Skip to main content

Human Rights: Consular Services

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 16 April 2024

[Dame Caroline Dinenage in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered consular services for cases involving human rights.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline. As many other Members probably do, I have a wee blue laminated badge that says “Free Nazanin”. It was given to me by Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard the first time I met him, during his hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy in London. I keep it in the corner of a mirror in my flat. Originally, it was a daily reminder of Nazanin and the emotional torture that she and her family were being put through. Now, I keep it as a reminder of those who are still enduring imprisonment abroad and having to fight for the right to fair representation and fair trial, which in this country we take for granted.

Jagtar Singh Johal has been arrested and held without trial in India for seven years—seven years in which the Indian Government have presented no evidence to link him to any crime. There have been claims of his having to sign a false confession under torture. Ryan Cornelius was arrested in 2008 and convicted of fraud in the United Arab Emirates. After completing his sentence, he now faces a 20-year extension, decided behind closed doors without legal representation. British-Russian journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, for his criticism of the regime of Vladimir Putin, was given the longest prison sentence for political activity in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union: 25 years, in one of the country’s harshest prisons.

How can that happen, we ask ourselves? How can it be that British nationals can find themselves without legal representation or recourse to support? It was only in a recent conversation with Richard Ratcliffe that I realised the lengths to which he had to go to ensure that Nazanin got representation. As it stands, there is no legal guarantee that any British citizen will have the right to assistance from the consulate in the country where they are held. There is no process, threshold or mechanism. In other countries, there is: in the United States there is a statutory requirement for the State Department and the President to advocate on behalf of US nationals who are wrongfully detained. They must also endeavour to provide support and resources for the detainee’s family, whose advocacy can be crucial in securing release, as we know from the case of Richard and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Yes, support can be provided, and sometimes it is, but the problem is that that is at the discretion of the consulate. Although the UK ratified the Vienna convention through the Consular Relations Act 1968, so much of it relies on diplomacy, good faith and international relationships—discretion. Surely that is not enough. It is not enough that if any of our constituents find themselves detained abroad, they will have no guarantee that their Government will protect them and their wellbeing, and that the right to protest their innocence or transfer home to this country will be dependent on diplomatic niceties and international relationships.

Too often, the fair treatment or the eventual release of British citizens detained abroad depends on publicity, on campaigns by the family and on the support and hard work of their MP. Many of us have direct experience of offering such support to our constituents. In my previous career as a journalist, I covered the case of a schoolteacher from the north-east of Scotland whose release from jail in Thailand was secured by the then MP for Gordon, my noble Friend Lord Bruce of Bennachie —it is a long-standing issue. I have already mentioned the efforts on behalf of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, many of which were made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) has worked on behalf of Jagtar Singh Johal; the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) does a power of work as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad, consular services and assistance. But the people they have represented are just a tiny fraction of those affected, and the problem is growing.

Just last year, a Foreign Affairs Committee report recognised the scale of the problem. It is a problem that the Government are familiar with, not just through the high-profile cases that I mentioned earlier, but through the 5,000 new cases of British citizens arrested or detained abroad that the Foreign Office estimated in 2022 that it can deal with annually.

The hon. Lady is making an incredibly powerful and well-informed speech; I congratulate her on bringing the issue to Westminster Hall. Is she aware that 10 years ago the Foreign Affairs Committee produced a report on consular assistance that said that the level of support did not meet public expectation and that there were huge gaps? Does she think that things have changed since then?

Unfortunately, if things have changed they have got worse. The public have become disillusioned, in a way, and are beginning to think that nothing will ever be done to improve the situation. Everyone who is affected is currently dependent on discretion as to whether their human rights will be protected in the way that we might all expect, and that the public have a right to expect whenever they go abroad. The responsibility falls on families to lobby MPs, the media and even the public to raise awareness of cases and ensure support.

