I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise a constituency issue in Westminster Hall. Gary Dunne was tragically murdered on
Our British consular staff deal with thousands of deaths of British nationals around the world, often in difficult, traumatic and complicated situations. They deserve praise for their work. More often than not, the support from consular staff is of the highest standard. In this case, however, the Dunne family were left vulnerable; they felt alone and received little help. In the midst of dealing with the news of the cruel murder of their son, they were told that they would have to pay to bury him, not in Liverpool, but in Andalucia in southern Spain, due to local legal restrictions about hygiene. The Spanish authorities said that before Gary could be brought home to Liverpool, he would have to be cremated in Spain. The family received no assistance from the Spanish police and were not met by liaison officers.
Mr and Mrs Dunne had to endure three years of campaigning simply to ensure that their son’s body could be repatriated and buried at home. In 2009, Gary’s parents were finally able to bury him. The intervention of the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Brown, helped enormously. He made personal representations to the then Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Zapatero, which resulted in progress being made.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his incredibly important campaign. I also congratulate the Dunne family on all the work they have done. What happened to them could happen to any of our constituents. Does he agree that the ordinary citizen would expect the EU to ensure that everyone has decent treatment in such appalling circumstances?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention; I agree with him entirely. Further on in my remarks, I will talk about the work that the excellent MEP for the North West, Arlene McCarthy, has done to support the Dunne family and to raise the broader issues.
The Prime Minister played his part. The community and people of Liverpool were a constant support to the Dunne family. A petition lobbying for Gary’s body to be returned home was signed by more than 40,000 people. When his body was finally returned for a funeral in Liverpool, hundreds of well-wishers turned out in the streets to applaud. It is not often that civilian funerals are held at Liverpool cathedral, but the dean agreed to host the service there. Everton football club provided Goodison Park as a venue for the wake. No family should have to face the trauma and struggle that the Dunne family have had to endure—waiting for years before they could finally have a funeral and bury their son. There are lessons that we must learn.
My constituents, Gary’s parents—Stephen and Lesley—have worked tirelessly to ensure that no other family has to suffer such an ordeal. In 2010, I raised their case at Prime Minister’s Question Time with the current Prime Minister. He agreed to meet Mr and Mrs Dunne, who emphasised the need for changes at a European level, as my right hon. Friend Mr Smith rightly said, to prevent apparently obscure local rules stifling a family’s ability simply to bring their loved one back for a funeral.
I remain grateful to the Prime Minister for meeting Mr and Mrs Dunne and for his support in that meeting. What progress have the Government made since then? Do the Government see any way in which we could ensure that the system of repatriation does not cause even more suffering and agony to grieving family members?
The Spanish authorities had insisted that due to rules related to their hygiene laws, Gary’s body could not be repatriated for at least five years. However, since then, the Dunne family have discovered that other families who suffered tragedies in Andalucia were told that they did not have to wait such a long time. Will the Government look into why there seems to be an inconsistency in the application of the rules? If the rules indeed state that a body can be repatriated only after five years unless it is cremated, will the Minister make the case, through the appropriate channels, both directly with the Spanish and through the European Union, for reform of what seem to be unreasonable and unfair rules?
After all that, the tragic saga still goes on for Gary’s family. The Dunne family were not informed by the Spanish authorities when the murderer was caught; they had to find that out through a friend phoning them. Due to their frustrations with the Spanish legal system, the Dunne family tell me that they still do not know whether the killer is still in jail, and if so, when he will be released. Will the Minister make representations on behalf of the family to ensure that their case is brought to the attention of the relevant Minister in Spain? It is critical that the Government of Spain undertake the responsibility to keep the Dunne family informed of developments as and when they occur.
While the process up to this point has been handled atrociously by the local and national authorities in Spain, there is still a lot more that they can do. Gary’s partner, Ashley, and his young son, Kieran, have struggled to receive any compensation. The Spanish court has ordered the perpetrator to pay €125,000 in compensation, yet so far, only €1,500 has been received. Payments stopped some time ago, and the small amount that was paid was of little comfort, as it had to be used simply to pay court costs.
Stephen and Lesley have spent time themselves in Andalucia, at their own expense, fighting for justice for Gary. Due to a legal error during the formalities of applying for the money from the Spanish Government, the Dunne family were only receiving €100 a month from Gary’s killer, which came from the wage that he gets from his work in the prison kitchens. Now even that has stopped. Neither the killer nor his family has significant assets, and they are apparently unable to pay the compensation.
