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Missing Persons Guardianship

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 12 February 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered missing persons guardianship.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

Imagine that someone you love went missing out of the blue. Try to imagine the anxiety, the shock and the sadness, and then imagine not being able to sort out any of their affairs in their absence. That frustration, confusion and hurt is exactly what my constituent experienced.

My constituent came to my surgery in May last year to tell me about her missing brother. She told me that he was an experienced traveller who was used to travelling alone. He had gone to visit the Galapagos islands, and it was from there that he vanished. He was last sighted on 11 March 2017 and never returned to his hotel room. He was a keen photographer, and his last photograph was taken on the island of San Cristóbal. Despite extensive searches on the islands, he was never found. My constituent was very close to her brother, who would contact her regularly when he was abroad, so when she had no contact with him for more than 10 days, she suspected that he was dead. No body was ever recovered.

After the shock and grief of her brother’s disappearance, my constituent set about trying to manage his affairs, but she came across a number of problems. She discovered that banks and other financial institutions would not directly engage with her, as she could not prove that her brother was dead. During that time, mortgage payments and utility bills went unpaid, and direct debits continued to be withdrawn from her brother’s bank account. She found the situation incredibly frustrating, and it caused her even more anguish after she had just come to terms with the fact that her brother was missing and, in all likelihood, dead.

Shocked by my constituent’s experience, I told her that Parliament must legislate to stop it happening again. Imagine how disturbed I was when she told me that Parliament had already done so. I promised to look into the matter further, and I was staggered to discover that the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017, which dealt with my constituent’s exact circumstances, had received Royal Assent on 27 April 2017 but had not yet been implemented.

With time against her and options running out, my constituent was forced to go down the presumption of death route to get an order allowing her to deal with her brother’s affairs. However, although she applied for a presumption of death order, she was not certain to get one, due to the provisions of the Presumption of Death Act 2013. That Act makes it clear that if the missing person has not been missing for seven years, the court has to be convinced that they are dead. If it is not, it can refuse to make an order. That is the route the family of Lord Lucan had to go down 42 years after his disappearance, with no body ever having been recovered. They were easily able to satisfy the Act’s seven-year threshold, whereas my constituent could not. Although she was ultimately successful, she should not have had to go down that route for her brother, who had been missing for just over a year, when there was a more straightforward alternative.

The charity Missing People estimates that more than 1,000 people go missing for more than 12 months in the UK each year. The families of those who go missing suffer the distress and anguish of not knowing what has happened to their loved one, which is compounded by the powerlessness of not being able to manage their affairs. Family members have to make futile telephone calls to banks, building societies and utility companies, which will not co-operate with them due to fears of data protection breaches and fraud.

All the while, arrears accrue. If things escalate, the family may have to deal with bailiffs and lawyers to stop their loved one’s home being repossessed. They will also be unable to stop direct debits from draining that person’s account. If it is a joint account, that makes matters even worse, since financial institutions often insist on getting both parties’ express consent to change anything. Financial institutions are among the strongest supporters of the 2017 Act, as it is their staff who are forced to say no to the families of loved ones. An order declaring that someone has a right to deal with their loved one’s affairs makes it far easier for all concerned and removes the additional stress and worry from the equation.

At an event organised by Missing People, I had the privilege of meeting Mr Peter Lawrence, the father of missing person Claudia Lawrence. He told me about the challenges he faced in dealing with financial institutions in the aftermath of his daughter’s disappearance. I am pleased to say that Peter is here with us today. Peter is a remarkable man, and I have nothing but admiration for his ongoing efforts to reform the law. It was partly due to his campaigning and raising of public awareness that the Government eventually decided to legislate for the guardianship of missing persons.

In preparation for the debate, I read transcripts of previous debates about guardianship for missing persons. I note with some disappointment that the very same points I have made so far today were made by the hon. Members for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) in March 2016. In that debate, there was criticism of the Government’s failure to progress legislation they had consulted on in 2015. The Minister closed his remarks by saying:

“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…the pain and suffering endured by the families who have lost loved ones.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 596WH.]

I am sure that that debate had a bearing on what happened next, as a year later the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Bill had been drafted and was making progress. On 6 April 2017, when that Bill had its Second Reading in the other place, the Minister said that it

“is unlikely to come into force earlier than one year after Royal Assent, but the Government will endeavour to keep any delay to an absolute minimum.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 April 2017; Vol. 762, c. 1188.]

The Bill passed all its stages and received Royal Assent on 27 April 2017.

The 2017 Act is a good piece of legislation. It defines what guardianship orders are and who can apply for them and in what circumstances. It covers the scope of the orders and their duration, and provides for their revocation. It was supported in Committee by all political parties. It was one of those rare pieces of legislation that transcended party politics and had genuine cross-party support. At a time of division in the country, it was something that everyone could sign up to. Unfortunately, since then, there have been a number of false dawns and dashed hopes with respect to when the Act will finally be fully implemented and when people will be able to use it. Some 21 months have passed since the Act received Royal Assent, and it has not been possible to apply for a single guardianship order.

