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Legal Guardianship and Missing People

Volume 607: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered legal guardianship and missing people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I want to put on the record that all our prayers and thoughts across the House are with those affected by the horrific events in Brussels yesterday morning.

It must be devastating when a loved one goes missing without any explanation or reason. We can only imagine the trauma and turmoil that brings to their families and friends. It is the sort of life-changing event that can be truly understood only by those unfortunate enough to experience it first hand, like my constituent, Peter Lawrence, whose daughter, Claudia, went missing on her way to work in York way back in 2009.

The uncertainty of a loved one going missing for weeks, months or even years on end is in itself devastating, but the practical implications cause unnecessary stress and challenges to their families. At present, when someone goes missing there is no legal authority in place to support families in dealing with their loved one’s affairs. Ownership and control of their property is effectively left in limbo until they are found or declared presumed dead, which happens only after seven long years.

In its current form, the law dictates that a person is presumed alive until proven otherwise and they retain direct accountability for all their property and affairs as if they were not missing. There is no assumption that they have lost capacity to manage their estate. Clearly and sadly, this is not the case in reality. As it stands, the law has some very serious consequences when it comes to managing a missing person’s financial affairs. For example, families are left unable to make mortgage payments, risking repossession, and cannot cancel direct debits or ensure that creditors are paid.

If the missing person has dependents, this further complicates the matter and, as I am sure you can appreciate, Mr Owen, it is incredibly distressing to watch helplessly as the financial affairs of a friend or family member are ruined. That happens at a time of complete turmoil for the family. Understandably, third parties such as banks and other financial institutions require direct consent from their customers before they will act on their behalf. The fact that someone is missing clearly makes this impossible. We need greater clarity for families and third parties in managing these issues. I am pleased that this view is widely accepted by all parties and the Government.

Many people will be aware that last week marked the seventh anniversary of Claudia Lawrence’s disappearance, making this debate timely and an occasion to remember her and the thousands of other missing people in the UK. Claudia’s father, Peter Lawrence, has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of all families who suffer from having a mother, father, daughter or son go missing, and I think his work should be commended.

We still do not know what happened to Claudia, but Peter’s campaign to change the law to help families who find themselves in such an incredibly difficult situation is inspirational. He is in London again today, campaigning for the change. With the assistance of the Missing People charity, Peter played a key role in pressing the Government to consult on creating a new legal status of guardian of the property and affairs of missing people back in August 2014. I, with other Members of Parliament, interested groups and members of the public, contributed to the consultation.

Exactly a year ago, in March 2015, the Government published their response to the consultation. They expressed their strong support for this new legal status and committed to introducing primary legislation as soon as possible. That was welcomed by all at the time and was seen as a huge step forward in the campaign. None of us thought in March 2015 that we would be at the same point a year on. It is deeply disappointing that no significant progress has been made.

In January, I received a letter from Lord Faulks informing me that

“work is progressing on developing the draft legislation”.

That is all we have been told and we are not seeing any action.

Claudia Lawrence lived in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As the Member for York Central, I am pleased to see her father in the Chamber today. He has been a real campaigner for missing people.

Would it not be expedient, as the forthcoming Queen’s Speech is so imminent, to bring in legislation on guardianship? We would love to see that in the Queen’s Speech to bring relief to families in sorting out the financial and property affairs of missing people.

I agree entirely with my honourable neighbour, who is absolutely right. The debate is timely because we are six or eight weeks away from a Queen’s Speech, and that would be an ideal opportunity to see some progress on this important legislation.

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

It is simply not good enough that, a year after promising action as soon as possible, we still have nothing to show the families who desperately need our help. Families continue to be unable to protect their missing loved one’s finances and property. It is unacceptable that no action is forthcoming and I call on the Minister today to commit to a clear parliamentary timetable for introducing this Bill.

When Claudia went missing in 2009, Peter soon discovered that he was powerless to act on behalf of his daughter. He was defeated by needless obstacles at every turn. The creation of a new legal guardianship status would allow families to act in the best interests of the missing person and give third parties the legal assurance that they need to help to resolve ongoing issues that are currently constrained by contract and data protection. The consultation paper proposed a system that is overseen by the Office of the Public Guardian and administered by the courts. Clearly, that will require detailed legislation that will need proper scrutiny before the House.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue, which is very close to my heart. Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers fame disappeared and his sister, Rachel Elias, campaigned extensively for the Presumption of Death Act 2013, which was passed by the coalition Government. I am delighted to see Peter Lawrence, Claudia’s father, sitting here today, and I pay tribute to him for all the work he has done.

Has the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) studied the Australian model of the Guardianship and Management of Property Act 1991? The legislation allows for an application to be lodged to the guardianship and management of property tribunal of the magistrates court to have someone appointed a manager to the property of a missing person. Has he thought about whether that type of legislation could be implemented here in the UK?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the Australian model, and that should form part of the process that I hope the Minister will follow. For me, we must ensure that we see progress—and quick progress—on the measures now. We have had the consultation. We have cross-party support. We need action.

