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Harry Dunn

Volume 666: debated on Monday 21 October 2019

With permission, Mr Speaker, I want to update the House on the tragic case of the death of 19-year-old Harry Dunn in a car accident in Northamptonshire, and on what we in the Foreign Office and Her Majesty’s Government are doing to support his family in their search for justice.

As the father of two young boys, I can only begin to imagine the grief and suffering of losing a child. It is every family’s worst nightmare, and I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing our deepest sympathies to Harry’s family for their unbearable loss.

Let me start with the facts of this case and the steps that the Government have taken in recent weeks to support the police investigation. On 27 August, Harry Dunn was killed in a road traffic collision while riding his motorbike in Croughton, Northamptonshire. The suspect in the police investigation is an American woman. As has been widely reported, at the time of the accident, the American involved had diplomatic immunity.

The UK Government had been notified of the American family’s arrival in the UK in July 2019, and this diplomatic immunity was the result of the arrangements agreed between the UK Government and the US Government back in 1995. Under those arrangements, US staff at RAF Croughton and their families were accepted as part of the US embassy in the UK. Pursuant to these arrangements, staff and their families were entitled to immunity under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. Under the exchange of notes in relation to the Croughton annexe, these arrangements waived immunity for employees, but the waiver did not cover spouses.

Let me return to the specific case of Harry Dunn. On 28 August this year, the US embassy notified us that the spouse of a member of staff at RAF Croughton had been involved in an accident. On 30 August, the US asserted that the spouse was covered by immunity, so a waiver was needed. To enable the police investigation to follow its proper course, on 5 September the Foreign and Commonwealth Office formally requested the US embassy to waive immunity. Given the seriousness of the incident, our view was—and remains—that justice needs to be done.

If the suspect’s immunity had been waived, Northamptonshire police would then have been able to compel her to co-operate fully with their investigation. However, on 13 September the FCO was informed by the US embassy that it would not waive immunity and that the individual would be leaving the country imminently, unless the UK had strong objections. We duly and immediately objected in clear and strong terms, and we have done so ever since. Nevertheless, under the Vienna convention UK police could not lawfully have prevented the individual from leaving the UK. When the FCO followed up with the US embassy on 16 September, it informed us that the individual had departed the day before. We immediately informed Northants police.

When the FCO’s views were sought on timing, officials asked the police to delay telling Harry’s family by a day or two, so that they could inform me and other Ministers and agree the next course of action. I am aware that the police did not tell the family until 26 September, which was 11 days after the individual in question had left. As the primary point of family liaison, the decision as to when to tell the family was properly a matter for the police, and I know that they considered it very carefully.

I turn to the issue of a waiver. I reassure the House that representations have been made to the US Government at every level of the Administration. The head of the diplomatic service summoned the US deputy ambassador. I have raised the case twice with the US ambassador in order to express my disappointment with the US embassy’s decision not to waive immunity, and to request that that decision be reversed. I spoke to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the same terms on 7 October, and the Prime Minister raised the case with President Trump on 9 October.

The scope of immunity is a complex area of law, because in some circumstances there may be residual immunity that can continue once an individual returns home, depending on their status and the particular facts of the case. Our position in this case is that immunity clearly ended when the individual concerned left the UK. The US Government in turn stated on 8 October that since the individual had returned to the US, in their view immunity was “no longer pertinent”. We took time and care to resolve this point, because of its relevance to the case. We also wanted to be fully confident in the legal position before we communicated it to the family, given their anguish and frustration with the obstacles to the investigation. Once the position was clear, I conveyed it directly to them by letter on 12 October. We continue to urge the US authorities and the individual in question to fully co-operate with the investigation. The case is now with Northamptonshire police and the Crown Prosecution Service, and it is for them to consider the next steps as part of their criminal investigation.

At every stage in this process, we have sought to clear away any obstacles to justice being done. At the same time, I have been mindful of the need to avoid anything that could be construed as political interference, in case that might later be argued to prejudice the proper and fair course of the investigation, and thereby prevent justice from being done.

Let me turn to our next steps. First, we will continue to do all that we can to support the police and the Crown Prosecution Service during this process, and I can reassure the House, as I assured Harry’s family when I met them on 9 October, that we will continue to fight for justice for them. Secondly, I have already commissioned a review of the immunity arrangements for US personnel and their families at the Croughton annexe holding privileges and immunities under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. As this case has demonstrated, I do not believe that the current arrangements are right, and the review will look at how we can ensure that the arrangements at Croughton cannot be used in this way again.

In one night, a tragic accident took the life of a young man with his whole future ahead of him. That loss has devastated his family, as it would any of ours. I reassure the House that this Government will do everything we can to give them the solace of justice being done. Our hearts go out to them. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement.