I accept that there may be complications with getting the judiciary to familiarise themselves fully with the provisions of the Act, and no doubt some technical measures need to be properly scrutinised and overcome. I also appreciate that Brexit continues to take up significant time in Departments and that the Ministry of Justice, which has had significant cuts to its budget over a number of years, is probably very stretched. I cast no blame on the Minister, whom I have always found to be true to his word and helpful in my dealings with him. But the fact remains that the current state of affairs just is not good enough.

Since the 2017 Act received Royal Assent, the Ministry of Justice has introduced two more Bills to Parliament, both of which have passed all their stages and are now Acts—the Civil Liability Act 2018 and the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Act 2018 both received Royal Assent on 20 December. I do not suggest for one minute that those are not important pieces of legislation, but I am concerned that they managed to leapfrog the 2017 Act and will in all likelihood be implemented before it. How is that possible? I suggest that the 2017 Act has not received the priority it deserves. Time and again, it has been put to the bottom of the pile while other things have taken precedence.

In my first and only question to the Prime Minister, on 28 November 2018, I asked about that delay. I am relieved that, since then, things have started moving. On 19 December 2018 the Ministry of Justice launched its consultation on the implementation of the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017, which among other things covers the code of practice, rules of court, practice directions, the registration and supervision of guardians, and fees—I note that, by some strange coincidence, that consultation ends today.

I have received assurances from the Ministry of Justice that the 2017 Act will be implemented fully by July 2019, but that is still five months away, and although I very much welcome that commitment, I am concerned to avoid further delays. I therefore ask the Minister to give a commitment that the Act will be implemented by July this year, and that if there is any delay, he will explain the reasons for it and allow hon. Members to question him.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate on an emotive subject, which he is dealing with properly and appropriately. Does he agree that, in advance of the legislative change in July, there will be an expectation—hopefully as a result of this debate and other pressures—that financial institutions will consider these matters practically and sensibly when dealing with families?

I entirely agree, and one of the biggest areas of distress for people is dealing with financial institutions. If measures can be introduced to enable things to run more smoothly, I would strongly support that, as, I hope, would the Minister.

As we know, the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen), who first promoted the Presumption of Death Act 2013 as a private Member’s Bill, is now the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. I wonder whether the Minister discussed this emotive issue with him in the hope that we can bring the financial services to the table.

I was not aware of that, and my hon. Friend makes a good point. I hope the Minister will hold such discussions with the Economic Secretary, if he has not already done so.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I agree with everything he has said so far, and it is important that the 2017 Act is implemented by July. He mentioned the figure of 1,000 missing people, but perhaps the Minister could give some indication of what the number would be if we included all those who are in the pipeline for an application.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. One thousand people go missing a year, but some people have been missing for many more years, and the figure will obviously be far higher than the 1,000 I mentioned.

I promoted the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017, and in my experience the financial services are keen on its provisions. They wish to help and to take a different approach when these tragic situations occur, but the difficulty is that they are tied to the law on such issues. We therefore need this change so that they can provide more assistance to those who face such difficulties.

I entirely agree. If a person dies, probate can be granted to financial institutions and used as a way of allowing the executor to access a person’s accounts. More needs to be done, and financial institutions need to be protected in that area.

I hope the Minister will agree that those who have a missing family member should not have to endure the indignity of being unable to deal with their loved one’s affairs because they cannot prove death, especially when they should not need to. The 2017 Act needs to be implemented as soon as possible, because no one should have to endure the anguish endured by my constituent. The Act will make a huge difference to the lives of the families of the missing. It will bring closure to some of them, as well as some comfort following the suffering and anguish they will have endured not knowing what fate may have befallen their loved one. This is a great opportunity for the Minister to show Parliament at its best, with Members coming together to make a real difference and doing something that we all agree on and that will make a positive change to some people’s lives.

It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on securing this debate and keeping up the pressure to ensure that the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017 is implemented to help the many people in need. The Act is vital because around 2,500 people waiting for such measures have already been affected when someone they know has gone missing—perhaps a relative or loved one—and it must be implemented as soon as possible. I am delighted that the Government have nailed their colours to the mast by providing a date of July for the implementation of these measures, rather than saying “shortly” or “in due course”, and that those who face such devastating circumstances will be helped from July this year.

This issue came across my desk early in my parliamentary career, because my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) and I co-host the Lawrence family in our constituencies. Being a local person, I was aware of the tragic and mysterious disappearance of Claudia Lawrence, which will be 10 years ago on 18 March this year. Despite the fact that it is 10 years on, Mr and Mrs Lawrence still need this Act, and I wonder how many other people it will help. It is vital.

