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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered consular assistance for families of people who die abroad.
As the Minister is aware, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs carried out an inquiry in 2013-14 into this very matter, and many of the people I will reference today contributed to that inquiry. The reason why I secured the debate is threefold. First, I want to look at what changes have been made and what assessment has been made of those changes. Secondly, I want to feed back the thoughts of those who called for the inquiry, some positive, some critical, but all, I suggest, constructive. Thirdly, I want to pay tribute to some brave and fearsome campaigners who have selflessly committed to fighting for better support, not for themselves but for people who find themselves in the dreadful position that I will describe.
I start by acknowledging that there are some people in this country who have had very recent experience of this: I refer to those caught up in the atrocities in Paris last Friday. The impact will have been felt not just by the victims and their families, but by the consular support staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I do not envy them their task at a time when they may themselves be traumatised by events in the city in which they live and work.
I will set out why there was a call for the Foreign Affairs Committee to have this inquiry last year. What were the experiences of families whose loved ones died abroad that led to them putting their lives on hold and mounting campaigns to change the experience for others? Let us remember that it is hard enough when someone close to us dies in this country. For someone who is struggling to cope with their shock and grief, to have to find a way through the minefield of a country with which they are unfamiliar—perhaps they do not speak the language and the customs and laws are different to theirs—is an experience that I would not wish on anybody. Naturally, people in those circumstances will turn to their own country’s consular support services, but many have not found the support that they expected.
Support After Murder and Manslaughter Abroad is a charity that campaigns for improvements in Government policy, and provides telephone advice and peer support to people bereaved by homicide overseas. Eve Henderson is someone I do not know, but she represents SAMM Abroad and I believe she is here today. Other campaigners have urged me to pay tribute to her for her tireless campaigning since her husband was murdered overseas 17 years ago. I pay tribute to her strength and determination. I hope that, in some small way, people like me can take some of the burden from her shoulders.
In 2011, SAMM Abroad sent 150 families a questionnaire asking them to document their experience of dealing with the FCO, the police and coroners. Fifty families responded, and the vast majority of respondents were negative about the service provided by the FCO. When asked whether the FCO was helpful 56% said, “not at all”, 38% said, “not very”, and the remaining 6% said, “quite helpful”. No one said that the FCO was “very helpful” and, as Members can see, 94% felt that they had not got the help that they wanted.
The evidence in the Foreign Affairs Committee report reflected similar findings. I recognise and applaud that Committee in the previous Parliament for doing much of the work required to ensure that the families of those who die abroad are treated justly and with dignity by officials. The inquiry spoke to one mother who found that most of the advice she was offered was of less use than the advice available on websites. Others spoke of calls going unreturned, wrong advice being given and, most disturbingly, being encouraged to have their loved one cremated abroad without being advised that that could mean that there would be no coroner’s report back in the UK.
I should say at this juncture that, until recently, Scots or those who lived in Scotland who died abroad were not afforded an inquiry. Thanks to the work of Death Abroad—You’re Not Alone, otherwise known as DAYNA, and Julie Love, who spearheads its campaigns and who I will say more of later, the Scottish Government have now made steady progress in improving the treatment of such families. The Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc. (Scotland) Bill proposes to bring in discretionary fatal accident inquiries for those who have died overseas and have been repatriated to Scotland. That is a welcome step forward and builds upon Lord Cullen’s review which reported in 2009.
Another welcome measure is the increased accountability for families. Where the Lord Advocate decides not to hold a fatal accident inquiry he or she—it may be a she in the future—will have to justify the reason for that in writing to the family on request. I say all this primarily to pay tribute to DAYNA, but also to highlight the fact that there are distinctive elements of the Scottish legal system that directly affect the families of those who have died overseas. That must be borne in mind by the FCO and in the new training it offers consular staff.
The most disturbing and compelling evidence was from people who, like the bereaved mother highlighted in the report, found that consular support staff showed callous disregard for what they were going through. In her words,
“I found them completely without empathy at a time in my life when I really needed them.”
Although the report found that there was sometimes an unreasonably high expectation of the support that the FCO could provide, nobody would argue that people could not expect some common decency—a human response to a human tragedy—and yet they were not getting it. That was not an isolated case, and I will give more examples later. Nobody expects consular staff to offer counselling services—they are not the Samaritans—but the dismissive attitude and cold responses many have experienced are just unacceptable. If any of my caseworkers were to treat constituents in the same way, they would not last very long in my employ. I notice that they are sitting here today, so I will quickly add that I have absolute confidence in every one of them before they stage a walkout.