First and foremost, our hearts go out to the family and friends of Harry Dunn, especially to his parents, Charlotte and Tim, and their partners, Bruce and Tracey. As the mother of a 20-year-old boy myself, I can only imagine the devastation they feel at Harry’s loss. But in their case, that loss is compounded by the complete lack of justice for their son, the complete lack of respect they were shown in their meetings not only with Donald Trump but, I am afraid, with the Foreign Secretary—with the family describing one meeting as a photo opportunity, and the meeting with the President as an attempted ambush—and, finally, by the complete lack of answers that they have had to even the most basic questions about why their son’s case was handled in the way it was and why Mrs Sacoolas has received the treatment that she has.

The Foreign Secretary’s statement today is welcome, in so far as it is a first attempt by the Government to set out a chain of events before Parliament, but it still leaves so many questions unanswered and so many facts unestablished. In the time I have today, I would like to work through those questions with the Foreign Secretary in chronological order.

Let me start by pressing the Foreign Secretary on the issue of immunity. He can correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that spouses and dependants enjoy diplomatic immunity by virtue of the protection enjoyed by the employee. But if, as he has just said, it was agreed between the UK and the US with respect to Croughton that the diplomatic immunity of employees was waived, can he explain the legal basis by which it still applies to spouses? He has talked today about it being an “exchange of notes”. Was it an exchange of notes or was it a memorandum of understanding, and could he please explain the difference? Why is there this anomaly? Was it done deliberately, and if so, what is the justification for that?

A second, related question is whether, if the United States has agreed to waive the full diplomatic immunity of Croughton employees under the Vienna convention, those employees are still entitled to the limited immunity provided under the Visiting Forces Act 1952. If so, surely the legal position should be that the spouse is entitled only to the same protection as the employee. In that case, based on Crown Prosecution Service guidance and previous precedent, the immunity would have applied only if Mrs Sacoolas had been driving from RAF Croughton to her home address, which is an impossibility given that her home address was RAF Croughton. The Foreign Secretary has been talking particularly about the Croughton annexe. Is that the same as RAF Croughton, does it apply to RAF Croughton as a whole, or is it a different area?

Finally on the question of immunity, if the protection enjoyed by spouses of Croughton employees is so clear-cut, why did it take the UK embassy three days to assert it in respect of Mrs Sacoolas? If she and other Croughton spouses do, as the Foreign Secretary said, enjoy full diplomatic immunity under the Vienna convention, why was Mrs Sacoolas’s name never placed on the diplomatic list? When the Foreign Secretary states that the US embassy notified us that the spouse of a member of RAF Croughton was involved in an accident, who is “us”? Is it the police, the Foreign Secretary and his private office, or some other part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

Moving on to the aftermath of this tragedy, will the Foreign Secretary agree, in the interests of transparency, to publish all correspondence and records of all other communications and meetings between his Department, Northamptonshire police and the CPS, and between his Department and US officials, about the handling of this case subsequent to 27 August? It is particularly important to look in detail at what happened between 30 August, when the US asserted diplomatic immunity, and 15 September, when Mrs Sacoolas left, because, as I understand it, the FCO was told that she would leave the country imminently unless the UK raised strong objections. What strong objections did the UK raise, at what level, and by whom? Were assurances requested that she would not leave the country until the issue of immunity had been clarified, particularly given the memo of understanding—or the exchange of documents—as this seems to be extremely murky? What liaison was there between the FCO and Northants police prior to Mrs Sacoolas leaving, and did either the police or the FCO know that she would be leaving before she did so?

All these questions need to be answered. Did Mrs Sacoolas leave on a scheduled flight? Did she leave from Mildenhall? Had the ports been alerted pending resolution of her status? Will the Foreign Secretary explain why his Department asked Northamptonshire police to delay informing Harry Dunn’s family of the departure of Mrs Sacoolas for, to quote him, “a day or two”? Why did they not have the right to be told immediately? What possible legal, let alone ethical, basis was there for the Foreign Secretary to be interfering in operational police matters? Surely this family had the right to be informed straight away. Why, indeed, did it then take the Northamptonshire police 10 days to tell the family?

Given that the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that the supposed diplomatic immunity status granted to Mrs Sacoolas has ceased to apply since her return to the United States, while I am not asking him to intrude on the independent decisions of prosecuting authorities, can he say whether he has he been advised on whether there are any barriers to the CPS commencing extradition proceedings to return Mrs Sacoolas to the UK?

As the Foreign Secretary will know, tomorrow Harry Dunn’s family are due to meet the chief constable of Northamptonshire police. As I mentioned earlier, this brave family have already had one disappointing meeting in his office—and another in the Oval Office. In fact, may I ask a question in relation to that? Was the Foreign Office aware that the White House had summoned the family to the White House, let alone that the President was intending to ambush them with a meeting with Mrs Sacoolas? If so, did the Foreign Office think it appropriate not to give this vulnerable family some assistance? They have many legitimate questions, and they are not getting answers. Unfortunately, they have been led to believe that they will not get any answers from the chief constable of Northamptonshire tomorrow either, as it is his intention merely to offer them his personal condolences. That is not good enough. The time for condolences and sympathy is over. What Harry’s family need now are answers, the truth and some justice.

