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Thomas Cook: Christi and Bobby Shepherd

Volume 598: debated on Tuesday 14 July 2015

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

The subjects of tonight’s debate are known to everyone in this country, their faces familiar from the iconic Horbury School photograph: big sister Christi in plaits, with her little brother Bobby smiling at the school photographer; one of millions of school pictures treasured by parents, grandparents, family and friends. This photo is extra special. It is different because those children will have no more photos, no weddings, no 18th or 21st birthdays, no more laughter, no more tears. They have never met their four younger brothers and their little sister. Christi and Bobby are dead. That school photo has become a symbol—a symbol of their parents’ long, difficult and arduous fight for justice. It has become a symbol too of the cold-hearted indifference of Thomas Cook and of this Government to ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

Tonight we debate the saddest of subjects, the tragic deaths of Christianne and Robert Shepherd from Horbury near Wakefield. They were just seven and six years old when they died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty boiler on a Thomas Cook holiday in Corfu in October 2006. I know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you and the whole House will wish to join me in putting on record our deepest condolences to their family and friends.

Sharon Wood and Neil Shepherd, the children’s parents, and their partners Paul Wood and Ruth Shepherd, have shown an unwavering commitment to get to the truth. Their greatest wish is that no other family should suffer a tragedy like theirs. Theirs is a tale that will fill any thinking person with horror. The police knock on the door. At first, the mystery of how the children had died. The press speculation that Neil had somehow carried out a murder/suicide. Neil and Ruth awaking in Corfu after days in a coma to discover that the children were dead. Sharon and Paul taking their own photographs of the room where the children died. Visiting Christi and Bobby in the chapel of rest and finding them dressed in other children’s clothes. Bringing the children home in their coffins, on a plane packed with holidaymakers. The press intrusion.

After the children’s deaths, the family were forced to wait years before the criminal trial was held in Greece. The Foreign Office, under a Labour Government, gave them no advice and did not tell them they could get a daily attendance allowance from the Greek courts. That caused the family grave financial hardship. They had to remortgage their homes to pay for expensive out-of-season flights and accommodation. On several occasions they flew out, only to discover that the case had been suspended or postponed. They struggled to follow the court case as it was conducted in Greek.

In 2010, the court in Corfu found three hotel workers, including the hotel’s general manager, guilty of manslaughter by negligence. They were sentenced to seven years in prison, but those sentences were reduced on appeal to a three-year suspended sentence. Throughout the process, Thomas Cook refused to apologise to or meet the family.

In February 2014, eight years after Christi and Bobby’s deaths, the inquest into their deaths reopened in Wakefield, yet the family faced another battle. The Government refused them legal aid, saying that their case was not in the wider public interest. The Government expected the bereaved parents to cross-examine witnesses after sitting through the harrowing details of how their children had died. Thomas Cook, of course, would have had some very good lawyers. Those lawyers made a bid to prevent the inquest from even taking place and requested that it should take place without a jury. Thankfully, David Hinchliff, the coroner, dismissed that request.

I want to put on record my thanks to the Wakefield Express. Its #TimeForTheTruth petition to grant the family legal aid was signed by 4,500 people in Wakefield. The then editor, Mark Bradley, Gavin Murray and the Express team have supported the parents’ fight for justice with great passion, as have the people of Wakefield.

Research by my office revealed that at least 43 holiday- makers died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Europe in the years since Christi and Bobby died. I raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister met the parents, and legal aid was finally granted in April 2014. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), for his help in that matter, but the parents should never have been put in that position.

The inquest into the children’s deaths opened in April this year. I sat with Sharon and Neil and Paul and Ruth at the start and close of the inquest. I saw how hard it was for them to hear how and why their children had died, overcome by fumes from a faulty water heater that had been botched and bodged.

Six months almost to the day before Bobby and Christi Shepherd were killed, my brother Edward was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning while abroad, so I am doubly grateful to the hon. Lady that this debate has been secured. Does she agree with me that having devices such as an audible CO alarm would be a concrete way to help to ensure that Edward Tomlinson’s family, the Shepherd family and other families never have to go through this again?

I begin by expressing my deepest condolences to the hon. Gentleman. I had no idea until he approached me in the Lobby that his family shared the experience of this tragedy. I believe there is a cross-party desire for change, and that is what we need to hear about from the Government this evening. We know that carbon monoxide monitors, which bought in bulk cost pennies, save lives. We also know that we need to raise awareness of the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning, because people do not understand how dangerous it is—two breaths can kill. This is incredibly important. Just as we would not go on holiday to a hotel that did not have smoke alarms, we need new industry standards for the tourism and hotels industry wherever gas is present. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join us in our campaign. He is a new Member, and I am sure that he will be committed to this cause throughout his parliamentary life.

