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Christopher Traynor

Volume 497: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2009

Thank you, Sir Nicholas, for remembering my father. I did not realise that you were so old. [Interruption.] How to win friends and influence people.

A few days ago it was the 10th anniversary of the death of my beloved only son, Hugh. Sadly, a few months later, a mother who I did not know at the time lost her son, Christopher. Christopher and Hugh had some things in common. They were both 23 when they died, both had suffered mental stress and drug addiction problems, both were born in the last quarter of the 20th century and should have lived on to have a full and fulfilling life in the 21st century. Sadly and tragically, their fates were sealed in lonely bedsit flats away from families who loved them dearly and continue to do so today.

But the similarities end there. Hugh died in Glasgow, where his death was properly and thoroughly investigated and he and his family were treated with dignity and respect. Christopher died in Paris, France, where the investigation was scant and his body and family were treated with utter disrespect.

In the next 15 to 20 minutes, my parliamentary colleagues and I will set out a harrowing tale of an unexplained death in mysterious circumstances, and unanswered questions. Christopher’s mother, Winnie, has campaigned courageously for nine years. She has refused to give up fighting to get to the truth of the circumstances of her beloved child’s death, and has sought truth and justice for him. It is the last thing that a parent can do for their child. Winnie and her daughters Karen and Sharon are here with us today.

How could officials in France, including the police and others, who could be parents themselves, treat Christopher as if he was worthless and of no consequence? How could whatever happened to end his short life be of no interest to them? Christopher’s death was a terrible tragedy, but what makes it so unbearable and unacceptable to Winnie is the tale of truth and justice denied by a system so insensitive that it could not even repatriate his remains with dignity and understanding. Instead, without permission, his body was probably used as a cadaver by medical authorities. It took his mother and family years to trace his withheld organs, including his brain and heart.

There was no serious police inquiry. It took just 55 minutes to investigate what could have been a murder and, in any event, was clearly a suspicious death. There was no interview of key French eye-witnesses, nor were witnesses traced or interviewed, with or without a French police caution.

The French said that the cause of death was alcohol poisoning, but the British say that it was not. Indeed, they said that Christopher would have passed a drink driving test in Britain. Then it was said that the cause of death could have been neglect, or pneumonia, but the French eye-witness, Alain Nesmon, said that it was murder and that he was there. Christopher’s courageous and loving mother, Winnie, and his brothers and sisters want the truth, which they believe lies with Alain Nesmon.

Nine years on, Winnie simply wants the British Government to persuade their French counterparts seriously to investigate this tragic death, and finally to test the allegation made by the eye-witness that her son was murdered. She needs answers before that key witness dies of the cancer from which he is suffering.

But it is not only the family who are on Christopher’s side in terms of securing justice and finding the simple truth behind his tragic death. The South Sefton coroner, Christopher Sumner, wrote a private letter to the Foreign Office in December 2003 in which he was scathing. He stated:

“I consider that the police investigation was cursory in the extreme. It gave the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the deceased, being a squatter, was of little significance.”

He then gets tougher:

“No forensic evidence appears to have been gathered. Little was done of an investigative nature.”

In another letter, the coroner went even further. He simply does not believe that Christopher could have died from alcohol poisoning. On 10 September 2004, he wrote:

“The post mortem conclusion refers to acute alcoholic poisoning with the ‘abundant ingestion of beer likely'. Such a conclusion is not borne out by the evidence.”

He states that the pathologists’ conclusions are based on

“assumption rather than hard fact.”

There are two even more shocking revelations. First, the coroner confirmed that the French police inquiry lasted just 55 minutes. Even more disturbing, he revealed evidence that Christopher’s body may have been found at 0500 hours, and that it took the police six hours to arrive at the scene. The coroner also revealed that Alain Nesmon was never questioned by the police despite the fact, which he was able to ascertain, that it was Nesmon who removed all of Christopher’s personal possessions, leaving only his birth certificate on his lifeless body.

