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Sir Geoffrey Howe : And the people, so far as it was possible to do so, and the House. The Joint Declaration was the result of consultation to such an extent that it is massively endorsed by people on all sides in Hong Kong as well as here as the true foundation for the future.

On my hon. Friend's second point, I am always ready and glad to receive advice from him on any subject, but the advice that one must regard as being more decisive is that which comes from Hong Kong.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West) : Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to reply to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) about whether the Government will recognise the trade mission, and ifso what extent, that is due to visit Peking later thisyear?

Sir Geoffrey Howe : The position of that mission is still under consideration, and will be addressed according to the conclusions set out at the end of the Madrid summit last week. We certainly shall not sustain fresh subsidised business, but it would be foolish--this is the strong advice that I have received from Hong Kong--to move in the direction of an economic embargo on the People's Republic of China. Several Hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. I will certainly bear in mind the claims of hon. Members who have not been called on the statement.

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Rail Dispute

4.18 pm

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield) : I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"today's rail strike."

The matter raises a number of issues that deserve urgent debate, not only in respect of one-day stoppages but in the event of escalation of the present dispute. First there is the recalcitrant attitude that management and unions have adopted about negotiating terms. While they argue not about whether to talk but about where, the rest suffer.

Secondly, there is the question of the future of monopolies such as the railways and London Transport. Can we tolerate being held to ransom in this way? Should we not urgently discuss alternative structures? Is it not time to get on with opening up competition by privatising London Buses?

Thirdly, we must discuss how best to combat the effects of the stoppages. Extra car parking space merely exacerbates the problem of heavy traffic. More radical solutions are surely necessary if we are to fight back.

We need to establish a political consensus in tackling the wildcat strike, in the growing belief that such action by public service employees should be illegal. That means ascertaining the Opposition's views. If that leads them to a new set of principles, as with that adopted on nuclear weapons, it is all the more welcome.

Millions of our citizens are facing transport difficulties each week, with no apparent end in sight. Those difficulties and how to overcome them should be discussed by the House. Nothing is more urgent or relevant.

Mr. Speaker : The hon. Member seeks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely, "today's rail strike."

I have listened to the hon. Member with care. As he knows, my sole duty in considering an application under Standing Order No. 20 is to decide whether it should be given priority over the business set down for today or tomorrow. I regret that the matter that the hon. Member has raised does not meet the criteria of the Standing Order. I therefore cannot submit his application to the House.

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Points of Order

4.20 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you to recall that at Scottish Question Time this afternoon, following question No. 3 from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie), you were kind enough to call me to ask a supplementary question? In reply to my question, the Under-Secretary of State--the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth)--said that he was quoting from a private conversation. I therefore seek your guidance. First, have not you and many of your distinguished predecessors frowned upon the use of private conversations in the Chamber and is not the practice to be deplored, especially when it comes from a Minister? Secondly, as the Minister clearly misunderstood the name of the organisation about which I was seeking information and confused the Scottish Central Film Library with the Scottish Film Council, has he sought to withdraw the misleading impression that he gave the House, which remains the only decent thing for him to do and what the House would expect of him?

Mr. Speaker : I confirm that private conversations should be private. As for whether the Minister is prepared to withdraw his comment, that is not a matter for me.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. That was not the only occasion during Scottish Questions when some of us thought that the behaviour of the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) did not match what most of us expect of Ministers or, in fact, from hon. Members on either side of the House. On one occasion, the hon. Gentleman told my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) to shut his mouth. That was the expression that he used. The Minister has a responsibility to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House to go to the Dispatch Box and apologise for his behaviour during Question Time.

Mr. Speaker : I certainly did not hear anything of that kind. We should move on.

European Community documents. Not moved.

Hon. Members : Object.

Mr. Speaker : Not moved.

Statutory Instruments, &c.

Mr. Speaker : With the leave of the House, I will put together the 11 motions relating to statutory instruments.


That the London Docklands Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Port of London Authority and London Borough of Newham) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

That the Black Country Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Borough of Walsall) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

That the Black Country Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (General) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

That the Leeds Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (British Railways Board) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

That the Leeds Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (General) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

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That the London Docklands Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Thames Water Authority) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

That the Merseyside Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (General) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

That the Merseyside Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Transport Land) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

That the Sheffield Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (British Railways Board) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

That the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Port of Tyne Authority and British Railways Board) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. That the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Various Local Authorities) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Dorrell.]

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Prevention of Child Abduction

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.

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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

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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.


Mr. Ian McCartney accordingly presented 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. And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon 7 July and to be printed. [Bill 164.]

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Opposition Day

[16th Allotted Day]


4.32 pm

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West) : I beg to move,

That this House, noting the fiasco of Employment Training which has reached only 40 per cent. of the Government's target and now has a drop-out rate of nearly 50 per cent., as both employers and trainees reject the programme as under-funded, poor quality and low-paid, and noting that job-related training for 16 to 19 year olds have been constantly falling in recent years, calls on the Government to remedy the growing skills shortage by investment in training which matches the funding, quality, skills and economic commitment of the United Kingdom's major competitor countries.

Mr. Speaker : I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Meacher : In 1992, with the advent of the internal market, Britain will face economic pressures at least as intense and competitive as those we faced on our entry to the Common Market 16 years ago. The coverage and quality of our skills training will then become one of our key economic weapons. It is the contention of the Opposition that the Government have consistently and drastically failed to develop that aspect of the country's economic defences so that today we have an adult training programme which is spurned by employers and trainees alike and which is poised to collapse before it has reached even half its target.

