HC Deb 18 October 2001 vol 372 cc1353-8

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

3.32 pm
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight the case of my late constituent, Mr. Christopher Rochester. Christopher was a young man of 24, born and raised in Chester-le-Street in my constituency. Like thousands of young people every year, he travelled to the island of Rhodes in June last year for a summer break.

Christopher travelled to stay with his brother Keith, who had been working on the island. He was a bright, intelligent young man, educated at the Hermitage school and New college, Durham. He had all to live for. He travelled to Rhodes from Newcastle airport on 7 June last year, waved off by his mother. He telephoned her the following day to say that he had arrived safely, the weather was lovely and he was happy to be with his brother Keith. He told his mother that he loved her and promised to ring on Sunday 11 June.

Christopher never made that telephone call. By then, sadly, he was lying dead in a Greek hospital mortuary. The call that his mother received was from his brother—a heart-breaking call, with the devastating and shattering news that Christopher was dead. Early that morning Christopher had been found at the foot of the balcony of the apartment in which he was staying in Falkari. He had fallen from the balcony on to the concrete patio below.

What followed for Christopher was a slow, painful, lingering death in the Andreas Papandreou hospital in Rhodes, and more than a year of appallingly cruel and tortuous treatment of his mother and family in their attempts to get answers as to why Christopher was allowed to die.

After being found lying bloodied and broken on the patio, Christopher had to wait 40 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. Still conscious and being comforted by his brother Keith and friends, he was, in his brother's words, "shuffled" on to a stretcher and placed in the ambulance. Despite Christopher's complaints of severe back pain, no attempt was made to immobilise him or protect his neck. When he arrived at the Andreas Papandreou hospital in Rhodes town, he was received in the accident and emergency department and seen by a junior doctor. The doctor attended to Christopher's head wound and ordered x-rays to be taken of his back.

Christopher was in constant agonising pain, pleading to be given water to quench his thirst. His brother responded to his pleading by running backwards and forwards, his hands cupped full of water from a tap at the end of the room, while two members of staff stood by, casually smoking.

The x-rays were taken and a possible fracture to the coccyx was diagnosed. Christopher was admitted to an orthopaedic ward, still in severe pain, with a continuing deep thirst, and, by now, a large swelling on the lower part of his back. His brother Keith was told to go home. His friend David agreed to stay with Christopher. David sat next to his bed. Christopher was given an injection for his pain, but his thirst continued and again his pleas for water were ignored. It was left to his friend David to ferry cups of water from a water fountain in the corridor. Pitifully, Christopher kept repeating to David that he thought he was going to die. David tried to reassure him that everything would he all right. David drifted off to sleep, only to be woken abruptly half an hour later by a nurse in an agitated state asking him to leave the ward. In his heart, David knew that something was seriously wrong.

The curtains around Christopher's bed were drawn. A female nurse emerged minutes later to tell him that Christopher was dead. David, grief-stricken by events, had the terrible task of telling Keith that his brother Christopher was dead. Keith then had the unimaginably difficult job of ringing his mother to tell her that her young son was no longer alive.

I have briefly described events that would have been traumatic for any family to cope with, but what I am about to tell the House aids to them in the most cruel and inhumane way. No compassion was shown to Christopher's brother Keith. Having been told that his brother was dead, he had to identify the body. He was shown into the hospital mortuary by an attendant who spoke no English. The attendant removed three bodies from their cabinets until, on the fourth occasion, Keith was shown his brother's body—a traumatic experience for someone already suffering the shock of bereavement.

Next, Keith was interviewed by the local police, and made to wait for two and a half hours in the kitchen of a police station, having had little or no sleep for the past 24 hours. The interview was aggressive and was conducted through at interpreter, a retired tour guide who spoke only broken English. The statement was written out in Greek and no attempt was made to translate it.

A week later, Christopher's body was flown home, having been released by the local Greek undertaker only after his mother, Pam Cummings, had borrowed £2,500 from the bank to cover the costs of transportation. Christopher, like so many, had no travel insurance. The body was taken to the University hospital in Durham. There the pathologist undertook a post mortem and discovered that Christopher's left kidney was missing. It had been retained by the Greek hospital. Distressed by this news, Christopher's mother contacted my predecessor, Giles Radice, who, with the invaluable assistance of the British consulate in Rhodes, got the Greek authorities to send the kidney back to the UK via the consulate in Rhodes.

When the kidney arrived at University hospital in Durham, for some unexplained reason Mrs. Cummings asked the local coroner to have it DNA tested. That was refused. Undaunted, she paid to have the kidney tested privately. To her horror, her suspicions were proved right: the kidney was not that of her son, Christopher. Now, more than a year on, Christopher's family still waits for answers, frustrated by the Greek authorities' refusal to respond to the most basic requests for information.

