MRS. Betty Ullah (Children)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th December 1972.

Alert me about debates like this

10.2 p.m.

Photo of Mr Thomas Williams Mr Thomas Williams , Warrington

On 2nd September of this year I sent a file of documents together with a letter to the Foreign Secretary about four children at present in Bangladesh in conditions that should give rise to the greatest concern in the House. They are the children of a Bengali father and an English mother whose relationship to each other is not that of a legally binding marriage.

I have no wish, because I have so little time, to become involved in an argument about law. Indeed, in the long correspondence that I have had with the Minister of State on the matter too often we have got bogged down in questions of law that are not basic to the situation in which these children find themselves. The Minister has taken one view from the advice he has received. I have taken another view from the advice that I have received on the matters that are in dispute between us. I am confident that on the matters on which we disagree I am right.

During 1969 I was in what was then East Pakistan acting in defence of the present Prime Minister of Bangladesh. In the course of that trial I was successful in obtaining a judgment against the Pakistan Government holding that that trial of Mujib Rahman was ultra vires the constitution. My advisers then, who were my junior counsel in the case, were the same as those who have advised me on the law both Moslem and Bangladesh. Therefore, I have confidence that my law on the matters in dispute between us is right. Nevertheless, I am not concerned to pursue those matters because there are others more fundamental by which the situation of these children should be governed.

My inquiries leave me in no doubt that the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Ullah was not a legal marriage either in English or in Moslem law and, further, was never intended to be so by Mr. Ullah, the purported husband. This fact has never been seriously contested by him.

The four children born of this marriage are not legitimate under either English or Moslem law, and there is no question that under both laws the legal guardianship of the children is that of the mother and/or her family. This appears to be a matter of which Mr. Ullah is well aware because he obtained from his wife by a trick, as I believe, a document purporting to give him custody of the children. If these children were the children of a legal marriage, it would have been unnecessary for Mr. Ullah to take out such a document, and that he did so makes it plain that he did not believe the children were legitimate. The document that he obtained is undated, but it was signed by Mrs. Ullah when she had just returned from hospital after a nervous breakdown and when she was under sedation. In any event, such a document would not be binding outside the jurisdiction of the English courts.

Thus, by no law is Mr. Ullah the legal guardian of these children, but he has usurped that position and been assisted in his usurpation by the British Government, who failed in their duty in accepting that bogus claim on such a trivial examination as they gave it. It is on that claim that the Government so far have based their refusal to aid these unhappy children, with whose situation I should now like to deal.

I am surprised that the Government should behave as though this matter can be disposed of as a matrimonial dispute. There is no doubt that the Government have a right, indeed a duty, to intervene to protect British nationals—and these children, born out of wedlock, are British nationals and not Bangladesh subjects. The fact that the Government have behaved in this way can only be described as a dereliction of their duty.

The Government's first failure occurred when the matter was brought to the notice of the High Commission. When Stewart, then 12 years of age, came to the High Commission seeking refuge in a greatly distressed condition, the High Commission's reaction was to refuse responsibility for him and to allow him forcibly to be returned to Mr. Ullah without giving the child sanctuary until such time as the story could be properly checked. What was even more serious than that was that once the circumstances of these children had been brought to the attention of the High Commission it became apparent that, in addition to the account of Stewart's own ill-treatment, the High Commission authorities were made aware that in September 1970 a 12-year-old child, Susan, who was prima facie a United Kingdom citizen, had been given in marriage to a 35-year-old Bengali.

Two matters arise from this marriage. First, under both British law and the law of Pakistan, now Bangladesh—and the law has not changed—this was an illegal marriage since Susan was below the legal age. Secondly, under Moslem law it was also illegal without the consent of her mother. There is no doubt that Mrs. Ullah never gave her consent. Mr. Ullah has now declared, on being challenged, that he never gave his consent. There is no question that at the time of the marriage the man was not even in the country. Now Susan's husband has admitted that he has no right to hold the child, and he has made that admission to the High Commission.

Once the High Commission had been made aware that a United Kingdom citizen had been abused in this fashion, it was the duty of Her Majesty's Government to see that proper inquiries were made. Their failure to do so has resulted in the continued violation of the child whom it was the duty of the High Commission to protect. No legal argument can alter the fact that this child has been sacrificed by the failure of the High Commission to satisfy itself where legal responsibility lay once the matter had been brought to its notice.

By reason of the failure of care of the British representative, the child Stewart was forcibly returned to Mr. Ullah. When that happened he was cruelly beaten both by Ullah and by the man Anwar to whom the child Susan was married, and that in the presence of two witnesses—Mr. Cheyne, a man at that time working for the British Save the Children Fund, and an American lady who had taken in Stewart for his protection. They were so concerned that they made arrangements for the child to be detained in hospital where he was kept with a suspected broken arm. This matter was reported to the High Commission, whose only reaction was to require them to return the child to the man who had so brutally treated him.

