Imagine you have a daughter, niece, a sister, or a wife. She is happy and healthy and has her whole life in front of her: holidays to be enjoyed and new experiences to be had. Then that lovely, bright girl that you know dies suddenly. Far too young. You cannot comprehend that she is gone, forever. Not only has she been robbed of the rest of her life but has died away from home, in a country whose language you cannot speak or read, in unexplained circumstances.
This was the experience of the families of Julie Pearson and Kirsty Maxwell.
Julie Pearson died aged 38 in Israel. Her friends claim her ex-boyfriend, who had been jailed briefly for a previous assault, beat her so badly that she died the next day. Kirsty Maxwell, 27, was newly married to her husband Adam. She was on holiday in Benidorm, Spain, with friends when she fell to her death from a balcony on the 10th floor of the block of apartments where she’d been staying.
For Julie’s family, the autopsy report (which was in Hebrew) said, when they eventually managed to get it translated, that she died of “natural causes”. In Kirsty’s case, her family is still struggling to piece together the full details of her last moments, largely because the Spanish police failed to interview key witnesses and initiate major crime scene protocols and procedures. What we do know, however, is the men who have been questioned, and who we believe hold the key to understanding what happened, live in England.
The deaths of both women have not been properly investigated by police in Israel and Spain. The flow of communication from the Foreign Office has at times been patchy and lacking in clarity. Neither case appears to have followed the processes or standards of the country where their deaths happened, never mind the kind of standards expected in the nations of the UK.
Following Julie’s death, and largely because of erroneous and inaccurate claims that were made by the authorities in Israel, her family took the brave step of releasing photographs of her badly beaten and bruised body. Those images are deeply distressing, but the family felt they had no choice: remember that the autopsy report, which the family believe is deeply flawed, claimed that Julie had died of, “natural causes”. The bruising and damage to Julie’s beautiful face in my view indicates a very different story.
In Kirsty’s case we have been chasing the whereabouts of the clothes that were on Kirsty’s body when she died – and only found out very recently that these key pieces of evidence have been destroyed by the Spanish authorities.
Although the investigation of a death abroad is primarily a matter for the authorities of that country, the following of basic procedures, such as how families are informed of the death of their loved one and how they are supported and assisted by the British consular service, is key.
In the case of Kirsty’s family, her husband Adam received a call from Spanish police to say Kirsty was dead. Adam told me he actually thought it was a prank call. Julie’s family learned of Julie’s death through informal channels. It was Julie’s aunt Deborah who brought the news of Julie’s death to the attention of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
Deborah told me recently that the British consulate denied ever having received a letter from myself or her requesting pressure was put on to return Julie’s personal belongings. More than two years on, Julie’s personal effects have only just been passed to her family. Yet this should be a very basic but absolutely vital service rendered to a grieving family.
Despite my letters and questions to the British Prime Minister (first David Cameron and later Theresa May) who pledged support, letters to the Israeli Prime Minister, the Israeli Ambassador (who offered to meet the family), the Spanish Minister of Interior, the FCO, the Lord Advocate in Scotland (who wished to help but has no jurisdiction), the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, very little help seems available for either family. I want to change that.
When you get elected, you have many ideas about what issues to champion. However so often, and quite rightly, you are guided by the issues your constituents bring to you. For my part, I cannot continue to just “do my best” and accept the system as it is for the two families whose loved ones have died abroad. The system is failing them and needs to be fixed. That’s why last week I led an adjournment debate on deaths abroad of British nationals in suspicious circumstances, and why very shortly at Westminster, I’ll be setting up the All Party-Parliamentary Group on Deaths Abroad and Consular Services.
There was cross-party consensus at my debate that we need better processes and consular support for families who lose a loved one abroad. Members from across the chamber spoke movingly and passionately about their frustrations with the consular system. We all have the highest regard for staff at the FCO, but they need the tools, the framework and the resources to do the very best job they can.
No family should have to endure what the families of Kirsty Maxwell and Julie Pearson have endured. In memory of them and for the sake of the families of the future, I hope to be part of a cross party movement that will make it better.
Hannah Bardell is the SNP MP for Livingston.