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Toby Charnaud

1 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am glad to have the opportunity to raise an important constituency matter, which has wider policy implications for the handling by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the consular services provided to British citizens who are in difficulties overseas. Although this is a detailed matter relating to a particular constituency, I have no embarrassment in raising it, because it has general policy implications. I hope that the Minister will be able to address some of them.

The case concerns the awful death of Mr. Toby Charnaud. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jeremy Charnaud, and sister, Mrs. Hannah Allan, have raised the matter with me. By a poignant coincidence, we are having this debate two years to the day after Toby Charnaud’s murder in Thailand on 27 March 2005, and we think of the family at this difficult time.

I am glad to say that the murderers, including Toby Charnaud’s ex-wife, have been brought to justice and are now serving life sentences in Thailand, and that Toby’s son is settling happily in my constituency. In a certain sense, the family have been able to put all of this behind them, and I am glad about that. I also pay tribute to them, because they are raising these consular matters not to seek any benefit to themselves but because they believe that raising them with the Government in this way may help other families who find themselves in a similar situation in future.

The events were awful enough without their being added to by the inadequacies of the consular service and the British embassy in Bangkok. It is too late to correct what happened, because we cannot turn the clock back, but we want these issues addressed and improved.

The criticisms of the consular service fall into seven categories, which are perhaps best explained by going through Toby Charnaud’s case chronologically. Between the time of his disappearance and the discovery of his body, there was a significant lack of activity by the embassy. One of the most obvious and basic things to do in such difficult circumstances is to appoint a police liaison officer in the UK. It took the embassy two weeks before it got round to telling the family that it was possible to do such a thing, and there was then a delay—admittedly, this was the fault of the Wiltshire constabulary, rather than the FCO—before the liaison officer was appointed.

The appointment of a police family liaison officer ought not to be a discretionary matter in future; it should be routine and compulsory when it looks as if some awful circumstances such as this have occurred. The Minister will know that his noble Friend Lord Triesman met the Charnaud family and assured them that aspects of the police liaison service would be addressed. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell us what steps have been taken on that initiative.

The embassy in Thailand was unable to advise or help the Charnaud family in any way, so they had to take the matter into their own hands. Their son had disappeared, they suspected foul play and the embassy would not help them, so they appointed a private investigator. It was thanks to the private investigator,
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who was at all times aided by an interpreter, that Toby’s body was eventually found. Without that investigation, the family would have been kept in the dark throughout. The embassy was able only to give the family various phone numbers, such as the number for Support After Murder and Manslaughter—SAMM—abroad, and to advise them to hire a local lawyer from an inaccurate and out-of-date list that it provided. There was no real reason why the family should have hired a lawyer at that stage, because there was no evidence of foul play. They had no way of communicating with the Thai police and were entirely reliant on the embassy in Bangkok for information about any police investigation. The embassy gave them no such information.

Even after the discovery of Toby Charnaud’s body, the consular service’s handling of the matter was sadly lacking. It was the private investigator, speaking on the phone from Thailand through an interpreter, who broke the news to the family that their son’s body had been discovered in Thailand and that he had been brutally murdered; it was not the consul or the family liaison officer who did so, and that is unacceptable.

The family had to ring the police liaison officer to tell him about the discovery of the body rather than the other way round. The press arrived at the Charnaud family’s doorstep in Wiltshire 10 hours before the embassy got round to telling them about the death. The press knew about the situation, although neither the police nor the family had been told about it—the consul may have known about it, but did not tell the family. As a result of the huge press interest, the family called a press conference for 3 pm that afternoon, in the hope that they might be able to handle the matter with some dignity.

