I think it is fair to say that when we are elected to this place, we have our own ideas and ambitions about what we want to campaign on. So often, however, we are guided by the real-life experiences of our constituents, and that is what brings me here today for a debate on deaths abroad in suspicious circumstances, particularly in relation to two of my constituents—Julie Pearson and Kirsty Maxwell—and their families. I am honoured and privileged to get a chance today to tell their stories. Some of the details are very harrowing and distressing.
Julie Pearson and Kirsty Maxwell were two young, beautiful and vivacious young women taken from their families when they still had their whole lives ahead of them: two bereaved families; two innocent women killed in suspicious and unexplained circumstances abroad, both at the hands of, we believe, violent men. In both cases, the alleged perpetrators of the crimes are walking free, with very little having happened in terms of investigations into their deaths.
I want to put on record the admiration and respect that I have for staff who work in the foreign service for the very difficult job that they have to do, often in the most challenging and dangerous circumstances.
I sought permission from the hon. Lady to intervene because she is bringing forward an issue that has touched my constituency as well—in May last year, before the election. I commend her for doing so. I want to put on record my thanks to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for working hard over the weekend to enable the young boy’s body to come home at a very difficult time for the mum and dad, who were in Northern Ireland when he was in Spain. Those of us who have been through this with our constituents know just how heartbreaking it is. When we have staff who work hard and do the business, as our Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff do, we have to put that on record and say thank you.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As someone who worked in a foreign consulate—for the American State Department in its consulate in Edinburgh—I know first-hand how difficult the job of consular staff is. I have sat in on calls with senior officers when they had to break the news of the death of a loved one. However, it is my belief, having spent a lot of time with both Kirsty’s and Julie’s families, that much, much more can be done by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to resource and support its staff to help families such as Julie’s and Kirsty’s when their loved ones die abroad in suspicious circumstances.
Julie was 38. She was learning Hebrew to get citizenship in Israel because her dad was Jewish. She went to Israel to live and work and immerse herself in the local culture. Her aunt Deborah, who is my constituent, talked of how Julie loved the heat, loved to sing karaoke, and was really fun-loving. On
Following Julie’s death, and largely because of erroneous and inaccurate claims made by the authorities in Israel, her family took the hugely brave step of releasing photographs of Julie’s badly beaten and bruised body. Those images are deeply distressing, but the family felt they had no choice, because the autopsy report, which the family believe is deeply flawed, claimed that Julie had died of natural causes. The bruising and damage to Julie’s beautiful face, in my view, tells a very different story.
If the hon. Gentleman will let me make some more progress, I will then take interventions.
Julie is survived by her parents and her aunt Deborah, who is one of the most determined, fearless and inspiring women I have ever met. In her own words,
“My family will continue to fight for justice for Julie. We’d hate for any other family to go through what we have. The FCO promised in 2014 there would be processes in place for suspicious deaths abroad yet our family had to fight every step of the way for help and advice, even after requesting freedom of information. Instead of the promised 20 day response, I had to pursue every 21 days and eventually received it after 5 months. I ask the Foreign Office when will they listen to what families need? Why did it take so long for basic information to be relayed to me? Why are families still being let down with lack of help and support?”
Just over a year later, I find myself dealing with another tragic case, that of Kirsty Maxwell. Kirsty was 27 years old, newly married to husband Adam, and was on holiday in Benidorm, Spain, with friends. On
We know that the room she fell from was not her own. However, due to the apparent flawed investigation, the reason she was in that room is not known. The room she entered was occupied by a group of English men who were high on drugs and alcohol, and the circumstances that ensued may have been fuelled by the men’s use of drugs and a case of mistaken identity by the men in the room. The Spanish police report, Spanish media reporting and some crime scene examinations indicated that Kirsty tried to escape, possibly in fear of her life.