In an editorial on 15 January this year, the Newcastle Journal newspaper summed up the main questions that remain unanswered first, did Christopher receive the correct treatment for his injuries; secondly, why was his kidney removed, and where is it now; and, thirdly, what action has been taker against those involved? On the first point, there is clew evidence that Christopher did not receive the proper treatment that we would expect in a modern European country. Professor Redmond, who drew up a report for the local coroner in Durham, said: The management of the patient in this case fell far short of the very basic principles and constituted what I regard as gross medical negligence". In his report, he criticised the Greek hospital authorities for ignoring the most basic of procedures. He said that, although the advance trauma life support procedure is used and recognised in Greece, it w as not followed in this case and that, despite Christopher's being under the influence of alcohol, no attempt was made to conduct a thorough examination. Instead, it was used as an excuse for doing nothing. Christopher's thirst was clearly a sign that he was in shock and losing blood but it was ignored. According to Professor Redmond, This was negligent. The patient was clearly desperately thirsty. He was in shock. He was bleeding to death and being ignored. The negligence continued right tip to the end. No attempt was made to resuscitate Christopher, even though, as Professor Redmond said, had resuscitation been instituted, even at this very late stage, he might have survived. Clearly, the staff on duty that night at the Andreas Papandreou hospital in Rhodes displayed the most appalling negligence. For me, the most telling point from Professor Redmond's report was his conclusion: Had this patient been treated in this country then the likely outcome would have been that he would have survived". No plausible explanation has been given as to why Christopher's left kidney was removed and retained in Greece. It would have been a vital piece of evidence in determining the cause of death and its omission has clearly hampered the pathologist who carried out the examination of Christopher's body in the UK. Mystery still surrounds the identity of the kidney sent to the UK and the whereabouts of Christopher's kidney. The only response from the Greek authority is that the correct kidney was given to the British consulate in Rhodes, implying that somehow it must have mixed it up with the no doubt large number of kidneys kept at the consulate. What a ludicrous notion.

On 25 and 26 July this year, an inquest was held in Durham into Christopher's death and the verdict given was accidental death contributed to by neglect. At the inquest, certain documents appeared for the first time. A report by the Papandreou hospital into the case names those responsible for the terrible treatment of Christopher. It says that Sergios Pavlidis, the trainee doctor on duty, failed to seek out the duty doctor or specialist doctor to look at the patient and that Dr. George Karavolias, the emergency ward duty doctor, was in bed and left no instruction that he should be notified if an emergency was admitted. It also said that the two nurses on the orthopaedic ward failed to inform the duty doctor that Christopher had been admitted to the ward.

The same individuals were named in a second report produced at the inquest, this time by the public prosecutor's office in Rhodes. It had the telling words on the front cover, "Homicide as a result of negligence".

What has been the outcome? In short, we do not know. The family's attempts to get answers have been met with a wall of silence. I wrote to the Greek Ambassador on 3 September this year, but to date I have not even received an acknowledgement of my letter. Stephen Hughes, the Durham MEP, has made representations to the Greek health and justice ministers, but to date has had no replies. The case that I have outlined is truly appalling. Respect must be paid to Mrs. Pam Cummings, Christopher's mother, and her family for the way in which they have tried with dignity to get answers but have been thwarted by a lack of co-operation from the Greek authorities.

According to the House Library, more than 2 million UK citizens visited Greece in 2000. Christopher Rochester was just one of those. Unlike others, he did not come back. Greece is not a third-world nation; it is a modern country and a member of the European Union, and we should expect decent health care if we fall ill while visiting. From the experience of Christopher Rochester, health care on Rhodes is clearly not adequate, and one would question whether it is safe for UK citizens to visit the island. The UK tourist trade to Greece in 1999 was worth £938 million. There should be an onus on both the Greek Government and UK tour operators to ensure that local medical services are of a higher standard than those on Rhodes.

Mrs. Cummings, a proud lady, knows that nothing will bring her son back, but if by highlighting this case she can prevent another mother from going through the torment that she has experienced, some good may have come out of Christopher's death. Clearly, the family wants answers to the questions that I have raised this afternoon. Any representation that the Minister can make on behalf of the family would be greatly appreciated in trying to bring this unhappy story to a close and finally allowing Christopher to rest in peace.

3.47 pm
Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) for allowing me time to contribute to this debate on an issue that is of great personal interest to me. I lost a close friend and employee on the island of Rhodes this August. Dominic McElroy was 26 years old and well known on the Labour Benches and within the Labour party as a lovable, charismatic, and tough-talking Yorkshireman.

At times of bereavement, family and loved ones enter a state of shock and are at their most vulnerable. In a different country and culture, they need as much guidance and support as they can get, not just from our officials abroad but from the travel companies that organise their package holidays. From my experience, I can only praise the role played by British consulate staff in Rhodes, whose behaviour was exceptional. They showed great sensitivity and tact in dealing with the bureaucracy involved with repatriating a British citizen.

The same was not true of the travel and insurance companies through which my friend had purchased his holiday, however. Dominic had booked his package holiday through Golden Sun Holidays, which I believe had a responsibility to deal with matters in the immediate aftermath of his death. His friends were obviously in a state of shock and grieving, yet they were not offered alternative accommodation and the bed sheets in the room in which Dominic stayed were not even changed. The standard of service that those young people, who were clearly in a state of shock, received was frankly not acceptable.

