International Child Abduction — [Judith Cummins in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:30 am on 22 March 2023.

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[Judith Cummins in the Chair]

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South 2:33, 22 March 2023

Before we start, I welcome members of the public to our proceedings. I remind Members here to err on the side of caution so as not to prejudice any live cases in this country.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner 2:34, 22 March 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of support for parents affected by international child abduction.

Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under you this afternoon, Mrs Cummins. The subject matter of this afternoon’s debate encompasses some enormously difficult issues for our constituents affected, many of whom are with us today, arising, as it does, from matters of family breakdown and often a history of drawn-out and sometimes painful litigation.

I think I need to be clear that it is not for us, here in Parliament, to rehash the arguments on either side of individual cases, nor to seek to make any kind of judgment about the merits of the family and sometimes criminal proceedings that have played a part in the situation that our constituents now face. Having served as a magistrate myself, I have confidence in the due process of law in all of our courts, and in the soundness of their judgments in respect of my constituent and others. The purpose of the debate is to seek action to bring about the enforcement of the decisions of our courts in international law where due process has been followed but not consistently respected.

This starts as a matter drawn to the attention of the House in the Justice Select Committee’s third special report of Session 2017-19, which covers the legal implications of Brexit for our justice system. The report highlights the risks of not having effective means to put into effect legal judgments where children have been abducted. As ample evidence and research demonstrate, the longer the duration of the abduction, the greater the negative impact on all concerned, so time is clearly of the essence.

I want to place on record my thanks to other Members —some are here to contribute to today’s debate—in particular my right hon. Friend Priti Patel, who has similarly affected constituents and who has taken an active interest in the issue and helped me to understand how we might support our constituents more effectively. I appreciate that, due to a prior commitment relating to the Westminster bridge terror attack, she is unable to be here today, but she has made points that I have incorporated into my remarks. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Ms Ghani) and for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), and the hon. Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who have approached me to express an interest in the matter because they have constituents affected by it.

In respect of the cases that have been brought to the attention of Members by constituents, it is important to state, without going into the detail of any of them, that due process in the UK has resulted in a parent having custody, sole or shared, of their child, and the children have then subsequently been removed without the consent of the parent—in the case of my constituent to Poland. As Members might be aware, one objective of the convention on the civil aspects of international child abduction, which was concluded at The Hague on 25 October 1980 and is known as The Hague convention, is to protect children in international law from the harmful effects of wrongful removal, or retention away from the parent with whom they should live, and to ensure that procedures are in place to ensure their prompt return to the state of their habitual residence. That convention, which entered into force on 1 December 1983, was ratified by all European Union member states.

Article 1(a) sets out

“to secure the prompt return of children wrongfully removed…or retained in any Contracting State”.

Article 2 states:

“Contracting States shall take all appropriate measures”— appropriate measures is an important phrase—

“to secure within their territories the implementation of the objects of the Convention.”

It goes on:

“For this purpose they shall use the most expeditious procedures available.”

It is important to note that The Hague convention is not the only legal basis that parents of abducted children may use. We hear Brussels II and IIa often mentioned as legal avenues that can be pursued, which are subject to the proceedings having taken place when the UK was an EU member state. Following the same principle as The Hague convention, it is essentially mutual recognition of the orders of each other’s courts being embodied in the treaties that underpinned membership.

Mutual recognition requires each country to respect the integrity of due process in another’s territory. Given the time-critical nature of child abduction cases, the so-called non-appealability, or finality, of such decisions is an important feature. As a matter of course, the UK respects such judgments, as do almost all the countries that are signatories to The Hague convention.

The Justice Committee’s report states that child abduction is among the issues to which the Brussels II provisions apply. It refers to the very complex relationship with The Hague convention, but also sets out that the provisions take precedence in setting out a legal means to bring about a swift resolution of problems when they arise. The report goes on to set out what type of arrangements there might be and what expectations there would be of member states to ensure that those expectations were swiftly met.

Disappointingly, what is very clear is that many Members present have been contacted by their constituents once it is clear that what should be a transparent, straightforward and extremely swift process has not been followed by the authorities in another country—in my constituent’s case, that was Poland—and they are seeking the assistance of the UK Government to enforce the law. This is not a request to go beyond anything that is already enshrined in law; it is simply a matter of enforcing the law that our international agreements recognise.

While there has been considerable ongoing engagement with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Ministers, including meetings with, among others, the Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend Leo Docherty, and the British ambassador to Poland, the response and assistance from the Polish authorities in particular has been very disappointing. That is particularly true at the local level, where the enforcement of court orders by the police and court-appointed curators is critical to ensuring the successful return of children. Unfortunately, the experience of my constituent is not unique. We can see from the number of Members present and those who have expressed an interest that there appears to be a common theme, particularly where the children have been taken to Poland.

On 26 January, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Poland by sending a letter of formal notice to it for its failure to fulfil its obligations under the Brussels IIa regulation. That infringement case concerns the non-conformity of Polish law with the Brussels IIa regulation, specifically to the provisions relating to the enforcement of judgments or orders that require the return of abducted children to their country of habitual residence. So, at EU level, the situation has reached a point where the Commission considers there to have been a systematic and persistent failure of the Polish authorities to speedily and effectively enforce the judgments to which they have committed under international law and order the return of abducted children to EU member states. This is not simply a problem affecting our constituents here in the UK; it is a matter of some moment across Europe.

Separately to this case, a matter has been heard in the European Court of Justice, where a Polish court of appeal asked the ECJ whether, in accordance with the Brussels II provisions and The Hague convention, it could provide an additional stage of appeal, which would in effect result in an automatic delaying tactic in Poland. It would mean that the enforcement of a final return order, which under international law should be expedited, would be at best delayed, on a simple request by one of the various authorities lodging such an appeal.

In January, the response of the advocate general of the European Union argued that, by adopting such a provision, the Polish legislature had exceeded the limits of its competence and had rendered the return proceedings ineffective. That is the source of the enormous frustration that so many of us are facing with our constituents. Due process of law in the United Kingdom and other countries has resulted in an outcome—an outcome where we are not required to judge the merits, but where we can have confidence in the due process of law—and yet that outcome is simply not being respected.

Given these cases before the European Union and matters that have been dealt with in the UK, it is perhaps not surprising that constituents are approaching their Members of Parliament. They have little faith that the due process of law will result in the relevant authorities delivering on the required court orders to return their children to the United Kingdom.

As well as the legal issues that I have set out, we need to recognise that the extensive delays and the enormous cost of engaging this process have placed a huge and sometimes nearly intolerable burden on many constituents. International law, and law in general, is there to ensure that justice is done and wrongs are put right. It is very clear to date that we are not seeing these significant wrongs put right.

