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13 Dec 2007 : Column 573

Mrs. Akhtar has asked us to issue new passports for her children, because her husband has effectively taken the passports away, and refuses to give them back to the children. [Official Report, 7 January 2008, Vol. 470, c. 1MC.] We have not issued new passports because Mrs. Akhtar has started court proceedings in Pakistan under the protocol, seeking the return of the children to the United Kingdom. Under the terms of the protocol, we must await the outcome of the proceedings before issuing passports. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman told us, a lot of time has passed. The poor woman finds herself in dire straits, with her four children in Pakistan. It is important that decisions on travel are made by the appropriate courts of law and that we do not issue passports before a decision is taken; that is the normal situation. To do so could be seen as pre-empting court decisions, or assisting one parent to move the children before the courts have reached a decision on travel. Furthermore, a court order forbids the removal of the children from the jurisdiction of Pakistan without permission from the Pakistani court.

We appreciate the family’s frustration about the lack of progress in the case; the hon. Gentleman told us very clearly about that. I stress again that the British Government cannot interfere in the judicial systems of other countries, but I am not sure that that is what the hon. Gentleman is asking us to do; I think that he is asking us to do something rather different. We can and will express our concerns to the Pakistani judiciary at the highest levels at the lack of progress in the resolution of such cases, making reference to the undertaking signed by the judiciary in 2003.

The British high commissioner in Islamabad is aware of the issues, and this week spoke to the protocol liaison judge, Justice Khokhar, a member of the Supreme Court. The high commissioner did not discuss individual cases, but expressed our concern that cases in Pakistan are not being resolved quickly in the best interests of the children. Justice Khokar promised to look into the matter with the district courts, and was concerned that cases were not being handled expeditiously.

The protocol works in many cases, and we would much prefer to have it in place than not, but there are cases where the protocol has not immediately been seen to help, and the case in question is just such a case. We have raised our concerns, but it remains a matter for
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the courts in Pakistan to decide. We hope that the conference that we plan to hold in Pakistan next year, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, will be a real opportunity to examine the functioning of the protocol and to look for practical improvements, but that is months away, and the hon. Gentleman clearly described the dilemma that faces Mrs. Akhtar and her family, who are in the UK, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

We have discussed whether giving replacement passports or adequate travel documents for the children to Mrs. Akhtar would help in resolving the case more quickly. I understand that there have been discussions with the Pakistani deputy high commissioner and the hon. Gentleman. The deputy high commissioner confirmed that he had passed on to the hon. Gentleman advice that he had received from Mrs. Akhtar’s lawyer, and that if the passports were handed on, it would not jeopardise the case and might even help it.

The family court in Rawalpindi has awarded temporary custody of the children to Mrs. Akhtar. It stipulated that the children must not be taken out of the country without the permission of the court. We will be happy to give a letter to the mother, Mrs. Akhtar, saying that once the court gives permission for the children to leave Pakistan, we will issue the passports immediately.

However, I know that the hon. Gentleman feels that there is another way of dealing with the matter. As we heard, he offered to travel to Pakistan if he believed that that would help and after he had discussed the matter with the various authorities, to try to move this distressing case forward. I want to ensure that he will have access to the appropriate officials so that the implications of his plan can be examined properly. I know that he feels that the welfare of Asma and her children counts most. We share that view deeply. We will attempt to help the hon. Gentleman in whatever way we can. I am not giving him an undertaking that his plan can be agreed by the Foreign Office, but we will look at it closely and sympathetically.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Six o’clock.

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