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Murder of UK Nationals Abroad

Volume 619: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2017

[Steve McCabe in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered police force support for investigations of murder of UK nationals abroad.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe—I think it is the first time I have spoken under your stewardship. I also thank the Minister for taking the time to respond.

I wish to raise a specific local case as an illustration of the wider plight of British families whose loved ones are murdered overseas. I want to understand what has gone wrong in my local case, which concerns Ollie Gobat, a young businessman murdered in St Lucia, whose parents are my constituents. On their behalf, my aim is to try to secure some sense of justice for a truly distraught family and, in the process, to glean a wider sense of what British policing support other families in this appalling situation can and should reasonably expect in pursuit of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.

Ollie Gobat was shot and killed, and his body and car set alight, on 25 April 2014. It was a cowardly and heinous crime, and the St Lucia police force immediately confirmed that it was an execution-style murder carried out by organised criminals. Ollie was a much loved family man and a successful real estate executive, working in St Lucia at the time of his murder. The crime has appalled both the St Lucian population and the large expat community living there. That sense of disgust and frustration has been aggravated, over time, by the lack of progress in solving the murder. The dramatic nature of Ollie’s murder and the delays and obstacles to bringing those responsible to justice has generated a lot of media interest there and some media reports back home in the UK.

As St Lucia is a relatively small island, there are relatively few organised criminal groups present, active and operating on the island. Yet the St Lucian police force made no early progress in the case, which started to raise serious questions over the force’s conduct in the investigation. The Gobat family—UK residents and British nationals—swiftly reached out to the relevant UK authorities for help. Ollie was a British citizen, raised in Surrey. The request for UK support was made with the encouragement and blessing of the St Lucian Prime Minister, with whom the family had and maintain a strong relationship. At the same time, the family engaged the private services of a former UK police detective. That resulted in some clear lines of inquiry, which have yet to be properly followed up. Some relate to UK persons of interest, including at least one individual believed to be on UK soil.

As anticipated, the St Lucian Prime Minister formally contacted the UK Government requesting mutual legal assistance in the case. That request was complicated by various legal and bureaucratic obstacles. I was hugely relieved and grateful that in June 2015, the then Home Secretary accepted the request, pledging full assistance, subject to UK police being able to operate properly and safely.

Following the relevant protocol, Surrey police force was tasked with providing the requisite assistance. I recognise that Ministers and officials worked very hard to secure that authorisation, and I think it is reasonable to say that we all hoped it would mark a turning point in the case. Regrettably, there has been no progress and no proactive engagement or assistance provided by Surrey police. Worse still, the family are now also receiving death threats as a result of their private investigation.

I want to recognize that Surrey police met me and the family in February last year, and in fairness, following that meeting, they have provided some reactive responses to the St Lucian requests for assistance, but it is crystal clear that what is really needed is more proactive support, which the family had reasonably understood would be forthcoming. With that in mind, I understand that the St Lucian Prime Minister Allen Chastanet intends to request, or is in the process of requesting, a further elevation of UK assistance in keeping with the previous assurances provided by the Home Office.

Of course, any assistance needs to take into account St Lucia’s background. It is a former British colony, a member of the Commonwealth and an island much loved by hundreds of thousands of British visitors every year. It is public knowledge that St Lucia has a serious policing challenge, which is demonstrated by the commissioning by the Caribbean Community of a report on serious police corruption and extra-judicial killings in St Lucia.

I have gotten to know the Gobat family rather well since June 2014. Today as then, they just want what any family in their position would want: some measure of justice and accountability for their much loved and sorely missed son and brother. Although they recognise the complex nature of the case, they feel completely let down, not just by the lack of progress but by the failure of UK police to deliver the kind of support envisaged after the Home Office approval. I recognise the pressure of an investigation of this nature, and how complicated it must be—it would put a strain on any single force’s budget—and we can understand some of what may be holding it back, but surely justice for mourning British families is not entirely dependent on a postcode lottery. Is there no additional centralised support that can be provided in such a highly serious case?

The Gobat family recognise that the perpetrators may never be brought to justice, but that only reinforces their desire, and indeed mine, to see the unstinting pursuit of a proper investigation to get some answers. In their situation, I think we would all want the same. In particular, the family now want to see the level of UK assistance escalated and elevated to a more proactive role and the case moved from Surrey police to the Metropolitan police, which has greater expertise and manpower and might reasonably be expected, given its centralised role in counter-terrorism and organised crime, to take up some of the slack.

I know that there is a limit on the extent to which the Minister will be able to be drawn on the specifics of any operational matters in a pending criminal investigation, but it is entirely reasonable to ask some questions and expect some clearer answers. First, what level of support should the family of a British citizen murdered by an organised criminal gang abroad reasonably expect, through UK police supplementing or supporting the local criminal investigation overseas?

In the case of Ollie Gobat, having secured agreement for UK police to support the St Lucian investigation in June 2015, the Home Office envisaged that full assistance would follow. Why has that not happened, and what should happen next to make sure the lapsing of time does not render any subsequent investigation meaningless?

