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3.47 pm

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) for allowing me time to contribute to this debate on an issue that is of great personal interest to me. I lost a close friend and employee on the island of Rhodes this August. Dominic McElroy was 26 years old and well known on the Labour Benches and within the Labour party as a lovable, charismatic, and tough-talking Yorkshireman.

At times of bereavement, family and loved ones enter a state of shock and are at their most vulnerable. In a different country and culture, they need as much guidance and support as they can get, not just from our officials abroad but from the travel companies that organise their package holidays. From my experience, I can only praise the role played by British consulate staff in Rhodes, whose behaviour was exceptional. They showed great sensitivity and tact in dealing with the bureaucracy involved with repatriating a British citizen.

The same was not true of the travel and insurance companies through which my friend had purchased his holiday, however. Dominic had booked his package holiday through Golden Sun Holidays, which I believe had a responsibility to deal with matters in the immediate aftermath of his death. His friends were obviously in a state of shock and grieving, yet they were not offered alternative accommodation and the bed sheets in the room in which Dominic stayed were not even changed. The standard of service that those young people, who were clearly in a state of shock, received was frankly not acceptable.

Dealing with the death of a close friend and having to go through the painful process of informing the parents are burdens enough in themselves, but then to deal with an unknown bureaucracy in a foreign country with a foreign language is simply too much for people to cope with when they are at their most vulnerable.

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I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will help to put pressure on the travel industry to create an industry-wide set of guidelines that can be given to all holidaymakers who suffer such a tragic loss abroad. Cannot we establish a code of conduct to which holiday companies can subscribe, to help to unravel the complex procedures that are involved in repatriating a deceased British citizen? Dominic's friends had not only to talk to the British consulate, but to deal with the travel company and its representatives, the insurance company, insurance underwriters, undertakers, airports and local police. They also suffered an interrogation on Rhodes that was similar to the one my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham described.

It is simply not acceptable for the industry to allow grieving people to fend for themselves in unfamiliar territory. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will consider with our colleagues in Europe the establishment of an EU-wide set of guidelines to which the travel industry can subscribe. There have been many instances in which unnecessary bureaucracy has slowed down the burial of British citizens who have died abroad and prohibited families from grieving as they should in such tragic circumstances. It could be argued that the ability to bury one's loved one is a basic human right. I hope that he will take that point on board when he responds.

Dominic McElroy was a great man who was lost to his family tragically early, at the age of 26. They deserve so much more from the travel company from which he purchased his holiday. I hope that we can work to ensure that other people in such tragic circumstances do not have to undergo the pain and misery that Dominic's friends suffered last August.

3.52 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing an Adjournment debate on this important topic. It is an indication of his commitment to his constituency that his first such debate is for the benefit and peace of mind of a family who live there. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) on his contribution. I was pleased to hear his comments about the professionalism of the British consulate in Rhodes. I am not aware of the details of the case that he raised, but I shall certainly take on board his point about the need for EU guidelines for the travel industry in respect of bereavement cases. Sadly, I am not responsible for the travel industry, which is dealt with by another Department, but I point out that the Foreign Office produces a booklet called "Dealing with Death Abroad", which is distributed by embassies.

We were all disturbed to hear about the tragic death of Christopher Rochester in June 2000 and the ordeal of his bereaved family since then. To lose a young life is bad enough, but when it happens overseas and the circumstances are unclear, it must be much worse. On the death of a British citizen overseas, consular staff offer as

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much assistance as they can. Their primary role is to act as a liaison between the authorities in the country where the death has happened and the bereaved relatives, who are usually in the UK.

If a close relative is present in the country where a death has occurred, our consular staff do their best to assist them in making arrangements for local burial or cremation, or the return of the deceased to the UK. One rule prevails: the welfare of the bereaved relatives must always be paramount.

Let me turn to the specifics of Christopher's case, in which the unusual circumstances and developments overtook the regular pattern of consular activity following a death. Fortunately, as we have heard, Christopher's brother Keith was present and was able to act as a witness for the family. Christopher was returned to the UK relatively quickly and the coroner promptly drew the family's attention to his concerns about Christopher's treatment in hospital and to the findings of the Greek coroner in relation to the cause of his death. It was unusual for the British consulate to be asked to send on the kidney produced by the Greek authorities. Such matters would normally be the responsibility of international undertakers. To then find that the kidney did not belong to Christopher was as shocking for our consulate as it was for the coroner, and was devastating for the family. Our consulate in Rhodes and the embassy in Athens have passed on all messages, relayed questions and unofficially translated documents with great haste.

I am sorry to hear about my hon. Friend's difficulty in getting a response from the Greek ambassador in London. If he would like to speak to me about the matter after the debate, I can pass the message on to Baroness Amos, who is responsible for consular matters. I am sure that she will look into the matter for him.

By encouraging the British and Greek coroners to speak to one another, we hope that at least the question of the missing kidney will be resolved. Our consulate is continuing to press Mr. Stefis, the Greek coroner, to take the matter further, professional to professional, with his British counterpart, Mr. Tweddle. The British coroner has given his verdict of accidental death contributed to by neglect. We understand that, as we have heard, the family are proceeding with their case through the courts. We believe that the Greek police investigation papers have been passed to the public prosecutor. Our embassy in Athens will keep a careful eye on developments. Our consul met the public prosecutor and Mr. Stefis on 17 October, which is yesterday, to discuss progress on the case. Mr. Stefis awaits further photographs from the British coroner, Mr. Tweddle, and the public prosecutor expects to release his report on the allegations of malpractice at Rhodes hospital by the end of November. It is encouraging that the Greek Minister of Justice has also taken a personal interest in the case. He recently telephoned the public prosecutor to make inquiries.

We all hope that the case can be brought to a resolution as soon as possible. To prolong the distress of Christopher's family, especially at a time when bereaved relatives are very much in everyone's thoughts, would be unthinkable.

Question put and agreed to.

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