With the support of Arlene McCarthy MEP, the Dunne family have been lobbying the relevant Spanish authorities. In December 2011—two years ago—Arlene McCarthy wrote to the Spanish Minister who leads on this area of policy, but she has not even received the courtesy of a reply. Will the Minister look into that issue as a matter of urgency and make representations on behalf of the Dunnes?
I got to know Mr and Mrs Dunne well, as their constituency Member of Parliament. I have known them now for six years. Their focus has always been on the fight for justice for Gary and his surviving partner and child, but also, more broadly, on trying to ensure that no other family has had to endure what they have endured. However, the court in Spain had ordered compensation of €125,000. Although the issue of compensation has never been the one that the family has asked me to prioritise, I feel that I owe it to them, as their MP and a friend, to say that it seems to me a basic minimum that the compensation should be paid out to the family as a matter of urgency.
Finally, will the Minister assure me that more is being done to ensure that standards are maintained and improved in our consulates around the world? The Foreign Secretary has said that the Foreign Office is always seeking to improve the consular support and assistance in such tragic circumstances. Will the Minister set out what measures are being or will be taken to fulfil that? It seems critical that the staff who are involved in what is by its nature delicate and sensitive work are equipped fully to do their job professionally and compassionately.
I am aware that the Foreign Office has signed an agreement with the national homicide service run by Victim Support to provide the same level of support to families who lose a loved one as a result of a murder or manslaughter overseas as they would receive if the crime had taken place in the UK. That is a welcome commitment on the part of the Government and Victim Support. Will the Minister tell us how that new service will work and whether the Government have reached their goal of offering the level of service that one would expect in the UK for families who find themselves in such tragic circumstances abroad?
Gary’s family have suffered terribly for almost eight years now. They have lost a son, a partner and a father; they have battled for three years just to have a proper funeral for Gary; and they are now trying to receive the compensation that a court has ordered should be paid to them. It is a great tribute to them that they continue to campaign for justice for others, as well as wanting justice for themselves. I believe that they have been let down, and they deserve more from the relevant authorities. I urge the Government to do everything in their power, both bilaterally with Spain and through the European Union, to help us take the matter forward.
May I add my own condolences to the family and pay tribute to their unwavering determination in the face of their loss? The death of a loved one is always distressing, and the grief of Mr Dunne’s family has clearly been compounded by the circumstances of his death and the procedural difficulties they faced thereafter.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is committed to making the process for those bereaved abroad as simple as possible. Providing consular assistance to British nationals who are the victims of serious and violent crimes overseas and their next of kin is a priority and a central function of our embassies and posts around the world.
Before I address the points raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, I would like to outline the involvement of the Foreign Office in the case to date. Following Mr Dunne’s death, British officials were in close contact with the family to provide consular assistance. When, as the hon. Gentleman said, the family experienced difficulties in bringing Mr Dunne home to Britain, consular staff did all they could to help. However, it became clear that under local law, the possibility of a further autopsy during the trial process prevented an individual’s remains from being repatriated, cremated or embalmed. The only option therefore was a local burial until the trial was complete. After that, exhumation before a period of five years had passed would only be permitted if an immediate cremation within the cemetery was arranged.
Representations were made to the director general for the Costa del Sol health district in November 2007 and to the provincial delegate of Andalucia’s health district in February 2008, to see if an exception could be made to these requirements, based on the compelling compassionate circumstances of the case. While sympathising with the family’s wishes, both the director general and the provincial delegate explained that, because Mr Dunne was a victim of murder, his case was considered a judicial one.
Understandably, Mr Dunne’s family continued to fight for his return and in July 2008 they petitioned the former Prime Minister, Mr Brown. In October 2008, the right hon. Gentleman raised the case with the then Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Luis Zapatero, and secured an agreement from the Spanish authorities to allow Mr Dunne’s repatriation without a cremation, on exceptional humanitarian grounds. So, with guidance and support from consular officials, Mr Dunne’s family made an application for his exhumation. As we have heard, three years after Gary Dunne’s murder his family and friends finally held the funeral, at home in Liverpool, which they had long sought. Later that year, Mr Dunne’s family contacted the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to express their gratitude for the assistance they had received.
I now turn to the points the hon. Gentleman raised in his speech. First, I will address the question of whether EU-wide procedures for repatriation could be agreed, to prevent other families from facing the horrifying and distressing situation the Dunnes faced. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, this is a difficult and complex issue. The power to act lies with other Governments, and the ability of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to intervene in domestic matters—such as the variations in Andalucian law on repatriation, burial and cremation, which the hon. Gentleman outlined—is limited.
