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15 July 2008 : Column 51WH—continued

As you can imagine, Mr. Gale, the situation caused Mr. and Mrs. Hill a great deal of anguish. The Argentine authorities then indicated that they were prepared to release Laura’s body, but what were Mr and Mrs Hill to do? They wanted their daughter back in the UK, because they wanted to bury her, but they also wanted to find out who, if anyone, was responsible for her death. Given the lack of information from the Foreign Office, I pressed Sussex police for a meeting about the progress of the investigation. Sussex police will not, I hope, mind if I describe their attitude as one of frustration. They would in principle be delighted to assist in any proper investigation, but of course they have no jurisdiction. It was, and still is, open to the Argentine authorities to
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invite them to participate in an investigation, and if the coroner were to return a particular verdict, that would give the police some jurisdiction, but no such invitation has been received. Again, the FCO could and should have raised that issue with the Argentine authorities. When I made the suggestion, the FCO took the view that it would not be appropriate and suggested an approach by Sussex police via Interpol.

At times during this case, it has escaped me why we bother to have diplomatic representation at all. It was decided that it would be appropriate for Laura to be returned to the UK for a second post-mortem, provided her organs were returned with the body. On 23 November 2007, Mr. and Mrs. Hill received an e-mail from the embassy in Argentina, confirming that it was standard procedure for the organs to be returned, so at great expense, they engaged the services of Rowland Brothers to repatriate the body, thinking that a second post-mortem in the UK would produce more answers than a prolonged investigation in Argentina. That decision was based on the assurances the Hills had received that Laura would be returned with her organs. They would not have repatriated her if they had had any reason to believe otherwise. Laura’s body was officially repatriated on 20 December and arrived back in England on 21 December. It was agreed with Sussex police that a Home Office forensic pathologist would conduct a second post-mortem, which was arranged for early in the new year.

The Hills were informed some days later that, despite constant reassurances from all sides, Laura’s organs had been retained in Argentina. That was, of course, largely the fault of the Argentine authorities, but both the funeral directors and the consulate could have taken greater care to check the position. To make matters worse, the toxicology reports finally arrived—coincidentally, after Laura’s repatriation—and indicated that Laura had a lethal dose of cocaine in her body when she died. I am told that the dose was so high that it was unlikely that Laura could have administered it herself, but without the organs that could not be confirmed by the coroner in Sussex.

I continued to press the FCO. The Minister was good enough to meet me, and he conceded that this was “a dreadful case”. He said that he would contact our ambassador in Argentina, but in a further letter he said:

That may be true, but it entirely misses the point. By that stage, Laura’s body—minus the organs—had already been repatriated at the family’s expense. The FCO made the position very clear in a further response to me:

It then turned out that the Argentine authorities were no longer willing to communicate with consular staff. Mr. and Mrs Hill were told that they would have to employ a lawyer if they wanted to receive any more information about their daughter.

More recently, it has belatedly come to light that there was an Argentine police report on Laura’s death, which apparently stated that there was an investigation into Laura’s death and that she died in suspicious circumstances. As yet, I have not seen that report, but its conclusions are clearly very much at odds with what
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the family were originally told. Without Laura’s organs, the coroner cannot complete the post-mortem. Mr. and Mrs Hill are no closer to finding out the whole truth about their daughter’s death than they were on 2 October last year. They do not know whom to turn to now. In short, they are in a hopelessly circular situation.

When I originally applied for this debate, it was out of total frustration as the Hills’ constituency Member of Parliament. I was initially advised that the debate could not be granted because of the sub judice rule. In short, because the Sussex coroner had opened the inquest, then immediately adjourned it, we could not debate it in the House. However, the coroner cannot hold a meaningful inquest unless and until Laura’s vital organs are available for a proper autopsy. In his letter to me of 4 February, the coroner’s own frustration is almost palpable:

I am therefore really grateful, as are Laura’s family, that the Speaker has been willing to use his discretion in this matter.

