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Families ‘failed’ by Foreign Office over deaths abroad

The Deaths Abroad, Consular Services and Assistance report heard from more than 60 families.

Report: Kirsty Maxwell and Julie Pearson's families spoke to the APPG.
Report: Kirsty Maxwell and Julie Pearson's families spoke to the APPG.

Several families whose loved ones have died abroad have claimed they were failed by the Foreign Office, a parliamentary report has revealed.

More than 60 families from across the UK and third-sector organisations participated in the Deaths Abroad, Consular Services and Assistance report.

Scottish Government minister Clare Haughey MSP and her husband Paul described the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) as “worse than useless” following the death of their 20-year-old son, Charlie, who died whilst on holiday in Holland in July.

Mr Haughey told the cross-party group: “The FCO was worse than useless and I say worse because it added stress and worry to the already existing traumatic experience.

“This was in stark contrast to the Amsterdam police who had clearly had ‘trauma-informed’ training using simple language and repeating what we needed to know.”

Hannah Bardell MP was prompted to establish the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) after two of her Livingston constituents – Julie Pearson and Kirsty Maxwell – died in suspicious circumstances abroad.

The report warns of the risks of secondary victimisation.

Deborah Pearson, whose niece was killed in Israel in 2015, said: “The FCO made me feel like a nuisance.

“They didn’t notify me of any support organisations, nor did they help with retrieving Julie’s personal items.

“We were increasingly fobbed off, and the staff at the FCO kept changing.

“There were basic failings, compounded by the issue of UK relations with Israel.”

The family of Kirsty Maxwell, who died after falling from the tenth floor of a hotel in Spain, said they have had to pursue their “own searches for the truth without any structured support from the UK, Scottish or Spanish governments.”

Brian and Denise Curry, Mrs Maxwell’s parents, stated: “Overall we felt emotionally mugged, financially fleeced and alienated in not only a foreign country but within our own.”

They added: “There needs to be mandatory procedures, protocols and assistance in place to assist not only future misfortunes but also current families who are the living victims of unexplained deaths abroad.”

The report, which heard from families whose loved ones had either gone missing, been imprisoned or died abroad, concludes that the right to consular support for families should be enshrined in law.

One of the APPG’s recommendations is the creation of the ‘Pearson Maxwell Protocol’ – a joined-up, cross-agency process that “holds the hands of a bereaved family from the point of notification of death, through travelling to the country of death and repatriation”.

The report also recommends all UK Government departments, agencies, services and third-party organisations adopt a trauma-informed approach to protect families, and that special attention must be paid to suspicious and unexplained deaths abroad.

Ms Bardell said: “This report highlights the urgent need to put compassion and common sense back at the heart of our consular services, where the current UK Government’s failure to act has let bereaved families down.

“Listening to harrowing evidence through this report, it is clear that changes must be made at the earliest opportunity.

“Experts have told us that these families are at risk of re-traumatisation and secondary victimisation as a result of their experiences with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

“Very little has changed for families since the 2014 Foreign Affairs Select Committee review, and many families still feel let down and abandoned by their experience with UK consular services.

“That is simply not acceptable – it is now time for this Tory government to right these inexcusable wrongs and implement the recommendations from this vital report.”

A FCO spokesperson responded: “Last year we helped more than 22,000 British people overseas and the feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive.

“We are disappointed that the APPG declined our offer to meet with them and explain the professional and empathetic support we already give.

“We carefully consider all feedback we receive to continuously improve our service.”

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