I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House the case of Catherine Meyer, whose two sons were abducted by her former husband eight years ago, in 1994. This is a tragic case. It is impossible to imagine the pain and suffering that this mother has had to go through over the last few years. It has been described as torture. As the parent of two young children, one the same age as Lady Meyer's children when she last had custody of them, I can only dare to imagine how awful must be her grief. I know that the Minister also has young children, so he will know what I mean when I say this.
Although this debate will focus on one case, it is one case among many—far too many. The House has debated the subject of child abduction before. Sir John Stanley raised the issue on
Two Departments have responsibility for these matters: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department; the Home Office also has a remit. This case has also been raised at the highest levels by President Chirac in 1997, President Clinton in 2000, and President Bush in 2001. Lady Meyer's husband is, of course, Her Majesty's ambassador to Washington.
We are also dealing with real gaps in an international convention, the complete failure of the German courts to bring justice to the situation, and the manipulation by their father of the emotions and the psychology of two young children. Dr. Hans Peter Volkmann has behaved appallingly in robbing his own children of their childhood.
This sad story began eight years ago. Catherine Meyer, a British citizen, had a legal separation agreement from her husband, Dr. Volkmann. She had legal custody of the children from the German court by a notarised separation agreement. It was
There then began a history of court action, which continues to this day. It makes me wonder about the principles that underpin German justice. Dr. Volkmann's application for custody of the children was rejected by a court in Verden on
The father asked for half an hour to say goodbye to the children, and Lady Meyer's lawyer agreed. Volkmann and his family went to the café where the boys were waiting and threw them into the back seat of a waiting car. The car sped away to the town of Celle, where his family had influence. He immediately lodged an ex-parte application against the Verden decision. Neither Lady Meyer nor her lawyer was informed; they were simply not represented.
In November 1994, the appeal court in Celle reversed the two previous decisions and ruled that the children remain in Germany, as they were suffering in a foreign environment because German was not spoken at home or at school. The judges also deemed that the children, then aged seven and nine, were mature enough to have their views taken into account. By that time, Lady Meyer had not seen them in more than four months and they were under the exclusive control of their father and his family. In March 1995, the German Constitutional Court rejected her appeal.
The Lord Chancellor's Department told Lady Meyer that there was little it could do and that she was now in the hands of the local German courts, to which she should apply for custody and access. Since 1994, Lady Meyer has tried repeatedly, and failed, to find redress in the German courts. Not only were her sons not returned to England, but she has been denied normal access to them for the entire eight years since their illegal retention in Germany.
The boys are now 17 and 15. Since summer 1994, she has been allowed to see her sons for a grand total of 25 hours—only in Germany, usually in her ex-husband's house or on the premises of the Verden youth authority and on only three occasions without a member of the father's family or a German bureaucrat present.
The last visit was in early 1999, and the situation has gone from bad to worse. Lady Meyer is now forbidden to see her children until 2003. Then, she will no longer be able to apply for access under German law as her sons will be over 16. The handling of her case by the German courts and the youth authority has comprised a mix of bias, incompetence and malice, but the heart of the problem has been the creation of facts by the German courts, which justify subsequent decisions favouring her ex-husband. Central to that has been delay.
From the very beginning, the slowness of court proceedings has given her ex-husband ample opportunity to manipulate the children against her. It has taken up to a year to make a decision on access applications—not custody applications, but applications for access. Statements are extracted from the children, saying that they do not wish to see her. These are taken at face value by the German courts, which seem unable to understand that the will of the children is in fact the will of the father.
Dr. Volkmann is therefore able arrogantly to tear up access agreements and force Lady Meyer to keep making these applications. For her, this has meant 20 fruitless trips to Germany over the last eight years, more than 30 applications and the expenditure of more than £200,000 in legal fees and travel costs.
The more time that elapses without her seeing her children, the more the courts and the youth authority resort to the argument that it would be too traumatic for the children to visit her. The German courts refused to fine Dr. Volkmann for disobeying access arrangements. In August 2000, a psychologist made a report after extensive interviews of all parties. His conclusion was that the children were being negatively influenced against their mother and that access to the mother should be resumed immediately in the mother's home. This led to the first positive decision.
However, Dr. Volkmann immediately appealed against the decision. A new psychologist was appointed; the mother was not even interviewed. The latest decision, scrapping all her access rights until 2003, is based on this very one-sided report.
