HC Deb 20 December 1985 vol 89 cc725-30

1 pm

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Christmas is a time for families, a time for loved ones to be reunited in their own homes, to enjoy themselves and to be together. Most important of all, Christmas is a time for children.

It is with particular sadness, although with particular appropriateness, that on the Friday before Christmas 1985 the House should be debating the tragic story of a young girl who will not be at home and will not be with the family that she loves. Sadly, this will be the third Christmas that she will be spending away from her home in Harlow, where she was brought up since she was three or four months old. She will be in Nigeria. She will be in a strange country, with strange customs, with strange people.

That is the result of the deceit and trickery of her natural mother, the mother who had no contact with her child since her birth until August 1983 and who kidnapped and took the young girl to Nigeria.

In 1971, one of my constituents, Mrs. Jean Dwyer, who lives in Harlow, saw an advertisement in a magazine asking for someone to foster a Nigerian baby girl. She applied because most of her family had grown up and left home and because she had fostered Nigerian girls before. She entered into a private undertaking—a fostering arrangement—between herself and Oluronke's natural mother. It was all proper and above board because Mrs. Dwyer deposited the agreement and had it ratified with the local authority.

All went well. From 1971 to August 1983 the little girl lived happily as part of Mrs. Dwyer's family. She went to a local school and she made many friends. She was a happy little girl who had spent all her formative life in Great Britain, in Harlow.

There was a problem in 1975 when for some reason the natural mother, aided and abetted by the natural father, tried to snatch the girl back. Perhaps that was because in 1974 her natural parents had separated and their marriage was dissolved, but we do not know. As a result of the attempted snatching, Mrs. Dwyer went, properly, to the High Court and Oluronke was made a ward of the High Court, with custody, care and control going to Mrs. Dwyer.

From 1975 until 1983, all was happiness. There were no further disturbances and no further contact with the natural parents. A happy little girl was living in a loving environment in my constituency. Then the High Court did something outrageous, and certainly inexplicable. On the application of the natural mother, it ordered that the little girl should have access to her natural mother, the mother who had had no contact with the little girl since she was born. To make matters worse and to compound the High Court's ludicrous decision, which is still a mystery to me, the mother was allowed to take the child away overnight. This only heralded the obvious tragedy. The natural mother took the child away, despite the protestations of Mrs. Dwyer and the little girl, and Mrs. Dwyer never saw Oluronke again.

The natural mother said to the little girl, "I am taking you on a shopping trip to Amsterdam." Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was nothing more than a wicked deception. The little girl was taken on an aeroplane not to Amsterdam but to Nigeria.

Several months passed before Mrs. Dwyer heard anything about Oluronke. Hon. Members can understand that she was worried out of her mind. The High Court sensibly ordered a full press and television search. The High Court said, "Give the case the maximum coverage. We must find this little girl. The natural mother is clearly in contempt of court because the little girl is a ward of the court and under its jurisdiction."

After several months, letters from Oluronke started to arrive showing that she was desperately unhappy. She was in a strange country with strange customs, strange people and sometimes a strange language, because she had been brought up and educated in Harlow in Britain. She did not know anything about Nigerian customs. She was Nigerian only by birth. It appears that the natural mother does not care for the child in any way, as the little girl does not even live with her. She has been dumped into the custody of a 90-year-old grandfather.

The little girl has been managing to contact Mrs. Dwyer through letters smuggled with the aid of the little girl next door. It may be of interest to the House if I give an example of the type of letter the little girl has been writing to her home. She has said: These past few months have been agony. All the memories of England, Harlow and, most of all, home have just been closing in on my mind, although since I started school I don't get so much time alone and so I am now occupied. But in the first months things were really terrible. Even now, sometimes when I'm watching TV and I see a programme from England, it reminds me of us all arguing over what programme to watch. So you can see, I can never never forget you and all you did for me, and I am determined to pay you back even if not in money … I will always love you, even if we are not successful in my returning. I could never resent you for that. So if you don't have the money, please don't worry yourself at all about it. Bye now, Love, Ronke. That is an example of the tragic, pathetic letters that Mrs. Dwyer, the foster mother, receives from the little girl.

The House and the vast majority of the people in Britain are outraged at such cases. We are not prepared to accept the abduction of young children to strange countries. There was a time, before the Child Abduction and Custody Act 1985 and before we were signatories to the Hague convention, which deals with this problem, when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was dealing with 150 child abduction cases a year. There was a time when about 200 illegally abducted children were brought to this country each year. It is no surprise to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that there is still a serious problem of child abduction. The Child Abduction and Custody Act 1985 and the Hague convention are utterly meaningless unless all countries are willing to make them work. It will be no surprise to the House and to my hon. Friend to know that Nigeria is not a signatory to the Hague convention.

It is normal in a debate involving the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to lash out and blame it for all kinds of difficulties. After all, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster once said that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was for farmers and the Foreign Office was for foreigners. I do not subscribe to that view. My hon. Friend's Department and his two predecessors have been helpful. They have done all in their power to facilitate the return of this little girl. I commend my hon. Friend and his officials, with whom I have had numerous dealings, for the hard work that they have put into the case.

