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Bereaved families criticise Foreign Office’s handling of deaths abroad

MPs want action to close the ‘significant gap in support’ for suspicious and unexplained deaths overseas.

Adam Maxwell and his wife Kirsty, who died in suspicious circumstances abroad (Police Scotland/PA)
Adam Maxwell and his wife Kirsty, who died in suspicious circumstances abroad (Police Scotland/PA)

By Laura Paterson, PA Scotland

The right to consular support for families should be enshrined in law, MPs said as a report revealed relatives of people who died abroad feel let down by UK authorities.

The husband of Scottish Government minister Clare Haughey said the Foreign Office (FCO) was “worse than useless” when contacted for help following the death of the couple’s son.

Clare and Paul Haughey spoke to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Deaths Abroad, Consular Service and Assistance after their son Charlie died earlier this year.

Mr Haughey said: “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.”

Several other families whose loved ones died overseas said the Foreign Office made them feel like they were being difficult.

Deborah Pearson, whose niece Julie died in Israel in 2015 after being attacked, 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 death of Ms Pearson and another constituent, Kirsty Maxwell, in suspicious circumstances abroad prompted Livingston MP Hannah Bardell to set up the cross-party group, which spoke to 60 families.

Overall we felt emotionally mugged, financially fleeced and alienated in not only a foreign country, but within our own Parents of Kirsty Maxwell

Newlywed Mrs Maxwell died after falling from the balcony of a 10th-floor apartment in Spain in 2017.

Her parents, Brian and Denise Curry, told the group they are still fighting for “truth, justice and answers”.

They said: “Overall we felt emotionally mugged, financially fleeced and alienated in not only a foreign country, but within our own.

“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’s recommendations include setting up the Pearson-Maxwell Protocol to assist a bereaved family from notification of death to repatriation.

Other recommendations include legislating for the right to consular assistance for all British nationals and for action to close the “significant gap in support” for suspicious and unexplained deaths abroad.

The group also wants a trauma-informed approach to dealing with families in these circumstances and improvements in practical support and communication.

Ms Bardell said in the report: “On numerous occasions we listened in disbelief as grieving parents or spouses told us about horrific events, feeling lost and abandoned and simply hoping for a kind word from someone who could help them.

“We owe it to these families and the loved ones they lost to learn lessons and make common sense and necessary changes.”

An FCO spokesman said: “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.”

PA

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