24 October 2018

S5M-13681 Deaths Abroad (Support for Families)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-13681, in the name of Angela Constance, on support for families of loved ones killed abroad. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges the BBC documentary, Killed Abroad, which was recently aired in Scotland and highlighted the tragic death of Kirsty Maxwell, who was from Livingston; believes that this demonstrated what it sees as the unacceptable obstacles that families face in seeking information and support in such tragic circumstances; recognises the profound impact that this has on those who have lost loved ones abroad; notes the calls for the Scottish Government to urge the UK Government to take meaningful action to address what it considers to be the failings and gaps in support and procedures provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to families of those affected; commends the work of the UK All-party Parliamentary Group on Deaths Abroad and Consular Services in highlighting these issues, and notes its call for an urgent review into the support provided for bereaved families and for a closer look into devolved services so that grieving families having to deal with multiple agencies are not faced with insurmountable barriers in their fight for information on the most basic facts about the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

When we go into another country, we present our passport. The inside cover of the passport says:

“Her Britannic Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and”

this is the important part for this debate—

“to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”

When that country accepts the holder of that passport across its border, it is, in essence, entering into a contract with us that it will honour that request from Her Majesty. Of course, the debate is about whether the support that we get from our institutions in working with foreign jurisdictions meets the requirements, and whether people are getting the assistance that they need.

Before I move into the substance of my speech, I want to give a vote of thanks to Chloe Henderson, who is a pupil at Fraserburgh academy. She has been on placement with me this week and has done the research and written the notes for this speech. She has done very well.

Like constituents of other members, people in my constituency have experienced difficulties with people dying abroad. However, I want to speak about a case that has a slightly happier outcome but which nonetheless demonstrates the need for appropriate support.

I acknowledge that people need access to information and support at times of bereavement abroad and that they encounter endless obstacles and unanswered questions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the foreign jurisdiction. There are many logistical challenges that are made harder by potential language barriers, including contacting local authorities, funeral directors and caseworkers. I want to talk for a minute or two about my constituent, Alan Wright, who is from Portsoy and whom my MP colleague, Eilidh Whiteford, supported. His family, in the north-east of Scotland, needed consular assistance after he was taken hostage while working in an Algerian oil field in 2013.

What he thought was a power cut turned out to be a terrorist attack by militants on the In Amenas oil field. Mr Wright and a colleague were forced to hide in a room with only a satellite phone to connect them to the outside world. In a television interview, Mr Wright, aged 37—half my age—recounted the nine terrifying hours that he and colleagues spent trying to remain hidden. Others who were subject to the attack were not as fortunate as he was and were killed.

Mr Wright had to make an emotional call to his family at home, not knowing whether it would be his last. He chose not to speak to his two daughters as he did not want them to remember their last phone call over a crackly line. He said:

“You fear the worst, you can’t put into words how bad you feel.”

That is the environment in which we expect the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Scottish Government and local jurisdictions to respond to the needs of those such as Mr Wright, as well as to the needs of those like his colleagues who were killed. Although there was a happy ending for my constituent, his case illustrates a general point.

Relatives who are looking for help often simply do not know what questions they should be asking, far less what answers they need. That is not a matter simply for a couple of people in my constituency or the scattered constituencies represented by members in this evening’s debate. A 2015 survey sent to 150 families found that they did not feel supported in their experience of trying to bring a loved one home after their death abroad, and more than half said that the FCO was not at all helpful.

In times of grief, there are many unpredictable factors. The people who are grieving are vulnerable and need a special kind of help and support, which must be tailored to their individual needs.

I hope that this debate will play its role in alerting the Scottish Administration, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and jurisdictions abroad to the need to provide enhanced and more relevant support to those who lose people abroad.


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