HC Deb 03 May 2001 vol 367 cc1083-90

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

7 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

The Parliamentary Secretary will remember that we last met on 24 October last year, when I secured an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall before the special commission meeting in The Hague to review the operation of the 1980 Hague convention on the civil aspects of international child abduction. I am very glad to return to that extremely important subject now that the special commission meeting has taken place.

As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, I am a vice-chairman of the all-party group on child abduction, but I am speaking entirely in my individual capacity and in no way on behalf of the parliamentary group. I am sorry that I feel impelled to say that the responses that the all-party group has had from the Lord Chancellor have been singularly less than helpful in the run-up to the special commission meeting.

I wish to refer to two specific issues, the first of which relates to the letter that the members and officers of the all-party group sent to the Lord Chancellor on 20 December, in which an entirely reasonable request was made. We said: we also consider it would be desirable to have some parliamentary representation at the Special Commission meeting. Previously, Parliamentarians have been almost totally absent—indeed in the entire list of delegates to the 1997 Special Commission meeting there is only one Parliamentarian. We should like to propose therefore that two members of the British Parliament are included in the UK delegation, one from the Government and the other from the Opposition. As we live in a parliamentary democracy and as—not entirely surprisingly—there are a relatively small number of hon. Members who have in-depth expertise on the 1980 child abduction convention, we believed that the Lord Chancellor would support our request, but we were disappointed. In his letter of 21 January, the Lord Chancellor replied: I do not propose to increase the delegation to include parliamentary representation this time. I think that this would cause difficulty with other States". So it was somewhat galling, to put it mildly, to find that a Member of the European Parliament was present at The Hague, as were two American Congressmen, who were, of course, part of the official United States Government delegation. I must make it clear that the presence of those three parliamentarians caused absolutely no difficulty whatever to the member states present at the special commission meeting, and the grounds on which the Lord Chancellor rejected our proposal were shown to be wholly spurious.

The Lord Chancellor's correspondence with the all-party group was less than helpful in the provision of information. We wrote again to the Lord Chancellor on 14 February, making this request: The Group would wish to comment on the specific contents of the communique that the British Government would like to see agreed at the forthcoming Special Commission. We should be grateful therefore if you could provide the Group at the earliest possible date with the text of the current UK draft of the proposed final communique or a summary of its terms as wanted by the British Government. The all-party group clearly wished to have the opportunity to comment on the objectives that the United Kingdom Government were trying to achieve at the special commission meeting. But the Lord Chancellor replied to the Chairman of our group, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Ol[...]er), on 6 March, offering no information whatever, although by this time we were less than three weeks away from the start of the special commission meeting He said: Ahead of the Special Commission the Central Authority for England and Wales together with the Central Authority in Scotland and Northern Ireland is currently drafting a working paper for submission to the Permanent Bureau about topics which we feel ought to be on the agenda. I would be happy to send you a copy of this document upon completion. Although on 6 March the Lord Chancellor was offering no information to the parliamentary group about what the British Government were trying to achieve at the forthcoming meeting, on 20 March I received a helpful and fully informative letter from the Foreign Secretary. He attached the full record and papers of a meeting which took place in the Foreign Office on 13 February, chaired by Baroness Scotland, at which officials of the Parliamentary Secretary's Department were represented, as well as those from outside, including Reunite. So the meeting was effectively in the public domain. One of those papers is headed "UK Aims For The Special Commission" and details the nine objectives of the British Government. In other words it provided precisely the information which the all-party group had sought and which the Lord Chancellor had declined to give us in his letter of 6 March.

I earnestly hope that lessons will be learned. I do not make that criticism of any other part of the British Government. Indeed in my extensive dealings with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Foreign Secretary, ambassadors overseas in their posts, including in Sweden where I went in January, and officials in the consular department of the Foreign Office and in the child abduction unit have been singularly helpful and informative. I hope that in future the same will be true of the Lord Chancellor himself.