It is vital to stress that none of what I am saying is meant as a criticism of existing consular services—quite the opposite. I hope that we can put on the record our support for the hard work that our consular staff do across the world. We also need to push the Government to recognise that more needs to be done. I believe that it is necessary to strengthen the powers and responsibilities of embassies and consulates around the world to help those in need and provide an automatic response. The fact that that does not exist just now means that the response of the authorities, if it happens at all, is slower than it would ideally be.

We need to overcome the inconsistent level of support across the globe by establishing a clear process to be followed. To that end, my private Member’s Bill—the Consular Assistance Bill, which is due a Second Reading on 26 April—would impose a new obligation on UK Government Ministers to inform consular officials if they have reasonable grounds to believe that there is a risk of a British citizen suffering an abuse of their human rights. It would have to be investigated, and consulates would have to inform the Government and relevant authorities. The person detained would be protected and would then be subject to more intensive and comprehensive investigations by the consulate, which would then have to inform the heads of mission and Ministers of any developments. Visits, discussions or deteriorations in circumstances would also have to be reported. Family or designated persons would have to be informed.

There would also be enhanced responsibilities towards detainees. It would be the duty of the consulate to take reasonable steps to secure the safety and support of the person detained, with visits, food, water, reading and writing materials and, if necessary, medical supplies. Is it not astonishing to be discussing even the possibility that any British citizen detained abroad would not have those things?

For the most serious cases, the consulate would have to ensure access to the correct legal advice and support. We should not forget that in some cases individuals may be the hostage of another state, may have been detained arbitrarily or may even face a possible death sentence. It should be the Secretary of State’s responsibility to bring forward the processes that I have mentioned.

I stress again that none of this is meant as a criticism of existing consular services. Quite the opposite: I would like to give consular services the tools to protect British citizens in the way that we and they would surely wish. To that end, I would like to assure the Government of what I am not suggesting. I am not suggesting giving a blanket right to consular assistance in all cases, nor am I suggesting forcing the UK Government to act in every case. My suggestion is specifically to improve the responses for British citizens in extreme or severe cases in which their human rights are at risk or denied. For routine cases such as the loss of a passport or other minor issues, the provision of services will, I hope, remain at the discretion of the consulate.

Of course there is a balance to be struck between personal responsibility and Government support in extreme circumstances, but human rights abuses such as arbitrary detention, torture and inhumane treatment need to be addressed specifically. We should not forget the cases of those who are in detention across the globe just now. I would like to mention the work that Richard Ratcliffe has done to draw attention to the issue—he opened my eyes to what is needed—and the work of charities such as Redress. Their concern, like mine and many other people’s, is to ensure that citizens have the assurance that they deserve: that in the most extreme cases and in the most desperate circumstances in which they might find themselves abroad, their Government will be there for them.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Dame Caroline. I commend the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) for setting the scene so well. She has been a spokesperson for those in difficulties and always outlines those cases. Perhaps her journalistic history has given her a flavour for those things. It does not matter—the main thing is that the hon. Lady presents the case very well and I am pleased to support her.

Why is this issue so important for me? It is as important to me as it is to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), when it comes to issues of human rights and freedom of religious belief and the necessity of consular services being involved. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief and have spoken on the subject many times.

I see that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) is here to speak on behalf of those detained in Hong Kong, who have their human rights and religious beliefs restricted, and who are in prison even though they are British passport holders. Jimmy Lai is one who comes to mind. We had a Westminster Hall debate when each of us who participated specifically outlined the case for that gentleman. I will speak for him again today, as I know the right hon. Gentleman will.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) on obtaining this debate. I do not intend to speak; I just want to make a couple of quick points.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will recall, one problem we discovered with the Jimmy Lai case is that until literally the past few weeks, the Government refused to accept that Jimmy Lai was a British citizen, even though he had never held a Chinese passport, and they adopted the Chinese Government’s position that he was a dual national, which he was not. That meant that our Government did not claim consular access rights to a British citizen, which was a pretty appalling state of affairs. We did have those debates—therefore, yes to British citizen; but does the hon. Gentleman agree that the British Government must first always stand by those who believe and have the right documents to say that they are British citizens?