In this short debate, to which other colleagues wish to make a contribution, it would be impossible to go into every aspect of the case or the role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In advance of the debate, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary on 3 August and submitted to him a confidential background paper setting out all of the investigation painstakingly carried out by former “World in Action” investigator and award-winning broadcaster, Rob McLoughlin, the man who tracked down and interviewed Alain Nesmon not once but twice. On 18 August, I wrote again to the Foreign Secretary, having spoken to his officials. I asked him to instruct Sir Peter Westmacott, our ambassador in France, to start immediate discussions with the French authorities to ask them to order an urgent inquiry to open up and properly investigate the death of Christopher Traynor.

My notes on behalf of the family and my parliamentary colleagues run to 32 points of investigation or comment on the suspicious circumstances. I ask the Minister to respond to the report that I submitted to the Foreign Secretary and to advise of the outcome of the Foreign Office’s discussions with the French authorities. Secondly, would he agree to meet Winnie Traynor and her family, and my hon. Friends and me, to discuss in more detail the issues around Christopher’s death and the role of the Foreign Office, past, present and future, in this case?

In life, Christopher Traynor had no advantages. He was at times estranged from a family who wanted to shield him from brutal abuse outside the home but could not prevent him from running away from it and towards dark and dangerous substances that would isolate him from the people who loved him most. He pretended to himself and the world that he could cope, but his private letters portray another and more honest image. This was a barely literate young man trying to escape from a world which had hurt him and which he could neither cope with nor understand. Authority figures in England had damaged him and he would never hold trust in them again.

Christopher’s death may have seemed to others to be inevitable. He was clearly ill: he was carrying the symptoms of pneumonia, which probably needed basic treatment, but were they enough to kill him? Can we be sure that that was the case? He was moving in a shadowy and dangerous world where some in authority believe that life is cheap. He was attracting attention and befriending people who may have had little regard for him as they fought their own battles to survive.

Christopher may have been killed by neglect, but it could have been something far more sinister. His mother has to know the answer. In that Paris squat, he had no advantages and no one to help him. His mother wants to change that in death. While there is time—limited time—she wants the authorities on both sides of the English channel finally to allow him to rest in peace. She wants them to do one simple thing: discover what Alain Nesmon knows and test it by a proper and thorough police investigation in co-operation with the South Sefton coroner and Merseyside police.

Sir Nicholas, this is a harrowing tale. With your permission, may my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Benton) participate in this short debate?

I am perfectly agreeable that the hon. Member for Bootle should contribute to this debate, as the initiator has indicated that he has his permission to do so.

Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I support everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) said.

It has been a privilege, although that might sound like a strange word to use, for myself and Ann McCartney, a member of my staff, to be associated with the Traynor family, because they purvey a great sense of dignity in the light of all those harrowing circumstances that my right hon. Friend has described. Most of the issues and unanswered questions, which are too numerous to enumerate, have been mentioned, but there are still a lot more questions about this tragic death that need to be answered.

In supporting my right hon. Friend, I, too, urge my hon. Friend the Minister to speak to us and give us an opportunity to elaborate a bit more on the combined knowledge that we all have and to set up an inquiry, because the circumstances are horrifying. I have been in public life now for some 45 years and I find it difficult to think of a more poignant, tragic case than this, which the family has borne with great dignity.

It might be a mixture of spiritual and human factors, but one of the tragedies about death is always that it is a good thing to grieve. We often derive our comfort from grief in these circumstances. I do not need to tell hon. and right hon. Members that the more tragic the circumstances of a death, the more necessary it is to grieve properly and with dignity. Winnie Traynor and her family have not had that opportunity. I am making a plea today on their behalf, because Parliament, the Foreign Office and my hon. Friend the Minister have it in their power to move things on a bit, to coin a phrase. All we are seeking, at the end of the day, is the truth. We want the truth.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the coroner’s report, which is a key factor. The first responses that we had from the coroner early on were not too helpful, but it has all changed now and the dawn—the realisation of truth—is coming through and permeating. I want us, as a Government, to take this opportunity to get the full facts revealed to allow the Traynor family to grieve with dignity and with some notion of peace.

Sir Nicholas, I am delighted to sit under your chairmanship again today. I pay tribute not only to my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Benton), but to all those who have kept this case alive in Parliament and the media in an attempt to try to get justice for the family. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) and to my right hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward).

