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John Lawton

Volume 545: debated on Thursday 17 May 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.)

I am extremely grateful personally to Mr Speaker for affording me the opportunity to secure this debate and to raise the case of the disappearance of my constituent, Mr John Lawton. John’s wife Lynda, his son Steve and daughter-in-law Rachel are in the Gallery this evening, at what is a deeply worrying time for them. I pay tribute to the dignity and commitment they have shown throughout the period of some five to six weeks since Mr Lawton disappeared in Greece. They have spent much of the past five to six weeks in Greece and are back in the UK while the search for John continues.

John Lawton went missing on 8 April—Easter Sunday—while participating in the Taygetos marathon in Greece. The race started at 8.30 am. The organisers have confirmed that John passed through checkpoint 4 at 1.17 pm, which was about halfway round the course, 21 km from the start of the race at the start of the Viros gorge, but he never reached checkpoint 5, at 26 km—or at least he was never checked in there. Some new information in that connection has just come to light, and I will refer to it later in my speech.

Since being made aware of John’s disappearance, I have been assisting the family and trying to maintain awareness of the case. I heard about the matter within three days and made immediate contact with the Foreign Office to call for assistance. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), also made immediate representations to the Foreign Office in his capacity as the constituency MP of Mr Lawton’s son, Steven. My hon. Friend spoke with the Foreign Office no fewer than three times on Easter Monday, and his intervention contributed to the provision of a helicopter search for about an hour on the following day. The family are appreciative of my hon. Friend’s active interest in the case.

I first raised the matter in the House at my earliest opportunity, at Foreign Office questions on 17 April, when the Minister for Europe kindly confirmed in response that he had spoken with our ambassador in Athens, called for further representations to be made at the highest level of the Greek Government, and made arrangements for a member of the consular team in Greece to visit the Lawton family to discuss their concerns and what support they required. At that time, one key thing that the family wanted—they still want it on an ongoing basis—was a well-resourced, professionally co-ordinated search directed at the highest possible level by the Greek authorities.

I wish to put on the record my thanks to the Minister and the staff in his office for their ongoing assistance. I thank him specifically for taking the time to speak directly with Steven Lawton a few weeks ago and for his continuing agreement to meet representatives of the Lawton family at any stage. It is also important to thank British officials in Greece who have continued to press the Greek authorities on behalf of the family. Dialogue with the police and the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs remains crucial. It is particularly important because at present, as the family told me a few minutes ago, the search in the area is no longer continuing, other than through the occasional tourist who might see the posters placed in the area advertising John’s disappearance.

Over the past five or six weeks, I have received dozens of e-mails not only from constituents but from people across the country who know John, Lynda, Steve and other family members, and I have been struck by the affection and respect in which they are held. One typical e-mail read: John

“is a man who worked with people with learning, physical difficulties and challenging behaviour”

whom

“he never gave up on. His wife, Lynda, is the nicest person you could meet and they are totally devoted to each other”.

John and Lynda married when they were 18-years-old and have been happily married for 42 years. The family tell me that there is no reason John would have voluntarily disappeared. They have lived in the local area, in my constituency, for almost all their married live, and their two children, Steve and Sara, attended school in Sandbach. The local community has rallied to support the family, and yellow ribbons have been worn by many people to show their concern following John’s disappearance. The local media, too, have been extremely supportive. I spoke on BBC Radio Stoke most recently this morning about the matter, and the Crewe Chronicle and the Sandbach Chronicle have made this a headline issue for several weeks, which has been crucial, not least in helping to raise funds to support the search for John.

John Lawton is a popular and active member Sandbach Striders running group, three of whose members have been out to Greece to help in the search. I have been particularly impressed by the lengths to which members of the group have gone to support the family. Six members—husband and wife duo, Jason and Jo Bulley, Perry Wyatt, Terry Coppenhall, Robert Kettle and Steve Treweeks—participated in the London marathon to raise funds for volunteers to go out to Greece as part of the search team. A JustGiving page, in the name of John Lawton, has also been set up by Missing Abroad. The last time I visited the site, 300 people had generously donated more than £13,500. That money, however, has all but been spent on the cost of the 15 Cheshire search and rescue team volunteers who also went out to Greece to help with the search, and on other expenses. I hope that the recently revised target of £25,000 for these costs can be surpassed as soon as possible and that publicity generated, not least as a result of this debate, will help in that process.