The question then becomes: what recourse do our constituents have when they face such a situation? The legalities are very clearcut. It is highly likely that a case that was taken to the European Court of Human Rights would result in a finding against the Polish authorities, but that is of no comfort when the situation of the abducted children remains exactly as it was before, and a compensation payment and note of wrongdoing simply do not bring about anything like the resolution required by the affected families.

The proceedings brought by the European Union are likely to take a long time to reach a conclusion, and they will certainly test the limits of what power the European Union has when a member state simply refuses to abide by a treaty that it has freely signed. In the circumstances, we must pay tribute to the determination of all these parents—mums and dads—who are continuing to fight for the return of their children in a truly remarkable way. Yet we simply cannot treat each as an isolated case when there are so many consistent themes emerging.

I will move to my conclusion. While my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham set out to welcome the support that the Government have provided thus far, the fact is that in the case of her constituent, as well as a number of similar cases linked to other Members, the children are still overseas, despite court orders for their return, and there is still much work to be done to reunite them with their families here.

Poland is an old and important ally of the UK. Our friendship dates back many years, and my constituency and local area is home to many of Polish heritage. The nearby Polish war memorial in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency celebrates our shared military endeavours in world war two. We should not face a situation where a trusted and valued ally refuses to reciprocate the respect that we show to the judgment of their courts, as required under international law. My ask of the Minister is this. We need to take seriously the plight of our constituents and their abducted children and, in the spirit of what is and will remain a strong and friendly relationship with an important ally, place the evidence before their Government and seek swift and just compliance, with the decisions arising from the due process of law, as our international legal framework requires.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

Order. Before I call our first Member, I remind Members to err on the side of caution in order not to prejudice cases that are live in this country.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Solicitor General 2:47, 22 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve with you as Chair, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate David Simmonds on securing the debate and setting out, in his usual clear and methodical manner, the issues that we will deal with.

I know that other hon. Members, without crossing any sub judice rules, will want to talk about individual constituents’ cases, and to use them, as I intend to, to illustrate this serious matter. I could not agree more with what the hon. Gentleman said; this is about where proceedings have taken place and due process has been followed, often at great expense, and where, almost invariably, one party is unhappy with the outcome—normally litigation—but resolves that simply by not following the rules and by taking children out of the jurisdiction. The question is: what happens then? Does the system work? If it does not work, how can we make it work?

I wish to focus on a rather specific area of the issue, with its own particular problems. I have given notice to the Minister and the shadow Minister that I will raise issues that specifically relate to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, where there are all the usual problems and more—that is, children being taken out of this jurisdiction to that jurisdiction without the consent of the responsible parent. Perhaps we should call it an unintended loophole as, because the children are taken to the TRNC—if I may call it that—against the direction of the courts, and because northern Cyprus is not a signatory to The Hague convention on child abduction, the systems break down almost immediately. Our Government rightly do not recognise the TRNC, but there is therefore no co-operation, even from stage one, in organising the return of the children, even though, as I say, due process has been followed. I appreciate that there are particular problems with other countries; Poland has been mentioned already. There are always problems in child abduction cases and I think that all Members present today will have dealt with quite a number of them, but with northern Cyprus we do not even get to first base.

The constituency case that has been brought to my attention, which I think illustrates the issue well, is that of a father whose children were taken to northern Cyprus in 2018. The two parents separated in 2011. Residence proceedings began for two brothers who were then aged four and two years old. There were seven years of litigation, which again is not uncommon, because one parent made it as difficult as possible for the court to do its work over that period. There were many court hearings and appeals, and much turmoil, and a final appeal decision in 2018 unambiguously granted custody to the father.

The children, who were four and two at the beginning of the process, were 10 and eight at the end of the proceedings in this country. They were then taken out of this jurisdiction and are now aged 15 and 13. They have spent most of their lives embroiled in litigation or its consequences, because on the day before the final appeal decision was handed down, and in knowledge of what that decision was likely to be, the mother fled to the TRNC with the two children, following a convoluted route that went from Scotland to Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland to Turkey and then finally to northern Cyprus. One can infer from those facts that she knew exactly what was happening and that there was a disregard for the law in this country. The father has not seen his children since and has had no contact with them. He continues to instruct counsel in northern Cyprus, again at further significant personal cost, to try to arrange some visitation rights. However, any attempts to have his children returned to him have encountered immovable barriers.

All the proceedings through all the UK courts are not taken into consideration. I think they will be read for reference, but clearly they do not apply in northern Cyprus. There is likely to be some bias towards resident rather than non-resident parents; clearly, neither the father nor the children is at fault for that. There is also no role for child welfare—that is, it is a pure consideration of rights of visitation. The whole process is starting again, with the time and the costs and everything else that that involves.

A return order is in place. The UK authorities, like the father, are aware of the children’s location in northern Cyprus, but there has been no action. The courts in England and Wales recognise the father as the legal guardian of the children, but they are powerless to bring them home unless the mother co-operates with the return order, which all her conduct so far has shown that she will not, or unless—this is the point of my taking part in the debate—the UK authorities are able in any way to intervene. This is not an isolated case. As I am sure the Minister has been made aware, other parents face a similar ordeal to be reunited with their children with little or no support or guidance on how they to do that.

It is easy to find out, simply by internet research, that some organisations give advice and assistance to help those who wish to leave this jurisdiction to do so, and a number of parents have specifically gone to northern Cyprus because they know of the jurisdictional problems —or fracture—and that it is therefore a place where they can more easily escape the enforcement of judgments by UK courts. The Government should be particularly concerned about that, if there is an organised flouting of court orders that brings the whole process into disrepute. I am told that this has been going on for more than 10 years.

As I have said, there are now a growing number of cases—word gets round, people find out. In my experience, this is quite an unusual form of child abduction. It is going to a location with which the errant parent may have no connection. It is not, as is often the case, somebody taking a child back to their own country of birth, or where they have existing contact links or other family. This is about purely using a jurisdiction that is unlawful in the eyes of many countries, including the UK, in order to escape attention.

To be honest, it is not good enough for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to say that there is nothing that it can do about this, and, effectively, that is what it says. If we look up the TRNC on the FCDO website, we will see that there is a specific footnote to say that there is nothing that it can do in child abduction cases. That is not satisfactory. It may be that the Minister cannot give a full response today on what legislation or other steps would be needed, but I hope that this is at least the start of a dialogue that will look at that. I would like to hear from the Government what their thoughts are on this matter. I would also like the Minister’s agreement that we can go away and look at the cases of children taken to the TNRC specifically against the rulings of the courts in this country.