The difficulty is simple. We are not receiving co-operation from the Nigerian authorities. Money is no object. We have raised enough cash to enable this little girl to be flown back to Great Britain. Passports are not a problem because the Foreign Office and the high commission in Lagos have arranged for an emergency passport to be available for her. What is happening with the Nigerian authorities? Precisely nothing.

The problem is not helped by the natural parents' and the grandfather's attempts to prevent this little girl from returning to this country. I cannot understand why. Shocking threats have been made to this girl. Unfortunately, letters stopped coming from Oluronke to Mrs. Dwyer some time in July this year because the natural family discovered that there had been correspondence between them. They discovered that Sola, the littel girl next door, had been helping with the correspondence. They discovered the plan for Oluronke to return here.

One of the last letters from Oluronke received by Mrs. Dwyer said: Dear Auntie Jean, I am sure now that there will be no way of me returning to England now only for a holiday or after I have finished school here. Every day the people here will be watching my every movement and if I was still to return it would put Sola"— that is the little girl next door— into so much trouble. Although I can honestly say I don't regret my correspondence with you I do regret letting Sola get involved in all this and I swear to God I would have given my life here yesterday just to get her out of all this trouble. Anyway I really wrote to inform you that both my father and mother intend writing to you in the near future. I can't explain what I want to tell you very well but they both swear that when you read their letter you'll die immediately so please if any letter arrives from Nigeria take it straight to your lawyer or barrister but whatever you do don't open it please. This is very important. What type of people put such terror into the mind of a girl of 14 or 15? What type of people are prepared to go to such lengths to prevent that girl from going back to the family that she loves and to the only home that she has ever known? It is as obscene as it is monstrous. Today is probably a last-ditch attempt to try to get this little girl back. On Monday, I went to the Nigerian high commission and delivered a letter to be sent to the new President of Nigeria asking him whether, for humanitarian if no other reason, he would intervene in the case to try and stop the obfuscation by the authorities and to obtain some co-operation with the family so that this girl can come back.

I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to do all he can to persuade the Nigerian authorities to be co-operative. They should at least give the little girl a chance to go to the British high commission in Lagos and say that she wants to come home or give her the chance to express her point of view and preferences. I ask him to do all he can to put pressure on the Nigerian Government to become a signatory to the Hague convention, so that, even if we can do nothing in this case, we can prevent such things from happening again.

Most importantly, I am grateful for the work that my hon. Friend and his predecessors have put in, but we must not give up. It is shocking that the little girl should have to endure what she is putting up with at the moment and that she should be so desperately unhappy. The now widowed Mrs. Dwyer spent the years from 1971 to 1983 loving and caring for the child and she will now have to spend another Christmas on her own. The only thing that she has to comfort her are her memories.

1.16 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar)

I pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) for the way in which he has fought so steadfastly and determinedly on behalf of his constituent Mrs. Dwyer. It is an extremely sad case and he has described it very movingly to the House. My own personal sympathies go to Mrs. Dwyer and to Oluronke.

Few Members in the House would have done as much as my hon. Friend has on behalf of his constituent. I know that at least twice he visited my predecessors to discuss the case. I am particularly grateful to him for the warm tribute that he paid to the officials of our consular department. The work done by our consular offices throughout the world is under-rated and under-valued. They often work long and unreasonable hours against unreasonable expectations by British citizens. It is nice when hon. Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow feel able to pay a real tribute to their work. On Christmas day, as on every other day of the year, there will be a consular officer on duty in the consular department in London, standing by to assist in any emergencies that may occur on 25 December.

Before I comment on the sad circumstances of the case I should like to take the opportunity of reminding the House of the background against which all cases of international child abduction have to be considered. It is to be regretted that child abductions are becoming all too common and more frequent. The ones who suffer are not the parents but the children, who often become little more than pawns in bitter marital and legal disputes. However, it is an inescapable fact that when children are removed from Britain, whether they are the subject of a court order of custody or wardship, they become subject to the law of the country where they happen to be and are no longer within the jurisdiction of the British courts.

At present, there is no machinery for the enforcement outside the United Kingdom of British court orders of custody or wardship. In the absence of an amicable agreement between the parties concerned, the only legal course open to the aggrieved party is to take action to be awarded custody in the courts of the country where the children are. It would be for those courts to decide what relevance, if any, to attach to a British court order. Unfortunately, any action overseas would be costly, as British legal aid is not available for legal actions taken in overseas jurisdiction. In the majority of cases, sadly, legal aid will not be available to the British subject in the country where the legal jurisdiction operates. Our diplomatic and consular posts overseas cannot initiate legal action, nor can they represent the plaintiff in court. I stress that we fully accept that we have a general responsibility in such a case to do what we can to help, but the extent to which we can help will vary from country to country, and even from case to case.

