I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for having allocated the time to me to raise again the scandal of the case of baby Caroline Desramault. When I took the matter up on 29th March 1971 little did I think that here tonight, exactly 20 months later, I should have to go once more through this painful business.
The inhumanity heaped on the head of Linda Desramault and baby Caroline started on that dark day of December 1970 at Gosforth magistrates' court when Mrs. Peile, Chairman of the Bench, and Mr. Mitchell, her fellow magistrate, perpetrated what is now regarded by many of my fellow citizens as being as great an injustice as has ever been perpetrated in the name of justice. Mr. Mitchell has had the good sense as a magistrate to refrain from comment on the case. Mrs. Peile has been brash enough to give an exclusive interview with a national daily paper and then addle-headed enough when interviewed by Mr. Dan O'Neil, of the Sunday Sun, Newcastle, in reply to his question
If you had this case before you tomorrow, Mrs. Peile, what would you do?
I would do exactly the same again.
That was clearly a deliberate snub to the Lord Chancellor, who had condemned the magistrates' decision out of hand. We can possibly overlook a snub to the Lord Chancellor. But worse, it was a direct snub to the Court of Appeal in London, which had reversed the magistrates' decision.
It is reasonable to assume that the Lord Chancellor sought from Mrs. Peile a denial of the statement, to avoid the necessity of removing her from the Bench for gross contempt of the High Court. I find it remarkable that, having denied the veracity of the Sunday Sun report of her remarks—only after I had publicly stated that I intended to seek for the Lord Chancellor an undertaking that he would remove her from the Bench as an unfit person to sit in judgment on others—Mrs. Peile has taken no action against the newspaper or Mr. O'Neil.
I know both Mr. O'Neil and the editor of the Sunday Sun personally as highly respected journalists. I have no reason to doubt the truth of what Mr. O'Neil caused to be published on that Sunday a few months ago, with the full consent of his editor.
After the High Court decision giving custody to the mother, Mrs. Desramault flew to France in February 1971. There she was met by a defiant René Desramault, who said that the baby was his to keep. He started divorce proceedings in April 1971. On 7th May at Versailles we had the judgment of Solomon, custody being awarded to mother and father on a three-monthly basis. But on 17th May, the day that Linda was to have her three-months' custody, René took the child into hiding.
On 8th July 1971 the Paris High Court gave full custody to Madame Desramault, the baby's grandmother, with an instruction that social and background reports be prepared for a further hearing at Versailles to decide finally on the custody of the child. I thought, "This is it. Now we shall have progress to a just decision." But months went by with no indication of any request to the authorities to prepare the reports demanded by the Paris court.
On 27th January this year I wrote to the Prime Minister, saying:
No doubt you will recall the case of the baby Caroline Desramault who is at present in the custody of her French grandmother.
In July, last year, a Paris court ordered social and background reports on Caroline's parents to be prepared for the consideration of the court in a future hearing as to the custody of the child.
To date, no instructions have been received from France by the French Consul in Liverpool. It really does smack to me of almost inhuman disregard for the feelings of this very brave British subject, Linda Desramault, that the French authorities should be so callously treating this very serious matter so completely frivolously.
I really do think that the human suffering inflicted on Mrs. Desramault should not be prolonged longer than need be. I hope that you would agree and that you would use your good offices to bring some pressure to bear on the French authorities to get some movement in this very sad case.
The Prime Minister replied that even discreet inquiries could give the appearance of interference by us with the French courts, and might produce the wrong result. Really! It is almost unbelievable that a British Prime Minister should allow a foreign State to be so lacking in basic humanity in the dispensation of justice for one of our own subjects, and not be prepared to make a discreet intervention on her behalf.
I possibly had a little sympathy with the Prime Minister then, because I realised that he was desperate to get this country into the EEC, and he did not want to run the risk of causing any offence to President Pompidou on any issue.
I then had an audience at the French embassy with the No. 2 to the ambassador, and protested at the lack of action. Finally, the necessary reports were prepared. I am not suggesting that my intervention with the French embassy brought that about, but that might be the case, because I had quite a favourable hearing by the ambassador's deputy.
I was worried about the length of time taken. People were inclined to say that our consul in Liverpool was being slow, so I rang up the French embassy and spoke to the counsellor. He explained to me something that I did not know, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not know, that the arrangement in the French courts is that before a request can be made to a consul it must go from one court to another, and that that had caused the delay. It was also suggested to me that perhaps some solicitors in France take longer to get a case from court to court than others do. Therefore, the delay was nothing to do with our consul at Liverpool, who acted as soon as he could.
