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5.53 pm

Mr. Meale: In the few minutes that remain, it would be remiss of me, as Chairman of the Select Committee, if I did not pay due tribute to the staff of the House who worked alongside us. The Clerks worked diligently on the Bill. I also pay particular thanks to the Chairman of the Catering Committee—a very important and powerful person—because he helped the Committee by making staff available to provide refreshments to members of the Committee, and also the promoters and petitioners on the Bill. The staff provided refreshments through the months and years that the Committee sat. We are grateful to the cleaners, the Clerks, the police and the security staff, who all allowed us to do our job.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.


Housing Act


13 Dec 2007 : Column 567


Post Office Closures (New Forest)

5.55 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I rise to present a petition on the astonishing proposal to close the post office at Bramshaw in the New Forest, which has plunged village residents into despair. Bramshaw’s bus services have been discontinued, and many vulnerable, elderly people will be isolated and put at risk on long walks to Cadnam along a busy road with no footpaths. A former bomb disposal officer with a George medal states that closing Bramshaw post office is tearing the heart out of the social life of the village. He is 93 years old. Society should be ashamed.

The petition states:


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The Akhtar Family

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Liz Blackman.]

5.56 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I thank the House and Mr. Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate. I shall talk briefly about the operation of the UK-Pakistan protocol, but specifically about how it has affected Asma Akhtar and her four children. You will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the case is currently before the family division of the UK High Court, although I have the permission of Mr. Justice Ryder to raise the issue in the House.

The UK-Pakistan protocol on children’s matters is an agreement signed in 2003 between the president of the family division and the honourable chief justice of Pakistan. It aims to

Article 1 states:

Article 2 continues:

Article 7 requires that

That is an important point, to which I shall return later.

In reply to a written question that I tabled, the Minister wrote:

I understand that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had planned to hold a conference on the operation of the protocol in February of next year in Islamabad, although that that has been delayed because of the state of emergency in Pakistan.

I turn now to the case of Asma Akhtar and her four young children. At the outset, I should explain that she is not my constituent, although she was born in Rochdale. She lives in Banbury, and I have the permission of the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) to deal with the case. Notwithstanding that, both her mother and sister live in Rochdale, and they were the ones who initially approached me for support.

On 6 April, Asma, her four children aged between two and eight, and her husband Zahoor travelled to Pakistan via Dubai for a family holiday. All are UK nationals.

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It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn .—[Liz Blackman.]

Paul Rowen: The family was due to return to the UK on 26 April, having confirmed return airline tickets. Just before the return flight, Asma’s father claimed that he was not well, and the visit was extended by 15 days, by agreement. Her husband then tried to extend the visit further. Asma refused, as she wanted to get the three oldest children back to school. She was also studying for an Open university degree, which she was due to complete this summer.

Asma then asked her husband to return her passport and her children’s so that she could return to the UK. He refused, saying that neither she nor the children would be allowed to return to the UK. Asma then escaped from her brother-in-law’s house in Rawalpindi, where she was being held, and sought the assistance of the British high commission in Islamabad.

The high commission organised a meeting between the two parties at the high commission on 22 May. At the meeting, Zahoor agreed that the whole family would return to the UK to settle the question of the children’s custody. Flights were booked for 26 May and, in the meantime, Asma and the children were to stay at a women’s hostel.

Before the meeting at the high commission, Zahoor was asked to bring the passports to the high commission. He did not do so. He said he would bring them to the high commission on Friday 25 May. He did not do that either, and nor did he answer calls from high commission staff. On Tuesday 25 May, the high commission found out that Zahoor had applied for court orders preventing his wife from taking the children out of Pakistan. Asma’s mother Nasreen then approached me and asked for my assistance.

Having got confirmation from the high commission about what had happened, I advised Asma to return to the UK to commence court proceedings here. That is what she did, with her mother flying to Pakistan to help look after the children. On 9 July, a court order was granted by Mrs. Justice Hogg that made the children wards of court. It stated that

and it also invoked

of the children.

The court order was conveyed to the judge in Pakistan by Asma’s solicitors. Further court orders were laid before the High Court on 27 and 30 July, 14, 20 and 26 August, 14 September, 11 October and 14 November. However, none of them received a response from the husband.

Since then, Asma has been forced to remain in Pakistan because she is not prepared to abandon the children. Despite numerous requests, the High Court in Pakistan has refused to respond to the invocation of the protocol, regarding it as a non-binding “memorandum of understanding”. Although the
13 Dec 2007 : Column 570
courts in Pakistan have granted Asma custody, and even though Zahoor has to pay maintenance there, they have refused to lift the exit control orders.

Asma is a young woman in a foreign country, with no available family support. I have had experience of dealing with many families of Pakistani origin, and I know that that is highly unusual. She is very much on her own. Zahoor and his family have made death threats against her, as the following extract from a letter to the British high commissioner, dated 24 August, shows. She said:

She is very much a woman alone.

I make no criticism of the support provided by the high commission. Asma was helped to get a place at the hospital and to find a solicitor. I realise that the commission deals with many similar cases and the staff are overworked; nevertheless Asma and her children have been stranded in Pakistan for seven months.

What can the Minister and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office do? The High Court order of 30 July is particularly important in that context. It requests:

The UK Passport Service has not responded to the substance of the order made by Mr. Justice Moylan. However, yesterday I met Mr. Justice Ryder, who today issued an order asking the service to respond to that request.

