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Christopher Rochester

Volume 586: debated on Friday 24 October 2014

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

This is the fourth Adjournment debate that I have secured on the case of Christopher Rochester in the past 13 years. I and his family wish that it was unnecessary, after 14 years, to raise the case again.

Christopher Rochester, a 24-year-old constituent of mine from Chester-le-Street in North Durham, died in the Andreas Papandreou hospital on the island of Rhodes in Greece following a fall from the apartment complex in which he was staying on holiday. Despite falling from a balcony on to the concrete patio below, he survived, but he was allowed to die a slow, painful and lingering death due to the negligence of doctors at the Andreas Papandreou hospital in Rhodes.

Christopher’s mother, Pam Cummings, and her family have fought a long and persistent campaign to secure the truth about the events that led to his death in 2000. This fight finally led to three doctors being found guilty of manslaughter through neglect. That was clearly down to the tenacious way in which Mrs Cummings and her family pursued the case. I again want to put on the record my admiration of their tenacity in having pursued the case to find out the truth about his death.

Unfortunately, that was not the conclusion of the case. The family have not been able to get closure because of a separate issue about what happened to Christopher’s kidney once he had died. When his body was returned to the UK for burial, it was discovered that one of his kidneys had been removed and was missing. At the time, Mrs Cummings contacted my predecessor Giles Radice—now Lord Radice—to ask why that was the case. He, with the help of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British consulate in Rhodes, got the Andreas Papandreou hospital to send the kidney back to the UK via the consulate. I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its staff for their work on this case because, over the past 14 years, they have been helpful in trying to move things on. They do not often get thanked, so I would like to put my thanks on the record.

For some unexplained reason, Mrs Cummings was convinced that the kidney that had been sent back from Rhodes was not that of her son Christopher. She therefore asked for the DNA to be tested. That was done by NorthGene, which is a leading genetic research agency in the north-east of England. To her horror, her suspicions proved to be correct. The DNA test confirmed that the kidney that had been sent from Rhodes was not Christopher’s.

Representations were made to the Greek authorities. Their ludicrous suggestion was that the British consulate in Rhodes had somehow mixed up the kidney and returned the wrong one. I am not sure how many kidneys the consulate in Rhodes deals with on a daily basis, but clearly that was a ludicrous suggestion. I pressed the case, with the help of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Greek authorities finally suggested that an independent test should take place in a third country to verify the facts surrounding the kidney that was returned to the UK. The family agreed to that and it was decided that Belgium would carry out the test.

The Greek authorities then insisted that in order to get a DNA sample from Christopher, his body would have to be exhumed, despite all the leading experts arguing that it was not necessary. That included Professor John Burn, who is not only one of the UK’s leading experts on genetics, but a world-renowned expert. I thank Professor Burn for his assistance with the case. It has been greatly appreciated by the family. Clearly, this was yet another tactic on behalf of the Greek authorities to put more pressure on the family. I also think the Greek authorities thought that the family would not agree to it.

It was a difficult decision for Mrs Cummings and her family, but they agreed that Christopher’s body should be exhumed. That took place on 27 June 2011 in the presence of officials from the Greek Ministry of Health. At this point, may I put on the record my thanks and the thanks of the family to Durham police for their assistance, in particular DS Ken Donnelly and DI Steve Murray, who assisted the family throughout the process? DNA samples were recovered from the body and sent to Belgium. Durham police also took samples from the body, which they still retain as part of the evidence in the case. Likewise, samples of the kidney that was sent to Durham were sent to Belgium for analysis.

A common problem in this case has been the length of time the family have had to wait for any kind of information. They had to wait another year, until May 2012, before receiving any news on the results, which they only received following a letter that I wrote to the Greek ambassador in London and representations from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Office was simply advised by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the DNA analysis supported the conclusion that the kidney almost certainly belonged to Christopher. That is completely at odds with the tests that have been carried out in this country and with the review of Professor John Burn of the analysis of the kidney that was sent back, which showed that it was clearly not that of Christopher Rochester.

On 18 June 2012, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was advised by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs that a full report could be obtained only if an application was made by the family to a Greek court. Professor Burn has offered to have a look at the report and see what tests were carried out. However, making representations to a Greek court would clearly involve huge expense for the family, so they are unable to do so.

On 10 March this year, I wrote to the public prosecutor’s office in Rhodes and to the Greek Ministry of Justice with a signed letter of consent from Mrs Cummings authorising me to act on her behalf. Despite two follow-up letters, I have had no response to date. On 25 July, I wrote separately to the Greek ambassador in London, asking him to ask the prosecutor’s office to respond to those letters. The embassy confirmed by telephone that it would make representations, but to date we have heard nothing from it.

The case raises serious questions about how a British family can get legitimate answers to questions about the death of one of their loved ones in a fellow European country. Without a copy of the report of the DNA test that took place in Belgium, which Professor Burn has agreed to look at, the family cannot draw this sad case to a conclusion. I am not quite sure what the Greeks have to hide by not producing that report for the family, but will the Minister make representations to the Greek authorities about the issue? Will he also raise it directly with the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and separately with the Greek ambassador in London? I have tried to do so through faxes, letters and e-mails, and I seem to get no answers. As I said, a common thread throughout the 13 years I have been dealing with the case has been that they seem not to reply to any representations on behalf of the family.