That is a basic summary of why groups such as SAMM Abroad and DAYNA urged that this inquiry be conducted. I will return to some of this in more detail by examining the three reasons I have called for the debate, but first let me share the story of Julie Love, mother of Colin Love and founder of DAYNA. Julie lives in Glasgow. She is an ordinary woman who has been through an extraordinarily traumatic time and has done something extraordinary as a result. Let me read out some of her words:
“My son Colin Love drowned in the sea close to Margarita Island, Venezuela, whilst on a Caribbean cruise in January 2009. He was 23 years old. He was an excellent swimmer. The beach was recommended to him by the cruise company despite the water being notorious for riptides and undertow. There were no warning signs and no lifeguards…
“…it was easy to make contact with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in the UK. My first contact…was at approximately 2am on 30th January 2009, several hours after receiving news of Colin’s death from his friend. I spoke to a member of the Global Response Team who was very empathetic but unable to assist as the FCO had not yet received notification of the death. He told me he would leave a message with the South American desk to ensure I would be contacted as soon as the information was received the following morning. I never received that call. I contacted them at approx. 12 noon the following day. I had not slept. I’d just found out my son had died on the other side of the world and I was frantic. I spoke to a female at the desk who curtly responded, ‘We deal with thousands of Brits dying abroad every year. I don’t have a message to call you back’. I was appalled.”
I am certain that there is nobody here who would not be appalled by that. Julie continued:
“She reluctantly took my details and said she’d call back. I am still waiting on that call. After contacting the HQ of the cruise company in Miami I was able to ascertain the telephone number of the British Honorary Consul on Margarita Island and made direct contact by telephone. His spoken English was very poor but we were eventually able to communicate by email.”
Should it really be that hard? Should she really have had to go to all that trouble?
Julie Love says:
“As I have since discovered has been the experience of many families I was advised to have my son cremated, not to travel to Margarita Island, that the cremation could be arranged on the island and they’d return my son’s ashes. How appalling! What mother wants to be told that she cannot hold her child ever again, especially when it’s possible that she can? I was adamant my son was going to be repatriated to Scotland and that I would go to the island to bring him home. I was advised not to as it would delay his repatriation. Reluctantly I did not travel…and it still took 4 weeks for my son’s body to be repatriated. I was advised four different dates and had church services…booked only to have to re-arrange. I had family and friends travelling to Scotland from all over the world and some of them had to return home...and were unable to pay respects at my son’s funeral because of the date changes.”
Julie mentions other problems, a number of which she, I and all campaigners accept are not down to the FCO; they are down to other people. For example, Colin Love’s friend was told that he had to return to the liner because he was not a relative. The liner docked in Aruba the following day, and the friend travelled from Aruba to Miami, Miami to London, and London to Glasgow. He had very thoughtfully brought back Colin’s luggage. He was charged for excess baggage every step of the way. Julie said in her submission to the inquiry:
“So in answer to the questions—No, I was not offered accurate advice and certainly given no guidance. I feel that the FCO handled my case abhorrently and without sensitivity to my feelings or to my son’s dignity. I was later to find out that my son’s body remained on the beach (uncovered) for approx. 12 hours.”
She discovered that because a British newspaper printed a picture of it—again, something that none of us would ever want to associate ourselves with. I happen to know that Julie Love ran up a phone bill of more than £1,000 trying to resolve the issue—money that she just does not have—but there was no help available.
I have three reasons for securing this debate. The first, of course, is to ask what changes have been made and what assessment has been made of those changes. I welcome the progress the FCO has made and the undertakings it gave in response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, which include a recognition that the manner in which families were dealt with did, in some cases, fall far below the level of service that British citizens should have been able to expect. One response from the Government was to provide training for consular support staff in dealing with non-suspicious deaths. After the murders on the Tunisian beach in July this year, the Foreign Secretary said that training would be given to all consular advice staff to improve sensitivity and effectiveness in casework. I am keen to hear an update on that training and a timetable for ensuring that everyone has received it—I assume that not everyone has yet received the training. When can we expect the training’s effectiveness to be reviewed?
I am reluctant to intervene on the hon. Lady, but I am deeply touched by what she has put on record today. As the Member representing a young honeymooning couple who died in a terrible drowning accident six days after their marriage—they died on
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I was coming on to this, but I will say it now. There may be consular support staff listening to this debate who feel quite hurt by what I am saying, but obviously I am not referring to those who deal with such situations properly. I will give more evidence for why I know that Julie Love’s experience is not a one-off and why it is so important that we follow this up, but the hon. Lady is right: we hear about the terrible experiences. We have to accept that the majority of experiences may well be good, but I have not heard much about them.
Following the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the FCO’s response, one area that is still of concern to families is deaths that are not identified as murder or manslaughter but are classed as suspicious. In some cases, the coroners have returned the equivalent of open verdicts; in others, the family suspect foul play. Will the Minister comment on the FCO’s role in supporting family campaigns for justice, especially where the local inquiry is ineffective or where there are problems with the coroner’s report? I appreciate that the FCO handles all cases individually, but there will inevitably be cases where there has been malpractice in the local investigations. When do the British Government step in to support British families in such cases? When the access to justice unit was set up, it was going to review the policy on suspicious deaths and consider whether it could offer similar levels of support in some instances where there has been a suspicious death. I hope the Minister can update us on that. Has the review taken place? If so, when will we get the details? If not, what is the timetable? What support is being offered to those families?