Perhaps I should add that there is some below-the-radar contact between the two jurisdictions. There have been examples in serious criminal cases of co-operation between the law enforcement agencies of both countries. I am told that we recognise the qualifications gained through the education system in northern Cyprus. I know that in this country property is advertised for sale in that area and, indeed, that many holiday companies in the UK will offer holidays there as well.

I understand the Government’s dilemma that they do not want to give plausibility or credibility to a country that has been illegally occupied for a number of decades, but the fact remains that it is in people’s humanitarian interests—and, it appears, in commercial interests, as well as, in some cases, law enforcement interests—for business to be done in that way. I would say that child abduction cases are certainly as serious a matter as commercial dealings and recognition of qualifications. It is clear that there are practical means, as well as some legal means, that can deal with this situation.

Before I conclude, let me suggest one or two other things that could be done. The first is that there is no legal aid available for non-Hague convention cases, which seems a double unfairness. Many parents fighting to bring their children home face huge pressures on their finances and, no doubt, some simply cannot afford to continue. Such proceedings can be ruinously expensive and can run on for years—often through deliberate delay in the courts. Unless there is some financial assistance—this should not be a matter of how deep people’s pockets are—it may be that some families will never be reunited and children will remain separated from their parents.

I would also like the FCDO to look at how we engage specifically with individual countries and jurisdictions on the issue. Clearly, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. It would be useful to have a clear procedure that applies to the TNRC as well as to other countries where there are particular problems. It would also help if there were a more proactive role for Government to work with parents in that position to identify pathways for the return of their children. To prevent what happened in this case, the Government could consider the suspension of children’s passports during residence proceedings to limit the chance of children being taken abroad to avoid complying with court orders.

I will leave my remarks there. I am interested to hear what my hon. Friend Bambos Charalambous says. What I am looking for from the Minister is an acknowledgment that there are particular problems with the TRNC and such countries, and that they are not being addressed now. I would like some idea of what the Government think can be done. If there are other matters that can be raised in correspondence after this debate, then so be it, but I would like to see a willingness to engage with myself and my constituent, as well as other people who have been affected in the same way, to address the issue.

The problem has been going on for far too long now. It has been put into the “too difficult” column because of political and jurisdictional issues. However, as a consequence, court orders made in this country are being flouted, and, more importantly, children are growing up without seeing parents because one parent does not like the judgment they have been dealt. I hope we can make some progress today, although I realise it is the beginning, rather than the end, of the matter.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

Order. I ask Members to keep their remarks to around seven or eight minutes, then we can get everybody in.

Photo of Mark Fletcher Mark Fletcher Conservative, Bolsover 3:01, 22 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and to follow Andy Slaughter. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend David Simmonds, who gave an outstanding introductory speech. He and I have spoken about the issue on a number of occasions, as we are two Members with constituents who are affected. It is an incredibly difficult and complex area. As he alluded to in his opening remarks, my right hon. Friend Priti Patel, who unfortunately cannot be in the Chamber, has been incredibly helpful, and has covered a lot of ground on this. We have followed in her slipstream to try and make progress in this incredibly complicated area.

Parental child abduction is a dreadful act that is unfortunately more common than we anticipate in our society. In such complicated and emotive cases, it is crucial that the welfare of children is at the centre of all our discussions. Too often, the legal and moral questions become a battle of wills between parents, and leave a vulnerable son or daughter displaced, manipulated and stranded from the life they were due.

I want to raise the case of my constituent John Fletcher, and his daughter Maya who was abducted by her mother to Poland in 2018. Maya was born in November 2014 and is now eight years old. Despite court orders in both the UK and Poland, Maya’s mother took her to Poland in 2018. An appeal at The Hague found in favour of Mr Fletcher, yet the Polish authorities have not assisted in locating and returning Maya to the UK. He has tried his best to have the court’s decision enforced multiple times since 2019, at great personal and financial cost, but to no avail.

The Polish authorities have not been co-operative and have given spurious reasons for their lack of assistance. Mr Fletcher believes that the Polish authorities are siding with the mother. As a result, Maya is currently residing with her mother in Poland, despite a court order saying she should be returned to the UK to live with her father. That is legally and diplomatically incredibly difficult.

I do not wish to return to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, and the way in which he outlined the legal situation, but I will touch on two areas. First, I am from Polish stock; my mother’s father was very proud of being Polish and I have always had a great affinity with that country. As has been alluded to in more than one speech, Poland is a great ally of this nation on many fronts. I appreciate that we recently left the European Union—there was a bit of news about that—which has changed the relationship in some ways. Nevertheless, diplomatically, I feel that parental child abduction is one of the great sore points in our relationship with that great nation.

I appeal to the Polish authorities and indeed the Polish Government to take stock and think. If the shoe were on the other foot, would a similar reaction be acceptable? Various legal procedures have been followed by many of our constituents, yet they still are not getting anywhere. I am great friends with the Minister. I know that she is always assiduous in researching every debate that she responds to, but I ask her directly whether the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is giving enough resources and priority to these cases. It feels to me as though we are finding officials at a very junior level, but the engagement that is necessary at a more senior level is perhaps being denied to our constituents.

I would also like to touch on what it is like emotionally for the parents involved. I mentioned the great financial and personal cost; Mr Fletcher sold his house, moved back in with his parents, moved jobs so that he can work more shifts and has gone out to Poland almost once every six weeks to try to retrieve his daughter. He spends every pound that he can gain on trying to return his daughter. It is really important to say that he loves his daughter very much. She is his world. He has lost not just his marriage, but the thing that came from his marriage that he is so fond of. When we have these debates, we must cover the technical, legal and diplomatic aspects, but we must also remember the individuals behind the stories.

I am not prone to hugging the constituents who come to my surgeries. I think I would have even fewer attendees if it was well known that I did. But I have to be honest; I spent half an hour with Mr Fletcher, who I had met previously, and I had nothing helpful to say to him beyond, “I will try and I will work with other hon. Members who are dealing with similar situations.” In those circumstances, we need to remember those individuals. A hug is meaningless in a surgery unless I can stand here and tell the Minister that this is what we are facing and unless she can go back to her Department and all those officials who speak to the Polish Government and others on a regular basis and make it a priority, because Mr Fletcher really needs our help.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Paymaster General 3:08, 22 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. Thank you for allowing me to speak. I warmly congratulate my London colleague, David Simmonds, on securing this hugely important debate. It will not be top of the headlines today, but this issue is of high importance to many families across the country. When we talk about crimes, we describe some crimes as being high in number but low in impact and others as low in number but very high impact, and that is what we are talking about today.

