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Child Abduction

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

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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:

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.

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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:

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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

11.49 am

The Parliamentary Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy ): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (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.

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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

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Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), said when he set up the group. He commented that

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

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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.

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