We can agree that all cases will be different, but it would be beneficial if the system was structured so that all families know what support they can expect as a minimum. Paragraph 15 of the Government’s response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report stated that they would begin gathering evidence on the handling of deaths on an ongoing basis from May 2015; the evidence would be collected by independent research partners from a representative selection of all FCO customers and published in the annual report. It would be useful to know whether anything has been gleaned from that research so far.
The second reason for securing this debate is to feed back the thoughts of some of those who called for the inquiry. As I said, some are positive and some not so positive, but all seek to be constructive. SAMM Abroad says that, over the past three years, the FCO has improved the support it provides to bereaved families—all of us here will welcome that—but although the initiatives are welcome, families are still reporting significant issues with the consistency of the service provided. SAMM Abroad contends that the current practice of putting families in contact with desk officers is failing. Although there are notable exceptions, as we have heard, they are, in SAMM Abroad’s view, precisely that: exceptions. Desk officers lack proper training in dealing with traumatised families, which can lead to families feeling greater trauma after their contact with the FCO. I know that training has been suggested and agreed to, but we have yet to hear what stage it is at. There are frequent complaints that desk officers fail to keep families informed of developments or mishandle important information.
SAMM Abroad says that another significant shortcoming of using desk officers is that they move frequently and rarely stay the duration of an investigation. Most cases will not come to trial within two years, and many take longer, which means that families continually have to retell their story to new colleagues, which causes frustration and distress and can lead to poor case management. Although SAMM Abroad accepts that it is unrealistic to expect desk officers to remain in post for extended periods, their continual movement has another significant impact: a loss of institutional expertise. Frequent movement not only disrupts contact with families but disrupts relationships with local organisations and services that could provide support to families.
SAMM Abroad has come up with an excellent suggestion that I would apply across the board for the families of anyone who dies abroad, not just for the families of those who are murdered, although obviously such families face additional difficulties. SAMM Abroad suggests a small, centralised unit within the FCO with specially trained staff to act as the principal point of contact for families. The unit would be responsible for dealing with the desk officers and extracting information for the families. That would have a number of advantages: families would not be not upset or traumatised by having to retell their story after desk officers move; it would allow liaison with other agencies to be more effective, because staff would have immediate access to case files and other information; and the development of FCO policy could become more effective, as the unit would be able to observe recurrent issues and spot failings more immediately. If the Minister cannot commit to the establishment of such a unit today, and I suspect that he cannot, will he commit to considering it in more detail and perhaps meeting me and other campaigners, or at the very least accepting information from us on this suggestion? I think the creation of such a unit is an excellent suggestion that could resolve a lot of problems.
Suspicious deaths are the second issue that campaigners feel still has not been fully addressed. The report talks of families whose loved ones were murdered, but for those whose loved ones suffered a suspicious death, the agony seems to be never-ending. Take the case of the man who was murdered almost seven years ago: the trial of those who murdered him ended 18 months ago, and still the family is unable to have a funeral for him. I recently met someone—I am not naming anyone because I have not asked if I can do so—whose mother died in France more than two years ago, and she is still waiting to bury her. Any right-thinking person will agree that those situations are horrific. There are various stages of grief, but these families are stuck at the start of that process because they cannot lay their loved ones to rest. How can they be expected to grieve, or to continue any semblance of a normal life?
I am sure the Minister is aware of and is as horrified as I am by the cases where bodies have been returned minus internal organs. It is like something out of a horror film, and the families must play out that horror film in their head day in, day out, night after night. We must surely be able to intervene to put a stop to all that and to find a way to let those families move on. There are also questions about the appeal processes after a conviction and the way in which families are advised when the perpetrator of a crime committed against their loved one is due to be, or is, released from prison.
As the Minister will know, one of the big overarching criticisms in the report was the lack of consistency. Julie Love has asked me to raise something that exemplifies what was meant by that finding, and it relates to the constituents of Lady Hermon who died so tragically in October.
As I have said, Julie’s son, Colin, died while swimming. The beach he was on is noted for its dangerous riptides, but nobody—neither the travel company nor the FCO advice—told him about those riptides. He had thoroughly researched where he was going. Julie Love suggested to the inquiry—it was documented in the report and she understood that this suggestion was being taken up—that the FCO website’s travel advice should include information about anywhere with particularly unpredictable or potentially dangerous waters. I appreciate that the FCO is working with travel companies to improve the information provided—that is good; that is progress—but Julie’s clear understanding was that the FCO would also provide this information. People are more likely to take seriously what their Government tell them than what a travel company tells them, so this is important.
