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Harriett Baldwin responds to debate on suspicious deaths abroad

28th February 2018

Harriett Baldwin responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on suspicious deaths of British nationals abroad.

The Minister for Africa (Harriett Baldwin)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) on securing the debate, on the very sensitive way in which she put her case and those of her constituents and on the very constructive way in which she is approaching her engagement with us on this issue.

Every year from this country, 70 million Britons travel abroad. Last year, tragically, 3,912 British citizens died overseas, and 74 of those were identified as cases of murder or manslaughter. The death of a loved one in any circumstances is distressing, but when it happens far from home, where the culture or practices are unfamiliar, and particularly when the cause of death is unclear, it can be especially traumatic. My thoughts go out to all those who been mentioned in today’s debate and to all those who have lost loved ones, and I offer my deepest condolences in particular to the families of Julie Pearson and Kirsty Maxwell, about whom the hon. Lady has spoken so movingly this evening.

Sadly, British nationals do tragically die overseas, and our global network of 772 consular staff are there to be contacted in these situations. I am glad to add my tributes to the work that they do out in the field. We heard that echoed by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and other Members. Whenever the death of a British national is reported to us, our consular officials in London and in our posts overseas do everything that they can to support the relatives. They explain to them what they need to do under the local system—for example, the procedure for getting a death certificate, how to find out whether a post mortem will be carried out and whether or not there will be an investigation in to a death. They also provide details of local lawyers, local translators or organisations that can provide specialist help. However, as we try to make clear in our travel advice, we cannot ourselves provide legal advice or translation services. We must also respect the other country’s legal systems and cannot interfere in their processes, just as they could not interfere in ours.

Hannah Bardell

I am grateful to the Minister for her initial comments. Does she recognise that it is only fair and appropriate for the UK Government and authorities ​to press where processes and procedures are not being followed? In the case of my constituent Kirsty Maxwell, Spain has a victims’ bill of rights, which, as far as I can see, is not being respected. The rights of the victim and the family are not being respected. It is only appropriate to intervene and put pressure on to hold that country and its authorities to their standards—not necessarily ours, but the standards that they have in their own judicial system—and say, “Look, you need to undertake a proper investigation, in line with your own law.”

Harriett Baldwin

The family in this case have retained the services of a local lawyer. The hon. Lady asked about the case of Madeleine McCann and UK police going out to help. She will appreciate that UK police only go out following a request from the local police team. We cannot just send out a team of police officers without a local request. In our travel advice, we emphasise that we cannot interfere in local processes, and we would not want that kind of interference in our own.

We regularly review our consular policy to make sure we provide the best possible service to British nationals travelling abroad, and this sometimes leads to changes in our approach. For example, in response to recommendations from the FAC report the hon. Lady referred to, and following our own internal review, we created a dedicated murder and manslaughter team in our consular assistance department. Formed in 2015, the team has established strong relationships with key stakeholders and partners, who can include organisations such as Victim Support as well as police family liaison officers and coroners’ officers. The team has also created new guidance for bereaved families. We now have 15 country-specific leaflets explaining the requirements and processes that families need to follow, and consular officials receive specialised training on handling deaths abroad. We continually work to ensure that our internal guidance reflects the needs of British citizens.

On average, 60 British nationals are murdered overseas ever year. Since our murder and manslaughter team was established, it has provided assistance to approximately 220 families across the globe. A great deal of interest has been expressed today in two cases, which I would now like to turn to, if I may.

Hannah Bardell

I want to take the Minister back briefly to her point about the police going abroad and the case of Madeleine McCann. I am sure that she will appreciate, as will others, that it seems somewhat random how much publicity a case gets or in what circumstances police are invited abroad. In the case of my constituents, the families want to know that there is equity in how cases are investigated and how negotiations are done around police being invited abroad. The police in Scotland would very much like to go to Spain to investigate the case of Kirsty Maxwell but cannot without that invitation. What can she and the Government do to initiate invitations and make sure that police forces work together and that in more cases the police across the UK, who do an excellent job, can go abroad, support families and investigate?

