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Consular Services

Volume 517: debated on Wednesday 3 November 2010

I welcome the opportunity to hold this debate. I would like to start by reporting my personal experience of a number of harrowing or complex cases, such as that of Mr Khadum al Sarraj—an Iraqi national married to a British citizen, Shereen Nasser—who was detained at Camp Cropper in Baghdad. He was fortunately released eventually, and is now safe in the UK. There are also the cases of Mr El Mahdy, who is currently detained in a police station in Qatar; Mr Neil Juwaheer, who died in suspicious circumstances in a police cell in Brazil; and Robbie Hughes, who was very badly beaten in an attack in Malia in Crete. I want to dwell on the last two cases at some length.

The death, serious injury or detention of a loved one abroad can be the most traumatic experience anyone is likely to face in a lifetime. It is easy to see why. One is stranded in a foreign country with all the language barriers that brings, the cultural barriers, the different legal systems, often dwindling financial resources and corruption in the legal service of the country or within the police. It is clear why it can be a devastating experience for a family. I would like to consider two cases in some depth.

First, there is the case of Neil Juwaheer. My constituents, the Juwaheers, live in Carshalton, and their son, Neil, died in suspicious circumstances while in police custody in Brazil. The Brazilian tourist police report included a statement that a torn package of drug powder was found in his body—and that caused the death by chemical intoxication—a claim that is disputed by the family and by an autopsy that they had carried out. They allege that their son was in fact restrained in a cruel and barbaric way by strapping him up with antenna wire, and was beaten, and that was what probably caused his death while in detention in Brazil.

I first raised the matter with the Brazil desk of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2007. At that point I raised concerns about the family’s inability to get closure on their son’s death, because the process in Brazil is so slow. I tried to identify what further the FCO might be able to do to support the family. Kim Howells, the then Minister, set out in his response in October 2007 what the FCO had been able to do—the consul had assisted the family when they made a visit to Brazil—and confirmed that the Brazilian police were continuing their investigation, though that would take time. He added that the British Government will only consider intervention if the investigation takes longer than the norm for a Brazilian national. I will shortly come back to that point. Mr Juwaheer was provided with a list of English-speaking lawyers, and it was suggested that he should seek legal advice in Brazil and consider appointing a lawyer, which he then did.

I followed that up with a further letter to the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), in February 2008. I set out again the alleged circumstances of the death, explained that Mr Juwaheer had followed the FCO advice, in getting in touch with and securing the assistance of a lawyer in Brazil. I went on to set out why I thought there were reasons for the FCO to get involved in the case. It was not just a routine case as far as the Brazilian police or judicial system were concerned. I set out the concerns that we had about some aspects of the case. For instance, the head of the Brazilian CID, who was investigating the case, had been suspended, and it was alleged that he had been responsible for the deaths of other people. Two autopsies were deemed inconclusive, although miraculously, later, the alleged package that was supposed to contain drugs materialised after the autopsies had been completed. There were allegations that Mr Juwaheer, when he died, was foaming at the mouth, but that can be a symptom of asthma, not drug abuse. If it was suggested that he had been having a seizure, why was he not sent to hospital, as opposed to being detained at the police station? Why was he inappropriately and tightly wrapped up in antenna wire, leaving severe marks on his body which showed up in the autopsy? The autopsy that the family had carried out suggested that he had been beaten and had died. There was some difference of opinion between the autopsies about whether he died a violent death or from an overdose. Clearly, there were a large number of suspicious circumstances that surrounded this death. Even for the Brazilian police and legal system, this must have been an atypical case.

I again took it up with the FCO and, I am afraid to say, simply got a letter repeating the content of a previous reply, setting out that the FCO could do nothing because the case was being dealt with in the way that the Brazilian legal system would deal with it. I want to come back to the question about the British Government only considering intervention if the investigation takes longer than the norm for a Brazilian national. I do not know whether the Minister, when he replies, will be able to set out what he thinks the norm is in relation to a case involving a Brazilian national. One could argue that if the norm for a Brazilian case was to take 20 years, perhaps the FCO would still feel duty bound to get involved to some extent, because I think we would all want to support intervention in cases where a legal system has either clearly failed or is dragged out to such an extent that it is clear that nobody is going to get justice at the end of the process.

The second case I would like to refer to is that of Robbie Hughes. The matter is subject to a court case in Crete at the moment, so I will be careful what I say. The facts are known of what happened and are widely documented. He was seriously injured during an attack in Malia in Crete. It is alleged that his attackers may have been British tourists. His mother is a constituent of mine and made contact with me while she was out there, after she had flown out to Greece to support him. She encountered all the problems that the Juwaheer family had encountered, in terms of trying to overcome the language barrier, dealing the Greek police, dealing with a hospital environment, of which frankly British tourists need to be aware. If they are going to Greece, they need to make some insurance preparations, because if they end up in a Greek national health service facility they are going to be rather shocked by what they find. Certainly, Maggie Hughes was incredibly shocked by what she found and the level of care that was being provided to her son. As a result of what happened to Robbie, she has set up an organisation called Please Enjoy, Don’t Destroy, and is campaigning on these issues.