In the immediate aftermath of his disappearance being reported, the Greek authorities initiated a search conducted and led mainly by the local Gaia volunteer rescue group. People from the local villages were extremely helpful, closing their businesses and searching throughout their Easter holidays. The search was joined at various points by the police, fire service, search dogs, local mountain rescue teams and the Greek Red Cross. The official search, however, was called off by the Greek authorities about two and a half weeks ago. The family have asked me to express their gratitude that it lasted 20 days, but since then only local volunteers, family members and volunteers from Cheshire have been on the ground looking for John. The 15-man team from the Cheshire search and rescue group returned just a day or so ago, and the family are now particularly keen that I emphasise that there is now no ongoing, active, professional search, and have asked that the Minister ask the Greek authorities that the search be reconvened, not least because information has come to light that leads us to believe that not all the relevant areas have been searched.

The family have engaged privately commissioned UK investigators to review the evidence that has been amassed in respect of John’s disappearance. A detailed timeline chart has been prepared and was sent to the Minister earlier this week. The chart is an analysis based on interviews conducted by UK investigators directly with Greek and British witnesses. The police investigation into John’s disappearance has confirmed that there were eight athletes behind John at the fourth checkpoint, but there has been no formal indication that they were all interviewed and asked whether they saw him between the fourth and fifth checkpoints.

An English witness who lives near the fifth checkpoint on the course apparently approached Gaia to say that she recalled seeing John running past her home close to the fifth checkpoint at about 2 pm. A gel packet, of the English brand that John used and certainly had with him at the time, was found on the course just before the fifth checkpoint. It was found some four weeks ago, but it has not yet been established whether it belonged to him. The family is awaiting the results of DNA tests from the Greek authorities. Any help the Minister can provide to help to secure those results promptly would be appreciated. Two other such gel packets have been found recently by the Cheshire search and rescue team.

All this information suggests that John might have progressed beyond the main area covered by the initial search, and the family is therefore requesting the Greek authorities to recommence their search efforts and to focus on the area highlighted by the new evidence. The initial search might have been conducted in the wrong area, and it is for that reason that the voluntary groups out in Greece have been searching the area between checkpoints 4 and 5 far more extensively. However, additional professional help would be greatly appreciated.

John Lawton is not the first Congleton constituent to disappear in Greece. The Minister might be aware of the case of Steven Cook, a Liverpool university student and former Sandbach school pupil who disappeared in the resort of Malia in Crete on 1 September 2005. I know that Steven’s parents have campaigned tirelessly for more information following their son’s disappearance, and the advice and support that they have offered to the Lawton family over the past few weeks have been greatly appreciated, especially as John’s disappearance must bring back memories of the extremely worrying time during the aftermath of Steven’s disappearance.

I have highlighted a very sad case tonight. It is a case that continues to cause the Lawton family an immense amount of worry and distress. I know that the Foreign Office has been as active as possible, here in London and out in Greece, but I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm what further action can be taken at this time to continue and extend the search for John. Will he also tell me how the discussions with the Greek authorities are progressing, and will progress in the future, and what further steps will be taken to ensure that John’s family receive the ongoing support that they require from all the relevant authorities, here and abroad, and in particular, to ensure the re-engagement of the official search?

I would also be grateful if the Minister could use this opportunity to clarify what assistance the Government can give through the Foreign Office to families who find themselves in a similar predicament. Could he, for example, review the literature that is provided by our embassies to families who find themselves with a missing relative abroad to ensure that it is clear? The disappearance of a loved one at any time is a tremendously distressing situation to have to contend with, but it is made much worse when it happens overseas. I am sure that it would be of considerable help to receive some guidance from the Minister in this respect. This would be of benefit not only to the families who find themselves in this predicament but to Members of Parliament who want to advise their constituents as well and as expeditiously as possible in such circumstances.

