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Support for Witnesses of Terror Attacks Overseas

Volume 628: debated on Thursday 14 September 2017

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

I am very grateful to have this opportunity before the recess to raise the issue of support for witnesses of terror attacks overseas. I had originally hoped to bring this matter to the House as a Backbench Business debate, and I am grateful to the previous Backbench Business Committee and Members from across the House—and some former Members now—who had supported my bid, which unfortunately had to be cancelled as a result of Dissolution and the general election.

Let me start by paying tribute to all the victims of terror attacks in recent years, to their families, to all those affected and to all those who have provided support in times of need. Even in the short time I have been a Member of this House, the number of such attacks has only continued to grow—Tunisia, Nice, Stockholm, Paris and Barcelona, to name but a few in a very small part of the world. Of course in recent months there have been atrocities here at home, in Manchester, at London Bridge and here at Westminster. Again, I pay tribute to all those affected, and echo the thanks given and tributes already paid in this Chamber to the heroism of our late colleague, PC Keith Palmer.

That brief and by no means comprehensive reflection on recent attacks highlights the sad and stark reality that the number of terrorist incidents at home and overseas—and therefore the number of people who witness such attacks—is only going to grow. We must strive never to become complacent or inured to such atrocities, or somehow to accept them as “the new normal”. Terrorist atrocities are not normal; they are a perversion of ideology, and action must be taken at every level to tackle the root causes. At the same time, on every occasion there will be lessons to learn that can take us closer to preventing future attacks and lessons on how we respond and support those affected by an attack.

I wish to reflect on the experiences of constituents who were caught up in the attacks in Tunisia in June 2015 and the Stockholm attack in April this year and to ask the Government to consider what lessons can be learned from their experiences and what structures or policies can be put in place for the future. I commend my constituents for their bravery in the face of terror and for their permission to highlight their experiences in this debate.

When the dreadful news broke of the attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, on 26 June 2015, I stood in silence with Members of this House, in solidarity with the victims. I listened to the statements from the Government and the questions asked by Members on behalf of constituents caught up in the country or who had been tragically bereaved. But at the time I had no idea that one of my own constituents had been what was later described as a category 1 witness to the events. It was not until early 2016 that my constituent, Elizabeth McMillan, decided to contact me—a decision she made in frustration, disappointment and concern at how she, and many others from that day with whom she was in contact, felt they had been treated by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the institutions of government in this country.

Elizabeth will never forget her experiences on the day of the attack—on the beach only metres from the gunman, running for her life from the bullets, seeing other holiday-makers killed, hiding first in a drainpipe, then in a hotel, and being separated from her husband for more than three hours, with neither of them knowing whether the other was dead or alive. I will never forget meeting Elizabeth for the first time and hearing her recount and relive this horrific experience.

In many ways, and by her own admission, Elizabeth was one of the fortunate ones: both she and her husband are alive and sustained no physical injuries. But that does not mean that they are unaffected. They will have to live with the memories and the trauma for the rest of their lives. When we might all have expected and hoped for them to have received support from the state, to help them come to terms with what they witnessed and readjust their lives to a new reality, instead they have experienced bureaucracy and confusion, and what has often felt like a lack of compassion.

In the aftermath of the attack, my constituent spent almost 11 hours providing statements to the UK police, first when she first arrived back in Manchester, then again when she spoke to four Scottish police detectives at her home in Glasgow. However, it was not until 19 months later, and two days before the official inquest began, that she was informed by letter whether her statements would be used in evidence. In the intervening period, she heard nothing at all.

Ahead of the inquest, bereaved families and those who had sustained injuries were quite rightly given access to evidence, maps and information about the events on the day, but Elizabeth and, she tells me, others who witnessed the attack at close range but were not bereaved or injured, were denied access to such information. Although the FCO organised meetings in various locations around the United Kingdom, a meeting in Scotland was organised, at short notice, only after pressure from survivors. Such meetings were then segregated and classified: some were open to those bereaved or injured, while additional meetings were open to “others” or “anyone”.

My constituent is not an “other” or an “anyone”—she is a survivor of and witness to one of the most horrific and violent attacks anywhere in the world in recent years, and her life will never be the same again. In her own words, she says:

“As I ran bullets pinged off the fence in front of me. I was millimetres from being injured. It wasn’t my choice not to be, and it wasn’t the choice of those who were, but those who were not injured were ignored and forgotten about as soon as the ink had dried on their police statements…I was denied access to information even though I was 20 feet away from the gunman when he started shooting. I deserve answers too. I have to live with watching someone die…I felt ignored and excluded from what was happening. It was like an awful game of Chinese whispers and relied on other folk who were involved via a Facebook group for information. From the outset I’ve had to fight to get anything from the FCO.”