In defence of the FCO staff, Maggie Hughes said they were as helpful as possible. However, they were grossly overstretched and had six people who were trying to cover all of the Greek islands. If you imagine what the Greek islands are like in the summer with hundreds of thousands of Brits over there holidaying, six people to cover that area is not sufficient. What that meant was that the FCO was ringing my constituent Maggie Hughes and saying, in effect, “We are aware of a British family; something dreadful has happened to their son or daughter. Would you be willing to make contact with them and help them and provide support?” She did not object to that; she was happy to do it; she had been through that experience. However, one has to question whether it is entirely appropriate for the FCO to call on British residents when they are abroad to seek their support for British citizens who have either been injured or seriously affected by an incident abroad.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate today. Two weeks ago at Prime Minister’s questions, I had the opportunity to raise with the Prime Minister the case of Gary Dunne from my constituency, who was murdered in Spain. The Prime Minister kindly agreed to meet Gary’s parents, Steve and Lesley, who have been campaigning on issues arising from that experience in a very similar fashion to the constituents whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

One aspect of the Dunnes’ experience in Spain was precisely the lack of efficiency in the consular response in dealing with the family following Gary’s murder. So I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and I hope that, when the Minister responds, there will be reference to the need for greater efficiency and speed in dealing with cases such as those described by the hon. Gentleman and that of my former constituent, Gary Dunne.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As he confirmed, he is simply seeking to reinforce these points about what support can be given to families. I think that we would agree that the type of support that we are talking about is not the FCO and consular staff getting involved to help someone when they have lost their passport. These are cases in which someone has been murdered or perhaps seriously injured as a result of a car accident, an attack or something else of that nature. So we are talking about a relatively small group of people and not about each and every British citizen who encounters some difficulty while they are abroad.

My involvement with Maggie and Robbie Hughes led to Maggie and me holding a meeting in Parliament at the end of last year. I have a copy of the report that was produced after that meeting, which I will hand to the Minister at the end of this debate. The report just sums up the recommendations we made at the end of that meeting. There should be a copy of the report within the FCO already, because Julian Braithwaite, the director of consular services, attended that meeting, and I am sure that he was sent a copy of the report afterwards. However, I will give the Minister another copy so that he has it to hand in case the first one has been mislaid.

So what do we suggest should be done? First, let me say that I am not the only one making these suggestions, nor is it just the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who just intervened on me, and nor is it just Maggie Hughes and Mrs Juwaheer. Organisations such as Support After Murder and Manslaughter Abroad and indeed the National Policing Improvement Agency also support the recommendations made in the report. We came up with many of them after that meeting, which was with families who have been affected by either the murder or the involvement in a serious accident of a loved one abroad.

I will outline those recommendations. First, the FCO needs to provide more information about the services that it offers. I am pleased that, following Maggie’s intervention, the FCO website has been improved in terms of the level of information that it provides. Secondly, the FCO needs to provide more help in getting family members to wherever their loved ones are abroad. Occasionally, the family involved will have difficulty in physically getting to the place where the incident occurred.

Thirdly, the FCO should help to report crime to the local police and obtain police reports. That was clearly a big issue for some families who attended the meeting, because the police that they had dealt with were refusing to accept that a crime had been committed. Fourthly, the FCO should intervene if no police action is forthcoming. Fifthly, the FCO should challenge police corruption. Sixthly, the FCO should be able to provide information and assistance in serious cases, and I think that that is perhaps the crunch point. We are talking about the relatively small number of people who experience a real tragedy abroad. Furthermore, I would add to that recommendation in our report that there should be an agreed level of service, clearly setting out what different Departments and agencies are responsible for.

I acknowledge that by restricting this type of support to people involved in the most serious cases there will be other people on the margins who will perhaps feel let down by the FCO, even if the FCO makes the improvements that we suggest. Nevertheless, we have got to be realistic about what is achievable, particularly in the present climate. Therefore, I am afraid that there will be families who will miss out, even though they may feel—perhaps rightly—that their cases were as serious as some of the other cases that we have referred to.

Seventhly, the FCO should provide a translation service, or know where such a service can be secured. Simply providing a list of lawyers or a list of translators is not actually the same as providing access to a legal or translation service. Eighthly, the FCO should strengthen or resurrect a network of honorary consuls able to provide local knowledge to support victims and their families at a time of crisis.