Harriett Baldwin

It is hard to make generalised statements when talking about specific cases, but, by way of a generalised statement, I am saying that it will always require a request from the local team. We will sometimes work through Interpol and others, but, given ​that the variety of cases is so broad, I can only make the generalised point that a request has to come from the local teams.

On the specific cases the hon. Lady raised, I commend Kirsty’s husband, Adam—they had been married only seven months when she died—and her for their continued efforts to find answers about the circumstances of her death. Throughout this time, consular officials in Spain and London have continued to provide support to the family. She rightly raised the phone call that Kirsty’s husband received from Spanish police, and we have gone back and made very clear the process we would prefer they followed. We have spoken to the Benidorm police to ensure that it is local police who break the news to families back here in the UK.

I understand, however, that the families still have concerns about how the Spanish authorities have handled the case, especially what steps the police took to compile the evidence they presented to the courts. I hope that they can resolve those concerns with the help of their Spanish lawyer, who is best placed to advise them on local law. As I said earlier, we cannot intervene in another country’s legal affairs. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas discussed this case with the hon. Lady back in November, and I know that he is always willing to discuss consular cases on his patch with Members, as am I. Since that meeting, we have continued to raise our concerns about the case with the Spanish authorities, and our consulate in Alicante remains in contact with the family’s lawyer. We stand ready to make further representations if they do not receive a satisfactory response from the authorities.

As I said earlier, the police cannot become get involved in cases outside their jurisdiction unless they are invited to do so. I am pleased to hear that Kirsty’s family have received additional support from a homicide consultancy, which has helped to review her case.

Royston Smith

The Minister said that we could intervene only if we were invited to do so. What if we are never invited to do so? My constituent, whose son died in suspicious circumstances, went to the Thai police, who said that they had misled the results of the autopsy. How would the Foreign Office or our authorities involve themselves in that case? The Thai police are almost certainly never going to invite them to become involved.

Harriett Baldwin

I do not want to single out any particular countries, but as my hon. Friend will know—the hon. Member for Livingston made this point—legal processes around the world may not necessarily meet the standards to which we are used in this country.

Let me now turn, in the few minutes that are left, to the equally sad case of Julie Pearson. Following her death, consular staff provided assistance to her family and liaised with the Israeli authorities about the investigation. The authorities have now concluded their review of the case and have decided not to take further action because they could not find a sufficient connection between criminal activity and Ms Pearson’s death. I am aware that Ms Pearson’s family have expressed ​dissatisfaction with the Israeli authorities’ handling of the investigation, and I fully understand their deep frustration at the outcome of the review. As I said earlier, we cannot interfere in the legal processes of another country, but we will continue to work with the Israeli authorities to ensure that due processes are followed in relation to any appeal against the closure of Ms Pearson’s case.

Chris Davies

Will the Minister give way?

Harriett Baldwin

I have so little time left that I am going to use it.

The death of a loved one is devastating wherever it happens, but particularly when it happens in another country and suspicious circumstances are apparent. We know that families are often desperate to find answers. In such cases—and, indeed, whenever a British national dies overseas—the consular staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office support bereaved families with compassion, dedication and tenacity, often in very difficult circumstances. We will continue to take every one of these cases extremely seriously and to provide that dedicated consular assistance for those who are most in need of our help, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

I welcome the idea of an all-party group, which I think is extremely constructive. I have my own opinions about how we can improve assistance in these cases, as did my predecessor, now the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice. First, I am sure that we would all want to ensure that resources are focused on the most vulnerable. Secondly, we must try to work with British citizens to ensure that they take responsibility and take precautions, such as obtaining adequate travel insurance, following the advice on the Foreign Office website, and not engaging in inherently risky activities. Thirdly, we must be very clear about prevention.

Hannah Bardell

My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) has a constituent whose son was killed in a road traffic accident in Ibiza. In a bid—unfortunately—to smear his name, it was insisted that there should be an alcohol test and blood should be taken from his eyeballs in what was a very distressing case. I hear what the Minister says about British citizens abroad, but it is important that we critique such processes in-country.

Harriett Baldwin

I think that it would be very helpful for the all-party group to become involved in such issues.

Again, I congratulate the hon. Lady and all the Members who have raised constituency cases. We in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stand ready to meet individual colleagues, and we continue to look for ways in which to improve our consular service.

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