I promoted the Act as a consequence of Peter Lawrence pushing me to push Ministers to raise the issue up the political agenda, which we managed to do. The Government were always supportive of the Act, but even in easier times parliamentary time is not easy to secure. I pay tribute to Peter Lawrence and to many others, as well as to the charity Missing People, which has kept up the pressure and highlighted the issues caused when people go missing and in the aftermath of such tragic circumstances.

The Act is referred to as Claudia’s law, to recognise the 10 years that Claudia has been missing. I was lucky enough also to sponsor the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill, which was called “Will’s Bill”, after my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) and another tragic circumstance. Many people stood up in those debates—including me, as a father of four children—to say that the worst thing that could possibly happen to any parent would be to lose a child. I wonder, however, whether it is actually even worse to have a child who goes missing, because of the anxiety about what happened. People want to know and they hope not to receive terrible news, but they probably accept that such news will be the inevitable consequence if somebody has been missing for some time. Just as the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate outlined, when a person goes missing, although people know that something tragic has happened they do not know what, and that is probably even worse than a bereavement. It is therefore right to move this issue forward as quickly as possible.

Thousands of people go missing annually, and the Government estimate that the 2017 Act will help between 50 and 300 people a year, with a mid-range estimate of about 100 people. Those 100 cases affect thousands of people—their loved ones and friends—and this Act is vital. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, in the aftermath of someone going missing many things need to be dealt with, including direct debits, rents or mortgages, and the Act will introduce measures that are similar to the power of attorney. It is a simple measure, and based on a well tried and tested formula. The Act has been well drafted to meet those requirements, and we have learned from our experiences with such legislation over recent decades.

It can certainly be argued that the legislation has been a long time coming. It was first talked about in the Justice Committee in 2012. The Government consulted on it in 2014, and the private Member’s Bill started, probably, with Peter Lawrence pushing me to push the Government, in 2015. It started with a ten-minute rule Bill, and not many of those become legislation, so I am delighted that we were able to use that route. We did so, of course, with Government support. Ministers were always supportive. The process from drafting and First Reading to the moment the Bill passed through the House of Lords—the last day before Parliament prorogued, so it was pretty tight—took 11 weeks. That shows what cross-party support and consensus there was for the legislation. I am grateful to Members on both sides of the House, and to Ministers and shadow Ministers of all parties who helped to get it through. I am also grateful to others who acted, not least the Missing People charity, and the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults.

The finish line of July 2019 is now in sight. Of course it is not the finish line for the loved ones—the people who face such terrible tragedies. However, it will make life just a little easier. I again thank the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate for bringing forward this important debate and the Minister for doing a tremendous job in making sure that we get over the line in July. He is a great fellow. I thank other Ministers as well—Lord Keen and successive Justice Secretaries—and many officials, not least of them Paul Hughes, who did a brilliant job of drafting and has been supportive from day one. The Act is vital legislation and it will help thousands of people. Let us get it into operation as soon as possible.

I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), who brought the matter forward, as well as the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and other Members who have attended to speak. I look forward to hearing the speeches of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), and the Minister. He is of course ably supported by his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), who will keep him right—although that will not be hard to do.

The issue is important, and that is why I am here to give support. It is always good to speak on issues that affect our constituents. I am sure that I am not the only person who was touched by the Missing People choir in “Britain’s Got Talent”, when TV gave an insight into the issue. That was in 2017, which is not that long ago. As we get older, the years go by more quickly than we would ever have imagined. I admit that, like others, I shed a tear as the photos flashed up showing clearly how many people there are in this country every minute of whose days is affected by a missing person. That made it clear that there is a real issue. The pain of not knowing—rooms that remain untouched and lives that are unled—lost in the realm of waiting, is nothing short of heartbreaking. I rejoiced when I learned that one of the missing persons linked to the choir had been found. Yet that happy ending is not a normal ending in such cases; that is a fact. The 2017 Act was passed to help families and enable them to deal with financial and other issues that arise when someone has gone missing, although it will never help to ease the pain and suffering.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland has a website that displays photos of those who are missing, in an attempt to enable people to give others peace of mind. However, I believe that we must have a UK-wide national register of missing persons to provide a snapshot of live missing persons incidents across police forces throughout the UK, as a way of finding missing people if possible.

In the provincial papers back home, such as Sunday Life, there are unfortunately regular stories about people who have been missing over the years, with a renewed plea for people with evidence to come forward. It is always good to publish such information. I do not go to America every year, but I recall seeing, when I was there on holiday, that Walmart stores had pictures up of children who had gone missing. There were pictures galore on the wall—a wee timely reminder of the losses that happen. The children in those pictures are always smiling. Each missing person case is a story of loss and heartache, and the pictures resonate with everyone who looks at them.