My own Government having given me the thumbs down made me that much more determined to attend the special commission meeting, which I indeed did on behalf of the international NGO, the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. I want to raise five particular issues in connection with what happened at The Hague.

The first concerns ministerial attendance. For a considerable period the all-party group had been pressing that for the first time there should be a ministerial presence for at least part of the special commission meeting. We felt it important in terms of the profile of the meeting—and of the child abduction issue—that the Governments who are parties to the 1980 convention should demonstrate at ministerial level that there is a deep desire to see that the operation of the convention was improved.

I acknowledge that the British Government made strenuous efforts over a considerable period to get international agreement to ministerial attendance. There was no lack of effort and it was not the British Government's fault that that was not achieved. It was somewhat disappointing, however, that the British Government did not move to the fall-back position which was to include a Minister in the British delegation at The Hague. The composition of the British delegation was entirely a matter for the British Government. The Hague secretariat and other countries have no role to play in the composition of individual delegations. It would have been possible for the British delegation to include a Minister. It might well have included the Parliamentary Secretary, who would have been an excellent leader if she could have been present for even part of the time. An opportunity was lost. If the British—and perhaps the British alone—had sent a Minister as leader of their delegation, it would most surely have been noted by a considerable number of countries. It would have been a litmus test of the British Government's commitment to the importance of the issue. If they had blazed a trail on the special commission meeting, other Governments would have followed subsequently. I hope that that can be borne in mind for the future.

Secondly, I want to raise the question of the good practice guide for the operation of the Hague convention. Some of us have been deeply concerned for a considerable period about the wide variations of practice in the operation of the convention. We have also been concerned about what appears in individual cases to be conspicuous non-observance and non-compliance with the letter—and often the spirit—of the convention by countries that are party to it. That weakness of the convention could be materially overcome as a result of the production of a good practice guide by the permanent bureau of the Hague secretariat.

In my view, agreement on the guide was the single most substantive and important outcome of the meeting. It was a considerable achievement. I can tell the Parliamentary Secretary, who was unhappily, unable to be with us at The Hague, that that achievement was by no means easily brought about. The whole process by which agreement was reached was fraught with difficulty. A number of countries were undoubtedly worried about the production of a good practice guide. I suspect that some of them felt that the production of such a guide might expose deficiencies in their application of the convention.

Agreement was secured, however, and it was a signal achievement that is now reflected in the conclusions and recommendations of the Hague secretariat. I am delighted to see that paragraph 1.16 of that document states: Contracting States to the Convention should co-operate with each other and with the Permanent Bureau to develop a good practice guide which expands on Article 7 of the Convention. This guide would be a practical, 'how-to' guide, to help implement the Convention. It would concentrate on operational issues and be targeted particularly at new Contracting States. It would not be binding nor infringe upon the independence of the judiciary. The methodology should be left to the Permanent Bureau. We now have a tremendous opportunity in terms of the production of the good practice guide. Will the Parliamentary Secretary explain how the British Government will contribute to work on the guide, the time scale that they envisage for producing it and how they will try to ensure that it is of the highest quality and helpfulness in terms of the operation of the convention?

Thirdly, I want to comment on access. As we all know, the question of access by left-behind parents to children who have been abducted from them is one of the most difficult aspects of child abduction. In my view, it is the provision of the convention that is most widely flouted. Happily, article 21 of the convention sets out the obligations for central authorities in unambiguous and clear terms. I should like to quote the two key sentences from article 21, which states: The Central Authorities are hound by the obligations of co-operation which are set forth in Article 7 to promote the peaceful enjoyment of access rights and the fulfilment of any condition to which the exercise of those rights may be subject. That first sentence is followed by the crucial second one, which states: The Central Authorities shall take steps to remove, as far as possible, all obstacles to the exercise of such rights. Those are unambiguous terms.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me briefly to reflect on the issue of access. It would be inappropriate to raise individual cases falling under the convention, but having a constituent who has experience of the grave problem of access, I wish merely to support the right hon. Gentleman's comments and to request that the Minister elaborates on how British citizens and our constituents facing such problems will be helped to overcome them by the British Government and through the good practice guide.

