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Access to Justice (British Citizens Abroad)

Volume 573: debated on Monday 6 January 2014

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

My remarks will be in three sections, and then I have two questions and three requests to put to the Minister. First, I want to talk about the young man for whom I speak this evening—Tyrell Matthews-Burton, sadly no longer with us. Secondly, I want to talk about the inconsistent nature of the assistance that has been provided to his family since his tragic murder. Thirdly, I want to talk about the existing protocol for supporting families who have lost loved ones abroad in such instances as this case. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) also wishes to speak, and I want to ensure that the Minister has ample time to respond to the concerns that we are raising.

On 23 July last year, Tyrell’s 19th birthday and the last night of his first holiday abroad without his mum, while out with his friends celebrating not just his birthday but their chance to go to university, he was brutally killed while trying to stop a fight in a bar in Malia. I do not know who killed Tyrell, and I am not here to prosecute the case against those who stand accused; I am here to ask how we ensure that every British family who has a loved one killed or go missing abroad knows that their country will stand by them. This is every parent’s nightmare.

Tyrell was a young man in his prime, with a passion for fashion, which he hoped to make a career of, and popular with friends and family and, indeed, young ladies. He was cut down before he had the chance to show the world what he was capable of. Then he was disgracefully slandered in the press by Greek officials as a member of a gang. I have written to Greek officials asking for an apology for this, but I am sad to say that, six months on, it is yet to appear. Since Tyrell’s death, the distress caused to his family by the Greek authorities has been continuous, from the dismissive actions of the Greek coroner to the casual return of the clothes that Tyrell was wearing the night he was killed in the post and the continued total lack of communication with and respect shown to a grieving family. But I am not here tonight to call to account the Greek authorities as to why they seem to care so little for this young man’s life. I am here to ask: what is the appropriate role of the British authorities in such matters?

I am sure the Minister has been briefed on the family’s concerns—from being told consistently by the consulate that it could not find out anything about the investigation and simply to find a lawyer, to then being given the details of lawyers who represented the person accused of Tyrell’s killing and being subjected to a tirade as to their innocence. The consulate staff knew themselves that the clothes, with possible DNA evidence, were being returned to the family, but they did not question this and simply telephoned ahead to ensure that the family would be in when the courier arrived. Tyrell’s mother was told that if she wanted someone to explain the difference between a UK and a Greek pathologist report, she should go to her own GP for help.

But I have not asked for this debate to talk about lessons learned in sensitivity; I have done so primarily because I believe that without intervention there is a risk that the human rights of the victim’s family are being infringed. The Minister will know that we have been repeatedly told that formal requests for information have been rebuffed by the Greek authorities. Our consulate tells me that it cannot even find out matters such as a possible date for the trial or the charges laid, even though it claims to have registered an interest in the case.

The Minister will also know that, for Tyrell’s hard-working, single mother, the cost of legal advice is prohibitively expensive. Therefore, the only information the family have had about the case has been through press reports of the claims of the family of the accused.

I draw the Minister’s attention to the obligations under European Union law that all member states must ensure protection for the rights of crime victims, which international law defines as including the families of murder victims. The EU framework has been fully in force since 2006. It requires that victims and their families are kept involved and informed throughout criminal investigations and criminal trials, including the provision of detailed information in a form and language that they can understand, and for free when they cannot afford to pay. There are also requirements of co-operation between member states, so the UK must ensure that the family’s rights are upheld by Greece. My first question, therefore, is: does the Minister believe that the conduct of the UK Government on this matter to date is in accordance with those legal requirements?

The Prime Minister kindly agreed to meet Tyrell’s mother in September to try to help matters, but I am afraid to say that it was not the breakthrough for which we had all hoped. I know that the Foreign Office itself is disappointed with the advice it has given. It admits that the former team at the Ministry of Justice that managed such matters has been disbanded, so there is no institutional memory as to how we should address such cases. Regretfully, we are now told—contrary to the Prime Minister’s own personal suggestion—that Tyrell’s mother is not eligible for legal aid as a family member of a victim of crime. Nor would she be eligible under the Greek system; even if she was, there would be no guarantee that the person would speak English.

The family were then told that there is no public funding for representation, and so the official advice from Foreign Office officials was that the family should approach Tyrell’s former employer—he had a Saturday job at Next—or the mother’s current employer, a housing association, to ask them to fund legal advice. When I queried this, the officials simply told me this was standard practice, so my second question to the Minister is: will he confirm whether that standard practice is in accordance with the EU framework that the UK has ratified?

