The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-13681, in the name of Angela Constance, on support for families of loved ones killed abroad. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament acknowledges the BBC documentary,
, which was recently aired in Scotland and highlighted the tragic death of Kirsty Maxwell, who was from Livingston; believes that this demonstrated what it sees as the unacceptable obstacles that families face in seeking information and support in such tragic circumstances; recognises the profound impact that this has on those who have lost loved ones abroad; notes the calls for the Scottish Government to urge the UK Government to take meaningful action to address what it considers to be the failings and gaps in support and procedures provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to families of those affected; commends the work of the UK All-party Parliamentary Group on Deaths Abroad and Consular Services in highlighting these issues, and notes its call for an urgent review into the support provided for bereaved families and for a closer look into devolved services so that grieving families having to deal with multiple agencies are not faced with insurmountable barriers in their fight for information on the most basic facts about the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths.
Kirsty Maxwell is described by her mother as a
“beautiful girl who touched the hearts of many”, and as a popular young woman in whom friends and family chose to confide. Eighteen months ago, when she was in Benidorm with friends, Kirsty’s life was taken, as her mother says,
“in incredibly cruel, brutal and unexplained circumstances.”
Kirsty’s mum and her aunt Angela are here tonight in the gallery with their local MP, Hannah Bardell, and others—Deborah Pearson, Harry and Anthony Lindsay, Kirsten Macnicol and Julie Love—whose loved ones were killed abroad in a murder or manslaughter, or died in suspicious circumstances. I have no doubt that I speak on behalf of the entire chamber when I express our heartfelt condolences to all those families—although I cannot help but think that the families must get weary of our words of sympathy when they are crying out for action and answers. As MSPs, our words are important, but so are our deeds—especially to constituents who reach out to us in their darkest hour.
I thank members who have supported the motion in my name and helped to secure tonight’s debate, and I am also grateful to members who will speak in the debate. I pass on the apologies of Neil Findlay MSP, who is at a public meeting—that I should have liked us both to be at—in Stoneyburn. I hope that the fact that old foes and adversaries like Neil and I are co-operating on the issue shows its great importance.
The BBC documentary “Killed Abroad” highlighted unanswered questions about the deaths of Kirsty Maxwell and Craig Mallon, and the plight of their families.
It is difficult to adjust to the death of a loved one, and it is more difficult when the death is the result of a crime, or occurred in suspicious circumstances. It is harder still when the death occurred abroad.
The news that a loved one has died can be delivered in a variety of ways that can add to the shock and trauma that families experience. Adam Maxwell was informed of his wife’s death by a brief and unclear phone call from Spanish police.
Other challenges and complexities come from dealing with unfamiliar jurisdictions and justice systems, the cost of repatriation—on average, it costs £4,000, but it can be as much as £8,000—finding and funding suitable overseas legal representation, the cost of travel and translation services, insurance issues and post mortem and autopsy difficulties. Families have to cope with all that and more while they are grieving and dealing with the demands of daily life.
Families inform us that the service that is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and consular services is patchy and inconsistent, and that support is far from proactive.
Consequently, the Westminster all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services is pursuing matters vigorously, given that 80 to 90 United Kingdom citizens are murdered abroad every year. The APPG has taken evidence from 50 families around the UK, including 10 from Scotland, and from organisations including Murdered Abroad and DAYNA, which stands for Death Abroad—You’re Not Alone, which was established by Julie Love after the death of her son in Venezuela in 2009. The Westminster all-party group, which is chaired by Hannah Bardell MP, will soon report its findings and make recommendations mainly, but not exclusively, to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The FCO clearly has a leading role, but there is also a role for devolved services in justice and health portfolios. How we support the third sector, and our external relations with other jurisdictions are also important. There is room for improvement at UK and Scotland levels.
The Scottish Government has raised the concerns of Kirsty’s family with the UK and Spanish Governments, and Police Scotland stands ready to assist the investigation into Kirsty’s death if invited to do so by the Spanish authorities. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service does not have jurisdiction to investigate deaths that occur outside Scotland except in a few limited circumstances, one of which is when the death occurred by murder or culpable homicide by another British citizen.