Sir John Stanley

The hon. Lady will be glad to know that paragraphs 6.1 and 6.2 contain some positive recommendations on how access and adherence to the access provisions of the convention can be carried forward. Will the Minister, in her reply, set out how the Government will work towards the implementation of those recommendations? In particular, do they envisage a special commission specifically on access, which I believe was agreed at the special commission meeting? The broad view, which was not challenged at the meeting, was that there should be a special commission solely on access within one year of the meeting that took place in March. That was a valuable suggestion, which I hope has the Government's support.

The fourth point concerns new member states, which, again, was a considerable issue at the special commission meeting. I am aware that the Government are concerned about new member states that are not adequately equipped to carry out the convention's provisions becoming parties to the convention.

On 21 November last year, I received a reply from the then Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), listing a total of nine countries—Belarus, Brazil, Costa Rica, Fiji, Moldova, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay and Uzbekistan—which have each acceded to the Hague convention but whose recognition under article 38 has so far been withheld by the British Government.

The Minister of State, in his reply to me, said: We take our own obligations under The Hague Convention very seriously and will only recognise the accession of states whom we are confident can implement the Convention effectively and efficiently. We are not planning to recognise the accession of any new states (apart from Fiji) to the Convention until the 4th Special Commission to review the Convention which will take place in The Hague from 22–28 March 2001."—[Official Report, 21 November 2000; Vol. 357, c. 132–33W.] That special commission has now taken place and it would be helpful to know the Government's view on the recognition of the remaining eight countries and whether they will give their approval under article 38.

I hope that the Government will not be over-stringent about giving such approval. Where countries are willing to try to operate the convention, they should be given every encouragement to do so and, once they have acceded, we have an additional ability to help them to raise their standards and apply the convention in full.

Fifthly, several new obligations and a new work load have been given to the permanent bureau as a result of the special commission meeting. It is vital for the bureau to have sufficient funds to discharge its obligations under the convention, especially those that arose through the special commission meeting. It is no good conducting such meetings and asking the bureau to produce a good practice guide without funding the bureau so that it can fulfil the objectives that have been set. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the British Government will carry out their full financial obligations to the bureau, which has quite properly asked for a supplementary budget, and encourage other states to do that.

The special commission meeting was the most significant of the four such meetings that have taken place. It had the biggest attendance, but most important, it had the most substantive outcome. I try to be objective, but, as a Brit, I am probably biased. Having followed the matter closely, it is my considered view that of all the state parties to the convention, the British Government, in their preparation for the meeting, the working papers that they submitted and their work on the conclusions, made the greatest contribution to the meeting. The all-party group and international non-governmental organisations, such as Reunite and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children also made a significant contribution.

I hope that the progress that was made in March at The Hague will be followed by an equally significant contribution on implementing the special commission's recommendation, with the British Government in the van.

7.22 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy)

I am genuinely grateful to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) for creating the opportunity to discuss child abduction and allowing me to report to the House the outcome of the recent Hague special commission. I also thank him for his courtesy in alerting me in advance to the main points that he wanted to make. He is clearly aggrieved by the responses of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor to the all-party group. If I have time, I hope to deal with those points in my speech. However, if the short time available does not permit that, I shall write to the all-party group and the right hon. Gentleman in more detail. I congratulate him on securing the debate.

Yesterday, I placed in the Libraries of both Houses the official report of the special commission, which was produced by the permanent bureau at The Hague. As the right hon. Gentleman said, he attended the special commission as one of the representatives of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. He and his colleagues, who represent different voluntary organisations from around the world, made a valuable and distinctive contribution to the special commission's work alongside that of the various national delegations.

I shall briefly consider the role of special commissions. In the past, they have been criticised for not achieving as much as they might, and for having a focus that was too narrowly retrospective rather than looking forward to ascertain how the convention's operation might be improved in future. The United Kingdom Government, other member states and the permanent bureau of the conference were determined that the last special commission meeting should be a more high-profile event with an additional impetus to achieve positive improvements in the operation of the convention, to the benefit of abducted children and their parents. That determination was shared by members of the all-party group.

