HC Deb 23 October 1989 vol 158 cc507-15

.—(1) Sections 10 and 10A of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 (registration of father, and re-registration, where parents not married) shall be amended as follows.

(2) In sections 10(1) and 10A(1) for paragraph (d) there shall be substituted—

(3) After sections 10(1) and 10A(1) there shall be inserted—

"(1A) The orders are—

  1. (a) an order under section 4 of the Family Law Reform Act 1987 that that person shall have all the parental rights and duties with respect to the child;
  2. (b) an order that that person shall have custody or care and control or legal custody of the child made under section 9 of the Guardianship of Minors Act 1971 at a time when such an order could only be made in favour of a parent;
  3. (c) an order under section 9 of 11B of that Act which requires that person to make any financial provision in relation to the child;
  4. (d) an order under section 4 of the Affiliation Proceedings Act 1957 naming that person as putative father of the child."

(4) In section 10(2) for the words "or (d)" there shall be substituted "to (g)".

(5) In section 10(3) for the words from "'relevant order' to the end there shall be substituted "'parental responsibility agreement' has the same meaning as in the Children Act 1989".

(6) In section 10A(2), in paragraphs (b) and (c) for the words "paragraph (d)" in both places where they occur there shall be substituted "any of paragraphs (d) to (g)".'.

Amendment No. 341 is much less contentious and is less interesting. It contains amendments to schedule 10, which makes minor amendments to existing statutes.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to consider Government amendments Nos. 229, 364 and 342.

4.45 pm
Mr. McCartney

Although the Solicitor-General said that this is a non-contentious issue, I believe that the Government have failed to take advantage of a real opportunity to deal with the important issue of child abduction. In June I introduced the Prevention of Child Abduction Bill, which has attracted support from hon. Members of all parties because of the growing incidence of that special crime which, in the main, involves members of the families concerned. There is great emotional stress as a result of the way in which more than 100 children per year are abducted illegally from the United Kingdom to all parts of the world. From hon. Members' records and from work with the voluntary sector, I estimate that more than 500 British citizens—young children—have been abducted from the United Kingdom and cannot be returned at the moment.

The Government are aware of this situation and are to be congratulated on participating in the development of the Hague convention, on the way in which it has been constructed, and on being one of the first Governments to be a signatory to it. In addition, they have provided legislation to enable it to have effect. However, despite the introduction of the Hague convention, there has been no abatement in the ability of people illegally to abduct young children from the United Kingdom and to fail to return them to their family homes. In many instances, the children are abducted to environments that are completely different in culture, language and geography from the communities in which they live and have their wider families in the United Kingdom.

I had hoped that during the summer the Government would give some thought to the arguments put forward in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding). In Committee the Government gave a hint that they would consider the serious points made by my hon. Friend in our debates. However, since those debates, no practical amendments have been brought forward which provide even the hope that there might be some new legislation to protect children who are abused and exploited by abduction.

My Bill tried to introduce four basic criteria—three introducing new opportunities for the Government to take legislative action and the fourth relating to the Family Law Act 1986 and to amendments to make it more difficult for court proceedings to be disrupted and rendered meaningless by the activities of child abducters. The Government could have used the opportunity afforded by schedule 10 to amend the Family Law Act in relation to court proceedings.

The main priorities of my Bill were those raised in our Committee debates by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and dealt with the creation of a children's ombudsman to give legal aid, advice and assistance that would enable parents or guardians to retrieve children who have been illegally abducted from the United Kingdom. It also sought to provide advice on the prevention of abduction and to mediate between Governments and courts when children have been abducted. It would not apply only to the countries of the Hague convention because many of the children who have been abducted have been taken to countries that either do not recognise the convention or have not implemented it.

Although I am sad that the Government have missed an opportunity to deal with this problem, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has now positively attempted to assist me, following my failure to gain parliamentary time for the Bill.

In August of this year, in response to cases in Italy, which has not implemented the Hague convention, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office accepted for the first time the need for mediation between the Governments and the courts of the United Kingdom and Italy. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and his Italian counterpart have provided for mediation services in specific cases currently before the Italian courts or cases that should go before those courts because of the nature of the abduction from the United Kingdom to Italy. The measures taken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office represent a major response from the Government because, until August, the Government had steadfastly refused to become involved in mediating in cases where children had been abducted from the United Kingdom.

The Home Office has some specific responsibilities in this connection and it has responded positively to talks with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short), the hon. Member for Ealing Acton (Sir G. Young) and myself. Last week the Lord Chancellor, in discussion with the Minister of State, Home Office, proposed to assist the funding of the charity, Reunite, through the voluntary services unit. That charity counsels and assists families whose children have been abducted.

This summer two Government Departments have moved significantly in terms of how they perceive their role with regard to child abduction and in relation to providing practical assistance and resources to ensure that they carry out their roles on behalf of families whose children have been abducted.