Thankfully, in the past few weeks some progress has started to be made. Money has now been made forthcoming from Victim Support. This limited funding, granted in December, will cover an initial instruction for a Greek lawyer, yet this £1,800 is the sum total of support we have given as a nation to this grieving mother in a case where the costs could reach €20,000.

I am also still waiting for a response from the Foreign Office following its commitment to ask the ambassador to raise this matter with the Greek authorities; to secure a meeting for the family and myself with the Greek authority representatives here; to ask the police lead for an update; and to speak to the judge in Greece about meeting the family. Those promises were made at the start of December.

Sadly, this is not an unusual case. My final points refer to the protocol that is supposed to define the treatment of families in such matters. There is a memorandum of understanding on what should happen in dreadful cases of a British national being murdered abroad. It was formalised between the Foreign Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the coroners of England and Wales in 2011. It specifically decrees that where a matter involves both a British national as a victim and a British national as a suspect, the UK police can appoint a senior investigating officer. Indeed, under section 9 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, the suspect can be prosecuted in England and Wales.

Despite the fact that this case meets that test, there has been no involvement in the investigation of this matter or movement on it by the police in relation to bringing the case to the UK for trial, even though the Prime Minister agreed to raise it with the Met. An SIO was finally appointed when the Prime Minister intervened, but nothing more has happened. The police have said that, as the Greek police have refused their help, there is nothing they can do. That stands in contrast to other well-known cases, such as that of Madeleine McCann, where the Prime Minister’s intervention has rightly been crucial to making progress.

Of concern to me is the failure of the police to act when the defendant conducted a public interview with the British press that was broadcast in the UK. I alerted the Met before the broadcast of the film and asked them to ensure that it would not affect the possibility of a trial here. I am afraid that that did not happen. The Foreign Office has told me, with circular logic, that

“because we don’t know the quality of the Greek investigation they have decided they cannot tell whether it would be appropriate to ask the MET to get involved”.

We therefore cannot know whether the investigation is proceeding appropriately. Our authorities are not following their own protocol. What confidence can we have that justice will be done?

In addition to my requests about clarification of the EU legal framework, I have three requests for the Minister. First, I ask him to request the Greek authorities to meet me and Tyrell’s family directly to update them on the status of the investigation and the time scale for the trial. That this has not happened yet—and, indeed, that no offer to arrange it has been made, except because of my request—is I am sure something on which the Minister will wish to reflect: it should not take a cross MP for our representatives to want such authorities to speak to a victim’s family.

Secondly, will the Minister confirm that the Foreign Office will ensure that Victim Support has the funds to be able to provide full financial assistance to ensure Ms Matthews has legal representation in the trial, or will he and the British Government request, as per the memorandum of understanding, that the matter is now brought back to UK authorities for trial and investigation by the UK police?

Finally, I urge the Government to review their protocol for the management of such cases. We cannot have a fair and just system if only those families who can secure a media presence receive the intervention they need when something terrible happens to a family member overseas. Baroness Browning confirmed that the Home Secretary and Prime Minister intervened in the case of Madeleine McCann because they believed her to be alive, and their intervention included a commitment to ensure that the police had what she termed the “necessary funding”.

Tyrell may no longer be with us, but his right to justice lives on, as do the rights of his family and those of other murdered British citizens. It cannot be beyond the realm of possibility for our Government to have a clearer and fairer protocol for the provision of appropriate support and intervention, subject to differences in countries’ legal systems, to ensure that families have the representation and assistance that they need. If this involved any of our families, we would wish for such certainty of assistance, as does Ms Matthews, who faced her first Christmas without her son this year and who continues to grieve, still not knowing whether she will be able to see justice done for Tyrell or even hear when it will occur.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on securing it and on presenting her arguments so powerfully and in such detail.

My interest in speaking in this debate relates to the fact that the individual currently detained in Greece on suspicion of murdering Tyrell Matthews-Burton is a young man called Myles Litchmore-Dunbar. Myles is my constituent, and in the past six months I have been in contact with his parents Chris and Carole, and his aunt Denise. The whole family have serious concerns about the way in which the Greek authorities have handled the murder investigation. They believe the support that has been provided to them by the British Government to be wholly inadequate. They believe passionately that the British police should be involved in investigating Tyrell’s murder.