The hon. Gentleman has taken a great deal of trouble over the matter. I also rang up, only to be assured for myself and Mrs. Desramault that there was no delay on our part. I was very glad to discover the reason for the delay, distressing and disturbing though it was.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention on behalf of my constituent. There was no question of any delay by our consul, it was the French consul at Liverpool who was at fault. The hon. Lady can talk from now until the cows come home about solicitors to-ing and fro-ing, but nothing can excuse the fact that it took 12 months to obtain the social and background reports on these two parents, ordered by the Paris High Court. It was 12 months before the Northumberland County Council Children's Department received the request from the French consul in Liverpool.
I have talked to many lawyers in this country and every one of them has assured me that had such instructions been given by the British High Court, six weeks at the outside would have elapsed before the reports were with the court. If it can happen in this country, then no matter how different the French system may be, nothing can account for the 12-month delay.
I am sorry to intervene again, but that was not the advice that I was given by the French embassy. I do not want to repeat what I was told but it was said that the French solicitor who had been employed by Mrs. Desramault had been very slow. I have always been on very good terms with the French embassy and the French consul could not have been nicer and more co-operative. He said that that was the law of France and it had to be observed. I was not talking about solicitors in this country but about French solicitors, who must follow the French routine, which is very unfortunate.
If the hon. Lady catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, she can make her point.
Following my intervention at the French embassy I was still awaiting the hearing at Versailles. I was so angry by this inactivity of the French that I wrote to the French President on 14th May as follows:—
Dear Monsieur Le President,
You will no doubt have heard about the case of the baby Caroline Desramault.
I will not waste your time in recriminations about the disgraceful delays in dealing with this case by the authorities in your country, which have angered many people in the United Kingdom.
Now that social and background reports on the parents of Caroline which were called for by the Paris Appeal Court last year have at long last been completed I appeal to you in the name of humanity to use your good offices to expedite a custody hearing at Versailles Court in order that the future of this child may be finally settled.
I do assure you that any action on your part to bring to a conclusion the long saga of events in the life of this very young child will be very much appreciated by a great many British people.
Whether M. Pompidou ever received my letter I do not know, for I have yet to have the courtesy of an acknowledgement. However, lest I am accused of being discourteous to the French President, I accept that through the vagaries of the GPO or the French postal system he may never have received my letter.
On 4th July Linda Desramault had the joy of a hearing in France awarding her the full custody of Caroline from 7th August. In the interim period her husband appealed and lost, and on the day of the hand-over he again went into hiding with the child, only to be traced on 8th September in Switzerland. It is to the credit of the Swiss that they, unlike the French, have provided Caroline Desramault with some security, which she has never known since December 1970. Nevertheless this judiciary took over two months to decide not to decide; in other words, to leave it to the Court of Cassation in Paris to make the final decision on the appeal—which is an appeal on an appeal. That was an almost inhuman decision. Had the Swiss court upheld the decisions of our High Court and a French High Court, both of whom had awarded full custody to Linda, there the matter would have ended.
Instead, there is now the outrageous position that a man, in clear contempt of the High Court of his own country, having kidnapped the child to avoid acceptance of the court order, is to be allowed, blessed as he is with the Swiss court non-decision, again to appeal. It is outrageous that this situation should ever have been allowed to develop. This position has been reached as a direct result of the idiosyncracies of the law and lawyers in three countries. This sad child has lived in three or four countries, in numerous houses, with numerous people, in her short two-and-a-half years. No one can say with certainty that she will not be severely psychologically scarred or maladjusted in later life as a direct result of the inhumanity of man.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short)—the deputy Leader of my party—for agreeing to go with me on a further visit to the French embassy last week. I am grateful, too, to His Excellency the Ambassador for meeting us personally. He was most helpful and I sincerely hope that out of his intervention there may be some progress.
On the day I went to the French embassy—a fortnight ago today—I tabled a Question for the Prime Minister for reply today. Before tabling the Question I spent a great deal of time wading through Questions, correspondence and my last Adjournment debate—and the First Assistant clerk at the Table also spent a considerable time—to be sure that we could clearly pin the Question to the Prime Minister. The Question is:
To ask the Prime Minister if, following his earlier undertaking to find out what help and advice could be made available to Mrs. Linda Desramault in France, he will, in the light of recent developments in the case, make further inquiries both in France and in Switzerland.
