Thursday, 9 January 2014

Confirmed: Closure of the Child Abduction Unit and its Replacement

I mentioned in 2013 that rumours had reached me that the Child Abduction Unit in the Foreign Office had closed. Also, that the duties carried out by that department had been passed to others in the Foreign Office as part of their overall duties.

In October 2013, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to confirm the authenticity of those rumours. Three months later (avoiding a clash with the announcement that child abductions have increased markedly) I have received a reply. The reply is linked below.

Freedom of Information Act Reply - Child Abduction Unit

An important point to note is that my enquiry related specifically to resourcing of the Child Abduction Unit, which should not be confused with the International Child Abduction and Contact Unit (ICACU) which is part of the Ministry of Justice and handles abductions to countries which are party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction and/or Brussels II Revised Regulations (BIS II) under European Council Directive (EC) No 2201/2203.

The rumours are confirmed. The reply, in part, does answer my request. Does it answer the question of whether there is now greater resource allocated? No, but perhaps that comes down to the wording of my questions. It would be of interest to learn whether staffing levels in the Country Casework Teams (which have absorbed child abduction work) have increased. They may have, they may not.

You might remember a news item from December... 'Parental child abductions double in a decade'. There were 272 new parental child abduction and international custody cases in 2003-04, and 580 in 2012-13. Note these are 'new' cases, and should not be considered the total number of unresolved cases. How many staff were allocated to assist in the UK in 2012/13... seemingly 4. Part of the tip-off to me was that one worker was trying to manage over 170 cases. Given, on average, the statistics would imply an average of 145 new cases per member of the Child Abduction Unit... rumour may have been on the low side.

Of further concern is the cut in funding from 2011 (quite spartan funding) for the child abduction project (which includes core funding for the charity Reunite). Reunite is a charity whose work I greatly admire. In that December 2013 news item, Alison Shalaby of the charity announced "Last year we helped to prevent 412 cases involving 586 children which demonstrates something can be done to prevent it from happening to you." The 'core funding' from the charity from the Foreign Office was £68,000. I believe MP's subsidised lunches cost the tax payer £5.8million. Priorities? On learning how little the Government support Reunite, my admiration for the charity, its effectiveness and for those who support it has risen even more.

Again in that news item the Foreign Office acknowledged it was "much harder" to get children back from countries which had not signed the 1980 Hague Convention.

Did the Foreign Office provide an adequate reply to our FOI request? Clearly, much time had been devoted to the wording, given the length of time the reply took. More importantly, are the resources allocated to the Foreign Office and by the Foreign Office adequate given that child abduction is a growing problem, and one which demographic changes in the UK suggest will continue to rise. That question remains unanswered.

I would add that I make no criticism of the staff in the Foreign Office, but my concerns remain as to whether they have sufficient resources available to them. Had the Foreign Office also confirmed that the number of staff in Country Casework Teams had risen, and by how much, those concerns might have been addressed.

For the parents and wider family whose child is abducted abroad, and for their children, I have utmost sympathy, and no small degree of pity, and especially for those whose children are abducted to non-Hague countries. To my knowledge, there is no financial assistance available in terms of funding for costs of travel, accommodation and legal representation in a (non-Hague/BIS II) foreign country to assist in the recovery of what is a British minor whose abduction is subject to the Child Abduction Act 1984. For the parent who cannot afford such costs, what chance?

Could that £5.8million lunch subsidy be allocated to a more worthy cause? Couldn't your MP take in a sandwich?