Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, to be able to raise again the case of Christopher Rochester in the House. It is nine years since I first raised this case, and it saddens me that a conclusion has not yet been reached, and closure has not yet been brought for Christopher's family.
Christopher Rochester was a young man of 24 from Chester-le-Street in my constituency. In June 2000 he travelled to Rhodes for a summer break, as thousands of young people do every year. Tragically, on 11 June he fell from a balcony in the apartment block where he was staying. Despite falling some 100 feet on to a concrete patio, he survived-and, having visited the site, I have to say that it is remarkable that he did so. Tragically, however, he died some hours later, because of the neglect of the medical staff at the Andreas Papandreou hospital on the island of Rhodes. This was a needless and avoidable death, because it was due, in the words of Professor Redmond, who gave expert evidence at the inquiry, to the
"appalling negligence of the staff on duty that night at the Andreas Papandreou Hospital."
Christopher's mother, Pam Cummings, was not one to let her son's death go unchallenged. Since that tragic day in 2000, Pam and her family have fought to get answers and bring those responsible for Christopher's death to book. Since first meeting Pam, I have been struck not only by her determination, but by her true spirit and her desire to ensure that what happened to her son will not happen to anyone else. I want to put on record my admiration for her and her family, who have supported her over the past 10 years. Many others would have given up, but for Pam's will and her spirit in leading the campaign to get justice for Christopher. Last year Pam finally got the Greek Supreme Court to ensure that the individuals responsible were brought to book, and they were charged and found guilty of manslaughter through neglect. That was not an easy fight, nor was it financially inexpensive to reach that point, but it vindicated the family's case that the authorities at the Andreas Papandreou hospital neglected and let down that young man.
However, that was not the conclusion to this tragic case, although it did bring some closure for Pam and her family. When Christopher's body was returned from Greece, one of his kidneys had been removed and was missing. Devastated at the news, Mrs Cummings contacted my predecessor-Giles Radice, now Lord Radice-who, with the assistance of the British consulate in Rhodes, got the Andreas Papandreou hospital to send the kidney back to UK via the consulate. When the kidney arrived at the University hospital of North Durham, for some unexplained reason Mrs Cummings asked for it to be DNA tested. The test was carried out by a leading genetic service agency in the north-east called North Gene. To her horror, her suspicions were proved right: the kidney did not belong to her son Christopher. Rightly, Mrs Cummings and her family want to know what happened to Christopher's kidney.
The first response of the Greek authorities would have been laughable if the subject were not so serious. They claimed that the staff at the British consulate on Rhodes had somehow mixed up the kidney when it was being transported-obviously because of the large numbers of kidneys that they have there. Frankly, that is ridiculous and unacceptable.
I assisted Mrs Cummings and her family and pursued the case with the help of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. As a result, the Greek authorities have agreed to have the kidney residing in the University hospital of North Durham tested independently in a third country, in this case Belgium. The problem is that the Greek authorities have been slow in reacting to requests for information made by the family or the FCO. The family have become used to their slowness and inefficiency in dealing with the case, but now they need answers, and we need closure.
One gets the impression that the Greek authorities believe that Mrs Cummings and her family will somehow go away if they delay and put enough obstacles in her way. I want to put it on record that they will not go away-and neither, as their Member of Parliament, will I. I have raised the case directly with the Greek ambassador and with authorities in Greece. I can assure the House that I shall ensure that we do get answers, even if it takes another 10 years.
The Greek authorities have also tried to put cruel obstacles in the way of Mrs Cummings. For example, one matter that recently came to light is a request to have Christopher's body exhumed after nearly 10 years. All the leading experts in the field say that it is not necessary to exhume his body to obtain a DNA match, as that could be obtained from his mother. I know that Professor Sir John Burns, the leading geneticist in the north-east of England, is appalled by the fact that Mrs Cummings could be put through the indignity and tragedy of having her son's body exhumed. Despite that, Mrs Cummings is determined to get answers, and she has therefore agreed to the exhumation of Christopher's body.
One would think that the case would be plain sailing now that that obstacle has been negotiated, but I am sorry to say that it is not. The Greek Ministry of Justice is aware that the Cummings have agreed to the exhumation, but the case is moving at a snail's pace.
The Home Office wrote to request information from the Greek Ministry of Justice on 29 September 2009 and again on 26 February, but it received no reply. On 4 March, I received a letter from Lord West, the Minister who was then responsible for the case. He said that both the Home Office and the FCO were trying to press the Greek authorities as a matter of urgency for the information that had been requested, so that case could be moved on.
At this point, it is appropriate for me to put on record my thanks to the British embassy staff in Athens for their assistance. I should also like to name two people in the FCO, Jill Bayliss and Amber Adcock, who have been very helpful to me and to Christopher's family. I hope that the Minister will pass on my personal thanks to those individuals for all the work that they have done in this case. I know that Jill wanted to conclude this case before she moved on to a new post, but unfortunately that was not possible.
The 10th anniversary of Christopher's death is approaching, and it is time for closure. It is not acceptable that his family do not know what happened to his kidney, and it cannot be right that the kidney of a person who was possibly a Greek citizen now resides in a specimen jar in the University hospital of North Durham.
