HC Deb 04 April 1973 vol 854 cc561-8

9.20 p.m.

Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)

I am grateful for the opportunity of putting before the House an account of quite extraordinary difficulties which one of my constituents has had in recovering a passport, personal papers and a death certificate relating to his father who, it seems, died nearly a year ago whilst on holiday in Haifa.

Perhaps I can best assist my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary by submitting the facts upon which the difficulties arose and then trying to suggest to him how our diplomatic and consular representatives abroad could help in future cases of this kind. These are what the House may well consider to be the somewhat curious, if not rather mysterious facts. My constituent Mr. A. Mercer is a schoolmaster living in my constituency at Penwortham near Preston in Lancashire. In April 1972 Mr. Mercer's father, who was then 76, a retired architect, booked as a passenger on a 15-day cruise in the Mediterranean with Clarksons' Tours, the well-known travel firm.

He left home on 10th April and was never seen again by his son. Apparently Mr. Mercer's father flew to Rimini and joined the Greek Ship SS "Delphi" for a cruise round the Eastern Mediterranean, and it would seem that on 18th April he had a heart attack. The following day he died when he was in hospital in Haifa where he had been taken, and on 26th April he was buried in Haifa. But until as late as March of this year Mr. Mercer was still uncertain about what had happened to his father.

On 20th April a relative of Mr. Mercer got in touch with him on the telephone and told him he had heard that his father had died in Haifa the day before. On 24th April a representative of Clarksons' Tours telephoned to say that the father had died in Haifa. On 26th April the personal secretary to the managing director of Clarksons' Tours Limited, Mr. Jack Straw, telephoned Mr. Mercer offering to give Mr. Mercer all the help that she could. In May the agent of Clarksons' in Haifa sent to Mr. Mercer by air mail a letter telling Mr. Mercer that his father's passport, papers and death certificate had been sent by him to Clarksons' in London on 27th April. So, Mr. Mercer, thinking he would take advantage of the offer by Mr. Straw's personal assistant or secretary, wrote to her asking her if she would help him by sending the documents to him in Lancashire when they arrived.

It all seemed straightforward and no one was very worried. But he got no reply to that letter. So he wrote immediately to Mr. Straw, the managing director of Clarksons', telling him that he had written to his personal secretary and had had no reply. He waited. The days went by and he got no reply. In mid-May, still without a reply, he wrote again to Mr. Straw. This time the letter which was posted on 20th May was sent by recorded delivery, but again he got no reply.

As the weeks passed into months, Mr. Mercer became more distressed, and ultimately came to see me as his local Member of Parliament, as undoubtedly he was entitled to do, to see what help I could give him. I found some difficulty at first in accepting what he said. Therefore, on 6th July I wrote a personal letter to Mr. Jack Straw, the managing director of Clarksons' Tours, setting out all the facts. I received no reply.

A month passed, and I wrote another letter, dated 8th August, to Mr. Jack Straw. I said that I found the delay in dealing with a matter touching so deeply and personally the case of one of his clients somewhat surprising and disturbing. I received no reply.

When I returned from my own holiday, which fortunately I had not booked with Clarksons', I wrote another letter, dated 28th September. I told Mr. Jack Straw that unless he replied pretty swiftly I would take steps to raise the matter on an Adjournment debate. I received no reply.

In mid-November I saw a member of the Press and told him all I knew. I expressed my indignation in no uncertain terms. No story appeared in any newspaper. I made inquiries, and discovered that members of the Press had apparently got in touch with Clarksons' and had spoken to one of the directors, who had so discouraged them or frightened them that nothing was printed.

If Clarksons' alarmed the Press, certainly the Press must have alarmed Clarksons', because on 23rd November the personal secretary to Mr. Jack Straw telephoned me in the House and told me to my surprise that Mr. Jack Straw had, in fact, written me a letter. The letter was supposed to be dated, she said, 2nd October, and she said that she was very surprised that I had not received it. I replied "That's very easily put right. Send me a copy of the letter".