This is obviously a very sad case, but it also demonstrates the persistence and courage of a loving mother who will not let the case go despite the objections and obstacles that Greek officialdom puts in her way. I assure Mrs Cummings and her family that I will continue to do what I can to get them the justice that they deserve, so that they can have final closure on this very sad case.

I congratulate my old friend the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to him for the strong support that he has given Mr Rochester’s family over what is now a long period. As he said, his predecessor Lord Radice did the same before him.

The hon. Gentleman has rightly raised a number of issues relating to the case with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and I thank him for expressing his gratitude to officials for all the work that they have done over the years. I know I would have done precisely what he has done—at least, I like to think I would—had I been in his position. This is an extraordinary and unsatisfactory case. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has taken a close interest in it and met the hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions to discuss it. I welcome this opportunity to respond on his behalf and on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

First, may I restate our deepest condolences to Mr Rochester’s family, who, as the hon. Gentleman explained, have lost someone dear to them in tragic circumstances? The death of a loved one is painful under any circumstances, but I am conscious that when a death occurs overseas, the cultural differences, the language barrier and the systems used by foreign authorities can be difficult to comprehend, making the grief felt by the bereaved family all the more acute.

As the hon. Gentleman set out in detail, the loss and grief suffered by Mr Rochester’s family have been compounded by the challenges that they have faced, not only in their pursuit of justice against those they see as responsible for contributing to his death, but through the damaging confusion over the repatriation of one of his organs. I would like to take this opportunity to confirm for the record the sequence of events as we understand them and the consular assistance that we have provided to the family.

After a series of court cases, both Greek and British authorities agreed that Mr Rochester did not receive adequate medical treatment following his fall. That was confirmed following the retrial in Rhodes on 5 February 2008 of the medical staff who treated Mr Rochester immediately before his death. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the court found one of the medical assistants guilty of homicide by negligence and sentenced him to 15 months’ imprisonment, suspended for three years. The other two accused were acquitted.

When Mr Rochester’s body was repatriated, the post-mortem examination in the UK found that he had been returned without his left kidney. At the family’s request, staff at our consulate in Rhodes helped to arrange the kidney’s return to the UK by liaising with all the relevant authorities, and funding its safe delivery to Dryburn hospital in Durham. On its return to the UK, however, the DNA testing requested by the family threw into doubt the identity of the kidney. I cannot begin to imagine the additional distress that that must have caused Mr Rochester’s family at that time.

Consular staff urgently sought clarification, and at the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman and Mr Rochester’s family, in 2002 the Greek authorities agreed on an independent DNA test to be carried out by a third country at the National Institute of Criminalistics and Criminology in Belgium. In order to complete that test, the Greek authorities stated that three samples were required, including one from Mr Rochester’s remains, as the hon. Gentleman has said.

Despite our representations on behalf of the family to explain their distress, Greek authorities remained firm on that point. They did not accept that it would be possible to determine once and for all the identity of the kidney unless the sample was taken from the exhumed remains. They would not accept skin samples that had been previously taken from Mr Rochester for an unrelated reason in the UK some time before his death, and they would not take samples from a next of kin.

It is testament to the fortitude of the family that, despite their concerns, they agreed to the exhumation of Mr Rochester’s body. The DNA test could then proceed, and in May 2012 a summary of the results was passed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the office of the hon. Gentleman and the family. The summary stated that the kidney that was originally repatriated on 14 August 2000 did, with almost certain probability, belong to Christopher Rochester. The Greek authorities had initiated a criminal case based on the Greek organ trading Act, following reports that the kidney did not belong to Mr Rochester, but the case was then closed.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, the family have since made it clear—quite understandably—that they would like to see a full version of the results to assure themselves that they are valid. Our understanding from the Greek authorities is that those results would be disclosed in full only to someone with a vested legal interest in the case, such as a family member as next of kin, or their appointed lawyer in Greece. That would mean a family member either travelling to Greece, or appointing a legal representative there.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has a signed letter from Mrs Cummings authorising him to act on her behalf, but as I have said, my understanding is that that can be done only by a legal representative in Greece.

What the Greek Ministry of Justice has been asked for is a Government document. Will the Minister make representations to his Greek counterpart to see whether there is some other method? This family is not in a position to get the finance together to do what has been suggested by the Greek authorities, but without that, and without a full copy of the report, as I have said, they will not get closure.

The hon. Gentleman is right—of course they will not get closure until they see the whole report. However, the Greeks are standing firm on this matter and have said that the results can be disclosed only to a next of kin or legally appointed representative. We will raise the case again although I suspect we will not get very far on that particular point.

It is not for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to interfere with Greek law on this point. But it is right that the Greek authorities should respond to the hon. Gentleman directly, and I am more than happy to write to the Greek ambassador. I am incredulous that the ambassador has not replied to the hon. Gentleman and I can only think that it is the result of an oversight that I am sure the ambassador will wish to right at the earliest opportunity. I shall point out to him as soon as possible that the hon. Gentleman still awaits a response. I will also ask our embassy in Athens to press the Rhodes public prosecutor’s office for a response to the hon. Gentleman’s letter and, of course, we can provide updated details for lawyers in Greece if that would be helpful.

Once again, may I say that my deepest sympathies go out to the family? It is only natural and understandable that they should seek closure on what must have been a terribly distressing period of uncertainty over Mr Rochester’s body—an uncertainty that has gone on for far too long. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to give all appropriate support to the family as they pursue this, and we will also give what support we can to the hon. Gentleman, who has been so dogged in his determination to get justice for his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.