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British Expatriates (Punjab)

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2012

I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this debate under your chairmanship and wise guidance, Mr Walker, and I wish to highlight an issue that has important implications for British citizens living and working in India. This debate was inspired by one of my constituents, Mrs Tejinder Soor-Hudson, who contacted me in the summer of 2010 to express her concerns about the death of her mother, Mrs Mohinder Kaur Soor, a British national who owned a house in Jalandhar in the Punjab region of India. Jalandhar is part of the so-called NRI—non-resident Indian—belt of the Doaba region. Many Britons of Indian origin own properties there, and it has become an affluent hub of investment.

I am sorry to intervene at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but this debate concerns not only those who work or live in India, but visitors and people who live in Britain but travel to India, particularly to that region. I must declare an interest because I was originally a resident of Jalandhar, so I know the area well. People and visitors there are afraid for their properties, as well as for other business in the area, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will mention not only people who work there, but also visitors.

As usual, I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. I am not seeking to narrow the confines of this debate; this is clearly a serious and substantive issue that affects those who live in the area and those who travel to it.

My constituent’s mother, Mrs Soor, travelled to India in June 2009 with the intention of selling her home in Jalandhar. Instead, she was found dead later the same month. Mrs Soor-Hudson contacted me because she is convinced that her mother’s death was organised by a criminal gang in order to facilitate the theft of her property. Worse still, she believes that the Indian authorities were complicit in a cover-up of that appalling murder.

The objective evidence is striking. The resulting post-mortem, carried out on tissue samples from Mrs Soor’s body, concluded that she had been the victim of insecticide poisoning. That, however, was in stark contradiction to the official police report, which stated that no poison had been detected in Mrs Soor’s body, which was then cremated before the results of the post-mortem were made available. On top of that, the official police report did not give any indication about what—if any—investigation was carried out at the home where the body was discovered.

The most basic details that one might reasonably expect from the scene of a suspicious death, such as what time the police entered the premises, whether there was evidence of forced entry, and the condition in which the body was found, were not properly recorded. Subsequently, Mrs Soor-Hudson discovered that a key suspect in the case is related by marriage to an officer working under a deputy commissioner, who may well have the means and motivation to influence proceedings.

There is ample evidence to suggest corruption in this case. Mrs Soor-Hudson was told that if she wanted the suspect brought in for questioning, she had the option to pay an unidentified individual to make false statements about that suspect. That individual would then commit perjury if necessary. Unbelievably, that suggestion was even endorsed by my constituent’s then solicitor, although I hasten to add that Mrs Soor-Hudson, of course, rejected any notion of becoming involved in such improper or criminal behaviour. However, it is not difficult to see why she believes that such a dark shadow of suspicion lies across the local police investigation into her mother’s death.

I met Mrs Soor-Hudson at my constituency surgery at the beginning of the year in order to get an update on the case. She is resolute and passionately committed to uncovering the facts about what happened to her mother in June 2009, and after a number of years of bureaucratic frustration, we appear to be making some initial modest progress in the investigation. As the Minister will be aware, over the past 18 months I have written several times to Foreign Office Ministers on behalf of my constituent, and I wish to thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its help and assistance in pursuing Mrs Soor-Hudson’s concerns in this distressing case, and for taking it to the Indian authorities via the high commission.

As I understand it, a fresh inquiry into the matter has now been ordered by the commissioner of police, who will report to the Indian high commission in due course. I am not aware of any progress beyond that initial statement of intent, but belated though that is, it is a welcome development even if it is a point of departure rather than of arrival. Will the Minister undertake to do everything within his power to press the Indian authorities to ensure that a proper, robust, rigorous and independent investigation is carried out into this tragic case?

While particularly distressing to the family, this case is all the more alarming because, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) pointed out, it is by no means an isolated incident. A number of other hon. Members have become involved in similar cases that have affected their own constituents, and there is every reason to believe that those cases are only the tip of the iceberg. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) will soon attest, there was also the horrific murder of Surjit Kaur, a 67-year-old mother of three from Chatham, who was kidnapped and beheaded in March last year while visiting the Punjab region. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his tenacity in raising that terrible case with the Prime Minister, and for his support in helping Mrs Kaur’s family get an independent investigation into that appalling crime, and a measure of justice.

Sadly, there are many other cases of similar nature. Mr Mohan Singh Biring, a Leicester businessman who had gone to India to oversee a property deal, was murdered—again in the Punjab—after a vicious and unprovoked attack in August 2005 by a gang wielding baseball bats and iron bars. Two men were jailed for life for his murder, but only after intervention from the local Member of Parliament, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), and I pay tribute to his efforts. Mr Charanjit Singh ran a business in Plumstead but was shot dead while visiting Jalandhar in 2009, the apparent victim of a financial dispute over a property purchase that had taken place in England.