Adam sent me a poem that he read out at Kirsty’s funeral. I will not read it here, but it gives the view of a warm, funny, loving young woman who had just been promoted at work and loved her family, her husband and her pug dog with all her heart. I have spent quite a significant amount of time with Kirsty’s husband Adam and her parents, Brian and Denise. They too are some of the bravest folk I have had the privilege of meeting, and they have worked tirelessly to get answers, along with the independent reviewer, David Swindle. It is impossible to put into words the depths of their devastation and sorrow, but they provided me with the following words:
“Mentally, emotionally and physically this has been extremely tough and still with no real end in sight When Kirsty was brutally taken from us they also took a part of us all, something we will never regain. Kirsty was visiting an EU country as a British citizen, she lived by the ‘rules’ set out in today’s society. She worked every day, paid her taxes and never called on the system for any assistance. Now we plead for that assistance, plead for justice to be sought, plead for her country not to desert her and her family in their hour of need. She needs this help more than ever, needs much more than lip service to be done, needs more support for Scottish and UK families who lose a loved one abroad in suspicious circumstances. Those past 10 months as a family we have felt lost, confused and abandoned. Lost at the lack of direction and compassion we were shown from authorities. Confused at the revolving door of dysfunctional protocol and procedures which are not in place, displaced and misunderstood. Abandoned by legal systems not understood, not relevant and not fit for the purpose of protecting victims of suspicious deaths and murders abroad. This and trying to grieve while fighting a case through the Spanish courts with no assistance financially, legally or morally from either the UK or Spain. We hope this cross party of MPs”— a group that I hope to set up in the very near future—
“can get together to produce a procedure that can offer their constituents assistance, support and a means of gaining justice for any suspicious death of a loved one abroad.”
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I apologise for interrupting her when she was making such a powerful and emotional speech. It was at a point that reminded me of my constituent, Mrs Brenda White, who, tragically, lost her son Michael in Thailand. She was told that it was suicide, but she simply did not believe that, and much of the evidence did not support that. I agree with the hon. Lady that, although the Foreign Office does a great job under some very trying circumstances, she, myself and others are giving examples of where the Foreign Office has fallen short for our constituents who feel they should have had much more support when their loved ones were so tragically taken from them.
What can we say to those families—our constituents—other than that we need to resolve, right here and now, that we cannot and will not let any more families die?
I congratulate my hon. Friend, and I am grateful to them for allowing me to intervene. Since 2015, three families in my constituency—that of Caroline Hope from Clydebank, whose family had to raise funds to allow her to come home to die; that of Lisa Brown, who has been missing in Spain for two and a half years; and that of Jagtar Singh Johal, who has been in detention in India without charge for nearly four months—have had to go through a maze of bureaucracy. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time to consider a legislative framework for consular support, because of its complexity, rather than the ad hoc policy approach that we have seen for a long time? That is no detriment to the staff of the FCO, who do a commendable job.
I absolutely agree; it is about having the most robust framework possible and giving officers in the foreign service the tools and the resource to do the best job they can.
A young man from my constituency, Craig Mallon, was killed—murdered—in Spain in 2012. The case could be resolved if we had more information. I want to work with the hon. Lady and the Foreign Office on the Craig Mallon case, and the police have to work with us. They are withholding information, six years on. The family is distraught, and we need more information.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I look forward to working with him. I am aware of the case of Craig Mallon, and my thoughts and prayers are with him. The experience of the families whom I have supported is that at times, communication has been disjointed and it has been difficult to interact with officers. In the case of Kirsty’s family, her husband Adam received a call from the Spanish police to say that Kirsty was dead. Adam told me that he thought initially that it was a prank call, and he asked whether the FCO should have clearer protocols for informing family members of a death.
Julie Pearson’s family learned of her death through informal channels. It was Julie’s aunt, Deborah, who brought the news of Julie’s death to the attention of the FCO. Deborah told me recently that the consulate denies ever having received a letter from me or correspondence from her about getting Julie’s personal belongings back. I have that letter, and I know that I sent it. More than two years on, Julie’s personal effects have just been passed to her family. It is a very basic thing, but having the personal effects of a loved one back is vital.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this most important debate. On that point, I raised in this House last summer the case of Kirsty Jones, a constituent of mine. Her parents, Sue and Glyn, received a phone call from the Foreign Office to say that their daughter Kirsty had been tragically murdered in Thailand. That was 18 years ago, and Thailand closes cases after 20 years. The family are trying to get Kirsty’s belongings back into this country. DNA testing has improved, and they are trying to get DNA tests done. The local police force now has to send another international letter of request to get Kirsty’s belongings back over here for final assessment and analysis. The process—internationally, rather than that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—is wrong, and we have to change it.