The First Assistant Clerk at the Table is far more expert than I am at pinning a Question to a particular Minister, and we were quite sure that the Question was pinned to the Prime Minister. At the end of eight days he announced that he was switching it to the Foreign Secretary, so the Question now reads:
To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if, following his earlier undertaking to find out what help and
advice could be made available to Mrs. Linda Desramault … he will make further inquiries …
But the Secretary of State had never given any earlier undertakings to find out what help and advice could be made available to Mrs. Desramault. It was the Solicitor-General who, in replying to my Adjournment debate 20 months ago, undertook to see that his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would seek to find out what was requested in the Question.
I take a dim view of the fact that the Prime Minister sought to wriggle out of a Question because of its embarrassing nature. Nevertheless, I do not want to create any animosity towards the Prime Minister personally. I wish to appeal to him in the interests of simple humanity. The answer given to that Question was a stereotyped one which read as follows:
The matter is one for the courts.
I am not prepared to accept the reply that the matter is one for the courts. I am prepared to believe that if this regrettable case had happened in this country, the Lord Chancellor would have had a word in the ear of the Lord Chief Justice and said, "Public opinion is absolutely outraged at the delay in this case. Get the case brought forward quickly." I have no doubt that this would not have been a case of the executive interfering with the judiciary because, in the final analysis, the judiciary has to decide the matter. I am suggesting that the same thing could be done as between Prime Minister and Prime Minister.
I want to put to the Prime Minister that, in the interests of simple humanity, he should show some compassion and make a diplomatic intervention with the French Government so that a special hearing of the Cassation Court can be heard quickly, so that little Caroline Desramault can be reunited with her mother in Newcastle for Christmas, 1972. Let us not allow this appalling case to drag on for one day longer than is necessary.
We know the sad history of this child. It started, as the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Robert C. Brown) said, on 7th December, 1970 when the justices at the West Castle Ward Petty Sessions in Northumberland awarded custody of Caroline Desramault, then seven months old, to the French father and, furthermore, in such a way as to permit him to remove her forthwith from the jurisdiction of Her Majesty.
I appreciate that there is some conflict of evidence as to whether or not an application for a stay of execution was properly made. However, much of the trouble would have been avoided had a stay been granted. It cannot be too often stated or too widely known that the desirability or otherwise of granting or rejecting a stay of execution pending appeal should always be canvassed at the close of proceedings involving the physical control of a young person.
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the stay of execution. This morning I was up at the crack of dawn at the Public Bill Office and just missed obtaining a Ten-Minute Bill. I intend, if I possibly can, to introduce a Bill to make it mandatory for magistrates to impose a stay of execution of 14 days so that the child concerned will not be allowed to go outside the jurisdiction of the British courts until there has been time for an appeal. I hope that the Government will support me in this matter.
I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will be very interested to hear that, and I have no doubt he will take note.
It should also be borne in mind that an appeal from a refusal to grant a stay can be made to the High Court, even by telephone. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for calling attention to this matter in case it could be overlooked.
However, those things did not happen. We now know that the justices were wrong. I do not question their good faith. The hon. Gentleman with his involvement in the matter, seems to attack one magistrate in particular almost as a matter of personal vendetta, though I do not suppose that he means to give that impression. But save that, of course, he differs from the decision, he has not been able to give any example or instance of impropriety or incapacity on the part of the magistrate, and I think that his interpretation of the magistrate's action, under the absolute privilege which we enjoy in this House, begins to be—how shall I put it?—a bit much.
The court's decision was reversed, but too late to affect the result, as Caroline was by that time in France. Once in France, Caroline is for all purposes a French citizen. Technically it is correct that only the French authorities can state definitively whether she is a French citizen. But, so far as we can tell, she has dual nationality from her French father and from the fact that she was born in this country, so that while in France she is French, and while in the United Kingdom she is English.
We have no right under international law and custom to make any representations to the French about jurisdiction over Caroline while she is on French territory, any more than we have about any other French citizen.
The hon. Member said that Mrs. Desramault is one of us. So she is, when she is here; but equally I have hardly any doubt that, when in France, she is French by virtue of her marriage to a Frenchman, unless—I have no exact information about this—she specifically renounced French citizenship before her marriage.
We have, therefore, a situation in which both the mother and her child are French citizens while in France. All we can do is what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said he would do, and what was done, namely, to arrange for the embassy in Paris to give general help and, in particular, to advise Mrs. Desramault on a choice of lawyer in France.
The hon. Gentleman has rightly rehearsed some of the chronicle, but I think that it would not be otiose if I did the same. In April 1971 Mrs. Desramault instituted proceedings in the French courts at Versailles. In May, 1971 the court made an award giving to each parent alternate three-month periods of custody—a judgment of Solomon, as the hon. Gentleman described it. Mr. Desramault appealed and in July 1971 Caroline was placed in the custody of Mr. Desramault's mother.
