Christopher Rochester

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:32 pm on 24th October 2014.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 2:32 pm, 24th October 2014

This is the fourth Adjournment debate that I have secured on the case of Christopher Rochester in the past 13 years. I and his family wish that it was unnecessary, after 14 years, to raise the case again.

Christopher Rochester, a 24-year-old constituent of mine from Chester-le-Street in North Durham, died in the Andreas Papandreou hospital on the island of Rhodes in Greece following a fall from the apartment complex in which he was staying on holiday. Despite falling from a balcony on to the concrete patio below, he survived, but he was allowed to die a slow, painful and lingering death due to the negligence of doctors at the Andreas Papandreou hospital in Rhodes.

Christopher’s mother, Pam Cummings, and her family have fought a long and persistent campaign to secure the truth about the events that led to his death in 2000. This fight finally led to three doctors being found guilty of manslaughter through neglect. That was clearly down to the tenacious way in which Mrs Cummings and her family pursued the case. I again want to put on the record my admiration of their tenacity in having pursued the case to find out the truth about his death.

Unfortunately, that was not the conclusion of the case. The family have not been able to get closure because of a separate issue about what happened to Christopher’s kidney once he had died. When his body was returned to the UK for burial, it was discovered that one of his kidneys had been removed and was missing. At the time, Mrs Cummings contacted my predecessor Giles Radice—now Lord Radice—to ask why that was the case. He, with the help of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British consulate in Rhodes, got the Andreas Papandreou hospital to send the kidney back to the UK via the consulate. I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its staff for their work on this case because, over the past 14 years, they have been helpful in trying to move things on. They do not often get thanked, so I would like to put my thanks on the record.

For some unexplained reason, Mrs Cummings was convinced that the kidney that had been sent back from Rhodes was not that of her son Christopher. She therefore asked for the DNA to be tested. That was done by NorthGene, which is a leading genetic research agency in the north-east of England. To her horror, her suspicions proved to be correct. The DNA test confirmed that the kidney that had been sent from Rhodes was not Christopher’s.

Representations were made to the Greek authorities. Their ludicrous suggestion was that the British consulate in Rhodes had somehow mixed up the kidney and returned the wrong one. I am not sure how many kidneys the consulate in Rhodes deals with on a daily basis, but clearly that was a ludicrous suggestion. I pressed the case, with the help of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Greek authorities finally suggested that an independent test should take place in a third country to verify the facts surrounding the kidney that was returned to the UK. The family agreed to that and it was decided that Belgium would carry out the test.

The Greek authorities then insisted that in order to get a DNA sample from Christopher, his body would have to be exhumed, despite all the leading experts arguing that it was not necessary. That included Professor John Burn, who is not only one of the UK’s leading experts on genetics, but a world-renowned expert. I thank Professor Burn for his assistance with the case. It has been greatly appreciated by the family. Clearly, this was yet another tactic on behalf of the Greek authorities to put more pressure on the family. I also think the Greek authorities thought that the family would not agree to it.

It was a difficult decision for Mrs Cummings and her family, but they agreed that Christopher’s body should be exhumed. That took place on 27 June 2011 in the presence of officials from the Greek Ministry of Health. At this point, may I put on the record my thanks and the thanks of the family to Durham police for their assistance, in particular DS Ken Donnelly and DI Steve Murray, who assisted the family throughout the process? DNA samples were recovered from the body and sent to Belgium. Durham police also took samples from the body, which they still retain as part of the evidence in the case. Likewise, samples of the kidney that was sent to Durham were sent to Belgium for analysis.

A common problem in this case has been the length of time the family have had to wait for any kind of information. They had to wait another year, until May 2012, before receiving any news on the results, which they only received following a letter that I wrote to the Greek ambassador in London and representations from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Office was simply advised by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the DNA analysis supported the conclusion that the kidney almost certainly belonged to Christopher. That is completely at odds with the tests that have been carried out in this country and with the review of Professor John Burn of the analysis of the kidney that was sent back, which showed that it was clearly not that of Christopher Rochester.

On 18 June 2012, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was advised by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs that a full report could be obtained only if an application was made by the family to a Greek court. Professor Burn has offered to have a look at the report and see what tests were carried out. However, making representations to a Greek court would clearly involve huge expense for the family, so they are unable to do so.

On 10 March this year, I wrote to the public prosecutor’s office in Rhodes and to the Greek Ministry of Justice with a signed letter of consent from Mrs Cummings authorising me to act on her behalf. Despite two follow-up letters, I have had no response to date. On 25 July, I wrote separately to the Greek ambassador in London, asking him to ask the prosecutor’s office to respond to those letters. The embassy confirmed by telephone that it would make representations, but to date we have heard nothing from it.

The case raises serious questions about how a British family can get legitimate answers to questions about the death of one of their loved ones in a fellow European country. Without a copy of the report of the DNA test that took place in Belgium, which Professor Burn has agreed to look at, the family cannot draw this sad case to a conclusion. I am not quite sure what the Greeks have to hide by not producing that report for the family, but will the Minister make representations to the Greek authorities about the issue? Will he also raise it directly with the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and separately with the Greek ambassador in London? I have tried to do so through faxes, letters and e-mails, and I seem to get no answers. As I said, a common thread throughout the 13 years I have been dealing with the case has been that they seem not to reply to any representations on behalf of the family.

This is obviously a very sad case, but it also demonstrates the persistence and courage of a loving mother who will not let the case go despite the objections and obstacles that Greek officialdom puts in her way. I assure Mrs Cummings and her family that I will continue to do what I can to get them the justice that they deserve, so that they can have final closure on this very sad case.