Coincidentally, because our meeting was principally about Greece—that was not our intention, but the families who came had principally experienced some tragedy in Greece—there are a number of recommendations about how the Greek police and authorities should work together with the British police. However, I think that those recommendations are applicable to whichever country we are talking about.

So, the report made a strong recommendation that a victim’s family member should attend any joint meetings between Greek and UK police, or between other Greek and UK authorities, so that the family member can provide some insight about what it actually means to a family when such an incident occurs.

There is one other aspect that is clearly not relevant to the Juwaheer case but is very relevant to what happens in places such as Malia in Crete. It relates to what the FCO can do with tour operators, and I know that the previous Minister in the last Government who I dealt with, Kim Howells, worked hard on this issue. The FCO should work with the tour operators to establish what more they can do to try to ensure that the people who are going abroad to have a happy time actually have a happy time and do not end up very seriously injured as a result of binge drinking. Even now, Maggie Hughes, who has been out to Greece on a regular basis, is still hearing of or even overhearing tour operators or tour reps encouraging people to visit Greece, by saying, “Go there, it’s really cheap and you can get completely blotto for next to nothing.” We need to clamp down on the tour operators and ensure that they understand that they have a real responsibility to tackle binge drinking and certainly should not be promoting it, as some of them still appear to be doing.

Also, there may be more work that tour operators can do in relation to insurance, because even if British people are travelling to EU countries the level of care that they will receive in some hospitals in those countries can be absolutely dire, and if they do not have the right level of insurance they will have a really nasty shock if they turn up at one of those hospitals.

Since we produced that report last year, I know that Victim Support has set up a national homicide service, which was started under the previous Government. That service provides one-to-one support for families who have been affected by murder or manslaughter. I wonder what progress has been made on that initiative, and I also wonder whether it applies to victims of murder or manslaughter abroad and not just to victims of murder or manslaughter in the UK.

Before I conclude, there is another issue that I want to bring to the Minister’s attention. More information needs to be made available about the fact that legal aid is available to UK citizens in EU countries. That legal aid is not always going to be as much as one would like, but it is available and people need to know that it is available because at the moment they do not.

To conclude, I just want to say that it cannot be right that—as the recently departed Brazilian ambassador to the UK, Carlos Augusto Santos-Neves, said—there are 22 British embassy staff in Brazil working on climate change and none of them is helping to support people such as the Juwaheers. Equally, as I said earlier, there are only six British diplomatic staff covering the Greek islands, which meant that my constituent, Maggie Hughes, had to intervene to provide support to other British families.

I know that the FCO is working within a tight budget, but I hope that the Minister will be able to provide some comfort to the Juwaheer family, the Hughes family and the hundreds of other families represented by organisations such as SAMM Abroad that in future the support that such families will receive will be more timely, more effective and more comprehensive at their time of greatest need than many families have experienced in the past.

This is the first time that I have replied to a Westminster Hall debate, or indeed any debate, as a Minister, and it is a pleasure and a privilege for me to do so under your chairmanship, Mr. Streeter. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), not only for securing this opportunity to discuss an important topic but for his ongoing vigilance and interest with regard to what is an extremely important matter. It is obviously extremely important for the individuals concerned, but it is also extremely important for us all more generally in policy terms.

I am also grateful to my hon. Friend for holding a meeting in December last year for the victims of crime abroad, which he mentioned in his speech. I take note of both the cases that he specifically raised, as well as the case that was raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). When we are discussing such cases, we should always remember that they involve real people and that they are very harrowing cases that have transformed for ever the lives of the individuals concerned and their immediate families. We do remember that they are not statistics but people whom we want to help.

I have read about and take an interest in the cases of Robert Hughes, who was seriously injured in a life-changing way in an attack in Greece in 2008, and of Neil Juwaheer, who died in police custody in Brazil in 2007. In the latter case, I note that the legal processes following the Brazilian authorities’ investigation into the death continue, and in the former case, that of Robbie Hughes, there is still a court case pending.

We are keen to try to help and be of assistance, because it is the right thing to do, but also because of the reasons given by my hon. Friend. It is particularly difficult and harrowing for people who are involved in such cases, normally completely unexpectedly and in circumstances with which they are not familiar. They may not speak the language, they may be shocked by the medical facilities that are available and they may not understand the legal system. There is a duty on us to try to assist people in harrowing circumstances as much as we possibly can.

So that people can understand the context, I should say that the number of Britons travelling abroad is significant. I visited our consular operation in Bangkok recently. Almost 1 million British visitors go to Thailand every year. Of course, in the vast majority of cases, their time there is incident-free, and they have no dealings with our consular authorities. Many of the cases of those who do have dealings with them are relatively trivial, such as cases involving lost passports, although they still take up consular time and effort. Sometimes the individual concerned may not regard their case as trivial, even though others may when looking at it more objectively.