It may also be worth considering a review of implementation of recent fatal accident inquiry legislation.
The Scottish Government has an overarching commitment to support victims with access to information and a wide range of services. That is harder to achieve when overseas justice agencies are involved and we are reliant on them investigating, but those important principles should apply in our endeavours for all victims here in Scotland. Will Humza Yousaf, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, ensure that full consideration of the needs of people whose loved one has been killed abroad in a crime or in suspicious circumstances is undertaken by the victims and witnesses team that is headed by Anna Donald and the victims task force that he will chair?
The new homicide service for Scotland, which is to be welcomed, will be established next April. It is important to mention that its remit excludes victims who die abroad through suspected crime or in suspicious circumstances, so I hope that the cabinet secretary will be able to rectify that situation, too.
The needs and rights of families who are affected by deaths abroad is also missing from the “Victims’ Code for Scotland” and the revised “Working Together for Victims and Witnesses” interagency guidance.
Although the issue was considered, Police Scotland will not deploy family liaison officers in all cases in which a British national has been murdered abroad, because its doing so is dependent on what, if any, investigative role it has. Will the cabinet secretary consider guidelines or regulations whereby the host police force of the family has a duty to provide a service, perhaps in partnership with other organisations? I think that Police Scotland would welcome that approach.
Victim Support Scotland has highlighted that it has, despite having a protocol with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office since 2012, received only seven notifications of Scots being murdered abroad. Police Scotland is not officially notified by the FCO if a Scot is murdered abroad, so the process could be improved. Notifications should also include deaths by serious crime or those that occur in suspicious circumstances.
Trauma-aware notification should kick-start trauma-informed support, so will the cabinet secretary do his best to help families such as Kirsty Maxwell’s to get the right services at the right time, and give full consideration to how access to emotional, practical, financial and legal support can be improved?
I end my remarks by quoting Kirsty Maxwell’s dad, Brian, who in correspondence to me said:
“I feel we have a chance here in Scotland to make a change and do something that actually supports victims and their families. Legally, emotionally, and financially, a protocol or vehicle that guides and supports victims’ families through the myriad of hoops and hurdles that ultimately force victims families to give up hope, give up on the system, and give up on life.”
I hope that, together, we can take the chance for change and give hope to the family of Kirsty Maxwell and others in their hour of greatest need. [
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate and thank Angela Constance for bringing the motion to the chamber.
As Ms Constance’s motion acknowledges, the recent BBC documentary, “Killed Abroad”, highlighted the apparent obstacles and difficulties that some families have faced in seeking information and support in awful and tragic circumstances. I, for one, recognise the profound impact that that must have on people who have lost loved ones abroad. I also recognise that their experiences have, seemingly, exposed gaps in support that is provided by and the procedures of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to families of people who are affected. Of course, those matters have to be addressed, and that need has been acknowledged.
It is only right and proper that we have the opportunity to debate the issue in the Scottish Parliament. I, too, thank the Westminster all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services, because it has made a real contribution to the process. As we know, all-party groups and cross-party groups often have enormous insight. They take the time to study and hear evidence and to analyse the ways in which many organisations operate in a bid to improve individuals’ experiences, which is being achieved.
The Westminster all-party parliamentary group has already taken evidence from in excess of 40 families who have been affected by deaths abroad, and is currently taking evidence from a number of other families and individuals. That work is very important. Once the group has gathered the evidence, the facts and information will go to both the United Kingdom Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in a bid to improve the methods through which valuable support might be offered.
I am also aware that there are, very sadly, tragedies in which individuals are lost or are reported missing abroad. There are many anxieties for families who find themselves in such situations, when they do not know what has happened to their loved one. There are excellent charities working in that area. I pay tribute to them: they go to enormous lengths to provide information and advice to individuals who suffer worry and anxiety when they find themselves in the incomprehensible situation of having lost a loved one.
The charities include the Lucie Blackman Trust, which has since 2008 been providing outstanding care to families of British victims of murder or manslaughter. The charity is able to offer to victims advice, repatriation assistance, problem solving, fundraising support and many more facets of assistance. It provides families with information, liaison and support throughout a missing-person case overseas: that remains a core part of its operations. The skills, knowledge and contacts that the charity has gained from its years of providing that type and level of support, along with its mutual respectful relationship with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its responsibilities, has enabled it to expand its remit to deal with victims of serious crime, which is very important.
