RORY SPEAKS ON SUPPORT FOR WITNESSES OF TERROR ATTACKS
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for bringing this important debate to the House.
Terrorism by its very nature intends not just to kill but to instil terror. One of its primary aims is psychological: trauma is at the heart of the terrorist incident. Let us reflect on what somebody goes through during a terrorist attack. It is not simply the act of violence itself and the sense that they might be shot, nor is it simply the consequence of that violence and the blood that they might see; it is the sense of whether it will be repeated—are they seeing just the beginning of a repeated series of attacks?
Even for somebody in the military who is trained to deal with this kind of violence, the trauma of witnessing an attack can be long-lasting. Veterans experience traumatic consequences as much as 10 years later. For a civilian who does not exist within a military unit, and who lacks that kind of support process, to find themselves a long way from home and hundreds of miles from a British embassy, in an environment in which they may be unable to speak the language and in which they may be unwilling to approach the police—in some of these cases, the terrorists dress as police when they mount the attack—and in a situation in which they are separated from anyone they know, in which their telephone signal may no longer work or their battery may be running out, and in which they feel completely hopeless and unsure whether it is best to remain in a room and take cover or to go out to get help, is one of the most terrifying experiences possible.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to bring this issue forward, and the fact that he has is a real tribute to the work that Members of Parliament—that politicians—can do, because it represents the difference between the thoughts and approach of somebody who represents a constituency, dealing on a personal level with individuals, and the way a Government system works. What do I mean by that? Traditionally, Government systems dealing with this kind of thing have tended simply to look at the nature of the trauma. The traditional national health service approach to this would be simply to ask how intense the trauma and the mental impact are and to ignore the cause and the context in which they arose. What the hon. Gentleman has produced for us is a very important moral lesson, which it is sometimes difficult for systems to take on board: the cause and the context—in this case, the particular form of directed evil inherent in terrorism—mean that the trauma somebody suffers requires a special and different form of treatment from the kind of treatment we might expect for other kinds of trauma and bereavement.
Two particular cases have been raised, and there are serious lessons from both of them for us—for me and for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The first was the Stockholm attack. In that case, there were clearly significant problems with the telephone lines—with actually being able to take the information from the British citizen—and with our ability to get back to that citizen to check that they were okay after they had contacted us.
In the case of the terrible event in Sousse, in Tunisia, where the hon. Gentleman’s constituent witnessed the horror directly, the situation went further. It was about the British Government learning that what matters is not simply whether someone is a victim of the attack. Inherent in terrorism is the impact on the witness, and the trauma experienced by the witness can even be as extreme and long lasting as that of the individual who was subject to the attack.
I would like to take it even further, because there is a broader lesson. In my own experience in Iraq, not only the people who witnessed the attack, but even people who were slightly away from it—who may have been locked in a windowless room taking shelter—and who did not physically act as category 1 witnesses, can continue to feel a sense of guilt, helplessness and trauma for months, or even years, after.
The question, then, is, how do the British Government respond to that? We have taken a number of measures, and I am going to give a list of them. They are going to sound quite bureaucratic, but it is in the nature of a Government that the way in which we address things is by putting systems in place; otherwise, we have nothing that endures—a particular Minister or a particular official can be moved on. We have to try to put systems in place to make sure that things work better in the future.
So what have we done? In relation to Sousse, we set up the Sousse joint officials unit. We brought together nine different Departments, ranging from the Foreign Office right the way through to the Home Office to try to jointly learn the lessons of how we deal with the aftermath of what was the worst single terrorist attack experienced by British citizens overseas—30 people killed, and 600 families affected. Coming out of that, we set up a bespoke mental health programme specifically for victims of terrorism, run by the Maudsley Trust.
We then began to amend—this was a question asked by the hon. Gentleman—the victims of overseas terrorism compensation scheme. The scheme was set up for victims of overseas terrorism, but we have now expanded it—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will communicate this to his constituent—so that witnesses of terrorism are also eligible to compensation.
We have transformed the training in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and that is not only for our consular staff. Before heads of mission go out, they are now subject to training in crisis response. We have improved our systems; they are now better at gathering data. Now, for example, if someone was to ring a British consular office, they would have the full police missing persons form to run through to retrieve any data.
We also have much better IT. It is possible now for a police officer to access the Foreign Office system and for a post thousands of miles away to access the Foreign Office system in real time to get information. We have better follow-up procedures, and we have now put procedures in place so that if something of this nature happens again, the Foreign Office would, hopefully, feel that it was a question not simply of logging the information, but of calling again and following up to check the individual was okay. We have created partnerships. For example, we fund the non-governmental organisation Victim Support. Through the Ministry of Justice, we work with the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace. We have set up new bodies. In relation to the very good work done by Julie Love and DAYNA—Death Abroad You’re Not Alone—we have set up the murder and manslaughter unit, which works specifically within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on dealing with issues of bereavement through murder. We have established a victims of terrorism unit—a bespoke unit set up within the Home Office which has its own Minister. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), is now the Minister for victims of terrorism. We have set up surge capacity. We have set up an ability, if there is a huge attack somewhere in the world that overstretches our resources, to draw in people from other parts of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Departments and reach out to specialists outside Government to enhance the response.
However, none of the systems that we put in place is ever going to be an alternative to what is really required in a situation like this. These situations are inherently bewildering, chaotic, uncertain and violent, and often take place in very remote locations. Our own staff may be unable to access these people; we may have a very small embassy on the ground; and the information may be changing very quickly. The qualities required are therefore human qualities of empathy, imagination and compassion. Our obligation, as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is to make sure that our staff have the proper resources in place to enable them to act as humans. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our consular staff for the work they do. We have to make sure that they have the time, the systems and the resources so that they really can do this very difficult job, often feeling very powerless themselves, with not as much information as they would like, in patiently dealing with victims, with families and with an array of other people—other Governments, police forces, the army—and keeping the patient engagement that is absolutely central.
In the end, a victim who witnesses terrorism—who has experienced that mental trauma—is dealing with something that is fundamentally connected with the mind, but the mind in the most desperate, horrifying sense. The only way of dealing with that is personal. It has to take into account the context and the origin, and it requires the patient, constant reaction, extending potentially over years, that can bring health, settlement and fulfilment back to a family. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the hon. Gentleman for bringing this extremely important matter to the House, and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the consular staff for the work they do with British citizens in some of the most vulnerable and terrifying situations on earth.