Thursday 9th December 2021

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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15:16
Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)
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I beg to move,

That this House regrets that the consular services provided by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to bereaved families of people who have been murdered, have died in suspicious circumstances, or have been imprisoned or tortured overseas have fallen short of the standard reasonably expected; notes that access to justice and basic standards of assistance are dependent upon a person’s ability to pay; is concerned that there is no legal right to consular assistance and that support is provided on a discretionary basis, which can lead to unpredictable and inconsistent communications from the FCDO; further regrets that consular services in the UK are below the level of support UK citizens should expect; believes that the FCDO’s focus is on what it cannot do to help, rather than what it can do, which adds to the trauma experienced by victims; calls on the Government to improve and standardise communication processes at the FCDO, to publish consular procedures and policies and to revisit the findings of the Fifth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Support for British nationals abroad: The Consular Service, Session 2014-15, HC 516; further calls on the Government to consult with the families affected and to raise the standard of how British citizens are treated by FCDO procedures; and urges the Government to set a world leading example of how a state treats its citizens in their darkest hour of need.

It is a great privilege and pleasure to move this motion on a very serious issue: consular support for British citizens. If the Chair will allow me, I would like to share the experience of someone whose loved one died abroad. You’ve gone to Paris for the weekend. It is your husband’s birthday and you are going to celebrate. You get to Paris and you’re having a lovely time. Your son and daughter and their partners are with you. Between the restaurant and the hotel, your husband is attacked at random. He didn’t see it coming, none of you did, and he was so brutally beaten that he was taken to hospital and put on a life support machine. Your son and son-in-law were also attacked and taken to the hospital. You arrived at the hospital to find you could not understand the language. You were asked to sign a document but it wasn’t in English. You couldn’t read it and you were panicking as it related to your husband’s care. You’re in shock. It’s night time. It’s dark. What do you do? You decide to call the British embassy—they’ll know what to do. But it’s closed because it’s Saturday night and not open again until Monday.

Monday comes and your husband’s life support machine has been turned off. You didn’t get a choice in the matter. The rules are different in France to the UK. You are devastated. Your husband, whose birthday you were coming to celebrate, has been murdered. You manage to contact the embassy on Monday, and they tell you they’re sorry to hear what’s happened but they can’t help you and you’ll need to find a lawyer. They agree to send you a list though, and you get a piece of paper with some names in French and phone numbers. You ring the first one. You try to explain your husband has been murdered, and the lawyer on the other end tells you he is too busy to take the case. Your daughter calls the next one, and they ask for €1,000 up front and all documents in the case. You go to the hospital, where you are handed a report, but you can’t read it because it’s in French. You call the embassy, who say they don’t deal with translation and you’ll need to organise that yourself.

You go to the police station, where no one can tell you what will happen next and whether the criminals who attacked your family will be traced. You tell them what happened, and are asked to sign a document that you can’t read. You ask for a translation, and they cannot help you. You need to get back home because you can’t afford to stay. You don’t want to leave your husband and your son, because he is still in intensive care. Someone pleasant at the embassy agrees to drive you to the airport. They tell you that that’s not part of their job description and they’re doing it as a favour because they feel sorry for you, but please do not mention it to anyone.

You get back to London. Queuing for the flight check-in, you have two suitcases: yours and your husband’s. When you get to the desk, you are told there will be a charge because you have extra luggage. On the flight, someone from the airline announces, “Welcome on board. We hope you enjoyed your trip.” You get home, you call the Foreign Office. Someone asks you to explain what’s happened, and you give them the details and have to re-live it all. They say they aren’t the person who can help but someone will ring you back tomorrow. The next day, no one phones.

You call back and get someone else who asks you to go through the story again. They ask whether you had insurance and whether you plan to get the body home or not. If you do not have insurance, you will have to find the money for repatriation yourself, but you will need to speak to a funeral director about that, and they will send you a bereavement pack—“What’s your email address?” After you have called your insurance company, you call the funeral director to go through organising repatriation. Imagine for just a second that you do not have insurance and instead have to set up a crowdfunding page to ask any generous members of the public for enough to get your partner back so that you can have a funeral.

You were due back to work on Monday. You do not know what your own name is or what day of the week it is, let alone are able to go to work, so you arrange to see your GP, who signs you off sick. You cannot work and your husband was the main source of income in your household. The French lawyer is asking lots of questions and spending a lot of time on your case, and you want justice, so there are legal fees, travel and a lot of stress and trauma ahead. You feel so alone. This cannot be right.

You are at home now and you are watching the news of a young girl who has fallen from a balcony in suspicious circumstances overseas. The news presenter says, “We asked the Foreign Office for comment and they said, ‘We’re assisting the family at this difficult time.’” You wonder what assistance they are getting that you are not. You decide to set up your own charity to ensure that families are supported in future. It is too late for yours, but God forbid some other poor family has to suffer this alone. Let us make sure this does not happen again.

Murdered Abroad was set up in 2001 by Eve Henderson. Death Abroad You’re Not Alone was set up in 2013 by Julie Love, whose son Colin tragically drowned in water that was deemed safe off the coast of a Venezuelan island. The Kirsty Maxwell Charity was set up by my constituents Brian and Denise Curry, Kirsty’s parents, who want to help others who suffer such a traumatic loss of a loved one abroad. The Lucie Blackman Trust was formed after the brutal attack on Lucie Blackman in Japan in 2000. The Jessica Lawson Retreat was set up by her family as a retreat for those bereaved after Jessica tragically drowned on a school trip in France in 2015, and they continue to campaign on water-safety issues. The British Rights Abroad Group was set up by the families of Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe and Matthew Hedges to campaign for and represent the families of those held illegally abroad.

All those are services set up by families who are devastated by the loss or incarceration of a loved one, and they are now plugging the Government’s gaps. They do incredible work, and I pay tribute to them. There will always be a place for such charities and organisations, but they should not have to be picking up the pieces of a Government’s failings.

Tulip Siddiq Portrait Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
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I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member’s powerful speech, but I thank her for securing this debate. She knows very well the case of my constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, having spoken in support of her release in several debates. The hon. Lady may be aware that the Government granted Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic protection in 2019, but three years on almost nothing has been done to use the protection that was bestowed on her to bring her home. The Government have been unwilling to assert their right to consular access to Nazanin, to challenge Iran’s unlawful behaviour at the International Court of Justice, or to use their right under the Vienna convention to request private consular meetings with the Iranian regime. Does the hon. Member agree that the Government risk undermining the UK’s diplomatic protection by failing to utilise it in my constituent’s case?