I do not believe that the Foreign Office has been as helpful as it could have been. It has not pressed for a meaningful investigation into Laura’s death in Argentina and it has left the most important questions surrounding Laura’s death unanswered. Perhaps the concerns are best expressed in Mrs. Hill’s own words. She wrote this to me:

I am sure that the consular service has many dedicated people working for it, who help thousands of British citizens who get into difficulties across the globe every year, whether it is because of a lost passport or something more serious. However, let me end by pointing out a supreme irony. By coincidence, there landed on my desk a couple of days ago a letter from the FCO, which was presumably sent to all hon. Members. It said that the FCO was proposing to republish its booklet, “Support for British Nationals Abroad: A Guide”. The letter said that the guide sets out

The letter then invited me to contribute ideas for inclusion in the new version of the guide. Well, I hope that those drafting the guide will find this debate to be of assistance in their task.

Even at this late stage, I hope that the Minister will agree to arrange the repatriation of Laura’s organs so that a proper post-mortem can now take place, followed by an inquest. Laura’s funeral finally took place on 28 April, but her family still desperately need to achieve closure in this matter. I hope that today the Minister can help them to do that.

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12.45 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): First, I thank the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) for securing this debate. I am grateful to him for raising the case of Laura Hill and I welcome the opportunity to outline our consular services and the assistance that we have provided to Mr. and Mrs. Hill.

As the East Sussex coroner may decide to hold an inquest into Laura’s death, and as I would certainly not wish to prejudice the outcome of such an inquest, there are aspects of this case that I am not able to discuss at this time. Nevertheless, I extend my deepest condolences to Laura’s family for the loss that they have suffered.

Laura Hill first came to the attention of consular staff on 1 October 2007, when the Argentine police notified the British embassy in Buenos Aires of her death. The embassy was informed that she had died on 1 October in the common area of an apartment block, where it is believed that she was visiting a friend of her boyfriend. The sad news of Laura’s death was passed to our consular staff in London. After confirming her address in the United Kingdom, consular staff asked Sussex police to attend the address. Officers went to the address and passed the sad news to Laura’s parents, Kevin and Alison Hill, on 2 October.

Mr. and Mrs. Hill telephoned consular staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London the next day. We offered our condolences on the tragic loss of their daughter and provided them with information on options for repatriating Laura’s body, including details of international funeral directors who would be able to repatriate Laura’s remains. Consular staff confirmed this information in writing later that day. Sussex police quickly appointed a family liaison officer to assist Mr. and Mrs. Hill and to act as a point of contact between them and consular staff.

The post-mortem carried out by the Argentine authorities on 5 October indicated that Laura died of pulmonary congestion and acute oedema, but it stated that further toxicology and histopathology examinations needed to be carried out. We were informed that those examinations would take 15 to 20 days. That information was conveyed to Mr. and Mrs. Hill on 5 October. On 30 October, we informed the family that the full post-mortem results and police report would not be ready until mid-December. We also advised Mrs. Hill to appoint a local lawyer—that is, a lawyer in Argentina—but she declined a copy of our list of English-speaking lawyers in the Buenos Aires area.

On 9 November, we were advised that Laura’s body could be released to the care of a funeral director to begin the administrative process in preparation for repatriation. We advised Mr. and Mrs. Hill of this, and advised them that Laura’s body could be moved from the municipal mortuary to a funeral home, but we understood that the family had concerns that the investigation into Laura’s death would not be completed in a satisfactory way once her body had left the care of the authorities, so they chose to leave her body at the municipal mortuary.

On 5 December, the presiding judge authorised the release of Laura’s body for repatriation to the United Kingdom, but Mr. and Mrs. Hill had yet to instruct an international funeral director to act on their behalf. On 6 December, consular staff in London and the FCO
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police adviser met members of Sussex police and advised them that delaying repatriation would not assist the Argentine investigation but might be detrimental to any investigation by the UK coroner. Sussex police conveyed that information to the hon. Gentleman, who confirmed on 7 December that the family were ready to authorise the repatriation of Laura’s body.