It has been a pleasure to work with the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner on this issue. I hope this debate is a watershed moment for those parents suffering because of this injustice. I hope that it acts as a wake-up call to Government to right a wrong that was done—inadvertently, I believe—over the time of Brexit and can be put right.

We are talking about children who are settled in school, settled in their communities and with their families, including their wider family. I am here on behalf of a constituent who is a wider family member, not a parent. That shows the impact that child abduction has; it impacts not just the parents and the close family, but the wider family.

These children are seeing their mother and father on a regular basis in accordance with what the UK courts agreed and stipulated, but then, without the consent of one of the parents, the other parent suddenly, and illegally, takes the children, or the child, from that stable home and community, and relocates them in another country. Twenty-eight days pass and the children are still not home. At this point, under UK law, such actions become a criminal offence called parental child abduction. The parent knows where their children are and who they are with, and they know that a criminal offence has taken place and that their children have been taken illegally. They try all the legal procedures and remedies one by one, but they have been failed and let down by them, and then they are left without their children, without justice and without help and hope. I cannot imagine the despair felt by those families.

The sad reality is that, in 2021, over 1,200 cases involving child abduction were considered by the UK courts. That is not just a handful of children. But the core problem, and the reason why we are here today, is that Brexit left a gaping hole in the legal framework that is supposed to protect children and parents from this crime and ensure that children return to their settled homes. There is a human right to a family life—a human right to live with your family and, where this is not possible, the right to regular contact, which is being contravened by the situation at the moment.

Up until the withdrawal agreement, families could rely on the Brussels II regulation. That piece of EU law provided greater protection for victims of child abduction by ensuring the reciprocal enforcement of family court orders. In matters of child abduction, if the child is not returned under the 1980 Hague convention, the court in the country from which the child was abducted can make its own finding as to whether return is necessary, which is automatically enforceable in the other country. The process is generally quick and completed within a matter of weeks, and it enables that human right to be upheld, but this vital protection was stripped from the statute book after Brexit and has not been replaced.

The most frustrating thing is that, in the intervening years, the Government seem to have been tone deaf to the problem and have not yet worked out a solution, so I have been reading the views of the current Secretary of State in various pieces of correspondence. What he has said so far suggests that he has not really turned his full attention to the issue or worked hard to get a solution. For instance, he said that:

“The Government is satisfied that the 1980 Hague convention provides an appropriate mechanism to seek the return of children wrongfully removed from the country of habitual residence.”

However, I do not agree with that and neither do victims. It is not what we are seeing from families coming to us. It may be true of certain countries, but there is huge variation in how rigorously the convention is applied. The UK and Australia may be held up as examples of good practice in returning children swiftly, but some countries rarely return children promptly, if at all.

We have focused on Poland today, and I agree that Poland is a strong ally and a friend of our country. I have many Polish constituents who are a valuable part of our community, but Poland seems to be one of the problem countries in this regard. Estimates from Polish family lawyers suggest that less than 5% of all abducted children are returned, and a look at the latest publicly available data shows that the number of returns from Poland is consistently below the global average. Last year, legislation was passed in Poland that allows the return of a child to be suspended if the prosecutor general, the commissioner for children’s rights or the commissioner for human rights issues an extraordinary appeal to the Supreme Court. For whatever reason, there seems to be growing resistance in the Polish courts to return children under The Hague convention, which is why it is important to hold this debate now and to solve the problem before it becomes embedded.

It was very concerning to read the Secretary of State’s view that the UK must respect the jurisdiction and laws of Poland. I agree that we must respect those laws, but the Polish courts need to respect the decisions of our courts and the rights and welfare of British children who have been taken from their home. The Government may well argue that additional protections exist in the form of the 1996 Hague convention, which reinforces the 1980 convention by underlining the primary role played by the authorities of the child’s habitual residence in deciding on matters that affect the child in the long term. In short, it helps with enforcement, but there are big problems with this option too.

First, it is far slower, usually taking around a year to be processed. A year of young children’s lives is a year far too long. Secondly, the 1996 Hague convention allows the country to which children have been abducted to exercise discretion. The destination country may choose to ignore this on domestic policy grounds. Therefore, in certain countries, where there is resistance to returns, the return of abducted children may be near impossible, and that cannot be justice.

The main takeaway from this is clear: ending our participation in the Brussels regulations has left victims of child abductions and our own courts worse off. I end with some questions to the Minister. Why are the Government dragging their heels on reinstating the Brussels regulations? Can she provide any good reasons for their doing so? Will she recognise the serious pitfalls and inadequacies in The Hague conventions? What discussions has she had with countries with a low return rate, such as Poland, and will she recognise the fact that that is the situation? How can we ensure that their courts respect decisions made in our courts? Will she meet hon. Members who are here today, in this debate, to look at the particular cases that we are raising? I implore the Minister to show common sense and justice, and restore Britain’s participation in the reciprocal enforcement of court-ordered child arrangements under—

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

Order. This sitting will be suspended for 15 minutes for a Division in the House, or 25 minutes if two Divisions are expected.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South 3:27, 22 March 2023

Order. The debate may now continue until 4.17 pm. I call Fleur Anderson to conclude her remarks.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Paymaster General

Thank you, Mrs Cummins.

To conclude, the main takeaway is clear: ending our participation in the Brussels regulation has left victims of child protections and our own courts worse off. There was a legal regulation in place, but that legal regulation now needs to be put into our own UK law. There were supposed to be Brexit benefits, not exactly the opposite. Back in 2017, the Justice Committee said:

“We recommend that the Government should seek to maintain the closest possible cooperation with the EU on family justice matters, and in particular to retain a system for mutual recognition and enforcement of judgments.”

That is exactly we are talking about now.

Surely no one intended the UK’s withdrawal from the EU to remove our country’s ability to protect British children from abduction. The absence of this protection from the withdrawal agreement is yet another oversight in a deal that was far from “oven-ready” and that has exposed families such as that of my constituent, and of the constituents of other Members, to the pain and trauma of abduction. That cannot be left to diplomatic fixes and to the whim of which ambassador will work with us in another country; instead, there must be a legal fix for justice to be seen. It can and must be fixed.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon 3:28, 22 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend David Simmonds on securing the debate.

During my time as the Member of Parliament for Hendon, I have supported several parents in my constituency in cases of international child abduction. I have raised cases with the Foreign Office, Interpol and even the ambassadors of the countries involved. In every instance, apart from one, eventually we have been successful in getting the abducted children returned to the UK and reunited with their illegally deprived parent.

One case, however, remains outstanding—that of my constituent, Beth Alexander, and her estranged twin sons in Austria. Beth has been fighting for custody of her sons for the past 10 years. More recently, she has been fighting simply for contact, which she has been deprived of by Austria’s courts. I do not suggest that the UK should dictate to the courts of another country how they should run their legal system, any more than I would accept another country dictating to us how to run ours, but I am shocked and indeed disappointed that the Austrian system has permitted this case to perpetuate to the point where my constituent has had little or no contact with her sons for a number of years.