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell
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I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention and pay tribute to her work on behalf of Nazanin, Richard and their family. I wholeheartedly agree with her and will address some of those points in my speech.

The experience that I just shared with the Chamber is just one of the many devastating accounts that I have heard since I started to work on this issue. Let me take a moment to thank the Backbench Business Committee and all who will speak today and who have supported this work. I give thanks to Eve Henderson of Murdered Abroad, to Julie Love of Death Abroad You’re Not Alone, to Redress, to Miles Manning, to Stewarts Law, to the British Rights Abroad Group and to all who have contributed to the preparation for today and who, in their own ways, advocate for different parts of the broader issue we are debating.

I also thank, if the House will indulge me for just a moment, my constituency team, who have worked tirelessly on this issue. When we set up the all-party group on deaths abroad, consular services and assistance, we did not deploy an organisation to support us because we felt the issue was too sensitive, so my own team has taken evidence and worked on this issue. I thank Marcus Woods, Sabrina Rossetti, Chloe McLellan and Adam Robinson, and specifically Stephanie McTighe, my chief of staff, and Michelle Rodger, my former comms manager. Michelle passed away from cancer in August this year. She believed passionately in this work and in this issue. She is much missed by all in my team.

When we founded the all-party group and took evidence from more than 60 families and 30 organisations, Michelle was very much at the heart of this work. She sat in on every session, diligently recording and taking note of the devastating experiences and making sure that they were properly reflected in the report that we wrote and published at the end of 2019. Why did we do that? It was because, like all Members across this House, I have constituents who have been left devastated by the murder, suspicious death, incarceration or loss of a family member abroad. In their time of most desperate need, they face a lack of support from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Julie Pearson was killed in Israel in 2015 and Kirsty Maxwell was killed in Benidorm, Spain, in 2016. They were two devastating constituency cases of young women taken in their prime in the most distressing and violent ways imaginable and the families were left without the support they needed. The families coming forward to get support highlighted the issue to me. I come to this debate and indeed these issues genuinely in the spirit of co-operation, as a critical friend. I genuinely want to work with Government to make the system better for families, consular staff, civil servants and all those whose lives are touched by this issue. It is those families who are really at the heart of the all-party group’s work. I thank all of them for the time that they have spent with my team and me. They have given evidence and shared their traumatic experiences, and they live with a huge gap in their lives.

Family members of those who are killed overseas without travel insurance to cover repatriation are, in many cases, left to crowdfund to repatriate the body of their loved one. Every time I see one of these crowdfunders pop up, my heart sinks because I just know, from having spoken to the families that we have worked with, what they are facing. If a loved one is murdered overseas, it is estimated that it could cost anything up to £60,000. Criminal injuries compensation is available only if the murderer was in the UK, or unless the murder abroad was by means of a terrorist attack. To be clear, there are around only 300 suspicious deaths abroad every year. Obviously, that number has been significantly different recently because of the pandemic, but as things open up—or do not open up, depending on where we will be—we have to recognise the challenges in front of us.

The House and those watching may be interested and glad to know that terror attack victims are given an immediate payment of around £3,000 and then, I believe, more payments further down the line. Repatriation is handled and paid for by the Government. I recognise that we have not taken evidence from victims of terror attacks, and I understand that many have raised concerns with the level of support in what we can only imagine are some of the most devastating of circumstances.

From the many families that we have spoken to, we have heard of spiralling costs because of the need to pay for the translation of documents, the cost of legal representation, accommodation and travel. Dame Vera Baird, in her 2019 report, “Struggling for Justice”, raised many of these issues and the need for financial support for victims’ families.

I ask the Government to please ensure that murder victims overseas get parity with terrorist victims and that the criminal injuries compensation scheme is amended accordingly. If we can provide those services when someone is killed in a terrorist attack, why can we not offer them to those who are killed in suspicious circumstances abroad? Those services are there, let us extend them. I ask the FCDO and the Ministry of Justice, which fund the victim support homicide service, to please make transparent the assessment about who gets help and what that looks like, because, at the moment, families fall down the gaps of eligibility far too often and are re-traumatised by the process of just seeking help. The FCDO states in its guidance:

“There is no legal right to consular assistance. All assistance provided is at our discretion.”

It does prompt the question, given that these are our citizens—our ain folk—why would we not offer that service on a mandatory and consistent basis. What are the arguments for not offering it? The former Minster for Asia, Mark Field, said:

“Consular assistance is central to our work at the FCO.”—[Official Report, 13 March 2018; Vol. 637, c. 306WH.]

Those two things—that consular assistance is central to the FCDO’s work and that it has no obligation to provide it—makes it seem as if the FCDO is somewhat conflicted within itself about what support it offers to its own citizens. I ask the Government whether they will enshrine in law a right to consular assistance, and if not, why not. Our citizens need clarity and they need transparency. After all, the first duty of any Government should be to protect their citizens.

A lot has been made of global Britain and Britain’s greatness. It is not so great, however, when it comes to helping its own citizens. We have evidence that families in their darkest hour are left without the right help, resource or support—as, indeed, are consular staff—to help them to deal with the death or detainment of their loved ones. Only this week, we heard of the gross failings of the FCDO during the evacuation of Afghanistan. In 2019, it was reported that the number of Foreign Office staff had fallen by more than 1,000 in the last 30 years. In a 2015 report, the Foreign Affairs Committee said that budget cuts and low pay at the Foreign Office were endangering the UK’s global role and could have a “disastrous and costly” effect on the Government’s ability to make informed judgments on critical issues, and

“the cuts imposed on the FCO since 2010 have been severe and have gone beyond just trimming fat: capacity now appears to be being damaged.”

Fewer people are under greater pressure and doing more of the work, with less resources; that is terrifying.

The staff need the help and support to do their job properly, Minister, please make these changes, for the families of loved ones, but also for the staff in the Department’s own service. The bereavement pack that the Foreign Office provides does not say that people killed in suspicious circumstances abroad may well fall through a gap because even the murder and manslaughter team at the FCDO will not be able to take the case, so it will be left with a general country casework team that is staffed by junior members of the Foreign Office, who may not have the relevant experience or resources to support a family. It must be incredibly difficult and traumatic for those staff who are dealing with such cases.