My Department is keen to try to do as much as it can to prevent people from getting into difficulty in the first place. The case for insurance cover was well made. It is surprising how many British nationals travel abroad without insurance cover. In most cases, of course, they get away with it, but when they do not, they regret it for a long time to come, so we are trying to provide better information on the Foreign Office website. We do specific work when a large number of people go abroad for a particular event; for example, we try to anticipate problems in those circumstances, and we try to educate people better about how they can guard against difficulties abroad.

We have high expectations of our consular staff who operate in countries where circumstances can be difficult, and we want them to be able to assist where they can to obtain relevant information from the country’s authorities. However, it is important to stress what they cannot do, because sometimes the expectation is that consular staff will be multi-purpose police investigators, lawyers and medical staff. That is not a level of service that we are realistically able to achieve.

It is worth sharing briefly with hon. Members what the consular department of the Foreign Office is trying to do at present. A new consular strategy for 2010-13 was launched in June. It sets the direction for consular work for the next three years and has three focal points. The first is on services that only we can provide, and is based on research and consultation with British citizens who have told us what they particularly value. Customer feedback has been obtained, particularly from British nationals who have been affected by the worst incidents or crimes overseas, and it is central to our decision-making processes. We are keen to try to concentrate as much time and resource as possible on the people who need help the most.

We want to invest more in the people who work for us, to ensure that they maintain the highest levels of professionalism. There is compulsory training, including for our honorary consuls, to whom I pay tribute this morning. Many of them do a large amount of work, particularly during seasons that are busy times of the year for British travellers, for virtually no personal financial compensation at all.

We also want to strengthen our global network because, although there are areas that British people travel to in great numbers—my hon. Friend mentioned Greece, and I mentioned Thailand—there are, of course, British citizens in every country of the world who require our assistance. Therefore, we need a global network to try to ensure that we are able to provide assistance wherever it is needed.

I want to say something that goes a bit beyond that. I have the relative advantage of still being a new Minister, so I can look at services with a fairly objective and dispassionate eye. What impresses me about the consular service is the level of professionalism and how comprehensive it is, certainly on a global scale. Few countries would even aspire to replicate what we do to help British nationals who require our assistance in far-flung parts of the world.

However, I think we can do more when people find themselves, not necessarily through any fault of their own, in particularly harrowing and difficult circumstances. This is where I particularly agree with my hon. Friend, who was right to make the point that such cases are relatively few. Millions of British people travel abroad, and hundreds of thousands of them need minor assistance of one kind or another, but the number of people who need help in really difficult circumstances is relatively small. For example, about 50 to 60 British nationals abroad are murdered each year. In the grand scheme of things, that is a relatively small number—roughly one a week, on average. We could look at providing a better and more comprehensive service for people in particularly difficult circumstances.

I had a meeting last month with members of the group that my hon. Friend mentioned, Support After Murder and Manslaughter Abroad, and discussed with them their experiences and ideas, and I have had several detailed conversations with officials in the Department about how we can provide a service charter that is more comprehensive in terms of the services that British nationals can expect. However, there are some challenges. It is not necessarily quite as straightforward as it might appear on first inspection.

Has the Minister had any thoughts yet about what components there might be in a better and more comprehensive service?

Let me come to that in a moment. I will answer the question.

Challenges include the legal systems in the countries that people visit. I sometimes turn this on its head and ask whether we would expect a foreign national in Britain to receive treatment in the British court system or a British prison that is different from that enjoyed by British nationals, and by and large people say that we would not. That same constraint is imposed on us when British nationals are abroad. There are resource constraints—there always are in Government—and there are some specifics.

For example, let us look at the two cases that my hon. Friend raised. I spoke specifically about what more we can do to help murder victims and their families, but the person in the first case was not murdered. Robert Hughes was seriously injured but not murdered, so he would not fall under that narrow classification. In the second case, the Brazilian authorities do not consider Neil Juwaheer to have been a victim of crime, so under a strict legal classification, he would not come under that category either. There are many cases that are extremely harrowing and difficult. If one were to try to impose narrow criteria, the danger is that we would roll out a service with great fanfare that looks good but then get many specific instances that do not fall within its scope.

I hope that we will provide a more comprehensive service that gives people a clear expectation of the assistance that they can have, and that that assistance is more direct and more hands-on than it has been in the past. I will announce more specific details when I am in a position to do so.

I would be more than grateful to have representations from my hon. Friend and from the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, about how, within the budget that the Foreign Office has for consular services, we can focus our resources better so that people who find themselves in great difficulty and harrowing circumstances, and their families, can be confident that they will get the best possible service from our Government.

Sitting suspended.