I certainly do, and I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman intervened to underline that issue. I was going to mention Jimmy Lai; the key issue is that he is a British passport holder and does not hold a Chinese passport. He deserves and should get the consular assistance that all British citizens would get, including any one of us who holds a British passport.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh West referred to Richard and Nazanin Ratcliffe, whose MP used to come to speak at Westminster Hall; I cannot recall her constituency, though I used to support her every time. There was great joy when the British Government and others were able to gain Nazanin’s freedom and bring her home. I saw a lovely wee story about her in the press last week, as she tries to adjust again to normal life, which could never be easy after all the trauma and the separation from her husband and child.

As an MP who has had many constituents needing help from consulates, I was not surprised to see the level of consular assistance granted to people each year. In any given year, we support 20,000 to 25,000 British nationals and their families, including almost 7,000 detained or arrested abroad. There are occasions whenever we have to intervene or approach the consulate to ask for help. I am not saying it is always the case, but those who contacted me were either guilty of a minor misdemeanour or were unfortunately targets for untrue allegations.

Some 4,500 people from here die abroad each year. I think of one in particular, although I can think of three or four. I cannot remember what it is called, but I commend the organisation that we have back home in Northern Ireland—I think it is in the UK as well. If someone dies abroad, it supports the family with financial help to try to get the deceased back home. That is such a key role to play for families who grieve and do not know what to do next. That organisation has been very helpful.

I might be able to help the hon. Gentleman. I think the organisation he refers to is the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust. Kevin Bell was killed abroad and his family set up a trust. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that although the trust does fantastic work, bereaved families should not have to set up trusts to make sure that people get their basic human rights?

I thank the hon. Lady for reminding me. I could remember the name Kevin but not his last name—my apologies. I thank the hon. Lady for filling in the gaps in my memory. She is absolutely right: it should not be down to trusts to fill the gap. That particular trust has done excellent work in Northern Ireland and in the Republic as well. Its generosity, commitment and work have been instrumental in bringing people home to their families.

I remember one case very well; it was just before the 2017 election. A constituent came to the office and told me that his son had died due to an accident—he was found drowned in the pool. My constituent did not know what to do. To be honest, I was not sure, either, as an MP. The first thing I did was contact the consulate and it organised the whole thing. Although the Kevin Bell trust does great work, on that occasion the consulate did the work and brought the son home so that he was reunited with his family. I got to see at first hand the pain that his dad and the whole family went through because of what had happened. The son was away from home and the family had not had a chance to say their cheerios, because thousands of miles and an ocean separated them—but the consulate stepped in and helped. I put that on the record and thank the consulate.

Some 1,600 people are victims of crime abroad. I have had a few cases where people have been robbed and found themselves in difficulties; they have lost passports, money, cheque books and cards. In desperation and not knowing what to do, again the consulate has stepped in.

I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West when she set the scene: we thank the consulates and their staff for all that they do. We cannot take away from the role that they play. As an elected representative, we always outline cases when things have fallen down. That is the nature of life. Why do people come to us as elected representatives? Because of a problem. They do not necessarily come to say, “You’re a good guy. Well done. Thank you very much.” They come to tell us about their problems. That is not a criticism, but an observation. I am very happy when they do it. I know others feel the same, because it is our job and we do it with compassion, understanding and a wish to do so.

In any given year, some 5,000 need welfare support and 4,000 are hospitalised abroad. We have had occasions when people have had an accident—they fell and broke their leg, or perhaps had concussion or spent a few days in hospital, and may not have had medical insurance. Sometimes that happens; it is just the nature of people’s lives. These are the problems we have to deal with. More often than not, when we seek support, it comes through the consular services.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office annual report of 2023 highlights that in the last three months of the financial year, consular teams responded to—my goodness—some 114,000 inquiries; 5,000 new assistance cases, which was an increase of 29% from the same period in 2021-22, with over 1,700 of them considered to be vulnerable; and over 6,700 applications for emergency travel documents from those who had lost their passports or travel documents and were panicking about what to do next.