I am not here tonight to assert any individual’s guilt or innocence. This was an horrific crime and I want whoever committed it to be brought to justice.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

Although I do not come to the Chamber to assert any individual’s guilt or innocence, I would like to say for the record that Myles Litchmore-Dunbar maintains his innocence and argues that on the night of 23 July last year in Malia, he too was attempting to break up the brawl that led to the stabbing of Tyrell.

When crimes are committed in the UK, many of us take it for granted that the British police will investigate fully and fairly, and that our legal system will give both sides a fair hearing in the pursuit of justice. Although I recognise that I do not know the full facts of the case, I believe on the basis of what I have been told that there is reason for the British Government to be worried that the process that is under way in Greece will not result in the sort of justice that we would expect to be delivered in our country. I want justice to be done, I want the right person to be convicted of the murder of Tyrell Matthews-Burton and I want the British Government to help make that happen.

My hon. Friend has referred to the fact that the clothing that Tyrell was wearing on the night of his death has been posted back to his family in the UK. I am at a loss to understand why that clothing was not retained in Greece as evidence. I am concerned that that suggests that the Greek authorities are failing to deal with the matter appropriately. I could give other examples that lead me to say that, but I am not entirely sure that this is the appropriate forum to do so. I have communicated my concerns to the Prime Minister in writing.

I am here tonight because I want to be assured that the British Government are doing everything they can to press the Greek authorities to investigate this crime in a rigorous, professional and timely manner. I ask the Government to think again about British police involvement in the investigation. A British man was killed in a brawl that involved another 18 or so British citizens, and a British family are grieving for their son. Is there really no way in which the case could be investigated by the British police or heard in a British court?

My constituents feel badly let down by our Government. The victim’s family feel badly let down too. For everyone’s sake, I ask the Minister to take heed of the deep and serious concerns that have been expressed by those involved, and to do whatever he can to ensure that justice is done.

Let me say at the outset that both the hon. Ladies who have spoken have taken exactly the right approach in representing their constituents. If I were in their position, I would do the same. That is what MPs are there for. The two hon. Ladies may be representing different sides of the argument—one represents the accused and one represents the person against whom the crime was perpetrated—but they are both absolutely within their rights to come to the House to raise these issues on behalf of their constituents.

We must manage expectations. I do not agree with the view that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is not doing enough. I will expand on that in the following minutes. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for securing a debate on this important issue.

I will deal straight away with the points that were made by the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander). It is worth saying at the outset that the case is now at the judicial investigation stage, which means that the police have handed it to the courts, which will now decide whether further investigation is required or whether they have enough evidence to proceed. In Greece, that can be a very long process, and we are doing all we can to ensure that Ms Matthews and others have as much information as possible. It is also worth pointing out that all the men involved in the incident and their families are receiving consular assistance. We repeatedly advise them, however, to speak to their lawyers about anything of a legal nature. We met three of the families in particular at their request, and we offered to meet Ms Matthews at any time.

Providing assistance to British nationals who are the victims of serious crimes overseas and their next of kin is a core priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. To put the matter into context, in 2012 alone, FCO staff dealt with more than 1 million consular inquiries and 100,000 consular cases and provided consular assistance to more than 20,000 people as they endured the trauma of being a victim of crime with the additional challenge of being in an unfamiliar country whose language, culture and judicial systems can be very different from ours.

We can and do provide support, experience and assistance and put those in need in contact with charities and other organisations, several of which we help to fund. We can and do also use our diplomatic network to put pressure on foreign Governments to make changes or improvements to their processes. We are committed to delivering support of the highest standards and, as our consular strategy makes plain, to improving continually our service and offering the most vulnerable the greatest level of support.

However, in such circumstances there are also clear limitations to what we can do—this is where we come back to the management of expectation. For instance, we cannot become involved in the competent judicial process of another country or ask the taxpayer to fund legal cases in foreign courts. I know that the hon. Member for Walthamstow has been deeply concerned about the case of Tyrell Matthews-Burton, who was tragically killed in Crete last year. I, too, would like to take this opportunity to extend my deepest sympathies to Tyrell’s mother, Ms Matthews.

From the moment we were informed of Tyrell’s death, officials have provided extensive support to Ms Matthews. In the immediate aftermath, consular staff in Crete spent time at the police station, hospital and court to offer support. The hon. Lady shakes her head in disagreement, but I am stating the chronology of what happened. It might not have been enough, but it is what actually happened in the aftermath.