The advice now appears on the information about Venezuela, where Colin died. It also appears on the Dubai page, but apparently it only appeared there after a British citizen died in a swimming accident similar to the one that killed Colin. Moreover, when the young honeymooning couple from Northern Ireland died so tragically earlier this year while swimming in South Africa, Julie was told that it was not the FCO’s practice to give that kind of advice. Well, either the FCO gives that advice or it does not give it, but it must be consistent. People will understand that Julie was particularly disturbed by this incident, and of course anyone’s heart will go out to the honeymooning couple and their families, but in her communications with the FCO Julie had specifically noted the beaches of South Africa as danger spots. Who knows if the couple would have read such advice if it had been provided, and who knows if they would have taken note of it? However, surely the point is that it is our duty to do all we can to alert people and then allow them to make their own decisions, and that cannot be done only after an event. Provision must be consistent. I would be really grateful to the Minister if he could commit to ensuring that that happens. It is quite important that it does happen and, as I said, I think it has already been agreed that it would happen.
Regarding the overarching problem of how consular staff deal with grieving families, people listening to this debate may believe that because the families are grieving everything becomes magnified and perhaps things are not quite as bad as they say, but I can tell the Minister that I know what these families say is correct. Of course, as I have already said, there will be great advisers out there, who put their heart and soul into supporting people, and I want them to know that I am not talking to them. However, I know that the things that I am talking about do happen, and that when they happen it is crushing. I know, because a few years ago my brother Stephen died very suddenly in a foreign country. I will not go into detail, because I am certain beyond doubt that my family do not want to read about it in the newspapers again; it is too raw and it is too personal. Nevertheless, I feel that I have to tell the Minister that I was one of those family members and I experienced exactly what all of those other families describe. I have heard them describe the experience of dealing with the FCO as being like suffering a bereavement all over again, and it is true. It is hard to hear, it is hard to say, but it is true.
I was stunned to have an adviser from the consular support team shout down the phone at me. There was no reason for it; I was too weak and too confused to have given him any reason to shout at me. He was clearly just having a bad day, but the lack of compassion astounded me. In addition, I was given advice that I later regretted taking: “Have him cremated.” I did. The “support” that I got was a list of preferred cremation providers, all of whom wanted four times as much money as I ended up paying. The FCO staff did not care that we could not afford their expensive recommendations; it was of no consequence to them that we did not speak the language and they did. Worst of all, they did not do anything to help us to get the answers that we were so desperately seeking. Had it not been for a friend of mine who happened to live in that city, I do not know how we would have got through the experience. If it happened now, we would have the comfort of a fatal accident inquiry, but then we were more or less dismissed as if we did not matter—as if he did not matter.
When I speak of the distress that these families feel, my family have felt it too. When I speak of the coldness with which they are treated, I was cold-shouldered too. As others have said, when I really needed someone to have a bit of compassion, there was not an ounce of it. That is why I know what strength it must take for someone to put aside their grief and to get out there and fight for others. I really pay tribute to those who have done that—Eve Henderson and many more people who I do not have permission to name, but they know who they are. Julie Love has been a tireless advocate for the families.
It is very kind of the hon. Lady to allow me to intervene and I am very grateful to her for very kindly drawing the House’s attention, and the Minister’s attention, to the dreadful experience of the young honeymooning couple. They were in their mid-20s; they were inseparable in life; and tragically they ended up being inseparable in death as well. However, I repeat that the FCO and the consular staff were extraordinarily kind and compassionate to their families.
I do not want to delay the hon. Lady from concluding her contribution, which is deeply moving.
I very much thank the hon. Lady. I will try to continue.
I will end by saying that Julie Love has been a tireless advocate for the families of British citizens who have died abroad. People such as Julie and Eve do this work not for themselves—it is too late for them—but for others so that their grief is not compounded. Julie and Eve’s organisations support individuals and while there is always a role for the third sector to provide additional, supplementary or specialist support, it is clear that sometimes such organisations have to step into a gap left by the varying level of support offered by consular services.
The families and campaign groups have many more questions that they would like me to ask, but I think I should stop now and allow others to speak. I simply ask, finally, that the Minister agrees to receive information from us, and perhaps at a later stage to meet with us to discuss how we can ensure that we meet people’s needs and—where the FCO cannot do that—how we ensure that there is support for the organisations that can. After all, Minister, there is nobody better placed to tell you what was missing, what is still missing and what is really needed when someone you love dies overseas than my family, and people such as Eve Henderson and Julie Love, the mother of Colin Love.
For the guidance of Members who wish to speak, I will point out that this debate has to finish at 5.40 pm and I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespersons at 5.20 pm, so we have 15 minutes. I hope that can be a guide for people wishing to make a contribution to the debate.
I begin by paying tribute to Anne McLaughlin. It is very rare in this House that we hear speeches that come from the heart and that can move people to tears, but listening to her speak about her experiences is one of those occasions. I thank her for sharing her experiences, and those of all the families who have sadly lost someone while they were abroad. The passion that she has brought to this debate underlines how important this issue is, which is why we are discussing it today.
Six months ago, this issue was brought home to me and to the close-knit community of Blackwood. An evil attack on innocent holidaymakers in Tunisia rocked the world and our country. One of our own was ripped away from her friends and family. I remember hearing the news and thinking, “This is the type of thing that happens to other people, and not to somebody from a close-knit south Wales valleys community.”