A month later Stewart again fled from Ullah. When he was seen by Mr. Cheyne he was in a shocked and battered condition. He had a wound in his upper right arm which doctors thought could have been caused by a knife attack. The indifference by the High Commission to the welfare of these children on the basis of the flimsy claim to custody made by Ullah without documentation has meant that the only protection that could be given to this child was that he had to be taken away and kept in hiding at the peril of the people who did so.

Let me say immediately that in all this the Bangladesh authorities have shown far greater sympathy and humanity and have been ready to give far more help to protect this little boy than we whose responsibility of care it is.

There remain the two younger children: William, who is now 11 years of age, and Noorjahan, a little girl of four. When I failed so completely to interest the Government in trying to help these children, in my last conversation with the Foreign Office I begged that at least instructions should be given to the High Commission to investigate the conditions in which these unhappy children were being kept, bearing in mind that those who were falsely claiming authority over them were the same people who had so grievously abused the older children.

The Minister did not extend to me the courtesy of saying what has been done, if anything. I gather from the Press that investigators have been sent to the village where the youngest children are. I have also been making inquiries about them. I learn—perhaps the Minister will confirm—that no one from the High Commission went to the village, but that the Commission has satisfied itself by something less than scrupulous concern, comparable with its earlier investigations, whether these children were being well cared for.

My information, from a report by a Bengali villager from the Noakhali district where the children are kept, is that the child William is often beaten and cries continually, and from a Bengali businessman, who has interests in Noakhali, that the British children in that village are in bad circumstances and treated as outcasts.

That such a thing could happen to children who are little more than babies, that the Government, on such flimsy grounds and little evidence, should refuse to deal with them as what they are—English children in distress through no fault of their own and for whom nobody in authority will take trouble—is a shaming thing.

On 24th August a representative of the Foreign Office categorically stated that when the nationality of the children could be determined with reasonable certainty the Foreign Office would not hesitate to accept responsibility to ensure that these children were returned to this country.

I have raised this matter publicly with the greatest reluctance. I had hoped that it would be enough to narrate this pitiful story to the Government for something to be done. Now I put the matter before the forum of the British people. I do not believe that it would be the will of this generous nation that the apparent callousness of the Government should permit this situation to continue a day longer than is necessary but that these children should be brought home and be cared for with compassion and kindness as they have suffered too much so young.

10.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr Anthony Kershaw Mr Anthony Kershaw , Stroud

I pay tribute to the sincerity of the hon. and learned Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams), but I must tell him that much of the information that he gave the House is contrary to that which I have received.

The four Ullah children were born in Britain of British parents. The father was registered as a citizen of the United Kingdom in 1962, having been born in East Pakistan as it then was. The hon. and learned Gentleman's allegation that the marriage was invalid is not known to me and, of course, is a matter for the court, not for the Government. Certainly the parties appear to have believed that they were married. They went through two forms of marriage in this country, so we have the expectation from that perhaps that they are properly married.

In October 1969 the father took the children to Bangladesh. At that time the children were in the care of the local authority. They were Susan aged 12, Stewart aged 10, William aged eight and Noorjahan aged one. This was done with the mother's consent. They were taken on what Mrs. Ullah described as a holiday. The father returned in April 1970 without the children and he went back to Bangladesh in April 1972 following the receipt of a telegram that the boy Stewart had run away from home. I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman is familiar with these facts.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office first heard of the matter in May this year from a gentleman called Mr. Cheyne who is a New Zealander working for the Save the Children Fund in Dacca. He sent a telegram which read: Douglas Home, Home Department"— or perhaps I should say "Hume Department"— London. Demand that High Commission Dacca act by British Law regarding Queen's subject Stewart Ullah. Press informed. That was not exactly very explicit. The High Commission, however, was able to reach the family. The father visited the High Commission in Dacca and made a long statement about the family's affairs which I have no means of checking but which accords in hardly any detail with what the hon. and learned Gentleman said, including the statement that Stewart had not been ill treated. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that on one occasion Stewart was taken to hospital with a broken arm. I am told that that is not true. The only proof towards it is that he stayed there for only one night. If his arm was broken one would expect him to have stayed for longer.

Stewart wrote some letters, or is said to have written some, alleging ill treatment. My advisers have seen photocopies of the letters and I am bound to tell the hon. and learned Gentleman that the two letters are in different handwriting and the spelling is very different in both. I am not prepared to say whether the letters were genuine.

