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29 Oct 2008 : Column 244WH—continued

I ask the Minister to explain and place on the record how she has continued to keep this brief, in respect of which she has been effective. She clearly works as part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport team and sits in the Cabinet, which is important, but for any layman it would seem more obvious and sensible for her, given her role, to sit with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office or the Ministry of Justice. I should be grateful if she explained how her position, away from those Departments, can be more
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effective, so that right hon. and hon. Members can understand whether, should there be an election, the responsibility for looking after victims of overseas terrorism should remain away from those Departments, which sit at the Cabinet table, or whether that role should be drawn in and linked much more closely with the criminal injuries compensation scheme, for example.

The dilemma that we face, as the right hon. Member for Makerfield mentioned, is the discrepancy that we find in respect of those affected by terrorism in the UK and those affected, perhaps, by the same terrorist organisation abroad. We are familiar with what happened in the 7/7 attacks in London. The support provided by the Government was prompt and, in most cases, well received. It was provided regardless of nationality, whether people were British or otherwise, and the levels of compensation were linked through the criminal injuries compensation scheme. That is right and correct. However, as has been mentioned a number of times, that scheme is limited to British borders alone and the problem with travel insurance covering terrorist attacks is that it is limited, meaning that any individual Briton choosing to holiday abroad who is affected by terrorism does not receive the same compensation as they would if so affected in the UK. We are not talking about large numbers of people. A parliamentary answer to a question asked by the shadow Foreign Secretary stated that about 190 Britons have been killed since 2001.

As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, huge sums of money have been invested by this Government, the police, the emergency services and so forth to try to protect Britons from terrorism here in the UK. We have legislation, going back to the threats from the IRA, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974, the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, the big Terrorism Act 2000, the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, which is a large piece of legislation, all of which were designed to build the barriers higher to protect us here in the UK and to try to identify those who wish to cause us harm. I do not have a problem with any of that legislation per se; I am concerned about what we do when attempts to protect us fail. When all the legislation designed to provide an umbrella of security does not work, we are left with a few people who are exposed and are then killed or injured. It is those people on whom we are focusing today.

The terrorist does succeed on occasions, despite all our efforts to try to legislate against that happening. We may build the walls even higher, but no matter how much we protect ourselves here in the UK, the terrorist will wise up to that and wait for us to step off an aeroplane abroad. That brings me to the question of how we provide support for citizens who choose to travel.

I have been in contact with various victims support groups, including those for the victims of Bali and Sharm el-Sheikh. I pay tribute to the work that they have done in trying to push forward legislation. I also pay tribute to the pro bono work, which has been mentioned already, by Lovells and Allen & Overy, which are providing support to Lord Brennan’s Bill. We must recognise that no matter how vigilant we are and how much legislation we pass, it is virtually impossible to prevent an attack from taking place, if not here, certainly abroad.

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When we see problems on television, they often seem to be other people’s and not ours. When we see an event on television, we may think, “Oh, isn’t that awful?” but we then switch back to doing something else, oblivious to the pain and suffering that that person or family will have to go through. MPs have been lobbied individually, because the lives of each community, person or family whose loved one may be injured or maimed for life are changed for ever, abruptly and dramatically. Every Christmas and birthday is then a reminder of the missing person to the person whose life has changed. We live in a dangerous world, and it is easy to think that such things happen only to a minority of people—perhaps 200—so why are they so important?

On the night of 12 October 2002, I was in the little village of Aldbury in Hertfordshire when I became aware that something had happened in Bali, where my brother, who was a teacher, was at a conference. My mother tried to call him, but could not get through, and we had to go through an agonising two or three days before my sister could travel to the holiday resort to check the hospitals and to try to find him, but there was still no news. The chaos in Bali was horrific. As with many places that are affected by terrorism, it was not geared up for an explosion, and not ready to take on the mass confusion that occurs after an event of such magnitude.

I was living in Aldbury and was a parish councillor at the time. The biggest issue facing us was the number of ducks on the village pond because there were too many. There was a big argument about whether we should cull them, and that horrific story was rippling around the village. That was the scale of problems that we were dealing with when, suddenly, the news came through about Bali and the likelihood that my brother was involved. The whole village, which is a close-knit community, was affected and worried about the possible loss of my brother.

When my sister could not find my brother, I flew to Bali. I have served in the armed forces in a number of operational environments, and am familiar with working with dead bodies and injured people. I was shocked at what I found. There was no British support. The ambassador had turned up for an hour, and then disappeared. There was complete confusion, and the honorary consul—he was a part-time consul who owned a pub, but dealt with births, marriages and deaths—suddenly had to deal with families wanting answers and direction about how to find their loved ones, whether they were injured or dead. After a week, I decided that I could not wait any longer, so I waded through 200 dead bodies, and was eventually able to identify my brother. His body was so mutilated that I identified him only from a keyhole surgery scar on his back, but I had taken his dental records with me, and was able to confirm who he was.