Since early in 1983, our consular officers have been under instructions to assist as soon as they are contacted by a parent whose child has been abducted. Their instructions cover the following courses of action: first, to provide lists of local lawyers to enable parents to pursue their case through local channels; secondly, if they are so requested, to try to obtain from the local authorities a report on the child's welfare; and, thirdly, to give any assistance they can in connection with granting access to the children, including if necessary offering facilities where a meeting with the children could take place. Further, after consultation with our consular department in London, officially or unofficially they can draw to the attention of the local authorities information about British court orders affecting the children; they can do what they properly can to help bring about a speedy conclusion of any legal proceedings dealing with the child's custody; and, finally, they can approach the local authorities for help in tracing abducted minors.

However, the situation is made more difficult if the child or children concerned, as well as being British, are citizens of the country where they are being held—in other words, dual nationals. It is a matter of internationally accepted practice that a consular officer cannot afford protection to dual nationals in the country of their second nationality. Any representations on their behalf have to be informal and, sadly, the authorities of the country concerned would be within their rights to say that the British Government had no standing to intervene.

My hon. Friend referred to the Child Abduction and Custody Act 1985, which came into effect in October last year. The purpose of the Act is to try to reduce, and ideally to eliminate, the incidence of child abduction from this country. Under its terms, the abduction of a child, even by one of its parents or guardians, is a criminal offence. Anyone suspecting that a child is at risk of abduction can inform the Home Office. A warning will then be sent immediately to ports and airports.

Furthermore, child abduction is an extraditable offence. If a child has been abducted to a country with which the United Kingdom has an extradition treaty, it is for the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide whether action for the extradition of the offender could and should be initiated. However, even if the offender were extradited to this country, that of itself would not necessarily guarantee the return of the child. Unfortunately, in several cases reported to us during the past year, the abduction has been unexpected, and the offender has left the country before the ports could be warned. That happened in the case with which my hon. Friend is concerned.

The problem of child abduction affects not only this country; it is worldwide. As my hon. Friend knows, two international conventions came into force in the second half of 1983. Their purpose is to achieve some mutual recognition of the court orders of wardship or custody of one country in another and to help right the wrongs of child abduction. Those conventions are the European convention on recognition and enforcement of decisions concerning custody of children and on restoration of custody of children, and the Hague convention on the civil aspects of international child abduction. The United Kingdom is a signatory of both conventions, but we have not yet ratified them. The Child Abduction and Custody Act 1985 will enable us to ratify both conventions when it comes into force. We hope to do that some time next year. The terms of the conventions are incorporated in the Act, which will give them the force of law in the United Kingdom.

The terms of the conventions can be applied only between states which have ratified them. Although the existence of the conventions is a step in the right direction, their wider effectiveness will depend on future ratification by other signatories, and the number of cases for which solutions may be sought will be limited by the number of countries which have ratified the conventions. At present there are no proposals to make bilateral agreements with countries that have not acceded to the conventions.

I turn to the specific case which my hon. Friend raised so ably today. It must be considered against the background that I have just outlined. The case is expremely sad, and has caused considerable anguish and distress to the child's foster mother, Mrs. Dwyer.

Oluronke was born in London in 1970 to Nigerian parents. She is a British citizen by birth, but also a Nigerian citizen. When she was three months old, she was fostered to my hon. Friend's constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Dwyer. In 1976, Oluronke was made a ward of court, and care and control were granted to Mr. and Mrs. Dwyer. Furthermore, when Mr. Dwyer sadly died, the court granted care and control to Mrs. Dwyer alone. However, the court stressed that Oluronke's natural parents were to be allowed reasonable access, and during an access visit her mother abducted her to Nigeria.

I well understand Mrs. Dwyer's anxiety for Oluronke's welfare and her desire that Oluronke should return to the United Kingdom. It must be tragic when someone to whom one has dedicated 13 years of love and care is suddenly snatched away. I fully sympathise with Mrs. Dwyer, and my heart goes out to her. I cannot do other than condemn the act of abduction which was in direct breach of a United Kingdom court order. Oluronke is now at the home of her natural mother and grandfather. She is living in her grandfather's house, which in the context of the Nigerian extended family is not as unusual as it would be in the United Kingdom. As she is still a minor, she may not leave Nigeria without the permission of her natural parents.

As my hon. Friend said, both her mother and grandfather are opposed to her return. Oluronke is now attending school, and we understand that she has made some friends of her own age. That is help, albeit to a small degree. As she is a Nigerian child living with her natural family in Nigeria, she is subject to Nigerian law, and I am sorry to say that our high commission in Lagos has no formal standing to intervene in her case.

When Oluronke is 18 she will be able to apply in her own right for a British passport, to which she would be entitled, and, travelling under that passport, she would be able to return to the United Kingdom without any let or hindrance.

The message that I must give my hon. Friend is especially sad and harsh. He has done everything that he can to assist his constituent and has asked me to give an assurance that we shall not give up. He has not given up, and I gladly assure him that we shall not give up. I wish Oluronke well, and I hope that it will not be too long before she is reunited with Mrs. Dwyer.