Trudy Jones devoted her life to looking after other people. Those who knew her described her as an angel, and she always put others before herself. She worked tirelessly for her family, friends and community. In the face of this act of evil, which has been brought back to the world’s focus by the events of the last few days in France, I am proud to say that our community—my community—in Blackwood came together in support and to offer condolences.
Nothing can ever bring back a lost loved one, but it is the duty of Government to provide any and all support when someone is lost, especially when their life is taken away in a brutal attack in another country. Families of victims rightly expect consular services to be there for them, and to act in a timely, understanding and competent manner. I will not speak about particular cases, as that would be unfair to the families involved. However, it is of great concern to me that, following the horrific attack in Tunisia, both those who survived and the families of those who did not survive reported significant failings in the initial Foreign Office response. One person even described Foreign Office staff as being both “rude and ignorant”.
Sadly, we saw consular staff in Tunisia react dismissively to worried family members who were attempting to find out information. I make it clear to the Minister that this evidence is anecdotal, but it is from families who have suffered a tragic loss. It appeared to those families that, far from helping them in any way possible, all too often FCO staff acted as though they did not want to talk to them when they were going through the most horrific of times.
I can only compare that response to the response from the Belgian embassy. The Belgian embassy staff arrived promptly after the attack; they wore jackets bearing the national flag; and they checked on the welfare of their nationals, briefed them on evacuation plans, and acted quickly to establish the identities of those who had lost their life. It took me a couple of hours to confirm through the FCO—by ringing it—that I had lost a constituent. In the end, it was a news organisation that confirmed the news to me as Trudy’s Member of Parliament. I am sure that UK consular staff often perform their duties well and effectively, but on this occasion they were found wanting.
I urge the Minister to instigate a review of what happened on that terrible day. Beyond the failings regarding the attack, many people were left in limbo, not knowing whether their loved ones were safe and fearing the worst. Questions must be asked about the travel advice. Why was it not changed following the suicide bombing in Sousse, which took place months before the horrific attack earlier this year? Tour operators continued to sell and publicise tickets to Sousse, despite a demonstrable increase in the threat of terrorism. Tour operators have a duty to make travellers aware of potential problems if they are selling tickets to such destinations. Most people rightly assume that places are safe if tour operators are promoting them.
However, it is not only tour operators that have a duty to ensure that people are informed. Decisions by private companies are naturally based on Government advice. Indeed, after the murder of innocent holidaymakers in Tunisia, the tour operator Thomson said that at all times it followed Foreign Office travel advice, which did not prohibit travel to Tunisia. I urge the Minister again to look at why advice was not changed, and to ensure that when there is a threat to the lives of British citizens, that is reflected in the activities of tour operators.
I began my speech by mentioning the evil murder of my constituent Trudy Jones. I end by once again stating that the entire community of Blackwood is still here for her family. I am here for her family. I watched with sadness the video her family produced in memory of her amazing life. Trudy truly was an inspiring individual. Nothing can ever bring her back, but we can ensure that if another of our citizens is ever taken away, the FCO and consular services provide the right support, with competency, efficiency and, most of all, compassion. Like the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, I pay tribute to all those who have campaigned to ensure that those who have lost loved ones abroad are treated with respect and, above all, dignity. I associate myself with her remarks about Julie Love.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. As Anne McLaughlin will know, my experience of Foreign Office staff, particularly its consular staff, has been very positive, and I wanted to put that on the record. I am grateful to her for securing the debate and giving us all an opportunity to speak of our experiences.
When the news came through late on the Friday evening, I went straight to the home of Eva Reilly. The Police Service of Northern Ireland had already visited to break the terrible, tragic news of the death of this young couple on honeymoon in South Africa. The global response team kept in touch with both families during that night, and the young lady on duty did not leave her desk at 9 o’clock, Saturday morning, before phoning both families to update them with the latest information about their loved ones.
The consular staff were absolutely outstanding, both in South Africa and here in London in the Foreign Office. I have nothing but the greatest admiration for the sensitivity with which they handled a tragedy for both families, the whole community of Holywood and the town of Ballygowan. The families were enormously dignified and courageous in the face of terrible tragedy, but their sorrow and grief was lessened by the updating by, and the sensitivity and intervention of, Foreign Office staff. The PSNI also appointed a single liaison officer for both families, which was an exceedingly good decision. The bodies of John and Lynette were brought home on the Friday following the accident. That was absolutely remarkable. I say again that that is full credit to the Foreign Office staff, who made the travel arrangements, liaised closely with the PSNI and with the families at all times, and kept the local MP informed.
At the joint funeral of those two young people, which took place in the church in which they were married, hymns were played that they had sung just a fortnight before at their wedding. I have attended far too many funerals in Northern Ireland, but I do not think I have ever seen printed on the back of an order of service a tribute of thanks to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the PSNI family liaison officer, mentioned by name. I thought that was a wonderful tribute. I have subsequently written to the Foreign Secretary and to consular staff to thank them personally for what they did to support and give great comfort to two families and a community at a time of real need, and I am full of admiration for that.
