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Consular Support: UK Nationals Overseas

Volume 667: debated on Tuesday 5 November 2019

Our consular staff help more than 20,000 British people abroad every year, and we constantly strive to improve support, with more online services, updated information and specialist staff.

As a Geordie, may I say what a pleasure it is to hear your northern tones bring order to our proceedings, Mr Speaker?

My constituent Christine Scott was falsely arrested and imprisoned in Ghana. She is disabled, with severe mobility issues, yet the sum total of her consular support during the 16 months of her ordeal was a list of lawyers. She remains deeply traumatised, but the Minister has yet to respond to my inquiry. His Department has suffered cuts of 30% since 2010 and now fights for funding with the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development—a situation that the Foreign Affairs Committee said was “unsustainable”—so what is he doing to ensure that the first priority of consular services is to support citizens like Christine and not to cut costs?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I have seen her letter, and I will be responding to it later today. I am also happy to meet her. The details of this case are rather more complex than she has suggested to the House. I also gently suggest—[Interruption.] Wait until we have a meeting. I would rather discuss the full details of the case. If she looks specifically at Africa, she will see that we are opening five new missions there and recruiting hundreds more staff. Our consular services are first-rate across the globe. We are enhancing the network. We should be supporting our consular staff in the incredible work that they do. They are being not cut, but totally supported by this Government in their work with British citizens across the globe.

Mr Speaker, you might be from the wrong side of the Pennines, but it is a delight to see you in the Chair and for impartiality to be returned to that office.

As we continue to expand our consular network overseas, may I urge the Minister to look at the proposal that I recently wrote to the Prime Minister about with regard to a permanent consular post in Atlantic Canada, not only to support the very many Brits who travel there every year but to make better use of our trading relationship post Brexit?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He did tireless work as the trade envoy to Canada, and I know that it is a country very close to his heart. I will certainly look at his suggestion, but, as I say, we have enhanced our network around the globe. We are always looking for new opportunities to support British nationals. In 2018-19, we provided support to 22,607 new consular cases, with satisfaction ratings of more than 80% reported from the people whom we helped around the globe.

In Belfast, they might say, “Good on you, auld hand,” Mr Speaker, but we are delighted with your elevation.

The Minister knows that I will not go into details about this case because of its sensitive nature, but I want to pay tribute to him: my constituent is now home from Cameroon and in the arms of his family. They are incredibly grateful to him for the work that he has done and to Sir Simon McDonald, Chris Ribbands, Sharon Gannery, the deputy commissioner, and Amina Begum Ali for all their tremendous work. There is a family full of love and joy in my constituency where they did not think that that would happen, so I thank him.

May I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tireless work that he does for his constituency and for the family in question? We are not always able to resolve cases as satisfactorily as we have resolved this one, but we will always try everything that we can to help British citizens in trouble abroad.

I, too, welcome you to your place, Mr Speaker. My constituents, Julie Pearson and Kirsty Maxwell, died abroad. They were taken far too soon in suspicious circumstances. I have asked questions of two Prime Ministers and met several Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers, and I could not get them the help that they needed, so I set up an all-party group on consular services and deaths abroad. Sixty families gave evidence in hours of harrowing experiences. Ninety two recommendations were made. It is clear that there is a cultural problem stemming from lack of funding. The officers who are trying to help these families abroad do not have the resources or training. Will the Minister read my report and, most of all, will he apologise to the families that we have met across all our constituencies who have been let down by the FCO?

I am reading the hon. Lady’s report, and, unfortunately, I find it rather one-sided. I know that my predecessor agreed to meet the all-party group, but the meeting never took place because a date was never arranged. That was not because my predecessor did not try to get that arranged. I have agreed with the hon. Lady to meet the APPG, but, again, that meeting has never happened, so rather than publishing one-sided reports, I wish that she and the members of that APPG actually worked with the Foreign Office, which has some incredible staff, dealing with some very serious incidents across the world. Last year, there were 4,000 deaths of British nationals overseas. We will always look at what more we can do and implement many of the Victims’ Commissioner’s recommendations and work with other non-governmental organisations to improve our service for people who die abroad. I only wish that we could have a more constructive approach from the all-party group.

Llongyfarchiadau, Mr Speaker—congratulations. May I be the first to say that to you in Welsh?

I thank the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa for the efforts he has made on behalf of my constituent Luke Symons, who is held captive by the Houthis in Yemen, where no consular services are available—for obvious reasons. I urge the FCO not to take its eye off the ball during the election period, and to continue all efforts to get his release.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa is doing everything he can for the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. Providing consular assistance in Yemen is, of course, far from straightforward, but we will continue to keep up the pressure and to do everything we can.

May I say how delighted I am to have a rugby league fanatic in the Chair, Mr Speaker?

Can the Minister update me on my constituent Aras Amiri? What urgent action is being taken in Tehran for this woman, who is a British Council employee? Tragically, her family here are heartbroken because they have not had an update on what is happening with her desperate case, following her imprisonment on false charges.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will speak to the Iranian Foreign Minister later today. The treatment of British Iranians particularly is of grave concern. We repeatedly raise our concerns with the Iranian authorities, including through the Prime Minister, who raised this matter directly with President Rouhani during the United Nations General Assembly.