HC Deb 20 May 1999 vol 331 cc1343-50

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

7.56 pm
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

This is a serious subject that involves many people around the country. I know that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) hopes to catch your eye for a minute or two after my remarks, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall truncate them to give him an opportunity to speak.

I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on his promotion. I recognise that he is new to his present duties, which he took over in tragic circumstances following the departure of his much missed predecessor. I hope that he will be able to consider what I say seriously and reflect on some of the points that are raised.

The first case that I should like to raise concerns the Allison family from my constituency. Mr. Clive Allison, the son of my constituents, disappeared on 25 April last year. He was working in Lyon and had been working in France for two years. He was 27 and worked at a bar. On the day he disappeared, the French police and the British consulate in Lyon were informed by English speaking and French friends of Mr. Allison that he had disappeared. Unfortunately, the British consulate did not notify his family in my constituency that he had disappeared. That is the first cause of their anxiety about the case.

The second cause of the family's anxiety is that when they were informed four days later, my constituent Mr. Jim Allison telephoned the local French police and spoke to an officer who slammed the phone down on him shortly into the conversation, even though he was naturally distressed because he had just learned that his son had disappeared. The British consulate suggested that it must have been because my constituent was speaking to the French police officer in schoolboy French. In fact, he was speaking to a policeman who was fluent in English.

The third incident in the chain of events is that when the friends of Mr. Clive Allison reported to the French police that he had disappeared, they were told that the French police were not prepared to mount a missing person's inquiry for him and that the friends would have to go round the local hospitals to see whether he had turned up in one of them.

The next stage in this tragic tale is that the body of Mr. Allison was fished out of the local river in Lyon on 4 May and taken to the Government medical institute in the town. It was not tagged for three days so, at one point, it was reported missing. The body was subsequently recovered.

When it was flown back to the UK aboard Air France, the accompanying paperwork disappeared. To this day, that paperwork has not been found. No direct apology has even been given by Air France to the family. Because of the absence of that paperwork, an entirely new post mortem had to be performed on the body when it arrived back in the UK.

The final stage in this tragic set of occurrences was that the inquest into the death was adjourned on 25 September because the coroner in Barrow-in-Furness needed some paperwork from the French authorities to complete his inquiries. To this day, some eight months later, that paperwork has not been provided. In a letter from Mr. Ian Smith, the coroner at Barrow, he said that he shared the concerns of my constituent Mr. Jim Allison about the failure of the French authorities in this instance. He said: regrettably what is happening in this particular case is a reflection of what happens in most cases where a British subject dies in France and the body is repatriated and an inquest results…I frequently find a lack of thorough investigation and a considerable delay in sending what little information is available. By way of contrast I have dealt with deaths from China, Hong Kong and Zambia amongst others and have received good quality information within a reasonable time and the Chinese authorities had even translated into English.

My concern is that we are all citizens of the European Union. France is our nearest neighbouring member state of the EU, and it is important that the French authorities operate in circumstances relating to tragedies such as this at least as efficiently as countries such as Zambia or China.

Sadly, this is not an isolated case. The merest glimpse at some recently publicised stories in our national newspapers would indicate that there have been a number of other cases. Perhaps the most highly publicised is that of Caroline Dickinson, and I know that the hon. Member for North Cornwall will wish to speak about that later.

There was also the case of Roderick Henderson, who died after being kicked in the head in the Champs Elysées in October 1997. A report in The Daily Telegraph of the 15 July 1998 begins: A coroner condemned the French authorities yesterday for erecting a 'brick wall of virtual silence' around the investigation of that murder.

I do not approach this matter with the view that somehow France is a different country where different standards apply. I certainly do not approach the matter with any hostility towards our neighbouring country. Indeed, this past weekend, I greatly enjoyed with my family an expedition to Paris which, thanks to Eurostar, is a great deal easier and quicker to reach from my London home than my own constituency in the UK.

More and more British people are looking to spend time in France on holiday and on business. It is a neighbour, and it is important that we should have close relations with France and the clearest possible co-operation between the British and French authorities. That is why 1 tabled some parliamentary questions on the matter, and I was a little disappointed with some of the responses that I received.