On 24th November I received a letter, the first from Mr. Jack Straw, telling me that he had sent me a letter which his secretary said had been delivered to the House by hand. The letter had been dated, according to him, 4th October, and he said that it contained an uncertified certificate of death.

On 28th November my own secretary in the House was telephoned by Clarksons' and was told that my constituent by then owed Clarksons' £407 for expenses incurred as a result of the death of his father abroad. Mr. Mercer told me "That is something of a surprise to me, because I have had no letters, telephone conversations or notice of this from Clarksons'."

Mr. Jack Straw offered to meet me in the House. It seemed such an opportunity to get to the bottom of the mystery that I at once accepted the offer. We were to meet in the Central Lobby on 12th December. At half-past six, the time for the meeting, I was in the Central Lobby. I was there for some considerable time after that when I received a message, apparently coming from Mr. Jack Straw, saying that his motor car had broken down on the motorway and that he would not be arriving.

I then made inquiries by letter to find out what had happened to the letter of 4th October which was supposed to have been delivered by hand at the House. I received a letter from Mr. Straw on 13th December offering his apologies and telling me that that letter had been delivered by one of his drivers, but he could not give me any further particulars. That put an end to any hope I had of discovering what had happened. He said, which I found most surprising, that he could not find any trace of the letters which I had sent to him. It was particularly surprising because I discussed the letters with his personal secretary.

When I was in Belfast on 12th March a representative of the Sunday Express rang me and said that the paper was going to run this story. I was asked to give as many facts as I could. I gave all the facts that I had. In spite of the discouragement which the Sunday Express also apparently received from Clarksons', the story was published in full. I congratulate the Sunday Express on the robust attitude which it took. It had the immediate effect of getting another letter from Mr. Jack Straw. That was a letter dated, oddly enough, 11th March. It referred to the newspaper article which he said he had read that day, although 11th March was a Saturday and the newspaper article was not published until the Sunday.

In his letter, which Mr. Jack Straw sent to me, he said that Clarksons' had gone to considerable expense without reimbursement, and that Clarksons' did not seek to be unhelpful to its clients or its clients' dependants. He included a letter which he said he had sent to Mr. Mercer. In that letter he said: Whatever the reasons for your not having received satisfaction, I am very sorry, and in the particular circumstances of your bereavement it is doubly distressing not to have had matters cleared up. I will do all I can to rectify this as quickly as possible. I have not seen any of the letters written by yourself that are referred to by the Press. I would be grateful if you could let me have a copy of the registration slip so that I can cheek the signature and date of your communication. He then said: Your father's passport and death certificate were sent by our agents to this office on 28th April but I cannot trace their receipt or present whereabouts. Mr. Jack Straw then promised to give further assistance. Yesterday, of all days, I received an undated letter from Mr. Jack Straw saying that he had now received a notarised copy of the death certificate from Haifa and that he had forwarded it to Mr. Mercer. I telephoned Mr. Mercer last night. He said that he had not received it. However, I have no doubt that Mr. Mercer will receive the death certificate today, the very day on which I have to raise an Adjournment debate to ensure that he gets it.

In my view—and it may be the view of many others—this affair represents a scandalous neglect of his duties to clients and others by the managing director, as he then was, of Clarksons' Tours. He is no longer the managing director of Clarksons' Tours, but he is a director of that company. I hope that the shareholders of Clarksons', and prospective holidaymakers who might think of relying on that company for their next holiday, will not let the facts that I have outlined this evening go unnoted.

In the latter part of September or the beginning of October, Mr. Mercer wrote to Her Majesty's Vice-Consul at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv asking for a copy of the death certificate. He had a reply, dated 2nd October, which said: It would seem that at the time that your father died no one applied for his death to be registered. The vice-consul then helpfully suggests that he can make arrangements for the registration and for the production of a death certificate.

I make it clear that my constituent is grateful for the assistance he has received from the British Embassy in Tel Aviv. I assure my hon. Friend also that I do not complain at all about any negligence on behalf of any officials at the British Embassy. I merely make the suggestion that, in case this kind of situation ever arises again—as, alas, it well may—steps should be introduced at least to alleviate the worst of the sort of distress which certainly my constituent has suffered very severely over the past 11 months.

