John Stanley – 1978 Speech on Snatched Children

Below is the text of the speech made by John Stanley, the then Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling, in the House of Commons on 23 March 1978.

I am glad to have the opportunity in the final debate before the recess to raise the subject of the problem of tracing snatched children. I acknowledge the very important help that I have had from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) in understanding the legal implications of the present situation. I am referring not to a child who is snatched by a passer-by but to the more complex and problematical matter of a child who is snatched by one parent from the other. The most difficult aspect is when the snatch takes place before divorce proceedings are finalised and there is no clear determination of arrangements for custody or access.

I refer to a particularly distressing and heart-rending case that has occurred in my constituency—that of four-year old Mathew Allingham. Last summer his parents were in the process of getting a divorce. The divorce negotiations were proceeding perfectly amicably. Custody had been agreed in principle—Mathew was to go to Mrs. Allingham who would have custody, and access rights for Mr. Allingham had been agreed. Maintenance had also been agreed, as had the division of the proceeds of the matrimonial home.

In June last year before the divorce arrangements had been completely finalised, Mr. Allingham requested to be allowed to take Mathew away for a week’s holiday. Mrs. Allingham agreed, ​ and there were no grounds whatever up to that point for suspicion on her part. She went away at the same time and when she came back she found a letter from her husband which read:

“I have taken Mathew on an extended holiday. Do not worry. You know that I will look after him.”

That was nine months ago. Despite the most exhaustive inquiries by the Kent police and others, and most rigorous, sustained and valiant efforts by Mrs. Allingham’s solicitor, Mr. Richard Dresner, whose contribution I cannot praise too highly, Mathew still has not been found. Both he and his father have disappeared without trace.

This case has highlighted three major deficiencies in the arrangements for protecting what we all consider to be the fundamental rights of a child to preserve access to each of his or her parents. The first deficiency is the absence of mutual enforcement provisions, between this country and others, on wardship and custody orders. This is particularly relevant in this case. Mathew was made an interim ward of court almost immediately after the snatch occurred, but the wardship order was approved by an English court and was therefore only legally valid in England and Wales. It had no legal validity in Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands, let alone any Commonwealth countries, the United States or the EEC countries.

The present situation is that if one parent snatches a child away from the other parent and is able to get that child out of England or Wales, he or she is reasonably certain of avoiding the English wardship order. We already have mutual enforcement provisions on maintenance orders between this country and others. It is high time that we extended that principle to wardship and custody orders.

The absence of such arrangements at present are relevant to this sad and depressing case because Mr. Allingham has a brother in Canada and it may well be that he has taken Mathew there. The absence of any mutual enforcement provisions in regard to Mathew’s wardship order means that if he is traced and found in Canada it will be necessary for Mrs. Allingham to institute legal proceedings in a Canadian court to secure the return of her son to this country.

I come to the second major deficiency in the system. I refer to the absence of any form of legal aid in legal proceedings overseas. I said that if Mathew were found overseas, perhaps in Canada, it would in theory be open to Mrs. Allingham to institute proceedings in a Canadian court for his return to the United Kingdom. But that is only a theoretical option open to her. She is in receipt of legal aid, but because under the rules such aid is not available to pursue cases overseas, she would have no means financially by which she could initiate an action in a Canadian court for the recovery of her son.

Mrs. Allingham at present has the cards stacked against her. They are certainly stacked against Mathew’s chances of being reunited with his mother. Mrs. Ailingham’s son has been snatched and he might successfully be traced, possibly later this year or at some time in the future, in Canada. But if the present situation endures, Mrs. Allingham will find that her English wardship order has no legal force in Canada.