Toby’s body had been found at 4 o’clock that morning, and a British vice-consul had been present when the body was discovered, so the embassy knew about the situation, but did nothing about it until 10 hours later. The Minister and the Foreign Office must tell us why that was the case. Why were people sitting on the information that Toby Charnaud had been killed for 10 hours before they finally got round to doing anything about it? It was only then, just as the press conference was about to start at 3 pm, that an e-mail—believe it or not—was received from the British embassy in Thailand. It was expressed in the most insensitive terms, which included graphic descriptions of the way in which Toby had been murdered. For example, there was a description of a long and bloody knife, covered in hairs, that had been discovered in the car of Toby Charnaud’s wife, despite the fact that there was no suspicion at that stage that she had been involved in the murder. The FCO chose to tell my constituents in an e-mail that their son had been murdered. It did so shortly before they were to give a press conference that they had been forced to call to let people know all about it. That is totally unacceptable.

What went on between then and the perpetrators’ trial? The FCO’s service did not even improve during that time. Mr. Charnaud’s mother had to travel to London to get various documents approved in the Foreign Office. She arrived to find huge queues, and she had to stand up on a boiling hot day, because there was nowhere to sit down. The lady was 70, and she had travelled up a few days after the news of her son’s death had been announced. Having phoned people in Wiltshire, she eventually got the desk officer to come down to the
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front office in the Foreign Office. In a rather relaxed, laid back way, he said that he would see what he could do to help, and then disappeared. He reappeared one and a half hours later to find the 70-year-old lady still standing in the heat in the Foreign Office, and said, in his relaxed way, that he felt that she probably ought to go to the Thai embassy to get the documents dealt with. It is quite wrong for a family to be dealt with in such a way.

It was important for the family to travel out to Thailand several times to find out what on earth was going on in respect of both the disposal of the body and the cremation, and the trial, which was pending by then. The family asked whether the consular service at the embassy could help them with the travel arrangements. They were told that the embassy could not help with flights, but it could provide the telephone number of British Airways, that it could not help to book hotels, but it could provide the numbers of a few local hotels that they might want to try, that it could not provide them with a translator to help them to deal with the authorities, but it could supply the number of a translation service in Bangkok, and that it could not meet them at the airport.

Will the Minister tell us what steps his Department has now taken to clarify the arrangements that can be made for families in such terrible circumstances? Perhaps he could tell us whether families are now routinely met by an embassy car or official for an initial meeting about what has gone wrong and what can be done about it. As it turned out, it was the Charnauds’ privately hired investigator who met them at the airport, and got them off the plane and through the formalities. That job should have been done by the consular service, but it was not.

The family eventually met the vice-consul, but they did not do so over the weekend because he does not work at weekends. He only got round to visiting them the following Monday to discuss the matter. They explained to the vice-consul that Daniel—Toby’s son—was a British citizen whose father was dead and whose mother was in jail, and that they feared for the boy’s safety. They were worried that he would be kidnapped by the mother’s family.

Despite those concerns, the Charnaud family were told that even if they visited Toby’s son and felt he was in severe danger, they would need to contact the Thai authorities to ensure that something was done. No one will be surprised to learn that the Charnaud family do not speak Thai and have no way of communicating with the Thai authorities. Surely it is the job of the British consulate in a place such as Bangkok to act as a go-between for a bereaved family who are concerned that their grandson, a five-year-old British citizen, is in the hands of someone who might be the murderer—as, it turned out, she was. What did the British consular service do? It said, “We will give you the number of an interpreter and you can then go to see the Thai authorities yourselves to secure the well-being of your little five-year-old grandson.”

Incidentally, the Charnaud family agreed at that time to have the body incinerated, but the Foreign Office’s consular service in Thailand did not tell them that had they had the body repatriated to the UK, it would have
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been possible to have conducted a separate inquest in the UK. They had the body incinerated in Thailand in difficult circumstances.

Trials in Thailand are strange affairs, compared with British justice, because the court meets one day a week and its sittings are often adjourned. Proceedings are in the Thai language and difficult to follow. During that awful trial, the consulate provided no information whatever about what was happening, and the Charnaud family were not allowed to attend. Information about the trial was almost non-existent, consisting only of a short paragraph stating who had appeared and the date of the next part of the trial.

Eventually, the trial came to fruition and the accused were convicted of an appalling and brutal murder of the worst imaginable sort. They were sent to prison for life—in Thailand life means life, and I hope that those vile people are never released from prison—but an appeal is pending and still little help or information is being provided to the Charnaud family.

