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Deaths abroad and why Britain is failing its citizens

Deaths abroad and why Britain is failing its citizens
4 min read

SNP Spokesperson for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Hannah Bardell MP, writes about what motivated her to set up the APPG for Deaths Abroad and Consular Services. She calls on the Foreign Secretary to attend the next APPG evidence session and hear first-hand how resources and training at the FCO need to be improved.

The reality of being an elected representative is that the electorate define what issues you fight for, even if you had your own ideas at the outset.

Shortly after my election in 2015, a journalist contacted me asking me to help the family of a woman she had written about who had died in Israel in suspicious circumstances. My constituent - Deborah Pearson - believed that her niece Julie Pearson was killed by her ex partner, as a result of a brutal beating including a broken jaw. I started to help Deborah in her communications with the FCO and Israel: I raised the matter with then Prime Minister David Cameron; I wrote numerous letters, I held meetings around the UK and yet the family are no further forward in getting the truth about what happened to Julie. 

Then in 2017, Kirsty Maxwell - a young woman from my Livingston constituency - was killed in Spain in suspicious circumstances. Again, I raised questions, twice to the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I even had a debate in parliament on suspicious deaths abroad and FCO support. I should not have been surprised but during the debate I heard from many MP’s with similar cases - some of their own family.  All agreed that it was unacceptable to have Brits killed abroad in suspicious circumstances and a UK Government simply shrugging its shoulders saying repeatedly “we can’t get involved in a foreign jurisdiction”. 

After the debate, I was contacted by many families and organisations. I decided we needed a more concerted effort and my team and I set up an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Deaths Abroad and Consular Services/Assistance in April 2018.

APPGs are informal and don’t have any statutory footing in parliament but allow MP’s of all colours to work collaboratively on an issue of importance. 

The APPG has taken evidence from over 40 families across the UK and whilst the circumstances and countries of death differ, a common theme is clear - there was no guidance from the FCO in the early days of the death occurring e.g. about how to repatriate the body of their loved one.

Families have reported receiving files from the FCO (after FOI requests) which say words like “how do we get rid of this person”. We have heard phone lines aren't answered, promises of replies or follow up information never come and there are no clear processes or procedures. We know autopsy reports aren't translated and lists of lawyers are given out on scrap paper without background checks, whether the person is qualified or not. For people to be treated in such a disrespectful way speaks volumes about how little this UK Government and the FCO cares for its own citizens.

Improved levels of communication; experienced advice on repatriation; a single point of contact; and - above all - a basic level of dignity and respect is needed for families. 

The dedicated Murder Manslaughter Team in the FCO has four people and trying to get a death in suspicious circumstances under their remit is almost impossible without a conviction. And how do you get a conviction if the foreign jurisdiction is not interested in investigating the death. And how do you get them to investigate it when “we can’t get involved in a foreign jurisdiction”? It is a cyclical administrative nightmare and it is not good enough.

We recognise Consular staff operate under pressure with limited resources and that’s why the Foreign Secretary needs to take this issue seriously and attend the next APPG evidence session to hear first hand how resources and training at the FCO need to be improved.

Hannah Bardell is the SNP Spokesperson for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport & MP for Livingston

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