It is not right that a fellow EU country can simply dismiss these concerns as irrelevant and frustrate the requests for answers from the family. A clear wrong has been committed by individuals at the Andreas Papandreou hospital in removing Christopher's kidney and, when challenged, replacing it with someone else's in order to cover up the cause of the neglect that led to his death. Answers need to be given. I do not accept that such disregard for Christopher's family and for the truth would have been allowed to take place in this country, and it is unacceptable that this approach should be allowed in a fellow EU country such as Greece.
This is a tragic case, and Mrs Cummings and her family have fought hard to get justice for Christopher. Their fight has not been made easy by the Greek authorities, some of whose actions have been nothing short of cruel, in the hope that Mrs Cummings and her family would simply go away. She has demonstrated that she will not go away, and I give the House my commitment tonight that I will not let this case rest until we get the answers that we need. Ten years is a long time, and Mrs Cummings and her family need closure. I thank the FCO again for its assistance in this case, but I also want to ask the Minister to do what he can to ensure that we can move the case on, so that Christopher's family and Christopher can rest in peace.
The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing this debate. When I received the detailed briefing earlier today, it became clear that he has been the doughtiest champion imaginable for his constituents. I have totted up that he has written nearly 40 letters, not only to the Foreign Office but to a number of other Government Departments and to the Greek authorities, on behalf of the Cummings family. It is greatly to his credit as a constituency representative that he has stood up for the interests of his constituents in what, for them, must have been the most appalling experience imaginable. I am particularly grateful to him for his kind words about the staff at the British embassy in Athens, and about two Foreign Office officials in particular. I will certainly ensure that those compliments are passed on to the two members of staff he named.
Christopher's family lost a son in the most tragic circumstances. I am conscious that, while I want again to express my personal sympathy and that of the Government to the family for their loss, there is nothing that any of us in the House can say that will heal the pain that they felt at the time and that they must still feel 10 years on, given that the truth about their son's death remains unknown.
When a tragic death occurs overseas, the cultural differences, the differences in the legal systems, and the different approaches that the foreign authorities employ can be difficult to comprehend. That can make the grief felt by the family all the more acute, and I am conscious
that the family's pain as a result of Christopher's death has been compounded by the challenges that they have faced in their pursuit of justice against those whom they see as responsible, and by the confusion over the fate of Christopher's left kidney.
After a series of court cases, the Greek and United Kingdom authorities now agree that Christopher might have survived if he had received adequate medical treatment following his fall. This was confirmed following the retrial in Rhodes on 5 February 2008 of the medical staff who had been treating Christopher before his death. The court found one of the medical assistants guilty and sentenced him to 15 months imprisonment, suspended for 3 years. The other two accused were acquitted by the court.
When Christopher's body was repatriated, the post-mortem examination here in Britain revealed that his body had been returned without his left kidney. At the family's request, our consulate in Rhodes helped to arrange the return of that organ to the UK. It was after the organ had been returned here that the DNA testing of the kidney requested by Christopher's family revealed that the wrong kidney appeared to have been sent by the Greek hospital. I can only begin to grasp the additional distress that this must have caused to Christopher's mother and to other members of his family.
As a result of this apparent error in repatriating Christopher's kidney, we are continuing to challenge the Greek authorities' identification of it. There was a long impasse between the authorities in this country and those in Greece. On the suggestion of the hon. Member for North Durham and of Christopher's family, the Greek authorities finally agreed to an independent DNA test to be carried out in a third country. That test is due to be carried out in the National Institute of Criminology in Belgium.
In order to complete this test, the Greek authorities have told us that three samples of tissue are required. Two have already been obtained, and the Greek authorities say that the third needs to come from Christopher's remains. Despite our representations to explain his family's distress at this request, the Greek authorities have maintained this stance. It is a testimony to the strength
and perseverance of Christopher's family that, despite their quite understandable misgivings, they have agreed to the exhumation of Christopher's body.
I have been informed that the Greek Ministry of Justice has more recently, through mutual legal assistance arrangements, requested the help of our Home Office to enable this work to be done. Very recently, the Home Office received confirmation from the Greek Ministry of Justice that its request had been made in order to assist with a criminal investigation, and I have been advised that the Home Office is now in discussions with our Ministry of Justice as to how this request can be taken forward.
Although I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that we are awaiting further news from those two Departments about the next steps they intend to take so that the sample can be taken and then sent to the Belgian laboratory for testing, I can assure him and the House that the Greek request is being treated by those two Departments as a priority. I shall ensure that this debate, the hon. Gentleman's words and the continuing distress of Christopher's family are drawn to the attention of my colleagues in both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice so that due urgency really is given to this case. The family have waited for far too long. I also plan to write to the Greek Minister of Justice to explain the situation described by the hon. Gentleman and to ask him what further action he and his colleagues can undertake on behalf of Christopher's family to speed up the conclusion of this case.
In closing, I would like to thank again the hon. Member for North Durham for raising what is undoubtedly a very difficult and tragic case. I am deeply sorry that the Cummings family have suffered such an appalling loss. For any of us, and particularly for any of us who are parents, the death of one's child seems an almost unimaginable trauma. I hope that the actions now under way will finally begin to provide Christopher's family with some degree of clarity, comfort and an understanding of the truth of what happened to their son.