The event is history for the Charnaud family. The loss of a brother and a son was bad enough and an awful experience, but they are beginning to get over the aftermath of that dreadful event. However, they want consular handling of people in similar circumstances to be changed. First, the British embassy should provide much better information to families in this country. If the event happens a long way away in a country with a foreign language, the family have no way of finding out what is going on from the local authorities. Surely it is of prime importance that the embassy provides detailed and sensitive information—not a daft e-mail with brutal details—to families here at home.

The Home Office provides a helpful information booklet to families of murder victims in the UK. Could not the Foreign Office provide a similar guidance booklet for relatives in the UK of murder victims abroad? I understand that it has been thinking of doing that, and that such a booklet has been in the offing for two years, so perhaps the Minister will tell us what progress has been made.

Police liaison officers are important, and I believe that the Foreign Office has been persuaded of that. We need to know what progress is being made in encouraging police liaison officers and the UK police to look after the families of the bereaved. Families of Brits who are murdered overseas also need help with the police overseas and with the trial. We need better consular services all round. Another constituent, Paul Lawrenson of Chippenham, lost an arm in the Bali bombing and found that the consular services provided in Bali were equally poor.

There is a more general question whether there has been a decline in British consular services overseas, of which we were once so proud. The British pay taxes for certain services to be provided by Her Majesty’s Government. Protection while overseas and assistance if people get into trouble overseas should be a basic, Rolls-Royce service. That is what we need if our brother or son is murdered in Thailand. We need to be certain that local British officials are doing what they can to make the situation better. What does the Minister intend to do to improve that service? I want to know whether he accepts that there has been a general decline in consular services, not only in Thailand but elsewhere. In the months to come, other people who have had a
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similar experience with other consulates may like to let the Government know about their experience, and I shall be happy to act as a conduit if that is useful. As citizens, we expect, and are entitled to, proper services overseas when we get into trouble.

I hope that the Minister accepts the lessons of the appalling Toby Charnaud case, and that he will let me know what will be done to improve the service.

1.14 pm

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): I thank the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) for this debate on behalf of his constituents on the handling of the tragic case of Toby Charnaud, who was murdered on 27 March 2005 at the age of 40 in the most appalling circumstances in Thailand, where he was resident. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has already offered his condolences to the family on this second anniversary of Toby’s brutal and senseless death, and I would like to add my condolences and those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I am fully aware that the family are unhappy about certain aspects of the way in which information was passed to them. We have apologised to the family in the past and I have no hesitation in apologising again for the insensitive way in which consular staff gave the family this distressing news. None of us would ever want to receive news of this type—news of the death of a child, a brother, or a father—in this way.

I shall set out the help that we gave the family, where we got it wrong, and what we are doing to ensure that it does not happen again. To put the matter in context, more than 750,000 British visitors go to Thailand every year, and it is home to around 30,000 British nationals. The vast majority of those visits are trouble free, but in 2006 consular staff provided assistance to 252 families who had suffered the bereavement of a family member in Thailand. In the majority of cases the death was from natural causes, but three of those who died were, sadly, murdered. We fully recognise that the murder of a family member is a devastating experience for those concerned.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the background of Toby’s case and his family’s concerns about the level and nature of the consular assistance that they received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I confirm, as Baroness Symons, a former Foreign Office Minister, did in her letter to him on 28 April 2005, that consular officials did everything they properly could on learning of Toby's disappearance, and stayed in frequent contact with his family. When it seemed that the Royal Thai Police had taken no action, we expressed serious concern about Toby at both local and regional level. As a result, a special Thai police team was set up to assist the local police in their investigation.

We also checked with local immigration officials and hospitals to ensure that there were no unidentified foreign nationals in their care, and we checked the mortuaries. As Baroness Symons wrote to the hon. Gentleman, and as is confirmed in our “Support for British Nationals Abroad: a Guide”—hereafter referred to as “our consular guide”—which was published in March 2006, we cannot perform physical searches for missing persons, and that was explained to Toby’s family. We therefore provided them with contact details of
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charitable and voluntary organisations specialising in tracing missing people, a private detective agency and English-speaking lawyers whom the family could appoint to act on their behalf.