In London, teams were in daily contact with the families of those involved to provide assistance and referrals to organisations such as Victim Support. Ms Matthews was assigned a caseworker and quickly issued with a passport, and with the support of one of the charities that the FCO helps to fund, Missing Abroad, flights to Crete and accommodation were arranged at no cost to the family. We have continued to provide full support to Ms Matthews, from repatriating Tyrell’s body to liaising with Her Majesty’s coroner following Ms Matthews’s request to see the post mortem report.

One of the greatest challenges for victims of crime at home and abroad is gaining access to information. Of course, in the case of crimes committed overseas, geographic distance, language and procedure are all added barriers. I know that a lack of information can lead to extreme frustration, compound anxiety and result in a loss of confidence in the judicial process of the country involved. That is entirely understandable. We therefore do what we can to get updates as soon as possible as well as providing guidance on local systems and procedures. In Tyrell’s case, consular staff were on hand from the outset to help liaise with the authorities and provide a range of important information explaining the local police and legal systems and giving details of local lawyers and interpreters. Consular officials at the British embassy in Athens have also lobbied for information the Greek Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Justice, as well as the Greek police and judiciary, and have attended some initial meetings. We stand ready to continue to do that as the family navigates the local system, and to attend the first day and verdict of any future trial.

Systems overseas are often different from our own, and unlike in the UK, it may not be possible for individuals to obtain information directly. Investigating authorities and courts may refuse to answer inquiries from third parties, including foreign Governments or consular officials. For those reasons, we always advise victims of crime overseas to instruct a local lawyer who can access detailed information on their client’s behalf, and judge whether an investigation is conducted in line with local laws. From the outset, we and the Greek authorities have recommended that Ms Matthews obtain legal representation.

I understand, of course, that appointing a lawyer can put a huge financial burden on a family—something to which the hon. Member for Walthamstow alluded. However, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office cannot fund legal representation. We are simply not resourced to offer such funding, and in the case of Ms Matthews we have done all we can to explore alternative legal aid options in the United Kingdom and Greece, including offering advice on the EU compensation scheme. Following the meeting between the hon. Lady, Ms Matthews, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I am pleased that work to identify a lawyer and funding from Victim Support has enabled Ms Matthews to appoint a Greek lawyer.

I also wish to address the concerns raised by the hon. Lady that the UK police could do more, and that a senior investigating officer and family liaison officer were not appointed at the outset. In 2012 the British Government agreed a memorandum of understanding with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Coroners’ Society of England and Wales regarding support in murder/manslaughter cases. It sets out Government support to the next of kin, including what we can do to ensure a proper and thorough investigation. The MOU is clear that the UK police cannot investigate a crime overseas unless invited by a foreign Government to do so. Even in cases where a suspect is British, the jurisdiction of the country where the crime took place takes precedence.

The UK police get involved only exceptionally where there is a genuine operational need, such as securing forensic samples or conducting formal inquiries on behalf of foreign police in the UK, and that was not the case following Tyrell’s death. It is an operational decision for the police whether to appoint a senior investigating officer or family liaison officer. In this case, the police initially decided to identify an officer as the single point of contact. Following the intervention of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Greek police assigned an individual to liaise with the Met police and, as a result, a senior investigating officer and family liaison officer were duly appointed. However, as the investigation in Greece has been completed and the file now lies with the judicial authorities, as I said at the outset of my remarks, there is little information to be shared through that channel.

The British Government cannot interfere in trials or legal processes in other countries. We would not accept other countries doing that in the UK, and we therefore need to respect their systems. In some circumstances, however, we will continue to make representations to local authorities where appropriate. That includes cases where there are concerns that the investigation is not being carried out in line with local procedures. We stand ready to do that in this case should the need arise. Meanwhile, we will continue to raise the case more generally through normal diplomatic channels.

The British ambassador to Greece first raised Tyrell’s death with the mayor of Malia and the chief of police last summer, and as the hon. Member for Walthamstow knows, we are facilitating a meeting between her and the Greek ambassador to London in the near future, to discuss the case and the issues it raises.

We have a consular service that many countries envy and of which we are rightly proud. However, we cannot always meet every need and expectation. Of course we want to improve; we seek to learn from every case, and continually review our consular policy, guidance to staff and training.

I thank the Minister for intervening and I am pleased that the Foreign Office will be assisting my office in arranging a meeting with the Greek authorities. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office had specifically told my office that that was for me to organise, so I am pleased that there has been a change of mind. May I press him on the point about the EU framework on the decision on the rights of victims of crime, which has been fully in force since 2006? I appreciate that the way in which it applies in the UK with regard to the Greek authorities’ behaviour towards the Matthews family is a technical point of EU law. However, can he and his officials give me an assurance on that specific point? Will he clarify that the conduct of the Foreign Office in the matter—it failed to ensure that Ms Matthews had legal representation in that trial—is in accordance with that legislation, which our nation has ratified?

