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India: UK Ex-Servicemen

Volume 776: debated on Wednesday 9 November 2016

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the authorities in India about the continued imprisonment of six United Kingdom ex-servicemen who had been working on an anti-piracy ship.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have repeatedly raised this case with the Indian Government at the highest levels. In fact, this week the Prime Minister raised it with Prime Minister Modi, making clear the importance of seeing progress on the case. However, this is a legal process and we cannot interfere with the Indian legal system. We shall continue to raise their case with the Indian Government and we shall urge the Indian authorities to bring the case to an early conclusion.

My Lords, the thoughts of many of us will be with the uncertain implications of the US election result but for six families in Britain, their focus remains entirely on bringing home the six men who were legitimately engaged in fighting piracy and have been trapped in India for three years. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister raised this issue with Prime Minster Modi and that he appeared to indicate that when the appeal process is over, he would if necessary be prepared to look further at it, but since administrative delays in the appeal process are part of the problem, can the Minister assure me that the pressure will be kept up?

Yes, and I thank the noble Lord for making a very important point. Our thoughts are with the men and their families. These men come from all parts of the United Kingdom, from communities familiar to many of us. As the noble Lord will be aware, the British Government, through the Diplomatic Service, have been engaging consistently with the Indian authorities both diplomatically to facilitate a swift process and to support the men while in detention. The noble Lord may be aware that the case called in the court yesterday, and was continued until 21 November. I understand that only initial arguments were presented and that no substantive decision was made.

My Lords, of course, our thoughts are with those men and their families. They were carrying out work on behalf of all of us in protecting international shipping. My understanding is that BEIS and other departments give licence, and £450 million is spent each year on defending ships from piracy. In the light of the situation in India, what advice is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office giving to people who are thinking of undertaking this work?

The noble Lord will understand that we have to accept the right of individuals to make free choices about what they do and where they work. Clearly, the activity in which these six British nationals were engaged is a risk area. Therefore, while the Foreign and Commonwealth Office cannot intervene in the individual decisions of people as to what they seek to do, it urges careful consideration before any decisions are made.

My Lords, the Government have apparently raised this case over 30 times since 2013. Is it not time to refer it to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, or to urge the Indian Government to agree to allow complaints of human rights breaches to be referred to the UN Human Rights Committee?

The Commonwealth may have a locus in this. The United Kingdom Government have been more concerned with being directly focused on the specific situation of the six British nationals. As I said earlier, to that extent, the United Kingdom Government, through the Diplomatic Service, have been responsible for greatly assisting the men with matters such as visitation and support within the prison, and ensuring that charitable agencies can also lend support. The United Kingdom, through the Diplomatic Service, has been the facilitator for these improvements.

Following those last points, is my noble friend reasonably satisfied with the conditions in which these men are being held? Can she say something about that?

I understand that the conditions are acceptable—indeed, better than those available to many Indian nationals. I understand that they do not share cells and there is a right to exercise and to have visits. Indeed, when families or friends have visited from abroad, these visits have been extensive, affording quality time with the prisoners. As I said to the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches, the Diplomatic Service has also ensured that charitable agencies have been involved so that there is other support such as food supplies and access to medical advice.

My Lords, going back to my noble friend’s question, there is no doubt that the people who are put on board merchant ships have caused the greatest drop in piracy in that region. No ship that has had these armed guards has ever been taken by pirates, so this has been very effective. There have always been great complexities associated with floating armouries and the rules they operate under, but they have been to the great benefit of global shipping and we should really support them—indeed, we have, tentatively. Do we give advice to people? A number of companies are involved, and it is no good just saying that it is up to them to do it. Some sort of advice should be given. What is that advice?

Although I understand the substance of the point made by the noble Lord, as a matter of principle it is important to distinguish between the extent to which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can control the decisions of individuals who decide to work abroad—in any arena—and the extent to which we have to accept that individuals have to make judgments for themselves. As the noble Lord says, it is important to try to address and reduce piracy. It is of course also incumbent on the companies operating in that arena to comply with international law and ensure they do not engage in activity, or find themselves in circumstances, which breach that law. In this case, I understand that the nationals consider they have a defence. The matter is before the Indian courts. We must respect that and leave the Indian legal process to dispatch that obligation.

My Lords, will my noble friend explain to the House whether we have made common cause with countries such as Denmark, which is even more dependent on moving goods by sea? I should declare an interest, in that I am half-Danish. It has suffered great losses and many merchant navy seamen have been imprisoned. Have we made common cause with other European countries, such as Denmark, to combat piracy?

I cannot say specifically what activity the United Kingdom Government have engaged in with Denmark, but my noble friend will understand that this is an area before the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The United Kingdom Government are constantly assessing the situation and trying to ensure, if British nationals are involved, that their employers respect and observe international law and think of their employees, so that they do not engage in activity which may cross the line of breaching international law.