When the memorial service was organised, my constituent and others in her situation had to specially request an invitation, and they were told that there would not be space for them at the reception afterwards. I appreciate that for the Foreign Office and relevant authorities this was complicated, and a traumatic experience for everyone involved. Nobody can be expected to get everything right all the time, especially in the face of such atrocity with such far-reaching effects. But as time went on, it began to feel for my constituent like an increasingly deliberate exclusion, or a lack of awareness of, or willingness to adapt to, the reality of the experience of those caught up as witnesses.

I am grateful to the former FCO Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. and gallant Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for the lengthy correspondence we have had on this matter and, indeed, for the time he took to meet me to discuss the specific concerns and experiences of my constituent. She needs and deserves a personalised response, as do all those in her situation. I believe there are a number of lessons to be learned from her experiences that can help the Government to be better prepared for any future incidents, which are sadly almost inevitable.

My belief that such preparations are necessary has only been enhanced by the experience of two other constituents who were caught up in the Stockholm attack last April. They approached my office just as I was preparing a bid to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on this topic.

My constituents, who do not want to be named but who I know are watching this debate, were sightseeing in the city and were not primary witnesses to the attack itself. Their hotel backed on to the street where the attack took place. They found themselves in a city in lockdown, stranded outside the security barrier and not knowing where to turn. When they phoned the UK embassy, there was no answer for more than an hour. Then they were directed by a voice message to call an emergency number in London. The advice from that call was to contact their travel insurers, but insurers very rarely provide cover for terrorist attacks.

At no point were their details recorded, so if family and friends attempted to call the embassy they would have been unable to verify their safety. When my constituents finally returned to their hotel, they witnessed the shocking aftermath of the attack from the window of their room. They saw body bags—even body parts—and other aspects of the police operation. This has been a traumatising experience, which requires psychological and emotional support, at the very least, and yet my constituents feel that there has not even been basic signposting to services or support organisations from the FCO or other Government Departments. They said:

“We are seriously concerned about the gap between expectations and reality when it comes to the support that the FCO…provides. Care, concern and understanding were not offered to us by the FCO when we tried to contact the embassy and then phone the emergency consular assistance number. We felt that we were completely abandoned, and that sense of abandonment could put other UK citizens at greater psychological risk because they are made to feel helpless…We felt betrayed when we read statements by the Foreign Office and the UK Government claiming that they were helping UK citizens in Stockholm because we knew that this was not true.”

It may have been tempting to look at the experience of my constituent in Tunisia and think that perhaps that was an isolated incident, or very specific to the circumstances of the tragic situation. However, to have similar experiences recounted, completely independently, by different constituents less than a year later makes me concerned that there are some systemic issues that need to be addressed.

Indeed, my constituent who was caught up in Tunisia is in close contact with several others who were involved in that attack, others in Paris, in Stockholm and even in the 7/7 London bombings who have expressed very similar concerns about the support that they received. I have now lodged the motion that I proposed to the Backbench Business Committee as early-day motion 303. I am grateful to hon. Members who have already signed it, and I hope that, over recess, more will do so as a sign of solidarity and support with victims and witnesses of terrorist attacks overseas. That motion states that

“the Government has a responsibility to provide specific and appropriate support to all UK citizens affected by terrorist attacks overseas; recognises that witnesses to terror attacks, whether or not they have been physically injured or bereaved, may live with trauma and mental health impacts as a result of what they have witnessed; and calls on the Government to learn lessons from its response to previous attacks, and to continually review its preparedness to respond and provide support for witnesses and survivors of any future incidents.”

What are the lessons that can be learned? First, there seems to be a significant gap between the expectations and reality of consular support in these situations. The experiences of my constituents in Stockholm are sadly not anomalous. In far less trying circumstances, I had significant difficulty getting through to the UK embassy in Berlin by phone when I arrived late for a visit, which was organised by the FCO itself.

I also want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to another constituent, Julie Love, who founded the Death Abroad, You are Not Alone organisation, after the tragic death of her son, Colin, and her struggle for answers and consular assistance. The FCO review in 2014-15 makes several promises to change operational policy and the culture within the FCO, including training to make staff more sensitive and compassionate in their communications with survivors. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister when we can expect updates on how those recommendations are being taken forward and what evidence he can provide that the changes promised are taking effect.

The FCO has a choice here: either it has significantly to up its game in terms of communications and expectation management, or—and perhaps this would be the better option—it could consider how it can actually provide the kind of information and support that UK citizens are looking for when they find themselves caught up in extreme and vulnerable situations overseas.

There are lessons to be learned about how people are supported on their return to the United Kingdom. Basic signposting to general service providers is simply not good enough. Many of the charitable organisations, such as Victim Support and the Samaritans, do outstanding work, but the needs of people traumatised by terror attacks require specialist advice and support.