I saw the parents hear, during the inquest, how and why their children had died. They had to sit as the former chief executive of Thomas Cook, Manny Fontenla-Novoa, declined to answer the questions from their barrister; and they gasped, along with the whole country, when the current chief executive of Thomas Cook, Peter Fankhauser, said that Thomas Cook had “no need to apologise”.

Finally, in May, the inquest jury concluded that the children had been unlawfully killed and that Thomas Cook had

“breached its duty of care”.

The Mail on Sunday then revealed that Thomas Cook had received compensation for the children’s deaths from the hotel. The compensation covered the cost of sending “media advisers” to Greece to limit reputational damage and loss of profits from cancelled bookings. To be fair, Thomas Cook announced it would donate the compensation to UNICEF, the children’s charity, yet even that gesture was a clumsy one, done as it was without consulting the parents and announced first to the media in a desperate damage limitation PR exercise.

ITV’s consumer affairs editor Chris Choi discovered that the hotel manager convicted over the children’s manslaughter was working at a different Thomas Cook hotel. Then came the news that the electrician who was also convicted over the tragedy was still employed at the same Corfu hotel where the children died.

The Mail on Sunday then reported that Harriet Green, Thomas Cook’s chief executive when the company tried to stop the inquest taking place, was to receive a multimillion-pound pay-out. Ms Green has now chosen to donate one third of her bonus to charity, and the parents are satisfied that some of the funds can be put to good use in the new carbon monoxide initiative that they will be involved with, in memory of the children. I am grateful to Ms Green’s law firm, Withers, which sent me an email at 5 o’clock in the morning to help my “fact checking” when I tabled early-day motion 42. If Ms Green’s lawyers ever find the letter which she alleges she wrote to the parents and which they say they never received, I am sure that they and we would be very glad to see it.

I recently met Mr Fankhauser, Thomas Cook’s chief executive. I know that he has spoken privately with the family and apologised to them, and that there has been a financial gesture of goodwill to them. He has launched an internal inquiry into the company’s response to the deaths of Christi and Bobby. Thomas Cook must never again fail another family.

Next year the building where the children died will be demolished and made into a play area. Thomas Cook is underwriting a new charity to the tune of at least £1 million to raise awareness of carbon monoxide poisoning. The family are satisfied with Mr Fankhauser’s new approach and his attempt to put things right. They would like to see the Government match-fund Thomas Cook’s contribution and do their bit too to put things right. I look forward to working with the family, Thomas Cook and hon. Members across the House on a new EU-wide carbon monoxide safety campaign. I hope we can organise a conference in this place, perhaps during carbon monoxide awareness week in November.

It is important to put these facts on the public record so that we do not forget those children. Bobby and Christi should not have died and the family should not have had to fight so long and so hard for justice. The travel industry and the Government must learn from their mistakes because tourism is responsible for around 9% of total GDP in the EU and over 9 million jobs. Consumer confidence is vital to the success of that industry.

As millions of British families get ready for their summer holidays, they want to know that they will all come home safely.

My colleague Linda McAvan, Yorkshire’s Labour MEP, has held five annual carbon monoxide round tables in the European Parliament with Victims of Carbon Monoxide, the Health Protection Agency, the Gas Safe Register, the Health and Safety Executive, energy retailers, the Association of British Travel Agents and countless others. In November last year, the European Commission launched a Green Paper on the safety of tourism accommodation services. ABTA’s submission to that Green Paper quotes Eurostat figures that 6% of European citizens experienced some form of safety issue on holiday. That equates to over 52 million tourists.

ABTA commissioned work from John Gregory, a CORGI gas safety expert. He condemns

“a lack of legislative consistency throughout Europe”,

and the fact that there is

“no Europe-wide statistical database providing data on serious incidents caused by carbon monoxide poisoning”,

which means that the extent of the problem is unknown owing to a lack of data, with each individual case presented as a tragic occurrence rather than as a systematic failure. He notes that

“the competence, training and knowledge of the operative undertaking servicing and maintenance of gas appliances across the European Union are of a lesser standard than that required in the UK.”

Contrast ABTA’s submission with that of the UK Government. Paragraph 27 of the Government’s submission says that

“a European safety standard would impose an unnecessary cost on tourism businesses in England.”

Paragraph 42 states that

“the Secretary of State for culture, media and sport”—

the reference is to the present Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid)—

“has asked that we make clear in our response that…he felt it was not a good use of EU time.”