In 2014, the Foreign Affairs Committee review recommended that the Foreign Office needed an access to justice unit, but that access to justice unit was renamed and became the murder and manslaughter team, purely because it was deemed too difficult to deal with cases of suspicious death. If it is too difficult for a Government Department that deploys thousands of bright minds, where does that leave an individual family who fall through the cracks? Will the Government revisit this access to justice unit or a similar unit dedicated to cases of suspicious death overseas?

I get how difficult these issues are; I worked for the US Department of State in its Edinburgh consulate, and saw at first hand how hard being a consular officer was. I also saw prisoners being visited regularly and checked on, regardless of their crime—because it was the right thing to do. When a US citizen died, I saw families met at the airport, not as a favour to keep under the radar but because it was the right thing to do. I saw staff co-ordinating with local police and taking a compassionate and trauma-informed approach.

The families we have met and taken evidence from— I would dearly love to name them all individually, but I just do not have time—have touched my team and me for ever. I invite the Minister to spend some time in their company to understand and hear from them, and I suggest that consular staff do the same in the course of their training. My team had vicarious trauma training following the evidence sessions that we held, as that was recommended and necessary. I fear for the consular staff and the staff retention at the FCDO, particularly in the murder and manslaughter team, who are doing the very best they can in some of the most difficult circumstances. Who is looking after them and training them, and does it work for families? Only recently, I heard of a family not being called back. There is clearly a staffing issue and an issue with levels of service.

We have experienced and trained police, senior investigating officers and homicide teams, yet they are not being connected with families who need the benefit of their knowledge. There are lawyers and police officers offering their time, pro bono, to help in these cases. The help is here in the UK and it is possible, but we are not doing more to join these people up. Doing so costs nothing, but makes a huge difference. Will the Government work with the all-party parliamentary group to explore working with professionals in this area across these islands, and join them up with those who need the benefit of their knowledge? Lawyers lists need quality control and people need more support.

For those imprisoned abroad and held illegally, many of these issues are similar and deeply distressing. Many of my colleagues, including my hon. Friends the Members for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), have worked on issues and fought hard for their constituents, as has the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who is not in her place now. A legal right to consular assistance is so important to these people.

I want to pay tribute to the founding members of the British Rights Abroad Group, who have experienced their loved ones being held abroad. Richard Ratcliffe and Daniela Tajeda have fought valiantly for their loved one. Nazanin is still, as we have heard, being held in Iran away from her daughter and family. Although Daniela’s husband, Matthew Hedges, is now home from being held in the UAE, his experience of illegal incarceration was horrific. I have spent time with Daniela. I have heard what Matthew went through when he was held in a windowless room and force-fed drugs that have left long-term mental and physical damage. Daniela was left to fight for Matthew alone with very little support from the UK Government. She was advised not to go to the press but then left completely isolated. That was a completely unacceptable situation. I genuinely believe that if she had had the right consular support, she and Matthew would not have been as damaged and as traumatised as they have been.

There are more than 2,000 British prisoners abroad. More than half of them are currently being held without trial, like Jagtar Singh Johal, a constituent of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, who has been held prisoner in India for nearly four years on unfounded terrorism charges, and Billy Irving, who spent four years in an Indian prison after being wrongly accused of carrying unlicensed arms and ammunition while he countered piracy—with the British Government’s authorisation and support.

There is so much to say and so much to do on this issue, with so many lives lost and impacted, and so many still fighting for justice for their loved ones. I want to give others a chance to speak, but I also want to be very clear with the Government and with the families: I, and my team, will continue to fight on this issue, and we want to work with you to make it better. We will not give up the fight on this issue for those families and for those staff.

15:36
Duncan Baker Portrait Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)
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I start by expressing my gratitude for the opportunity to take part in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and the Backbench Business Committee for bringing such an important issue to the Chamber. It is really important to be able to discuss it and the specific cases that we have probably all come across.

I want to raise the case of one of my constituents, Dr Ding Col Dau Ding, a British citizen who died in South Sudan in 2015. His brother is a doctor working in the NHS. They lived in Cromer on the North Norfolk coast. The circumstances surrounding his death, and possible murder, remain, more than six years later, unclear and unanswered. Dr Ding was a highly qualified medical doctor and brain surgeon also working in the NHS, and was by all accounts an extraordinary man. I know that his passing is felt as strongly today as it was six years ago. His friends and family have, for many years now, sought answers and justice, but they have neither.

The British Embassy in Juba was seemingly making progress, with the former ambassador expressing his own concern over the death of Dr Ding. However, the efforts to ascertain the facts surrounding the death of a British citizen have plateaued since that ambassador’s end of tenure in 2017. I hope that by raising this case today on the Floor of the House, much like other Members, Dr Ding’s case can now be revisited with renewed vigour and a concern to mirror that of his family and friends. I am sure I speak for everybody here when I say that to lose a son, a brother or a loved one is one thing, but to do so in the absence of understanding and justice is a burden that no family should bear.

I therefore ask the Minister to unequivocally assure me that everything possible can be done to help Dr Ding’s family and friends to receive the answers and the justice that they deserve. Will she agree to meet me and the Ding family? I want to ensure that everything possible can be done to support the late Dr Ding’s family and friends and to help bring them very much needed closure.

15:39
Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)
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First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) for securing this debate. It is a tremendously important issue that we need to discuss. If we can work on a cross-party basis, we need to impress on the Minister, if nothing else, the seriousness of these types of case and how they stand out from the bulk of our casework.

My constituent David Cornock’s son was murdered in Thailand in 2019. He did not commit suicide, as the official police report suggested. The official police report was extremely unconvincing and made no effort to be anything other than that. Much like my hon. Friend’s constituent’s experience, there is an immediate and natural assumption to turn to the Foreign Office, thinking, “They will know what to do. They’ve been here before. How could I understand how to navigate this myself? Who would? Who could?” They turned to the Foreign Office and at every turn, the door was very politely closed, saying, “There is nothing we can do”, “That is not our responsibility”, and, “Here is a list of lawyers.”

When I heard my hon. Friend talk about the list of lawyers, my heart sank, because I have been through the list of lawyers merry-go-round with my constituent. On it were 10 lawyers in Thailand—six did not respond, two claimed they could not speak English, and the other two wanted £25,000 up front. I accept that it is hard for the Foreign Office to find lawyers in every single country around the world, but it should accept that, too, and stop offering the list. Offering false, empty help is worse than no help at all, and that is the message I want to get through to the Minister.