I make this plea for the freedom of religious belief; that is the point I want to make to the Minister. I am pleased to see him in his place, by the way. He is a gentleman and a Minister whom I admire greatly. He understands these issues because he shares the passion that I and others have for freedom of religious belief. I know that he wishes to have a positive response for all those people across the world who are subjected to freedom of religious belief and human rights issues, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh West referred to.

As Members are aware, some of the hardest working non-governmental organisation aid workers in foreign countries are missionaries working through churches. I support a number of them and can well remember the difficulties—I am long enough in the tooth to go back a few years, perhaps more than others in the Chamber—that missionaries had in Zimbabwe, and what was then Rhodesia during the unrest, which put some of them in a very vulnerable position.

I will put this on record because I always think it is only right that if people do things right, we should tell them, and if they do things wrong, we should also tell them that. That is our job in this debate. When missionaries from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland had to be evacuated from Rhodesia at that time, and Zimbabwe as it was a few years after that, they were able to get support not simply from their missionary organisations but from the British consulate. How proud I am to be a member of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Sorry, I am not being smart to my colleagues from Scotland when I say that; I mean it as a personal thing. How proud I am to have a British passport, which I have carried all my life. Some people ask whether I ever think about getting an Irish passport. No, I do not. My passport will always be British. I will comment more on that in a few minutes.

The British consulate got the missionaries safely over the border and to where they needed to be, which was incredibly important to those NGOs. That support was vital for missionary families at a very difficult time, and it is imperative that we have the necessary support in place for those who are under threat due to their religion and belief. Unfortunately, there are more cases of that happening. I think the world has become more radical. People have become more fixated on their views, whether they be on the right or on the left. The understanding that I and others in the Chamber have in our hearts is something that we wish to see, but we do not see it very often.

As a Member, I have the ability to verify both British and Irish passport applications, which I do back home in my office every week. I cannot believe how many passports I verify, and I am happy to do it for those in my constituency who identify as British, Irish or indeed both. For those who are lured by the ability to skip the queue in immigration on their Spanish holiday by perhaps having a different passport, I always urge them to retain their British passport and identity. It is really important that we do that. There is a reason for it, which is why I encourage people to do so: we have many more consulates in place and therefore much more support. That support is essential for foreign travel, especially to places with limited help for foreign nationals.

I have said it before and I will say it again: I am someone who is proud to be British and carry a British passport, knowing that I will be protected and that my family will as well. I see the protections and benefits that come with carrying a British passport, and it is with real pride that I carry it and show it to others. I have help should I need it, and we need to ensure that British citizens across the world hold the assurance that there is always an avenue for help. There is always a British consulate that is willing to help. That is even more important in those countries whose Governments do not have the same human rights duty that we take for granted here. That is the thrust of the argument made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West, and it is why we are here in Westminster Hall today.

We look to the Minister for a response. We also look to the shadow spokespeople in both the SNP and the Labour party. I very much look forward to hearing all their contributions.

I go back to the words of my friend the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. We have talked about Hong Kong and China’s imprisonment of people who dare to speak out against those regimes. That includes Jimmy Lai, a man I have never met but who I have read about, and I know that the right hon. Gentleman has been very active on his behalf. Jimmy Lai’s passport and his access to the help it implies means something, or at least it should, and the fact that it has not until now disappoints me. In the light of the intervention by the right hon. Gentleman and my own request, will the Minister therefore update us on where we are with Jimmy Lai?

Retaining consulates in China is vital for cases such as this, but that really only works if we can see it working, and we have not until now. I hope the Minister can give us some encouragement on that in his response to us. I urge the Government to prioritise access to consulates for all our constituents throughout the world. I know that the Minister is committed to that, but it only ever works when we see it in action. Until now, we have not seen action when it comes to Jimmy Lai, but we hope that we will shortly.

