I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Vaz on securing this debate on the case of Lady Catherine Meyer, the mother of two children who were wrongfully retained in Germany by their father following an access visit in 1994. I congratulate him not only on the powerful case that he has made but on the way in which he has set it in the broader context of children who are abducted and disappear. Those of us who believe that family life should occupy an increasing rather than decreasing part in our society should be grateful to him.
I want to place on the record my admiration for my hon. Friend's persistence in this as in other matters relating to the right of mothers to be with their children. As children, we all learn to speak what is called a mother tongue. In today's world, the right of mothers to be mothers to their children is usually afforded primacy in law and custom, but this case is a grave and serious exception to that general rule. No one should doubt how seriously every decent European citizen would, once familiar with the details of the case as laid before the House tonight, regard the conduct of German lawyers in seeking to deny what Germans call Mutterrecht. The right of a mother to be a mother must be considered.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important and distressing issue, and his initiating this debate is an indication of his commitment to Lady Meyer's case. As he said, there has been extensive parliamentary and public interest in it, and I welcome the opportunity to set out the action that the Government and we in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have taken so far on Lady Meyer's behalf.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, Lady Meyer's children were wrongfully retained in Germany by her ex-husband, following a contact visit in 1994. Before that, Lady Meyer had full custody under the terms of the separation agreement, and her husband had access rights. The High Court in England and Wales ordered the return of the children and made them wards of court. Initially, the lower courts in Germany made an order to return the children to the UK under The Hague convention, which governs the handling of abducted children by European countries.
In Lady Meyer's case, the initial decision of the German lower courts was overturned by the higher regional court, without her being present. Lady Meyer appealed against the decision, but lost in the German constitutional court in 1995. At that point, The Hague convention route was effectively dead. Lady Meyer therefore had no choice but to apply for contact with her children through domestic court processes in Germany. To aid those applications, the children ceased to be wards of court in the UK.
As my hon. Friend recounted in distressing detail, Lady Meyer has pursued applications for contact since November 1994. However, she has been permitted to see her children for a total of just 24 hours throughout this period. Various contact orders have been awarded in Lady Meyer's favour, but the German courts have not enforced them. I believe that that is contrary to all European norms.
It is important to understand how Her Majesty's Government can assist families affected by child abduction. In broad terms, responsibility for assisting such families is divided into two areas: Hague convention cases and non-Hague convention cases. The Lord Chancellor's Department is the lead Department for abductions to and from Hague convention countries in England and Wales; Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own central authorities. The FCO is the lead Department for non-Hague convention countries.
The Hague convention on the international aspects of child abduction is a multilateral treaty. It seeks to return children who have been abducted abroad to their country of habitual residence, where issues of custody and contact can be resolved through the courts. It seeks to protect children from the harmful effects of international child abduction by providing a procedure to bring about their prompt return.
As I said, the FCO is the lead Department for non-Hague convention cases. Where The Hague convention is not in force between two countries, families of abducted children must pursue court proceedings in the foreign country to gain contact with, or custody of, them. The FCO provides support for parents who are pursuing contact or custody cases through the domestic courts of another country, but it also gets involved in Hague convention cases in which diplomatic intervention could expedite progress. That is why the FCO has been closely involved in Lady Meyer's case. Since January 2000, formal representations to the German authorities have been made on at least four occasions. Those have included correspondence to the German authorities from our ambassador in Berlin, our chargé d'affaires in Berlin and Baroness Scotland. Other embassy and consulate-general staff have been closely involved in negotiating a compromise between the children's father, the court in Celle, and the lawyer appointed by the Celle court to look after the children's interests.
Although I do not have direct ministerial responsibility for Germany, I know the country and its Chancellor, and I believe that the denial of Mutterrecht—the right of a mother to be a mother—is not acceptable in a modern, tolerant, liberal Europe. I give the House my assurance that I will give my personal support to the case. It is the considered view of the Foreign Office that the German courts have been incapable of dealing fairly and objectively with the unique circumstances of Lady Meyer's case. She has been treated unsympathetically.