I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this, the final debate of the calendar year. Lydia Hunt is the first child of my constituent Jonathan Hunt and his wife Irma Obregon Guerrero. Lydia was born in June 2006. At Easter 2008, shortly before Lydia’s second birthday, the family travelled to Mrs Hunt’s native Mexico for a holiday with her family. Mr Hunt returned to the UK in May for work commitments, and the plan was that his wife and Lydia would follow a couple of weeks later. Some time later, Mrs Hunt called her husband to tell him that there would be delay. She first said that she was unwell and then that her father was entering a land deal and that she needed to sign some papers in connection with it. She noted that the slow-moving legal system in Mexico meant that she would have to stay for at least a month.
The plan was that Mrs Hunt and Lydia would accompany Mrs Hunt’s parents to the UK in August, where they intended to spend a holiday, but on
Mexico is a signatory to The Hague convention on the civil aspects of international child abduction of 1980. This requires the determination of abduction cases involving minors within six weeks from the date of commencement of proceedings. I want to take this opportunity to thank the Minister, who is in his place on the Government Front Bench, for the personal interest that he has taken in the case. He has raised it on a number of occasions with his Mexican counterpart, and I know that the Foreign Secretary also discussed Lydia’s abduction with the Mexican Foreign Minister on a recent visit to the UK. I am very grateful for those interventions, but Lydia has not been returned and Mexico has still not met its legal obligations. This evening, I should like to press the Minister on the further specific actions that the UK Government can take to secure her return.
I am keen to underline two points: first, the length of time it has taken for Mr Hunt’s case to be dealt with—three years and counting; and, secondly, the wider issue of the non-compliance of a signatory to an international treaty. On the first point, let me set out a little more detail on the case.
Under The Hague convention, when a child has been removed abroad from its habitual residence, they have first to be returned to the country of habitual residence for the courts in that country to start determining custody. That is the basis on which the convention works. Three days after Mr Hunt’s wife made her bombshell telephone call announcing that she was not coming back—that is, on
Lydia was made a ward of the High Court in London in January 2009, so any major decision about her has to be made by the High Court. After a delay of almost a year, the Mexican court issued a return order for Lydia in December 2009 with immediate effect, and that judgment correctly followed the terms of The Hague convention.
In the following March—that is, March last year— Mr Hunt’s wife filed for an amparo, a Mexican legal procedure that is intended, I understand, to protect the constitutional rights of a Mexican citizen. It appears in practice—at least in this case—to give almost unlimited scope for frustrating the execution of international law. As a result of the amparo, The Hague order and the arrest warrant for Mrs Hunt were both suspended.
In May this year, an amparo hearing was held. The judge ordered that the original notice was not executed according to local domestic law, and that the entire process should start again. Mr Hunt was advised at the time by his very experienced lawyers in Mexico that that conclusion was wrong. It certainly was not consistent with international law, and his advisers pointed out that the judge, in his ruling, did not refer at all to The Hague convention and overlooked several aspects of amparo legislation as well.
Mr Hunt has now been told that a new Hague hearing will be scheduled for
It may be appropriate that the amparo process gives rise to limited delays, but in this case the process has continued for more than three years, and it is now set to last even longer, even though it clearly makes a nonsense of Mexico’s obligations under The Hague convention.
As chair of the all-party Mexico group, I am pleased to support what my right hon. Friend is doing and compliment him on the huge amount of work that he has done—and, indeed, the Foreign Office on the pressure that it has applied in the case of the Mexican Government. He and I are due to meet the ambassador in January, when we will obviously press the ambassador to insist that Mexico adhere to all its obligations under The Hague convention.
My right hon. Friend is making a most serious point—that a further delay in the amparo at San Luis Potosi in March will mean that it could be argued that this child is a normal resident of Mexico. That is the danger. This is, bluntly, a case of abduction. We look to our friends in the Mexican Government and Mexican judiciary to adhere to international conventions and law and to allow this child to be returned to this country. She is, after all, a British national.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for the support that he has given in this case. I very much look forward to the meeting with the ambassador in January. The fact that that meeting has been put in the diary is in no small part thanks to my hon. Friend’s intervention. He is absolutely right, of course.