Dame Caroline, it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I very much look forward to hearing what my colleague and friend the hon. Member for Glasgow North will say shortly and also to what others will say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Caroline, especially at relatively short notice. I say to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that when Scotland becomes an independent country, I am sure he will have more than sufficient heritage to apply for a Scottish passport, which he can proudly hold alongside his UK passport.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) on securing this debate and on her efforts to champion this issue, because the adequacy—or otherwise—of consular assistance, particularly in difficult circumstances, has been of concern to many of us and to our constituents in recent years. We have heard particularly about the incarceration of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and I suspect that all of us received significant correspondence from constituents standing in solidarity with her and her family during the years of her imprisonment. I think of the debate that was held here in Westminster Hall in November 2021, which was one of the busiest I have ever taken part in. There were dozens and dozens of Members—far too many for them all to be able to speak in the time allowed.

However, in addition to high-profile cases with national significance, many of us will have dealt with the circumstances of other individuals, and we have heard examples today. In September 2017, I held an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber on consular assistance and support for people caught up in terrorist atrocities and particularly for witnesses. Constituents came to see me about terrorist attacks in Stockholm and Tunisia, and although they were fortunate in the sense that they had not been directly injured or bereaved, they had been witnesses to those attacks, which in itself was an incredibly traumatic experience. Regrettably, support was found to be lacking—both immediate assistance and longer-term follow-up—and has not always lived up to people’s expectations, which was a key point that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West made.

A lot of people look at their passport, at what is said on the FCDO’s website or perhaps at the experiences of citizens of other countries, and they expect a level of service that does not necessarily always manifest itself. I echo the hon. Member in saying that that is not a criticism of existing staff and the services that they attempt to provide. Many of them are doing a very impressive job in what are sometimes very difficult circumstances. That is partly a legacy of the austerity agenda, from which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as it was, was not immune—in fact, it was perhaps seen as low-hanging fruit. What was once a Rolls-Royce Department was chipped and shaved away at, like so many other Departments, and its more limited staffing base is under increasing pressure. The Minister may disagree, but that is the experience that many of us have heard from our constituents. There is a growing divergence between what people expect to be entitled to and what the level of service sometimes turns out to be. We have heard examples of that: Nazanin in Iran has already been mentioned, but there are also Mehran Raoof in Iran—a dual citizen—Jimmy Lai and Jagtar Singh Johal, championed so worthily by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes).

There is therefore considerable merit in the private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West, and I hope the Government find a way to make time for it to progress. Important recommendations have been made in reports and other documents published by the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad, consular services and assistance, which my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) ably chairs. Like others, I acknowledge the important work of Redress, Amnesty International and others, which have supported those initiatives as they have gone through Parliament. I am particularly grateful for the work of Death Abroad—You’re Not Alone, run by my constituent Julie Love, who champions people who have lost a loved one overseas and who seek justice, repatriation or simply care and support.

I hope that the Minister is prepared to engage constructively and to listen to the real-life experiences we are bringing to his attention. I also hope he will consider how best the Government can live up to the expectations that people rightly have, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, because of what is written in the passports that we are all supposed to be so proud to carry around with us. If that has to be put on a statutory footing through the likes of the private Member’s Bill that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West is bringing forward, perhaps that is not a bad thing. Perhaps that would allow the FCDO to make the case to the Treasury for more adequate resourcing, for improved training and for more staff and resources to be available to our consular offices around the world. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute briefly, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I start with heartfelt congratulations to the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine): it is wonderful to see another Member taking up this cause so passionately. I pay tribute particularly to Richard and Nazanin; if it were not for the dignified way they raised their voices, this issue would not have come to the attention of all Members from across the House. However, it should not be that he or she who shouts the loudest gets the most attention. I spoke to Richard when my team and I were writing our report for the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad, consular services and assistance, which I chair, and he said that himself, as did many families who gave evidence to us. I commend the hon. Lady’s Bill, and I agree with everything in it. The only point I would make—this is not a criticism—is that I want it to go further and to be expanded upon, and I will tell Members why shortly.