Families have been waiting for years for protection, and the unnecessary delay in implementing the legislation will only prevent yet more families from doing what is right for their loved ones’ estates. I accept that parliamentary time can be in short supply and that many important Bills are currently progressing through the House. However, the fact remains that the Government promised to act as soon as possible. A year on, they have failed to deliver on that promise.

I quote from the Government’s own response to the consultation last year, which stated,

“given the importance of this measure and the strong support from all sides, legislation will be brought forward as soon as possible in the new Parliament.”

The proposals also have the support of the Justice Committee and the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults.

According to figures from Missing People, currently 2,215 adults across the country have been missing for more than three months. It is expected that between 50 and 300 applications for guardianship for missing people would be made each year under the new legislation. However, discussing the crisis in numbers overlooks the important impact—that behind each and every person are families and friendship groups suffering from uncertainty and the sad realisation that they are powerless to act.

It is next to impossible for me to comprehend what Peter has been through for the past seven years, as well as other families right across the country, as has been highlighted in the debate. I hope that we can all agree that it is essential that we offer every assistance we can. Disappearance can affect any family at any time across the country. It could be my family. It could be the Minister’s family. Any family in this room could go through this at some point in their lives. We all have a duty to ensure that the families of missing people do not have to deal with the additional stress and worry of not being able to protect their loved one’s property.

A year has now passed since the Government committed to creating a new legal status of guardian of the property and affairs of missing persons, yet we are no further forward in the process. The Government must now commit to a clear parliamentary timetable for delivering the changes, to help those families at a time when their world has simply been turned upside down. There is, as has been expressed, strong cross-party support for the measures, so there are no excuses. I am resolute in my view and will continue to lobby the Minister and the Government until families such as Peter’s get the change that is so desperately needed.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. May I start by expressing, on behalf of the Government and, I am sure, the whole House, our condolences to the people of Belgium? It goes without saying that we stand shoulder to shoulder with them at this very difficult time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government on this important issue. It is a technical issue when it comes to how we respond and reform the system, but one of heartfelt agony for the families who have to endure the predicament that my hon. Friend expressed so eloquently.

With that in mind, I pay tribute to those who have done so much to put and keep the subject on the agenda. They include, in the House, the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, and the Justice Committee, which has called for reforms consistently in 2011 and 2012; and the charity Missing People, which has steadfastly campaigned on behalf of missing people and their families. I personally acknowledge the deep heartache of the many families involved, which lies beneath the technical details of the proposals that I will outline. It would be remiss of me to pass up the opportunity to pay particular tribute to Peter Lawrence and his family, who are constituents of my hon. Friend. I know that Mr Lawrence is here today, and I extend that recognition and tribute to him and his family.

Claudia Lawrence has now been missing for seven years, and I am pained every time I see or read about the case. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for her family and, of course, for others in the same position. I know that my hon. Friend and Mr Lawrence will be disappointed that we have not legislated sooner. I acknowledge that. All I can say is that we will do everything we can to progress the proposals into legislation. I am inspired by the example that Mr Lawrence and my hon. Friend have set in that regard. It is important, and I give an undertaking, to keep the case of Claudia and the many others like her whom I have learned about—and the human toll of those cases—at the forefront of my mind as we take forward the technical legal proposals.

At present, as has been recognised, the common law rather pragmatically assumes that a person is alive until proven dead. It can therefore be slow to enable control of a person’s property and affairs to be given up to another person following an unexplained disappearance. The truth is that that gives us all a degree of protection, but it also means that when a person disappears with no explanation, their friends and family are left to face the practical difficulties of protecting the interests of the missing person and carrying on with their lives, on top of the deep emotional and personal shock and the challenge of coping without that person at the heart of their lives.

Those left behind may have access to funds, perhaps in a joint account that was previously controlled by the missing person. However, without the good will of third parties, the chances are that they will not have access to, or the ability to control, the missing person’s assets, whether in cash or in kind. They may find themselves effectively in a legal vacuum or void. In practical terms, that may mean being unable to adjust standing orders with a bank, or something as simple as that. It may mean being unable to ensure proper care for dependants, or it may create complications for businesses that have to get on with their daily and monthly work. Joint mortgages may be rendered, in practice, effectively unmanageable. Lots of basic daily things become increasingly difficult to keep a handle on and to keep control of in such a legal vacuum.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing the debate. The Opposition wholeheartedly support the campaign by Mr Lawrence and Missing People. I have been through this myself. My uncle disappeared many years ago. He just walked out of our lives, and to this day we do not know what happened to him, which has made it very, very difficult to handle matters. This debate is close to my heart. I urge the Minister to proceed with the proposals as soon as possible and end the heartache.

I cannot imagine what you have been through, Mr Lawrence. My heartache pales into insignificance compared with yours.

I thank the hon. Lady for sharing her personal insight and for her expression of cross-party support for the proposals, which certainly helps. The Government acknowledge the very real predicament of families such as the Lawrence family.

I have known the Minister a long time, and he will focus on this like a laser beam. When I was campaigning for a presumption of death Act back in 2011, Missing People said that the law is like crazy paving—that was the best way of describing it. There is no certainty, and people are looking to the Government for some form of certainty. I look for that assurance today.