The Minister will take to her feet, and I know what she will say. She will tell us that she understands. She will tell us that these are very trying cases, not just for the families, but for any MP who has to try to support their constituents in these testing matters. If that is what she will say—I am sure it is—she should take a look at the service provided now and change it, because we live in a society where people can travel to all corners of the Earth if they have the means. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office needs to update its systems and processes to make sure that things are realistic.

Just before I came to this debate, I read the guidance for going to Thailand, and I have to say that it is nothing like my constituent’s experience, which frankly is exceptional, but not unheard of on the Thai islands. There is nothing in the guidance about investing in property and being murdered for it so that the property can be embezzled by malign authorities that operate outside the rule of law, such as it is there. There is plenty about someone getting their drinks spiked or their pockets picked, but let us get to the big issues. Those are serious issues, but not as serious as a staged suicide, a completely disregarding police force and an investigation that would not pass muster anywhere in the world.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell
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As if I have not already said enough, I feel compelled to intervene specifically on the issue of Thailand. We took evidence from a number of families whose loved ones died in Thailand. The level of corruption and lack of support were galling. They felt that things had moved on a little bit, because the advice on the Foreign Office website had improved a little, but there is clearly a gulf, I am sure my hon. Friend would agree, between that advice and the real experiences of our families in Thailand.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why I go back to my insistence that the Foreign Office accept the request to look again at how it seeks to support—that is with a very small “s”—people in these circumstances. It would be far better not to compound people’s distress and devastation at the death of a loved one by giving the impression of being a helpful organisation when in actual fact, I am sorry, it is anything but—certainly not in the experience of my constituent. Honesty needs to be rewoven through the support that the FCDO provides. The trauma of repatriating one’s loved one’s body, the difficulty of death certificates and the impossible merry-go-round of post-mortems—those things are challenging in any respect, but in this context they are utterly horrifying.

I will wrap it up there. I hope I have conveyed the seriousness with which I and other hon. and right hon. Members view this issue. I hope that the Minister can assure us that something can change about this process.

15:44
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I commend the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell). All hon. Members present bring examples to the Chamber of such things happening to constituents. She has every reason to be proud of her staff, especially that staff member who did much work and gave much commitment. We are all proud of that staff member too because of what she has done.

It is an emotive topic because of the issues that it pertains to, which each of us have as local and elected representatives. I well remember a young constituent, Daniel, coming into my office with the news that his father had been found dead in Spain under suspicious circumstances. He had no idea what to do. That goes back to the point that other hon. Members have made, including the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), that it is about knowing what to do. I felt, as my constituent did, that the British consulate would be able help, but it could not.

Daniel did not know what questions to ask or who to ask them of and, importantly, he had no clue about how to get his dad home. His pain and uncertainty were difficult to see, and harder still because we had no ready-made pathway to access to help him and his family. My office worked with the British consulate, and the people there were absolute professionals, but perhaps they did not have the knowledge or expertise. Such things do not happen all the time, but when they do, we must be able to respond. Undoubtedly, however, their hands were somewhat tied and their roles were ambiguous.

I know what the hon. Member for Livingston wants to do, and what I, other hon. Members and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), want to do through the debate. We look to the Minister for an encouraging response that will give us some support and confidence in how the process will work from now on. We need to improve it. With that in mind, there is a piece of work to be done to define roles and to provide the services that people need in time of trauma.

Let us be honest: my constituent Daniel was in a really dark place and he did not know what to do. The consulate was very helpful but it did not get us out of the situation; the hon. Member for Livingston and the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) also referred to that. I am thankful for the work done by the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust in Newry, which stepped into that breach and got Daniel’s daddy home. It took care of the paperwork. As the MP working on behalf of my constituent, I needed that charity, because it had done that many times. When we were seeking support and reaching out to try to find somewhere, it was there. It liaised with the Spanish authorities and basically handled the case for that terrified mourning young man.

I dread to think where the family would have been without that charity, so I am thankful that it operated in Northern Ireland and helped to do what our consulate was unable to do. It had my thanks then and has them in abundance now for all it does to help people in that way. There have been others who have unfortunately died in suspicious circumstances or as a result of bad health about whom we have needed help from the consulate, and in many cases, it was charities and other people who reached out to help. I am conscious that when it comes to this issue, we see the families first hand and know the pain that is in their heart. We know the anxiety and worry that they experience as they think, “What are we going to do now?”

In her introduction, the hon. Member for Livingston eloquently and powerfully told the story of her constituent and what she was able to do with her staff to try to help. The story I have told about my constituents forms the basis of my plea to Government, and ultimately to the Minister. I understand that the consulate cannot be accountable for the actions of every UK citizen on holiday, and nor could we expect it to be, but there are situations in which we simply cannot abandon our citizens to do it alone. That is the thrust, I believe, of this debate and why we look to the Minister for a response.

Families want to bring the bodies home, to search for answers and to get justice in these horrific, traumatic and very grieving circumstances. They do not have the money, the know-how and often the presence of mind. In all honesty, in Northern Ireland, we have had the disappeared—those who the IRA murdered and buried—and those families looked to have a completion of their grief if at all possible. We do not have the facilities within constituency offices to provide the help that is needed. I believe there is a breach and a gap that need to be filled by the consulate, rather than by charities that may or may not have the scope and capacity to step in.

Families want their loved ones home. They want to be able to lay them to rest, they want to be able to have some sort of a closure, they want to be able to have them buried, and under these incredible circumstances, they are under incredible pressure. In deep grief, they need help, they need compassion and they need tender care. They need help through the process step by step, as they try to deal with something that is incomprehensible and that they never expected on the holiday trip that was taken. Therefore, I believe it is important and central at this time that every effort is made.

I very much look forward to the Minister’s response. I know her to be a compassionate and understanding lady. I also know that she will be anxious, as we all are, to have a response that can give succour and support to our constituents, but also look to the future and to others who might find themselves in this imponderable, incredible and difficult situation.

I understand that there is not a never-ending supply of finance in this case, but I would suggest that qualified embassy staff need to be trained for that effort and to that level. It is a need that we must meet. We must find the finance to train the staff in how to deal with these cases in each embassy, or on a cross-embassy basis if there are others.