I absolutely agree. There is much more that can be done on the global stage about these issues, particularly when they cross jurisdictions and families have to deal with a legal system that is alien to them. While I appreciate that many of the issues we are raising may have been outside the power of the FCO, it is interesting to note that, in 2014, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published its fifth report, “Support for British nationals abroad: The Consular Service”. I quote from that report:
“In cases of deaths abroad, we received substantial anecdotal evidence to indicate that FCO services to bereaved families are inconsistent and have at times fallen well below the expected standards of the FCO, with repeated failures of communication and compassion. We welcome the FCO’s ongoing review of how it provides services in cases of suspicious deaths abroad, and give our support for a proposal for a specialised central unit to provide expert and dependable assistance.”
I thank my hon. Friend very much for bringing this important debate forward. One of the issues that she has raised, in common with Members on both sides of the Chamber, is the series of unanswered questions that families have to experience. Does she agree that another concern is the lack of pastoral care and support for families who go abroad? Two of my constituents lost their son abroad. When they went out to the EU member country where he died, they were given no police contact and no pastoral support; they were completely abandoned in their grief and isolated in a country where they did not speak the language. This really is not good enough. People do not just need help with the legal process; they also need support in their time of grief.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I absolutely agree. This is often about taking a lead, but some of the language in the Foreign Office guidance is very conditional, and I will come on to that.
In Kirsty Maxwell’s case, it took me from first writing to the FCO in October 2017 to February 2018 to get a contact name, which is not the sort of compassion I find acceptable. To date, I am still unclear about the remit and power of the murder and manslaughter unit, and I also do not know why it cannot become involved when a criminal investigation is ongoing. Perhaps that is something the Minister can shed some light on.
Similarly, we have been chasing the whereabouts of the clothes that were on Kirsty’s body when she died. We found out only very recently that these key pieces of evidence have been destroyed by the Spanish authorities—a matter I believe the FCO should be raising at the highest possible level. I appreciate that, at times, these are diplomatic issues—matters that have to be raised and pushed by the Government or by a Minister—but it is vital that the flow of communication is as clear and defined as possible.
The report I referred to goes on to highlight the use of language and the fact that support is discretionary. It quotes the FCO:
“We will consider making appropriate representations to the local authorities if there are concerns that the investigation is not being carried out in line with local procedures…Where possible, if you visit the country during the early stages of the investigation and initial court hearings related to the death, our staff there may be able to meet you…Where legal systems differ significantly from the UK, or proceedings are conducted in a language you do not understand, we may help to arrange, or attend, an initial round of meetings with the authorities.”
The language is too discretionary—it is way too conditional—and it needs to be more robust and more definite.
My hon. Friend is giving a very powerful and moving speech. I have details of what happened to constituents of mine. It was not a suspicious death, but very much a sudden death, involving an elderly constituent on holiday with his family. In that instance, the local embassy failed the family very badly. The advice they got consisted of an email with a link to a 28-page document that they were supposed to read in the hours when the lady was still trying to come to terms with the fact that she had lost a husband and the rest of the family were trying to come to terms with the fact that they had lost a father and a father-in-law.
The family were at the departure gate waiting for what would have been a very difficult flight home when they got a phone call saying that they were responsible for finding a Spanish qualified lawyer who spoke English. Later, they were told out of the blue that they had to find £2,000 to have documents translated between Spanish and English. Nobody told them at the time that when their dad was brought home, there would need to be another post mortem. Somewhere along the line, the authorities lost his passport and death certificate. I think the insurance company and the insurance broker are still arguing between themselves as to who should be funding the additional costs.