I support legislation to make life easier for the families of missing people. I should make it clear that it is not an issue that affects only a small number of people. In the United Kingdom there is a report of someone going missing every 90 seconds, and 180,000 people are reported missing every year. There are 340,000 missing person incidents every year. Children are more likely to go missing than adults—that really creates grief and strain. One in 200 children and one in 500 adults go missing each year. Research has shown that stress is one of the most common reasons for adults to go missing. In up to eight out of 10 cases of missing adults, diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issues are the reason. Relationship breakdown is responsible in three out of 10 cases. Dementia is another cause, in one in 10 cases. Four in every 10 people with dementia will go missing at some point. Those people do not intend to go missing, but they do. That has happened in my constituency in the past couple of years. Both people were found in time, thank goodness, and had no knowledge of where they were or recollection of how they got there.

Whatever the reason for someone going missing, the pain is the same. The Government were right to pass the legislation and now, at the close of the consultation period, it is time to implement the measure that will make so many things easier for waiting families to deal with.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful argument about the ways that people go missing. Does he agree that it is positive that we are moving towards the endgame, in July, for this important Act? However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) mentioned, 2,500 people are still waiting for the measure to be implemented. A thousand people go missing every year and, as has been said, they all have families. Must we not use the debate to make sure that the timescales for implementing the Act do not slip further?

I agree wholeheartedly. We look to the Minister now to encapsulate our thoughts and give us reasons why we are having this debate. Now is the time. We cannot wait longer. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate mentioned that it is the last day of the consultation, and we look to the Minister for reassurance.

Every one of us can understand the families’ uncertainty. I agree that there must be a long waiting period before a declaration of presumed death can be made; yet there are issues that should not have to wait that long to be discharged. That is what this legislation is about, and it is on that matter that we want the Minister’s reassurance. It will be helpful if a path can be set out for family members left without the financial support they need and expected, or unpaid creditors who must turn to insolvency procedures. It will be helpful also in the case of mortgages and repossession procedures. It is relevant to problems that arise when banks and other financial institutions are unable to release the missing person’s assets, or even information about them, to those left behind. In such cases the missing person’s money can be wasted by automated payments. Direct debits go out every month with no control and cannot be stopped. The person’s assets decay for want of repair. Those things happen at the moment, and that is why the urgency of the matter cannot be emphasised enough.

There has been much consideration and the time has come to implement the law right away. Many hon. Members realise that there is a need to fill a void, and to look after those who have lost loved ones, so that they can continue their lives in a way that enables them to remember. The pain of families left behind will of course never go away, but the Act will enable us to look after them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is rare to be in a debate in Parliament where we feel that the whole House is coming together on an issue that affects nearly everyone. A quarter of a million people will go missing each year. Many of them will be found, but the families left behind are in no man’s land.

I will start with a bit of history. As it did for the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), this issue came to the fore with me very early in my parliamentary career, when I met Rachel Elias, the sister of Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, who went missing in 1995. The funny thing is that before we meet people and learn about the story, we sometimes think of it as a mystery and we forget that these people are real and leave behind lives. With Richey Edwards being a high-profile guitarist and songwriter with the Manic Street Preachers—one of my favourite bands when I was a mad indie fan as a kid—we forget that these people are real. When I met Rachel, I discovered the devastation that his disappearance had left behind: mortgages unpaid, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, direct debits unpaid and a kind of no man’s land.

It is hard for people to accept, when someone has gone missing, that they may have died; they do not want to recognise that. I pay tribute to the Missing People charity for its hard work to bring this issue to the fore. When I met the charity, I was told that the law at the time was like crazy paving, with no certainty about what happens when someone goes missing. I think the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton will agree with me that that was the best way to describe it.

I was interested at the time in the Presumption of Death Act 2013. I will do something strange for a Labour Member and commend the Government, because from the beginning of my involvement in this campaign the Government got this, and I believe they got it right. When I was on the Justice Committee in 2011, I asked the then Chair, Sir Alan Beith—now Lord Beith—to look into the matter, and he did. We had the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), who was then a Minister at the Ministry of Justice, before us, and he said that the Government were supportive of a presumption of death Act but did not have parliamentary time.

That legislation was introduced as a private Member’s Bill, which I mentioned in my earlier intervention, by the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen), who is now a Treasury Minister. I was delighted to be part of the Committee that ultimately brought about the Presumption of Death Act, which came into force on 1 October 2013, but I always felt that that was just part one of solving the problem. Yes, presumption of death was right—as the hon. Member for Strangford said, it is correct that we give a certain amount of time for people who have gone missing before they are pronounced dead. That is absolutely right because, sadly, we have seen high-profile cases where people have come back—I am thinking of the famous canoe man.