May I thank the right hon. Lady for the tenor of her opening remarks? I join her in expressing my deepest condolences to the family. I also agree with her that the natural grief that any parent would suffer as a result of losing their child has certainly been compounded by having to go through these legal and what will feel like bureaucratic obstacles. Equally, on our side, we have to ensure that justice is being done by adhering to the legal route; otherwise we impair the very objective that I think we are all seeking to achieve.

The right hon. Lady raises a number of issues. On the suggestion that there was an attempt at a photo opportunity, it had actually been requested by the representative of the family to bring media to the meeting that I hosted, and I declined because I thought it was inappropriate. I expressed my deepest condolences and sympathies to the family and made it clear when I met them that I would do anything that I could and that they should feel free to come back to me directly if there was any support that they felt they needed.

The right hon. Lady asks about the difference between an exchange of notes and a memorandum of understanding. The exchange of notes and exchange of letters under international law is not decisive; what matters is the tenor of the language. However, they effectively implement administrative arrangements under the Vienna convention of diplomatic relations, so they would be of similar status to an MOU.

The right hon. Lady asks about the anomaly that spouses were not covered by the waiver arrangements. I agree that that is an anomaly. That is why I have instituted a review. Since 1995, we have not seen—certainly, having looked very carefully at this, I am not aware of—any case that has tested them. Therefore, this is probably the first time that the anomaly has come to light, certainly to me, but also, given that they have not really been implemented or tested in this way, more generally to the Foreign Office. The exchange of notes covered the technical and administrative employees at the Croughton annexe—which was the subject of another of her questions—whereas the diplomatic list that she refers to applies to members of the US embassy.

The right hon. Lady asks what we knew at the point at which the individual left this country to go back home to the US. We were made aware, I think, a day or two before—I can check—and we registered our strong objections. The right hon. Lady suggested—this is very important—that there should have been checks at ports or that we should immediately have tipped off the police. It would have been unlawful to arrest the individual under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, so that would not have been, I think we can all agree, a responsible or productive thing to have done. Indeed, it would have been an illegal thing to do.

The right hon. Lady asks about the family’s visit to the US. We were aware of that visit. I was not aware of who Mrs Dunn would meet, but I did make it clear during our meeting that I would help with anything and gave her the direct line to my office. Indeed, we have contacts with the representative of the family, and no request was made to us for support when they went to the US, nor were we aware of the details of that trip.

The right hon. Lady asks about the delay in informing Harry Dunn’s family once Ms Sacoolas had left the country. As I said before, it was one or two days. The reason that we asked for a little bit of time—this request was not made by me, and I was not aware of it, but by my officials—was to make sure that we could be very clear on what the next course of action would be, and, indeed, precisely so that they could inform Ministers before the family were aware, because we were aware that there would immediately be questions coming back about what we would do next. There was a further delay from the police. I know that they have been very mindful of the sensitivities of the family at every stage, but ultimately that is, I am afraid, a question for them.

The right hon. Lady asks about barriers to justice being done. Ultimately, that must be for the CPS and the police to decide, and we are obviously in close contact with them, but I am currently aware of no barriers to justice in this case. At every stage during this process, I have been keen to ensure, as have my officials, that we can remove any obstacles to justice being done.

The right hon. Lady talked about the need for transparency, which I know she has made some remarks about in the media. In the same spirit, I point out that, while we have never had a case that has tested these arrangements since 1995—at least, as far as I am aware, and I have checked very carefully—the arrangements were reviewed in 2001. That review was an opportunity to address this issue. It was left unresolved, but the number of staff at the Croughton annexe was substantially increased. In fact, it doubled in size.

That is the full background to not only this case but the arrangements made for the Croughton annexe. I think that the whole House will join me in not only expressing our condolences but trying to ensure that, independently and in the correct way, the police and the CPS are free from political interference and any bureaucratic obstacles to see justice done. Having talked to the parents of Harry Dunn, I know that ultimately, that is the solace that they are looking for right now.

This awful loss has created a huge shock across Northamptonshire, but especially in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), and I commend her for the work she has done over this. All that sadness is nothing compared with that of the family. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made comments about avoiding political interference, given the judicial proceedings that we seek. Does he agree that all of us must be mindful of the need to be extremely careful, given the desired objective?

My hon. Friend is right. It is particularly incumbent upon me as the Foreign Secretary to ensure that, while remaining in touch with the family, which I have been at pains to do, and clearing the obstacles, there is nothing inadvertently that I do, or that the FCO does, which could later allow a particularly innovative defence lawyer to claim that the proceedings had been prejudiced in advance. I have taken that duty very seriously.