I want to close as I began, by paying tribute to the immensely dignified and committed way in which the whole Lawton family—not only Lynda and Steven, but Lynda and John’s daughter Sara, who has also been supporting them—have behaved, and to the commitment that the whole community in my constituency has shown in this situation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate, and I pay tribute to the consistency and tenacity with which she has represented the interests of the Lawton family to me and my officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I also want to acknowledge the presence in his place this evening of my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) who, as Mr Steve Lawton’s MP, has been extremely active in making representations to the Government on behalf of the family.

I want to take the opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton by outlining the consular assistance we have provided to the family and the contacts we have had with the Greek authorities since Mr John Lawton was reported missing, and by trying to provide at least an initial response to some of the newer questions that she posed this evening.

As my hon. Friend said, Mr John Lawton had been taking part in the Taygetos mountain marathon challenge in the Kardamyli area of Greece on the morning of 8 April, Easter Sunday. He started the race, but did not show up at checkpoint 5 en route. Local search efforts began immediately it became clear that he had missed a checkpoint, and he was formally reported missing on Monday 9 April, Easter Monday. Following this, a more intensive search and rescue operation started on 9 April and lasted for 18 days before being officially called off on 26 April. To date, Mr Lawton remains missing. I am sure that the entire House will appreciate and sympathise with the anguish and sense of frustration and anxiety that Mr Lawton’s family and friends will have felt ever since the day he disappeared.

In these circumstances, expectations of consular staff are extremely high. In the overwhelming majority of cases, consular staff throughout the world perform their duties with care and compassion, doing all they can to help families to keep up to date with developments and get the information they need in order to make properly informed decisions as things progress. The primary role of consular staff is one of welfare: it is to assist, where they can; to obtain information from relevant authorities where possible; and, where appropriate, sometimes to raise more detailed issues with those authorities. What our consular staff cannot do themselves is to investigate missing persons overseas, and, as I know my hon. Friend understands, they cannot instruct the local authorities how they should handle a search or investigation in their own country, just as we would not expect other countries to attempt to instruct us how to carry out a missing person search in the UK.

Consular staff in Greece and London have been very active in this case since Mr Lawton’s disappearance was first reported. On the same day as the report was made, consular staff in Athens were in contact with the local chief of police who was supervising the search, to register our concern and see whether there was any assistance we could offer. The chief of police asked if we could intercede with the central authorities in Athens to try to secure the use of a helicopter with thermal imaging equipment. As a result of the direct intervention of the British embassy in Athens with officials at the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, such a helicopter was dispatched to the search site during Tuesday 10 April —just over 24 hours after Mr Lawton was officially reported missing.

In the early days of the search, consular staff were able to support some other strands of the search operation, including attempts to locate John Lawton through his mobile phone or through the Garmin watch with GPS facility that he was wearing at the time. Unfortunately, the mobile phone was later found to have been left switched off at his hotel, and the watch could only receive a signal—regrettably, it could not transmit details of Mr Lawton’s location.

Our consul in Athens was also in direct telephone contact with Mr Steve Lawton, John Lawton’s son, on the evening of Easter Monday, and has remained in contact ever since, with a face-to-face meeting when she visited the area on 19 April.

Our embassy staff in Athens maintained regular contact with the Greek authorities at both senior and local operational level in both the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Citizen Protection, which has responsibility for the police and related emergency services, to support the efforts of Steve Lawton himself at the search site. Normal practice in Greece is for such a search to last for 72 hours, as was the case in March this year when a Greek national went missing in the same area. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, in this case—in large part, I believe, as a result of the that high level of contact from our staff—the Greek authorities maintained the search for nearer to three weeks. During that time they deployed a variety of resources, including specially trained search and rescue teams, other manpower—both official and volunteer—and trained dogs and a thermal imaging helicopter.

In the most recent high-level intervention, our ambassador in Athens has spoken to both the Minister and the Deputy Minister for Citizen Protection, acknowledging the efforts of the authorities so far and encouraging them to continue to consider whether there was anything more that they ought to be doing. The Minister confirmed that the investigation should continue, and obviously I will ask our embassy to follow up that conversation in the light of what my hon. Friend has said this evening.