On the inside page of our passports—I appreciate that mine might be out of date, for obvious reasons—it says:

“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”

That is what it says on our British passports, and it is what our citizens rightly expect to get for being British citizens, whether they are singularly British citizens or dual nationals. That is the point that we all need to start from. The general public have a reasonable expectation that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will help us, and will help our family members if we are killed, if we die or if we get into trouble and something goes wrong when we are abroad. They expect the level of service we get to be akin to that which we would get if we got into trouble here in our own country.

My comments come from some personal experience. Having worked for the American State Department as a local staffer in a consulate for a couple of years before I came to this place, I saw at first hand the level of assistance afforded by the American state. There are a lot of things we can criticise America for, but its consular assistance is not one of them. I saw at first hand how, when a family had lost a loved one in Scotland—they were an American citizen—how the consul general, who was my boss, phoned the family up personally, spoke to them, went to the airport to meet them, liaised with local police services, and made sure the family were kept up to date.

It is not a criticism of our consular services that they do not do that, and I know that, in some cases, they do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Edinburgh West all recognise, we should pay tribute to consular staff, but the reality is they are doing their jobs with one hand tied behind their back. That is partly because of Brexit and partly because of austerity, but they have been to cut to the bone.

When I visited the embassy in Madrid a number of years ago to raise concerns on behalf of my constituent Kirsty Maxwell, who was killed in Benidorm, and I talked to the staff and the ambassador about the proposals in our report, they could not have been more supportive. They recognised that the human rights of our citizens were not being fully adhered to and supported, because staff were not able to provide the service that they would like. That is a particularly important point to make.

We have heard of a number of cases of human rights abuse in this debate, and we must include Alaa Abd El-Fattah—the British-Egyptian dual national who was denied British consular support—Jimmy Lai, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and, of course, Jagtar Singh Johal. What the families of those people have been through is unimaginable, and so too is the experience of the families of those who are killed abroad.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North mentioned Death Abroad—You’re Not Alone, or DAYNA. His constituent Julie Love set that charity up after her son died abroad in suspicious circumstances. Eve Henderson set up Murdered Abroad when her husband was killed in France. The Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust was set up for similar reasons, and the parents of Tom Channon—John and Ceri Channon—set up a charity to raise awareness after their son died in Magaluf.

My constituents Brian and Denise Curry have campaigned relentlessly after their daughter was killed on holiday in Benidorm. She and her husband Adam were married just a few months before she died. It was an utterly tragic case. My constituent Julie Pearson was killed after a severe beating by her partner in Eilat in Israel. Despite the local authorities claiming she died of natural causes, we knew differently, and her aunt Deborah, who is my constituent, is one of the most formidable women I have ever encountered.

I dealt with those constituency cases early in my parliamentary career. I did what all MPs do: I stood up, I asked questions, I pressed the Foreign Office—and I got nowhere and got no answers. I knew that there must be more that could be done, which is why we set up the all-party parliamentary group and why we continue to campaign on this issue. Families whose loved ones die abroad, are incarcerated or have their human rights violated need that support.

The Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West is particularly interesting because it has certain limitations on it. I would argue that if we had an absolute right to consular assistance, and that assistance was provided early on, whatever the circumstances, people’s rights would not be violated. That would ensure that people get the support that they need.

The reality is that since Brexit, there has been a scramble for trade deals. Human rights are—in the eyes of some—going out the window and being traded off against trade deals. That, for me, is fundamentally unacceptable. I recognise the pride of the hon. Member for Strangford in being British—I do not identify with it, but I understand it—but he and others surely understand that the positive notion of being British is being undermined. The notion of a global Britain, when our services and institutions are chipped away at, actually undermines the positive case for the British identity.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North said, and I could not agree more, when Scotland is an independent nation we will devise and develop an international diplomacy service—I hope it will be called that and not a Foreign Office—that will have consular affairs, consular assistance and human rights absolutely at its heart, not because we want to be different, but because it is the right thing to do. The Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West goes a long way towards establishing those principles.