The second part, and the original point that Rachel brought up with me, was about still being liable for debts, direct debits and, in particular, mortgages. Banks, having no recompense, may have to look into liquidation. The financial pressure that families face is huge, at the same time as they are going through the emotions of losing and missing someone, so I was delighted when the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton introduced a private Member’s Bill that became the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017.

However, for all the good work done on this by the coalition Government and the present Government, I feel that they dragged their heels a little, and I am disappointed by that. It is pertinent, as my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) mentioned, that today is the end of the consultation. I think we have dragged our feet a little too much on this, and I look to the Minister to ensure that the Act comes into force in July. Too many people are left in limbo and need help, not in July, but now. If they have the banks on their back and everything else, the pressure on them is immense.

As I said in my earlier intervention, the hon. Member for Salisbury has been elevated to the Treasury team—he is on to great things—but he has responsibility for financial services now, as the Minister will know, and I hope that they have had discussions. I know the hon. Member for Salisbury enjoys a good relationship with the financial services sector, and I hope he will be heavily involved in ensuring that the banks and other financial services come to the table and talk about this to ensure a smooth transition as the Act comes into force in July, so that the financial pressure is taken off families.

I also understand the problems with the Act: we are asking someone to take on the affairs of someone else, and I know there has to be sensitivity around that. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope he will touch on that sensitivity of someone else taking on responsibility for someone who is missing and does not know that they have got hold of their financial affairs. As we always worry in these cases, despite all the many genuine cases, there is always potential for fraud, so I hope the Minister will talk about how the Act will deal with that.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford, who I think is setting the record for the number of Westminster Hall debates that he speaks in. He spoke very well, as he always does, and he mentioned something that I had not thought of before: whether a central database of missing people had been created by the police. I hope the Minister will have conversations with the Home Office about bringing that about. It is interesting that when we travel to America, if we buy a carton of milk, there are often pictures of missing children on there. The Government could speak to supermarkets about bringing that about, and I hope that will be thought about.

Of course, I pay tribute to Peter Lawrence, who I am delighted to see here today, for his dignified campaign. Anyone who has met him knows his passion to ensure that no other family should have to go through what he has been through. I share his sadness that it is now 10 years since Claudia went missing, and I hope beyond all hope that one day he gets some positive news, because he deserves it.

I also pay tribute to my constituent Rachel Elias for her high-profile campaign, especially through the popular press, to ensure that Richey’s tragedy is still talked about 24 years later. I met her mother Sherry and her father Graham, and I find it sad that they passed away without knowing what happened to Richey. Again, I hope that they find some closure in that case and that there is some positive news about all this; but I will say of Rachel that, in the midst of all the negativity, she has found something positive and she has campaigned very hard. My heart goes out to everybody who has someone who has gone missing. I pray and hope that they find closure and hear some positive news eventually.

We now come to the Front-Bench speeches. If the Front Benchers split the time between them, they can have up to 25 minutes each, but it is not compulsory.

Do not worry, colleagues, I will not take up that kind offer. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) for securing the debate and to everybody who has contributed to it—the hon. Members for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), and my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans). We have heard some powerful and moving speeches. To say that I enjoyed listening to them would be to use the wrong word, but certainly I have been moved by every speech I have heard today.

Let us take a moment to imagine someone we love dearly—a family member, spouse or child—going missing without a trace; how frantic and traumatised we would feel at losing them overnight and how we would cling to the hope that they might return, even as days, months or even years went by, all the while swinging between hope and fear of the worst. Let us imagine having to experience that rollercoaster of emotional turmoil while simultaneously battling with legal and financial institutions to save the home we shared, watching the life that we hope that loved one will return to fall apart. Let us imagine being stuck in legal limbo, unable even to grieve the loss of the missing loved one, who we still hope will return, unable to manage the finances and practical affairs of the absent family member, feeling helpless.

That is the reality for families of missing people, who are still waiting on Ministers to move on this vital legislation and allow them the legal right to become guardians of their loved one’s affairs 90 days after they have been declared missing. Without the legal authority to act on a missing relative’s behalf, families can face great difficulty engaging financial and legal institutions to keep their loved one’s affairs in order. Whether it is banking, mortgages or insurance, benefits or utilities, the list of foundational elements of their relative’s life that they are unable to manage due to bureaucratic barriers is endless.

Families find themselves unable to make changes to missing relatives’ mortgages or cancel direct debits that are clearly no longer needed. The worst-case scenario is that the missing person’s finances are damaged beyond repair and that their home is lost altogether, which, unless a presumption of death certificate is gained, is the only option for some families.