In her introduction, the hon. Member for Livingston referred to having a phone number to phone the embassy, but nobody was there. I am not being critical of the embassy, but on a Saturday night and over a weekend—normally, that is when these things happen, unfortunately—I think there has to be some sort of answering machine or something in place so that people can ring the number, ring another embassy or whatever it may be, and just someone can be available to help out. Again, I look to the Minister to see just how that can be done. Perhaps lessons can be learned from dealing with other consulates and embassies of our friends and allies to ensure that there is always the know-how to look into these cases.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) was here earlier, but is not here now. I do not think that any of us in this House are not touched by the story of her constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and how she was given protection, which unfortunately did not continue. It is not the Minister’s fault. It is the Iranians’ fault—let us be honest—but at the end of the day, consular care and protection have to mean something, and we have to have that in place as well.

Can the Minister inform the House how improvement in consular help can be achieved through training and through knowledge in the Department, so that we can learn something from all the grief our constituents have told us about and all the things we feel almost overwhelmed with, and learn how to deal with those things in a way that means we can give support, succour and comfort to those people?

The hon. Member for Livingston made a telling point that I want to reiterate. She referred to her staff. They were handling all these cases for constituents. All those things they were doing had a dramatic effect on the staff too. Who as an MP has not taken a story home from one of their constituents and worried about it for over two days? We have all done it because we want to help people and our staff want to help people. So counselling for the staff, and for consular staff who have to reply and respond, is important. The hon. Lady referred to that and I ask the Minister to deal with that in her response.

I am proud to use a British passport and will be prouder still when I renew my passport and can wave the navy blue British passport which demands entry in the name of Her Majesty. I know I will not be abandoned as long as I have that passport, yet too many of our constituents have felt abandoned and too many families feel that they have to face this alone. That is why we must ask for change and become better at what we do through our Minister and the British consulate. I believe we can and should do more to ensure that help is available in these dire circumstances for all our citizens. It is for our citizens who tomorrow might face this.

15:56
Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
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It is always good to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and I hope his new blue passport will open up doors on the issue we are discussing today—even though the passports are made in France.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and their staff—their team; I hate the word “staff”—for the immense work they have done on behalf of the all-party group on deaths abroad, consular services and assistance, of which I am also a member. I also thank the all-party group for coming together in a cross-party sense to discuss an issue that crosses the desks of Members of this House more regularly than ever before. Importantly, I also thank the families that gave evidence to the all-party group. I want to specifically concentrate on the families of my constituents: Lisa Brown, believed murdered in Spain, is still missing and Jagtar Singh Johal is being arbitrarily detained in the Republic of India, now for a fourth year.

Let me take Lisa’s family’s case first. I have been part of it since her sister and brother first came to me and my team. Their experience is in some ways not dissimilar to that of the vast majority of those who seek Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office support for someone believed murdered and missing abroad. There was limited information via a consular office in a location with a high percentage of UK nationals either living there or on holiday. There was scrabbling around for translators and lawyers. All the while the family were dealing with the trauma of a missing sister presumed murdered who has a young son left behind. Sadly, the case of Lisa is still open. During this time Lisa’s mother sadly died without the answers she and the rest of Lisa’s family have required.

Then there is the case of Jagtar Singh Johal, with which I hope the Chamber is well acquainted, who was abducted in the streets of the Republic of India, with an accusation of torture against the state of India, an ally and a member of the Commonwealth. No charges have yet been placed, there is consistent postponement by Indian judicial authorities every time the case comes to court, and there has been the familiar “We can’t do this and we can’t do that” approach over a broad swathe of the period of his detention.

Like many others, I lost count of the number of consular staff who were moved during the last four years of Jagtar’s detention, but let me put on the record once again my thanks to those staff in the FCDO who have gone beyond the call of duty to support my constituent and his family. They are not paid appropriately, they have been moved from pillar to post and—I have to be very clear—there has been a lack of political leadership on this issue. I have also lost count of the number of Prime Ministers, Foreign Secretaries and Under-Secretaries we have had, not only in Jagtar’s case but in every other case that the report mentions. In the last four years, we have seen three Prime Ministers, five Foreign Secretaries and three Under-Secretaries. That demonstrates the issue of political leadership.

I pay tribute to the families: to Lisa’s family and to Jagtar’s family. What all the families in the report understand—my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston alluded to this, and I hope the Minister takes it in a cross-party sense—is the requirement to consider the enshrinement in law of the right to consular assistance. Murder victims and those considered murdered overseas should get parity with victims of terror, and the criminal compensation scheme should be amended accordingly.

The FCDO and the Ministry of Justice here in England—again, my hon. Friend alluded to this—should make targeted assessments of who gets help and what that looks like, to assist the families and, more importantly, to inform the future provision of consular services and plan the delivery of the improved service that Members have alluded to. If we do not gain the facts, we cannot improve the service. We heard earlier from the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton), talking about their Committee’s report on the treatment of women in the armed forces, that if we do not do the groundwork and understand what is going on, we cannot make change. In addition, the Government should publish an introductory range, but not an exhaustive list, of what basic assistance families and individuals can gain from the FCDO online process—of what basic assistance people should expect.

There must also be timely reviews of local legal representatives and translation services. Members have alluded to people picking up the phone to someone who not only does not speak English but wants €25,000 up front. There need to be consistent reviews, at least twice a year, but we would leave it to the appropriate officials to recognise what needs to be done to improve the basic access to information and legal and translation services.

Fundamentally, we must provide a substantial budgetary increase for consular support teams, not only in Whitehall and in embassies, but in those consular offices where large numbers of UK and Northern Ireland nationals are traditionally found either living or holidaying, such as on the eastern coast of Spain.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell
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My hon. Friend’s point about tourism hotspots, and Spain particularly, is really important. I went to Madrid with my chief of staff, Stephanie, and met the ambassador and the staff in the embassy and the consulate who deliver the services. They could see the value and the opportunity in improving services and communication and in having a proper link-up. That is one of the recommendations that we want to put in place—a protocol to ensure that people travelling from the UK to Spain have a higher level of service, because so many tourists go there from Britain.

Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which makes my point. If the United Kingdom Government want to be global Britain, they should be the global Britain of the 21st century, not buccaneers going into the Caribbean or the Indo-Pacific. This really is about recognising what is happening to citizens on the ground on a regular basis. As my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) alluded to, it is not irregular to hear of these cases anymore. It is not regular, but it is not irregular and we, as Members, face these tasks on a more regular basis.

Finally, let me pay tribute not only to the family of Lisa Brown and Jagtar Singh Johal, but to all the families mentioned in the report. I hope the Minister will understand that it comes from a place of wanting to work together, so that no other family is left without access to appropriate support, that no other person is left in a hospital dead with their family having to have crowdfunders to bring them home, and that families are met if they are going to visit someone in prison, whether it be in the Republic of India, Iran, Australia or the United States. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston for securing this debate.