Beth continues to seek access to her children, as all of us here would expect, but the Austrian judge overseeing the case has not only rejected Beth’s legal efforts, but barred all contact between her and her children, saying that that would not be in the interests of those same children. That that should be happening in a fair, civilised country, which has signed The Hague convention on child abduction seems extraordinary.

The purpose of the convention is to secure the prompt return of children who have been wrongfully removed to, or retained in, a contracted state, back to their place of habitual residence. That is in order to protect them from the potentially harmful effects of international abduction by a parent, and to organise or secure the effective rights of access to the child. Regrettably, there seems to be an imbalance in the way in which contracting states apply the convention, and the deprived parent can find themselves confused by the process, sometimes in a country where they do not speak the language, are uncertain what actions they should take, and are at the mercy of foreign systems.

This afternoon, we have heard about different countries, including places occupied by foreign aggressors, in the case of Cyprus. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mark Fletcher for raising the case of his constituent, Mr Fletcher, and his trials and tribulations. We need to be aware that parents will do anything for their children, and it must be an almost Kafkaesque nightmare to be unable to access their child, because of another state’s legal system.

Contracting states should be required to be transparent in all their actions, but a real risk—as stated by other Members—is that the convention is used by some to protect the abducting parent’s actions. If parents are to have confidence in the fairness of the convention, it is time to consider whether it is meeting its aims and purpose effectively. From the stories we have heard this afternoon, I do not believe that that is happening. The case of my constituent is a tragedy, and it is time that it is brought to an end.

Photo of Jonathan Lord Jonathan Lord Conservative, Woking 3:32, 22 March 2023

Thank you, Mrs Cummins, for the opportunity to speak in the debate. Like my colleagues, I believe that this is an important topic, and I commend my hon. Friend David Simmonds for securing the debate.

First, I welcome the supporters of the group Hague Mothers, who are attending the debate. As we know, the 1980 Hague convention was intended to ensure the quick and safe return of children removed from their primary carers and taken abroad by their non-custodial parents. In that regard, the convention is highly effective. Hague Mothers, however, points out that about 75% of the parents brought before the courts are mothers with the primary care of their children, most of whom are fleeing domestic abuse or trying to protect their children from abuse.

There are limited options under the convention for mothers to oppose orders for the return of their children, and in most cases the courts decide that the child must return. The only defence available under the convention that could apply to domestic abuse is the article 13(b) defence that provides that the court may not order return of a child if the person opposing return establishes that

“there is a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation.”

The courts of most contracting states interpret what constitutes a “grave risk” very strictly. Most cases of domestic abuse are not considered to give rise to a “grave risk” or “intolerable situation” for a child. In particular, it is almost impossible for mothers to prove that coercive and controlling behaviour, which has rightly been a criminal offence in England and Wales since 2015, constitutes the basis for an article 13(b) defence. Despite the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 stipulating that children who see or experience the effects of domestic abuse are victims in their own right, those same children can be and are returned to the country and often the care of the abusive parent.

Mothers escaping domestic abuse across borders are therefore left in the terrible position of having to choose whether to return with their children or to send their children back on their own. Most mothers decide to return and face continued, or worse, post-separation abuse; sometimes, they face destitution, homelessness, isolation or even criminal proceedings. They frequently have little or no family, social, financial or legal support, which provides a perfect context for continued abuse.

I want to bring the attention of the House and the Foreign Office to the case of my constituent Nataly Anderson, who is appealing for assistance from the UK Government in bringing her twin boys safely to the UK from Croatia.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

Order. I take it that the hon. Member is not referring to a live case in UK courts.

Photo of Jonathan Lord Jonathan Lord Conservative, Woking

It is not a live case.

Nataly Anderson says that her British-Croatian twin boys, who are now nine years old, were taken back to Croatia on the pretext of a holiday by their father in 2016, just as the family had been establishing their life in England, including schooling for the children. She requests that the British Government escalate her complaint about Croatia with the bodies of the European Union, and warns that parental alienation claims can be used to cover up child abuse, including child abduction, to award custody to abducting or abusive parents, and to stop mothers and children moving to locations where they would have more favourable living conditions. She believes that is what has happened to her and her children in Croatia. She believes, further, that mothers and children who are not protected properly from domestic abuse have a human and legal right to asylum in another country, and that those rights should be upheld and enforced. She asks that the phenomenon of mothers and children fleeing across borders to escape from abuse be considered a humanitarian crisis and advocates for the approach advanced by the Hague Mothers project, as one that could be easily implemented and would do much to support the safety and welfare of mothers and children in this situation.

In her own words, Nataly Anderson says:

“This is now a child welfare matter. These are vulnerable children and it is unconscionable that the Croatian authorities have been violating their rights, wishes and welfare needs for so long. I am appealing for the urgent assistance of the UK Government in bringing my children safely home.”

She requests that the British Government raise the question of her case with all the relevant bodies of the European Union.

I have been trying to help and assist my constituent. I am grateful to the Foreign Office and the Passport Office for correspondence I have received. I know how assiduous our Foreign Office, embassy and consular officials are and often can be, but I appeal to the Foreign Office Ministers to have one further look at this case. I will not take up any more time today, but this is an important debate and I have been interested to hear about the other cases that hon. Members have brought forward today.

Photo of Anum Qaisar Anum Qaisar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development) 3:39, 22 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship again, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate David Simmonds on securing this important debate. His contribution was incredibly reasoned and he set a very measured tone for the debate, which appears to have cross-party support. He referred to his constituent and the disappointing engagement from the Polish authorities. My thoughts are with the family and the child; I sincerely hope they are reunited.

I have been taken aback and moved by the stories raised by hon. Members from across the House about the cases that their constituents have faced. The Public Gallery is pretty full as well. We must do whatever we can to ensure that we prevent these horrific crimes. Although I do not have children, I can imagine that child abduction is every parent’s worst nightmare, and that nightmare is worsened when there is an international dimension.

As the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Woking (Mr Lord) highlighted, the horror of an abduction is only intensified by the serious logistical and legal difficulties that parents face in being reunited with their children—be it the need to seek consular support or reliance on the legal system of a different country. The hon. Member for Bolsover was completely correct when he said that we cannot lose sight of the fact that children and individuals are at the heart of this issue. I genuinely hope that John Fletcher is reunited with Maya soon enough.