The heart of this debate is Lydia’s welfare and well-being. She was two when she was abducted. I have no idea what she has been told about the whereabouts of her father or about what became of her former home in the UK. She has had no contact at all with her father for more than three years. There has been no effort to enable her to meet, or even to speak, to her father throughout the whole of that period. The preamble to The Hague convention states that signatories should be
“firmly convinced that the interests of children are of paramount importance in matters relating to their custody desiring to protect children internationally from the harmful effects of their wrongful removal or retention and to establish procedures to ensure their prompt return to the State of their habitual residence as well as to secure protection for rights of access”.
Signatories to the convention are required to consider the interests and the welfare of an abducted child as being of paramount importance. That has clearly not happened in this particular case.
One consolation to my constituent would have been if a welfare check ordered by the British Embassy had been carried out. That check has not been carried out because of a number of difficulties in trying to do so, and despite an intervention on the part of Bob Geldof. My constituent has not only not had the chance to see or to speak to Lydia in the past three years, but has not even been able to establish whether she is safe and well.
Mr Hunt’s hopes were raised when his wife failed to “ampere” a criminal charge, which meant that an arrest warrant could finally be executed. That would have allowed the police to locate her and require her, by the terms of bail, to give an address where she lives with her daughter. Unfortunately, the warrant has still not been executed. The whereabouts in Mexico of Mrs Hunt’s family are known to the police. The family well knows where she and Lydia are; and the police could, if they chose, quite readily find out from the family where she and Lydia are. It seems highly unlikely that they do not know where she is, but the warrant, for whatever reason, has not been implemented.
Obviously, the British Government cannot interfere directly with the legal processes of another country. However, the fact is that despite Mexico’s having signed The Hague convention, Lydia has yet to be returned. The website of The Hague Conference on Private International Law describes the convention as
“a multilateral treaty, which seeks to protect children from the harmful effects of abduction and retention across international boundaries by providing a procedure to bring about their prompt return”.
The convention has clearly been flouted in this particular case. Many abduction cases are resolved promptly, but some cases, such as this one, are held up because countries refuse to comply with the terms of The Hague convention, even though, like Mexico, they have signed it. A flagrantly non-compliant country can still press other treaty partners to fulfil their obligations and return children who have been abducted from their own country.
A disappointing aspect of my involvement in this case is that it has not yet been possible for me to meet the Mexican ambassador. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn for his intervention. I am pleased, as he said, that we now have an appointment with the ambassador in January.
Child abduction is becoming more common. Reunite International child abduction centre, which has been working with Mr Hunt over the past three years, tells me that until September this year, the number of abduction cases reported to its advice line was up by 46% compared with the same period last year. The number of prevention cases went up by 35% in the same period. The problem of non-compliance will be suffered by many other parents in the future—parents who, like Mr Hunt, have had their children abducted to countries that signed The Hague convention only to find it time-consuming and expensive to pursue a return, as has Mr Hunt. My constituent has so far spent more than £80,000, mainly in legal costs, in attempting to secure his daughter’s safe return. It could well be that he will have to find a similar sum again, given that it appears that we are back at square one as a result of the most recent court decision.
I noted recently that a Republican Congressman in the United States, Chris Smith, the long-serving representative for Robbinsville, New Jersey, has sponsored a Bill on this topic. The International Child Abduction Prevention and Return Bill proposes the establishment of an office on international child abduction, which would report regularly on progress in individual cases and on the compliance of countries with their obligations under The Hague convention. The Bill would vest powers in the President, allowing him to impose specific sanctions to increase pressure to end cases of non-co-operation. Perhaps we should consider something similar in the UK. That initiative in the United States Congress underlines that, as a signatory to The Hague convention, the UK is not alone in struggling to ensure that non-compliant nations meet their treaty obligations.
I will finally pose three questions to the Minister. First, what assistance can the British embassy provide to the Mexican authorities in their search for Mrs Hunt? I know that a letter was sent by the attorney-general in San Luis Potosi to the attorney-general in Mexico City asking that he instruct the police, who are under his jurisdiction, to locate Mrs Hunt and arrest her. That would, in turn, allow the British embassy to conduct the long-awaited welfare check on Lydia. Mrs Hunt must be obliged to give recognised contact details, which would enable the process of returning Lydia under the terms of The Hague convention to get under way.
