HC Deb 05 July 1989 vol 156 cc326-8 4.22 pm
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make satisfactory arrangements to prevent the illegal removal of children beyond the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom courts; and for connected purposes. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) and the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who have been working on behalf of representatives of children who have been abducted from the United Kingdom. I hope that, following today's discussion, all hon. Members with a common interest in this issue will join together to solve this growing problem.

On 22 May this year, in the spring Adjournment debate, I raised the case of my constituent, Mr. Colin Winstanley, whose children were removed from the jurisdiction of United Kingdom courts without his consent and, so far as I can ascertain, without the active consent of the children. Both children were taken by their mother to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and over the past few months Mr. Winstanley has not been able to make satisfactory arrangements to see his children. With the assistance of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the children have been contacted belatedly and have expressed their desire to see their father and grandparents.

Tragically, Mr. Winstanley and his children are part of a growing army of forgotten people caught up in the Pied Piper world of child abduction. The tug of love syndrome means that 500 or more of our nation's little children are stolen, kidnapped and abducted each year, leaving a trail of grief-stricken mothers and sometimes fathers, in their wake.

Child abduction is a special crime, mainly involving parents—or sometimes grandparents—acting out of a perverted or overwhelming sense of love, fear of losing custody proceedings or desire to seek revenge in the wake of a broken relationship. The problem is growing and I contend that it has reached epidemic proportions.

On 12 June 1987, Law magazine reported on the issue, saying that it was estimated that between 200 and 500 cases occurred each year. It continued: The scale of the problem flows from the increase in the number of international marriages and the high rate of separations, combined with ease of travel and employment overseas—and the belief of parents who have been denied custody here that the abduction of their children will result in a more favourable order in another country. The problem is not confined to marriages where there is an international element. In August 1981, Jean Burt's British ex-husband flew out to Kuwait with her son Graham and instead of returning home from his holiday, he remained in Kuwait. She went to Kuwait and got a wardship order from the local courts. She held an English wardship order of custody which was finally recognised by the Kuwaiti authorities. She obtained an order for them to direct her husband to give up the child and to return him to the United Kingdom in April 1983. Unfortunately, there are few such instances of a successful conclusion in abduction cases. Moreover, Jean had to raise £13,000 for the return of her child. Even if the other country is prepared to co-operate, the child usually remains abducted and outside the jurisdiction of United Kingdom courts unless the mother has substantial resources at her disposal.

In the cases with which I and other hon. Members have dealt, one has an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. One sees the home without the child, with quiet, well-kept bedrooms, but none of the loving clutter of children, none of the screams of joy, the tears, the smell that always accompanies the child, the hugs or the feelings of warmth and safety. They are all denied to the parent and child who have been dragged from each other in a moment of madness and despair. It is almost as though the child has died and one sees the small shrine of photographs and toys. But it is worse than that. There is an unconsolable grief which cannot be exorcised.

Parliament has a special responsibility to the nation's children. We must act as their guardians and defenders in a real sense and, in the final analysis, be their ultimate liberators, acting to return them to the United Kingdom. Despite the admirable sentiments behind the Hague convention and the Child Abduction and Custody Act 1985, the abduction of our nation's children is on the increase. So far, the equivalent of three average-sized primary schools have been emptied of their pupils. More than 500 children are missing, never to be returned home and often living in socially hostile and disorienting environments. Sadly, many hon. Members of all parties are coming to the conclusion that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not want to meddle in so-called "family affairs". The children are regarded as a diplomatic embarrassment and a nuisance which could interfere with diplomatic relations.

The 1985 Act has, in practice, failed to protect hundreds of innocent little victims of the unique social crime of child abduction. As recently as 1 July this year, a report in The Independent investigating the issue said of the Act: In practice, the children's return is rarely prompt; case after case has been trapped in the morass of competing legal systems and bureaucracies. To pay for travel, accommodation, legal costs and, where the husband has gone underground, a private investigator, requires considerable private funds, which most of these women simply do not have. The Foreign Office has stated that it is vital that taxpayers' money should not be wasted. That is rich indeed, from a Government who have spent millions of pounds chasing around the courts of the world to prevent publication of various memoirs about the secret service. If such resources are at the Lord Chancellor's disposal, they should be used to chase around the courts of the world on behalf of little children who have been abducted and wish to return to the United Kingdom but cannot do so.

In 1984, Lord Brandon was reported as saying in the House of Lords: I see no good reason why, in relation to the kidnapping of a child, it should not in all cases be the absence of the child's consent which is material, whatever its age may be. In the case of a very young child, it would not have the understanding or the intelligence to give its consent". Abduction removes the child's right to consent. The challenge that my Bill seeks to address is the child's inability to have a say about its abduction.

The Bill will have four main provisions. The first is the establishment of a children's ombudsman to provide legal aid, advice and assistance to retrieve children currently illegally abducted to places outside the jurisdiction of United Kingdom courts. The ombudsman will also provide advice about preventing abduction and will mediate between the Governments and legal systems of the countries to which children have been abducted.

Secondly, the Bill will provide resources to reunite the National Council for Abducted Children with other voluntary self-help groups. Thirdly, the Bill will seek to amend current court practices and will provide for the issuing of advice to judges to ensure the automatic surrender of passports to the courts during custody proceedings and the automatic entry of child custody decisions in the passports of the parents or guardians and of the children concerned.

Fourthly, the Bill will seek the establishment and maintenance of a register of abducted children, because at the moment we do not even know how many children have been abducted.

If the House were to fail in this matter, and if the Government were to fail to take action, a blot would be left on the character of the House and a stain on the nation's conscience.

Question put and agreed to. Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ian McCartney, Mr. Roger Stott, Mr. Frank Doran, Mr. Jimmy Hood, Mr. Eric Martlew, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mrs. Llin Golding, Mr. Frank Cook, Mr. Keith Bradley, Mr. David Hinchliffe, Mr. Gerry Steinberg and Ms. Dawn Primarolo.