This is a global issue, impacting families across the world. Each abduction, regardless of where it occurs, is one too many, and causes untold levels of suffering and misery. The charity Missing People estimates that the approximate number of children who go missing in the UK each year is 215,000. However, that is only a snapshot of a global problem. Many countries, particularly those in the global south, do not have readily available statistics. This is an under-recognised issue, which is difficult for Governments across the globe to monitor.

The transnational nature of these crimes means that they are challenging to deal with effectively. Save the Children produced some incredibly alarming and distressing—but at the same time, vital to know—statistics about the scale of global child trafficking. That is not necessarily what we are talking about today, but it is important to highlight. The charity estimates that at any given time, as many as 1.2 million children are being trafficked, of which two thirds are girls. Many of those children are trafficked for use in forced labour or sexual exploitation. One missing or abducted child is one too many. This international crisis warrants a co-ordinated and international response.

Although we are here to discuss support for parents on international child abduction, we cannot ignore the fact that the problem is exacerbated by Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine. Just last week, we reached an extraordinary milestone, whereby the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes in Ukraine, including the unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.

The anguish that is caused when a child is abducted is unimaginable. We must therefore use any available mechanisms to put an end to these abhorrent practices. Although we have conventions designed to tackle them, particularly The Hague convention on international child abduction, we still do not have universal adoption and ratification. Currently, only 101 countries have signed The Hague convention. As an international approach is needed, it is vital to ensure that countries that have not signed the convention, such as China, Kenya and Nigeria, do so.

If countries fail to sign up, families living in the United Kingdom lose the legal mechanisms to secure the prompt return of their child. As Andy Slaughter stated, that has a significant impact on young children who are in the middle of custody battles between parents. We have recently seen that in Scotland, where a father has been unable to secure the return of his children. They are believed to be in north Cyprus, which, as non-signatory nation, has no obligation to co-operate with international authorities.

As Fleur Anderson stated, there is a wider impact. These are children who have lives here: they go to school here; they have friends and family here. The hon. Lady said that she was raising a case not necessarily involving an immediate family member, but where there had been ramifications on the wider family.

I urge the UK Government to use their position in the international community to push for the universal ratification of the convention. It is not a fix-all solution; some argue its biggest shortcoming is its failure to anticipate that many abductors will be victims of domestic violence fleeing their abuser. However, any shortfalls merely emphasise the need for Governments to implement robust legislative measures that would ensure that victims of domestic abuse are not punished for fleeing an abusive relationship, and not accused of child abduction or abandonment because they decide to remove themselves and their child from an abusive environment.

The hon. Member for Woking also raised the issue of abusive relationships and domestic abuse, and I hope the Minister will acknowledge that in her response. He spoke about Nataly, and her children, who were taken to Croatia under the pretence of a holiday. As I have said to other Members, I sincerely hope that they are reunited.

England and Wales have specific legislation designed to tackle international parental child abduction. In Scotland, it is covered by its own Act—an Act to which the Scottish Government are currently considering amendments. The SNP remains committed to the need for reform in this area to ensure that parents of abducted children have the support they so desperately need, which is so important. It was distressing to hear the hon. Member for Hendon raise the case of Beth Alexander, who is not allowed contact with her children in Austria. This is clearly an issue that is impacting people from all across these four nations.

We must do all we can to eradicate child abduction, especially when there is that international impact. I am glad that we are here today as cross-party colleagues pressing for action in this area. This debate has been incredibly important in raising an often under-recognised issue that has devastating consequences for families.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs) 3:47, 22 March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mrs Cummins. I start by thanking David Simmonds for securing this important debate and bringing his constituent’s distressing case to light. I welcome the productive contributions that have been made throughout the debate, and am reassured by their positive tone.

The parental abduction of a child is one of the most painful experiences any parent can endure. It is a hugely distressing matter for the family members affected. On behalf of the Labour party today, I send my heartfelt condolences to anyone who has suffered this ordeal, particularly the constituents whose cases were raised by the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) and for Woking (Mr Lord).

As the leading charity in this area, Reunite International, sets out so eloquently,

“The modern world is increasingly interconnected.”

With the development of affordable international travel and new methods of instant communication with people across the world, it is only natural that relationships are becoming more and more international. Many children are born to parents who hold different nationalities, and some children are born in a country that is not the country of birth of either of their parents. Whole families relocate to new countries to explore new opportunities, and some parents end up living in different countries from their children for a variety of reasons.

Unfortunately, while this greater global interconnectivity can have its benefits, it also has its challenges and risks. For many parents, the increasingly international nature of their lives greatly adds to the unusual relationship tests and strains we all recognise and know—for example, when parents cannot agree on where they should live, when moving involves one parent giving up a promising career to support another, or when one parent does not want to move abroad at all. Naturally, for some, these trials and tribulations will eventually become too much, and relationships will break down and come to an end.

These situations are undoubtedly incredibly difficult, but in the majority of circumstances, the partners will come to a mutual understanding—a compromise—on who should accept the day-to-day responsibility of the child and what role the other parent will play in the child’s life. If there is an irreconcilable dispute, it might in some cases be necessary for the courts to decide what arrangements should be put in place, bearing in mind the age of the child and what would be in their best interests. In thankfully very few cases where no compromise can be reached, one parent may resort to taking unilateral action to forcibly move their child to a different country, without the consent or knowledge of the other parent. That is what we consider as international parental child abduction.

It is quite difficult to gauge just how prevalent this problem is in the UK today, although some data does exist from the last few years. For instance, using freedom of information requests, the British charity Action Against Abduction found that 227 children were abducted by their parents in 2016-17 in England and Wales alone. As for international child abductions, the most recent statistic I could find from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office comes from 2013-14—almost a decade ago—when 553 unique international child abduction cases were logged in the course of the year. However, it is difficult to get numbers on the scope of the problem today, which is disquieting for an issue of this importance.

To get a better sense of the problem, I spoke to the British charity Reunite, which informed me that it had logged 515 new abduction cases in 2022. Although that charity emphasises that that was not a perfect measure of the scope of the problem, it makes it clear that parental child abduction is a serious problem that requires a serious response, not only by us as a country but with our international allies.

Because there is no such thing as a “typical” family, there is also no such thing as a “typical” child abduction case. Yet in the broadest terms, an international parental child abduction occurs when a parent or other connected adult takes a child into another country against the wishes of another person who has a parental relationship with the child. That presents a unique enforcement problem, because the child is now in a country with different laws from those in the country that the parent who is making a claim to have them returned lives in. The hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner emphasised this situation in relation to Poland, as did my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson. These cases are serious and unique and require great care.

