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4 Feb 2003 : Column 134—continued

ADVOCATE-GENERAL

The Advocate-General for Scotland was asked—

Human Rights

15. Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute): What human rights issues she has dealt with since 7 January. [94181]

16. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): What human rights issues she has considered since 7 January. [94182]

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The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): Since 7 January, 32 human rights issues have been intimated to me, all relating to criminal matters. They dealt with a wide variety of topics, including undue delay in criminal proceedings; refusal to release prisoners on life licence; the definition of the offences of shameless indecency and false accusation; the availability of essential witnesses for trial; and the use of CCTV evidence.

Mr. Reid : On 16 January, some of my constituents were almost deprived of their ultimate human right—the right to life—when disembarking from a Caledonian McBrayne catamaran at Dunoon pier. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency is conducting an investigation, but will the Advocate-General advise Transport Ministers that a public inquiry must be held, so that the events leading up to that near tragic incident can be fully and publicly examined and passengers be given the right to cross-examine witnesses?

The Advocate-General: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern for his constituents, who were obviously caused great distress. I am sure that he understands that policy responsibility for such matters does not lie with me. UK Ministers are always concerned about such incidents, so I am sure that they will pay attention to the matter.

Mr. Carmichael : The hon. and learned Lady will recall that, on 26 November 2002, she told me that she could see no human rights issues arising from the appointment of commissioners to the Northern Lighthouse Board. I respectfully invite the Advocate-General to reconsider that position, and remind her that it is a principle of natural justice that no one should be a judge in their own cause—or, as we say in Orkney, nemo judex in sua causa. Every sheriff principal in Scotland is a member of the lighthouse board. What confidence can a party to an action against the board in a sheriff court have that justice can be seen to be done?

The Advocate-General: I understand that the hon. Gentleman is extremely concerned about the lighthouse board scheme. Nevertheless, membership policy is not a matter for me. There is a simple solution. I am sure that many of the hon. Gentleman's constituents share his concern, so they should raise the matter as a devolution issue. In that event, I will certainly take on board the issue that he has raised. If I consider that there is merit in such a representation, I will intervene.

Devolution

17. Annabelle Ewing (Perth): What devolution issues have been raised in the last month under the Scotland Act 1998. [94183]

The Advocate-General: I refer the hon. Lady to the answer that I gave some moments ago to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid).

Annabelle Ewing: I thank the Advocate-General for that very brief answer. A devolution issue that arose recently concerned proposals to pay compensation to

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hepatitis C sufferers in Scotland. Will the Advocate-General clarify her role? Will she argue for the rights of the Scots Parliament to pay that compensation, or will she sign up to a Westminster clawback through the Westminster system?

The Advocate-General : I am more than happy to clarify my role. The matter might come to me, as Advocate-General, in a variety of ways. If it comes to me as a formal request for my opinion as a Law Officer, I would advise with the UK Law Officers, the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General—either or both, as appropriate. However, the hon. Lady will recall that the convention is that I would not advise her whether I had given advice, nor about the content of that advice. The matter could also become a devolution issue if a formal challenge were mounted once the matter was resolved. That would be intimated to me, and I would undertake my usual role in relation to that.

LORD CHANCELLOR'S DEPARTMENT

The Parliamentary Secretary was asked—

Child Abduction

19. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): What progress is being made in securing cross-border co-operation to prevent child abduction. [95364]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): To prevent child abduction, we need a robust system to ensure the return of abducted children so that people know that abduction will not succeed. The 1980 Hague convention works well and we are building on it with the European Union regulation on parental responsibility. That will mean that, if a child who normally lives in the UK is abducted to another EU state, the decision about where the child should continue to live could be heard in the UK court, rather than in the court of the country to which the child had been abducted.

Helen Jones : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply, and for the interest she has shown in the matter. Does she agree that raising awareness of the issue is very important in preventing child abduction? What help is her Department giving organisations such as reunite, which works on individual cases but has also done a lot of work in trying to get international agreements on handling the issue?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to point out that raising awareness of child abduction is an important part of prevention. We work with the police, the ports, immigration authorities and the airlines to raise awareness among security staff and others to ensure that they are aware of police guidelines. My hon. Friend is right to say that the work of reunite is central to the matter. My Department funds that organisation to the extent of £100,000 and has also given £80,000 for a campaign specifically designed to raise awareness. I am

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extremely glad to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the invaluable work that reunite does for parents and children.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): In connection with raising awareness, may I draw the Minister's attention to an organisation called PACT—Parents and Abducted Children Together—with which I have recently become associated? It was set up by Lady Meyer, the wife of our ambassador in Washington, and it makes the point that, of the 546 children abducted last year, some 40 per cent. were abducted by their parents. That is a very serious matter, as the Minister has said. Will she stand ready to meet PACT representatives to discuss how awareness can be raised and what can be done about a problem that is becoming increasingly serious?

Ms Winterton: I have had a number of meetings with Lady Meyer, and I have assured her that my officials will keep in very close touch about PACT's work, which I agree is extremely important. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we take the matter very seriously. The work of organisations such as reunite and PACT is extremely helpful in raising awareness. We shall continue our work through the Hague convention and the special commission to ensure that best practice is followed everywhere, so that these tragedies can be prevented in the future.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The Minister will be aware of the conference at which tribute was paid to the work of reunite, and I welcome her interest in the group. Is she really satisfied, however, that cross-border controls by the police, especially at airports, are adequate to deal with the movement of children in such circumstances?

Ms Winterton: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and for paying tribute to the work of reunite. He is right to say that we constantly need to ensure that there is best practice everywhere, especially at ports. That is why we have been working to raise awareness so that we are all aware of the procedures that should be followed, and so that we can tell parents who fear the abduction of their child that they can take appropriate steps through the courts before an abduction takes place. We are constantly considering how to ensure that the child abduction prevention pack for use in various cases, including by parents, is as up to date and accurate as possible.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): The Minister rightly refers to awareness as regards vulnerable cases. Does she yet have evidence that the new Council regulation, which is intended to complement the Hague convention, will ensure the prompt return of children to their country of habitual residence? Will it reverse the numerous cases, such as that of Lady Meyer, which involve German jurisdiction?

Ms Winterton: First, under the new regulation, the case of Lady Meyer would have been heard in a UK court. Lady Meyer would have had the right to come back to the UK for a hearing about the residence of her children. Secondly, in recent years, we have been

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working closely with the German authorities and judiciary and they have reduced the number of judges who deal with such cases from about 600 to 24. That is important in ensuring that the cases are dealt with effectively. The figures show that, over the past five years, the child was returned in about 10 cases and there was only one refusal, so there has been an improvement in co-operation.


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