Time for change on child abduction laws is here

Mark Lancaster MP
Mark Lancaster MP

THE long standing public campaign this newspaper has been running, to ensure Ken Spooner is reunited with his two children Devlan and Caelan, has highlighted the difficulty many parents have faced with the law relating to wrongful retention.

For those of you unaware of Ken’s situation; Ken believed his children were being taken on a short holiday to Zambia by their mother to see their grandparents in 2008. They have never been returned.

In part, as a result of current UK law classing this as a civil matter, rather than criminal and also in part to Zambia’s failure to sign up to the Hague Convention, Ken has faced a lengthy civil legal battle to try and have his children returned.

I am sure it comes as a great relief that after four years we hope the end is in now in sight for Ken, as the Zambian High Court is due to return its verdict at any time. But Ken is not my only constituent who has faced this problem and as with any recurrent problem alarm bells start to ring.

Having dealt with other cases of wrongful retention it struck me that the classification of wrongful retention as a criminal rather than civil offence, might help to speed up the return of children taken to countries not signed up to extradition treaties.

The civil classification of the crime committed in Ken’s case, greatly inhibited the likelihood the children would be returned quickly. Had it been a criminal offence, I suspect the Zambian authorities would have been more likely to extradite the boys and his mother back to the UK to be dealt with in the courts here.

With this in mind I recently got in contact with Reunite International, a UK based charity specialising in international parental abduction, providing advice, prevention guides and support to parents who have had their children taken by the child’s other parent.

As a result, it was with great interest that I met the director of the charity, Alison Shalby to discuss the current legislation and the loophole that had become apparent.

Reunite has a legal board comprising of some of the country’s best barristers in Child Abduction law. Having sought advice from them Alison confirmed the change would place greater pressure than already exists on foreign authorities to have children returned.

I have learnt over the past year that the mood needs to be right in Westminster for real change to occur. With Australia recently identifying the same loophole and classifying wrongful retention as a criminal offence and the support of this country’s top barristers and the leading charity in the field, I am now determined to take on the Government and call for this much needed amendment.

Slowly the wheels have started to turn already and I intend to work cross party with other members of the All Party Parliamentary Group against child abduction to apply as much pressure as possible.

For too long parents, like Ken, have had to wrestle with the law to have their children returned and I hope that over the next year, I will be able to help make it just a little bit easier for them.