However, quite understandably, many people do not want to believe that their loved one is deceased. While the presumption of death route suits some families, it does not suit many others. Imagine having a missing person declared dead when firmly believing, or at least hoping against hope, that they are actually still alive. Forcing families to declare their loved one dead just so that they can take control of a spiralling financial crisis seems an almost dystopian level of cruelty. Where is the humanity in such a system? There are examples of people who have been missing for years later returning. Who are we to deny suffering families the hope that their loved one will one day be back to resume the life they left behind?

The simple solution, as laid out in the 2017 Act, is similar to arrangements that exist for appointing people guardian of the affairs of someone who is mentally incapable of managing their own affairs. This is a humane and practical route to giving families the peace of mind and the autonomy to deal with financial quandaries that they would otherwise face.

The Government have dragged their feet on implementation of the 2017 Act, to the extent that they are still consulting on it, despite the Act receiving Royal Assent and the support of both sides of the House. This totally unnecessary consultation finishes today, with weary families watching as we continue to engage in a talking shop about the blatantly obvious and already agreed solution to their ongoing trauma. The legislation has been debated and agreed and has received Royal Assent. Why on earth are we making traumatised families wait any longer? Charities that work with the families of missing people are seriously concerned by the continued delays. Missing People says that families it works with currently face increased financial hardship, despite hoping that they would now be able to manage their missing relative’s affairs.

Claudia Lawrence is still missing after nearly 10 years. There is no evidence of any crime being committed against her, nor of her having made any contact with those close to her. Her father, Peter Lawrence, has spearheaded the campaign for changes to guardianship laws and has come so far, seeing Claudia’s law grow from a ten-minute rule Bill into a fully formed Act thanks to his brave campaigning. However, he and the rest of Claudia’s family still have no closure or ability to manage her affairs.

More people are going missing, and the latest figures show that fewer people than the Government expected have been declared as presumed dead, meaning more families being forced to face unnecessary challenges due to the Government’s slow progress on implementing the legislation. Claudia’s law passed its Third Reading in the House of Lords on 27 April 2017. It was welcomed in both Houses by all parties and passed through Parliament unamended in just over three months. It should have been fully enacted in May 2018, when we expected families of missing people to be able to start applying for guardianship powers.

However, despite initial assurances that the law would be brought into force one year after Royal Assent, in April 2018 the Government made the heartbreaking announcement that delays would ensue, preventing the necessary secondary legislation from being enacted. We are still waiting, nearly two years down the line, while families watch their finances fall apart and the burden of stress mount ever higher. All Members who have spoken have made the same plea: that we must not drag our heels any longer. Why do these delays persist? When will the Minister give these families the reassurance they need of a solid, immovable implementation timetable, and what does he have to say to them by way of apology for their prolonged pain and suffering?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on securing a debate on this important subject. He and many other Members of both Houses, some of whom are here today, have campaigned long and hard for the implementation of the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017. The hon. Gentleman spoke very movingly, with his customary decency and power, on behalf of his constituent, whose brother went missing in the Galapagos.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who is my friend, for his work on and success with his private Member’s Bill. He mentioned that parliamentary time is hard to come by and that getting a private Member’s Bill through is harder still. I have to say that he has exceptional skill in doing so, having done it not once but twice. I commend any colleague wishing to succeed with a private Member’s Bill to seek his wise counsel and guidance, or indeed his golden touch, in this space.

My hon. Friend rightly highlighted not only the support for the 2017 Act across the House, but how he got it across the line just in time. I have to declare an interest: I was proud to be in the Chamber that day to hear his speech. On that occasion he highlighted the case of Claudia Lawrence, who has been missing since 2009. Her father, Peter, is here today. While tributes to colleagues are important, I must pay the greatest tribute to him for his bravery and dedication in securing action by Parliament on this important issue.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), made a powerful speech, as ever. It is always a pleasure to work with her. As she knows, when I say that I will do something, I tend to stick to that, and I intend to do so today. I know that she, with her customary courtesy but firmness, will hold me to account on that—she has today administered polite but firm prods to Her Majesty’s Government along those lines.

I am conscious that Members are frustrated, as they have expressed courteously but clearly, that the Act has not yet come into effect. As a Member who was in the Chamber that day, I share that frustration. I am pleased to reaffirm on the record the commitment made by my ministerial colleague, Lord Keen, that the Government are determined to implement the Act in July this year. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate asked what will happen should there be any delays or problems. First, should there be any, I will ensure that Parliament is fully informed. However, it is my determination to make sure that there are none and that we bring the Act into operation in July.

The Minister is making a genuine point, and I know from speaking to him and from asking questions of him in the House that he is determined to drive this forward. I am absolutely delighted about that, but will he give a commitment to all Members in the debate—looking around, they are the same ones who have been involved in these debates for years—that he will write to us to keep us updated and to make sure we deliver on that July timetable?