There was no lack of ministerial hype at the programme's inception last September, when the Secretary of State for Employment said : "Employment training is the largest and most ambitious training programme ever undertaken, and the scope and opportunity it offers to longer-term unemployed people is unrivalled anywhere in the world."

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler) : Hear, hear.

Mr. Meacher : The right hon. Gentleman says, "Hear, hear," which serves to make my point.

However, the reality is rather different. Five months after the programme started, the Financial Times reported :

"The Government is cutting the number of places on its employment training scheme by 10 per cent. because not enough people have joined."

On the same day, The Independent reported that more than 70 local authorities of all political persuasions had withdrawn from the scheme. One of those, the Tory-controlled council covering the Prime Minister's constituency, closed its 400-place ET scheme. A report prepared by officials at Barnet council, which was endorsed by councillors, stated :

"One of the factors blamed for the failure was that most participants in the old Community Programme, where maximum earnings are £60 a week, refused to switch to ET where they are allowed only normal benefit plus £10 expenses."

That confirms everything that the Opposition have always said.

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The Secretary of State's TV extravaganza got it slightly wrong. To the bars of what I can only describe as somewhat incongruous music, the extravaganza proclaimed :

"We'll train the workers without jobs to do the jobs without workers."

It really meant :

"We'll train the workers without jobs to do the jobs without wages."

At the launch of ET on 1 September last year, the Secretary of State made his objective very clear. Amid enormous media fanfare, he declared :

"Employment training will provide training for some 600,000 people a year."

Nine months on, by which time the target of 450,000 places should have been filled, only 187,000 places have been filled. The Government have achieved just 41 per cent. of their target. However, internal confidential Department of Employment management papers, which I have seen, paint a bleaker picture. They show that no fewer than 117,000 people have already dropped out of the scheme and that there is an overall dropout rate of no less than 46 per cent. Worse still, the dropout rate is accelerating fast. In January the dropout rate was 36 per cent. In February it was 41 per cent. In March it was 57 per cent. and in April--the last month for which figures are available--it was 75 per cent.

The Secretary of State may well screw up his face, because those figures come from his Department. If the trend continues, the number of leavers each month will soon be larger than the number of starters. On that evidence, the number of trainees on ET could begin to fall before the scheme's first anniversary--ET's first anniversary could also be its last.

At the start of the scheme, the Secretary of State was full of overblown rhetoric about the employers' response. On 29 December, according to a Department of Employment press notice, he announced : "Britain's biggest companies have given Britain's biggest adult training programme a ringing endorsement into the New Year." A little earlier, he was carried away enough to state : "The response from providers to the challenge of Employment Training has been magnificent, and the Training Commission now has in place a comprehensive network of training agents and training managers."

Six months later, on 12 June, in answer to a parliamentary question from me, the Secretary of State was forced to admit the truth behind the billboard waffle. He had to admit that only 13 major companies had signed up with ET on a national scale and that only two of them had filled more than half the places for which they had contracted. If the employers' response has been so magnificent, why has Habitat contracted for 200 places, but filled none of them? Why has Mothercare contracted for 50 places but filled none? Why has Heron Service Stations contracted for 81 places but filled only one?

Mr. Fowler : The hon. Gentleman is either knowingly deceiving the House or deceiving himself. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I am sure that the Secretary of State can make some amendments to what he has just said.

Mr. Fowler : Of course I will. The hon. Gentleman is mis-stating the position. He has just given the impression--all hon. Members have heard it- -that only 13 major companies have been associated with employment

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training. That is the clear implication. He is quoting only one part--that is, the numbers who are with the large companies unit of the Department of Employment. One hundred and twenty major companies, and 1,000 companies over all, have contracted to do employment training. That is why what the hon. Gentleman has said is deeply misleading. His remarks about the numbers are also misleading. He is either doing that intentionally or without knowledge. He is confusing the number of filled places with the throughput in employment training. What he has stated so far is very misleading.

Mr. Meacher : I obviously asked a rather pointed and embarrassing question. I was quoting from the answer that I was given. It is the right hon. Gentleman himself who says that only 13 companies have joined up with ET nationally. That is the fact and that is what he said only three weeks ago.

Mr. Fowler : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher : I will give way once more.

Mr. Fowler : The hon. Gentleman can at least concede that what I have said--that is, that 120 major companies are working with ET--is truthful.

Mr. Meacher : In that case, why was that not in the original answer? Why is it that the answer that I quoted were the right hon. Gentleman's words?

Mr. Fowler rose --

Mr. Meacher : I will not give way again. The right hon. Gentleman has a lot more explaining to do, so we will reserve the opportunity for him.

Perhaps he could explain also the findings in the report of the Institute of Manpower Studies, which was commissioned by his own Department and which he so coyly refuses to publish. The institute interviewed 40 large companies, not just the 13 that I have been talking about. Most of them employ more than 1,000 people--precisely the group about whom the right hon. Gentleman is talking--but they did not give ET the ringing endorsement that the right hon. Gentleman claimed. In no uncertain terms, they criticised the Department of Employment's Training Agency for its

"excessive inflexibility, jargon, bureaucracy and confusion." I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman will confirm that that is what they think.

The right hon. Gentleman also had pretensions that the scheme would be attractive for the unemployed. In September, he announced with great flourish that

"it will offer training at every level from basic skills to technician level skills, and will enable unemployed people to acquire the skills they need to find and keep work."

The reality six months later, as The Guardian reported on 24 March, under a headline "Unemployed shun ET", is that

"Targets on the Government's Employment Training scheme have been drastically reduced by between 30 and 50 per cent. in some parts of the country because of poor demand for places."

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