Those are tragic cases in their own right, but they also tell a wider story and demonstrate a broader trend. A worrying number of murders and other serious crimes are being committed against British citizens of Indian origin, the so-called NRIs, and visitors to the area, particularly in the Punjab region. There are major concerns regarding the allegations of incompetence and—let’s face it—corruption within the Indian authorities, which seems to feature in so many of these cases. I commend the support that the Foreign Office has given to the victims and their families, but I feel that we must do more to protect British citizens, and others, who are travelling to or residing in the Punjab region.

What advice does the FCO offer to British non-resident Indians who are travelling to or living in the Punjab region but who may have real and objective grounds to fear for their safety? What is the FCO’s support mechanism for dealing with cases such as those I have described today? Does the Minister feel that that support mechanism is adequate, or is it time to review the current arrangements?

I am, of course, acutely aware that primary responsibility for investigating crimes committed overseas must rest with the police and the judicial authorities in that country. However, we can work with India on a bilateral basis to keep our citizens in that region safe from harm. What, if any, formal arrangements are currently in place with the Indian Government to facilitate such a co-operative approach? Is any or could any of our bilateral aid be focused on co-operation? How does the Minister think that we can work with the Indian authorities to ensure that we offer our citizens, and others travelling to the region, the same protection when they travel abroad that Indian nationals would rightly expect to receive in this country?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing this important debate on an issue that has real ramifications for British nationals who visit India. I also pay tribute to his excellent work in representing the concerns of his constituents.

Like my hon. Friend, I have encountered a tragic and horrific case. It involves the mother of a constituent of mine. Surjit Kaur was a British national who visited India in February and March 2011. I am led to believe from the little information that the family and I, and the Foreign Office, have been provided with by the Indian authorities that Mrs Kaur was murdered on 31 March 2011.

Mrs Kaur’s tragic case was highlighted in The Guardian on Friday 8 April 2011. It is that newspaper’s reporting of the facts of the case to which I will refer. As I said, the Indian authorities have not provided the full facts, which were sought by the family and me in our meeting with the Foreign Office. At this point, I thank the Foreign Office Minister, who was very kind in meeting the family, taking on board their concerns and coming back with a number of points that needed clarification. Despite his best efforts, I was very disappointed with the response of the Indian authorities in not providing that information.

I will set out briefly the facts of the case. The report in The Guardian stated:

“The decapitated remains of a British woman have been recovered by Indian police who claim she was murdered after a bungled attempt to extort money from her children in the UK.

The head and body of Surjit Kaur, who is believed to have been in her 60s, were found separately this week. Two local men, one a relative of the victim, have been arrested and police said they had confessed to the killing. The two arrested men, named by police as Harbhaghan Singh and Gurwinder Singh, visited the home of a close relative of Kaur after her disappearance to express their concern, according to reports.”

The Guardian report goes on to say:

“Sandip Sharma, the deputy superintendent of…police, who is investigating the murder, told the Guardian the attack took place after the two suspects lured her away under false pretences…He said they strangled Kaur, cut off her head and threw it into a river. Her body was dismembered and scattered in nearby fields, he added.”

In the light of that, I asked some specific questions of the Indian authorities in the meeting with the Minister. I have a response from the Foreign Office, dated 21 December 2011; it followed the meeting between the family and the Minister on 23 November. The first question was this: did the two accused plead guilty to the murder of Mrs Kaur? The answer in that letter was yes—they pleaded guilty to the murder of Mrs Kaur. The second question that I asked specifically was whether they were sentenced for the murder of Mrs Kaur. The answer in the letter was that they were not:

“The trial collapsed before it reached a conclusion and so the accused were not sentenced.”

When two people have confessed to a murder, how can a trial collapse? It defies logic to hear that two people have admitted guilt for the murder of an individual and then to be told that the trial has collapsed. But it gets worse than that, which is why I think that there needs to be a full, thorough investigation.

On page 2 of the letter is a question that I asked:

“Why did the case collapse and what can be done now?”

The answer comes back from the Indian authorities that the police have now confirmed that the case is closed. How can it be closed if Mrs Kaur has been murdered and we have two people who admit to the murder? We are told that the case has collapsed. If it has collapsed, the authorities should reopen the inquiry and try to find out who committed the murder, but in this case the Indian authorities are saying, “Sorry—case closed”. That causes me real concern.

