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Guardianship (Missing Persons)

Volume 619: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2017

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a bill to make provision about the property and affairs of missing persons; and for connected purposes.

Sooner or later, all parents come to a certain realisation: our children are gradually slipping away from us—first crawling, then toddling, then running. The gentle, guiding hand is no longer needed as, with great delight, they discover the trick of balancing on two wheels and there they go pedalling off down the lane. There is that first day at school and then, a few years later, their hand starts to slip from ours when they get anywhere near the school gates. The teenage bedroom years are spent in self-imposed solitary confinement. Then comes the day when they cram all their stuff into the boot of the car and are off to university or the first job or to move into their first home.

All are bittersweet moments for most parents, because most of us know that our children will return. That is not so for Mr and Mrs Lawrence, parents of Claudia, a missing person since 18 March 2009—nearly eight years ago. We can never imagine the rising panic of those first minutes, hours and days when they realised something was wrong. Increasingly frantic calls and prayers go unanswered. Voicemails are never retrieved. Days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. Claudia’s fate is still unknown and still the subject of a police investigation. Many false hopes have been raised over the years. A lead? A prosecution? Nothing. Hopes raised; hopes dashed.

When a person disappears with no explanation, all the unanswered questions and difficult emotions leave their friends and family an unbelievable amount to cope with. Such desperate situations are worsened by the need to pick up the pieces of their lives, such as paying the mortgage, the rent, the car loan or insurance. Data protection and financial services contract law currently prevent even the closest relative from dealing with their finances. Mr Lawrence told me:

“Banks, insurance companies, mortgage lenders, all say, ‘We can’t accept your instructions, as you’re not our customer’.”

He went on to say:

“You’re at your lowest ebb and you have to fight all these problems... it’s terribly distressing.”

I believe that the vast majority of Members join this House because they want a better world for all our children, but there are some problems that we will never be able to solve. The flaws of mankind will always exist. Our police forces cannot prevent and solve all crimes, but we can help by easing the burden in a small but important way.

Under current English and Welsh law, when a person disappears their property is effectively left ownerless. No one has the legal authority to protect it on their behalf. That can lead to assets depreciating and property falling into disrepair and leaves those left behind without access to the resources that the missing person would have provided. The creation of a new status of guardian of the property and affairs of a missing person will fill that void and provide a sensible and helpful solution to the practical and financial difficulties faced by families and others following a disappearance.

The core of the proposal is that the court will have power to appoint a guardian on the application of a person with sufficient interest in the property and affairs of someone who is missing. The Bill provides that the person will generally have to have been missing for at least 90 days and that the guardian will take control of the property and financial affairs of the missing person and will have authority to act on behalf of the missing person. The guardian will be able to use the property of the missing person to help those left behind, will be accountable for his or her actions and will be supervised by the Office of the Public Guardian. The terms of the appointment will be for a period of up to four years but will be renewable by application to the court. The small fee involved will be payable by the missing person’s estate, so there will be little or no cost to the taxpayer. Crucially, the guardian will be required to act in the best interests of the missing person.

The proposals draw on the precedents of systems used in other countries, particularly certain states in Australia, and for deputies appointed under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. Many of us have benefited from similar powers in other difficult circumstances, such as when someone passes away or when someone close to us is no longer able to manage their own affairs due to dementia or other mental capacity issues. Quite simply, this Bill fills a gap in the law that few people know exists.

There are some 4,000 missing-people occurrences every year, and I thank everyone connected to Missing People, a support and campaign organisation, many of whom are involved because they have lost a loved one. I offer particular thanks to Mr and Mrs Lawrence, who have a deep connection with my constituency and have championed the cause of guardianship even though it can no longer help their situation. I am also grateful to Members from across the House and from the other place who have pledged their support for this motion, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) and for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) and the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who have done so much work on this topic already.

Missing People has many tragic stories of loved ones lost and those left behind having their hearts broken: husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and children. This is possibly one of those all too rare occasions when Members can make a huge difference simply by supporting this straightforward Bill.

I am grateful to the Justice Committee, for the work of the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, and, crucially, to Ministers, who have pledged their full support for the Bill. All I respectfully ask for is the support of all hon. Members to guarantee the Bill’s passage through the House and into legislation.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Kevin Hollinrake, Ann Coffey, Julian Sturdy, Christian Matheson, Sir David Amess, Christina Rees, Nigel Adams, David Warburton, Liz Saville Roberts, Rebecca Pow, Amanda Solloway and Dr Philippa Whitford present the Bill.

Kevin Hollinrake accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 February, and to be printed (Bill 120).