Not all of that is down to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but does my hon. Friend agree that a first step would be to make sure that one person in the specific embassy or consulate is attached to a grieving family and is responsible for sorting out whatever needs to be sorted out, so that the family do not have to argue with undertakers, lawyers and insurance companies at a time when, as in this case, all they want to do is get their dad home for a burial?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He raises some very pertinent and important points. I appreciate that some of them are outside the FCO’s remit, but there are wider issues in relation to insurance companies, with whom some of my constituents have struggled, and protocols, procedures and legal systems. Unfortunately, when Kirsty’s family arrived in Spain they were initially given very little support. They were given a list of English-speaking lawyers, but there was no indication of whether any of them had any expertise in homicide. That has been very challenging.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate and for the proposed all-party group on deaths abroad, on which I have said I will help. She refers to poor local police performance. That was certainly the case for Michael Porter, whose mother from Dumfries died in suspicious circumstances in March 2009 on the island of Crete. It was over a year later that the police decided it was murder. Since then, very little has happened and Michael Porter is still fighting for justice for his mother. I hope that the Minister will meet Michael Porter at some point. I also hope that the hon. Lady’s proposed all-party group and this Adjournment debate will help the many people in this dreadful situation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I very much look forward to working cross-party on this issue, which transcends party political boundaries. We can all work constructively to bring about change.
We want to know what more the FCO can do to assure people like Julie’s and Kirsty’s families that, where a police investigation is not being properly executed, it will make representations and put pressure on the authorities to investigate properly, or invite the police from the nations of the UK to help, as was rightly done, as we all remember, in the case of Madeleine McCann. No one expects them to promise to fix it, but more attempts can be made. I feel very strongly that not enough has changed for the families I represent since the report.
We have heard of many other cases from constituents. I know that my hon. Friend Patrick Grady has a constituent, Julie Love, who has done a huge amount of work on this issue following the death of her son Colin, who died in a swimming accident in Venezuela. She successfully campaigned to have the law changed in Scotland on fatal accident inquiries.
The correspondence with the Government on both of my constituency cases has uncovered some concerning points.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. She is being incredibly generous with her time. I, too, pay tribute to the amazing work of Julie Love, and the determination with which she fought for that change in the law. Indeed, our fellow colleagues Anne McLaughlin and Bob Doris, the local MSP, helped her with that. My hon. Friend makes a point about the need for the FCO to listen carefully and to respond. The expectations people have of their own Government’s representation in foreign countries very often does not match their experiences. I have also dealt with constituents who have survived terrorist attacks. They, too, found that the service they received from the FCO did not match their expectations. I therefore wish my hon. Friend all the best with what she is taking forward.
I thank my hon. Friend. It is a testament to the police services of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland that they do have the highest standards. I know, from talking to a very senior police officer, the level of support received by the families of foreign nationals who die in Scotland. She spoke to me about how they took the family of a loved one who had been killed in a road traffic accident to the site and how they had been given support every step of the way. Rightly, our citizens expect a high level of service because they get a high level of service across the UK.
“The FCO does not translate formal documents because this type of support is best provided by independent professionals and we do not have the funding or the expertise to provide such specialist services... The FCO also does not pay legal costs so could not contribute towards any case Ms Pearson’s family may wish to initiate in Israel.”
I understand that. That is a very fair point, but it raises the question about translation services and what more can be done in that regard.
“I fully understand why you believe improvements can be made to the way in which the Government provides support to the relatives of British nationals who die abroad... The Government has a responsibility to help them through the subsequent process with clarity and compassion.”
Even the Prime Minster recognises that there are flaws and issues with the FCO’s support and processes when dealing with deaths abroad in suspicious circumstances. I wonder whether the Minister would like to take the opportunity to apologise to the families who have been let down. I and other Members and campaigners on this issue have been inundated with stories and experiences of the families of British citizens who have died in difficult and distressing circumstances abroad.
As I said at the beginning, I have the highest regard for the Minister, for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and for the consular profession and the work that they do in some of the hardest and toughest circumstances. However, it is clear to me from the experiences of Kirsty’s and Julie’s families that they deserve better, and for the families and constituents of Members across this House, we need to make sure that there is a review of support and proper action to ensure that the processes and protocols are absolutely the best that families can expect.