I say this to the Minister. We have so many people, including expat nationals, who travel to India and want to be safe. India is a booming economy, but it also has a moral and ethical obligation for the safety of our constituents. Look at the case to which I am referring. If individuals who have accepted that they committed murder are walking away from a court, that leads me—and, indeed, any reasonable person—to come to the following conclusions. The legal system is defunct and illogical; the investigation is incompetent; there are corrupt practices; or there is a combination of all three.

I urge the Indian authorities to reopen this case. They say that the case has collapsed. In any civilised legal system, if a case has collapsed, the authorities reopen it to get the people who have committed murder. In this case, that is even more imperative because the two individuals had previously pleaded guilty to the horrific murder of Mrs Kaur.

The authorities need to carry out an independent and thorough inquiry, so that my constituent and his family can get the one thing that they want—justice for their mother. They want nothing but justice for their mother. I urge the Foreign Office to make the strongest possible representations to the Indian authorities to reopen the case and ensure that those who carried out this horrific murder are brought to justice.

I again pay tribute to the work that the Minister has done and how he dealt with the family. I pay tribute to the work done by the consular staff and all the others involved, including the family liaison officers from Kent police in my constituency who worked with the family. But despite all that, what this comes down to is the will of the Indian authorities. In this case, it is clear that there is no will. If they want the Indian legal system to be taken seriously, they must reopen the inquiry and bring the people responsible to account.

I am grateful for the opportunity to conclude this short but important debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Walker. I start by commending my hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) and for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for their extremely powerful and persuasive speeches. I hope and believe that those speeches—indeed, the whole debate—will be read by the Indian authorities and that it will be clear to them just how seriously this issue is treated in the House of Commons.

I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton for securing this debate on a subject of great importance to his constituent, Mrs Soor-Hudson, and to him. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to his specific concerns, and I hope that I can go some way towards addressing the issues that Mrs Soor-Hudson has been dealing with during the past three years. My hon. Friend is concerned not just with the difficult situation that faces his constituent, but with the wider issue of the delays in the Indian and Punjabi justice system that can often affect British nationals and that were powerfully articulated a few moments ago by the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham as well.

First, I extend my condolences to Mrs Soor-Hudson and to her family for the tragic loss of her mother in Jalandhar three years ago. Mrs Soor-Hudson’s courage and tenacity in taking forward her subsequent campaign to try to establish the facts behind her mother’s death are truly admirable. I hope that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can continue to be of assistance to her during this difficult time.

Let me set out what contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has had with Mrs Soor-Hudson since her mother passed away and what action has been taken to assist her. The consular directorate in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was first contacted by Mrs Soor-Hudson regarding her mother’s death in December 2009. Since then, consular officials in India have contacted the Indian police on numerous occasions, including at senior levels, to seek progress reports and ask for contact details on behalf of the family. The Indian authorities have responded in writing to the British high commissioner in Delhi, as well as directly to Mrs Soor-Hudson.

Consular officials in London also met Mrs Soor-Hudson to discuss the case in February of this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton has written to, and received replies from, two of my ministerial colleagues, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), on this issue.

Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton is aware, Mrs Soor-Hudson’s case is not unique. The British high commission regularly raises issues in relation to a number of cases that involve the deaths of British nationals in India. Many of those cases are complicated. Some of them are concerned with deaths in suspicious circumstances, and others with murders. In some cases, the cause of death remains unknown. In others, the bereaved family have had strong concerns about the investigations into the death of their family member, as in Mrs Soor-Hudson’s case.

Such cases illustrate the fact—this point was powerfully made by my hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton and for Gillingham and Rainham—that the Indian authorities need to have a justice system that not only enjoys the confidence of their own population but is seen to perform at standards in which people around the world can feel confident.

In an effort to assist all families affected by the cases, I have, on two occasions, raised these issues with my Indian counterparts. Last July, I spoke to the Union Minister of Home Affairs and passed over a note listing a number of outstanding cases that involve British nationals in India. In February, during a visit to India, I met the Minister of State for External Affairs and passed over another note of outstanding cases. I hope that hon. Members will realise that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the whole British Government attach importance to representing individual cases of British nationals who have been involved in terrible circumstances in India and that the families feel that the justice system has not treated their case with sufficient efficiency or, in some cases, seriousness.

However, as I am sure my hon. Friends are aware, the investigation into the deaths of British nationals in India is the responsibility of the Indian authorities. Unfortunately, just as in the UK, such processes can take a number of years. The British Government will not interfere in an Indian investigation. Similarly, we would not accept the interference of a foreign Government in an investigation in the UK. I know that my hon. Friends will feel frustrated by that, but it is the only basis on which we can reasonably proceed. The country within which the incident took place has the sovereign authority over the investigation and prosecution of the case.