The situation is not unique. There are many parents who find themselves in a similar predicament. These cases closely follow an established pattern. The court registers an agreed programme of access rights; the abducting parent refuses to abide by it; the court refuses to enforce it. The victim parent is required to begin again with new hearings. With the passage of time, the court relies increasingly on the child's will and the arguments of trauma of reunion with the left-behind parent. In too many cases, the victim parent cannot continue, emotionally and financially trapped in this vicious cycle. A few find release in suicide.
I have been alarmed at the number of children who go missing and are abducted every year. More than 100 children go missing every day in the United Kingdom. Although most are found or returned within a few hours, last year in England and Wales 1,300 children were still missing two weeks after they disappeared. Of these, 750 were from the Metropolitan police area. Some 546 had been abducted; 40 per cent. were victims of parental abduction. Reunite, whose work I want to commend, informs us that there was a 58 per cent. jump in the recorded number of children abducted from Britain between 1995 and the end of last year. The true figure could be far higher.
The US State Department estimates that at least 1,000 children are taken from the United States each year by a non-American parent without the consent of the other parent. In a parliamentary reply, the Lord Chancellor's Department informed us that, in respect of signatories to The Hague convention, there were 1,314 cases of abduction reported and 668 of these had been returned—a 51 per cent. success rate. It came as no surprise to me that Germany had 80 cases of abduction and a success rate of only 35 per cent., one of the worst figures of any country.
What now can be done to resolve the situation? First, I want ministerial action at the highest levels between Britain and Germany on the issue. I shall be writing to the Prime Minister today to ask him to raise this case directly with Chancellor Schroder. Germany is an EU member, a signatory to the convention and a close ally of Britain. We know that the courts are independent of Government, but they are supposed to exist in order to ensure that justice is done, not that national interests are served. There was rightly a lot of Government anger over the detaining of the British planespotters in Greece. I would like to see some ministerial anger over this. I will ask again before the summer recess what action has been taken to follow it up.
Secondly, I want the Lord Chancellor's Department to do much more. I know that Ministers in the Department treat the issue very seriously indeed. The area of justice and home affairs is ripe for co-operation, and no issues of sovereignty are at stake. Let us have some positive judicial co-operation. I know that the German Justice Ministry has been reformed in its dealing with Hague cases, and that is thanks to the campaigning of Catherine Meyer and others.
Surely the courts and judges in the two countries can talk to one another about the issue and produce some positive results. Perhaps we can offer some judicial training in child care law to those in the German courts who would like it. We need to learn from the administrative mistakes that have been made. It would be helpful if the Lord Chancellor's Department could ask the German authorities to review the conduct of the German courts in this case. I shall write to the German Chancellor to ask him to raise the matter directly with the German chief justice.
Thirdly, this must be seen as a human rights issue. What advice can the Government give to Lady Meyer on pursuing the matter in the European Court of Human Rights, and what are we to do about The Hague convention? It is a pointless exercise to sign, as Germany has done, without any inclination to ensure that the articles are actually followed.
Fourthly, I would like the Minister to agree to a meeting between the Foreign Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and Lady Meyer. Let us have some joined-up action.
Finally, I would like the Government to support much more actively the work of non-profit-making organisations. In particular, I commend the work of PACT, the organisation founded by Catherine Meyer as a result of her terrible ordeal. She is a courageous woman who has dedicated the past eight years of her life to her beloved sons. PACT stands for Parents and Abducted Children Together, and its website is at www.pact-online.org. It exists to give information and advice to those who suffer the horror of having their children abducted and seeks to raise the profile of cases and of the subject generally in a positive and constructive way. Lady Meyer may not be able to help herself, but she intends to help others.
Lady Meyer wrote a book entitled "Two Children Behind a Wall", chronicling her attempts to be reunited with her sons. Her love for her children is of course never-ending. She ends her book with a moving message to her young sons:
"I have nothing left but my life to give you. This book is the only way I have left to communicate my indestructible boundless love for you. When you grow up and you are free perhaps you will read these words and understand. I do not know why life has burdened us with such a fate. I only know that even in my helplessness I will never abandon you . . . I will always be there for you but until the day when we are together again—and we will be—you must have faith. Till then sleep well, and let us meet in your dreams. In the dark at least our thoughts are our own to hold and to cherish and we can laugh again. For ever yours, Mummy."
I urge the Minister not to abandon this mother, and the Government to do what they can to help her and thousands of others who suffer because of the cruelty and spite of people such as Hans Peter Volkmann and the administrative failures of the German court system.