The hon. Gentleman has highlighted the problem with which we are grappling. I understand that people want to hear assurances today, and I will do my level best. Of course, we acknowledge people’s predicament, and we want to do everything we can to help the families of missing people address the administrative problems that can make life even more piercingly difficult at such a traumatic time. It is estimated that there are a significant number of cases of disappearance each year in which there are sufficiently serious problems to make the appointment of a guardian a worthwhile option to have on the legislative table, so to speak.

The coalition Government consulted on the proposals to create a status of guardianship, and the response was published shortly before the 2015 general election. I reassure all Members that the Government are committed to pursuing the measure and getting it into law.

I am grateful to the Minister. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this important debate. I understand that some 2,500 people could be helped by the proposals. I pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Lawrence—Mrs Lawrence is a constituent of mine. They have kept hope alive for Claudia and they hope to help thousands of other people, and today they are hoping for a clear timetable. I know it is a question of finding time, but it is now time to make time for Claudia’s law.

My hon. Friend has been a steadfast campaigner for this reform, and it is because of efforts such as his and those of my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer that I believe we will be able to make progress.

I have mentioned the Government response to the consultation proposals, and the Government are committed to pursuing the measure. It is not, however, solely about creating a new status in law. We also need to be sure that, when the new system is introduced, there is a judicial and supervisory structure to support it. Putting someone in control of another person’s property is a significant and sensitive legal step that is not to be taken lightly. I am sure there is acknowledgment on both sides of the House that we need to get the detail of the proposals right, accurate and tailored in the right way to protect the interests of those directly affected—the families, first and foremost—and to preserve the integrity of the law as a whole. We need a framework in which the interests of the missing person, the families left behind and the third parties who deal with them are correctly calibrated and balanced.

It is wrong to say that progress has not been made. We are making progress, and I will briefly outline some of the key features of the proposed scheme on which we are actively working. First, guardians would be required to act in the best interests of the missing person. In that respect, there would be fiduciary-style duties. Secondly, guardians would be supervised by the Office of the Public Guardian and required to file accounts in much the same way as a deputy appointed under the Mental Capacity Act 2005.

Thirdly, guardians would be appointed by a court on application by a person with a sufficient interest. That is important, because the appointment may be general, in which case the guardian would be able to do what the missing person could have done—they would effectively have a free hand, for want of a better technical term—or it could be limited in certain respects. It is right to have those options on the table.

Fourthly, anyone should be able to apply for appointment as a guardian, provided that he or she has a sufficient interest, which obviously would need to be carefully defined. We are looking carefully at that. We would also need to make sure that their interests did not conflict with those of the missing person. I suspect that we would envisage close family members, or professionals such as a solicitor or an accountant with the requisite familial support, being able to apply.

Fifthly, we envisage that a person should have been missing for a period of, say, at least 90 days before such an application could be made. I am interested in other thoughts on that, but we think 90 days is probably a broadly reasonable period. Finally, the appointment of a guardian should be for a period of up to four years, with the possibility of applying for an extension of another four years. That is a significant period but, ultimately, it would be a temporary provision.

There is obviously a lot of technical detail buttressing the bones of the proposals, and we will need to define in further detail the scope of the guardian’s responsibility, the imposition of appropriate duties on him or her, and the appropriate court procedures for the appointment of the guardian and for redress if the guardian’s conduct falls short of the required standards. There will need to be an adequate supervisory regime over the whole structure, capable of commanding public confidence as well as the confidence and buy-in of the families affected.

As has already been mentioned, there are precedents for such a status and model in legislation in other countries, including in Canada and Australia. Ireland is also currently considering legislation in this field, and we are carefully considering the different models on offer. Obviously, we want to tailor the proposals to ensure that we have the right regime for the legal system, the particular nature of the problems and the administrative aspects in this country. Our development and drafting work is not yet complete, but we are working to complete it as soon as practicable. Given the details that I have talked about, it is important to get it right. We are consulting parliamentary counsel, and we would not go down to that level of detail unless we were serious. I hope that gives some reassurance to hon. Members on both sides of the House, and particularly to the campaigners and the Lawrence family.

We understand the importance of completing the legislation and getting it right, and it is worth saying that guardianship status is not the only measure that we are proposing to help those affected by the disappearance of an individual who is close to them. The Government are also reviewing the missing children and adults strategy, which was originally published in 2011. We are engaging with stakeholders, including Missing People, to update the guidance on cases of children and adults who go missing. That updated strategy will be published later this year and will include measures to help prevent people from going missing in the first place and to improve the response of all the relevant agencies.

Although I am sorry to disappoint anyone here today, I cannot give a specific date that is firmly etched in stone for introducing the legislation. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and the whole House will recognise that the Government are committed to delivering the reform and are actively working to that end. It is vital to get the reform right, given that it creates a legal power over another’s assets. We are committed to proceeding as swiftly as we can, never forgetting for a moment the scope that it offers to ease, if only by a modest degree, the pain and suffering endured by the families who have lost loved ones.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.