It is vital that we sit up and listen to families and loved ones, note the concerns that they raise, and address the failings and improve the service and advice that we provide. Such situations must be awful for people to deal with, and we must ensure that they are not exacerbated by failings, by officials or by obstacles being put in the way. The goal must be to provide support, advice and compassion to all who are affected.
We must ensure that we are getting it right for every family, and that the services are fit for purpose, because it appears to be that that is not always the case. The current situation has to be managed and acknowledged by the UK Government and the Scottish Government, because we want to learn lessons for the future.
I start by paying tribute to Angela Constance for bringing to the chamber this vitally important members’ business debate, and to the family of Kirsty Maxwell for their determination to get answers for themselves and justice for Kirsty.
I also pay tribute to my constituent Julie Love MBE—a remarkable woman from Maryhill who, following the tragic drowning of her son Colin in Venezuela, has campaigned tirelessly to improve advice, help and support for families in such circumstances. The charity that she founded, Death Abroad—You’re Not Alone, has directly offered support, both emotional and practical, on a volunteer basis. Julie sits at the heart of that advice giving and support. I will therefore pick up on several areas in which I feel that she would wish me to raise a number of concerns.
In a briefing for the debate, Victim Support Scotland notes the support that it seeks to offer for those who are murdered or involved in suspicious deaths or who are victimised overseas. That support is of course most welcome; however, the remit excludes victims of tragedies such as road traffic accidents and, as in Colin Love’s case, drowning. I stress that the families of those loved ones strongly feel a sense of loss, anger and victimisation, and I believe that we must broaden the range of families who are offered support by Victim Support Scotland and others.
I know that families can struggle to get authorities overseas, or indeed here at home, to consider certain deaths as suspicious. Furthermore, we must ask what evidence is used to determine whether a death is suspicious, and who decides that? Broadening the range of families who are supported will mitigate some of those concerns, as would the right to a post mortem back here in Scotland, for which I am calling today. It is also simply the right thing to do.
Getting clear, reliable and consistent information—or, indeed, any information—from the FCO can be a challenge, regardless of how a loved one dies overseas, as can the process of navigating through the various overseas legal systems and processes. It is certainly not easy or inexpensive for someone to bring their loved one back home from abroad, as I will go on to discuss. Therefore, let us get the definition widened and start to put meaningful support in place.
Victim Support Scotland states that although it has had a protocol with the FCO in place since 2012, it has received only seven notifications of Scots who have been murdered, and the number of actual referrals is much smaller. I find that deeply worrying. I am unclear about whether that protocol has ever been published, let alone promoted, to ensure that families are aware of their rights and the support that is available.
A number of years ago, I and Julie Love sought to organise a meeting of relevant stakeholders across police, justice, external affairs and health—and, of course, Victim Support Scotland—but the fragmented nature of Government responsibilities threw up challenges. As well as cross-cutting work that goes across ministerial briefs at Scottish level, we need a single Scottish Government minister to take full responsibility for the overall approach to deaths abroad, regardless of which topic area such a death might fall within.
I am aware that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice has established a new victim support task force, and I am sure that my constituent Julie Love would welcome a dialogue with that forum. I note, too, that Victim Support Scotland is leading on the development of a new homicide service for Scotland, which will involve families getting support via a dedicated case worker. Murders abroad are excluded, but VSS has indicated a willingness to extend the scope of that service. It should be extended, and not just to cover murders abroad—it should go far broader than that.
There is much more that I would like to say, but I will not, because I know that time is short. Julie Love, whom I have mentioned several times, has already succeeded in getting the law changed by the Parliament, to extend, on a discretionary basis, the scope of fatal accident inquiries to cover deaths overseas. I am worried and alarmed that that discretion has never been used. There is no point in having laws on the statute book if they are not exercised in positive ways to get justice and answers for families.
I pay tribute to Angela Constance. I think that the issue on which she has secured a members’ business debate deserves a full plenary debate in normal time, but this evening’s debate is a crucial first step.