Luckily, the international community came together and, in an inspiring example of the international rule of law, created The Hague abduction convention in 1980. The convention standardises across countries rules for dealing with cases of child abduction and streamlines the procedure to reunite children with the parent who should have parental responsibility. Of course, as we have heard throughout today’s debate, there are problems with that framework. Those were set out by my hon. Friend Dr Offord. Hon. Members have today presented the most serious problem: that too few countries have fully ratified The Hague abduction convention as we have done in the United Kingdom. Moreover, the specific rules regarding when a child becomes “habitually resident” for the purposes of the convention are not easy to understand and not always clearly applied. In some places, they are not able to be applied at all.

We heard from my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter about his constituent whose partner took their child to occupied north Cyprus, which is rightly not recognised as a state in international law and seems to have become a haven for those wishing to avoid law enforcement. My colleague suggested a number of measures, which I would ask the Minister to consider, but perhaps there needs to be a strategy for dealing with territories, such as north Cyprus, that are not internationally recognised as states.

Another problem, of course, lies with the support networks available to mothers and fathers who find themselves at the heart of child abduction cases. The FCDO can provide much-needed support to British nationals affected by international child abduction. Consular officers can advise left-behind parents of the most effective ways to contact the legal authorities of the country in question and make them aware of their parental responsibilities. Should that fail, the FCDO can liaise with local authorities and, with the permission of the UK courts, present authorities with court orders served in the UK. Consular officers can also recommend lawyers who may be able to support the parent, should the case require specialist legal advice. Finally, consular officers can put families in touch with trusted organisations that have become expert in this area and can offer specialised support and mediation services. Yet we must remember the limitations of what support FCDO consular officers can offer.

Although the FCDO can offer support and advice, we must remember that it is not a law enforcement body and nor can it offer its own legal advice. Similarly, although the FCDO can draw the attention of foreign courts to legal orders issued in the UK, it is unable to enforce these orders in foreign courts. Likewise, it is unable to compel foreign jurisdictions to accept or comply with legal obligations, whether in national or international law. This leaves a gaping hole in our national response mechanism to these types of events, particularly when children are taken unlawfully to a country outside The Hague convention.

With that in mind, I look forward to hearing what the Minister feels the Government can do to improve the support that we can offer parents and families who have a child that has been abducted. What more can we do as a country domestically to support parents in this situation? Might the provision of additional funding to wonderful charities such as Reunite and Action Against Abduction, who are so brilliant in this area, be part of the solution? Should the Government be doing more with our international allies to revisit The Hague convention and update it, in order to close its loopholes and better reflect the realities of modern family life? Could the Government put more effort into increasing the ratification of The Hague convention to ensure greater global coverage of its provisions? Finally, will the Government follow Labour’s lead in calling for a legal right to consular advice for British nationals in distress that would replace the current discretionary consular advice?

I thank colleagues from all parties for their thoughtful and measured contributions to this serious debate. As we have heard many times today, for a parent there is nothing more important than knowing that they will have continued and safe access to their child, whatever country they or their child find themselves in. The current international efforts to achieve this are laudable, but we all agree that more can and must be done to prevent more families from suffering the enormous pain of child abduction.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 3:56, 22 March 2023

I am grateful to my hon. Friend David Simmonds for securing this debate on an important and difficult subject. I thank him for the work he does with the important and effective all-party parliamentary group for children.

I am grateful to other hon. Members for their contributions; they have represented their constituents with impassioned speeches. I fear that too many colleagues have felt as frustrated as my hon. Friend Mark Fletcher. Indeed, I have had a number of such cases in my time as an MP.

I will try to respond to all the points that have been raised, but to protect the interests of individual children I will limit my comments to Government actions so as not to share any personal information about specific cases. Hon. Members should continue to contact Ministers if they wish to discuss their individual cases in more detail, and my officials are always available to discuss details privately, or in writing if that is more appropriate.

International parental child abduction is heartbreaking and highly distressing for all those affected, and the UK Government take it extremely seriously. We are a party to The Hague convention of 1980 on the civil aspects of international child abduction, and we operate the convention with over 75 countries in order to facilitate prompt returns. Ultimately, of course, decisions about returns are a matter for the courts in the country to which the child has been taken. Such decisions will depend on a number of factors, including habitual residence, as colleagues have set out, and whether the child objects to the return. Decisions about the long-term future of the child are to be made where the child is habitually resident.

The UK has clear measures in place to seek to prevent international parental child abduction in the first place. Concerned parents can get a specific issue order or prohibited steps order to prevent a child from being taken out of the country. Our courts can order the Passport Office to temporarily not issue a British passport to a child at risk of abduction, and our police can issue a port alert if a parent is concerned that their child is likely to be taken abroad without their consent within the next 48 hours, and that will remain active for 28 days.

Our charity partner, Reunite International, which we part-fund, has published prevention guides to help parents to navigate the options and support available to them, and those have been translated into several different languages to assist families across the UK.

When a child with British links has been abducted and taken abroad, our consular staff across the world are trained to provide ongoing support to those involved—work that is incredibly challenging for them. I have met many on my travels and they are, to a man and woman, exceptional in their commitment to try to support and find solutions. They are able to provide families with practical advice about travel, local customs, services and procedures. Of course, they can put families in touch with partner organisations, such as Reunite International, with which we work closely, to offer such specialised support. Our staff can also facilitate in-country contact with relevant authorities and courts to ensure, for example, that those courts are aware of any UK court orders. Where appropriate, the FCDO can officially “express an interest”—that is a formal term—in a case with the relevant authorities in-country.

As colleagues have mentioned, where a child has been abducted to or retained in a country with which the UK operates the 1980 Hague convention, and an application for the child’s return is made, the relevant UK central authority will liaise closely with foreign counterpart central authorities and the applicant until the final decision on return has been made.

As Bambos Charalambous has highlighted, the FCDO is not a law enforcement body, so there are limits to the steps that we can take. We cannot interfere in court proceedings in another country and we are unable to compel foreign jurisdictions to enforce UK court orders. Indeed, as my hon. Friend Dr Offord outlined, it would not be appropriate to be seen to be trying to influence foreign courts by expressing a preference for a particular outcome. We cannot physically rescue a child from abroad, or get involved in any illegal attempts to bring a child back to the UK.

We recognise that not all countries with which we operate the 1980 Hague convention operate it effectively. There can be lengthy delays in the return of abducted children to the UK, and in those cases we lobby Governments at the most senior levels, and make it clear that the UK expects both the spirit and the letter of the convention to be enforced.

The hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) raised the issue of north Cyprus in particular. I am afraid that the UK does not operate The Hague convention with north Cyprus, with which we have no formal relationship, and it does not share any information with our high commission on minors subject to UK court orders. Our high commissioner is therefore unable to ensure that those minors are safeguarded.

