By Hannah Bardell MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Deaths
Abroad, Consular Services and Assistance (the “APPG”)
When you are elected to Parliament you have your own ideas about the issues you’ll champion but I could never have envisaged meeting and hearing from some of the families and what they have been through as I have with the APPG.
A few months after I was elected in 2015 I learned of the death of the beautiful and bright young woman Julie Pearson. Beaten and abused by her former partner she died after a severe beating in Eilat, Israel yet the authorities claimed she died of natural causes. Her aunt Deborah, my constituent and one of the most formidable women I have ever encountered, has campaigned relentlessly since then fighting for answers, truth and justice for Julie.
In April 2017 another vibrant and brilliant young woman from Livingston was killed. Kirsty Maxwell was 27, newly married to husband Adam and on holiday in Benidorm when she fell from a balcony to her death in suspicious circumstances. Adam and Kirsty’s parents Denise and Brian Curry have also campaigned and worked relentlessly to find out how Kirsty died.
After trying to represent a second family facing such tragedy it became clear to me that there is very little support for families and little if no coherent process in place to make sure British citizens and their families are adequately supported. I asked questions on the floor of the House of Commons, held a debate in Parliament, wrote to the Prime Minister and held meetings with Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, yet I came up against brick wall after brick wall.
After raising and debating their issues in Parliament in February 2018, it became clear there was a considerable number of MPs also with constituents who had lost family members abroad (murder and suspicious deaths) but also family members who were imprisoned and tortured and who faced the same bewilderment about where to turn for support.
It is bad enough when someone dies or is imprisoned in the country in which they live, but when the same happens overseas the family left behind must navigate a foreign legal system, a language they do not speak, a foreign police force, unfamiliar geography, insurance issues, costs of travelling to the country of death or imprisonment to collect the body of their loved one or to visit them in prison and media intrusion: these are just some of the harrowing and deeply traumatic things families have to deal with in the immediate aftermath of their loved one dying abroad.
Unlike many other APPGs in the House of Commons, we have no secretariat or funding. The evidence gathering process and drafting of the report has been led by my team – Stephanie McTighe, Michelle Rodger, Marcus Woods, Chloe Mclellan and Sarah Madden – who have been awe inspiring and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
We have met or spoken with around 60 families from across the UK. We have had a window into their tragedy, pain, injustice and devastation. To say it was emotional does not go nearly far enough; my team and I found the process upsetting and incredibly difficult to hear so we cannot imagine how these families felt and continue to feel each day. On numerous occasions we listened in disbelief as grieving parents or spouses told us about horrific events, feeling lost and abandoned and simply hoping for a kind word from someone who could help them.
This report is for them. This work is for them. It is in memory of the love and lives they have lost. We know nothing we say or do will return that to them. Every single family with whom we spoke was clear that they were giving evidence not for them, because it was “too late”. Instead, they came forward in a bid to ensure that in the future, other families do not have to experience the depth of despair that they have in their crusades towards justice. We also know of some families who were too broken to come forward, and there will be many many other families who found the process too damaging and simply gave up. For all of them, I hope this report covers some of the recommendations they would hope to see.
This report is the start of a campaign that we all commit to for as long as I am a parliamentarian and hopefully beyond. It will be a roadmap for change.
The APPG has spoken to around 50 third party organisations, government departments and NGOs including the support services into which the government puts money and faith to provide this support. This is not about any one agency, whether governmental or third party, it is about ensuring a collaborative approach.
Many changes are needed. Some of it requires legislation, for example a legal right to consular services which surprisingly, British citizens do not currently have. Mostly, it is about changing behaviours and processes, creating a protocol that government departments, the police, victims support, airlines, airports, holiday companies, the insurance and legal sectors can work to.
We owe it to these families and the loved ones they lost to learn lessons and make common sense and necessary changes.
Their testimony is compelling and makes a cast iron case for improvement. No one should be under any illusion that this is a “blame game”. This is about doing what is right and acting with compassion as fellow human beings, something that is sporadic at best in these cases. A family should not be “lucky” as victims of a crime or indeed where no crime is proven or can easily be proved and I am making a heartfelt appeal to all agencies and organisations to thoughtfully consider and meet the needs of the families who experience what is described in this report.
For that reason, the report aims to use the voices and experiences of the families, and I would like to pay testimony to their bravery.
Hannah Bardell MP
Chair, APPG on Deaths Abroad, Consular Services and Assistance
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Download the full report here –