I received a helpful letter in February from Baroness Symons, the Foreign Office Minister. She told me that the materials that had been sent by the coroner in October had been passed through the British consulate because coroners' requests have to go through the Foreign Office. They were passed to the consulate in November, and passed to the French authorities. The French authorities notified the British consul at the beginning of February that the papers had been retrieved from the archive and that the file was on the desk of the relevant person. The family were told that it could be four months before the paperwork would be processed and passed on to the coroner. It is now nearly four months since the beginning of February, and certainly no papers have arrived.

Mr. Jim Allison, Clive's father, has been a sufferer from multiple sclerosis for 17 years and he has said that the strain has meant that the past year has been much the worst for his condition. Additional stress on someone in those circumstances can make matters worse.

I was pleased that the written answers that I received suggest that the Government have been addressing some of the issues. There was a ministerial meeting last November to consider some of the generic, systemic issues. I welcome that, but I was also told, in a written answer on 31 March, that the Allison case was not discussed in detail at that meeting and is not on the agenda for any future scheduled meeting; nor had Ministers discussed French co-operation with British coroners.

The general conclusion was: Co-operation is good; the French authorities have to comply with their own formalities."—[Official Report, 31 March 1999; Vol. 328, c. 693.] The evidence of the Allison case and some other cases suggests that that may be too generous an assessment.

I do not for one moment pretend that there is any ingrained hostility to British people in the way in which the French authorities approach these cases—it is conceivable that they are equally inefficient in cases relating to their own citizens—but it is clear that British coroners do not feel that the French respond to their requests as rapidly and efficiently as they could, or anything like as rapidly and efficiently as coroners in other countries, including less developed countries such as Zambia. The coroner in Barrow said that coroners throughout the country thought the same.

I would be enormously grateful if the Minister took an interest in trying to get the French authorities to supply the papers to the coroner in Barrow. My constituents have now waited 13 months for a verdict on the cause of their son's death. The bureaucratic delay has made things worse for them and caused them further distress. I spoke to the father today. He said that the family do not want to sue. They are not interested in compensation, as they would regard it as blood money. They want justice and they want to know that their son can be laid to rest and the case can be closed so that they can begin to move on with their lives.

Will the Minister please address the issue of the possible systemic problem that seems to have occurred in relationships between British coroners and the French authorities? Ministers have already addressed those issues in meetings with their French counterparts. I would be grateful to know whether there are any plans for further meetings.

All the political parties have produced their manifestos for the European elections and all have said that they favour deepening European Union co-operation on interior and justice policy. Can we please begin to move from the rhetoric to the reality? If we are to have closer co-ordination on justice, could we please start with some justice for British citizens who have lost their loved ones in France?

8.9 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) on securing this debate, and I am grateful to him for allowing me a few minutes to add to his remarks and, indeed, to endorse some of his concerns. I thank the Minister for agreeing to my speaking, and I, too, congratulate him most warmly on his new appointment.

As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, Caroline Dickinson was a constituent of mine. I have worked closely with her parents, John and Sue Dickinson, to see whether we could not only help the French authorities to bring the culprit to justice, but learn some lessons to help others who may have faced similar appalling tragedies.

Caroline was a young student from Launceston college who went on a school trip to the hostel in Pleine Fougeres, where she was murdered. We still do not know who was responsible for that deed. The initial experience that I and her parents had—on both sides of the channel, but especially with the French authorities—was disastrously bad, but it has greatly improved in recent months. As a result of the activities of Baroness Symons, who took an active interest in this case—I took the parents, and other relatives who had been similarly bereaved, to see her—and of the previous Government, who similarly afforded us the opportunity to talk to them about some of the lessons to be learned, the attitude of the French authorities improved distinctly.

Unfortunately and all too often, the slow progress of an inquiry requires the intervention of the British Government before it is approached with more dispatch and effectiveness. In the Dickinson case, the investigative team did not give proper attention to trying to bring the public in France into their confidence and it did not pursue the issue of DNA until it was persuaded to do so by my constituent, Mr. Dickinson. When the team took the opportunity to work with the British police, the investigation advanced dramatically.