Are the Home Office and the Minister satisfied that Surrey police has the capacity and resources to engage properly with the St Lucian investigation, given the expectation of full assistance? How can that vital policing support be transferred to the Metropolitan police, in keeping with the family’s wishes, to make sure the required UK support has the expertise and capacity to make a real difference in St Lucia? Finally, what can the Minister say to reassure the family that any further request that comes from the Government of St Lucia with the Prime Minister’s blessing will be fully, properly and swiftly actioned?

The Gobat family feel abandoned. They expected concerted and material UK support to the St Lucian investigation, but there has been no real action on the ground. That comes on top of the terrible grief that they continue to endure. That cannot be right. On behalf of them and the other British families who find themselves in similarly tragic circumstances, I would be very grateful if the Minister could answer the questions I have laid out and above all assure us that we will see some serious movement in the UK police involvement in the investigation before it is too late for justice in their very tragic case.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing this debate and on the concise and clear way in which he outlined the issues relating to the tragic events of 2014. Such issues affect a number of British families in similar situations. I am only too aware of the devastating impact that such cases can have on families and communities. I was recently touched by the death of my constituent Hannah Witheridge, who died alongside David Miller in tragic and awful circumstances in Thailand in 2014, so I have seen the impact that such cases have. The Norfolk police did a fantastic job with the family liaison officers in working with the families and giving support to the community.

I am sure my hon. Friend understands that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the detail of specific cases. As he said, to do so could prejudice any current or future investigations. However, I recognise the concerns that he raised about the support available to bereaved families, and I hope to respond to those points, even if I use more general terms.

It is always a tragedy when a family member dies. I cannot begin to imagine the heartache that families feel when it happens away from home. I saw that for myself in the tragic case of Hannah in my constituency. It is particularly devastating when there are suspicious circumstances that are hard to get to the bottom of, and when the family believes that they have not been investigated as thoroughly as they could have been.

Our police are among the finest in the world and rightly have an enviable reputation for professionalism, so it is entirely understandable that families want UK police officers to investigate the circumstances of their loved one’s death overseas. Although UK police support is provided in a number of cases, including consular support provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and police liaison support, I am sure my hon. Friend appreciates that it is not always possible to provide it due to circumstances that can be outside our and those agencies’ control. It is important to recognise that UK police officers can assist in a foreign state’s investigation of crimes committed overseas only with the express invitation of the host Government, and for a number of reasons invitations are not always forthcoming. I understand that that must be extremely frustrating for families seeking justice for deceased relatives, but it is simply not possible to support investigations in another country without its permission.

There will also be circumstances when support is requested by a host Government, but it does not meet the expectations of bereaved families or does not go far enough to address their concerns. Again, we are limited by the scope of the request and cannot independently provide investigative assistance unless explicitly asked to do so by the host country.

Requests for support are considered carefully by Home Office Ministers to ensure that any assistance requested is consistent with our international obligations and will not potentially lead to any human rights abuses. It is then for the police, who are operationally independent of the Government, to consider what support they may be able to provide to an investigation overseas. Inevitably, there will be occasions when the police in that locality judge that there is little value that can be added to an investigation, or that support would be impractical. Those are rightly operational decisions for the police to make, and it would be inappropriate for the Government to seek to influence them.

That is not to say that the police do not support overseas investigations. As I said, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on specific cases, but I can confirm that the Home Office frequently authorises support to overseas law enforcement agencies. In each of those cases, a request will have been made by a foreign law enforcement agency. The request will have been authorised by Ministers, and the police will have confirmed that they are in a position to provide assistance.

Mutual legal assistance, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is distinct from law enforcement or police-to-police co-operation. It is a formal method of judicial co-operation between states to obtain assistance in the investigation or prosecution of criminal offences. Such requests are considered carefully by Home Office Ministers, and the UK provides assistance wherever we can. Again, it must be in line with our international obligations.

As such cases are sensitive, family members are often unfortunately but necessarily not aware that support has been requested or is being provided. Although I completely understand that it must be extremely difficult for a family member who is desperate for answers, it is absolutely critical that nothing is done to jeopardise any ongoing investigations, as that may ultimately result in the failed prosecution of any suspects who are identified.

In addition to the support provided to specific investigations, it is also worth mentioning that police officers do excellent work in undertaking to improve the capabilities and professionalism of foreign police services. That can include the routine deployment of officers to carry out training in areas such as leadership, forensics, intelligence and other activities, sharing the best practice that our police have and building relationships to improve policing at home and abroad. By enhancing the capability and capacity of foreign police services to conduct thorough, evidence-based investigations, we increase not only the likelihood of successful prosecutions but compliance with human rights obligations. That in turn can remove some of the barriers to co-operation on individual cases that come up.

My hon. Friend spoke primarily about the particular case of his constituents, but this issue has implications for people more widely. I thank him for securing the debate and for raising the profile of the challenge of being able to work in other countries, which affects both families and the police. I understand that it is an emotive issue for the people involved. I want to take the opportunity to commend the police across the country for the vital role they play in what can often be very challenging circumstances. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to support requests for assistance where the circumstances allow. I will certainly make sure I keep him and, through him, the family apprised of the situation where we can.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.