I pay tribute, too, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield did, to the family of Christopher Traynor. This was a tragic set of circumstances and a tragic culmination to a tragic period in his life. I wholeheartedly pay tribute to the work that his family has done. All those who work in the Foreign Office, including consular staff, fully understand the personal commitment that individuals have made to try to ensure that they get a full understanding of exactly what happened. I think that everybody in the consular service in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office accepts that questions remain unanswered on this issue. There is clearly a sharp distinction between what the French and British coroners said. There is a sharp distinction between what the police and prosecuting authorities in France and those in the United Kingdom consider to be the case. There are inconsistencies.

I welcome the Minister to his new, enhanced responsibilities in the FCO.

Although I am not making any comparisons between the two cases—they are entirely different—in the Michael Shields case the investigations that Merseyside police were able to carry out were crucial in enabling our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to decide that there was sufficient new evidence to release him. But as my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Benton) have said, there is no co-operation forthcoming from the French police to Merseyside police. Will my hon. Friend the Minister encourage the French to co-operate fully with Merseyside police to see what help they can give in this situation?

I am not able to comment on the other case that my hon. Friend raised.

Incidentally, my right hon. Friend asked whether I would be happy to meet the family, Ministers and other hon. Members, and of course I am more than happy to do so, not least because there is probably further work that we can do to advance this issue. I will mention later some of the work that the embassy has done in Paris in the last couple of weeks, which may help us move in the right direction.

It is always difficult to force the police authorities in another country to do something that they do not want to do, especially if our authorities have criticised the work that an authority has done, because sometimes that authority will respond, saying, “We think we’ve done our job and there it is. We’re the legitimate authority in this country, not you, so you can’t tell us what to do.” So it is always difficult. Consular staff, who spend much of their time dealing with complicated issues, including child abductions, rapes and deaths in suspicious circumstances, are conscious always of the complexities of the relationship between police authorities in this country and those in another country.

Last week our embassy in Paris spoke to the deputy public prosecutor of Bobigny, the Paris suburb where Christopher Traynor’s case is being considered, who said that the French police could interview Monsieur Nesmon if a formal request was made by the UK authorities. However, the FCO is not, in their view, the correct authority. The request would have to come from Merseyside police, which so far has been reluctant to do so, on the basis that this was a French investigation. Sometimes one police department does not like to criticise the work of another one in another country, because it does not like being criticised back, and Merseyside police feels that it has no real, hard evidence that Christopher’s death was anything other than natural. However, the FCO consular staff will go back to Merseyside police on this, because if the authorities in France are saying that they would look at the matter again if Merseyside police asked them to do so, it would be odd for us not to do that.

The fact is that the coroner recorded an open verdict. That was important. He was critical not just of the investigation but of the evidence. There is no evidence that Christopher died of natural causes; it is an open verdict and therefore should be investigated as such.

Yes, but of course the difficulty with an open verdict is that one is not saying that there is therefore hard evidence of something other than a natural cause. I realise that this is a fine distinction, but this is the distinction that Merseyside police needs to address, because it must decide to make a request, as we believe it should, to the French police to interview Monsieur Nesmon.

The other alternative is available not to the Foreign Office but to the family. The deputy public prosecutor in Bobigny said that if the family were to write to her directly, she would consider any representation that they made. I will make sure that staff in my Department write to the family to ensure that they know precisely how they could go about that. The door is at least slightly open in the case of the public prosecutor in Bobigny.

I fully understand, of course, why Christopher’s family have been critical of the French authorities and, indeed, of our own consular service, the UK coroner, the international funeral directors and the UK police. I would say that there was a series of very unfortunate elements right from the beginning, including the fact that we found it very difficult to identify the right person as next of kin at the very beginning. We were put in touch with another Traynor, in Australia, who of course had absolutely nothing to do with Christopher, but we had no means of getting directly in touch with next of kin. Quite often, that is one of the most difficult things that consular staff have to deal with, but from the very beginning there has been a series of unfortunate moments that have made it very difficult for the family to have clear confidence in the processes in either the French system or the UK system. When, on top of that, the French system and the UK system have been at odds one with another, of course that has led to more confusion.