It is a pleasure to speak on this poignant issue. I commend all three speakers on their personal contributions. They told compassionate, heartrending stories, and every one of them resonated—one in particular: that of my colleague and hon. Friend, Lady Hermon. Lynette was one of her constituents for most of, if not all, her life. John Rodgers was one of my constituents. He married Lynette and moved to my hon. Friend’s constituency, so these issues resonate with us. Unfortunately, similar incidents have occurred with my constituents. On two different occasions, single ladies died while on holiday. I honestly have to say that the response from consular staff has always been good. I could not say otherwise, because that would be unfair and untrue. I am, however, mindful of the debate so far, which has outlined where improvements can be made, and I know the Minister will respond to those points.
Like my hon. Friend, I visited the home of the Rodgers family. John Rodgers’ mum, dad and sisters asked me to convey their thanks to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the consular staff for all that they did. I did that in writing and I do that publicly today, so that it is recorded in Hansard, which is important.
I am conscious that you have indicated the timings we need to work to, Ms Buck; I will keep to them. I want to raise with the Minister the point that it is not possible to register a death with the British authorities in a number of states, including Ascension Island, Australia, Bermuda, Canada, the Cayman Islands, Christmas Island, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, the Irish Republic, which is next to us, Nevis, New Zealand, St Helena, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the British Virgin Islands, and South Africa. While it may not have been possible to register the deaths with the British authorities, the consular staff came forward and worked compassionately and directly to ensure that it happened. The Minister’s staff are probably checking to make sure that list is correct. The way in which consular staff have kept in touch with families, particularly in the case of the death of John and Lynette, indicates that there is compassion and understanding. They went out of their way to ensure that things went in the right way.
My final point is on the two ladies who passed away on holiday. Consular staff did their bit, but the tour operators did not always respond in the proper way to the tragic deaths. Will the Minister indicate how consular staff work with the tour operators who book people into hotels, because, in my experience, they sometimes fail?
Thank you, Ms Buck, for the chance to speak. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North East for showing us all what needs to be done. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate my hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin, who is my own MP, on securing the debate. She has clearly taken an interest in the issue for many years, including when she was in the Scottish Parliament. She has a strong personal interest, and I echo the comments that have been made about her moving testimony. I extend my sympathies and those of the Scottish National party to the families of all the individuals we have heard about this afternoon. The debate is particularly timely given the shocking events in Paris last week. I want to put on record my own shock and sadness at those atrocities. My thoughts and prayers are with all those affected.
My hon. Friend helpfully laid out the background to the debate in considerable detail. Figures from the Scottish Government released in answer to our parliamentary question a few years ago suggest that the number of deaths of people from Scotland occurring overseas and registered with the relevant local consulate is relatively small—between 40 and 60 a year. I imagine the UK-wide figures are a similar proportion of the overall population. Nevertheless, each of those cases represents unique circumstances and undoubted sorrow and difficulty for those left behind. Providing comfort and support for the bereaved is surely one of the most basic of human instincts. Indeed, at Prayers in the Chamber on Monday, we heard the Beatitudes, which include the message:
“Blessed are those who mourn; for they shall be comforted.”
I have personal experience of the need for consular assistance. About 18 months ago a good friend of mine was very seriously—thankfully, not fatally—injured in an accident on holiday. I know how traumatic the family found that situation and how important consular assistance can be, especially when there are language issues or considerable and costly distances involved. I do not doubt the sincerity and human sympathy with which most consular staff will react when responding to inquiries and requests for support from bereaved family and friends. However, as we have heard, sadly there are cases in which the support does not live up to expectations, or somehow falls short of the duties and responsibilities of consulates.
Perhaps there is a question around the management of expectations. I have read the guidance from the FCO on support for British nationals abroad. It is a thorough document that makes it clear what consulates can and cannot—or perhaps will and will not— do to support UK citizens overseas in different circumstances. But perhaps there is still a job of work to be done in making that information more widely available and more widely known. It is available online; perhaps it is available in consulates. Can the Minister tell us whether it is available in airports, from travel agents or on holiday booking websites? Is it available as an app or an e-book? There are different ways of making such information available nowadays.
Perhaps there is an opportunity for the Government to keep under review the services they can offer in these situations. Again, I accept that to a certain extent the role of consulates is defined by international conventions, and that the UK Government must accept the rule of law and relevant customs in particular countries; and it is also true that the services provided are funded not directly by the taxpayer but through a levy on the cost of passports. Nevertheless, if there is a demand for or expectation of different kinds of support, some of which we have heard about—perhaps more assistance with repatriation, easier access to funds and so on—perhaps the Government should consider that. Perhaps the Minister will tell us, in the light of this debate, what consideration they will give to that.
We also accept that there is no substitute for travel insurance, but again, perhaps there is a case for better public communication and awareness of what travel insurance can and cannot provide. That is equally true of the European health insurance card. In particular, it does not provide for repatriation of either injured or deceased persons.
