At this stage, they are refuting that these things happened, but again, I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the full details, if I may, because I would rather not inadvertently say something inaccurate on the Floor of the House.
Torture and mistreatment of detainees is prohibited under international law, and is absolutely unacceptable in any circumstances. We therefore take allegations of such conduct very seriously, but we must also take care to avoid doing anything that might put the person making an allegation, or those connected with him, at any further risk. Our priority is always to ensure the best interests of the detainee.
I think many Members will understand that in cases such as this, a great deal of work often goes on underneath the radar rather than with a hell of a lot of publicity. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that any sense that there have been leaks and briefings to the press—again, I am not suggesting that that has happened, but clearly the press have run some stories in India—risks undermining any chance of a fair trial. That is not an acceptable state of affairs, and it would be no more acceptable here in the United Kingdom. Our priority will always be to ensure the best interests of the detainee. Decisions on the precise action that we might take in response to allegations of mistreatment will be made on a case-by-case basis, and only with the individual’s consent.
When British nationals are detained overseas, their health and welfare are our top priority. We make every effort to ensure that prisoners are receiving adequate food, water and medical treatment, and that they have access to legal advice at the earliest opportunity. In cases of dual nationality—the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) raised a particular case—we do not have that locus, a position that I think Members will understand, if not entirely support. If a person with dual nationality is incarcerated in the other country of which he or she is a citizen, it is not our place to have consular standing.
As soon as we hear about a detention or arrest, our consular staff will attempt to make contact and visit the individual as early as possible. Subsequent visits will of course depend on the nature and context of the case, and, in some cases, on the practicalities—someone who is imprisoned many hundreds of miles from the nearest consular headquarters or high commission may be more difficult to visit on a regular basis—but we are aware that for many detainees our visits are a lifeline, and that our staff may well be the only visitors that some receive.
I can assure Members that we aim to afford every case equal importance, and to provide tailored support and guidance for individuals and their families. There are more than 2,000 British nationals in detention around the world at any one time, and in the last financial year alone, our staff overseas dealt with approximately 5,000 detainees. It is difficult to operate a standard procedure when dealing with those numbers, and in some cases, with the best will in the world, we will be seen to have fallen short. I will try to ensure that we have flexible standards that we can apply across the board, while taking account of the differing circumstances. I am happy to work with the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services to try to find a protocol that works for the future.
Providing consular assistance for any British national in distress overseas is central to our work at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Although the Government do not have a legal duty of care to British nationals abroad, we are proud that we continue to provide a comprehensive, round-the-clock service for anyone who finds themselves in difficulty. We work particularly hard to support those who may be vulnerable and are most in need of our help. We also have a long-standing partnership with a charity called Prisoners Abroad, which gives practical and emotional support to British people who are detained overseas.
There are, of course, limitations to the extent of the service that we can offer. We are not in a position to make decisions on behalf of people, nor are we able to do everything that might be asked of us at any one time. As a matter of policy we do not pay outstanding bills, including legal fees, as we are not funded to provide financial assistance; nor does the FCO seek preferential treatment for British nationals. That means we do not, and must not, interfere in civil and criminal court proceedings, and the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire was very understanding on that in his contribution. It is right that we respect the legal systems of other countries, just as we would expect foreign nationals to respect our laws and legal processes when here in the UK. However, we can intervene on behalf of British nationals when they are not treated in line with internationally accepted standards or if there are unreasonable delays in procedures.
A number of colleagues have raised the case of Matthew Hedges, and everyone is delighted that the UAE has chosen to pardon him in such short order. The assistance we provide to British nationals depends entirely on the individual circumstances of the case and the local conditions, so it is unfair to draw, or make any implications about, comparisons in particular cases. Our actions are designed to be appropriate to the individual and as effective as possible. There is no suggestion of preferential treatment because of any cultural or other difficulties. The Chennai Six were all long-standing British, English and Scottish citizens; no racial element could possibly have been suggested for their lengthy incarceration.
In many ways the Matthew Hedges case is a good example of something all of us in the Foreign Office and in consular circles can rejoice in: a case that gets turned around unexpectedly very quickly. But for every win, as it were, of that description, there are many other cases where we are working extremely hard for many months, perhaps under the radar, without quick and positive results of that sort.
A number of colleagues have spoken movingly about the impact that a death overseas can have on loved ones, particularly when that death takes place in violent or distressing circumstances. Our staff across the world will continue to work with dedication and empathy to support British nationals when they require our assistance. We welcome feedback from British nationals who have received consular assistance, and indeed from their relatives who have also had that assistance, and we will try to improve our services and staff. I make a pledge to work closely with the all-party group, and I hope Members present will play their part in that.
We are talking about some of the most distressing and difficult cases, and it is distressing to me that there are British citizens who feel that the FCO has fallen short in its consular service on some occasions. We will continue to take that very seriously, and if we can work together as a Parliament on a cross-party basis to find a way to make improvements, I stand ready to work with colleagues.
The detention of a loved one is distressing in any circumstances —it would be distressing to any of us if one of our relatives were in that position—and particularly when it happens overseas, where contact with friends and family is limited and the legal process is unfamiliar. Our consular staff at home and abroad work hard to support families in such situations. We often have locally employed members of staff who can speak local languages and have a greater understanding of the culture and the different legal processes, and they play an important part in our consular teams across the world. We take every case extremely seriously and provide dedicated consular assistance to those most in need of our help literally seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
In the case of Mr Johal, I can assure the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire that we will continue to do all we can to support him and his family. The fact that we have had this debate here today will make it clear to the Indian authorities and the new Indian high commissioner here in London that we will continue to raise our concerns about his case at the highest levels until there is a resolution.
Question put and agreed to.