Since August, I have been asking the high commission to issue new passports. Once that has been done, Asma will have a powerful bargaining tool to challenge the exit control orders. I have discussed the case with the Pakistan high commissioner and deputy high commissioner. In an e-mail to me of 7 November, the deputy high commissioner confirmed:

The Minister will be aware of the strained relations between the courts and Government of Pakistan. It is clear to me that the Pakistan Government can be persuaded to allow Asma and the children to return to the UK. If the Minister agrees to issue the passports, it will put pressure on the Pakistan High Court to respond to the protocol, and send a clear signal that the UK Government are backing Asma in her fight to get her children back to the UK. If the Minister is prepared to do that, I will travel to Pakistan to negotiate their safe return. Can he think of a better Christmas or Eid present for Asma and her family?

For the long term, the Government should begin talks with the Pakistan Government, as envisaged by article 7 of the protocol. Agreed administrative machinery could remove the frustrations and distress caused by the delaying tactics used in this case. The protocol was an important first step forward by the courts—an imaginative response from Dame Elizabeth
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Butler-Sloss. We need the Government to give the protocol some teeth, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

6.8 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) for securing a debate on the UK-Pakistan protocol on children’s matters, and in particular on the case of Asma Akhtar. We are very much aware of Mrs. Akhtar’s circumstances and I welcome the opportunity to set out clearly the position of Her Majesty’s Government in relation to that case. I thank the hon. Gentleman for so clearly setting out the difficulty and complexity of the case.

As the hon. Gentleman told us, international parental child abduction is not a new issue, nor, unfortunately, is it uncommon. As more people live and work overseas, so there will be more families with parents from different countries. Sometimes relationships break down and decisions have to be taken about where a child will live. In some cases, parents cannot agree and one parent decides to move the child to another country without the permission of the other. In this case, there are four children, and the circumstances are pretty exceptional.

Where parents cannot agree, and cannot reach a mediated solution, custody is a matter for the courts. However, it is a serious and distressing issue, particularly when there is an international dimension. We cannot interfere, or take sides, but the Government are committed to helping where we can. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has spoken about the matter with Mr. Justice Ryder of the family division of the High Court. It is important that the hon. Gentleman gets guidance from Mr. Justice Ryder.

To provide a focal point for our work, in 2003 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office set up a dedicated child abduction section within the consular directorate. The section provides advice and support to parents affected by child abduction. For many years, countries have looked for ways to resolve disputes in the best interests of the children. The 1980 Hague convention on the civil aspects of international child abduction is an international convention under which legal procedures are agreed between a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, to assist in the return of a child who has been abducted.

The hon. Gentleman did not have time to remind us, but The Hague convention does not work for all countries. For example, there are aspects of Islamic or sharia law, as practised in some countries, that can conflict with the principles of the convention. The convention argues that the country of habitual residence should be the deciding factor in determining where custody issues should be resolved. As he reminded us, the children are British. They were taken to Pakistan on holiday and they and their mother now find themselves more or less incarcerated in the country. Sharia law does not always support the notions enshrined in The Hague convention and so in many countries it can be very difficult for parents to have their children returned to their normal place of residence.

13 Dec 2007 : Column 572

Pakistan is such a country. It is also the country to which most abducted British children are taken by a parent—accounting for almost a fifth of our total case records. The United Kingdom-Pakistan protocol, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, was signed in 2003 following an initiative by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, who was then president of the family division of the royal courts of justice, and senior judges. The aim was to provide a mechanism for communication between judiciaries to handle child abduction cases between our two countries better.

The judicial initiative reflected the fact that although Pakistan, a country practising Islamic sharia family law, was unlikely in the near future to sign The Hague convention of 1980 on international child abduction, our countries shared many legal principles. They shared a desire to see child abduction cases handled in the best interests of the children. The protocol is a judicial consensus and, as the hon. Gentleman said, is not legally binding. However, in legal systems that draw heavily on precedent, it was clear that further establishing the principle of habitual residence as a strong assumption in child abduction cases would be very helpful. Judicial co-operation on this level is also important in trying to foster international co-operation between judiciaries.

The protocol aims to secure the return of abducted children to the country where they normally live, without regard to the nationality, culture or religion of the parents, so that matters of custody and access can be resolved by the courts there. The protocol, which Her Majesty’s Government fully support, has made a difference. According to the most recent records, 84 cases have been handled under the protocol. Of these, a total of 49 involved actual abduction or wrongful retention of a child by a parent. Some 22 cases resulted in returns from Pakistan to the United Kingdom.

As well as offering the advice and support provided by the child abduction section in London, our consular staff based overseas are committed to supporting British nationals. That includes giving all the support that we properly can to those who have had their children abducted overseas, or are involved in custody disputes. We provide a list of overseas lawyers who speak English, conduct welfare checks on children—provided, of course, that the other parent agrees—offer travel information, and help with finding accommodation locally. Where appropriate, we contact the courts overseas to express our interest in a case and ask about progress. In exceptional circumstances we also attend court hearings. However, we can only operate within the confines of the law and cannot interfere in foreign court proceedings, just as other countries cannot interfere in our judicial system.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the case of Mrs. Akhtar and her four children, all of whom are in Pakistan. Our consular staff at the British high commission in Islamabad became aware of the case when Mrs. Akhtar’s family in the UK contacted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Consular staff have been in regular, frequent contact with Mrs. Akhtar since 1 May 2007 to offer and provide advice and assistance. That has included accompanying Mrs. Akhtar during a court hearing. Consular officials in London have also been in contact with Mrs. Akhtar’s family in the United Kingdom.

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