I am very happy to give that assurance and to write to all Members who have participated in the debate, as well as to others who could not be here today but who have taken a close interest in this issue. My hon. Friend pre-empts my mentioning him, but I put on the record my appreciation and, I know, everyone else’s, for his work in furthering this important cause.

Today is a significant marker on the route to implementation, not only because of our debate, but because it is the end of the consultation period, which began on 19 December last year with the publication of our consultation paper on the implementation of the Act. While I hear the shadow Minister’s points on that, I think it was right that we consulted. We are taking a novel approach to a new area of law, and it is important that we get it right.

I emphasise that the Government recognise and fully support the need for this legislation. I think it was the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) who put it very clearly, saying that, prior to the Act, the law and provisions in this area were essentially a bit like crazy paving. He is absolutely right. The need for the legislation was therefore clear.

We understood that several families each year had no legal process to turn to in order to resolve urgent property or financial affairs for a family member or friend who had gone missing with no evidence of what had happened to them. That was set out by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate and, indeed, by my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who set out with his customary passion, determination and detailed research the vital need for this legislation to come into force. As ever, his constituents and the House are lucky to have him.

We understand that the terrible emotional distress and anxiety that families are already going through is increased as they seek to deal with everyday financial issues regarding their missing loved one. They cannot access bank accounts, savings or property transactions to intervene as they see those financial affairs potentially spiralling out of control. The creation of the new legal status of guardian of the property and financial affairs of a missing person will provide a structured way of dealing with financial affairs and property in the missing person’s best interests, under a legal process that builds in safeguards for all involved.

The consultation paper, to which I referred, set out the Ministry of Justice’s proposals for implementation of the Act. The Government are grateful for the comments we have received—both formally, in writing, and in numerous meetings that officials have convened in the past few months with a wide range of interested parties, following the commitment in the consultation paper to engage fully with stakeholders. Of course, we must now consider the views expressed to us. We intend to do that quickly and to publish the Government’s response to the consultation in early April, setting out the detail of the proposals for implementation.

As the consultation paper set out, there are several aspects to implementation of the Act, and all of them need to be completed successfully for it to come into force and work as intended. As I have mentioned, guardianship in this context is fairly novel; indeed, it is a significant change, so it is important that we get it right, with safeguards, but also ensure that the raft of complex legal and regulatory changes work as intended.

The first aspect is developing the rules of court and related practice directions for guardianship proceedings. Guardians can be appointed only by the High Court. Their appointment will be by a court order setting out the scope of their authority in relation to the property and financial affairs of the missing person. As I have said, the court to be designated for the process is the High Court. The decision on the court was made by the Lord Chancellor, following the required statutory consultation with the Lord Chief Justice.

Our intention is that applications to the High Court for a guardianship order will be made to the chancery division or the family division. This arrangement is modelled on the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 and the Presumption of Death Act 2013. This approach enables many of the existing rules of court and practice directions to be followed, so guardianship proceedings can be commenced under existing part 8 of the civil procedure rules, and applications after a case has started can be made via part 23. We will decide where to draw the line between the different rules over the coming months in considering the response to the consultation. However, although we can follow precedent, we are not obliged to do so, and if there are good reasons to create a new provision to cater for a particular feature of guardianship—for example, its limited duration—we are willing to look at that.

I can give an update: the work on the draft rules of court and practice directions is progressing well and efficiently, particularly through consultation with members of the judiciary and court officials who will be handling cases. The draft rules and practice directions will of course have to be considered and approved by the Civil Procedure Rule Committee. We intend to submit the drafts to the meetings of the committee in April and May. Once the committee has signed off the rules, they will be made and laid before Parliament for approval under the negative resolution procedure. The rules will be given effect through administrative procedures that will have to be created by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. Work is already under way in preparation for that.

The second major aspect of implementation is the making of regulations to enable the Public Guardian to register and supervise guardians. These regulations will be made under section 58 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005. We expect that they will be similar to those applying to deputies who are appointed by the Court of Protection to manage the property and financial affairs of individuals who lack the mental capacity to do so themselves. These regulations will provide a legal framework, but the Public Guardian will also have to develop procedures to provide a supervisory and registration service. That work is also well under way, and good progress is being made.

This Act provides for the Public Guardian to establish and maintain a register of guardianship orders. The Public Guardian will also be responsible for supervision of guardians. We propose that a guardianship order will specify when the guardian is to report to the Public Guardian. The Public Guardian will deal with complaints about the conduct of guardians, including safeguarding concerns, but will also be able to offer advice and guidance, which we think will provide considerable assistance to guardians, as the equivalent advice and guidance does for deputies at the moment.

Deputies usually have to provide a security or surety bond or proof of adequate professional indemnity insurance to the Public Guardian. We anticipate that there will be similar arrangements for guardians under this Act. The Public Guardian will receive the bond and hold it against any risk of a missing person’s estate being misused and facing financial loss through the actions of the guardian.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Public Guardian and his office for their work to date in preparing for implementation of the Act. More broadly, ahead of his retirement later this year, I pay tribute to the Public Guardian, Alan Eccles, as an exemplary public servant who has done much to bring this issue to the fore and into greater public consciousness during his term of office.