In memory of those who have died and to protect and prevent future distress, I plead with the Minister: let us work together to help the families who are suffering now and to change the system. We owe it to them and to the memory of those who have died to make sure that the services that are offered abroad to our citizens are the very best that they can be and that our citizens get, where possible, proper investigations into such deaths, and answers and justice.
I congratulate Hannah Bardell on securing the debate, on the very sensitive way in which she put her case and those of her constituents and on the very constructive way in which she is approaching her engagement with us on this issue.
Every year from this country, 70 million Britons travel abroad. Last year, tragically, 3,912 British citizens died overseas, and 74 of those were identified as cases of murder or manslaughter. The death of a loved one in any circumstances is distressing, but when it happens far from home, where the culture or practices are unfamiliar, and particularly when the cause of death is unclear, it can be especially traumatic. My thoughts go out to all those who been mentioned in today’s debate and to all those who have lost loved ones, and I offer my deepest condolences in particular to the families of Julie Pearson and Kirsty Maxwell, about whom the hon. Lady has spoken so movingly this evening.
Sadly, British nationals do tragically die overseas, and our global network of 772 consular staff are there to be contacted in these situations. I am glad to add my tributes to the work that they do out in the field. We heard that echoed by Jim Shannon and other Members. Whenever the death of a British national is reported to us, our consular officials in London and in our posts overseas do everything that they can to support the relatives. They explain to them what they need to do under the local system—for example, the procedure for getting a death certificate, how to find out whether a post mortem will be carried out and whether or not there will be an investigation in to a death. They also provide details of local lawyers, local translators or organisations that can provide specialist help. However, as we try to make clear in our travel advice, we cannot ourselves provide legal advice or translation services. We must also respect the other country’s legal systems and cannot interfere in their processes, just as they could not interfere in ours.
I am grateful to the Minister for her initial comments. Does she recognise that it is only fair and appropriate for the UK Government and authorities to press where processes and procedures are not being followed? In the case of my constituent Kirsty Maxwell, Spain has a victims’ bill of rights, which, as far as I can see, is not being respected. The rights of the victim and the family are not being respected. It is only appropriate to intervene and put pressure on to hold that country and its authorities to their standards—not necessarily ours, but the standards that they have in their own judicial system—and say, “Look, you need to undertake a proper investigation, in line with your own law.”
The family in this case have retained the services of a local lawyer. The hon. Lady asked about the case of Madeleine McCann and UK police going out to help. She will appreciate that UK police only go out following a request from the local police team. We cannot just send out a team of police officers without a local request. In our travel advice, we emphasise that we cannot interfere in local processes, and we would not want that kind of interference in our own.
We regularly review our consular policy to make sure we provide the best possible service to British nationals travelling abroad, and this sometimes leads to changes in our approach. For example, in response to recommendations from the FAC report the hon. Lady referred to, and following our own internal review, we created a dedicated murder and manslaughter team in our consular assistance department. Formed in 2015, the team has established strong relationships with key stakeholders and partners, who can include organisations such as Victim Support as well as police family liaison officers and coroners’ officers. The team has also created new guidance for bereaved families. We now have 15 country-specific leaflets explaining the requirements and processes that families need to follow, and consular officials receive specialised training on handling deaths abroad. We continually work to ensure that our internal guidance reflects the needs of British citizens.
On average, 60 British nationals are murdered overseas ever year. Since our murder and manslaughter team was established, it has provided assistance to approximately 220 families across the globe. A great deal of interest has been expressed today in two cases, which I would now like to turn to, if I may.
I want to take the Minister back briefly to her point about the police going abroad and the case of Madeleine McCann. I am sure that she will appreciate, as will others, that it seems somewhat random how much publicity a case gets or in what circumstances police are invited abroad. In the case of my constituents, the families want to know that there is equity in how cases are investigated and how negotiations are done around police being invited abroad. The police in Scotland would very much like to go to Spain to investigate the case of Kirsty Maxwell but cannot without that invitation. What can she and the Government do to initiate invitations and make sure that police forces work together and that in more cases the police across the UK, who do an excellent job, can go abroad, support families and investigate?