The contributions that people have made have been incredibly powerful, but how many more times will we have to stand up and represent constituents whose loved one has died in tragic circumstances, or constituents whose loved one is incarcerated somewhere and who cannot even get an officer there to support them, because the officer does not have the ability, the support or the resource? I have no doubt—when we took evidence from those who were caught up in terrorist attacks, there was a recognition of this—that there is a standard of service provided to our citizens if their loved one is killed in a terrorist attack. They get translation of documents and support for repatriation, so we know that the FCDO can do this.

Some 4,500 UK citizens die abroad each year; a very small fraction of those deaths are in suspicious circumstances. Surely the very essence of being a proud nation, however you identify, is that you look after those who are the most vulnerable and those who get into trouble. The reality for so many families is that they have to fundraise to get their loved ones home—either because they did not understand the nature of the insurance they had taken out, or because the insurance was not adequate.

I plead with the Minister to seriously consider the hon. Lady’s Bill, but also to look carefully at the resource that his own staff need, because taking a trauma-informed approach is crucial. We have spoken to so many families who have been traumatised, and also to staff who have worked in consulates and have dealt with traumatic situations. It is absolutely crucial, so I hope he will hear the cries from the Benches across the House and from Members who have had to represent constituents who have got into terrible situations. At the very least, these constituents deserve to have their human rights and their dignity respected.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Caroline. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) for securing this important debate, and I thank colleagues for such a good and wide-ranging debate. We have heard some powerful speeches today, not least from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on freedom of religious belief, and from other Members with personal stories about why these consular services must be strengthened.

The Labour party firmly believes that the protection of British citizens should be central to our foreign policy. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on that today. Consular assistance is a core function of the FCDO and a vital tool to respond to a spectrum of situations affecting British citizens overseas, including serious human rights abuses. For any British national, the idea of being wrongly detained overseas or denied due legal process is the stuff of nightmares. Kept away from friends and family, dealing with foreign laws and customs, subject in some cases to arbitrary processes with an uncertain outcome—that is a situation that none of us would want for any of our loved ones.

I know that Foreign Office consular officials regularly go above and beyond to provide reassurance and support to British nationals who get into difficulty, but there have been several high-profile cases—we have heard of some today—of FCDO Ministers receiving criticism from families and the media for failing to secure timely release of British citizens detained abroad. No one doubts the difficulty of these cases, but too often the Government’s efforts to secure the release of nationals unjustly detained abroad have been, according to the families themselves, arbitrary, haphazard, unco-ordinated and lacking resource and transparency.

Members right across the House will know the harrowing case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian citizen detained in Iran for six years on false spying charges. She and her husband Richard, who campaigned tirelessly for her release, have been articulate critics and advocates for change. It was here, in this very room, just a few years ago that I, along with many of my colleagues in the House, spoke so passionately about the need for the FCDO and the Government to do more to secure her release. I remember speaking to her directly, knowing that she could hear the speeches here, and saying that she must believe her release would one day come.

Today, I want to raise the issues facing some of those who remain unfairly detained abroad. Alaa Abd El-Fattah is a human rights activist who spent almost a decade in prison in Egypt. Alaa is a British and Egyptian citizen, a courageous voice for democracy and a prisoner of conscience. The UK Government have not managed to gain consular access to him in prison.

Mehran Raoof is an activist currently in Iran held under arbitrary detention at Tehran’s Evin prison after being arrested by agents of the revolutionary guards in 2020. He is enduring prolonged solitary confinement, contravening the prohibition of torture.

For Jagtar Singh Johal, it is over 2,000 days since he was detained in India, and the current Foreign Secretary is the sixth to be in post since his arrest. Jagtar’s family and representatives are exhausted by having to start all over again when a new Foreign Secretary is appointed.

As others have mentioned, Jimmy Lai has been detained in Hong Kong for pro-democracy protests and accusations of endangering national security. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

Vladimir Kara-Murza is held in Russia for denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His declining health while being held in harsh conditions in Siberia and moved around from prison to prison is of huge concern. I could go on.

There are so many others, though, who do not share the high profile of those five and who go under the radar. Families of those victims have called upon this Government for support, and promises have been made to them that they are yet to see. Can the Minister confirm whether the Foreign Secretary has met with the families of any of those I have mentioned here today? If so, which ones?