British families planning their summer holidays will be shocked to hear the former Secretary of State’s cavalier approach to their safety. British families need and deserve good safety standards across Europe and across the UK. The opposition of the Government and of other member states means progress on carbon monoxide safety has stalled. The EU Commission has decided that there is no case for introducing legislation on carbon monoxide safety in holiday accommodation after its Green Paper. That must change. The Government, too, have a duty of care to British citizens. The Prime Minister should make the safety of British tourists a priority as he seeks to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU.

Carbon monoxide is a silent killer. Nothing will bring back Bobby and Christi, but their parents’ dearest wish is to spare other families the heartbreak they have suffered. I hope the Minister will today commit her Government to push for better carbon monoxide safety standards across Europe and in the UK. I hope Thomas Cook will live up to its promise to improve carbon monoxide awareness. The joys and heartaches of family life are known to every Member of this House, but no parent can imagine the feeling of losing one child on a holiday, let alone two children on the same night.

There is a photo missing from Sharon and Neil’s homes. It is the photo of Christi on her prom night, dressed up and having fun with her friends. She would have been 16 this year, waiting for her GCSE results and about to go to college for her A-levels. Another photo is missing. It is of Bobby. He should be studying for his GCSEs, hanging out with his friends and playing with his brothers and sisters. All that joy, all that future, all that hope and all that life have been stolen from them. Their parents have told me that they will never again have a perfect day.

The powers that be, whether in the Government and at Thomas Cook, should be in no doubt that I intend to use whatever power this place gives us to campaign for justice for Christi and Bobby and their parents. Theirs is a cause that cries out for change, for attention and for justice. We must see that they get it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on securing the debate and offer my sympathies to the family of Christi and Bobby in this truly tragic case, and indeed to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) on losing his brother. The hon. Lady made an impassioned speech.

I have long campaigned on carbon monoxide poisoning, because before being elected to this place there was a similar tragedy in my constituency. Carbon monoxide is known as the silent killer; we cannot see, taste or smell it. Last year I had an opportunity to introduce a private Member’s Bill. Rather than selecting a subject myself, I came up with three or four options and asked my constituents to choose which one they wanted me to introduce. They chose a Bill to make carbon monoxide detectors mandatory in rental and new-build properties. That showed that people are aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide, although not as aware as I would like them to be.

Nowadays people have smoke detectors without thinking about it, and carbon monoxide detectors should be just as prevalent. As many have said, including me, carbon monoxide detectors are not expensive and they save lives. Some people take them on holiday, having heard of cases such as the one the hon. Lady has talked about tonight. I did not succeed in getting my private Member’s Bill through, but I am pleased that the Government acknowledged the problem and introduced legislation on carbon monoxide detectors in rental properties, because that is where many of the tragedies happen.

I am vice-chair of the all-party group on carbon monoxide, which meets regularly. The case that the hon. Lady’s has raised relates to a holiday abroad, but there are also cases of carbon monoxide poisoning on holidays in this country, even on camping holidays, in caravans and in tents. I struggle to understand why, but some people have brought the embers from barbecues into their tents, presumably unaware of the dangers.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing a debate on this important subject, which is close to my heart. I will continue to campaign on it, because I want us to do everything we can, in this place or beyond, to make carbon dioxide detectors as ubiquitous as smoke detectors. As I have said, they are not expensive and they can easily be installed in rooms with appliances that could leak.

We must raise awareness of the consequences of carbon monoxide poisoning. Often people do not realise that they are affected. They could be sitting and watching television for a few nights and just think that they are feeling tired or drowsy, unaware—I am sorry for putting it so starkly—that they are slowly being poisoned. That is what carbon monoxide does; it poisons people without their knowing. We then have tragedies of the sort the hon. Lady has so eloquently set out tonight. I, for one, do not want to see any more tragedies like that, either in this country or abroad.

For nearly a decade now, the family of Christi and Bobby Shepherd have faced an extraordinarily difficult time, but for the past year, in particular, they have shown incredible resilience throughout the investigations into the cause of this terrible occurrence. The strength that they have exhibited over the past nine years is matchless, by any account. I know that the whole House will want to extend its deepest condolences to Mrs Sharon Wood and Mr Neil Shepherd, and to all of Christi and Bobby’s loved ones. Our thoughts are very much with them at this time. I would not wish what they have gone through on anyone.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), not only for her efforts in securing this debate but for all that she has done over the years to support the family of Christi and Bobby Shepherd. The hon. Lady and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) have become champions of greater carbon monoxide safety within the UK and across the European Union. Their ongoing efforts in this area of consumer safety should be recognised for the important work that it is, and I commend them for their dedication. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) made a really powerful intervention. I hope he will join cross-party colleagues in this incredibly important campaign. The deaths of Christi and Bobby Shepherd were a horrific tragedy. They should not have been allowed to happen and they should never happen again. UK residents enjoy foreign travel and made 60 million visits last year. Their safety must be an absolute priority.