Dealing with the death of a close friend and having to go through the painful process of informing the parents are burdens enough in themselves, but then to deal with an unknown bureaucracy in a foreign country with a foreign language is simply too much for people to cope with when they are at their most vulnerable. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will help to put pressure on the travel industry to create an industry-wide set of guidelines that can be given to all holidaymakers who suffer such a tragic loss abroad. Cannot we establish a code of conduct to which holiday companies can subscribe, to help to unravel the complex procedures that are involved in repatriating a deceased British citizen? Dominic's friends had not only to talk to the British consulate, but to deal with the travel company and its representatives, the insurance company, insurance underwriters, undertakers, airports and local police. They also suffered an interrogation on Rhodes that was similar to the one my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham described.

It is simply not acceptable for the industry to allow grieving people to fend for themselves in unfamiliar territory. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will consider with our colleagues in Europe the establishment of an EU-wide set of guidelines to which the travel industry can subscribe. There have been many instances in which unnecessary bureaucracy has slowed down the burial of British citizens who have died abroad and prohibited families from grieving as they should in such tragic circumstances. It could be argued that the ability to bury one's loved one is a basic human right. I hope that he will take that point on board when he responds.

Dominic McElroy was a great man who was lost to his family tragically early, at the age of 26. They deserve so much more from the travel company from which he purchased his holiday. I hope that we can work to ensure that other people in such tragic circumstances do not have to undergo the pain and misery that Dominic's friends suffered last August.

3.52 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing an Adjournment debate on this important topic. It is an indication of his commitment to his constituency that his first such debate is for the benefit and peace of mind of a family who live there. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) on his contribution. I was pleased to hear his comments about the professionalism of the British consulate in Rhodes. I am not aware of the details of the case that he raised, but I shall certainly take on board his point about the need for EU guidelines for the travel industry in respect of bereavement cases. Sadly, I am not responsible for the travel industry, which is dealt with by another Department, but I point out that the Foreign Office produces a booklet called "Dealing with Death Abroad", which is distributed by embassies.

We were all disturbed to hear about the tragic death of Christopher Rochester in June 2000 and the ordeal of his bereaved family since then. To lose a young life is bad enough, but when it happens overseas and the circumstances are unclear, it must be much worse. On the death of a British citizen overseas, consular staff offer as much assistance as they can. Their primary role is to act as a liaison between the authorities in the country where the death has happened and the bereaved relatives, who are usually in the UK.

If a close relative is present in the country where a death has occurred, our consular staff do their best to assist them in making arrangements for local burial or cremation, or the return of the deceased to the UK. One rule prevails: the welfare of the bereaved relatives must always be paramount.

Let me turn to the specifics of Christopher's case, in which the unusual circumstances and developments overtook the regular pattern of consular activity following a death. Fortunately, as we have heard, Christopher's brother Keith was present and was able to act as a witness for the family. Christopher was returned to the UK relatively quickly and the coroner promptly drew the family's attention to his concerns about Christopher's treatment in hospital and to the findings of the Greek coroner in relation to the cause of his death. It was unusual for the British consulate to be asked to send on the kidney produced by the Greek authorities. Such matters would normally be the responsibility of international undertakers. To then find that the kidney did not belong to Christopher was as shocking for our consulate as it was for the coroner, and was devastating for the family. Our consulate in Rhodes and the embassy in Athens have passed on all messages, relayed questions and unofficially translated documents with great haste.

I am sorry to heal about my hon. Friend's difficulty in getting a response from the Greek ambassador in London. If he would like to speak to me about the matter after the debate, I can pass the message on to Baroness Amos, who is responsible for consular matters. I am sure that she will look into the matter for him.

By encouraging the British and Greek coroners to speak to one another, we hope that at least the question of the missing kidney will be resolved. Our consulate is continuing to press Mr. Stefis, the Greek coroner, to take the matter further, professional to professional, with his British counterpart, Mr. Tweddle. The British coroner has given his verdict of accidental death contributed to by neglect. We understand that, as we have heard, the family are proceeding with their case through the courts. We believe that the Greek police investigation papers have been passed to the public prosecutor. Our embassy in Athens will keep a careful eye on developments. Our consul met the public prosecutor and Mr. Stefis on 17 October, which is yesterday, to discuss progress on the case. Mr. Stefis awaits further photographs from the British coroner, Mr. Tweddle, and the public prosecutor expects to release his report on the allegations of malpractice at Rhodes hospital by the end of November. It is encouraging that the Greek Minister of Justice has also taken a person al interest in the case. He recently telephoned the public prosecutor to make inquiries.

We all hope that the case can be brought to a resolution as soon as possible. To prolong the distress of Christopher's family, especially at a time when bereaved relatives are very much in everyone's thoughts, would be unthinkable.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Four o'clock.