If it is not thought to be too impracticable, I suggest that when a British citizen dies abroad it might be of some assistance if the death were seen to be properly registered by the officials at the embassy or the consulate as the case may be, and in particular that valuable docu- ments like passports are returned to the next of kin or to a responsible person.

In spite of the evidence by my constituent and of the pleas, which I have briefly outlined to the House, to Clarksons' for the return of the passport which Mr. Mercer's father had in his possession, it is still somewhere—heaven knows where—on its way to Clarksons' or has gone into the dustbin in the administrative muddle which obviously is one of the reasons why we have had the experience of this case. I would be glad if my hon. Friend could give some idea of the possibility of the improvement in the procedure which I asked for under the title of this Adjournment debate.

9.37 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Anthony Royle)

First, I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) for bringing this matter before the House, since it clearly gives rise to some public concern. I am certainly grateful on behalf of the consular departments and the consular officials in the diplomatic service for the chance of detailing the facts as we know them. I do not think—indeed, I know from his words—that my hon. and learned Friend would expect me to comment on the activity, or lack of activity, of the travel agency firm he mentioned, but I want to comment on the actions of the diplomatic service.

The consular section of the British Embassy at Tel Aviv has had correspondence, as my hon. and learned Friend indicated, with Mr. Mercer's son, Mr. Alan Mercer, of Preston, on this subject. Shortly after the death, Mr. Alan Mercer telephoned the British Consulate at Tel Aviv asking it to pass on a message to a travel agency in Haifa about arrangements for his father's burial.

The Haifa district health office issued a death certificate on 21st April. It showed that the cause of death was myo-cardial infarction. A death is not normally entered in the consular register unless the next-of-kin so request it. The consulate in Tel Aviv did not receive such a request until September.

Again as my hon. and learned Friend indicated, in a letter dated 2nd October 1972 Mr. Alan Mercer was asked to furnish certain additional details needed for the completion of the entry. In a telephone conversation with a member of the Foreign Office last month Mr. Alan Mercer confirmed that he had received the embassy letter on 2nd October and added that he had not replied direct as the matter was in the hands of his solicitors. He was told that if he sent the required particulars to the Foreign Office the embassy would be asked to register the death without delay. He replied that he preferred to leave the matter with his solicitors. Therefore, the delay in obtaining a death certificate, from the embassy's point of view, lay with events at this end. This was acknowledged by my hon. and learned Friend.

It might be helpful at this stage to say a word about the procedure for obtaining death certificates for British citizens who die abroad. This might help other citizens who are abroad with a close member of the family who dies. In such tragic circumstances it is often difficult for tourists or other members of the travelling public to know what to do or where to go.

In most foreign countries the local authorities issue their own form of death certificate in respect of persons dying in that country, irrespective of their national status. Such certificates can be obtained by the next-of-kin direct from the foreign authorities or through the nearest British consulate.

In addition, on production of the foreign death certificate, together with evidence of the deceased's citizenship, the deaths of citizens of the United Kingdom and colonies can on application be entered in the consular register of deaths kept at the appropriate consulate.

This registration, which is carried out under the Registration of Births and Deaths (Consular Officers) Regulations 1948, has the advantage of providing the next-of-kin with a death certificate in the English language and also ensures that the death is later recorded at the General Register Office in London and also in Edinburgh or Belfast if the deceased was born in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

As for the passport, the question of personal effects is a matter for the rela- tives of the deceased. I am extremely grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for the tribute he has paid the consular staff in the Tel Aviv Embassy. This will be greatly appreciated, as will the fact that Mr. Alan Mercer has confirmed that tribute. It is clear from my comments that in this unhappy story members of the diplomatic service have fulfilled their duty correctly and properly.

Perhaps I should end on this sad note, by saying that Mr. Mercer was buried in the British Community Cemetery at Haifa. Her Majesty's Consul at Tel Aviv arranged a small burial service at which the Chaplain of St. Luke's Church, Haifa, officiated. The Consul was present and helped lower the coffin into the grave.