When we received allegations of ill treatment from the hon. and learned Gentleman immediate instructions were sent by telegram to our High Commission in Dacca to get in touch with the Bangladesh authorities and find out the situation. The children, except for Stewart, were visited by a member of the High Commission. They were not able to visit Stewart for reasons which I shall come to and which are known to the hon. and learned Gentleman. The consular officer, a member of the High Commission, travelled to Noakhali, a village 10 hours' journey from Dacca, where the two smaller children William, now 11, and Noorjahan, now aged 4, are living with the other wife of the husband—a situation which the hon. and learned Gentleman and I should not think very satisfactory. It is a village, but the officer reported that the children seemed happy and content.

In Dacca this month the High Commission was able to see the father, and the daughter Susan and her husband. The marriage of Susan at the age at which she was married is deeply repugnant to the feelings of people with our customs, and I can understand the indignation with which the hon. and learned Gentleman expressed himself, but my advice is that although the marriage was illegal at that age and incurs penalties to the husband if it is desired to inflict them upon him by the law, nevertheless the marriage is not invalidated thereby. However that may be, the officer also reported that as far as he could tell Susan seemed content. The reason why Stewart was not seen was that he had run away from home in June, and I do not know where he is. I believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, but we cannot do anything about Stewart because we do not know where he is.

Reverting to Susan and whether she was properly described as contented, perhaps some indication can be given by the fact that last month the High Commission wrote to her to ask how she was and her reply, which was postmarked "Noakhali", the village where the other two children are, reached the High Commission in Dacca on 1st December, and it reads: Thank you for your letter, that I received. I am happy what you have written, when I go to England I will see you before I go. PLEASE will you let me know where Stewart is. Please, I have come to this country with my two brothers and sister. I can't go without them. Please, please, let me know where Stewart is, give Stewart back to us. We are all worried about him. When papa came, we were very happy, but we did nothing wrong to Stewart at all. We cannot go without our Father. I am going to write to my mummy very soon. I am go away on holiday. Please give me a reply soon. Thank you. That, I suggest to the hon. and learned Gentleman, is not a letter written by a terrified and oppressed girl, I have no choice but to suggest, on the observations of the officers of the High Commission, that the children appear to be content, although of course I cannot say very much about Stewart, as I do not know where he is.

But the father himself is with these children. He, despite the allegations of the hon. and learned Gentleman, is, so far as we know and so far as anyone else knows, unless the matter is to be tested in the courts, the legal guardian of the two boys and the little girl.

Photo of Mr Neil McBride Mr Neil McBride , Swansea East

Apparently there were no witnesses to the two marriages. Both British and Moslem law require witnesses. In law, does it not therefore follow that the mother is the custodian, that the children are British and that, as my hon. and learned Friend said, we should act speedily to bring them back?

Photo of Mr Anthony Kershaw Mr Anthony Kershaw , Stroud

It would not be right for me to try to interpret the law about this marriage. All I can say is that, on the information I have, there were two witnesses. Whether it was otherwise properly conducted, I have no idea.

But the father himself, after all, is with these children in Bangladesh. As I say, he is the legal guardian of the three and by local law Susan's Bengali husband, is guardian of her. Incidentally he has made no admission such as the hon. and learned Gentleman alleged to the High Commission about his status or about his marriage.

The High Commission cannot, after all, abduct these children and return them to a mother who has, if I may be forgiven for saying so, suddenly discovered that she wants to reverse a decision that she freely made to let them go, a decision which she endorsed as late as September of this year.

But it is not for me to enter into the merits of a family dispute. If Mrs. Ullah wants custody transferred to her, she must go to the court; and if she decides to do that, I can assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that the High Commission will give her every help that we properly can. It would be illegal, both in local and in international law, for the High Commission to ship these children out of the country without the consent of the British father or the husband as the case may be.

There is no difficulty here about nationality. If their guardians want them to go, the children can have their passports tomorrow. We will pay their fares, against the usual undertaking to repay. As to the legal matters, the hon. and learned Gentleman is satisfied about his advisers and I am afraid I must tell him that I am satisfied about mine. The advice that I have is directly contrary to the advice which the hon. and learned Member has been given. It is not for me to argue the interpretation of the law of a foreign country, but I can say that, according to what I have been told—it has been carefully checked in this country and in Dacca—what the hon. and learned Gentleman said about Moslem law does not accord with the facts.

My advisers are perfectly satisfied that in law the father, Ullah, is the guardian of the three children and the husband is the guardian of Susan. The personal visits by the High Commission staff report that the state of the children is not as the hon. and learned Gentleman described. The High Commission and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stand ready to help in every way possible, but we cannot break the law; and what the hon. and learned Gentleman has asked us to do is virtually to go into the kidnapping business. This is utterly impossible by international law and propriety and probably would not help the children in the way he says.

As to Stewart, he has disappeared. Whether those who are guarding him are incurring any penalties under the law is not for me to say. But this is a very strange position. I very much hope that this unhappy family will be able to find the protection they wish. In doing so, they will have every possible help which, within the law, the High Commission in Dacca can give them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.