As I said, I am more than happy to meet the family and, if there is any further assistance that we can possibly give, I am happy to make that available. Our difficulty is that we are not able to command the French Government to command the French prosecuting authorities on how to proceed. The French prosecuting authorities have said that in the first instance they would need either a direct approach from the family or a direct approach from Merseyside police to be able to reopen the investigation and interview particular individuals.

I thank my hon. Friend for agreeing to meet the family. In my contribution to start this discussion, I made it absolutely clear that the coroner had written twice to the Foreign Office to express his extreme concerns about this issue. What is not clear is whether the Foreign Office did anything to take those forward. The reason why I raise that is that in the end the coroner has to rely on our posts abroad when dealing with deaths abroad. Therefore, it would be useful—certainly for the meeting if the Minister cannot do this now—to find out with some clarity whether those concerns, worries, indeed straightforward, simple allegations of failure in the investigation were simply filed away or were acted on. The reason why I ask him that is simple. His officials quite openly sent us a note showing that they had done a review of the file, and it stops dead in 2005, yet my hon. Friends and I have been in communication about this matter since then, including the fact that we asked for a meeting to be organised with Merseyside police and for the Foreign Office to offer its facilities to give Merseyside police a way of engaging with their counterparts in France.

So it is not simply a matter of saying here, “The coroner works in this box; Merseyside police operate in that box.” We need to get the boxes to work together, because without that, Christopher’s death will remain a mystery and it is important that it does not. He was a human being. He was somebody’s child—lonely, frustrated and concerned, as he had expressed days before he died. I therefore ask the Minister to think out of the box about what the Foreign Office is prepared to do in terms of resources to help us to get to the next stage, as outlined earlier.

Of course I fully sympathise with the tenor of what my right hon. Friend says, but I think he will accept that the one thing that a British Government cannot do is tell the British or French police authorities what to do. We can make representations, and we have done so. For that matter, the embassy was in touch with the public prosecutor only last week. On previous occasions, we have suggested ways in which the family could reopen the investigation by making approaches to the public prosecutor in France. I am not aware of whether they have or have not taken up those opportunities, but those avenues have been made available to them through the consular service that we provide. It would be wholly remiss of me, however, to suggest that it is possible for us to force the French authorities, or the British authorities for that matter, to take up an investigation if they choose not to do so. We simply do not have the power to do that and, to be honest, I do not believe that we should have it.

I am more than happy to speak to the family and to meet hon. Members.

The Minister is quite right to emphasise that he is not in a position to order the French to do anything, but there could surely be some kind of ministerial contact. We could use ministerial good offices on this side and on the French side and ask the French at the very least to consider reopening the case. That is quite different from trying to tell them what to do in such a case. A princess dies, and, quite understandably, we have investigation after investigation; a boy dies in a squat, and nobody seems to give a squat about what happened to him. It would be wholly remiss of Her Majesty’s Government not to exercise some discretion on behalf of this young man.

The honest truth is that consular staff have devoted a great deal of time to this and they have tried to provide all the support that they can. Sometimes, they are not able, and never would be able, to give all the support that families want, simply because there has been an enormous tragedy and the sense of loss and grief is impossible to assuage through consular action. I realise that my hon. Friend is trying to find a way for me gently to drop in a ministerial ear in Paris the suggestion that a Minister should force the public authorities in France to reopen the case. To do that, however, I would have to make a judgment on the rights and wrongs of the case, which I am simply not able to do. In addition, I would be asking the French authorities to do something that, were they to respond in kind and ask us to do it, would rightly make us angry. The separation of powers between the political system and the judiciary and the justice system is a very important principle, which I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield shares.

There is still an avenue open if we can persuade the Merseyside police to ask the French authorities to reopen the case and interview Monsieur Nesmon. Another avenue is for the family to make a direct representation, and my staff in the consular section will be more than happy to help them with that. Those are the most likely ways for us to achieve the outcome that every member of consular services and the Foreign Office team, along with the family, wants. We want to know the truth about what happened and to make sure that there is justice for the Traynor family and that there is an opportunity to draw to a close a hideously tragic and difficult situation for the family and all those who have been involved.

I do not think that there is anything more I can add, other than to pay tribute to the family for the work and the campaign that they have kept up.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.