My hon. Friend mentioned some of the findings of the privately commissioned investigation. Having received the report earlier this week, we have passed it on to our ministerial contacts in Greece, together with the family’s request that the search should recommence on the basis of the timeline analysis and the findings of the investigation. I note what my hon. Friend said about the time that it has taken to obtain the results of the DNA test that was promised for the gel samples. As she will understand, I cannot speak with any detailed knowledge of how the system of pathology tests operates in Greece, but I will ask our consular team in Athens to look into the matter as well.

I hope that my hon. Friend and the Lawton family will be reassured that we maintain, and will continue to maintain, a high level of contact with the Greek authorities. Inevitably, given the current economic and political situation in Greece, Ministers and the officials who are political appointees will be preoccupied with the forthcoming general election, but we will continue to do all that we can to maintain the profile of this case with them and with the operational authorities at a more local level.

I am grateful for the fact that my hon. Friend was able to arrange for me to speak directly to Mr Steve Lawton by telephone when he returned to the United Kingdom for a few days to accompany his mother home. That enabled me to explain our role in a little more detail, and to assure him that we would continue to maintain our close contact with the Greek authorities as the case progressed.

I completely understand why the Lawton family and John Lawton’s friends felt frustrated that the Government could not intervene and send UK search specialists to bolster the Greek effort, as we sometimes do in the case of natural disasters overseas. As I said to Mr Lawton when we spoke, it is the Greek authorities that have the local expertise and the legal responsibility and powers in their own country and locality, and they were co-ordinating the search on the ground. Official offers of support from the UK would normally be made only if the local authorities in the country concerned lacked the equipment, resource or experience to conduct a search, and requested such help from us. Those circumstances did not apply in this case. However, in the event that the family, friends or UK search teams wanted to be actively involved in the search on a volunteer basis—either independently or in support of an official search—we would help to facilitate contact with the relevant authorities in Greece if that were asked of us.

We have recently been in contact with the Cheshire search and rescue team in that regard. I understand that it had been invited to continue the search by the Lawton family and the Greek volunteer search teams. Although our assistance was not required in this case, we stand ready to help, should that be required in any similar deployments in future. As my hon. Friend has said, the funding for the Cheshire team has come from the JustGiving page set up by Missing Abroad, a charitable organisation set up by the Lucie Blackman Trust in 2008 to provide practical and in some cases financial support to families and friends of people who have gone missing overseas. Missing Abroad can supplement consular support by offering additional services, including supporting or co-ordinating searches for missing people in other countries. It also provides valuable emotional support to families. FCO consular staff, both in this country and abroad, regularly encourage people to contact Missing Abroad. My Department also provides some funding to Missing Abroad, as its services clearly complement the support that our consular teams offer. Details for Missing Abroad are available via the Foreign Office’s public website and in the FCO publication “Missing persons abroad”.

Let me respond to the point my hon. Friend made about the provision of information. Although there is inevitably an inherent tension between the wish to provide a concise and clear account and the need to provide answers to the detailed questions that families facing many different circumstances might have, we are always keen to learn from the experience of people who unfortunately have to make use of such literature. I would be very happy for my officials to talk directly to my hon. Friend and to members of the Lawton family to see whether improvements could be made in the light of the experience in this case.

The main help that the FCO can give in such cases is to assist families in understanding how systems work in other countries—although we cannot provide professional legal advice—to liaise with local authorities where necessary and, if appropriate, to act as a bridge between those authorities and families. That is the kind of support that our staff in Crete have provided to the family of Mr Steven Cook, in the other case that my hon. Friend mentioned. Steven’s family have been in close contact with consular staff in Crete since he first went missing in 2005.

I freely acknowledge that our efforts and those of the Greek authorities will never be enough for as long as Mr John Lawton remains missing. I believe that our consular staff have worked hard to provide the family with consular assistance during every stage of the case. More important, we stand ready to continue to offer support to the family and to maintain our contact with the Greek authorities for as long as necessary.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.