It is hard to make generalised statements when talking about specific cases, but, by way of a generalised statement, I am saying that it will always require a request from the local team. We will sometimes work through Interpol and others, but, given that the variety of cases is so broad, I can only make the generalised point that a request has to come from the local teams.
On the specific cases the hon. Lady raised, I commend Kirsty’s husband, Adam—they had been married only seven months when she died—and her for their continued efforts to find answers about the circumstances of her death. Throughout this time, consular officials in Spain and London have continued to provide support to the family. She rightly raised the phone call that Kirsty’s husband received from Spanish police, and we have gone back and made very clear the process we would prefer they followed. We have spoken to the Benidorm police to ensure that it is local police who break the news to families back here in the UK.
I understand, however, that the families still have concerns about how the Spanish authorities have handled the case, especially what steps the police took to compile the evidence they presented to the courts. I hope that they can resolve those concerns with the help of their Spanish lawyer, who is best placed to advise them on local law. As I said earlier, we cannot intervene in another country’s legal affairs. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas discussed this case with the hon. Lady back in November, and I know that he is always willing to discuss consular cases on his patch with Members, as am I. Since that meeting, we have continued to raise our concerns about the case with the Spanish authorities, and our consulate in Alicante remains in contact with the family’s lawyer. We stand ready to make further representations if they do not receive a satisfactory response from the authorities.
As I said earlier, the police cannot become get involved in cases outside their jurisdiction unless they are invited to do so. I am pleased to hear that Kirsty’s family have received additional support from a homicide consultancy, which has helped to review her case.
The Minister said that we could intervene only if we were invited to do so. What if we are never invited to do so? My constituent, whose son died in suspicious circumstances, went to the Thai police, who said that they had misled the results of the autopsy. How would the Foreign Office or our authorities involve themselves in that case? The Thai police are almost certainly never going to invite them to become involved.
I do not want to single out any particular countries, but as my hon. Friend will know—the hon. Member for Livingston made this point—legal processes around the world may not necessarily meet the standards to which we are used in this country.
Let me now turn, in the few minutes that are left, to the equally sad case of Julie Pearson. Following her death, consular staff provided assistance to her family and liaised with the Israeli authorities about the investigation. The authorities have now concluded their review of the case and have decided not to take further action because they could not find a sufficient connection between criminal activity and Ms Pearson’s death. I am aware that Ms Pearson’s family have expressed dissatisfaction with the Israeli authorities’ handling of the investigation, and I fully understand their deep frustration at the outcome of the review. As I said earlier, we cannot interfere in the legal processes of another country, but we will continue to work with the Israeli authorities to ensure that due processes are followed in relation to any appeal against the closure of Ms Pearson’s case.
I have so little time left that I am going to use it.
The death of a loved one is devastating wherever it happens, but particularly when it happens in another country and suspicious circumstances are apparent. We know that families are often desperate to find answers. In such cases—and, indeed, whenever a British national dies overseas—the consular staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office support bereaved families with compassion, dedication and tenacity, often in very difficult circumstances. We will continue to take every one of these cases extremely seriously and to provide that dedicated consular assistance for those who are most in need of our help, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
I welcome the idea of an all-party group, which I think is extremely constructive. I have my own opinions about how we can improve assistance in these cases, as did my predecessor, now the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice. First, I am sure that we would all want to ensure that resources are focused on the most vulnerable. Secondly, we must try to work with British citizens to ensure that they take responsibility and take precautions, such as obtaining adequate travel insurance, following the advice on the Foreign Office website, and not engaging in inherently risky activities. Thirdly, we must be very clear about prevention.
My hon. Friend Marion Fellows has a constituent whose son was killed in a road traffic accident in Ibiza. In a bid—unfortunately—to smear his name, it was insisted that there should be an alcohol test and blood should be taken from his eyeballs in what was a very distressing case. I hear what the Minister says about British citizens abroad, but it is important that we critique such processes in-country.
I think that it would be very helpful for the all-party group to become involved in such issues.
Again, I congratulate the hon. Lady and all the Members who have raised constituency cases. We in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stand ready to meet individual colleagues, and we continue to look for ways in which to improve our consular service.
Question put and agreed to.