I will begin where Bob Doris ended. Support for families of loved ones who are killed abroad is a very serious topic and one that is worthy of further consideration in a full plenary debate, and I lend my support to that call.
I thank Angela Constance for securing the debate; more important, I associate myself with the sentiments that she expressed at the beginning of her speech. It is wonderful that we have such families here and it is right that our thoughts are with them, but what they need to hear is not warm words; they want to find out what changes we will make and how we will make a difference. That is crucial for this evening’s debate and future debates that we hold on the topic.
An unexpected death is always traumatic for family members. Many immediate questions will occur. What happened? Why did it happen? Did something go wrong? Was the help that was supposed to be there actually there? If there is a question of fault, other questions will arise. Who was responsible? What will happen to them? Those questions will occur to people with any unexplained death, but when such circumstances arise abroad, the complexity is compounded. There are additional questions that people must have settled in order to move on and have closure, whatever that means, but they must deal with a foreign system that looks complicated and which is expensive to deal with because it is in another country. There will be confusion about how the system works and how it will make decisions, and there will be the language difference to contend with. Those are the issues that the documentary “Killed Abroad” brought to life so well. It is a terrible fate, and we need to do better in terms of supporting families who find themselves in those terrible circumstances.
It is right that the motion talks about the FCO and consular response that is required, and it is also right that it highlights the work that is done by the APPG in Westminster. Quite simply, the support that is required is not there. Months can pass before details are received by families, there is no single point of contact, there are translation problems and there is far too little financial support. We heard this evening that, under the protocol that is supposed to be in place, Police Scotland has received only seven notifications. Clearly, that is not good enough, and I would be interested to hear what the minister will be doing with regard to seeking assurances that that situation will be improved.
I have also spoken with my colleague Hugh Gaffney, who has been working with the family of Craig Mallon, who died tragically in May 2012, and who was also featured in the documentary. The conversations that he has had with them and subsequently with me have highlighted the difference between the situation in England and Wales and that in Scotland when it comes to post-mortem examinations, which is a point that Bob Doris made. In England and Wales, the coroner will normally investigate the case of someone who died a violent or unnatural death overseas, the body will be returned to the home country and the coroner makes a decision about whether to undertake a post-mortem examination, taking into account the manner of the death, whether a post-mortem was done in the other country, concerns about the process and any other extenuating circumstances. In Scotland, there are no coroners, and the rules are completely different. Although the rules have changed, the basic presumption that there is a possibility that there will be a post mortem is simply not there. We must ask serious questions about that, and I would be interested to hear whether the cabinet secretary has any thoughts about the possibility of bringing forward the right to a post mortem in cases in which there has been a tragic death abroad.
It is right that the law has changed, but I think that we need to examine the rules that we have in Scotland. There is obviously a question for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but there are also questions about what we can do here. Addressing the issue of the coroner and the post mortem would be an important step forward for many families who have, tragically, experienced the death of a loved one abroad.
When we go into another country, we present our passport. The inside cover of the passport says:
“Her Britannic Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and”— this is the important part for this debate—
“to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”
When that country accepts the holder of that passport across its border, it is, in essence, entering into a contract with us that it will honour that request from Her Majesty. Of course, the debate is about whether the support that we get from our institutions in working with foreign jurisdictions meets the requirements, and whether people are getting the assistance that they need.
Before I move into the substance of my speech, I want to give a vote of thanks to Chloe Henderson, who is a pupil at Fraserburgh academy. She has been on placement with me this week and has done the research and written the notes for this speech. She has done very well.
Like constituents of other members, people in my constituency have experienced difficulties with people dying abroad. However, I want to speak about a case that has a slightly happier outcome but which nonetheless demonstrates the need for appropriate support.
I acknowledge that people need access to information and support at times of bereavement abroad and that they encounter endless obstacles and unanswered questions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the foreign jurisdiction. There are many logistical challenges that are made harder by potential language barriers, including contacting local authorities, funeral directors and caseworkers. I want to talk for a minute or two about my constituent, Alan Wright, who is from Portsoy and whom my MP colleague, Eilidh Whiteford, supported. His family, in the north-east of Scotland, needed consular assistance after he was taken hostage while working in an Algerian oil field in 2013.
