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Fighting for fairness for terror victims

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 12 Feb 2024

New Year Honours: David Humphreys has spent his retirement years providing his expertise to charities in Belgium as both Chair and volunteer – helping desperate people in greatest need of support.

On 22 March 2016, 32 people were killed and 300 injured in three suicide bombings at Brussels Airport and Maelbeek Metro station in the city’s European quarter. They were the deadliest attacks on Belgium since the Second World War. Of the deceased victims, 17 were native Belgians, but the rest were foreign nationals. 

Charlotte Dixon-Sutcliffe was desperately trying to find her partner, who had been in the area of the Metro station attack. Her search brought her to the British Charitable Fund, which helps Britons in Belgium. The charity was founded in 1815 after the Battle of Waterloo by the Duke of Wellington and is still actively supported by the current Duke.

That’s where Dixon-Sutcliffe met the charity’s Chair, David Humphreys. “We got involved with Charlotte and another Brit who had been affected by the attack, which led to introducing her to the people behind V-Europe.”

V-Europe was founded in the wake of the 2016 attacks as a way to offer support for people affected by terrorist attacks in Belgium and abroad. It asked Humphreys if he would be interested in working with them. 

“I try to help victims, that’s part of the job. But there’s no readiness for dealing with the aftermath of terrorist attacks and there aren’t good enough mechanisms for looking after victims. You might have seen the criticisms in the UK over how the victims of the Manchester bombing were dealt with. Many have not received compensation and when they need financial coverage, they have to go through means tests and all sorts of bureaucracy. That really extends throughout Europe. So we try to pull together best practice from around Europe and try to get that into policy here and in the EU.”

Survivors can be damaged mentally as well as physically as a result of these attacks. Getting compensation can be difficult, often involving lengthy hearings where the extent of their injuries are called into question. “You hear all sorts of horrible arguments about whether losing a leg or having PTSD warrants the amount of money they’re getting. It applies in the UK and, in fact, everywhere. So we tried to broaden it to find a framework that governments can adopt for this.”

Humphreys never planned to work with charities, or to live in Belgium for as long as he has. He qualified as a chartered accountant in the UK, working for a small firm, then he and his wife decided to spend a couple of years abroad. They went to Italy first, where they lived for four years before he had the opportunity to take on a more senior role in Belgium. “We were only supposed to stay for two years. That was in 1976.”

As Humphreys neared retirement, he started looking at non-executive director roles. He became Chair of Brussels-based Community Help Service – which provides Belgians with general and psychiatric help as well as a Samaritans-type service – before being asked to join the British Charitable Fund in the early 2000s. “It’s a place of last resort,” he says of the Fund. “People ring up either because they’ve come to the wrong place or because they’ve got a real problem and have exhausted all other options.”

One of Humphrey’s main objectives for the charity was to get more people with a wide range of backgrounds and skills on to the board and in its volunteer network, so that it had more expertise to offer people who came to it for help. 

People come to the British Charitable Fund with a wide range of problems, such as struggles with paying tax and accessing pensions. “We’ve also had people come and ask for help suing their partners, or to get away from someone who is attacking them,” says Humphreys. “You have to exercise common sense and say sorry, we can’t pay your legal expenses while you try to sue your wife. But if you have no food in the fridge, we’ll fill it up.”

There is a risk that people try to exploit the system, but as Chair, Humphreys has always been clear that the help comes first. As far as he is concerned, too many controls could limit the good that they do. “We are given money by kind people who want to help others. We’ve always sent two people to visits, preferably one cynical and one very kind. They make a decision on the case together. That’s enough.”

It also mattered to Humphreys that he would be as active in providing the services of the charity as he was in his role as Chair. “There’s no point in being a decorative chairman, in my view. You have to get involved.”

As a result of this approach to charity work, he was awarded a British Empire Medal in the New Year Honours’ list. It was very unexpected, he says: “I thought it was excellent. I was very pleased.” 

His hands-on approach has also resulted in some meaningful wins. He remembers several people that he helped as part of the team at V-Europe who were about ready to give up their fight for compensation. V-Europe was able to provide the legal and moral support that got them a settlement that they were happy with. “They were faced with lawyers who would have bashed them down to nothing,” Humphreys says.

V-Europe has been able to raise awareness around the difficulties that people affected by terrorism face when trying to get support and compensation, to the point that the laws have been changed in Belgium to make it easier to get money from insurers. The charity is pushing for further changes so that compensation is paid by a national fund instead. For Humphreys, he’s just driven by helping people. He believes that instinct does come from his background as an accountant. “The client is always right and the client now becomes a person that's suffering.”

He also believes that his professional scepticism has been a bonus as well; when it comes to doing right by the people he helps, he’s always ready to fight for them. “I’ve quite a lot of experience dealing with big firms, big organisations, things like the European Commission, and Parliament. That is quite useful. It’s who you know and how you deal with it that helps.”


New Years Honors 2024

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