16:05
Catherine West Portrait Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
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It is a real delight to be here this afternoon contributing to this debate and to hear the way the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) introduced her poignant remarks relating to her constituent. We heard about the important work of the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad, consular services and assistance, and the work the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) has done not just through the APPG but on behalf of his constituent, who is now very well known to those of us who have been here since 2015—I believe the hon. Member was in the same intake as me—listening to Jagtar Singh Johal’s story. I hope the Minister can give us some enlightened news in that regard.

Quite rightly, whenever citizens face difficulty or are caught up in a crisis in any part of the world, they look to the embassy and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for support. We heard from the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) about the need we, as Members of Parliament, have for the reassurance that our constituents are being looked after when they are in trouble. We firmly believe that the Government always have a moral duty to support and protect UK citizens abroad, particularly in times of crisis. The hon. Members for Angus (Dave Doogan) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke movingly about their constituents and their concern.

For much of the time, the support given by embassies through the FCDO is timely and appropriate. That is due to the commitment and dedication of FCDO and consulate staff. I know all Members will join me in thanking them for their tireless work day in, day out in very stressful circumstances to help our constituents. That said, we know of some cases where we feel even more could be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) has a very well-known case. She and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) still have constituents in prison in Iran. We know well the stories of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, but there are others. The Minister will be aware of them.

During the pandemic, many of these difficulties were made even worse. I want to refer briefly to some of the findings that came out of the work we did in Parliament. The Minister has changed since the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report was published, so I want to ensure that the current Minister is on top of it. The operation during spring 2020, which we all remember very well as constituency MPs, was considered by the report to be

“too slow and placed too much reliance on commercial providers”.

Other countries appeared to be quicker to respond through their embassies and consular arrangements. They seemed to be more organised and more speedy. The consular service provided little or no financial support to those who were stranded, and many citizens were unable to gain access to the information they needed in a speedy manner. It went on to state that:

“The failure of the FCO to provide clear advice on what would happen on arrival to the UK caused many travellers a great deal of unnecessary anxiety”,

and that:

“The FCO placed too much reliance on this generic advice and this approach disadvantaged those with medical conditions and those stuck in remote areas.”

Finally, the FCDO had not established a system for logging and recording the location and contact details of UK citizens abroad.

It was therefore very troubling to see some familiar themes when British citizens were trapped in Kabul. We must not confuse Afghan applicants who wished to apply to settle in the UK due to the dreadful situation in Kabul with UK citizens who are still finding their way to the UK—I believe there are some. Will the Minister clarify how many she thinks are still making their way to the UK from Kabul and Pakistan? That underlines the importance of good administration and basic organisation.

We do not need to rehearse what we heard in the Foreign Affairs Committee this week, because we can all ascertain it from the transcript, but there are some themes. The whistleblower mentioned that he felt that only 5% of the people who had written to MPs had had any assistance. It was clear, tragically, that some of those left behind had been murdered by the Taliban. It is not clear from his evidence, which is about 40 pages long, whether he was referring specifically to Afghan individuals or UK citizens, but in either case, it shows how important speed and organisation are.

Another important point in the whistleblower’s evidence is that he believes that

“the FCDO’s institutional approach amounted to a failure to abide by the values set out in the Civil Service Code.”

I will say no more about that because, first and foremost, Parliament is about us as Members, rather than the civil service, but I wonder whether the Minister will take that away.

The 25-year-old man who wrote that document appeared to be quite traumatised because he had wanted to reply to thousands of emails from Members of Parliament. There are some echoes of not just the consular cases that Members are raising, but of what was talked about in the Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday afternoon. I hope that the lessons that needed to be learned in spring 2020 following the repatriation of UK nationals to the UK, in which many of our offices were intimately involved, have been learned, but the debate this afternoon suggests that perhaps some of them have not been.

I have another question for the Minister about the legal position. The motion refers to the clarification of what a Britain citizen can expect. Will she outline what she believes the legal position to be? Can a British citizen expect translation, medical services and so on? That may help us as MPs to understand what we can expect from the FCDO. I do not think this is active Government policy at the moment—otherwise, we would not be seeing these cases—but will the Minister outline whether she or the Foreign Secretary are developing a case whereby there is a legal right for our constituents to expect a level of service when they are abroad? How does that compare with other countries? We all want to see an increase in the support available to citizens to ensure that when it is needed, it is appropriate.

In conclusion, I will pick up two points. The first, which all Members have spoken about, is the traumatic nature of this debate, and I want to put on record, as we all have, the importance of our parliamentary staff. I thank your team, Madam Deputy Speaker, and Mr Speaker, because, in this House, every time we have a crisis, he writes to our staff and reaches out. That offer of support for them is really powerful, because so much of what our staff here do is very intense. During the Afghanistan crisis, many of our staff worked day and night and gave so much, so could you pass back to Mr Speaker’s team how much that means to me and to all of us as employers, Madam Deputy Speaker? It was really moving to hear the hon. Member for Livingston mention her member of staff. Could the hon. Member pass on from this House to the family how much we appreciate all the hard work that she did before she tragically passed away? It is not easy working for elected Members, but we all know that it is so important for our leadership role.

My final point relates to a reflection by the commentator Rafael Behr, whom I am sure the Minister reads regularly because he is a foreign policy commentator as well as being a number of other things. He wrote that sometimes he feels, in observing the current Government, that there is

“the thrill of power without…the burden of office.”

I mean this in a spirit not of anger but of thoughtfulness and contemplation: I think we need to turn that on its head so that we put the burden of responsibility first and the thrill of power second.

16:15
Amanda Milling Portrait The Minister for Asia (Amanda Milling)
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I thank the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and congratulate her on securing this debate. I pay tribute to her and the all-party group that she chairs for all their work. I also echo the words of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), about our staff—the staff of the hon. Member for Livingston who work to support the APPG, but also parliamentary staff, who have to deal with some very difficult cases. Cases where people die abroad or are detained abroad are really difficult, as we know from discussions today and on many occasions in this House, so I thank the hon. Member and our staff for all their work.

I am very grateful for colleagues’ contributions to the debate. I hope in my remarks to cover a number of the issues that they have discussed, but I am also happy to follow up on individual cases.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s role supporting British nationals overseas is an essential public service. Over the past decade, we have regularly reviewed and sought to improve the professionalism, scope and form of our services in line with the Vienna convention on consular relations by comparing our consular services with those provided by comparable countries. At the recent spending review, the Foreign Secretary identified consular services as one of our four key priorities. We are committed to providing a modern, round-the-clock service, including a wide choice of digital services, which I will come to later.

