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Mr. Rowe: It is clear that the hon. Gentleman does not intend to respond to any of my points. I hoped that he might mention the fact that we are still in danger--both in DFID and in the NGOs--of acting de haut en bas towards the people we most want to help.

Mr. Mullin: That may be so. I am sorry that I do not have time to reply to all the points made in the debate. During the few minutes that remain, I should like to make one or two points of my own. I am happy to repeat to the House what a good fellow the hon. Gentleman is and how useful his contributions have been over the years--[Interruption.] I cannot promise him a job.

We have a good story to tell. Thanks in no small measure to the robust leadership provided by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, there has been a sea change in the way that we manage overseas development. DFID is an independent Department with its own seat at the Cabinet table. Overseas aid is no longer a tool of foreign policy, still less a tool of trade policy. As a share of gross national product, it is rising year by year, although it is still far too low. Furthermore, our aid is now firmly targeted on the poorest people in the poorest countries.

We are setting an example that other countries and, more important, international institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, are beginning to follow. What is most heartening is that both sides of the House have signed up to our approach. Indeed, I hope that it is about to be enshrined in law.

As many hon. Members have remarked, however, there are no grounds for complacency. As many of the speeches have shown, no one is under any illusions as to the scale of the task that we face. However, at least we can move forward in the knowledge that there is a fair measure of agreement about where we need to arrive and how to get there. We can take heart, too, from the fact that the international community is increasingly pulling in the same direction. What matters is the political will to achieve what we all know must be done, and I assure the House that there is no lack of political will on the part of the Government.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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Child Abduction

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Pearson.]

7 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling): The Parliamentary Secretary will remember that we last met on 24 October last year, when I secured an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall before the special commission meeting in The Hague to review the operation of the 1980 Hague convention on the civil aspects of international child abduction. I am very glad to return to that extremely important subject now that the special commission meeting has taken place.

As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, I am a vice-chairman of the all-party group on child abduction, but I am speaking entirely in my individual capacity and in no way on behalf of the parliamentary group. I am sorry that I feel impelled to say that the responses that the all-party group has had from the Lord Chancellor have been singularly less than helpful in the run-up to the special commission meeting.

I wish to refer to two specific issues, the first of which relates to the letter that the members and officers of the all-party group sent to the Lord Chancellor on 20 December, in which an entirely reasonable request was made. We said:

As we live in a parliamentary democracy and as--not entirely surprisingly--there are a relatively small number of hon. Members who have in-depth expertise on the 1980 child abduction convention, we believed that the Lord Chancellor would support our request, but we were disappointed. In his letter of 21 January, the Lord Chancellor replied:

So it was somewhat galling, to put it mildly, to find that a Member of the European Parliament was present at The Hague, as were two American Congressmen, who were, of course, part of the official United States Government delegation. I must make it clear that the presence of those three parliamentarians caused absolutely no difficulty whatever to the member states present at the special commission meeting, and the grounds on which the Lord Chancellor rejected our proposal were shown to be wholly spurious.

The Lord Chancellor's correspondence with the all-party group was less than helpful in the provision of information. We wrote again to the Lord Chancellor on 14 February, making this request:

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Although on 6 March the Lord Chancellor was offering no information to the parliamentary group about what the British Government were trying to achieve at the forthcoming meeting, on 20 March I received a helpful and fully informative letter from the Foreign Secretary. He attached the full record and papers of a meeting which took place in the Foreign Office on 13 February, chaired by Baroness Scotland, at which officials of the Parliamentary Secretary's Department were represented, as well as those from outside, including Reunite. So the meeting was effectively in the public domain. One of those papers is headed "UK Aims For The Special Commission" and details the nine objectives of the British Government. In other words it provided precisely the information which the all-party group had sought and which the Lord Chancellor had declined to give us in his letter of 6 March.

I earnestly hope that lessons will be learned. I do not make that criticism of any other part of the British Government. Indeed, in my extensive dealings with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Foreign Secretary, ambassadors overseas in their posts, including in Sweden where I went in January, and officials in the consular department of the Foreign Office and in the child abduction unit have been singularly helpful and informative. I hope that in future the same will be true of the Lord Chancellor himself.

My own Government having given me the thumbs down made me that much more determined to attend the special commission meeting, which I indeed did on behalf of the international NGO, the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. I want to raise five particular issues in connection with what happened at The Hague.

The first concerns ministerial attendance. For a considerable period the all-party group had been pressing that for the first time there should be a ministerial presence for at least part of the special commission meeting. We felt it important in terms of the profile of the meeting--and of the child abduction issue--that the Governments who are parties to the 1980 convention should demonstrate at ministerial level that there is a deep desire to see that the operation of the convention was improved.

I acknowledge that the British Government made strenuous efforts over a considerable period to get international agreement to ministerial attendance. There was no lack of effort and it was not the British Government's fault that that was not achieved. It was somewhat disappointing, however, that the British Government did not move to the fall-back position which

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was to include a Minister in the British delegation at The Hague. The composition of the British delegation was entirely a matter for the British Government. The Hague secretariat and other countries have no role to play in the composition of individual delegations. It would have been possible for the British delegation to include a Minister. It might well have included the Parliamentary Secretary, who would have been an excellent leader if she could have been present for even part of the time. An opportunity was lost. If the British--and perhaps the British alone--had sent a Minister as leader of their delegation, it would most surely have been noted by a considerable number of countries. It would have been a litmus test of the British Government's commitment to the importance of the issue. If they had blazed a trail on the special commission meeting, other Governments would have followed subsequently. I hope that that can be borne in mind for the future.

Secondly, I want to raise the question of the good practice guide for the operation of the Hague convention. Some of us have been deeply concerned for a considerable period about the wide variations of practice in the operation of the convention. We have also been concerned about what appears in individual cases to be conspicuous non-observance and non-compliance with the letter--and often the spirit--of the convention by countries that are party to it. That weakness of the convention could be materially overcome as a result of the production of a good practice guide by the permanent bureau of the Hague secretariat.

In my view, agreement on the guide was the single most substantive and important outcome of the meeting. It was a considerable achievement. I can tell the Parliamentary Secretary, who was, unhappily, unable to be with us at The Hague, that that achievement was by no means easily brought about. The whole process by which agreement was reached was fraught with difficulty. A number of countries were undoubtedly worried about the production of a good practice guide. I suspect that some of them felt that the production of such a guide might expose deficiencies in their application of the convention.

Agreement was secured, however, and it was a signal achievement that is now reflected in the conclusions and recommendations of the Hague secretariat. I am delighted to see that paragraph 1.16 of that document states:

We now have a tremendous opportunity in terms of the production of the good practice guide. Will the Parliamentary Secretary explain how the British Government will contribute to work on the guide, the time scale that they envisage for producing it and how they will try to ensure that it is of the highest quality and helpfulness in terms of the operation of the convention?

Thirdly, I want to comment on access. As we all know, the question of access by left-behind parents to children who have been abducted from them is one of the most difficult aspects of child abduction. In my view, it is the provision of the convention that is most widely flouted.

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Happily, article 21 of the convention sets out the obligations for central authorities in unambiguous and clear terms. I should like to quote the two key sentences from article 21, which states:

That first sentence is followed by the crucial second one, which states:

Those are unambiguous terms.

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