What he thought was a power cut turned out to be a terrorist attack by militants on the In Amenas oil field. Mr Wright and a colleague were forced to hide in a room with only a satellite phone to connect them to the outside world. In a television interview, Mr Wright, aged 37—half my age—recounted the nine terrifying hours that he and colleagues spent trying to remain hidden. Others who were subject to the attack were not as fortunate as he was and were killed.
Mr Wright had to make an emotional call to his family at home, not knowing whether it would be his last. He chose not to speak to his two daughters as he did not want them to remember their last phone call over a crackly line. He said:
“You fear the worst, you can’t put into words how bad you feel.”
That is the environment in which we expect the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Scottish Government and local jurisdictions to respond to the needs of those such as Mr Wright, as well as to the needs of those like his colleagues who were killed. Although there was a happy ending for my constituent, his case illustrates a general point.
Relatives who are looking for help often simply do not know what questions they should be asking, far less what answers they need. That is not a matter simply for a couple of people in my constituency or the scattered constituencies represented by members in this evening’s debate. A 2015 survey sent to 150 families found that they did not feel supported in their experience of trying to bring a loved one home after their death abroad, and more than half said that the FCO was not at all helpful.
In times of grief, there are many unpredictable factors. The people who are grieving are vulnerable and need a special kind of help and support, which must be tailored to their individual needs.
I hope that this debate will play its role in alerting the Scottish Administration, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and jurisdictions abroad to the need to provide enhanced and more relevant support to those who lose people abroad.
I, too, thank Angela Constance for securing the debate. Each of us in the chamber has experienced the loss of a loved one. We know how painful, sad and empty life can feel when someone so loved and so close to us is no longer here. That is all the worse when the death is of a young person with so much life ahead of them.
In the case of Kirsty Maxwell, the loss was still worse. Kirsty’s death occurred in unexplained circumstances, thousands of miles away from her home and family in a country with a different language and legal system. In such challenging and terrible circumstances, for which nobody can ever be expected to be prepared, we would expect the best possible support. In the case of Kirsty and, as we have heard, too many others who have died abroad in unexplained circumstances, that support has simply not been there.
Kirsty’s parents have said that they got no help whatsoever—no guidance about what to do from the UK Government or the Spanish Government—and that they felt “very much abandoned”. Kirsty’s husband Adam described the support received as “the bare minimum”. Kirsty’s family is not the first to experience serious problems in getting the support that they need.
This has been a long-running problem over many years. In 2014, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s investigation into consular services found significant and widespread failings in the support given to families of British citizens who died abroad. Those failings ranged from calls not being returned and emails not being answered to desk officers not being adequately trained to assist traumatised families, failure to appoint a suitable person to help, such as a liaison officer, and failure or even refusal to provide long-term assistance in the case of lengthy investigations or trials. Such situations can be terribly stressful, not to mention expensive—and, for some people, possibly even unaffordable. The committee heard from many families who had lost loved ones and who had received a poor level of support at such a difficult time.
That was in 2014, so what has changed? To judge from the experience of Kirsty’s family, not nearly enough. Kirsty’s MP, Hannah Bardell, has worked tirelessly on the issue. She established the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services and has spoken of the difficulties in getting assistance when there is no conviction.
There is little sense of the Foreign Office being there to back the family up in one of the worse possible situations that a family could find themselves in, and to fight their corner when things are not happening as they should.
Of course, other countries have their own legal systems and processes that must be respected. However, helping bereaved families who have lost a loved one to navigate a legal system that is unknown to them, particularly in the case of an unexplained death such as Kirsty’s, is not interfering, and holding a country to its own standards is not interfering. As Hannah Bardell has said in relation to Kirsty’s case, there is a Spanish victims’ bill of rights that is not being respected. It is not interfering to ensure that British citizens in a foreign country get access to the same standard of support and service as that country’s own citizens.