Felicity Buchan Portrait Felicity Buchan (Kensington) (Con)
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I have two constituents who are imprisoned in the UAE. I am in detailed discussions with the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa. I appreciate that there is a limit to what the present Minister can say at the Dispatch Box, but can she reassure me that the FCDO is doing everything in its power to assist my constituents, Mr Albert Douglas and Mr Billy Hood, and is treating the cases as the highest priority?

Amanda Milling Portrait Amanda Milling
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I can obviously provide that reassurance. I know that my hon. Friend has had discussions with my ministerial colleague, but I will happily have further discussions with her after this debate.

Our service will continue to provide empathetic support to meet the needs of vulnerable British people and their families. At the same time, it will help British people living and travelling abroad to take responsibility for their own safety and will strengthen the resilience of our consular network and its ability to respond to global crises. When British nationals need assistance overseas, our highly trained consular staff are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our staff make an assessment of an individual’s vulnerability in order to tailor the assistance that they receive. We have more than 200 consular posts worldwide, with more than 700 consular staff across the network. We track and review the quality of our services through both qualitative and quantitative measures, and it is testimony to the hard work of our staff that the most recent overall satisfaction score remained at well over 80%.

I am grateful to Members for putting on record their recognition of the hard work of those consular staff. Inevitably, as parliamentarians, we often hear about the most difficult cases, in which constituents may be unhappy with the services that they receive, but I too want to place on record my thanks to the staff, who, in the overwhelming majority of cases, have got it right and have been able to provide the support that an individual needed.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan
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The Minister has referred to the most difficult cases, but it is important for the Department to recognise a pattern of events. My constituent was told that he had to petition the Attorney General of Thailand to get the case reopened. When I asked the Department whether it could give me another example of a UK national successfully petitioning the Attorney General of Thailand, it was unable to do so. It is generic; it is not acceptable. Given that the Minister’s predecessor and the former Secretary of State refused to meet me, I wonder whether she would like to meet me and my constituent.

Amanda Milling Portrait Amanda Milling
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I will go on to talk more broadly about the services that we can provide and some of the limitations, but I am happy to follow that up after the debate.

We are able to support more than 20,000 new consular cases, as well as about 8,000 long-running cases. Sadly, that figure includes 4,000 deaths and between 40 and 60 homicides. About 5,000 British nationals are arrested or detained overseas each year, and providing non-judgmental support for prisoners is a large part of our role. Our contact centres receive about 500,000 inquiries each year, and more than 85% are resolved in the first call. Over the last 18 months, fewer British nationals have been travelling overseas because of covid-19. However, British nationals still need our support, and despite the variety of local lockdowns and other measures, we have continued to provide our core services throughout, adapting to reflect the limited ability to hold face-to-face meetings. In 2020 we handled more than 3,000 cases involving deaths abroad, although many of our staff around the world were working through lockdown themselves.

Members have rightly spoken of the impact that a death overseas can have. My thoughts go out to all those mentioned in today’s debate, and all those who have lost loved ones.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell
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The Minister has given statistics, and has talked about the number of cases that have been resolved on first contact. That is welcome, but I think it important for the House and those watching the debate to know that among those cases are cases of lost passports and people needing new passports—administrative details, as opposed to the very difficult casework that we have been discussing. I think that those cases need to be separated in the statistics, not least out of respect for the families of the loved ones we are talking about.

Amanda Milling Portrait Amanda Milling
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That is an important point. When we are talking about deaths abroad, we are talking about incredibly complex cases. I hope that later in my speech I will be able to set out the services that we provide and explain why we provide them in the way that we do—so that we can tailor the service to the situation and the individual’s circumstances.

Any unexpected death is deeply upsetting for the families concerned, let alone a death that takes place in violent or unexplained circumstances. Anyone who has lost a loved one will want to understand what happened and why that person died. I recognise that from my constituency work and the hard work of other Members on behalf of their constituents. My own constituent Robert Spray tragically died in Bulgaria in October 2019 while in police custody. Consular officials have supported the family and continue to request information from the Bulgarian authorities to support the UK coroner, as the family desperately tries to get answers.

Our experienced consular staff have detailed knowledge of their country and region and can provide information and support to help families to navigate the local processes. They do their very best to ensure that the wishes of the bereaved families are followed. This can include providing advice on local burial and cremation options or on transporting the body and personal belongings back to the UK, and providing lists of local and international funeral directors who can assist. We have dedicated teams who provide expertise in particular circumstances, including, since 2015, a murder and manslaughter team.

As much as our staff want to support families seeking to understand how a death has occurred or to secure justice, there are limits to what the FCDO can do in cases abroad. Investigations into deaths, either through natural causes or in suspicious circumstances, remain the responsibility of local authorities. We cannot investigate the cases ourselves, and we cannot direct local authorities on how to do their job.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell
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I understand the point that the Minister is making about foreign jurisdictions. This is something that has been debated widely across British society and, without getting too specific, in a number of very high-profile cases. However, there is a precedent of the British Government—whoever has been in power at the time—putting pressure on foreign authorities, working with them and sending police from the UK to investigate crimes abroad. Families have rightly asked me on numerous occasions what makes their loved one different.

Amanda Milling Portrait Amanda Milling
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I am grateful to the hon. Member for making that point. I should have said at the start of the debate that I was grateful to have had the opportunity to meet her to discuss a range of issues, and I look forward to working with her and the all-party parliamentary group. As I have said, in this instance, there are things that remain the responsibility of the local authorities, but I am grateful for the opportunity to work with the APPG.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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The Minister has outlined the position of the Department, but my constituent would have liked, following the death of his father, to have had a contact—someone to give him advice. We could not get that. This is not a criticism, but the advice just was not there. Is it possible to ensure that such advice is available for our constituents?

Amanda Milling Portrait Amanda Milling
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We always seek to hear feedback from those who have to use the FCDO’s services, and I would be more than happy to discuss the particular case to which the hon. Gentleman is referring after the debate at another point.

We have to be clear about what levels of service the FCDO can and cannot provide. We are not funded to pay for legal, medical or translation costs, but the consular staff will signpost sources of help.

Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes
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If there were clarity about the basics of what the consular service can do, it would be a start. It could be put online and regularly reviewed.

