Previous SectionIndexHome Page

11.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Denis MacShane): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on securing this debate on the case of Lady Catherine Meyer, the mother of two children who were wrongfully retained in Germany by their father following an access visit in 1994. I congratulate him not only on the powerful case that he has made but on the way in which he has set it in the broader context of children who are abducted and disappear. Those of us who believe that family life should occupy an increasing rather than decreasing part in our society should be grateful to him.

I want to place on the record my admiration for my hon. Friend's persistence in this as in other matters relating to the right of mothers to be with their children. As children, we all learn to speak what is called a mother tongue. In today's world, the right of mothers to be mothers to their children is usually afforded primacy in law and custom, but this case is a grave and serious exception to that general rule. No one should doubt how seriously every decent European citizen would, once familiar with the details of the case as laid before the House tonight, regard the conduct of German lawyers in seeking to deny what Germans call Mutterrecht. The right of a mother to be a mother must be considered.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important and distressing issue, and his initiating this debate is an indication of his commitment to Lady Meyer's case. As he said, there has been extensive parliamentary and public interest in it, and I welcome the opportunity to set out the action that the Government and we in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have taken so far on Lady Meyer's behalf.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, Lady Meyer's children were wrongfully retained in Germany by her ex-husband, following a contact visit in 1994. Before that, Lady Meyer had full custody under the terms of the separation agreement, and her husband had access rights. The High Court in England and Wales ordered the return of the children and made them wards of court. Initially, the lower courts in Germany made an order to return the children to the UK under The Hague convention, which governs the handling of abducted children by European countries.

In Lady Meyer's case, the initial decision of the German lower courts was overturned by the higher regional court, without her being present. Lady Meyer appealed against the decision, but lost in the German constitutional court in 1995. At that point, The Hague convention route was effectively dead. Lady Meyer therefore had no choice but to apply for contact with her children through domestic court processes in Germany. To aid those applications, the children ceased to be wards of court in the UK.

As my hon. Friend recounted in distressing detail, Lady Meyer has pursued applications for contact since November 1994. However, she has been permitted to see

11 Jun 2002 : Column 845

her children for a total of just 24 hours throughout this period. Various contact orders have been awarded in Lady Meyer's favour, but the German courts have not enforced them. I believe that that is contrary to all European norms.

It is important to understand how Her Majesty's Government can assist families affected by child abduction. In broad terms, responsibility for assisting such families is divided into two areas: Hague convention cases and non-Hague convention cases. The Lord Chancellor's Department is the lead Department for abductions to and from Hague convention countries in England and Wales; Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own central authorities. The FCO is the lead Department for non-Hague convention countries.

The Hague convention on the international aspects of child abduction is a multilateral treaty. It seeks to return children who have been abducted abroad to their country of habitual residence, where issues of custody and contact can be resolved through the courts. It seeks to protect children from the harmful effects of international child abduction by providing a procedure to bring about their prompt return.

As I said, the FCO is the lead Department for non-Hague convention cases. Where The Hague convention is not in force between two countries, families of abducted children must pursue court proceedings in the foreign country to gain contact with, or custody of, them. The FCO provides support for parents who are pursuing contact or custody cases through the domestic courts of another country, but it also gets involved in Hague convention cases in which diplomatic intervention could expedite progress. That is why the FCO has been closely involved in Lady Meyer's case. Since January 2000, formal representations to the German authorities have been made on at least four occasions. Those have included correspondence to the German authorities from our ambassador in Berlin, our chargé d'affaires in Berlin and Baroness Scotland. Other embassy and consulate-general staff have been closely involved in negotiating a compromise between the children's father, the court in Celle, and the lawyer appointed by the Celle court to look after the children's interests.

Although I do not have direct ministerial responsibility for Germany, I know the country and its Chancellor, and I believe that the denial of Mutterrecht—the right of a mother to be a mother—is not acceptable in a modern, tolerant, liberal Europe. I give the House my assurance that I will give my personal support to the case. It is the considered view of the Foreign Office that the German courts have been incapable of dealing fairly and objectively with the unique circumstances of Lady Meyer's case. She has been treated unsympathetically.

Mr. Vaz: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks and appreciate greatly his support. Will he agree to convene a meeting with the Lord Chancellor's Department and Lady Meyer so that both Departments can be involved in helping her to pursue the next steps?

Mr. MacShane: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office stands ready to work with Lady Meyer on the next steps of her case and looks forward to discussing that with her. I shall convey my hon. Friend's suggestion to my

11 Jun 2002 : Column 846

ministerial colleagues in the Foreign Office with direct responsibility for the matter, because it would be a sensible way to take matters forward.

Lady Meyer has clearly been active and energetic in pursuing contact rights to her sons. We will continue to provide assistance to Lady Meyer wherever possible and whenever she requests it. It is extraordinarily sad that Lady Meyer has been unable to secure substantial contact rights to see her sons. It is hard to accept that in a democratic, tolerant Europe that respects the rule of law this case has to be brought to the attention of the public authorities in such a way.

Lady Meyer's case is, in the experience of the Lord Chancellor's Department, atypical. There are currently—thankfully—no other cases in which British parents are suffering the same level of difficulties as Catherine Meyer, though parents of other nationalities are. While there have in the past been administrative difficulties concerning Hague convention cases in Germany, Germany has overhauled the court system that deals with Hague convention cases. The German Ministry of Justice recently reduced the number of courts dealing with cases under The Hague convention from 600 to 24 on the basis that fewer judges will lead to greater expertise. Those changes are welcome and they have come about not least because of the work done bilaterally by the Lord Chancellor's Department. But they are long overdue and it is a matter of deep regret that they are too late to help Catherine Meyer and other, non-British, parents in their predicament. We hope nevertheless that they will ensure that parents in future will not suffer what Catherine has suffered.

The answer lies in a common European system. That requires a decision, agreed by all EU member states, that the rules of unanimity mean that just one country—in this case, Germany—can exercise its veto to prevent a fair and just system from coming into operation. Those hon. Members who always insist on national rules and systems, and the right of veto uber alles, so to speak, may reflect on what happens when national egoism prevails over a greater need for justice.

As my hon. Friend has stated, Lady Meyer has tried to use her difficult experience to help others. She has been the driving force behind the establishment of the charity Parents and Abducted Children Together—PACT. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Lady Meyer's work with PACT and to welcome the presence on the Front Bench of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House who, while Foreign Secretary, gave his strong personal support to Lady Meyer's case.

Returning to Lady Meyer's case, I am confident that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has provided Lady Meyer with appropriate advice and consular assistance. My noble Friend Baroness Scotland, when she was a Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, showed an active interest in Lady Meyer's case, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East when he was Minister for Europe. I will ensure that my noble Friend Baroness Amos, who now has responsibility for this issue, sees a transcript of tonight's important debate. I hope that the other interventions by my hon. Friend, which he mentioned earlier, will help to assist the case.

11 Jun 2002 : Column 847

Staff at our embassy in Berlin and our consulate-general in Hamburg have also devoted a good deal of time to assisting Lady Meyer. We will continue to do what we can to provide Lady Meyer with support and assistance, and to take a close interest in her case. It is utterly irrelevant that she is the wife of one our ambassadors. She speaks as a mother denied the right to be a mother to her children. That is a crime against

11 Jun 2002 : Column 848

motherhood, and the German legal system and those who have denied her right to be a mother should be thoroughly ashamed of it. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office stands beside her, as we stand behind every mother who wants to be a parent to her sons.

Question put and agreed to.

Next Section

IndexHome Page