When the amendments to the Bill were tabled I expected that the Minister would make practical propositions to bring into line certain court practices that undermine the concept of the Hague convention. The Family Law Act 1986 should have been amended today to ensure that it was obligatory on judges acting within the bounds of that Act to provide new arrangements for passports. As the law currently stands, if a court order is obtained for the temporary or long-term care and control of a child there is no way in which a child may be intercepted at a port or airport if it is abducted after the decision of the court. In many instances an abduction takes place even as the court is considering the long-term care of a child. An amendment to the Family Law Act under schedule 10 would require the court to ensure that passports are automatically surrendered prior to, during and after the court proceedings. It would also require that any court decision relating to those proceedings be recorded in the passport. Without such an amendment children will continue to be abducted prior to, during and after court proceedings.

I had also hoped that an amendment would be tabled under schedule 10 to establish a register of abducted children. Sad to say, we have no accurate record of how many children have been abducted from the United Kingdom and we must rely on information provided either to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by distraught parents or from self-help groups such as Reunite, which have been approached by the parents. Every time we discuss this issue we receive communications from parents whose children have been abducted and who are unable to seek help and advice or who do not realise that such help and advice is available from Reunite and the social services departments.

If the Minister cannot introduce substantial amendments today I hope that he will consider finding time in the Session to introduce a substantial Bill that will take account of the considerable and unacceptable level of child abduction from the United Kingdom. Without such Government commitment throuth the Department of Health we shall continue, week in, week out, to see children taken from the custody of United Kingdom courts and scattered throughout the world. They have no opportunity of being returned to the United Kingdom.

I have met mothers who last saw their children when they were two and they are now eight, nine or 10. I have met mothers who cannot communicate on the telephone with their children because those children have been so long out of the family environment that they cannot speak in the mother tongue. All those individual cases amount to a scandalous situation. For all the might of the state, such as the social services departments and the police authorities, and despite all the resources at our disposal, we cannot protect a small, but vulnerable, group of children.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively because without such a response the small and significant steps that have been taken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office will be washed away and we shall be back here next year when another 120 children will have been abducted. We will then have to add those children to the 500 plus already abducted from the United Kingdom.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively and give a commitment that, for once, he will make practical suggestions to assist those families who suffer unbelievable emotional stress. Those families do not know where to turn and they cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel. I hope that the Minister will give a commitment that legislation will be introduced in the new Session to end the crime of child abduction.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

I support what the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) has said. Further legislation is required, but, for several reasons, I do not feel that the Bill is the appropriate vehicle for the sort of changes advocated by the hon. Gentleman.

It is worth noting that the hon. Gentleman in his short intervention overlooked to say that most of the children abducted from this country are abducted by one of their parents. In certain of those cases it would be draconian to say to one parent who has saved up for a considerable time to take the child on holiday that he or she cannot he allowed to take that child for fear that he may not come back. That is a difficult matter. Children who are already under court orders, such as wardship, are subject to legislation preventing them from being abducted from the jurisdiction of the court. I am sure that the Solicitor-General will refer to that when he answers the hon. Member for Makerfield.

The difficulty is that many countries are not signatories to the Hague convention. Since I served on the Standing Committee a number of people have written airmail letters to me with colourful stamps from exotic parts of the world complaining of just this problem. I draw the attention of the House to Mr. Rait, a former constituent of mine, who is currently in South Africa. He has made a number of applications to the South African courts for access to his two young daughters who were taken there by their South African mother. The courts have repeatedly refused him any contact or access to the children. I know of other children in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt who have lived in those countries for five or six years, and who, as the hon. Member for Makerfield said, can no longer speak English.

This is a subject of considerable concern to all of us. From the correspondence I have seen this summer from the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Foreign Office, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the matter is under consideration. These difficult issues must be resolved before any further progress is made, but I do not think that the Bill is the appropriate vehicle for the measures advocated by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

The issue of child abduction is full of complications and it is a legal labyrinth. It seems that no matter what legislation is in place there is a lack of will to try to resolve the position. For nearly as long as I have been a Member of this House I have been concerned with abductions to Spain—I know of two cases, but I will not mention them in any detail— as Spain is a difficult country with which to get such matters resolved.

I pay tribute to those who, with me, over the years have fought hard to obtain an international convention. There are now two such conventions in place, one European and the other the Hague convention, which makes it clear that where parents are separated or divorced and the child is given into the custody of one of the parents, the country in which the primary wardship of custody was given is the one in which the child must remain.

However, often, with the best will in the world, courts allow the husband or wife access to the child. We would not wish to destroy that accessibility. However, too often, after a quite legitimate access weekend or couple of days, the next thing the parent with custody knows is that he or she receives a telephone call from Spain and the spouse says, "Ha, ha, I'm in Spain. I've got our son or daughter with me. What are you going to do about it?"

5 pm

Under the terms of the Hague and the international conventions, the next step should be straightforward. The child should be immediately returned. In the two cases to which I referred the child would be returned to Scotland. However, the difficulty arises because Spain, while a signatory to the two conventions, has not passed its own domestic legislation to give effect to the conventions. Therefore, one is stymied.