If the UK does not operate the 1980 Hague convention with a country to which a child has been abducted, the FCDO is still able to provide some assistance. We can, of course, provide a list of English-speaking lawyers in-country and can give basic practical information about the customs and procedures of the country to which the child has been taken. If necessary, we can support and offer guidance on finding accommodation locally as parents try to find solutions. As I have said, where appropriate, the FCDO can express an interest in the swift resolution of court cases, but we cannot interfere with court proceedings.

The FCDO can also help with contacting the relevant in-country authorities and organisations when the left-behind parent is overseas. If that parent would like the FCDO so to do, it can contact the relevant UK police force to ask about progress in tracing an abducted child and find out whether they have contacted the police overseas to assist in finding that child or children.

I will try to tackle some of the specific issues about certain countries that have been raised by hon. Members, but only in a general sense, without highlighting particular cases.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Solicitor General

I listened carefully to what the Minister said about TRNC, and I am not sure whether she said that the police would talk to the law enforcement authorities there. As I have said, there clearly has been co-operation in a number of respects. Can she say any more about those contacts? I understand that we are not going to establish diplomatic relations, and I am not advocating that, but at the moment the prospects are bleak because there is literally no redress. Can she shed any more light on what can be done?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, the reality, I am afraid, is that we do not have a relationship because that country is not formally recognised. We do not have any formal mechanisms with which to work.

In response to questions about specific countries, and without referring to specific cases, Poland is a close partner in many ways, as my hon. Friend for Bolsover set out, and especially in recent months as it has supported Ukraine following Russia’s illegal invasion. We are working very closely together in lots of matters relating to that. It is one of the countries with whom we have the largest number of Hague return orders, and we recognise that Poland has not enforced the 1980 Hague convention return order on several occasions. As affected hon. Members will know, we have raised that with Ministers in the Polish Ministry of Justice at every available opportunity, and we will continue to do so. Indeed, the Minister for Security raised those cases with the Polish Ministry of Justice just a few weeks ago. We are also planning exchanges between our experts to share knowledge of the management of Hague return orders, and we are co-ordinating with other countries that share our concerns about Poland’s enforcement of return orders.

A number of Members have raised the question of Brussels II. I am afraid the reality is that Brussels II does not provide a cure-all for these troubling cases, and current EU member states are still not able to solve similar cases through that mechanism. The reality is that we have non-return situations, which are difficult to manage.

We support countries that are struggling to enforce the convention owing to capacity constraints. For example, today in Brazil, our consular staff, along with a representative of our judiciary and staff from the Central Authority, which represents England and Wales, are participating in a knowledge-building conference on parental child abduction, which we are part funding. Delegates from the US, Canada, Australia and the UK will share knowledge that will help Brazilian judges to navigate parental child abduction cases and bring them to a swift conclusion. That builds on work we have undertaken over the past six months with our charity partner, Reunite International, which has provided training in mediation between parents as an alternative remedy to formal court processes for judges in Brazil.

In Japan, UK officials recently met legal representatives in a successful Hague convention return case, as part of our ongoing commitment to learn lessons on how different countries undertake Hague 1980 proceedings, in order to improve the support we provide to left-behind parents and to try to resolve more cases as needed.

Supporting British nationals overseas remains the primary public service of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. We continually seek to improve the professionalism, scope and nature of our assistance, in accordance with the Vienna convention on consular relations, and we compare our consular services with those provided by comparable countries.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith asked whether there is legislation we should consider, and I will ask my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend David Rutley, within whose portfolio the matter formally sits, to invite Members with concerns to perhaps discuss it with him at a policy level in due course.

Our expert consular staff at home and abroad work extremely hard to support victims of parental child abduction, and we take every case very seriously. We recognise absolutely that the situation is very distressing for those involved, and our staff work with empathy and do their very best to offer the help needed to resolve these cases as quickly as possible.

Consular staff are sadly not lawyers, medics, police detectives or social workers, but they try to do all they can to ensure that British citizens have the information and support they need to help them to deal with the incredibly difficult situation that they face. They use their expert knowledge of the countries in which they operate to try to help parents to navigate new legal systems, signpost them towards support services and ensure that ongoing support is provided to left-behind parents.

I know that, for every parent still waiting for the safe return of their child, this is an impossibly difficult situation. The FCDO, with all the resources we have, will continue to do what it can, in-country and with other countries equally frustrated by non-compliance with The Hague convention, to try to reduce the number of cases still on the books and bring those children home.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner 4:08, 22 March 2023

May I start by sharing an apology and a thank you for the patience shown by the many who have come to listen to today’s debate? We have had to break off a number of times to vote, but it is great that Members have returned to the Chamber and continued to engage fully in proceedings.

I also say thank you to Andy Slaughter, my hon. Friend Mark Fletcher, Fleur Anderson, my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Woking (Mr Lord), and the hon. Members for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) for their contributions to the debate. I was heartened to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon that he had enjoyed some success in supporting constituents with returning abducted children to the UK. Particularly when dealing with such a difficult topic, it is really positive to hear examples of that.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate referred to the challenges for parents where children have been removed to countries that have different laws from those that apply where the parent is habitually resident. In many of those cases, and certainly in my constituent’s case, the country does not have different laws; it is part of an international legal framework, intended to mutually recognise each other’s orders. However, the challenge is that there are examples of countries—some of which are part of that framework, such as Croatia, Austria and Poland, and some of which, such as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, are not—that are simply not fulfilling their obligations.

Due process is totally clear: a court has found in a particular way, and the challenge now is ensuring that the outcome of that legal process is respected. As the hon. Member for Putney referenced, some countries, such as the UK and Australia, are seen as exemplars for respecting their international obligations and ensuring that children are returned, usually within a six-week period of the order needing to be enforced. In Poland, the rate is around 5%, which demonstrates that there is a significant challenge, which is a consistent theme running through the cases of many in the Public Gallery today.

I will conclude by addressing a point that a number of Members have highlighted: the enormous burden that this situation places on family members. We have heard lots of examples of people, including my constituent, who had to sell their homes to finance the legal battle simply to enforce a legal judgment that should be respected under international law. We have heard examples of the effect of that on people’s health and wellbeing, and on the wider family, grandparents and extended family members.

What is clear is that, while my constituent has my absolute deepest sympathy—as a father of young children, I feel for him—he does not need my sympathy. What he needs is for us to ensure that the political and diplomatic challenge of persuading countries that are our allies to carry out their obligations under international law happens. We must not allow a situation to persist for a moment longer where too many parents, who may be part of shared custody arrangements, have their children unjustly deprived of their loving care.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the matter of support for parents affected by international child abduction.

Sitting suspended.