Mr. Luke Noble

– in Westminster Hall at 1:00 pm on 28th June 2005.

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Photo of Stephen Hepburn Stephen Hepburn Labour, Jarrow 1:00 pm, 28th June 2005

In August 2004, a young, healthy lad from my constituency, Luke Noble, was tragically killed in a horrific boating accident in the British Virgin Islands. Luke Noble was on holiday visiting his aunty and uncle. His uncle is on secondment there from the Northumbria police force. Luke and his three friends were returning to their yacht in a small dingy after a meal in a yachting club in the harbour. Their small dingy was struck by a speed boat, causing the drowning of Luke and his friend Campbell Harty, and causing serious injuries to Luke's cousin, Stephen Noble, who suffered a broken back. Ian Murray, another young lad, luckily and thankfully escaped injury.

The incident was caused by a man named Arjaan Hendriksen. He was later arrested and his trial started on 31 May 2005. The case relied on the evidence of six main prosecution witnesses, four of whom were classed as eye-witnesses. One of the witnesses, Katrina Olsen, is an emergency medical technician for the Virgin Islands search and rescue service, which is the equivalent of our Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Her yacht was just behind the dingy when the lads were going out to the yacht. Just before the accident she had seen Hendriksen in his Boston whaler power boat, driving past her at high speed, shouting "Yahoo!" A short time later he passed her again at high speed and then she heard the collision as his power boat smashed through the young boys' dingy. She heard cries for help and she saw the Boston whaler power boat being driven off at high speed. The Boston whaler had hit the small dingy and thrown all four boys into the water.

Another witness, Brian Hawksfield, an experienced sailor from Hartlepool, who was classed as an expert witness at the trial, said that according to the sea version of the rules of the road—a sort of highway code—not only was Hendriksen speeding, but the boys had right of way in that mooring area. To put it bluntly, in motor vehicle parlance, he sped across a junction at three times the speed limit, causing this accident.

The pathologist who conducted the post-mortem on both boys said that they were not killed by the impact of the power boat; they drowned. If the boys had been pulled from the water in time, they would have survived. As I mentioned, Hendriksen sped off from the boys without offering any help or even reporting the incident to anyone until much later.

When Hendriksen's defence expert at the trial—a maritime expert who gives advice to the US coastguard—was asked what he thought about a situation in which an experienced mariner such as Hendriksen left the scene of a maritime collision when four boys were in immediate peril of drowning, he answered that it was improper. Even Hendriksen's defence expert could not come to his assistance.

The matter was put before a jury who came back only two hours later with the unanimous verdict that Hendriksen was guilty. Justice had been done—or so we thought until the judge came on the scene. The honourable Justice Indra Charles stated that she did not regard this as a criminal conviction and that she considered that Hendriksen had suffered enough. Although Mr. Hendriksen had been found guilty, she claimed:

"he is not a criminal in the sense of the law".

She went on to say:

"It is a criminal conviction", but then asked:

"Has he paid enough for it already?"

Remember: this is a bloke who carried out what can only be called a hit and run at sea.

However, the judge did not stop there. She then said something that I cannot believe: she said that any of us could be unfortunate enough to find ourselves in the same position as Hendriksen. Talking about herself, she said:

"I on a Friday night might after two and a half glasses of wine hit somebody . . . it can happen to anyone".

She said:

"I don't know if I would remain at the scene."

What a shocking case, when a judge of the Crown can turn around and say that she could go out on a Friday night, have a drink, drive a car over the speed limit and cause an accident—and not even know whether she would hang around or flee the scene. The woman is either crackers or incompetent, and she should be investigated. In the end, Hendriksen was fined the equivalent of £33,000—in other words, just £16,500 for each boy's life.

I conclude by asking the Minister to do three things. First, in the light of what I have said today and in the light of the transcript of the trial, I ask him to investigate the judge—that urgently needs doing. Secondly, I ask him to introduce a system of appeals in the British Virgin Islands legal code. Obviously, if the incident had happened in this country, the Noble family would have the right to appeal to try to get justice. That right does not apply in the British Virgin Islands, but it should, not only for this case and those people who go there on holiday, but for British Virgin Islands residents. Thirdly, I would like the Minister to instruct the Governor to review the sentence in this case. Not a review of the trial—Hendriksen has been found guilty, and guilty he is. If such a light sentence had been dished out in this country, the Attorney-General rightly would be able to review it.

To conclude, the Nobles are a lovely family. They have nothing but praise for the residents of the British Virgin Islands, who were friendly, honest and supportive. The Nobles have nothing but praise for the staff of the British consulate in the British Virgin Islands who supported them when they suffered this tragedy. However, the Nobles believe that they should receive justice. As the British Virgin Islands are an overseas territory, the Government have a responsibility and a duty to give the Nobles justice.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (Europe) 1:07 pm, 28th June 2005

I begin my contribution to this debate by paying tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Hepburn for securing this debate and commend him for the concern and interest that he has shown in this matter on behalf of his constituents. The death of two young boys is tragic, wherever it occurs, but when it happens so far from home it is all the harder for the family to come to terms with their grief. They have our sincerest condolences.