There are particular issues to consider when a death overseas is not the result of natural causes. I welcome the recent review that was referred to and the consideration the Government have given to the role of consular assistance in cases of murder or manslaughter. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East said, it will be interesting to hear what progress is being made in taking that review and the recommendations forward.
In the case of a fatal accident, I welcome, as my hon. Friend did, the moves that the Scottish Government are taking on the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc. (Scotland) Bill, which will allow for discretionary fatal accident inquiries into the deaths of Scots abroad where the body has been repatriated to Scotland. I pay tribute to the campaigners, especially Julie Love, who is a constituent of mine and has worked very hard on this alongside my colleague and constituent Bob Doris, who is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow.
As we know from recent experiences, there are other circumstances to consider. Terrorism, pandemics and natural disasters can also lead to the deaths of citizens overseas, and it is right that those are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I hope the Minister will assure us that the Scottish Government will be involved in such situations, particularly when Scottish residents are affected.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East once again on securing the debate, and I echo the questions that she has asked. The issues involved are sensitive and require a considered and humane response. I hope the Government will continue to engage constructively when particular situations arise or suggestions are made.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Buck. I congratulate Anne McLaughlin on securing the debate and highlighting this important issue. She spoke so powerfully and so sadly from personal experience, and she highlighted the many families who have campaigned for some years. She made an excellent speech and made specific points with which I agree, including asking the Minister to consider in detail whether a central unit to assist families might be the best way forward.
Sadly, many Members will have had constituents who died abroad. We know it is an awful experience for all those affected. The heartbreak of losing a friend or relative is often compounded by the stress of repatriating a body and navigating a foreign legal system. As we know, and as Patrick Grady mentioned, consular assistance was required this weekend after the atrocities in Paris. I know all our sympathies are with everyone affected, including our consular and locally employed staff who are having to deal with the aftermath of that awful terrorist attack.
Sadly, there is a growing trend of British citizens being caught up in terrorist attacks abroad, including, as has already been mentioned, the attacks in Sousse in Tunisia in June, where more than 30 British citizens were killed, including my own constituent, Claire Windass, who was murdered while on holiday with her husband. In that case, the family told me that the consular assistance they were given was of a very high standard.
I note what Lady Hermon said about the very sad case of John and Lynette and how the consular assistance and support that was given to the families in very distressing circumstances was outstanding. I also note what Jim Shannon said about the positive experiences that he had had over the years. However, my hon. Friend Chris Evans talked about the way in which families had been treated in the case of the Tunisian atrocity, so there is obviously a very mixed picture.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady and to everyone who has made a contribution. I am profoundly embarrassed by having to say that I have a commitment that means I have to leave the debate, but I did not want the hon. Lady to feel offended. I apologise to you, Ms Buck, and to the Minister and all colleagues for my leaving due to the pressure of a particular commitment that I simply cannot avoid attending. I apologise to the hon. Lady and thank her for offering sympathy to the families of the young honeymoon couple from my constituency who died. It is kind of her to do so.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and for her apologies for leaving.
I hope the Minister will be able to update the House on the work that the FCO is undertaking to ensure that embassies are prepared to deal with major incidents and terror attacks, because unfortunately we see more of them happening. As the number of staff employed at consulates is reduced, what is being done to be able to quickly increase capacity at times of acute need?
I want to raise a few issues arising from the Foreign Affairs Committee report. Like the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, I want to refer to recommendations that came out of that excellent report. I pay tribute to the members of the Committee and to everyone who was willing to give evidence. I read the very distressing accounts of what had happened to their loved ones and the difficulties that they experienced in accessing support from consular services.
The first issue raised by the Select Committee report that I want to emphasise is the need to ensure that the support offered to families is consistent. It is clear that although in a number of cases families and loved ones have received excellent support, many individuals have been let down. That appears to be partly because of the low minimum standards and inconsistent procedures for dealing with deaths abroad. I am glad that the Foreign Office has recognised that problem, and I welcome its commitment to increase the monitoring of feedback and use that to improve training. Will the Minister say a little more about what that actually means in practice?
The Select Committee raised particular concerns about the support offered to families who have suffered a bereavement due to murder or manslaughter. I agree with the Committee that the current minimum offer to such families is far short of what British citizens should expect to receive. I am glad that the FCO accepted that finding and I welcome the fact that the Government have conducted a review, but it sounds like that review is a work in progress. Numerous conclusions identify further work to be undertaken. For example, the review concludes:
“We are already reviewing training and development opportunities for staff”, and goes on to say:
“We will ask the AJU to consider data protection rules and whether there may be ways of working more smartly within these”.
It also says:
“The AJU will consider how best to support relatives and friends beyond the immediate family”, and continues:
“The AJU will explore what further measures can be taken at UK and foreign airports to reduce distress for families who are travelling.”
All those commitments and opportunities for review are welcome, but it would be good if the Minister could give us a final update on exactly what the outcomes are.