I pay tribute to Kirsty’s husband Adam, her parents, Denise and Brian Curry, and all her family and friends, who have been tireless in trying to find out what happened. In the BBC documentary that is referred to in the motion, Kirsty’s parents say that they have promised their daughter that they will not give up until they get answers. I know from meeting them that they most certainly will not give up. Their determination in such difficult and challenging circumstances is truly inspiring. The least that we can do is ensure that they have the full support of the UK and Scottish Governments and all the resources that are at our disposal to help to find those answers. That support has been lacking in Kirsty’s case, in Craig Mallon’s case and in the cases of too many others. There is cross-party agreement on the need for improvement and change. The level of support must change—and change quickly—before more families are let down at such a difficult time.
I thank Angela Constance for bringing this important issue to the chamber and for highlighting the tragic case of Kirsty Maxwell.
I want to concentrate on a young man from Coatbridge in my constituency whose story, through being told in the local
Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser as well as in the national press, has touched many hearts. His story was also part of the recent BBC documentary to which Angela Constance and others have referred. I thank David Swindle from the multilingual review team for the briefing.
Twenty-six-year-old Craig Mallon’s life ended tragically within hours of his arriving in the holiday resort of Lloret de Mar, Spain, on 19 May 2012, when he was fatally assaulted by a single punch in a busy street near several nightclubs. The news quickly reverberated around the Monklands community.
On the basis of cross-party working, I mention the work of my parliamentary colleague Hugh Gaffney, who has done work on the issue with Hannah Bardell through the all-party group at Westminster. It is right that party politics are put well to one side on such issues.
The case is unresolved, still open and subject to on-going court investigations, but that is as a result only of the persistence of Craig’s family, friends and previous employer, who have sought answers. No family or relative should ever have to endure what happened to Craig Mallon’s family. They learned about his death in a phone call from Craig’s brother, not via an official channel. When attending the Spanish mortuary for identification purposes, they found that his body had not been prepared or cleaned, so there was a lack of dignity.
There was no second autopsy when Craig’s body was returned to Scotland. Family liaison officers in Scotland could take no active part in providing support, advice or updates. The family received a visit from Victim Support Scotland, which could offer no formalised support through financial or pastoral assistance.
Some documented updates in Catalan and Spanish were sent to Craig’s family from the British consulate without being translated into English for them. Inaccurate media reporting and updates from Spain were confusing and did not confirm to Craig’s family that his death was being treated as a homicide—it took until 2012 to get that confirmation.
The family were left to their own devices to recruit a lawyer in another country, receiving no advice from the British consulate or any other UK body. After a year, the services of the lawyer were terminated when it was learned that, despite charging substantial sums of money, she had not provided progressive professional services.
Craig’s family have had to navigate through a different legal and investigatory system in another country, only getting progress as a result of constantly pushing the Spanish authorities for answers. This is a family who, despite having financial and multilingual review team support, have struggled with the complexities of the unfamiliar legal system of another country, because no formalised support and advice structure is provided in Scotland or in the UK as a whole.
I am informed by David Swindle that, although there were shortcomings in British consulate communication in the early stages of the investigation, in the past two years the Barcelona consular official has been supportive with respect to liaison with the Spanish lawyer and court, to the extent that a meeting with the judge on evidential opportunities is scheduled for 30 November.
I am sad to say that in April this year Craig’s mum Antoinette died aged 48, without having seen progress on various key lines of inquiry or on justice for Craig. Craig’s father Ian Mallon, who is unable to attend this evening’s debate due to illness, is hopeful that changes will be made to ensure that other families who are unfortunate enough to lose a loved one to homicide abroad do not have to endure what happened to him and his beloved Antoinette.
I know that the cabinet secretary is sympathetic to the Mallons and to others in such situations. I ask him to consider meeting Craig’s family and to think about the options that are available for supporting people—although we all hope that there will never be another family in that situation.
I thank Angela Constance for lodging this important motion and bringing the debate to the Parliament tonight.
When a loved one is tragically killed abroad, families have to navigate their way through a nightmare of decisions, all of which tend to be unfamiliar and unclear. We must ensure that such families have strong support at what must be a harrowing time. We need to get that right.
Losing a loved one in any situation is extremely difficult, but when that happens in another country, where there are different procedures and processes to reckon with, families often feel that they are left to struggle, with limited help. It is understandable that the lack of even the most basic information can fuel feelings of anxiety and stress.