I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. When a tragedy occurs, it requires the proactive interest of the British Government at the outset. We should not wait for things to go wrong. That is proved by the fact that when the Government took an interest, there was an immediate improvement both in the flow of information to my constituents and in the urgency with which the investigation was pursued.

Attitudes to investigation procedures differ on either side of the channel. In this country, the police like to take the public into their confidence at the outset. The police try to give as much information as possible to the public and to gain as much information as they can using the media. That is not the French experience and, perhaps, informal steps could be taken, without trying to preach to them, to try to improve that situation.

I wish to emphasise that the key lesson of all the examples with which I have been acquainted is the necessity for a flow of information, whether it be to the coroner's court, the bereaved relatives or the Foreign Office. In many cases, the flow of information has been disastrously slow. When people have suffered such a tragedy, not knowing what is happening—and having no confidence in the process of law in a country just a few miles away across the channel—adds much to the tragic circumstances. I am grateful to the Foreign Office, under this Government and the previous Government, for seeking to assist. I just wish that we had been more effective earlier and, therefore, had achieved better results.

8.13 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) for his kind words. On behalf of the Government, I acknowledge his thoughtfulness and generosity in withdrawing his application for a debate last Friday to allow hon. Members to attend the funeral of Derek Fatchett. That was a generous and honourable action. I also thank the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for his observations.

I shall begin by explaining the roles of the French and British authorities following the death of a British national in France. When a British national dies in France, the French authorities promptly inform the nearest British consulate. If death is by natural causes, a death certificate is issued by the doctor who certifies the death. If the cause of death is not clear, accidental or violent, the French courts may request a judicial inquiry. The court appoints an investigating magistrate who will order a police investigation, which may take several months to complete. Once that investigation begins, the next of kin, if they want details of it, are required under French law to apply formally to the investigating magistrate to become civil parties to the case. That may take up to a week, during which time the next of kin will be able to obtain only limited information. I recognise that in the immediate aftermath of a death, that could be distressing to a family who might perceive a lack of co-operation on the part of the French authorities. However, it is a French legal requirement, and our consular representatives are not able to circumvent it.

A further problem may be that British families are used to seeing precise causes of death on British death certificates. In France, the precise cause of death is considered confidential and it does not appear on the certificate issued by the doctor. The certificate amounts to a statement that a death has been registered. Again, this may appear curious to British families and may cause concern when appropriate clarification is not immediately forthcoming.

If the next of kin wish to repatriate the body to the United Kingdom, they must apply to the public prosecutor's office for a permit. The undertakers retained by the next of kin usually take responsibility for seeking that. Once the investigating magistrate is satisfied that forensic examination is complete, permission to transport and bury is granted. When all judicial processes are complete, the bereaved family has to apply to a court for copies of any police report.

In accordance with section 8(1) of the Coroners Act 1988, coroners in England and Wales are obliged to hold an inquest into the death of anyone whose body is brought back from abroad for burial in their jurisdiction. The purpose of the inquest is to ascertain who the deceased was and how, when and where the deceased died. Neither the coroner nor the jury can express an opinion on any other matter.

The requirement to hold such inquests was introduced following difficulties with the case of Helen Smith, who died in unnatural circumstances in Saudi Arabia. If the coroner is satisfied that the cause of death has been established by the French authorities, permission is granted for burial. In Scotland, this role falls to the Scottish Office.

If the coroner is not satisfied that the cause of death has been sufficiently established or believes that further investigation is required to establish the cause of death, he may request copies of the French police report and further investigations by the French authorities. British coroners have no direct contact with the French authorities and they ask the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to pass on formal requests. Requests for further investigation may take longer for the French to process, as a court will have to consider them and decide how best to respond. This may involve the re-interviewing of witnesses, whom the court may need to trace.

Our consulates in France monitor the progress of investigations and are prepared to press the French authorities for further action if necessary. In response to the first point made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, I undertake to look afresh at that point to ensure that proper action is taken if necessary.