Finally, next week is the comprehensive spending review, in which there are likely to be further cuts to the FCO budget. Will the Minister say what plans are in place to deal with a reduction in the number of consular staff? How will that play out in the light of the problems I identified earlier in my speech relating to terrorist attacks and the number of British citizens who, unfortunately, are at risk when they travel?
I congratulate Anne McLaughlin on securing this debate. She gave a heartfelt and very brave speech. Had I suffered the same personal circumstance, I am not sure that I would have been able to be quite so eloquent in the delivery of a large number of points. I have only seven or eight minutes to respond, so I want to say at the outset that I would like to meet the hon. Lady outside this debate—not literally outside, but perhaps at the Foreign Office—to discuss some of the points she raised in much more detail. We could either include outside organisations from the start, or discuss how we can liaise even more effectively with those organisations.
The hon. Lady mentioned three themes, which I would like to touch on. She asked what has changed since the Foreign Affairs Committee report. I will give my thoughts on some of the individual cases, because it is important that we learn from examples of where things have gone wrong. It is equally important that we learn from examples of where things have gone right. The debate has been very balanced, although it is easier in all walks of life to hear more about what goes wrong than what goes right. I suspect that the general view among the public, from reading national papers and so on, is slightly skewed. The front page of the Daily Mail has never been “Fabulous consular support offered in”—insert name of country. If only it was thus.
I pay tribute to a number of organisations. I am sure I would leave some out, so I will not attempt a list, but I pay particular tribute to the work of Julie Love, who lost her son in 2009. She has done a remarkable job setting up Death Abroad—You’re Not Alone, which seeks to support families. I also pay tribute to SAMM Abroad, another organisation to which the hon. Lady referred. The death of a loved one is always distressing, but a family’s grief can be compounded by not only the circumstance of that death but what happens afterwards. The British Government want to be part of ameliorating a bad process, rather than being part of any problem.
The hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and, particularly, for North Down (Lady Hermon) outlined some really moving examples of where consular staff have got it right. Although there are sadly a large number of deaths, quite often, by the nature of there being only one or two people in post, it might be the first time that an individual staff member involved has dealt with a death. Everyone has their own experiences and concerns, and it is an emotional event for them. To put into context the work that is done, to date this year consular staff have been involved in 3,039 cases around the world. There have been 83 new murder cases so far this year, and 238 murder cases are ongoing and active.
I would like to draw colleagues’ attention to a document called “Guide for bereaved families”. Normally when there is a bereavement overseas, the initial point of contact is with a member of the police force who is in attendance, although in very rare cases a phone call is made. The other possibility is that an individual is contacted by the media. Notwithstanding that, a guide is given that goes into a lot of detail. Perhaps I will take the liberty of circulating it to the Members who are present and asking for feedback. It might also be worth circulating it more widely—the hon. Member for Glasgow North East mentioned case workers in particular.
In the two or three minutes I have remaining, I will try to canter through as many of the issues that have been raised as I can as a precursor to meeting the hon. Lady. On new training, we have changed things already, but the totality of new training has not yet been rolled out. That is ongoing.
The hon. Lady referred to a number of statistics from reports. The Foreign Office runs a survey, and from May to September 85% of people were satisfied with the level of service that they received. Nevertheless, I recognise that the data are likely to be skewed, in that those who report back to the Foreign Office are probably more likely to be happy, whereas I can imagine that those who report to support groups having looked first to the Foreign Office would be less likely to be satisfied. But to be frank, it is not acceptable for anyone to be unsatisfied, within reason.
Some really interesting ideas were mentioned relating to the use of desk officers. A specialist unit has been set up for cases of murder and manslaughter, so there will be the continuity that the hon. Lady sought. However, I gently suggest that there are advantages in using desk officers. They know the contacts in country, the language and the culture, which might not be the case with a centralised unit. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss and better understand the detail to see how that could be improved.
I do not have time to go into a lot of detail on travel advice, but I will review the disparities in the advice for South Africa. I am happy to discuss swimming conditions with the hon. Lady. The Foreign Office website discusses them in detail, but it is not always country-specific. In my experience of travel advice, more and more information can be added, but the risk is that people miss the bigger picture, such as in the case of advising, “Don’t travel to an entire area of the country because it is subject to terrorism.” So there is a case for not adding too much complexity, while also working more closely on travel advice.
The hon. Lady has indicated that I can take all the time available so that I can cover as many issues as possible.
A lot has been done in relation to Tunisia. The Prime Minister appointed the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, who suffered a loss when his brother was killed in the Bali bombings. He brought a lot of experience not only to how we assisted people in Tunisia but to how we followed up on that. We deployed experts and changed the travel advice as quickly as a possible, although there is a duty to be accurate as well as fast. We are looking at options for additional family support, and we still need to consider in detail a number of points in the Foreign Affairs Committee report.
Alas, there is not enough time for me to answer all the questions that have been asked, but I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, who made a very brave and thoughtful speech. Good will come of her raising this matter in the House, and I look forward to working with her in more detail.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).