The lack of communication is the stand-out issue. Too often, families encounter slow responses, which fail to give them the answers that they need. Often, families are notified of a loved one’s death indirectly and through wrong and unclear channels of communication, such as the media. Families should never have to encounter such a lack of clarity.
Foreign protocols and procedures can be unfamiliar. Indeed, the way in which investigations into deaths are conducted can foster unwarranted confusion. Even the wait for the return of a victim’s belongings to their family is far too long in many instances. Surely it is critical to make international processes smoother, for the sake of Scotland’s grieving families.
Unhelpful speculation by foreign investigators is another issue. It is clearly not good enough that people should speculate about the cause of a victim’s death. It is paramount that families of loved ones be treated with respect and dignity. For that to happen, they must be given sincere answers, with the crucial detail that they deserve to have.
Never was that demonstrated to me more clearly than when one of my constituents went missing in the mountains of Vietnam. Sadly, my constituent was found dead many months later.
Support for families could be furthered in clear ways. Surely if the Foreign and Commonwealth Office offered translation services, family members would have a greater understanding of even the most fundamental issues, such as the cause of their loved one’s death.
Repatriation services are worryingly costly and complex for families to handle. Funding should be far more readily available, to lessen such unnecessary difficulties.
The existence of the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services should be of great encouragement to families who are in this unimaginable situation. The group hopes to improve services and processes for the families of loved ones who are missing, who are in jail, who have been killed or who have died in suspicious circumstances. It has shown the gaps in our consular services and it pushes forward recommendations on how the issues can be put right.
From my military experience and work overseas, I fully appreciate the need for support for grieving families to be as helpful and efficient as possible. The armed forces community has lost many loved ones overseas on deployed operations. For the most part, the forces treat the bereaved and those who have passed away with the utmost respect, but ensuring that dependants are offered advice and support from an understanding, single point of contact will help to remove the obstacles that they, like other bereaved families in Scotland, can face.
I welcome the motion and the debate. For the sake of families who are enduring a tragic loss, I hope that support services will act with the greatest sensitivity and openness.
I join colleagues in thanking Angela Constance for bringing this important debate to the chamber, and I also thank those who have signed the motion. I know that all of us would rather not be at this debate or have to deal with the issues that unfortunately face those who have suffered as the Maxwell family has. However, we are in this situation and it is only right that we shine a spotlight and ask the questions that need to be asked. Some of those questions are for the FCO, but some are for the Government in Scotland and for institutions and support services in Scotland, so I am thankful to Angela Constance for bringing the subject before us.
I also agree and associate myself with remarks that other members have made about holding a longer debate on the issue. That is for the Parliament and the bureau to decide, but the Government would be very willing to be part of that debate. It is certainly worth further consideration.
On behalf of the Government and personally on behalf of the First Minister, I offer our sympathies once again to the Maxwell family, who I know are here this evening. A number of people have mentioned the fact that, if any of us were in the situation that the Maxwell family unfortunately find themselves in, we would be demanding answers to the questions that they are rightly demanding answers to. Whether a person is killed here or abroad, every single one of us would want to know the circumstances surrounding their death—the who, the why, the where. As other members have said, it is difficult to imagine the complexity and the difficulties of navigating a foreign landscape in those circumstances, so I pay tribute to the Maxwell family, and to other families who have gone through something similar, for their tenacity and for what they are doing on behalf of Kirsty’s legacy. I wanted to put that on record.
I also want to record my thanks to the press and to the BBC for its documentary “Killed Abroad”. It is important that a light is shone on those issues and that people ask the questions that need answers.
I am aware that Kirsty’s family have not been satisfied with their experience of dealing with the Spanish authorities, and I recognise the family’s strong view that mistakes have been made from the earliest point in the process. I will be meeting Kirsty’s family, who are in the gallery this evening, along with Angela Constance and their MP, Hannah Bardell, after the debate finishes to discuss further the dreadful incident that took place.