Secondly, can the Minister assure me that he will continue to raise this case with the Mexican authorities, as he has on a number of occasions, and to impress on them the importance of meeting the obligations that they have signed up to under The Hague convention, which they are not currently fulfilling? I was pleased to learn that Lord Justice Thorpe, who leads on these matters for the UK judiciary, has offered his assistance to the Mexican authorities in complying with their obligations under The Hague convention, and that he plans to raise this case in The Hague next month at a meeting convened for the purpose.
Finally, what steps can be taken against countries, such as Mexico, that are non-compliant in this way? It is clearly not right for a treaty partner not to fulfil its obligations as set out in an international treaty that it has signed freely, and which it will be able to take advantage of when it wishes to do so. What recourse is available when a signatory to an international treaty—this one or others—does not fulfil its obligations under that treaty? What specific action can the UK Government take to address Mexico’s non-compliance in this particular case?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the final debate of 2011, Mr Speaker. I congratulate Stephen Timms on securing it, and I hope that my response will satisfy him on at least some of the questions he asked. He has pursued the case extremely diligently over an extended period, and of course he is always welcome to get in contact with the Foreign Office. I am very pleased that he and Jeremy Corbyn have secured a meeting with the Mexican ambassador next month.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Ham for raising the case of Lydia Hunt, who, as he said, was abducted by her mother and taken to Mexico in 2008. He has provided considerable support to Mr Hunt, and I appreciate his efforts to achieve progress for Mr Hunt in such difficult circumstances. As he is aware, I have personally followed Mr Hunt’s case with considerable interest and have every sympathy with him in his sad and difficult situation.
Before I comment specifically on the case of Lydia Hunt, I should like to provide a brief background to the wider issue of international parental child abduction. Unfortunately, there has been a considerable rise in reported cases over the past few years. The figure I have is that last year alone the Foreign Office’s child abduction section dealt with 643 active cases and saw a 10% increase in new cases on the previous year. I sympathise greatly with parents who face difficulties in working through unfamiliar systems, cultures and languages.
The British Government therefore strongly encourage other countries to sign The Hague convention. We regularly lobby on the issue at ministerial level and consider the convention to be the most effective route to return children abducted from their usual place of residence. In general, cases of child abduction are more likely to be resolved promptly when they occur between countries that operate the convention.
I can understand the immense frustration and distress that Mr Hunt must feel at still having no resolution to his case, despite his having submitted a Hague convention application for Lydia’s return in 2008. That might seem inconsistent with Mexico’s signing an agreed international framework for the prompt return of abducted children, but it is worth bringing to the House’s attention the fact that The Hague convention provides for a country to operate it within the guidelines of its own domestic legislation. How the convention is applied varies from country to country, and in Mexico it is not uncommon for the legal process to be lengthy, perhaps lengthier even than we are used to here in Britain.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his acknowledgment that as Mexico is a sovereign state the British Government cannot interfere in its legal system, just as we would not expect the Mexican authorities to interfere in courts in this country.
Mexico is obviously a signatory to The Hague convention, and it is up to the federal Government of Mexico to adhere to it. From the points that the Minister and my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms have made, it appears that the Government are hiding behind the state laws in San Luis Potosi as a way of avoiding implementing the arrest warrant, which is what the convention requires of Mexico.
We expect signatories to The Hague convention to operate within it, but we accept that it permits a degree of flexibility because different countries apply the law in different ways. That does not exempt them from their obligations, and we continue to make that point to the Mexican authorities.
In answer to one of the right hon. Member for East Ham’s questions, I can tell him that the British Government participate fully in meetings to review and enhance the operation of the 1980 Hague convention organised by The Hague conference on private international law. I am pleased that he is in contact with my noble Friend Lord McNally, the Minister of State for Justice, who takes a direct interest in the process.
I turn to the specific case before us. I was very saddened to hear that Mr Hunt did not secure the result that he was hoping for when Lydia’s mother’s amparo was upheld in November. I was, however, pleased to hear that he has been given a date for a new Hague hearing in March 2012. I know that he will have concerns about the process, given the lengthy proceedings that he has already faced, so I encourage him to work with his lawyer to mitigate those concerns through the appropriate channels.
