By Kenneth Roy
The Crown Office made the briefest of statements about its decision not to hold a fatal accident inquiry into the deaths of three asylum seekers who fell from a tower block in Springburn, Glasgow, in March 2010. Having ‘fully considered the circumstances’, the Crown Office decided that an inquiry was ‘not in the public interest’.
What exactly are we supposed to infer from this? ‘Not in the public interest’ is a meaningless, catch-all phrase in the same category as its near-neighbour ‘inappropriate’ but with a slightly sinister twist. When the powerful start assuring us that something is not in the public interest, you can pretty well bet that the opposite is true. See Orwell for confirmation.
This is our third editorial in recent weeks about the serious defects in Scotland’s system of fatal accident inquiries (FAIs).
In the first, we called for an FAI into the case of Kayleigh Scott, the teenager who fell to her death from a tenement block in Ayr close to midnight after an evening of heavy drinking. Despite this magazine’s disclosure that at the time of her death Kayleigh was a ‘looked after’ child well-known to the police and the social work department, there has been no word of an inquiry – or indeed any official statement of substance about her death.
In the second, we criticised the inordinate delay in calling an FAI into the Lanark school bus crash and went on to highlight some of the anomalies of the Lord Advocate’s wide discretionary powers. Although, for example, he must hold an inquiry into the death of a child in custody he has no obligation to call one into the death of a child in care, as Kayleigh was. Lord Cullen, in a review three years ago, recommended that the mandatory scope of FAIs should be extended to include the deaths of people forcibly detained in mental institutions, but the Scottish Government inexplicably declined to accept this eminently sensible reform.
The law in this matter is riddled with inconsistencies. But the outcome of the Crown Office’s prolonged deliberations into the deaths of the Russian asylum seekers is the most disturbing case yet of how the system is failing.
Outside the legal obligation for an FAI into a death in custody or as a result of an accident at work, an inquiry may – repeat may – be held ‘in other cases of sudden, suspicious or unexplained death, or death in circumstances that give rise to serious public concern’.
Let’s look at the case of the asylum seekers within the context of these guidelines.
Serguei Serykh, 43, his wife Tatiana and his 19-year-old stepson Stepan were living in the Red Road flats in Glasgow, along with hundreds of other asylum seekers. It is claimed that, on the day they died, they received a letter informing them that, their application for leave to remain in this country having been refused, they must vacate their accommodation. They were informed at the same time of their right to appeal; there was no immediate threat of deportation or eviction. One theory is that, despite this assurance, they simply panicked and decided to take their own lives.
If they did commit suicide, a fatal accident inquiry would have thrown official light on the processes of eviction, the poor communication between asylum seekers and the authorities, the financial and psychological pressures facing them, and the fear and insecurity in which they exist from day to day, often for years. This would have been particularly valuable in light of the fact that six other asylum seekers in the Red Road flats had died, apparently as a result of suicide, since 2003. The opportunity to send a clear message to the Westminster government about the treatment of these vulnerable people has not only been missed. It seems to have been deliberately avoided on spurious public interest – or lack of public interest – grounds.
Suicide is, however, only the apparent cause of death. Indeed that qualifying adjective ‘apparent’ is invariably used by careful journalists in reporting this case. Although Serguei Serykh had mental health problems – as do many other asylum seekers – there may have been some truth in his claim, when he arrived in Britain, that he was an out-of-favour member of the Russian Federal Security Service, the intelligence agency once headed by Putin.
After his death a British foreign correspondent reported speculation in Moscow that it was not suicide. This speculation may have been based on nothing more substantial than the surprising regularity with which, in Russia itself, trouble-makers jump to their deaths from tower blocks. But, without a fatal accident inquiry, it is impossible entirely to dispose of the suggestion of some darker explanation, and the word ‘apparent’ will continue to preface references to the cause of death, and for very good reasons.
Now let’s return to those guidelines.
The three deaths were ‘sudden’. They were ‘unexplained’. And they may well have been ‘suspicious’. On all three counts, there should have been a fatal accident inquiry. But the most compelling justification for such an inquiry is contained within the phrase, ‘in circumstances that give rise to serious public concern’.
The repercussions of these shocking deaths were widely and deeply felt. The international media coverage was extensive. A vigil was held in the family’s memory; many candles were lit by members of the local community. Hundreds of people took part in a march and rally, calling for a reform of the Home Office’s policy of forced removals. The then prime minister, Gordon Brown, became personally involved in the case. If these are not the symptoms of ‘serious public concern’, what are?
But two and a half years have elapsed since the tragedy. Inevitably the initial trauma is long over and the emotions generated by the deaths are no longer so strong. Wait long enough, as the Crown Office has done, and it becomes all too possible to do nothing.
We repeat: the lack of transparency surrounding unexplained deaths in Scotland is a scandalous failure of public policy.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review