervene in this debate. The case that he related is all too familiar. Such child abduction cases occur frequently these days. I have been presented with many similar cases concerning the tragic circumstances of families and children.

I hope that the Bill on child abduction that I have presented will receive the approval of Parliament, but whether or not it becomes law, there is a strong case for modification of the arrangements covering the issue of passports including children. There is no doubt that, even if the law with regard to child abduction is changed, there will still be cases where children are taken out of the country or where there is a danger of them being taken out of the country before the responsible parent is aware of that fact. If modifications could be made in the arrangements covering passports, I believe that many such cases could be prevented. I hope that the Foreign Office will pursue the matter.

1.39 pm
The Under-Secretary IA State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ray Whitney)

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Stockport (Mr. Favell) and Stevenage (Mr. Wood) for raising an important proposition and the sad and worrying case of Barbara Miller and her son, Ross. I must try to deal with the general principles that my hon. Friends have adumbrated. If my hon. Firend the Member for Stockport has any specific matter that he wishes to take up, no doubt we can pursue it separately by other means.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, who is a distinguished member of the legal profession urges us to go in the direction in which, to quote the old tag, "hard cases make bad law". In striking a balance and coming to a judgment on these issues, we should consider several other factors which were not referred to. The Government are not insensitive to the problem of child abduction which my hon. Friends the Members for Stevenage and for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) have brought to the attention of the House and about which the} have expressed anxiety. I shall deal with the general arrangements operated by the Passport Office and seek to explain their justification, and show some of the serious difficulties that would be involved if we followed the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport.

Hon. Members may be aware that before the Passport Office will add a child's name to a relative's passport, or issue a separate passport to a minor, it requires the written consent of a parent. In the case of an illegitimate child, the mother's consent is required and this is made clear on all passport application forms.

In order to help safeguard against children being taken out of the country against the wishes of a parent or guardian having lawful rights over them, the Passport Office provides for objections against the issue of standard passport facilities to a minor to be lodged with it. This is commonly known as the "caveat system".

This system, which has been in operation for many years, was slightly modified following the coming into force on 8 May 1974 of the Guardianship Act 1973 which gives the father and mother equal rights in relation to the custody and upbringing of a legitimate child. Under current arrangements either parent can give consent to the issue of passport facilities to a legitimate child, although they will not be granted if a prior objection has been lodged by the other parent or a guardian. The mother's consent is required for the issue of passport facilities to an illegitimate child; facilities would not normally be granted on the consent of the father alone where the Passport Office is aware that the child is illegitimate — for example, where a full copy of the child's birth certificate is produced. Where a minor is either married or a member of Her Majesty's Forces no parental or guardian's consent is required.

A parent or guardian can lodge an objection with the Passport Office provided it is based on a court order giving the objector custody of the minor, or giving the objector care and control over the minor, or specifying the objector's consent to the child leaving the country, or supporting the objector's objections to the child having a passport or leaving the country.

However, the mother of an illegitimate child can lodge an objection without it being based on a court order. To lodge an objection, the parent or guardian has simply to write to the Passport Office, giving the full names, places and dates of birth of the child or children concerned and where necessary, to produce the relevant court order.

If the minor already has a valid passport or is included in one at the time that an objection is lodged, the Passport Office does not have any authority to compel the surrender of the passport in order to give effect to the objection. In these circumstances, the Passport Office will note the minor's name in its records for 12 months and if during that time the passport concerned comes into its possession for any reason, or another application for passport facilities is made for the minor, it will give effect to the objection.

Our present impression, based on the large number of people who lodge caveats with the Passport Office, is that these arrangements work well. A notice is printed on appropriate High Court orders advising either parent that he or she may ask the Passport Office not to issue passport facilities to a child without their prior knowledge, and it is my understanding that details of the caveat system appear in several legal works of reference and are generally understood within the legal profession. The system is also well-known to citizens advice bureaux which play such an important part in the life of our country in such delicate and difficult family and emotional areas.

Mr. Fave11

Is the Minister suggesting that every parent who separates from either their husband or wife, or who has an illegitimate child, should immediately register a caution with the Passport Office? If so, surely the Passport Office would grind to a halt.

Mr. Whitney

That is not our experience. The general view of the Passport Office is that the system works well. On the contrary,. there is no question of it grinding to a halt should the rights under the caveat system be exercised. If there is any reason to assume, in a specific circumstance, that such fear is justified, any individual parent would be well advised to operate the caveat system which I have just outlined.

Where the Passport Office has been made aware that a child has been made a ward of court, it will not grant passport facilities without the court's permission. The courts can require the surrender of any passport if they have reason to believe that a parent intends to use it to take a child out of their jurisdiction in contravention of a court order.

My hon. Friend, in speaking of Barbara Miller, has drawn attention to difficulties that can sometimes arise when an application for passport facilities is made on behalf of an illegitimate child.