I was the first to identify a British body, and was then able to pioneer a way of getting through the massive Indonesian red tape to enable bodies to be checked, embalmed and provided with death certificates and licences to move them abroad. There was a series of requirements that I had been unaware of and for which no one, including the British embassy, could provide support. That is when things went wrong for the British Government, because they were unused to such terrorism, which had not previously struck British citizens in that
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way. Although 9/11 had taken place, most people in that attack had been vaporised, so there were no bodies to deal with, and the American system and the emergency services there were much more geared up to a large-scale attack. It was on a different scale.

Bali was a learning curve for the Government. When I came back, I spoke to the then Foreign Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Justice, and there have been huge improvements to the website and the provision of travel information, which was previously confusing. In those days, one could apply and pay money for more detailed travel advice, which advised people to stay away from Bali at that time, but the free advice on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website suggested that people could go there with no problem. Many of those aspects have been cleared up, and we now have an emergency response team ready to help in all parts of the world, which is good news. I was in Thailand at the time of the tsunami, and the team did a wonderful job helping victims.

One matter that has not been cleared up is how to support and compensate people who are faced with the loss of a loved one. Travel insurance is important, but how much of a responsibility is it for an individual to obtain suitable travel insurance before they depart? For me, the suggestion of obligation is tricky, but must be debated. What is flawed is the advice that travel agents give about travel insurance to people wishing to travel abroad. The details are often unclear about the cover, and in the dangerous world in which we now live we must be a little clearer about the level of travel insurance and what it covers. About 60 per cent. of travel insurance now covers acts of terrorism, but the industry is large and is, as was said, worth £709 million. We can do more work to educate travel agents and the public on their responsibility not to depart British shores without appropriate travel insurance.

I was critical of the Government in the aftermath of Bali, but work has been done on the aftercare plan—the Minister may want to expand on that—which now has the rather long title of the exceptional assistance measure for terrorist incidents overseas. It provides around £3,000 via the Red Cross for immediate assistance to families that are affected by a terrorist attack. That is welcome, because an element of confusion arises—it did in Bali—and clarity is needed on paying for the return of a coffin back to the UK and the cost of the funeral service. That will go a long way in helping people.

However, more can be done to provide assistance to victims’ families and particularly to people who survive. A friend of mine lost his arm in the Bali attack, and is still waiting for support from the Government or elsewhere to help with a prosthesis so that he can continue to work properly. Thankfully, the company he works for has been supportive, but he has found it difficult to obtain support from the NHS or compensation from the Government. That needs to be clarified.

I shall speak briefly—I want to give the Minister plenty of time to respond—about the Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill, which Lord Brennan introduced. It was a useful vehicle for raising issues that have been inconclusive. It was passed by the House of Lords, but did not receive a Second Reading in this place because of lack of time. That was a shame. Some amendments would need to be
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introduced but, as it was a private Member’s Bill, perhaps the Minister could say whether, if the Bill were introduced a second time, it might at least be debated in the House. That would allow us to thrash these issues out a little further.

On the Pool Reinsurance Company Ltd system, I have spoken to one of the directors of the system, which was set up in 1993 in response to the IRA terrorist attacks that were taking place. The system provides commercial properties with a level of insurance. A premium is paid each year and if anything should happen to the building, it is covered for terrorist attacks. That cover would not be provided by normal insurance. The system now has £1.66 billion in its coffers, which is a huge sum of money. However, of course, if there were a mass flood or some major attack, that money would dwindle quickly. That system shows how easy it is to accumulate money that can be used to help those few people who are killed or injured when these horrific events take place.

As already mentioned, other countries have different models—for example, the United States, Australia through its Medicare system, France through a system linked to property insurance, Switzerland, Finland through its various general criminal injury policies, and Israel. At the moment, we do not have a credible system, but many models exist that do work. Until we get some parity whereby each country matches the good will that we showed when 7/7 struck here—when there was no discrimination between nationalities—we need to ensure that there is some form of cover for British citizens who choose to travel abroad. Frustration is felt by the survivors and the families of the victims of terrorist attacks. The energy and determination that are expended to fight terrorism are not matched by other countries, and the energy and determination to prevent a bomb going off in the first place are not matched by the commitment and support to the victims once that bomb has gone off. That needs to be reconciled.

In conclusion, terrorism is a tactic that is unlikely to disappear. If the blanket of security has failed, Britons need to be assured that the Government will ensure that the appropriate mechanisms are in place—whether that is through an insurance system or direct support. Thanks to the new counter-terrorism legislation, we indeed feel safer in this country, but we are still exposed to the same dangers when we disembark abroad. Terrorism recognises no borders, but nor should our support for Britons. If the global threats that we now face have changed, our response and support must adapt to meet the needs of UK citizens and we must change as well. Terrorism is used to send a message to the state and victims are used as pawns to convey that message. For that reason alone, the state has an obligation to support those victims.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Before I call the Minister, I would like to thank you, Mr. Ellwood, on behalf of the whole House for having the courage to refer to your personal experiences. Doing so could not have been easy, but it was extremely moving and very helpful for the debate.