Our consulates cannot, of course, intervene in investigations, direct them or suggest avenues that might be explored. Once the French authorities conclude the further investigations that the British coroner has requested, the consulate obtains a copy of the French report and forwards it to Her Majesty's coroner's office.

Notwithstanding the views that have been set out, I maintain that co-operation between the French and British authorities over the death of British nationals in France is very good. Requests from coroners offices are dealt with sympathetically by the French authorities. Our consulates in France do not usually experience problems with the French police—the gendarmerie—over notification of deaths of British nationals. We have to acknowledge that the French have an entirely different procedure to our own, and that what some may characterise as unacceptable delay is wholly consistent with French procedure and not a matter of poor co-operation.

I listened carefully to the second and third points that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made. I do not accept that there is a systemic problem. We all share the need to deepen justice in interior matters, but the member states of the European Union have a choice—they can seek to harmonise procedures, but I assume that the hon. Gentleman would not want that; or, and this is the approach that the British Government would pursue, we must accept that each country's procedures are different and recognise them for what they are.

Mr. Collins

1 accept that there are different traditions, but I hope that the Minister will accept that for many families—certainly my constituents—an appearance is created, I hope unintentionally, of indifference and a casual attitude. Would it be possible for him to take up that matter with the French authorities, suggesting that they could introduce standard procedures saying that they have a different tradition and that they do not seek to create an appearance of indifference?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible suggestion. It would be for the French authorities to decide whether it was appropriate to take that course of action. However, I must emphasise that there is no suggestion that, throughout the range of cases with which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has to deal, there is that sort of difficulty.

I appreciate that the hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale and for North Cornwall raised different cases in which there have been particular problems at

particular times. I think that the hon. Member for North Cornwall would accept that subsequently the investigation of that particular case has been pursued vigorously and that the French have taken appropriate and necessary action.

The British Government have been keen to ensure that the deaths of British nationals in France are properly investigated. Perhaps it will assist if I say that my noble Friend the Under-Secretary wrote to Madame Guigou, the French Minister of Justice, on 4 August 1998. My noble Friend stressed the importance of bringing to justice the murderers of British nationals in France and asked the French authorities to spare no efforts in seeking culprits. On 30 November 1998, she met senior officials in Paris from the Ministry of the Interior to discuss the handling of deaths of British nationals and to press for vigorous investigations by the French authorities.

On 11 March, the Home Secretary discussed the investigation of Caroline Dickinson's murder with Monsieur Chevènement, the French Minister of the Interior. I can assure the House that we have an active dialogue with the French to satisfy ourselves that thorough investigations into the murders of British nationals in France are carried out in accordance with appropriate French procedures.

I believe that the relationship between the next of kin of the deceased and the French authorities is generally a good one. Our consulates will certainly do all that they can to help. However, I recognise that the aftermath of a sudden death is not the easiest situation for anyone to deal with. The language barrier and an unfamiliar foreign bureaucracy can provide obstacles to achieving immediate understanding and a good working relationship. The need to become civil parties to the investigation, as I mentioned, and the initial delay to which I referred earlier, can lead to misunderstandings.

Our consulates in France, and indeed all over the world, help next of kin who find difficulty coping with language and cultural differences. They offer guidance on local legislation and customs, and act as intermediaries between the relevant authorities and the next of kin. Our consulates are in continuous dialogue with authorities worldwide to improve working relationships. There is no evidence of systematic discrimination against British nationals in distressing circumstances anywhere, and certainly not in France.

I have the utmost sympathy for those who have experienced the trauma of close relatives dying overseas, especially when the death has been wholly unexpected and untimely. Having to grapple with a foreign legal system, a foreign language, and with unexpected bureaucratic requirements when distraught with grief can clearly overwhelm even the strongest. I can well understand the despair of abiding seemingly endless rounds of investigations and inquiries before grieving relatives are able to feel that justice has been done.

I know that my French counterparts are as anxious as any of us to resolve speedily and effectively all crimes, especially those involving deaths. I will certainly ensure that a further examination is made of the concerns voiced by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, and I will report to him accordingly. We will continue to work with the French authorities to address each of those issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Eight o'clock.

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