I would like to express my condolences to Harry Dunn’s family. For a family to lose a child and a loved brother is appalling, but these are particularly appalling circumstances, and it is particularly appalling that a grieving family is having to endure this, as the Foreign Secretary acknowledged. He also acknowledged that this is a police matter, but there are concerns. Will he reassure me that every pressure will be brought to bear on the US authorities, to see that justice is done? Special relationship or none, these things have to go both ways. That means that the US authorities must co-operate fully, which means that if the Crown Prosecution Service seeks extradition—I know he cannot comment on this—it must be given.

What can the Foreign Secretary tell us about the advice that was given to Northamptonshire police and the immigration service about immunity? I am glad that he is undertaking a review, and I was concerned when he said that the current arrangements are not right. When can we expect him to come back to the House with the findings of that review? To echo what the shadow Foreign Secretary said, he must publish the documentation that has been asked for. I would like him to set out the timescale for the review and give us some reassurances about the US Administration. This is a deeply sad and tragic case, and justice must be done.

I echo the hon. Gentleman’s condolences and thank him for the remarks he made at the outset. He asked about pressure on the United States. We have made very clear our disappointment with the refusal to waive, and we have requested a reversal of that decision at every level in the Administration, from the ambassador here through to the representations that the Prime Minister made to the US President.

The hon. Gentleman asked about requests for extradition. They would, of course, be made by the CPS under the UK-US extradition treaty. I am not aware of any obstacle, but I want to be very mindful of the responsibility I have not to say anything prejudicial. He also asked about the review of the arrangements at the Croughton annexe. I am keen for that to be conducted as soon as possible, and certainly before the end of year.

Although the Foreign Secretary has given a very full account of the representations made to the American authorities, he has not given any narrative of what the American authorities said in return, in justification of their behaviour. Can he throw any light on what their attitude and excuses are, and can he at least confirm that it had nothing to do with the nature of this lady’s husband’s job?

Nothing that was communicated to us touched on the point that my right hon. Friend made. There was not a particularly clear reason other than, as a matter of practice, the US made it clear that it would not waive immunity in a case like this. I appreciate that, from the point of view of the family and, indeed, the Foreign Office, that is unsatisfactory.

Tonight a family are grieving and going through something that we find incomprehensible, and yet they know that there is a lady over the Atlantic who has all the answers. Does the Secretary of State think it is outrageous that the family were taken to America to face an ambush in the White House by Mrs Sacoolas, who has not returned to the UK to face justice?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The first thing I should say is that I think the fact that the US President was willing to meet the family directly was a positive. I certainly think that the sensitivities of handling the introduction with Mrs Sacoolas could have been done better, although I know from the family and their representative that they want to not only see the individual concerned co-operating with the police but also understand a bit more about what happened from her. I think that it was done with the best of intentions, but I agree that the handling of it left something to be desired.

No one can fail to be moved by the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Harry Dunn. The Foreign Secretary has carefully set out what steps he has undertaken and plans to undertake. He said that the Foreign Office has formally requested the US embassy to waive immunity. Can he confirm that, however much any of us wishes it were otherwise, it is simply not lawful or possible for him unilaterally to remove immunity?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In addition to that, it clearly would not be possible or responsible for the police to try to do so. They are there to uphold the law, and however unfortunate the circumstances are, we cannot ask them to do the reverse.

This is truly a dreadful business, and it is quite clear to me and my party that the Government take this most sorry episode very seriously indeed. The events of 15 October come over to me and, I am sure, many people in this country as being some sort of hideous play on comic opera, with Harry’s parents taken to the Oval Office, where, almost by sleight of hand, Mrs Sacoolas, was in the next room. Surely that cannot be within the rules of diplomatic engagement, and surely we should make representations to say that it is not acceptable for our citizens to be treated in this fashion.

As I said in my opening statement, we had made it clear that we were willing to support the family directly, and they have a representative who acts on their behalf. We were not asked for any support in relation to the US visit, and those arrangements were therefore made, I assume, between the representative and the US Government. Ultimately, at all these points, it is impossible to overstate the anguish and frustration that the family feel at every new bureaucratic hurdle that is placed in their way. I understand that, and that is why we have been so mindful about removing those obstacles, because the thing that this family want above all is to see justice done.

Bill Presented

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Stephen Barclay, supported by the Prime Minister, Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Priti Patel, Secretary Julian Smith and the Attorney General, presented a Bill to implement, and make other provision in connection with, the agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union which sets out the arrangements for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 7) with explanatory notes (Bill 7-EN).

Item one of the scheduled business is voided, in the light of the statement and ruling that I gave shortly after 3.30 pm, so that business does not take place today.