When these issues are raised with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, its representatives say that it is nothing to do with them but a matter for the Lord Chancellor's Department. However, those at the Lord Chancellor's Department say that there is nothing that they can do because the issue is an internal matter for Spain and they cannot compel Spain to ratify the conventions by passing domestic legislation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) said, these are heart rending matters in which parents sometimes do silly things. In one case I know an attempt was made to re-abduct the child back from Spain. The attempt went wrong but, having failed, it could be used in the Spanish courts against the child's parent when she tried to use Spain's legal channels because, apparently, there would be no other redress.

The Government must act more strongly. I do not accept that the Foreign Office has no locus in this matter. It should press hard on this issue. At every opportunity Ministers should press the Government to deal with these matters. It is no use having international conventions which are not worth the paper they are written on.

I understand that there is to be a meeting quite soon —I think at the end of this week or next week—either in the Hague or Amsterdam at which these matters may be pursued. I am not sure if representatives of the Lord Chancellor's Department will be present or whether it is purely an officials meeting. Whoever is present I hope that they will use the strongest terms to insist that the Spanish Government must honour their responsibilities.

Those of us who have been involved during this long period have consistently been told when we have sought to meet the Spanish ambassador to discuss these issues that he cannot meet us because they are matters of purely domestic legislation. I do not accept that. This is a European and international matter. I hope that the strong message will go forth from every quarter of this House that hon. Members believe family abductions of this sort are intolerable. They are bad for children, bad for parents and bad for international recognition. I hope that we shall say clearly to the Spanish Government that they should bring about domestic legislation and sort out the matters because great human tragedies have not only happened already, but will lie in store for future generations of children unless we act vigorously and with certainty.

The Solicitor-General

I well understand the strength of feeling which this short debate has provoked. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) will appreciate that the amendments for which he calls in legislative form are outside the scope of the Bill. However, I hope to say something positive to him, to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) and to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) who contributed to this debate and has such a deep knowledge of the subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South and the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North put their fingers on one of the primary aspects of the problem: enforcement. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North referred to the Hague and the European conventions. The United Kingdom is a party to both conventions on the recognition, enforcement and return of children taken abroad. The Government take every opportunity to encourage other Governments to sign, ratify and put into effect such conventions.

As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North rightly said, there is a meeting this week at the Hague to review the working of the Hague convention. The United Kingdom will be represented at the meeting and will discuss shortfalls in the operation of the convention. I shall write to the representatives who are to attend the meeting to draw to their attention the strength of feeling in today's debate and what has been said about the need for action, to strengthen their hand in the discussions. It will be readily recognised that the Government cannot force foreign Governments to sign or operate the conventions.

Mr. McCartney

There is one way in which practical measures can be taken even without primary legislation: the advice which could be given to judges in relation to the interpretation of present legislation. Often, a judge has to use his discretion about rescinding passports, and identifying in passports that care proceedings have taken place. In almost every case in my case files and those of other hon. Members, when the judge has discretion he fails to utilise it. Despite court orders having been made and despite the decisions of the court, abductions still take place. Therefore, even without primary legislation could the Government give a commitment that the Lord Chancellor's Department will give clear and unequivocal advice to judges about the marking of passports and asking for passports to be given to the courts during proceedings? Provisions for that already exist in current legislation; the tragedy is that the courts are not utilising them.

The Solicitor-General

We shall certainly take careful note of what the hon. Member for Makerfield said, ponder on it and see how the matter might be taken forward.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Is the Solicitor-General aware that provisions exist which state that when there is a clear custody order no child should be removed from the United Kingdom but that nevertheless people slip through the net? Will he have discussions with the Home Office to consider a system whereby every port of exit is told about custody orders? It is known that the Home Office operates a stop list of people coming in so there should be no problem about the machinery to make every immigration office aware of the court order. Could the Solicitor-General institute a mechanism whereby as soon as a court order is given on custody it is made known to immigration officials? In that way perhaps we could stop some of the abductions.

The Solicitor-General

I would not like to comment off the cuff about the practicality of such a measure. There could be formidable practical difficulties, but I take note of what the hon. Gentleman says. I shall write to him and refer the matter to the Home Office.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Mellor

I beg to move amendment No. 224, in page 139, line 31, leave out from Sin' to end of line 33 and insert `local authority accommodation. (1A) A residence requirement shall designate the local authority who are to receive the child or young person and that authority shall be the authority in whose area the child or young person resides. (1B) The court shall not impose a residence requirement without consulting the designated authority first.'.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 225.

Mr. Mellor

The effect of amendment No. 224 is to make it clear that the responsibility of the designated authority is to receive the child, not just to provide the child with accommodation. Amendment No. 225 is a consequential amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 225, in page 140, leave out lines 34 and 35.—[Mr. Mellor.]

Mr. Mellor

I beg to move amendment No. 226, in page 141, line 6, at end insert—

'22A. For section 23 of that Act (remand to care of local authorities etc.) there shall be substituted—