As part of my preparations for this debate, I visited the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball peace centre, established in Warrington in memory of the two young people killed by an IRA bomb in 1993. I had the privilege of meeting Colin Parry, who helped to found the centre in memory of his son. I pay tribute to the work of the chief executive, Nick Taylor, and his team, who have created an oasis of peace and support out of that atrocity. They do incredible work bringing people from divided communities together to promote understanding and reconciliation.

The centre runs a specialist Survivors Assistance Network, which provides advice and support to any victim, survivor, witness or person affected by terrorism, political violence or some aspects of war. Its aim is to help those people to cope, recover and establish a new normality in their lives. But the Ministry of Justice will only provide funding to cover support for people in England and Wales. The centre has to raise funds to make up an annual budget shortfall. I sincerely hope that the UK and Scottish Governments can work together to ensure that specialist support, such as that offered by SAN, is readily available to all who need it.

There is a question of financial compensation. Even without physical injuries, witnesses of attacks need time off work to adjust, and there can be costs associated with access to counselling or support services. There are various schemes in existence, but the Government must ensure that they are applicable to the circumstances we find ourselves in and the nature of modern terrorism and that they are accessible and straightforward to apply to.

I mentioned that it took several months between the attack and my constituent first approaching my office. That contact was on her own initiative. None of the advice or information provided to her suggested that she might want to make contact with her local elected representatives. Likewise, I had no idea that constituents from Glasgow North had been caught up in the attack. I am not suggesting for a minute that the Government disclose confidential information or personal details about constituents to MPs without permission, but I do wonder whether it would have been totally impossible to alert MPs to the fact that constituents generically had been affected. Likewise, perhaps it would have been possible to make those constituents aware that their MP is in a position to make representations on their behalf. If any good can come from this debate—if the Minister can undertake to learn some of the lessons and take forward some of the suggestions proposed—the credit lies entirely with the initiative and, indeed, bravery of my constituents who have chosen to come forward.

The events here in Westminster on 22 March this year mean that the vast majority of people who work on this estate are now witnesses to and survivors of a terrorist attack. Like many Members, I was locked down in the Chamber—in many ways, shielded from the goings-on elsewhere on the estate—but I am aware of members of staff who have been severely affected and traumatised by the events of that day. Quite rightly, support and advice are being put in place and plans are being made should such a situation ever occur again. That day will stay with us all for the rest of our lives, and it gives us at least some share in what the experiences must be like for those caught up in random violent attacks overseas, often far from home.

I have raised the experiences of constituents brave enough to come forward. I do not know how many other people in Glasgow North will be in a similar situation but I can guess, from the number of members who were willing to support my Backbench Business Committee bid, that these experiences are not unique. Indeed, they may only be the tip of the iceberg. Many of the lessons about providing adequate support, and clear, effective and frequent communication will also apply to situations of terror attacks here in the United Kingdom.

I hope that, in a constructive spirit of solidarity and support, the Minister and the Government will listen to the experiences of my constituents and to the points I have made. I hope and pray that nobody else ever has to go through such experiences, but the reality of our modern world suggests otherwise. We owe a duty of care to all those who have already been affected by terrorism at home and overseas, and we have a duty to prepare for the future.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for bringing this important debate to the House.

Terrorism by its very nature intends not just to kill but to instil terror. One of its primary aims is psychological: trauma is at the heart of the terrorist incident. Let us reflect on what somebody goes through during a terrorist attack. It is not simply the act of violence itself and the sense that they might be shot, nor is it simply the consequence of that violence and the blood that they might see; it is the sense of whether it will be repeated—are they seeing just the beginning of a repeated series of attacks?

Even for somebody in the military who is trained to deal with this kind of violence, the trauma of witnessing an attack can be long-lasting. Veterans experience traumatic consequences as much as 10 years later. For a civilian who does not exist within a military unit, and who lacks that kind of support process, to find themselves a long way from home and hundreds of miles from a British embassy, in an environment in which they may be unable to speak the language and in which they may be unwilling to approach the police—in some of these cases, the terrorists dress as police when they mount the attack—and in a situation in which they are separated from anyone they know, in which their telephone signal may no longer work or their battery may be running out, and in which they feel completely hopeless and unsure whether it is best to remain in a room and take cover or to go out to get help, is one of the most terrifying experiences possible.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to bring this issue forward, and the fact that he has is a real tribute to the work that Members of Parliament—that politicians—can do, because it represents the difference between the thoughts and approach of somebody who represents a constituency, dealing on a personal level with individuals, and the way a Government system works. What do I mean by that? Traditionally, Government systems dealing with this kind of thing have tended simply to look at the nature of the trauma. The traditional national health service approach to this would be simply to ask how intense the trauma and the mental impact are and to ignore the cause and the context in which they arose. What the hon. Gentleman has produced for us is a very important moral lesson, which it is sometimes difficult for systems to take on board: the cause and the context—in this case, the particular form of directed evil inherent in terrorism—mean that the trauma somebody suffers requires a special and different form of treatment from the kind of treatment we might expect for other kinds of trauma and bereavement.