Amanda Milling Portrait Amanda Milling
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Hopefully some of the improvements that we are continuing to make in the service will address some of the points that have been raised today.

One of the points that was raised earlier related to lawyer lists. Our posts overseas maintain lists of English-speaking lawyers who are qualified to act in an overseas jurisdiction. That is published on gov.uk. We welcome feedback, but we cannot provide specific recommendations. That said, we are considering how we can make these online lists more accessible and easier to navigate.

I mentioned how consular staff can signpost sources of help and, for example, we work closely with and fund specialist organisations that provide assistance we cannot provide, such as counselling, legal advice and support with translation and repatriation. This includes the Victim Support homicide service, Prisoners Abroad, Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis, and travel care providers and chaplaincies at major UK airports. We publish full details online of what the FCDO can and cannot do to support British nationals abroad. We will publish a refreshed and updated version next year.

When British nationals are detained overseas, their health and welfare is our top priority. We make every effort to ensure prisoners receive adequate food, water and medical treatment and that they have access to legal advice. When we hear about a detention or arrest, our consular staff attempt to contact the individual as soon as possible. How frequently we visit will depend on the nature and context of the case, but we are aware that our visits are a lifeline for many detainees, and that our staff are the only visitors that some will receive.

However, we do not and must not interfere in civil and criminal court proceedings. It is right that we respect the legal systems of other countries, just as we expect foreign nationals to respect our laws and legal processes when they are in the UK.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell
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Will the Minister give way?

Amanda Milling Portrait Amanda Milling
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I will make progress, if the hon. Lady does not mind.

We can and do intervene on behalf of British nationals where they are not treated in line with internationally accepted standards or if there are unreasonable delays in procedures.

We take allegations of torture or mistreatment incredibly seriously. Although we cannot investigate allegations ourselves, with the consent of the individual we can raise the allegations with local authorities to demand an end to the mistreatment and to demand that the incidents are investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. Our priority is always to serve the best interests of the individual. Any decisions on the action we might take in response to allegations of mistreatment are made on a case-by-case basis and only with the individual’s consent.

Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes
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Given that there is clear evidence that my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal has been arbitrarily detained, why will the Government not agree that this UK citizen is being arbitrarily detained by the Republic of India?

Amanda Milling Portrait Amanda Milling
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We take all allegations of human rights violations seriously, and the Foreign Secretary, ministerial colleagues and senior officials have raised Mr Johal’s allegations of torture and his right to a fair trial with the Government of India more than 70 times.

There is no legal right to consular assistance. As colleagues will know, the UK is party to the Vienna convention on consular relations, a multilateral agreement setting out how states will co-operate in support of their nationals overseas. Our ability to provide consular assistance remains, at all times, dependent on states respecting the Vienna convention, and it must be done in accordance with the laws of that country. Even if a right to consular assistance were enshrined in domestic law, our ability to provide it overseas would continue to remain wholly dependent on the co-operation of host states. It would not help many of our most complex cases.

As I set out earlier, we continually seek to improve our consular services. We welcome feedback, and we use it to improve our services and to provide the best possible assistance. We have learned lessons during the pandemic about how we can operate remotely. We are not complacent about the overwhelmingly positive feedback we receive, and I acknowledge that there are always areas where we can improve. We have a dedicated learning team, who ensure that our staff have the knowledge and skills they need to support British nationals. We have, for instance, included testimony from bereaved families in our training modules on how to support people bereaved through murder and manslaughter. It helps staff to understand the perspective of somebody needing that assistance. We also have a robust complaints process for those who feel that we have not provided the service that they needed. I want to reiterate our openness to working with others, particularly the all-party group, to ensure that British nationals receive the right support, tailored to their circumstances.

To conclude, our consular staff at home and abroad work extremely hard to support British nationals in distress and their families, often in difficult circumstances. We take every single consular case seriously. Our trained and expert staff work with empathy and aim to offer the help that is needed, be that advice or practical support. They are not lawyers, medics, police detectives or social workers, but what they try to do is ensure that British people have the information and support they need to help them deal with the situation they face.

16:35
Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell
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I am incredibly grateful to all who have spoken, including the hon. Members for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I failed to mention the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust in my substantive speech, and I apologise for that, because it is an organisation that we hold in great regard and would like to work with more. I will reach out to the hon. Gentleman on that. We also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Angus (Dave Doogan) and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), and the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West). They have all spoken passionately about devastating cases in their constituencies.

I have to say to the Minister, gently and kindly, that I know she has come into this role recently, that this is a huge brief and area, and that she has a pre-written speech—we all understand how this works—but there will be families at home watching this who will be furious. That is not in any way to insult her or her staff, but I am concerned that they have not grasped the gravity of this and the gaps, to put it bluntly. She talked of detailed experience of local staff. I am sure that many do have detailed experience, but I am afraid that in many cases, such as those we have heard about today, they fail to share that experience or they fail to have the support and resource to share that experience. She spoke of a service that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but many, many families we have met and dealt with would beg to differ on that. That may be the definition of what a service is, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Angus said, an offer of false, empty hope is worse than no hope at all—I would agree with that. I know that the level of service and support is aspirational, and staff want to give the very best service, but there is a long way to go. I am glad that the Minister does want to work with us, because we want that too; as I said, I want to be a critical friend. However, fundamentally, when we talk about the Vienna convention, we have to remember that the UK has an opportunity to lead the way on this, but it is falling far behind. As we well know, diplomatic and trade relations play a serious role, and post Brexit we are in a dangerous and difficult place. We need to do much, much better for the families of these islands.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House regrets that the consular services provided by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to bereaved families of people who have been murdered, have died in suspicious circumstances, or have been imprisoned or tortured overseas have fallen short of the standard reasonably expected; notes that access to justice and basic standards of assistance are dependent upon a person’s ability to pay; is concerned that there is no legal right to consular assistance and that support is provided on a discretionary basis, which can lead to unpredictable and inconsistent communications from the FCDO; further regrets that consular services in the UK are below the level of support UK citizens should expect; believes that the FCDO’s focus is on what it cannot do to help, rather than what it can do, which adds to the trauma experienced by victims; calls on the Government to improve and standardise communication processes at the FCDO, to publish consular procedures and policies and to revisit the findings of the Fifth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Support for British nationals abroad: The Consular Service, Session 2014-15, HC 516; further calls on the Government to consult with the families affected and to raise the standard of how British citizens are treated by FCDO procedures; and urges the Government to set a world leading example of how a state treats its citizens in their darkest hour of need.