If the child's status were clearly apparent in every case, it would in theory be simple to administer a rule whereby passport facilities were granted to illegitimate children only with the consent of the mother. In practice, however, large numbers of illegitimate children are the products of stable or semi-stable unions in which the child's parents live together, the mother adopts and uses the father's surname, and that is the surname by which the child is always known. In other cases, even when the parents no longer live together, the mother and child nevertheless use the father's surname. It follows that in the great majority of cases, the illegitimate child's birth will be registered in the same name as that of his natural father. It has for many years been standard practice for the shortened form of birth certificate to be used as the normal supporting documentation for passport applications; the long birth certificate is a more expensive document, and it would be considerably more troublesome and costly for all applicants to be required to produce a long birth certificate. The shortened birth certificate provides no means, however, from which the Passport Office can deduce that the application relates to an illegitimate child. An application from a Mr. Smith, declaring himself to be the father of a child, John Smith, and supported by a short birth certificate has exactly the same appearance whether the child is legitimate or illegitimate. A long birth certificate, based on a joint registration by mother and father in the same surname, does, by showing that both were informants, indicate illegitimacy.

For the Passport Office to undertake always to secure the consent of the mother, as a means of preventing what happened in the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, would entail insisting on the full birth certificate being produced in respect of each child, or requiring all fathers applying for passports without the mother's express consent to produce evidence of the child's legitimacy. Either prospect would be unworkable.

I suggest that, as in many other family cases, it is impossible and unreasonable to expect the Passport Office to take full responsibility for safeguarding an individual's parental rights. If a mother believes that there is a risk of the father abducting the child and taking him abroad, it is for her to warn the Passport Office, as it would be for any mother having custody of her legitimate child, and having similar fears.

Although the present practice of the Passport Office dates from 1966, it has been reviewed in consultation with the Lord Chancellor's Office, the Home Office and the principal registry of the Family Division. After looking carefully at the problem and taking account of the great concern about child abduction cases, they have all concluded that the present practice is justifiable.

I should make it clear that the caveat system does not apply to the British visitor's passport, which is a simplified travel document valid only for short holiday visits to specified countries. It is available over the counter at post offices throughout Great Britain. Without computer links between the Passport Office and the 1,600 or so post offices that issue British visitors' passports, it is impossible for the Post Office to hold and update the list of registered objections to the grant of passport facilities to minors. I am sure that my hon. Friends will understand that the introduction of computers goes much wider than the scope of this debate.

I hope that I have convinced my hon. Friends that we do not wish to be obstructive. We are conscious of the problems that they have raised, but it is important to bear in mind the convenience of the great travelling public to which all passport problems must apply.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

I am deeply grateful to my hon. Friend. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) pointed out, the problem came to light and the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Mr. Wood) was prompted by a series of cases in Cambridge. I raised the case of Mrs. Al-Ali and her three children on the Christmas Adjournment last year. I am glad to say that that episode ended happily, with considerable thanks being due to the Foreign Office and the Government.

However, I do not think that the Under-Secretary's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport's arguments has met the full scale of the problem. It is not simply a question of passports; the Government must assume full responsibility for young people who are citizens of the United Kingdom. I hope that the Government will support the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage, because it is important that the abduction of minors should not only be a criminal offence, but should carry with it the penalty of extradition.

The problem goes much wider than a few individual cases. Therefore, I hope that the Government will support my hon. Friend's Bill and will make any necessary amendments. We are dealing with children who are involved in a vast human tragedy. It is the responsibility of hon. Members and the Government to ensure that protection is given to all our citizens, particularly when they are young and defenceless.

Mr. Whitney

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James). I pay tribute to his work on the serious issues raised by child abduction. It is not for me to speak on behalf of the Government in respect of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage because that would take us beyond the ambit of the debate. My responsibility today is to consider the possibility of helping over difficulties caused by the issue and control of passports. I do not wish to be unhelpful. I have sought to show that the caveat system offers good safeguards. Obviously, I cannot say that it provides a total safeguard in all cases. It is a matter of striking a balance between the wider convenience—people's rights to easy access to passports and to use short birth certificates when making applications—and the problems caused by the worrying cases of child abduction.

However tight we make passport control, we would still run into problems of child abduction and they cause difficulties that involve the legal systems and sovereignty of other countries.

Mr. Wood

The caveat system may be satisfactory for the Passport Office, but I wonder whether the Foreign Office has investigated child abduction cases to see whether caveats have been submitted in those cases. If not, why not? Does the system seem as satisfactory to parents whose children have been abducted as it does to the Passport Office?

In the light of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James), I should add that the Home Office has supported my work on the Child Abduction Bill.

Mr. Whitney

I hope that we are not being unjustifiably complacent about the operation of the caveat system. I understand that it is working well and I hope that the debate will give an impetus to spreading news of the system to various agencies, including citizens advice bureaux. Any parent facing a potential danger would be well advised to take advantage of the system.

Mr. Favell

Current figures show that about one marriage in four ends in divorce. If every parent who does not have custody of a child entered a caveat, the burden of the Passport Office would be enormous. Surely it would be easier to change the application form so that both parents apply for the consent in the first place with a countersigning consent signature, as happens when anybody else makes an application.

Mr. Whitney

We shall look at the system again in the light of the points made so effectively by my hon. Friends. I repeat that the pressure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport mentioned has not been great. There is a much greater danger associated with the introduction of more inconvenience and bureaucracy. Conservative Members especially are committed to avoiding a trend to an increase in bureaucracy.

I should like to stress the principle that puts the onus on parents to protect their rights in regard to their children. If they fear that those rights might be prejudiced, they will have to seek remedy in the courts. Any proposal to tighten existing rules would lead to delays, inconvenience and additional expense for the great majority of applicants when custody is not in dispute. It is a case of judgment and balance. We believe that we have the balance right, but we shall certainly continue to keep it closely under review.