It may aid understanding of the role of the Governor and of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in a case such as this if I briefly outline the constitutional status of the British Virgin Islands and thereafter discuss its traditional system. The British Virgin Islands is a British overseas territory with a large measure of internal self-government. The Governor, who is appointed by Her Majesty the Queen, is both her representative in the territory and the constitutional head of the British Virgin Islands Government. He or she has direct responsibility for external affairs, defence and internal security, including the police, the public service and the administration of the courts.

The constitution provides for a ministerial system of government headed by a Chief Minister, an Executive Council chaired by the Governor, and a Legislative Council. The Government of the British Virgin Islands have front-line responsibility for all aspects of life in the territory that do not fall within the Governor's responsibilities. The present constitution came into force in 1977 and has been amended periodically, with the last amendment being effected in 2000. A constitutional review is under way: the constitutional review committee appointed by the British Virgin Islands Government submitted its finding to that Government in April.

The Governor has responsibility for the administration of the courts, but, to guard against possible or perceived claims of interference, the judiciary itself is entirely independent. The British Virgin Islands, like all British overseas territories, has its own separate legal jurisdiction and its own body of civil and criminal law. The judicial system in the British Virgin Islands consists of a local magistrates courts with a single stipendiary magistrate and, above that, the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, which consists of a High Court and Court of Appeal. Two High Court judges, who are appointed by the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, reside in the territory, while the Court of Appeal is a circuit court.

The Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court covers nine countries and territories of the Eastern Caribbean. Three British overseas territories—Anguilla, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands—fall within its jurisdiction. Based in St. Lucia, it was established in 1967 by the West Indies Associated States Supreme Court Order, when all its members were still UK-dependent territories. Above the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court is the Privy Council, which is the final court of appeal in both civil and criminal matters for all overseas territories.

One of the issues that my hon. Friend raised was the appointment of judges in the overseas territories and I will say a word or two in response. In most territories other than those covered by the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, about which I have just spoken, the Governor appoints judges. As I explained, the Eastern Caribbean territories and states have been within the court's jurisdiction since 1967. The court is widely respected as a judicial body of long standing and has served the relevant independent states of the Caribbean and the three overseas territories well. However, my hon. Friend asked whether it would be possible to register a complaint about the conduct of an individual judge. The Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court has no formal complaints procedure although there is a disciplinary process if allegations are made against a judge. That would not apply if it was decided that a judge was simply exercising judicial discretion.

As my hon. Friend said, the sad events that we are discussing took place on 5 August 2004 and the following morning. At 11 pm a collision occurred between a dinghy holding Luke Noble, Denis Campbell Harty, a United States national, Ian Murray and Stephen Noble and a boat—a Boston whaler—operated by Dutch national, Arjaan Hendriksen. At midnight, the Virgin Islands search and rescue service was alerted and joined the search for the boys. Ian Murray and Stephen Noble were found and taken to hospital. A US coastguard helicopter joined the search at first light the following morning with the Royal Virgin Islands police plane. At 8 am, the bodies of Luke Noble and Denis Campbell Harty were recovered. The Governor's office informed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the United States consul in Barbados of the incident.

The case was heard in the High Court of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court and started on 31 May this year. The accused was charged with two counts of manslaughter under section 153 of the British Virgin Islands criminal code of 1997. On 15 June 2005, he was found guilty on both counts and on 20 June was sentenced to a fine of US$30,000 on each count. The right of appeal against both verdict and sentence is subject to British Virgin Islands legislation. As the legislation stands, there is no provision for the prosecution to appeal against the sentence. We understand that following the case a review of the situation, which is already under way, will be speeded up. That is the substantive answer that I offer to my hon. Friend's query about the capacity for cases to be reviewed. As I said, in the light of this case, a review is taking place in the British Virgin Islands.

The Governor's office provided practical assistance following the accident and took a close interest in the case throughout. Staff maintain contact with the family through Luke's uncle, Tony Noble, who is resident in the British Virgin Islands and seconded to the Royal Virgin Islands police force. The Governor wrote a letter of condolence to Mr. and Mrs. Noble shortly after the accident.

The Governor's office kept the overseas territories department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is responsible for the British Virgin Islands, fully informed of developments. The officer responsible for the British Virgin Islands in the Department was in contact with a member of Luke's family and wrote a letter of condolence to Mr. and Mrs. Noble. After initial contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the family did not request further assistance.

As an overseas territory under British sovereignty, there is no legal framework for the provision of consular services that are normally provided by a state to its nationals in the territory of another state. However, we are well aware that to many UK tourists the overseas territories are as foreign as independent countries. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the staff in the Governors' offices are always ready and have appropriate training to provide assistance informally to visiting British citizens who may require help in an emergency while in an overseas territory.

In conclusion, I repeat my thanks to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. We all feel sympathy with the Noble family, who have suffered a heart-wrenching loss. The loss of a loved one of such a young age is a tragedy. However, I hope that during this debate I have at least been able to clarify for my hon. Friend exactly how the judicial system in the British Virgin Islands works and where responsibility for decision-taking lies. As I tried to explain, no scope exists for appeal by the prosecution against sentence. Given its responsibility for the criminal justice system within the territory, it is the responsibility of the British Virgin Islands Government to review any change to the system. We understand that they are now doing do.

Sitting suspended.