I am pleased to report, notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman's criticisms, that we substantially achieved our aim. The meeting was a considerable success. We gained agreement that there should be good practice guidance, to which he referred, and more guidance to states that wish to join. Having agreed that, it is important not to lose momentum. The agenda that was agreed at The Hague should be driven forward successfully. We are determined to play our part, and I hope to reassure the right hon. Gentleman about that.

The success of the special commission owes a great deal to the hard preparatory work that went into it beforehand, both by the permanent bureau and by officials in the UK and elsewhere. I am particularly grateful to the Foreign Office and to our embassies abroad for the tremendous work that they put in, lobbying other countries to agree to the proposals that the UK delegation would be putting forward.

I wish to address the right hon. Gentleman's criticisms of the responses and role of the Foreign Office in drawing the work together and liaising with other countries to achieve the right outcome from the special commission. There was also criticism that we were less than helpful in the provision of information. My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor committed to provide that information as soon as it was completed. In the event, we did not draft a communiqué; instead, a number of working papers were drafted. Unfortunately, these were not finalised in time to be provided to the all-party group before the meeting at the Foreign Office to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. My colleagues at the Foreign Office, which chaired the meeting, sent the details to the all-party group as soon as they were available. Clearly that was not quick enough. We are always willing to accept criticism where it is justified but, on this occasion, we simply did not get the information ready to provide it in advance of the meeting.

In the past, special commissions have essentially been gatherings of civil servants and lawyers, representing the different central authorities. We also thought that, this time, it would be helpful to have a judicial contribution and a political contribution, with Ministers attending for at least one session.

The first of these proposals went down better than the second. I must confess that although the special commission was attended by a very large number of distinguished judges, it had already become clear before the commission that the great majority of member states did not think that attendance by Ministers would be helpful. It would have been wrong in those circumstances for the UK to have gone—even led by such an eminent Minister as myself—if it would have been unhelpful. I had been looking forward to going, so I did regret that. However, it was right for the special commission that the delegation should go ahead without ministerial involvement.

In the event, the politicians were ably represented by the right hon. Gentleman, by Mrs. Mary Banotti of the European Parliament and by US Congressmen. I should stress that ministerial non-involvement should not be taken as an indication of lack of concern by the Government. It was a judgment that we had to arrive at, given the feedback that we got from other states participating in the special commission.

There was also a question as to whether representatives of the all-party group should be included in the UK delegation. The Government decided that that would not be appropriate on this occasion. The right hon. Gentleman will disagree with the view we took, but the national delegations—as opposed to the representatives of the other interested voluntary and international bodies—spoke for and represented their Governments and their central authorities, or the judiciaries of their countries.

I do not think that hon. Members who are not members of the Government would have wanted to be constrained in that way. The right hon. Gentleman will have found that he was freer to lobby; he may not have felt constrained anyway. He will have been more able to express his point of view, as a representative of the organisation that sponsored his visit, than he would otherwise have been. Obviously, we can consider before the next special commission who should attend next time.

I wish to pay tribute to the four very distinguished and senior British judges who assisted the British delegation: the president of the Family Division, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss; Lord Justice Thorpe; Lord Bonomy from Scotland; and Mr. Justice Gillen from Northern Ireland. One of the advantages of the way in which Hague cases are dealt with in the UK, as we pointed out, is that all cases are dealt with by a small pool of very experienced senior judges. This contrasts with the position in, for example, the United States, where there are an incredible 30,000 judges who could be asked to do a Hague case, probably for the only time in their lives.

The special commission has recommended that each contracting state should identify a judge able to facilitate communications between judges at the international level, and to act as a contact point between different systems. Lord Justice Thorpe undertakes this role in relation to England and Wales.

I am conscious of the fact that I am about to run out of time, and there are many other important points to address. I will undertake to write to the right hon. Gentleman—

The motion having been made at Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Seven o'clock.