Mrs. Allingham will find that the fact that she is unable to obtain legal aid for an action overseas will leave her with no means of instituting proceedings in a Canadian court. She is left with one option—a highly disagreeable and distasteful one and one which is emotionally traumatic for her, and even more so for the child. The option lies in trying to arrange, by stealth and subterfuge, a snatch-back or counter-snatch. Because of the inadequacy of the present arrangements, Mrs. Allingham’s solicitor has advised her that that would be the course to be followed if Mathew is identified overseas.
I suggest that in the latter half of the twentieth century in a civilised country it is morally indefensible that we should put a mother or father in a position whereby, to secure the recovery of a child, he or she is unable to use the procedures in court but is forced to engage in a snatch-back.

I suggest that, although I fully recognise that there are major problems to extend legal aid generally to matters overseas, in these circumstances the human considerations are so extenuated and fundamental that a special fund should be created to enable those parents who wish to have financial help to carry out pro- ​ ceedings in courts overseas for the recovery of their children who are subject to wardship or custody arrangements in the United Kingdom.

Finally, there is a third deficiency, and that is the question of the tracing of snatched children. As I have discovered when examining all the ramifications of this case, it is surprisingly easy in Britain to disappear. One can change one’s name very easily. We have no system of identity cards, and Government Departments strictly enforce the principle of the confidentiality of personal information that is given to them. I in no way wish to abandon any of those practices. I believe that it is right and reasonable in a free society that if people want to embark on a new life, for whatever reason, they should be able, if they wish, to change their names.

I certainly oppose the introduction of an identity card system and I attach the greatest importance to maintaining the principle of the privacy of personal information given to Government Departments. However, a case such as the one to which I am referring means that we need again to consider whether there are ways in which we can do more to protect the rights of snatched children and retain access for the parents from whom they have been snatched.

I should like the Minister to look at three courses of action that might help the tracing process in this country. Will she have consultations within her Department to satisfy herself that the powers available to the police are adequate and give them all reasonable prospects of identifying and tracing snatched children? I fully appreciate that the Allingham case is not a criminal matter but a civil matter and that therefore assistance given by police forces is on an ex gratia basis rather than in fulfilment of their legal obligations.

Will the Minister consult the Secretary of State for Education and Science to see whether it might be possible to do more through local education authorities to establish whether a snatched child is continuing to go to school in another area, perhaps under a different name? If Mathew is still in this country, he will shortly be of the age to start school, and this is another avenue which should be explored.

I should also be grateful if the Minister would consult the Secretary of State for ​ Social Services, because the Department of Health and Social Security has access to the names and addresses of people receiving benefits and paying national insurance contributions. I understand that the Department regards the privacy of information given to it as a fundamentally important principle, but that it makes ex-exceptions when children have been snatched. I was glad to receive a letter from the Under-Secretary at the Department on 25th November. He said:

“I can assure you, however, that it is the Department’s policy to help parents, guardians, courts or the police when they ask for the address of a missing child. Local social security offices have instructions that for this purpose they may make an exception to the normal rules of confidentiality and may provide the address of a child missing from home to the police or to a person known to be the child’s parent or guardian.”

However, although that may be the official ministerial view, the exceptions on confidentiality may not have percolated through to local offices of the Department. Mrs. Allingham received a letter on 16th March from the North Fylde office of the Department. She had been making inquiries about a possible new address for her husband in this country. Mr. G. B. Duffy replied to her:

“I must however, tell you that if then a later address was held in the Departments records we might not be able to let you have the address, such information being regarded by the Department as confidential. However while your son Mathew is the subject of wardship proceedings we would inform Tunbridge Wells County Court of the address at their request.”

I am unhappy about the phrase “at their request”. The onus should be on the Department to make details available to the court as soon as it has any new information about the whereabouts of Mr. Allingham. The onus should not be on the court to make continuing applications to the Department. I should be grateful if the Minister would look into that.
The case of Mathew Allingham highlights some glaring deficiencies in our arrangements for tracing snatched children. There are deficiencies certainly if a child is snatched and taken overseas, and possibly there are some deficiencies, too, in the tracing process in Britain. I believe that we owe it to every child to protect its right of access to its parents. I hope that the Government will accept that we shall be failing in our responsibility ​ towards children who are snatched in future if we leave the present situation unchanged.