However, it is clear that, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said when he met the Dunne family and—I think—the hon. Gentleman in 2011, we should do all we can to prevent other families from facing the suffering endured by the Dunnes.
Therefore, I have asked that, as a matter of urgency, officials follow up with the hon. Gentleman and the Dunnes’ MEP, Arlene McCarthy, on who has done what following the Downing street meeting, so that we can collectively agree appropriate next steps. Secondly, I know that the hon. Gentleman and the Dunne family are deeply concerned about the apparent inconsistencies in the application of the rules governing repatriation. The advice we have received from the Andalucian authorities consistently made it clear that an unembalmed body can only be exhumed and repatriated after five years, unless it is cremated. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there may be factors at play in the other cases that he mentioned that we are not aware of. Exceptions can clearly be made if the grounds are sufficiently strong, as indeed they were in the Dunnes’ case. However, as I have said, I have asked officials to provide a progress report on efforts to establish common practices across those parts of Europe that currently require delays in repatriation.
The hon. Gentleman also highlighted the lack of support that Mr Dunne’s family felt they received from the Spanish authorities, and indeed the authorities’ level of support continues to fall short of the family’s expectations when it comes to their being kept informed of the current status of the perpetrator of this terrible crime. It is important that the Spanish authorities keep the family informed of any developments in the case, either directly or through their legal representatives. I have asked my officials to contact the relevant authorities in Andalucia to see if lines of communication can be re-established. For his part, I urge the hon. Gentleman to consider raising the matter directly with the Spanish ambassador.
On the issue of compensation, I am aware that, as the hon. Gentleman said, although an award of €125,000 was made by a Spanish court to the family, they have only received €1,500 to date. I am conscious that that can only add to the distress they have already suffered. However, the British Government cannot interfere in another country’s judicial process or direct the Spanish courts to enforce payment, particularly when the offender may not have assets with which to pay the outstanding compensation, which I understand to be the case in this instance. Therefore, I am afraid that our consistent advice to Mr Dunne’s family has not changed. Their Spanish lawyer is best placed to help them pursue this issue through legal channels and to advise them on applying to the Spanish state for payment of the outstanding compensation.
Also, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, with whom the hon. Gentleman has been in communication about this tragic case, has previously provided him with information on the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, which Mr Dunne’s family may wish to approach for advice—if they have not already done so—about whether they can submit a separate application for compensation from the Spanish authorities.
Our consular staff often have a difficult and frustrating time, but on the whole they carry out their job—as the hon. Gentleman was kind enough, and right, to say—with patience, dedication and a great deal of tenacity. I am sure the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Oxford East will join me in commending their efforts.
Having said that, I assure the House that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is not complacent. We continually review our consular policy so as to provide British nationals with the best possible service. As part of that work, we have put in place a number of processes to ensure that high standards of consular assistance are provided to British nationals. Our new consular strategy for 2013-16 focuses on doing more for the most vulnerable, including victims of violent crime overseas and their families. Consular teams also undertake regular complex case reviews to ensure that we are providing the most appropriate and effective service in particularly complex and long-running cases, and we employ professional specialists, such as legal advisers and social work advisers, to provide expert advice. In addition, early next year we will undertake a review of the methods used by similar organisations to see how we can develop our own quality control and audit processes.
Cases such as that of the Dunne family highlight the extra support that is needed by those who have lost a loved one to murder or manslaughter overseas. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Victim Support’s National Homicide Service, which in part was set up to address the problems encountered by families such as the Dunnes. Since 2010, the Foreign Office has provided funding to Victim Support so that it can offer such families a dedicated caseworker and give practical support to help with the added trauma, complications and costs that a murder overseas can cause. Those bereaved by murder or manslaughter are now entitled to identical levels of support whether the crime was committed in the UK or abroad, and since 2011 many bereaved families have already benefited from this enhanced support.
In conclusion, I again thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby for securing this debate. I am aware of the very great support for the Dunne family that has been demonstrated by the people of Liverpool. This is a tragic case that has been compounded by the anguish that Mr Dunne’s family had to endure in order to bring him home to Britain. I hope they have been able to find some degree of comfort and closure in his return. I also hope that, through their legal representative, they are able to seek the full amount of compensation that is due to them.
Order. The Minister who is responding to the final debate today, which is due to start at 4.45 pm, is not present, so I shall suspend the sitting until 4.45 pm.