As well as the legal process, Mr Hunt is anxious for news of his daughter’s well-being. I can only imagine his worry and frustration at having no contact with Lydia for so long. This aspect of the case has been a priority for the FCO. We would like to be able to reassure Mr Hunt by conducting a consular visit to check on Lydia’s well-being, but, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware, we require the permission of Lydia’s mother to do so. We have persistently and regularly requested consular access to Lydia, but to date we have not received her mother’s permission. The UK Government have no enforcement powers in Mexico to force Lydia’s mother to allow us to see Lydia. Further, as we all sadly know, we do not yet have any indication of Lydia’s whereabouts. We will of course act on any new information related to Lydia’s whereabouts to continue to seek consular access to her, and this may be a point that the right hon. Gentleman could raise with the Mexican ambassador directly when he meets him next month.
We have discussed with Mr Hunt the arrest warrant for Lydia’s mother. I share his hope that the execution of the warrant will subsequently assist with locating Lydia. Our consular staff will continue to request updates from the Mexican authorities on the progress of this aspect of the case. Beyond this, we cannot involve ourselves in criminal proceedings and cannot assist in the search for Lydia’s mother, which is the responsibility of the Mexican authorities.
I am grateful for this opportunity to reassure Mr Hunt that we have done and will continue to do all that we can to support him and his daughter. We very much hope our extensive efforts will contribute to a positive outcome for him, but we are limited in the scope of our powers as we are operating in the jurisdiction of another sovereign country. We have provided Mr Hunt with consular assistance at every possible juncture and in every way we properly can, in line with our consular policy. The Mexican authorities are acutely aware of the case and I am satisfied that they are handling it in line with their judicial process. I am also confident that they will inform us as soon as they have any news. Britain has a strong bilateral relationship with Mexico and I hope that relationship will have a positive influence on the outcome of this case. It would be harder if we were dealing with a country with which Britain has difficult diplomatic relationships, but it is hard enough as it is, with a friendly country.
We have worked closely with the Mexican authorities successfully to return children to the UK this year under the convention. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for the way the Mexican authorities have acted swiftly upon the conclusion of the judicial process to resolve such complicated cases with a great deal of sensitivity and professionalism, and my hope is that the same will apply in this case.
Mr Hunt’s case, however, remains unresolved. I recognise the distress he must be feeling after more than three years of separation from his daughter. I hope it is clear that we continue to treat Mr Hunt’s case as a priority and are working to get a resolution. I have met the right hon. Gentleman and Mr Hunt to discuss the case, and I have spoken to or written to the Mexican Foreign Minister, Deputy Foreign Minister or Federal Attorney General about Mr Hunt’s case on eight separate occasions since July 2010. As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, the Foreign Secretary also raised it directly with his Mexican counterpart in June this year. Furthermore, our consular officials and ambassador continue to do all they can to raise Mr Hunt’s case with their Mexican counterparts. It was apparent during my visit to Mexico in October this year that our representations have ensured a high level of awareness of Mr Hunt’s case and our concerns. When I raised the case with Ministers, they were aware of it just on the basis of Mr Hunt’s name, even before I had the chance to go into any details.
Our efforts have not yet helped to produce the resolution Mr Hunt is looking for, but we will of course continue to raise his case where possible and appropriate. However, we should only do so if it is likely to help to resolve Mr Hunt’s case. I am therefore keen for us to remain in close contact with Mr Hunt’s lawyer and be guided by her on when any efforts by our consular staff and ambassador to engage with the Mexican authorities would be most effective for the case. Our ambition is a successful resolution; we have no other ambitions beyond that in this case.
In closing, I would like to thank the right hon. Gentleman again for raising this difficult case and to recognise the diligence with which he has pursued it on behalf of his constituent. I can assure him that we will continue to do all that we properly can to support Mr Hunt. However, I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that, in essence, this is a legal matter in Mexico, although I sincerely hope that Mr Hunt receives some positive news soon. Being out of contact with one’s child must cause unimaginable stress. I strongly support Mr Hunt in his case and in any legitimate course of action that he feels will help him to be reunited with his daughter.
On that note—that sad note, I am afraid—let me say that it is a privilege for me to finish the proceedings in the House of Commons this year. I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all your staff a happy Christmas.
Those good wishes are reciprocated, and I thank the Minister of State.
Question put and agreed to.