The toxicology results were issued on 12 December. They indicated that Laura had died of pulmonary congestion and acute oedema resulting from ingestion of a quantity of cocaine. We faxed a copy of the original document in Spanish to the family on 13 December and, exceptionally for us, provided them with an unofficial translation on 21 December. Following completion of the administrative processes, Laura was repatriated on 21 December. On 18 January, nearly a month after her return, consular staff in Buenos Aires were informed by the international funeral director’s local agent that Laura’s body had been returned with a large proportion of her organs missing. I appreciate, as all of us readily can, that that must have been a distressing blow for Laura’s parents, as they had expressly requested that her entire body be repatriated. We had relayed that message to the authorities in Buenos Aires, who had assured us that that would be the case. As removal and destruction of organs had not been an issue that we had encountered in Argentina before to this case, consular staff had no reason to question whether Laura’s organs would be returned with her body.

It is not the role of consular staff to check the status of a body before it is repatriated—and they do not have the means to do so—but only to be satisfied that a correct identification has been made. One can understand the scale of the problem if consular staff were required to do so, given that no fewer than 4,527 Britons died abroad in 2006-07. As soon as the family notified us that Laura’s organs had not been returned with her body, we raised the issue of the missing organs with the fiscal—the prosecutor—in Buenos Aires on 22 January. The fiscal informed the embassy that it is normal Argentine practice in such cases for organs to be removed for testing. That information was relayed to the family liaison officer appointed by the Sussex police. To avoid any further confusion, we have since amended our Argentina death information sheet to explain the Argentine practice.

The embassy remained in contact with the Argentine authorities, but it was not given any more information because the Argentine authorities wanted to deal directly with the family, which is normal in such circumstances in Argentina and throughout the world. Nevertheless, on 27 February, in the light of the continuing concern, the British ambassador in Buenos Aires exceptionally requested and obtained an assurance from the presiding judge, Dr. Pagano Mata, that the remaining fragments of Laura’s organs could be released. For that to be done, all that was needed was an application to, and authorisation from, the fiscal. We relayed that information to Mr. and Mrs. Hill on 28 February, and they confirmed the family’s desire for the return of the remains. On behalf of the family, consular staff in Buenos Aires lodged a formal request and, on 3 March, the Argentine authorities authorised the release of the remaining fragments of Laura’s organs. The family were informed,
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but as yet they have not appointed an undertaker. The fragments of the organs therefore remain in the custody of the Argentine authorities.

The hon. Gentleman contacted London consular staff on 1 April to raise the family’s distress at the situation and to request that the FCO pay the £3,500 that the family had told him was the cost of repatriating the remains of the organs, as we had given our assurances that the organs would be returned with Laura. We have explained to the hon. Gentleman and to the family that at no time did consular staff give such assurances, and that we had only been passing on information given to us. We have also made it clear that the FCO does not fund repatriations; the cost must be borne by the family, or their insurance company, and it is for them to approach an international funeral director to make the necessary arrangements.

We were surprised that such a high sum was being for the repatriation of fragments of organs, so consular staff contacted Rowland Brothers, the international funeral directors appointed by Mr. and Mrs. Hill to repatriate Laura’s body, for clarification. They confirmed that they had not been contacted by Mr. and Mrs. Hill about repatriating the organs, but they estimated that the cost would be in the region of £800 to £850. Rowland Brothers contacted Mr. and Mrs. Hill and said that they would be happy to provide them with a quotation if and when they were appointed to handle the matter. I understand that Mr. and Mrs. Hill requested a quote from Rowland Brothers, who quoted the sum of £850 on 22 April, but Mr. and Mrs. Hill have not been in contact with them since then.