A few common themes have arisen in the contributions by a number of speakers. Before I mention them, I want to emphasise some of the actions that the Scottish Government has taken. Members may be aware that the First Minister herself met Kirsty’s family in August and heard their concerns first hand. Since then, she has taken a number of actions. The Scottish Government has pressed the FCO to fully support the family in their efforts to secure justice through the Spanish legal systems. At the family’s request, the First Minister also wrote to the Spanish Prime Minister seeking reassurance that the necessary resources have been deployed to allow the Spanish police and prosecutors to carry out a full and thorough investigation into Kirsty’s death. Notwithstanding that, every single member has mentioned the fact that the family feel that there have been deficiencies not just in the Spanish process but in the support that they have received, whether through the FCO or through other support agencies. We will continue to liaise with the FCO on various aspects of the investigation, including the family’s engagement with the Spanish legal system.
As Stewart Stevenson noted, when something as tragic and awful happens to us as has happened to the Maxwell family, citizens of this country expect our Governments—Scottish, UK or whatever Government it is—to step in and provide the support services that we so desperately need. On this occasion there are some serious questions about whether the Maxwell family received that support, and I very much recognise the family’s view that they did not.
We are committed to ensuring that everything possible is done to establish the full circumstances that led to Kirsty’s death. Although it has no locus to investigate, Police Scotland has been clear that it stands ready to assist the Spanish authorities with their inquiries. To date, it has not been called on, but I reiterate that that offer very much remains on the table. Police Scotland’s family liaison officer has met Kirsty’s family on a number of occasions regarding the case and continues to support the family through this difficult period. When I meet the Maxwell family I will of course probe that further to see whether there is more support that they need from Police Scotland.
I have mentioned the First Minister’s interest and the fact that she has personally intervened where appropriate. The Scottish Government and I are committed to doing everything that we can to help the Maxwell family and other families who suffer the death of a loved one abroad. Many of my colleagues from across the chamber have spoken about families in their constituencies who unfortunately have had a loved one who passed away abroad. I have taken notes on that. I will follow up with them and with the families, too.
I am conscious of the time. I was coming to that issue along with a couple of others, but I will address it now.
As Daniel Johnson will be aware, post mortems are ultimately the responsibility of the Lord Advocate. I will raise the issue with the Lord Advocate. Issues have been raised about post mortems and the possibility of having a post mortem that are rightly for the Lord Advocate—understandably so for the independence of the judiciary and of the Crown—but I will raise the matter with him. I will also raise the issue that Bob Doris mentioned regarding the change of law around fatal accident inquiries at the discretion of the Lord Advocate for those who die abroad, and I will ask about the threshold that Daniel Johnson mentions and whether it needs to be re-examined.
I really appreciate the comments that the cabinet secretary is making, but a wider issue has always been how the Lord Advocate can make an informed decision to use that discretion. One of the ways in which the Lord Advocate could make an informed decision is by instructing a post mortem when families have concerns, which could inform that potential discretionary decision. Right now, he is flying blind on the information that he has available.
That point is well made and is now on the record. I personally will raise the issue with the Lord Advocate, and I invite other members of the Parliament to do so.
I have mentioned the victims task force. Angela Constance previously asked me whether we will consider the experiences of those families of victims who have died abroad. I absolutely will do that. I would like to extend that out to other families, too. Many families have been mentioned in the debate. I got a specific request from Fulton MacGregor about the family of Craig Mallon. Of course I would be happy to meet them—perhaps as part of a wider format or, if he thinks it is better, one to one. For the victims task force, we should consider the support that is needed for families of victims who have died abroad.
I will engage with the all-party parliamentary group that Hannah Bardell has set up, which she has played a key role in founding and supporting. I am happy to engage with the group on its call for a review into the support that is provided for bereaved families. I know that Scottish Government officials are due to meet the all-party group in the coming weeks, and I look forward to reading about that. I will write to Hannah Bardell, as the chair of that group, to offer my assistance on that important piece of work.
I will also look into the issue of Police Scotland notifications, which was also raised. I am happy to keep Daniel Johnson and other members who have spoken in the debate up to date on the progress of that.
I now look forward to meeting the Maxwell family. I thank Angela Constance for giving this important issue an airing in the Parliament. I agree with members around the chamber that there is perhaps a wider, further and more in-depth discussion to be had, but I thank her for securing the debate and I thank members for making some very helpful contributions for the Government to take forward.
Meeting closed at 17:59.