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Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me briefly to reflect on the issue of access. It would be inappropriate to raise individual cases falling under the convention, but having a constituent who has experience of the grave problem of access, I wish merely to support the right hon. Gentleman's comments and to request that the Minister elaborates on how British citizens and our constituents facing such problems will be helped to overcome them by the British Government and through the good practice guide.
Sir John Stanley: The hon. Lady will be glad to know that paragraphs 6.1 and 6.2 contain some positive recommendations on how access and adherence to the access provisions of the convention can be carried forward. Will the Minister, in her reply, set out how the Government will work towards the implementation of those recommendations? In particular, do they envisage a special commission specifically on access, which I believe was agreed at the special commission meeting? The broad view, which was not challenged at the meeting, was that there should be a special commission solely on access within one year of the meeting that took place in March. That was a valuable suggestion, which I hope has the Government's support.
The fourth point concerns new member states, which, again, was a considerable issue at the special commission meeting. I am aware that the Government are concerned about new member states that are not adequately equipped to carry out the convention's provisions becoming parties to the convention.
On 21 November last year, I received a reply from the then Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), listing a total of nine countries--Belarus, Brazil, Costa Rica, Fiji, Moldova, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay and Uzbekistan--which have each acceded to the Hague convention but whose recognition under article 38 has so far been withheld by the British Government.
I hope that the Government will not be over-stringent about giving such approval. Where countries are willing to try to operate the convention, they should be given every encouragement to do so and, once they have acceded, we have an additional ability to help them to raise their standards and apply the convention in full.
Fifthly, several new obligations and a new work load have been given to the permanent bureau as a result of the special commission meeting. It is vital for the bureau to have sufficient funds to discharge its obligations under the convention, especially those that arose through the special commission meeting. It is no good conducting such meetings and asking the bureau to produce a good practice guide without funding the bureau so that it can fulfil the objectives that have been set. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the British Government will carry out their full financial obligations to the bureau, which has quite properly asked for a supplementary budget, and encourage other states to do that.
The special commission meeting was the most significant of the four such meetings that have taken place. It had the biggest attendance, but most important, it had the most substantive outcome. I try to be objective, but, as a Brit, I am probably biased. Having followed the matter closely, it is my considered view that of all the state parties to the convention, the British Government, in their preparation for the meeting, the working papers that they submitted and their work on the conclusions, made the greatest contribution to the meeting. The all-party group and international non-governmental organisations, such as Reunite and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children also made a significant contribution.
I hope that the progress that was made in March at The Hague will be followed by an equally significant contribution on implementing the special commission's recommendation, with the British Government in the van.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): I am genuinely grateful to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) for creating the opportunity to discuss child abduction and allowing me to report to the House the outcome of the recent Hague special commission. I also thank him for his courtesy in alerting me in advance to the main points that he wanted to make. He is clearly aggrieved by the responses of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor to the all-party group. If I have time, I hope to deal with those points in my speech. However, if the short time available does not permit that, I shall write to the all-party group and the right hon. Gentleman in more detail. I congratulate him on securing the debate.
Yesterday, I placed in the Libraries of both Houses the official report of the special commission, which was produced by the permanent bureau at The Hague. As the right hon. Gentleman said, he attended the special commission as one of the representatives of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. He and his colleagues, who represent different voluntary organisations from around the world, made a valuable and distinctive contribution to the special commission's work alongside that of the various national delegations.
I shall briefly consider the role of special commissions. In the past, they have been criticised for not achieving as much as they might, and for having a focus that was too narrowly retrospective rather than looking forward to ascertain how the convention's operation might be improved in future. The United Kingdom Government, other member states and the permanent bureau of the conference were determined that the last special commission meeting should be a more high-profile event with an additional impetus to achieve positive improvements in the operation of the convention, to the benefit of abducted children and their parents. That determination was shared by members of the all-party group.
I am pleased to report, notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman's criticisms, that we substantially achieved our aim. The meeting was a considerable success. We gained agreement that there should be good practice guidance, to which he referred, and more guidance to states that wish to join. Having agreed that, it is important not to lose momentum. The agenda that was agreed at The Hague should be driven forward successfully. We are determined to play our part, and I hope to reassure the right hon. Gentleman about that.
The success of the special commission owes a great deal to the hard preparatory work that went into it beforehand, both by the permanent bureau and by officials in the UK and elsewhere. I am particularly grateful to the Foreign Office and to our embassies abroad for the tremendous work that they put in, lobbying other countries to agree to the proposals that the UK delegation would be putting forward.
I wish to address the right hon. Gentleman's criticisms of the responses and role of the Foreign Office in drawing the work together and liaising with other countries to achieve the right outcome from the special commission. There was also criticism that we were less than helpful in the provision of information. My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor committed to provide that information as soon as it was completed. In the event, we did not draft a communique; instead, a number of working papers were drafted. Unfortunately, these were not finalised in time to be provided to the all-party group before the meeting at the Foreign Office to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. My colleagues at the Foreign Office, which chaired the meeting, sent the details to the all-party group as soon as they were available. Clearly that was not quick enough. We are always willing to accept criticism where it is justified but, on this occasion, we simply did not get the information ready to provide it in advance of the meeting.
In the past, special commissions have essentially been gatherings of civil servants and lawyers, representing the different central authorities. We also thought that, this time, it would be helpful to have a judicial contribution and a political contribution, with Ministers attending for at least one session.
The first of these proposals went down better than the second. I must confess that although the special commission was attended by a very large number of distinguished judges, it had already become clear before the commission that the great majority of member states did not think that attendance by Ministers would be
In the event, the politicians were ably represented by the right hon. Gentleman, by Mrs. Mary Banotti of the European Parliament and by US Congressmen. I should stress that ministerial non-involvement should not be taken as an indication of lack of concern by the Government. It was a judgment that we had to arrive at, given the feedback that we got from other states participating in the special commission.
There was also a question as to whether representatives of the all-party group should be included in the UK delegation. The Government decided that that would not be appropriate on this occasion. The right hon. Gentleman will disagree with the view we took, but the national delegations--as opposed to the representatives of the other interested voluntary and international bodies--spoke for and represented their Governments and their central authorities, or the judiciaries of their countries.
I do not think that hon. Members who are not members of the Government would have wanted to be constrained in that way. The right hon. Gentleman will have found that he was freer to lobby; he may not have felt constrained anyway. He will have been more able to express his point of view, as a representative of the
I wish to pay tribute to the four very distinguished and senior British judges who assisted the British delegation: the president of the Family Division, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss; Lord Justice Thorpe; Lord Bonomy from Scotland; and Mr. Justice Gillen from Northern Ireland. One of the advantages of the way in which Hague cases are dealt with in the UK, as we pointed out, is that all cases are dealt with by a small pool of very experienced senior judges. This contrasts with the position in, for example, the United States, where there are an incredible 30,000 judges who could be asked to do a Hague case, probably for the only time in their lives.
The special commission has recommended that each contracting state should identify a judge able to facilitate communications between judges at the international level, and to act as a contact point between different systems. Lord Justice Thorpe undertakes this role in relation to England and Wales.