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.