I am sure she is. In May 1972 Mr. Desramault quarrelled with his mother and took the child away from her. In June that year the children's court at Bethune gave him the custody of the child, with visiting rights to the mother. However, in July 1972 the court at Versailles gave custody to Mrs. Desramault, with the right to take the child to England, which seemed to be all Mrs. Desramault wanted. The father appealed to the Paris Appeal Court, which upheld the decision of the court at Versailles, but, as is well known, he then disappeared with the child and later reappeared in Switzerland.
When Caroline was found, the Swiss authorities placed her in a children's home. Mrs. Desramault applied to the Swiss court in Lausanne to enforce the order of the French court in her favour. But on 14th November last the court decided to await the verdict of the French Court of Cassation to which Mr. Desramault had meanwhile appealed.
It is not for me to make any comment about the legal systems of other countries. It is a luxury which the hon. Gentleman was able to allow himself. Perhaps I should say that we often in this country complain of the law's delays, but it will be admitted that other legal systems seem also to have their delays. It seems that we have little of which to be ashamed.
Both France and Switzerland are parties to The Hague Convention of 1961. France has ratified the convention. It came into force between the two countries on 10th November 1972, only four days before the decision of the Swiss court. One purpose of the convention is to give primary jurisdiction in cases relating to the custody and protection of children to the State where the child habitually resides—that is to say, in this case France. No doubt the Swiss court had regard to the convention. This country is not a party to the convention because in our law the welfare of the child is the first and paramount consideration. We have our doubts whether the convention is compatible with that consideration.
The increasing number of cases relating to the custody and wardship of children which arise across frontiers in these days of international travel and of marriage between spouses of different nationality have made it appropriate to examine the matter. The House may have noticed that the Law Commission established a working party in May, 1972 to consider the difficulties arising on custody orders, both in the British context and in the international context. Its terms of reference enabled it to consider the administrative problems involved in the enforcement of custody orders across jurisdictional boundaries. The working party has started work and the Law Commission will probably produce a paper sometime in the middle of 1973.
Her Majesty's Government have taken another initiative in the custody and wardship of children. At the seventh conference of Ministers of Justice held in Basle in May, 1972, the United Kingdom proposed an item for the agenda of the conference, which read as follows:
Ways of improving co-operation in the guardianship and custody of children with particular reference to the mutual recognition of judicial decisions.
After discussion, including an interesting proposal from the French delegation for a form of "mixed arbitral tribunal" with judges from the two countries concerned, the subject was referred for further examination to the European Committee on Legal Co-operation, which is called CCJ. The CCJ is meeting next week and will consider further action.
The position now is that there is no provision for the reciprocal enforcement of custody proceedings. The differing social habits and views of family life held in different countries have up to now prevented such provisions from coming into being. However, a start is being made and Her Majesty's Government are active in the matter.
At the moment, therefore, there can be no doubt that this is a family dispute which is being legally and properly pursued in the courts of the appropriate countries.
I am not suggesting that the case has not been properly dealt with while in court, nor that the Prime Minister should play this matter up into an international incident and break off diplo- matic relations with France or anything else of the sort. But I am suggesting that it is not too much to ask for a discreet Government-to-Government inquiry to guarantee that the hearing which is necessary by the Court of Cassation in Paris takes place and takes place quickly. Surely that is not too much to ask.
The hon. Gentleman is very persuasive. But I am sure he will recognise that in international and diplomatic relations it is necessary to abide by the rules. I can assure him that if we officially approached the French—we cannot do it unofficially, since one cannot divest oneself of one's capacity as a Minister in these matters—they would be perfectly entitled to think it a slight on their way of doing things, quite apart from the fact that they themselves may feel that they too are not entitled to influence their courts as to the way they conduct their business.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that his words tonight and his calls on the French Embassy in furtherance of his case have done far more good than it is possible for the Government officially to do in such a matter as this. This is why I welcome the debate, in which the hon. Gentleman has been able to express himself so frankly and freely. I have no doubt that the French authorities will take serious note of what he has said, but it would not be appropriate and would be counter-productive if Her Majesty's Government were to make any official démarche about this matter.
The question of whether one would be influencing the courts was dealt with in the previous debate on the subject by my right hon. and learned Friend the present Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs, who was then Solicitor-General. I do understand that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting a tactful word and not an attempt to tell the French their business. Nevertheless, this is perhaps a slippery slope upon which I would prefer my right hon. and learned Friends the Law Officers to comment rather than myself. We all hope that those who now have the jurisdiction and have the power to shape little Caroline's life and happiness will judge well.