The third aspect on which we have consulted is the fees for the new service. These are of two types. The first is court fees, and the proposal in the consultation is to adopt the existing fees in the High Court’s two divisions for the procedures concerned. This mirrors the approach taken for fees under the Presumption of Death Act 2013. The second type of fee is that levied by the Public Guardian for registration and supervision of guardians. These will be new fees, but the expectation in the consultation is that the approach will follow that taken by the Public Guardian in relation to existing fees for deputies. For both these types of fees, we expect that there will be the usual exemptions and remissions.

I have to say that this is not a simple process, because the fees are currently calculated to strike a balance between being affordable and covering the costs of operating the system. Obviously, for something new, it is difficult to estimate both what the costs will be and what the volume of cases will be, but it is important that we strike the right balance between ensuring that costs are covered and not allowing a situation whereby, in the initial months, when there may be only a few applications, people face a prohibitive fee. We need to strike an appropriate balance.

The fourth and final aspect on which we have consulted is the content of a draft code of practice offering guidance to guardians and those considering whether to make a guardianship application. The Act requires the Lord Chancellor to issue a code of practice, and we intend to do that when the Act comes into force. In drawing up the draft code, we have been at pains to make it as accessible as possible to the layperson, and it features a glossary of terms and a number of examples of scenarios that may be faced by the family and friends of missing people. However, we know from the comments that we have received that we can make further progress towards that objective.

The draft code explains key concepts underpinning the Act and goes into some detail on the broad range of duties that guardians will carry out. The aim is that it will assist guardians to understand their responsibilities and equip them to meet their duties. It also aims to explain their powers and the limitations of those powers, as well as where guardians can turn for help. Once the content of the rules and regulations has been settled in the light of the consultation responses, we will include them in the code of practice. The code will be an important resource for guardians and people dealing with them. We intend to lay a draft before Parliament at least 40 days before it is issued, but in the meantime we intend to publish a revised draft in response to the consultation.

I will now address one of the points made by the hon. Member for Islwyn—my pronunciation of the name of his constituency will get better one of these days—in respect of relationships with financial institutions, both in the lead-up to the Act and once the Act is fully in force. Financial institutions are already getting engaged with this process and getting on board with these changes. Officials are ensuring that there is strong engagement directly with financial institutions to discuss setting up new systems for the process in guardianship cases, to ensure that it is as simple and efficient as possible for those who have to go through the pain of this situation.

The designation of the High Court, which I mentioned, will require a statutory instrument.

I want to refresh the Minister’s memory about one the requests I made to him, on the back of which the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) came in as well. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has a statistical central catalogue of all the missing people, and it periodically publishes their names in the provincial press to remind people. I know it is not the Minister’s direct responsibility, but could he ask the correct Minister about having a central location for a catalogue of those who have gone missing across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? That would ensure that people could look at it whenever they want. Would he also take on the idea suggested by the hon. Member for Islwyn about having copies of a photograph of these people? That could be done in conjunction with a person’s family. It would highlight missing people on a regular basis, and may jog people’s memories to give a bit of evidence, which may make a difference.

The hon. Members for Strangford and for Islwyn—if I keep saying it, I will get it right—have both made powerful points, which I am happy to explore with ministerial colleagues.

The designation of the High Court will require a statutory instrument. I hope that when we get to the stage of having to lay those pieces of delegated legislation, we preserve a bipartisan and non-party political approach, to ensure that we get the regulations right and get them through as swiftly as we can.

Before finishing, I place on record my thanks to the charity Missing People, which has continued to engage with the Ministry in the preparation of the consultation and the draft legislation, and which has kindly acted as an intermediary to collect and collate responses to the consultation from families it knows who have been directly affected by people going missing.

In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate for bringing the topic of guardianship of missing persons before us today. I thank all the hon. Members who have taken part and who have pursued the issue, both today and over many months and years. I also thank you, Mr Hollobone, for chairing the debate. The Act is not only needed and practically important, but quite simply the right thing to do. There is still more work to do to implement the Act in July, but I and the Government know how important this legislation is to many families, who do not have any legal recourse at the moment, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that, in July, we make the ambition and intent of this Act a reality for our country, our communities and those who suffer the dreadful pain of a loved one going missing.

I will be brief in my remarks. I thank the Minister for giving details about the next steps and how the matter will progress from here. I look forward to getting updates in the near future about how things are progressing. He has given a commitment that the Act will be fully implemented in July, and I look forward to that. I thank him for being so candid.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered missing persons guardianship.

Sitting suspended.