Two particular cases have been raised, and there are serious lessons from both of them for us—for me and for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The first was the Stockholm attack. In that case, there were clearly significant problems with the telephone lines—with actually being able to take the information from the British citizen—and with our ability to get back to that citizen to check that they were okay after they had contacted us.

In the case of the terrible event in Sousse, in Tunisia, where the hon. Gentleman’s constituent witnessed the horror directly, the situation went further. It was about the British Government learning that what matters is not simply whether someone is a victim of the attack. Inherent in terrorism is the impact on the witness, and the trauma experienced by the witness can even be as extreme and long lasting as that of the individual who was subject to the attack.

I would like to take it even further, because there is a broader lesson. In my own experience in Iraq, not only the people who witnessed the attack, but even people who were slightly away from it—who may have been locked in a windowless room taking shelter—and who did not physically act as category 1 witnesses, can continue to feel a sense of guilt, helplessness and trauma for months, or even years, after.

The question, then, is, how do the British Government respond to that? We have taken a number of measures, and I am going to give a list of them. They are going to sound quite bureaucratic, but it is in the nature of a Government that the way in which we address things is by putting systems in place; otherwise, we have nothing that endures—a particular Minister or a particular official can be moved on. We have to try to put systems in place to make sure that things work better in the future.

So what have we done? In relation to Sousse, we set up the Sousse joint officials unit. We brought together nine different Departments, ranging from the Foreign Office right the way through to the Home Office to try to jointly learn the lessons of how we deal with the aftermath of what was the worst single terrorist attack experienced by British citizens overseas—30 people killed, and 600 families affected. Coming out of that, we set up a bespoke mental health programme specifically for victims of terrorism, run by the Maudsley Trust.

We then began to amend—this was a question asked by the hon. Gentleman—the victims of overseas terrorism compensation scheme. The scheme was set up for victims of overseas terrorism, but we have now expanded it—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will communicate this to his constituent—so that witnesses of terrorism are also eligible to compensation.

We have transformed the training in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and that is not only for our consular staff. Before heads of mission go out, they are now subject to training in crisis response. We have improved our systems; they are now better at gathering data. Now, for example, if someone was to ring a British consular office, they would have the full police missing persons form to run through to retrieve any data.

We also have much better IT. It is possible now for a police officer to access the Foreign Office system and for a post thousands of miles away to access the Foreign Office system in real time to get information. We have better follow-up procedures, and we have now put procedures in place so that if something of this nature happens again, the Foreign Office would, hopefully, feel that it was a question not simply of logging the information, but of calling again and following up to check the individual was okay. We have created partnerships. For example, we fund the non-governmental organisation Victim Support. Through the Ministry of Justice, we work with the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace. We have set up new bodies. In relation to the very good work done by Julie Love and DAYNA—Death Abroad You’re Not Alone—we have set up the murder and manslaughter unit, which works specifically within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on dealing with issues of bereavement through murder. We have established a victims of terrorism unit—a bespoke unit set up within the Home Office which has its own Minister. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), is now the Minister for victims of terrorism. We have set up surge capacity. We have set up an ability, if there is a huge attack somewhere in the world that overstretches our resources, to draw in people from other parts of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Departments and reach out to specialists outside Government to enhance the response.

However, none of the systems that we put in place is ever going to be an alternative to what is really required in a situation like this. These situations are inherently bewildering, chaotic, uncertain and violent, and often take place in very remote locations. Our own staff may be unable to access these people; we may have a very small embassy on the ground; and the information may be changing very quickly. The qualities required are therefore human qualities of empathy, imagination and compassion. Our obligation, as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is to make sure that our staff have the proper resources in place to enable them to act as humans. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our consular staff for the work they do. We have to make sure that they have the time, the systems and the resources so that they really can do this very difficult job, often feeling very powerless themselves, with not as much information as they would like, in patiently dealing with victims, with families and with an array of other people—other Governments, police forces, the army—and keeping the patient engagement that is absolutely central.

In the end, a victim who witnesses terrorism—who has experienced that mental trauma—is dealing with something that is fundamentally connected with the mind, but the mind in the most desperate, horrifying sense. The only way of dealing with that is personal. It has to take into account the context and the origin, and it requires the patient, constant reaction, extending potentially over years, that can bring health, settlement and fulfilment back to a family. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the hon. Gentleman for bringing this extremely important matter to the House, and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the consular staff for the work they do with British citizens in some of the most vulnerable and terrifying situations on earth.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.