10.33 am

The Minister for the Olympics (Tessa Jowell): I would like to join in thanking my dear right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) for taking the initiative to have this debate. I also thank the hon.
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Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) for his contribution and both for their remarks about the role I have played. I respond to this debate, in a sense, in two capacities. First, I respond as the Minister for humanitarian assistance and as the person responsible for ensuring that there is a proper and co-ordinated response across Government to meet the continuing needs of bereaved families and survivors in the long aftermath of a terrorist attack. Secondly, I particularly feel myself to be the advocate of those families because I know almost all of them well and I have long-standing relationships with the leaders who have emerged from their groups. For reasons that I know hon. Members will understand, that role rarely sees the public light of day, but it consumes an enormous amount of time, as, indeed, it should.

I pay reciprocal tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield for the way in which he has pursued this issue; he has been motivated by his well-known compassion. I also pay tribute to him for representing the particular experience of his constituent John Green and his young son. That provided a horrific illustration of the impact of terrorist attacks and the need for the action that we are discussing.

I would like to chart what I believe is the real progress that has been made. In trying to reach a solution, we are on a journey. We have not yet reached the destination, but my confidence has been reinforced by the nature of the contributions we have heard. There is a will from all parties to ensure that we reach a solution to the problem and that has been driven by the intrinsic merit of the issue, rather than by the horrific prospect of yet a further terrorist attack in which UK citizens are killed and injured abroad. That would prompt a crisis response, but the solution needs to build what I might describe as a sense of serenity within the UK citizen travelling abroad.

As hon. Members have reflected, in past years, there has been an increase in the number of UK citizens affected by terrorism. Since 2001, the Foreign Office figure is that 141 Britons have been killed in terrorist attacks overseas, and many more—a much harder figure to quantify—have sustained life-changing physical and psychological scars. It is important that our thoughts and focus are on those who have been bereaved as a result of terrorism. However, we must also never underestimate the extent to which thousands and thousands of people’s lives are changed for ever as a result of surviving such an experience. Survivors too often say to me that, in their words, they wished they had not survived. Our obligations are to both groups of people.

It is a clear fact—this is the dilemma on which we focus today—that British residents who are the victims of terrorism abroad do not receive the same level of financial assistance as those who are caught up in similar attacks in Britain. It is worth reminding the House that of the 52 innocent people killed in London on 7 July 2005, some 20 were foreign nationals who died because they happened to be in London and were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their families were compensated as if those victims were British citizens. That discrepancy cannot be right and until we resolve it, we have to recognise the injustice and inequity that exist.

In addition to the psychological trauma and bereavement, families are often left with severe financial problems. Obviously, in the immediate aftermath when I meet families, money is the last thing on their minds. They
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are focused on survival—on managing from one hour to the next—but in the weeks and months that follow, people are often unable to carry on working. They may find it difficult to provide for their dependants. Families rally round but may exhaust their resources, leaving people unable to pay their bills. If they are injured or suffering from mental trauma, they may also worry about meeting the costs of continuing treatment, support and aftercare.

We have devoted enormous efforts to ensuring that the 7/7 survivors who need treatment for post-traumatic stress receive treatment for as long as they need it. There is no neat pro forma that can be completed. We cannot say, “If we do all these things, the results will be satisfactory,” because everyone has a unique and individual response to these catastrophic circumstances.

Let me deal with the machinery of government point raised by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East. I was asked to take on the responsibility for co-ordinating the response for UK families bereaved in the attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 at the Cabinet meeting on the day following the attack. That was an ad hoc appointment because it was the first time that British citizens had been involved in a terrorist attack on that scale. We should remember that, mercifully, the ultimate number of casualties was smaller than had been expected in the days immediately after the attack on New York. Probably for the first four months, that appointment took up 80 per cent. of my time, even though I was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I visited New York on half a dozen occasions, accompanying families and overseeing the arrangements for bereaved relatives and the people who were searching desperately for the relatives whom they knew were in New York but had been unable to contact.

The process is a long one. It includes support in the immediate aftermath and trying to lift the practical burdens that are unendurable for families experiencing the shock of realising that they have been bereaved and their Christmases will never be the same again. I tend to think of it as a four to five-year process. Initially, it involves assistance with the immediate aftermath and support during the period of shock.

The process also involves learning the lessons. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East paid tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, who, as Foreign Secretary, bore a heavy responsibility in relation to the aftermath of the Bali bombings and the tsunami. The lessons include the way in which people are responded to in the hour after a catastrophe has struck. That will have a lasting impact on what they feel about the treatment that they receive. Someone who is dealt with in a rather dismissive, unsympathetic and unconfident way in that first hour may never feel that support was there when they needed it, no matter what support is subsequently available.

In Government, as we address this new challenge, we also have to recognise that we will never get it absolutely right. We can go on learning from the experiences of families and survivors and ensuring that our organisations and agencies build a greater capability for responsiveness, but we will never get it completely right and we have to be, in all humility, cognisant of that.

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