I apologise for not congratulating the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing such a wonderful and important debate. Does the Minister agree that in the light not only of these cases but of the many cases of murder and kidnap in the state, especially of those people from Britain, that the Department should look into providing information detailing the kind of support that can be secured from the British high commission and others before people leave here? While they are in the country, they need security, guidance and adequate legal support. Such help does not directly interfere with the state, but it would be useful for individuals.

I will come to that point later in my speech. Although it is an important intervention, the House and the wider public must understand the limitations that we in the Foreign Office face in our jurisdiction and our staffing and budgetary restraints. Literally millions of British people travel abroad every year, and we provide a service that is as good and as comprehensive as we can within the constraints that exist.

I was talking about the role of the sovereign Government—in this case, the Indian Government—in investigating a case. We recommend to the families involved that it is imperative to retain the services of a local lawyer at the earliest opportunity. That lawyer will be best placed to advise the family on how best to proceed within the existing local legal framework and to address any concerns the family may have about any aspect of the investigation. To that end, each British embassy, high commission or consulate maintains a list of English-speaking local lawyers, to which consular officials will refer family members. However, we do not claim to have an expert knowledge of the legal system of every country in which we operate.

Just to clarify the point about not knowing the exact legal systems of the country, does the Minister agree that in any jurisdiction anywhere in the world common sense would dictate that, if someone pleads guilty to murder and it is an agreed fact, that person should be sentenced rather than walk free from court?

Perhaps I should not be drawn on that specific case. All the cases that have been raised both inside and outside this debate suggest that the Indian justice system is failing to provide satisfactory justice to a number of citizens and that must surely give the Indian authorities cause for reflection.

The Minister is treating this in a serious and methodical way. I understand his point about resources. We know that there was a dumbing down of bilateral relations under the previous Government and that this Government are trying to address that. May I just challenge his strict approach and focus on sovereignty and the idea that the investigation and the approach of the justice system must be left solely to the domestic authorities in India? Under the Vienna convention on consular relations and as a matter of India’s own human rights obligations on torture or fair trials guarantees and given the endemic corruption that he has rather lightly alluded to, we have every right and it is every bit the British Government’s business to raise these issues and to press the Indian authorities to behave properly.

I am grateful for that intervention. I certainly accept that we have a legitimate role, which we exercise with vigour and enthusiasm, to press on countries around the world our desire to see them operate an effective and balanced justice system. Where we feel that improvements can be made, we make that point. However, it is worth pointing out that British police have no jurisdiction to investigate crimes overseas. If a bereaved family suspects that British nationals were involved in the planning or committing of a crime, I urge them to report their concerns to their local UK police force. There may be occasions when it is appropriate for that force to act, but it is not the decisive and final actor, because that responsibility rests with the host country. FCO officials have met their Indian counterparts to discuss the wider issues that we are discussing today, and we will certainly look for opportunities for future co-operation. As the Minister, I give that undertaking personally, but I also make it on behalf of our high commissioner and his team in Delhi and in other posts across India.

Consular officials in India and in London will continue to monitor Mrs Soor-Hudson’s case and will keep her informed as and when we receive updates from the Indian authorities. I am aware that Mrs Soor-Hudson is concerned about the financial implications of continuing to work on her case in India. Although I appreciate the pressure that that concern must bring, I am afraid that the FCO cannot provide her with financial assistance in that regard. It is not our policy and, as I pointed out to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) a few moments ago, given that there are literally tens of millions of overseas visits by British nationals each year, it is not financially viable for us to provide that service in all cases where it might be thought desirable.

The FCO’s role in such cases is to ensure that the family receive information about local police and legal procedures. Where there are concerns that the investigation is not being carried out in line with local procedures or there are justified complaints about discrimination against the person who has died or their family, the FCO can make appropriate representations to the local authorities.

To summarise, I am confident that consular officials are doing all that they can, within the remits of our consular assistance policy, to assist Mrs Soor-Hudson in her efforts to establish what happened to her mother. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton and all hon. Members are assured that we will continue to raise her case with the Indian authorities at the appropriate times.

The British Government take our consular responsibilities extremely seriously; consular responsibilities are one of our three foreign policy priorities. Although we have a long-standing and close relationship with India, based on a broad range of mutual interests, we will continue to push our consular interests in support of British citizens in India without fear, because we see this as an important area for the Indian authorities to focus on when British nationals and their MPs feel that a shortcoming needs to be addressed.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.