HC Deb 24 October 2000 vol 355 cc24-30WH 11.30 am
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

This is a timely moment for a short debate on the Hague convention on international child abduction. First, child abduction beyond the boundaries of the country in which the child is normally resident is, regrettably, an increasing violation of human rights. That is because of greater ease of international travel, decisions made by a number of countries for different reasons to reduce border and passport controls, within the EU area for example, and, sadly, because the incidence of marriage break-up is rising rather than falling. That combination of factors tends to put an increasing number of children around the world at risk from the evil of child abduction.

Secondly, we are six months away from the quadrennial review of the Hague convention, which is due to take place next spring. It is a desirable to have a major debate in the House, and more widely in Britain among all those who are involved in trying to deal with the issue, on what stance should be taken by the British Government, fellow members of the European Union and other Governments who are signatories to the Hague convention before the convention meeting next spring.

As I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary is aware, there is widespread concern in the House about child abduction. In July, before the House rose for the summer recess, the all-party group on child abduction tabled early-day motion 980, which is headed "Review of the Hague convention on child abduction" and states that the House deeply regrets that some of the signatories to the Hague Convention on Child Abduction, including certain EU member states, fail to give effect to all of the Convention's provisions in some individual cases. That motion had attracted a total of 118 signatures by the time the House rose last night, which indicates the width of concern, in all parties, on the matter. As the Parliamentary Secretary is aware, the officers of the all-party group followed up the early-day motion with our letter of 25 July to the Lord Chancellor, which drew his attention to our early-day motion and stated: we wish to urge that you as head of the Central Authority for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and that Jim Wallace as head of the Central Authority for Scotland take early steps to consult with interested and expert parties, and most particularly with Reunite, the national charity for child abduction, on the improvements in the working of the Hague Convention that you both would wish to see being agreed at the Hague Convention review meeting next year. That letter was sent on 25 July, and until a few minutes ago we were still waiting for a reply. Any reply before a debate such as this is better than none at all, but I would have preferred to have received it earlier than 10.47 this morning, on my fax. It was thrust into my hand by my secretary as I came quickly from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to this Chamber. The Lord Chancellor offered an apology that the delay was caused by an administrative failure in his Department. In any case, I should like to express my thanks that we have received a reply at the last moment. I shall refer to that reply in the course of my remarks.

On the consultation paper, to which we attach great importance, the reply states that there will be further consultation later in the autumn. The weeks and months before the spring meeting of the special commission are passing, and I hope that autumn will mean in a few weeks' time. It is imperative that hon. Members, Reunite and all specialist practitioners in all parts of the United Kingdom have a proper opportunity to make their own detailed consideration of the Government's proposals, and give their responses to the Government.

I want to make some detailed suggestions as to what we should try to achieve from the Hague convention review meeting next year. Before I do so, I turn to another aspect of international child abduction—abduction of young women, sometimes from this country, who are taken overseas for the purposes of a forced marriage abroad. I appreciate that it is a culturally sensitive matter and I applaud the Government, who, unlike any of their predecessors, have faced up to the issue and taken steps to produce policies that address the matter from a human rights standpoint. I applaud the Government for setting up the working group on forced marriage and, following the working group's report, the Government's response in their action plan, which, by and large, was thoroughly positive. I have one question for the Minister in that regard. Do the Government consider that the existing ambit of criminal law in relation to the removal of young women from the jurisdiction of this country for the purposes of a forced marriage overseas is satisfactory? On that key point, the Government's action plan, at paragraph 4.3, is somewhat ambiguous. It states that the Government will: Prepare detailed information for all our staff about the criminal law in the UK on abduction and how it applies in cases of forced marriage. That does not make it clear whether the Government are satisfied with the current criminal law or believe that it should be strengthened. In particular, do the Government accept that adults who conspire, in the UK, to remove a young woman from the jurisdiction of this country to a country overseas for the purpose of a forced marriage would be guilty of a criminal offence in this country? I hope that the Government accept that it would be a criminal offence and I believe that that is the Government's position. If it is, are they satisfied that criminal law is sufficiently wide to ensure that it is a criminal offence for adults to conspire to send young women overseas for the purposes of entering into a forced marriage?

It is generally accepted that, whatever the imperfections in the operation of the Hague convention, there is no prospect—nor, perhaps, is it necessary—for amendments to be made to the text of the convention, but that there should be improved operation and enforcement of the convention under the present wording. At the Hague convention review next year we should seek to get agreement to a remit to the Hague secretariat to produce a series of codes of practice on key areas of the operation of the convention. That would represent a great step forward.

I hope that at the review meeting next year we will not simply provide a generalised remit to the Hague secretariat to produce codes of practice, but go further and specify the particular areas in the operation of the convention in which codes of practice are necessary. I would like to propose five such areas.