When Toby's family decided to travel to Thailand, we provided them with information about local hotels, and offered to make appointments with Thai officials, as well as calls to discuss transportation and interpretation. I apologise that consular staff were unable to meet the family at the airport on their arrival, but we were, fortunately, able to tell the family that before they left the UK, and we offered to help to make arrangements for staff from their hotel to meet them.

When Toby was found, we kept the family up to date with the Thai police’s progress on DNA analysis, and on their investigation into his murder. We explained to the family that while we were able to relay key case information and subsequent court dates, it was their lawyer's responsibility to ensure that they received a full report of the legal proceedings. We ensured that we quickly relayed to the family all information that was passed to us by the Thai authorities about the case and court proceedings, and often chased the court for further information on the family's behalf. If the family received conflicting information from their lawyer and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we sought clarification from the court on their behalf. Consular staff attended the verdict and sentencing of the four murderers, the details of which were passed immediately to Toby’s family.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the four guilty parties have submitted appeals to the Thai court of appeal, and I assure him and the family that we continue to monitor the progress of the appeals through the courts, and that the Thai authorities are fully aware of our interest in the outcome. However, we are unable to interfere in the process. I will take personal responsibility in my role with Thailand to communicate with him on behalf of the family to ensure that there is no breakdown in communication about the process and outcome.

I have personal experience of losing a son—indeed, my only son—in tragic circumstances, so I am one of the few people who can begin to imagine the family’s distress on learning by e-mail of the discovery of Toby's remains and other upsetting facts about his case, and their continuing distress. As with the Charnaud family, in my case the media were informed of my son’s death before I was, so I understand completely how traumatic that was and will continue to be for the family. I know that the family have received apologies, but I apologise again for the regrettable way in which such terrible information was conveyed. I am assured that it was due to a real misunderstanding between the then desk officer concerned and the family liaison officer, and not a result of a fundamental flaw in our procedures. I reassure the hon. Gentleman and the family that our consular staff receive training on the way in which such distressing news should be passed on to the families concerned.

In the event of a death overseas in suspicious circumstances, consular staff can provide practical information on, for example, local post mortem procedures, funeral arrangements, the local police and legal systems and registering the death in the country concerned. We produce an information sheet, which I think the hon. Gentleman inquired about. The sheet that I have with me deals with Thailand itself, and I shall ensure that he receives a copy after the debate.

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British missions abroad also maintain lists of English-speaking lawyers and translation and interpretation facilities. We provide them to families as necessary, but consular staff are not legally trained, cannot provide legal advice and cannot act as interpreters. There are locally employed staff, some of whom speak good English and have a working knowledge of it, but they are not interpreters.

Where possible, we also meet the next of kin if they travel to the country in which the person died. As the hon. Gentleman knows, consular staff met the family in Thailand. However, we cannot arrange or pay families’ travel or accommodation costs. That is the reality of the situation.

Regrettably, there is sometimes a limit to what we can do, but we aim to deliver a high quality service to British nationals abroad, and in most instances we do exactly that. We aim to provide a consistent service worldwide, but we do so within the constraints that I have set out, some of which are genuine policy and resource constraints. Last year, British nationals made 67 million overseas visits and 3.1 million consular inquiries to our posts overseas. Consular staff gave assistance in more than 4,200 cases in which British nationals had died. Sadly, about 70 cases involved the murder of one of our citizens.

I also reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to making our consular staff support as effective and of as high a quality as we can. We take comments such as those that the family expressed very seriously indeed, and we use such feedback to learn the lessons that help improve the service that we offer. We are grateful to the family for meeting our staff in London to raise those concerns.

On the 10-hour delay, the family’s private investigator, the Thai police and the British embassy consul were together and talking to the family when Toby’s body was found. The embassy therefore assumed that the family had been informed either by the investigator or by the Thai police, and I apologise for that. We will ensure that when deaths occur in future, there is certainty about the process of informing the families of people found dead.

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