The hon. Gentleman contacted my office on 1 May for confirmation that the FCO would not pay for the repatriation of the organs. On 9 May, we confirmed that our position remained unchanged and that we could not provide financial assistance to Mr. and Mrs. Hill. Consular staff emphasised both that the Argentine authorities were under no obligation to communicate details of the investigation into Laura’s death for us to pass on to the family, and that communication is normally either directly with the family or through a legal representative.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am satisfied that consular staff have provided Mr. and Mrs. Hill with all the assistance they properly could during this very difficult time. They have provided information to Mr. and Mrs. Hill so they can make their own decisions, they have relayed information to Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and between the Hills and the Argentine authorities, in a timely manner, and they have never sought to impede matters or mislead in any way. We can convey to the family what information we are given, but it is not for us to request that a foreign Government invite British police to participate in an investigation into the death of a British national, nor can we seek a speedier investigation for a British national than would be available to a local person or any other national. We would certainly not countenance such requests made by a foreign Government to our Government.

I have taken a close interest in this case, and I have provided the hon. Gentleman with full responses to his letters. I have spoken with our ambassador to Argentina, who is a very fine ambassador, to be sure that we have done all that we properly can do. I remain satisfied that that is the case. I am extremely sorry that Mr. and
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Mrs. Hill have suffered such a tragic loss. The death of one’s child is an unimaginable trauma. I hope that they will be able to come to terms with their loss and the circumstances of Laura’s death. I also hope that during the course of this debate I have managed to make the FCO’s position as clear as possible.

12.58 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Rolle College, Exmouth

1.30 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I am grateful to have secured the debate and for the Minister’s attendance. The future of the Rolle college campus in Exmouth has become an extremely contentious and important issue, not only for the people of Exmouth but for East Devon as a whole. The university campus has been providing vocational skills and further educational opportunities for more than 60 years. Throughout that time, the college has played an extremely important part in the economic and community life of Exmouth. Rolle college, which is primarily a teacher training college, has a fantastic academic reputation and an excellent relationship with the local community and schools. It has played an integral part in the life of Exmouth as a town, not only contributing to the local economy but placing students in local schools, many of whom stay on to become teachers in the local area.

Exmouth has a high number of elderly residents, and the town has two of the most deprived wards in Devon—Littleham and Town—which are in the upper quartile of social deprivation in the country, with 46.9 per cent. of households having an annual income of less than £20,000. Over the years, the presence of Rolle in the town has contributed a substantial amount, not least by giving the town university status.

In November 2005, the university of Plymouth made the controversial decision to close the Rolle college campus in Exmouth and move the teaching facility with its 3,000 pupils and 400 staff to its main Plymouth base. Professor Roland Levinsky, who had been appointed the university of Plymouth’s second vice-chancellor in September 2002, set himself the aim of lifting the university from its position as one of the leading post-1992 universities to rival much older and more research-intensive institutions. To do that, he was willing to take unpopular decisions, such as concentrating the university’s teaching in Plymouth, with the closure of three campuses, including Rolle. Those moves, while undoubtedly giving Plymouth more the structure of longer established UK universities, will have a devastating impact on Exmouth.

The decision to relocate the Rolle campus will create an economic void in Exmouth, resulting in the estimated loss between £4 million and £5 million per annum to the town’s economy. In addition to the monetary loss, the students have made an enormous contribution to the vitality of the town. The campus is in good condition and is closely connected to a growing community. It benefits from and supports additional educational, sporting and social events. Apart from losing an excellent established college, the town will become much more of a retirement area, without the life and employment opportunities that the college embodies. Surely the Minister will agree that it is appropriate for the university to work towards compensating the town in some manner for the loss that will be incurred?

It came as some relief that Professor Roland Levinsky pledged to work with the local community to mitigate the loss to the town. Following the vice-chancellor’s untimely death in January 2007, the university authorities reiterated their desire to honour his pledge to offer the site for education at a discounted price and made

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