The hon. Lady went through the sequence of events in some detail, and I want to reiterate some of the fundamental details of what happened, but I am conscious of time and of the fact that she will want some proper answers to the points that she raised. At the end of the day, we should remember that four people were found in a hotel by a chambermaid having been overcome by carbon monoxide from a faulty boiler. While Neil and Ruth were unconscious, the two children, Bobby and Christi, tragically, had died.

Investigations were conducted by the Greek authorities. A UK coronial inquest into the cause of death of the two children concluded earlier this year that Christi and Bobby Shepherd died unlawfully as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. As the hon. Lady said, the coroner in charge of the inquiry, David Hinchcliff, found that although the holiday operator was misled by the hotel about safety, Thomas Cook’s own practices for ensuring guest safety were insufficient.

The hon. Lady mentioned the compensation that Thomas Cook received and a recent donation it made, so I will not go over that again. However, it is absolutely clear that the extended and ongoing dialogue between it and the family has contributed to the family’s distress. There are clearly lessons that Thomas Cook must learn from this dreadful episode. The coroner’s report makes it clear that the company needs to review and improve its safety practices. Robust safety procedures are enshrined in law, and they were not followed. Thomas Cook should also reflect at length on how it has treated a grieving family. Its duty of care extends beyond the physical and the letter of the law. There is a fundamental standard of human decency that must be met in future.

Of course, the letter of the law matters too. UK holiday companies are subject to specific regulations regarding the performance of the package contract. The Package Travel, Package Holidays and Package Tours Regulations 1992 clearly state that the organisers of a package holiday sold or offered for sale in the UK are responsible for the proper performance of the contract, including for elements supplied by third parties such as hoteliers. Madam Deputy Speaker, if you were to take your family on holiday here in the UK, you would rightly expect adherence to all proper safety measures. You would also be forgiven for assuming that this would be the case when you take your family abroad. Unfortunately, as this tragic case proves, that is not always so.

In the light of this, the hon. Lady was concerned by the Government’s response to the European Commission’s green paper on the safety of tourism accommodation services. The purpose of this paper was to ascertain whether the current legislation, adopted by member states, adequately protects tourists travelling within the EU. In response to this publication, the previous Government determined that current UK legislation does make necessary safety provision. Subsequently the European Commission also concluded that there was no established connection between the existing regulatory framework across member states, the absence of EU regulation, and risks to consumers. It is therefore not considering European-level consumer protection in the area of tourism accommodation at present. However, the issue in this case was adherence to standards. Had the standards been adhered to, Bobby and Christi would not have lost their lives.

The European Commission has withdrawn or paused—I think that is the word—its proposals on improving the protection from carbon monoxide because there was no will from member states, including from our Government, to act in this area. However, there is a clear will among the British public and across this House, so will the Minister undertake to look afresh at the Government’s position? This issue will not go away. Indeed, as Greece receives piped gas, it will become a bigger issue in the Greek holiday industry. While these tragedies are happening, we cannot say, “All is well; there’s nothing to see here,” and move on.

I was just about to say that we need to keep this issue under constant review. There is no room for complacency. Although the Government do not think that there is a need to amend the primary legislation at the moment, there is a strong case for considering how effectively the laws are enforced.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, ABTA and its partners have long campaigned on this issue. I can tell her and the House that, as a direct response to this debate, I will be meeting ABTA and the industry to ensure that it fully understands its duty of care to consumers. It is imperative that the sector commits itself to upholding best practice, from industry suppliers all the way to the end user—the customer.

I hope that the appointment of Justin King, who has been tasked with the responsibility of leading an internal review of Thomas Cook’s customer health, safety, welfare, relations and crisis management practices, will mark the beginning of a healing process between the family of Bobby and Christi and the holiday operator.

Now that the relevant criminal proceedings and verdicts have been considered, I urge tourism operators across the UK to reflect on the lessons learned and to be ever vigilant. The safety of tourists, both here and abroad, must come before all other concerns. I will reinforce that message to the industry in the coming months, and I hope that the hon. Lady will support the Government in this work, which will protect the safety of future tourists and honour the memory of Bobby and Christi Shepherd.

I thank the Minister for her response to the debate. I want to leave her in no doubt that people across the country—medics, campaigners and all sorts of people—have come forward to Members from across the House as a result of this case, and this is an issue that really will not go away. Just like in my long campaign for scalding valves to be fitted, in the end the moral arc will tend towards justice for these children. As I said at the end of my speech, there are many people in the House who, having heard this story, will not rest until we see a minimum European safety standard across all EU member states to ensure that we protect—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).