First, we need a code of practice on prevention of international child abduction. As we all know, prevention is infinitely preferable to the trauma of an abduction that actually takes place, both for the child involved and for the parents from whom the child or children are taken. Extremely valuable work has been carried out on prevention in the United Kingdom, not least by Reunite, the national child abduction charity, and I believe that this country would make a considerable input to any Hague secretariat code of practice.

Secondly, I hope that we can create a code of practice on embarkation controls and procedures. Once a child has been abducted, the only likely protection against that child being removed from the jurisdiction of the country in which he or she is normally resident will be at the port of embarkation—the airport, railway station, frontier point or sea port. Therefore it is essential that embarkation procedures and controls are in place rapidly to identify children who have been abducted. As I hope the Minister is aware, the all-party group is concerned about the reduction in embarkation controls that have taken place in this country, and believes that it exposes children abducted in this country to a significantly greater degree of risk.

Thirdly, I hope that there can be a code of practice on judicial training for judges dealing with Hague convention cases. All the experience to date shows that a specialist group of senior lawyers is needed properly to enforce the Hague convention. In this country, we have such a group of lawyers. The subject has always been treated as one for specialists here, and we have a group of judges who are familiar with the Hague convention and have expertise and experience in dealing with such cases. Sadly, in too many countries that task is simply left to the normal judicial hierarchy with the result that judges in lower courts may have to deal with Hague convention cases—probably for the first time in their professional careers. There have been many examples of individual judges treating Hague convention cases as custody decisions, when they should be dealing with the fundamental issue under articles 12 and 13 of the convention, which is the question of whether or not a child should be returned to the country of his or her habitual residence. That is the key judicial function for the purposes of the convention. We need better, more specialist training, and a code of practice would be desirable.

Fourthly, we need a code of practice providing guidance to new state parties. There are only about 50 state parties to the convention at the moment, but we hope that there will be many more over the next few years. We must give the new parties all possible help in implementing the convention from the outset to the highest standards.

Fifthly, I hope that we might have a code of practice on enforcing the access provisions of the Hague convention. The Hague convention is explicit about that; article 21 states clearly: The Central Authorities are bound 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 conditions to which the exercise of those rights may be subject. The Central Authorities shall take steps to remove, as far as possible, all obstacles to the exercise of such rights. Access rights are clearly enshrined in the convention and, sadly, in several cases, those rights are not being upheld. Catherine Meyer, in a case with which the Minister is familiar, has had only 24 hours of access to her children in Germany since they were abducted six years ago. That is a sad and deplorable state of affairs and points again to the need for a clear code of practice on operating article 21.

Finally, since sending our first letter to the Lord Chancellor in December last year, the all-party group has been pressing for a quantum leap in achievement from the review meeting of 2001, which will be the fourth such meeting. None of the three previous meetings has achieved anything in practical or concrete terms, although I am sure that they have been invaluable in enabling the participants to exchange views.

I am glad that the Lord Chancellor, in the letter that I received this morning, says that he believes that the Special Commission this time should look to achieve more than in the past, with a new focus on improving the operation of the Convention, and on making sure that the countries newly acceding to the Convention are in a position to live up to the requirements it imposes. If that is to be the case, it is essential that Ministers attend the special review conference. I am glad that the Lord Chancellor is much more positive on the subject in his latest letter than he was in his previous letter of 1 March. He says: I agree that Ministerial attendance at the Special Commission could also be helpful, by raising its profile and providing more political impetus than it has had previously, and we have put this point to the Hague Secretariat. I urge the Government to do their utmost to secure ministerial attendance; only if we get that attendance will we achieve a positive outcome on an issue of profound human rights importance. If the Minister, in her reply to this debate, can announce that there will be ministerial attendance, I know that that would be widely applauded as a helpful and important initiative by the British Government.

11.49 am
The Parliamentary Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley) for initiating this Adjournment debate. As he rightly says, it is a timely opportunity to discuss child abduction and the preparations that we are making for the special commission in the Hague next year. Although this debate is less well attended than the previous one, it is no less important and will attract the same amount of attention outside this place. People will read carefully what the right hon. Gentleman said and my response to him.

The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the all-party group on child abduction have already drawn the attention of the House to this important and sensitive issue through the early-day motion to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The group does enormously valuable work in keeping the issue in the public eye and in supporting the work of Reunite, the international centre for child abduction. I was happy to attend and speak at the reception that the all-party group arranged for Reunite earlier this year.

I am also grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues my hon. Friends the Members for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner), for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) and for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton), and the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) for having, in the terms that the right hon. Gentleman described, written on the subject just before the summer recess. I am sorry that the reply to that letter was delayed during the recess, and I sincerely apologise for that discourtesy, but I hope that the contents of the letter will at least have been worth waiting for. One advantage of the delay was that the reply could report on the common law judicial conference on international child custody, which took place in Washington last month and to which I shall refer later, if I have time.