Let me say two things to the hon. Lady. First, we have done everything we can, and continue to do everything we can, in compliance with every international obligation. I have tried to articulate that in what I have said in the past 10 or 15 minutes. Secondly, to answer her other question, it is my understanding that the Foreign Office has arranged access to the Greek ambassador in London. Indeed, the consular department of the Foreign Office intends to accompany her to the meeting. I hope she is reassured on that point.

As I have said, we do not imagine that we get it right the whole time. I have tried to contextualise the matter and to explain to the House not only the complexity but the size of the issue. We are always asked to fund things that we simply are not funded for. No party in government or opposition plans to change the policy—if any party did, it would be a significant change and one we should be aware of. We do everything we can within the existing guidelines, but, as I have said, we do not always get things right. We want to improve and learn from experience; we are human. In this case, we are doing everything we can.

As I have said, we continually review our consular policy, our guidance to staff and our training. As part of that, in 2014 we will evaluate the impact of the memorandum of understanding on murder/manslaughter and our internal guidance to consular staff on helping next of kin. We are making changes to our services so that they focus more effectively on the needs of British nationals. That will include better and clearer information —information is key—on local services such as lawyers and legal aid.

We are currently exploring what more we can do to build on the legal guides that Fair Trials International has developed—it has done so with Foreign and Commonwealth Office funding. For instance, we are working with Justice Across Borders and identifying pro bono legal advice providers for victims of crime overseas. That is part of a strategy to establish more partnerships with specialist organisations, which goes alongside increasing funding for those with which we already work. Finally, we have introduced flexibility in our policy on our staff translating and interpreting when British nationals need to talk to local authorities.

Therefore, after three and a half years, the Government are seizing the issue and dealing with it in a more realistic way than has perhaps been the case in the past. If the hon. Lady has any concerns, I would be more than happy for her to come to me or for her to see the Under-Secretary of State. I have come to the case fresh—I read the reports at the time, but it has not been on my desk for a long time—and have gone through it with officials in some detail today. I have a fresh set of eyes. Of course, I do not share the hon. Lady’s views—I do not represent her constituent, and I would probably have a different view if I did so—but I am convinced that we are doing everything we can. In fact, I believe we have done more than can be expected in offering to fix up a meeting between her and the Greek ambassador.

We face many challenges as we try to help victims to get justice overseas. Cases can be complex and move slowly through foreign legal systems that British nationals find hard to understand. British MPs can find them hard to understand or will not understand them. Our remit does not extend to foreign countries. Things often do not work abroad in the way we would expect them to work here. Translating what happens here to systems abroad serves no purpose because we cannot change those systems. We must operate within them.

I thank the Minister for letting me intervene. I will try one more time. I would be ever so grateful if he could clarify, in writing, that he believes that in this matter the current Government have met their obligations under EU law on victims of crime and their treatment. I appreciate that he believes what he has been told by officials. I invite him to meet the families to understand the other side of the story about what has happened. On the particular point about access to justice and the requirements under that legislation, will he give a commitment to the House to investigate the legal ramifications of the failure of this Government to ensure legal representation for the Matthews family in the trial?

There has been no failure by this Government on any point. I entirely refute that and it is not helpful for the hon. Lady to suggest that when we are doing everything we can for the hon. Lady’s constituent. However, I will certainly ensure in writing, if I have not made myself clear verbally, that our position remains clear: we are absolutely certain that we have followed the existing guidelines in every single way—in fact, more so.

I concede that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office may not always meet the full expectations of victims and their families. Indeed, it would be impossible for us to do so, because expectations exceed capability and that would be the same however much resource we threw at this problem. That makes it even more important to have under constant consideration what we can offer, and to find new ways to provide it.

I respect the hon. Lady’s position in bringing this matter to the House, but she is a Member of Parliament and she has to respect what all parties are signed up to. If she feels in any way that the Government have been derelict in their duties towards her constituent she is right to raise that, but I have heard nothing tonight to suggest that that is the case. On whether the Government have been compliant with existing laws, I will ensure that she is written to, to explain that to her. In the meantime, we must all await what happens in Greece. She will be in a good position when, with the assistance of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, she meets the Greek ambassador shortly.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.