I have read the reply from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, which represents the views of the Foreign Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department. It is worth emphasising at the outset that our Departments work closely together on this important subject. Staff in the family policy division of the Lord Chancellor's Department and in the child abduction unit at the Official Solicitor's Office are in regular contact with their counterparts in the consular division of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The right hon. Gentleman asked several important questions, including whether the Government believe the existing ambit of criminal law to be satisfactory. Whether a criminal offence has been committed in a particular case must depend on the circumstances of the case. For example, it is a general rule of law that a conspiracy cannot exist between a husband and a wife, which clearly presents difficulties in this sensitive area. It is, therefore, not a prima facie criminal offence for parents to plan to take their children abroad, as millions do every year. However, I shall pass the right hon. Gentleman's comments on the matter to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is responsible for developing criminal law and will be interested in them.

Forced marriages are an important subject and an increasingly recognised problem that we take seriously. We have promised to do all that we can to help victims of forced marriage. The Foreign Office and the Home Office have launched a joint plan to turn that promise into action. The plan sets out a comprehensive strategy on the overseas dimension of forced marriage. It launches a major programme of co-operation and training between key police forces in the United Kingdom and their counterparts overseas, and it reviews how our staff overseas handle victims of forced marriage from the moment they walk through the door to the time that they return to the UK.

The right hon. Gentleman makes the criticism that that does not go far enough. The plan calls for a joined-up approach in which we work together to give victims the support that they need, and envisages a partnership of the Government, communities, women's groups, the police and others, working together to help victims. The dozens of commitments amount to a genuine manifesto of practical action.

We have taken our cue from the Government's working group on forced marriage, which published its report last month. The group has done an outstanding job in breaking once and for all the taboo on discussing the subject. It endorses what my Home Office colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), said when he set up the group. He commented that cultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness. We take on board the right hon. Gentleman's point.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned embarkation controls. I am afraid that what I have to say will not satisfy his call. Currently, there are no formal embarkation controls to prevent child abduction. Our view is that formal controls would be disproportionately expensive. However, Government agencies are working with airports, seaports and carriers to increase awareness of the issue. We will obviously monitor the impact of improvements in the working practices of the organisations involved.

The right hon. Gentleman made an important point about judicial training. I agree that convention cases should be dealt with by judges who are familiar with the convention and the relevant legislation to ensure uniformity across the board. The permanent bureau in the Hague is currently developing an international child abduction database. The project is intended to provide wide access to case summaries and a full text of leading international child abduction cases, of which a significant proportion will be English, Welsh and Scottish. The Government are keen to promote wider dissemination of useful information in all areas of public interest. International child abduction is an especially important matter, in which the sharing of information should carry considerable benefit. I am pleased to say that as part of our commitment to the database, the United Kingdom has contributed £5,000 to the cost of INCADAT for 2000.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about ministerial attendance, in respect of which we have much sympathy with the view of the all-party group. It is not, however, a matter for the United Kingdom alone—a point that we must always bear in mind when dealing with this difficult and potentially intractable matter. If we are to be effective in making improvements to the operation of the convention, we need other member states to join us and to reach a consensus. So far, however, the Hague secretariat reports that other countries are not as enthusiastic as we are about the suggestion that Ministers should attend, although the secretariat is sympathetic. We will continue to work on the matter.

We want also to consider with the Hague secretariat and other member states the admission of new members to the convention. So far, the policy has always been to encourage everyone to join. We in Britain have changed our view about that, and I shall want to discuss the matter further at the special commission.

Sir John Stanley

Before the Minister finishes, will she tell us whether the British Government agree that it is highly desirable for the outcome of the Hague convention review to be a formal remit to the Hague secretariat to produce codes of practice in defined areas such as those that I have suggested and to which the Government may want to add? Is not that a desirable objective for the Government?

Jane Kennedy

It is clearly a desirable objective, and I confirm that we shall press for it. We would all agree that the 1980 Hague convention on child abduction was a positive and significant step forward in dealing with international child abduction. It is, however, by no means perfect and we have not reached the end of the road. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the increasing mobility of populations means that people who would probably never have met in the past are more and more likely to meet, form relationships, marry and have children. That is occurring across barriers not only of nationality, but of language, religion and culture. As we have heard, there can be difficulties, but there can also be advantages. The difficulties become especially acute if the relationship between parents breaks down. Children may end up with parents in different countries with different cultures and social expectations. Inevitably, for the parent with whom the children do not live, there is a temptation to take the children back to his or her own country or to keep them there after a visit.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

Order. However important the debate is, time is up.