The Vienna convention on consular relations recognises the vulnerability of foreign nationals facing prosecution and imprisonment abroad. A country that is party to the convention has a legal duty to provide the UK with access to its detained citizens, including the right of consular officers to visit and assist detained nationals. However, there is no corresponding legal obligation for the UK Government to provide consular assistance to a UK citizen, even in cases involving allegations of torture or arbitrary detention. At present, consular support for British citizens abroad is entirely at the discretion of the Foreign Office and Government Ministers.

Does the Minister agree that a right as basic as consular assistance should not be based on the generosity or discretion of a particular Minister or civil servants? I believe that most of our constituents would be very surprised to learn that they do not have that right already. It is a fundamental duty of Government, and it is what citizens should rightly expect. That is why the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), has made two pledges.

First, a Labour Government will seek to legislate for a new right to consular assistance. Putting that on a statutory footing will help raise consistent standards in consular assistance while sending a clear message to other countries that the UK will always raise cases of poor or unfair treatment of its citizens, particularly where we are dealing with cases involving allegations of serious human rights abuses. I welcome the ideas raised in this debate about how that could be delivered.

Secondly, we would appoint a special envoy for Britons wrongly detained abroad. That would strengthen the capacity of Government to work on the cases of those wrongfully detained. It would provide a single point of contact for affected families. It would also help to strengthen efforts with allies and partners to challenge and deter the worrying rise in the use of arbitrary detention as a tool of foreign policy.

I believe that these two proposals together can make a real difference. It remains the first and foremost duty of a Government to keep their citizens safe. A Labour Government will always take that duty seriously.

It is an honour to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Caroline. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) on securing the debate, and I commend her strong interest in supporting British nationals abroad. I note her work on the private Member’s Bill, which is also related to consular services, and will seek to address some of the concerns that she and others have raised. I reply as the Minister responsible for consular policy. I am grateful for the contributions of other hon. Members and acknowledge the strength of feeling on this important topic, both in the room and across the House more widely.

Let me begin by providing a brief overview of our consular services in human rights cases before moving on to details on some of the individual issues raised and some of the individual cases, which are important. A number of hon. Members raised points and concerns, including the hon. Members for Edinburgh West, for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Livingston (Hannah Bardell). When we are talking about consular services, it is really important to highlight that these are genuinely complex cases—everybody recognises that—and, as a result, they are not simple. I review our complex cases very regularly, as do other Ministers; they are extraordinarily challenging.

I note gently to the hon. Member for Glasgow North, who I respect enormously on this subject, that we are now living in a world in which there is an increasing number of challenging and complex situations, and that makes this all the more challenging. We can have a debate about resources, but there is also a debate to be had about the demand and the challenges of the world that we are currently living in, which no doubt will be a debate that we continue to work through.

As others have done, I thank the amazing work of our consular officers and their extraordinary and dedicated service, particularly in some extraordinarily challenging situations. Our support for British nationals in difficulty overseas is right at the heart of the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Our staff are contactable 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they offer empathetic, professional advice, tailored to each individual case. In the last 12 months, consular staff opened over 3,000 new arrest and detention cases and are currently providing assistance in over 1,800 cases. Detainees’ welfare and human rights are our top priorities. Our support can include seeking consular access, monitoring prisoners’ welfare and helping them gain access to local justice processes. We provide tailored information for each country on the local prison and judicial systems for detained British nationals about what to expect, and we also raise specific consular cases with foreign authorities and support the families of those who are detained. We will come on to some of those cases in just a minute.

We take allegations of torture and mistreatment incredibly seriously. When we receive such an allegation, we will consider approaching local authorities to support the welfare of the person affected, such as by lobbying for them to receive medical treatment or be moved to a different facility. Our approach is informed by our specialist human rights advisers, who provide expertise on human rights concerns and every allegation of torture and mistreatment. Where we hear of an allegation over the phone or from a third party, we prioritise actually visiting the detainee to check on them and, where safe to do so, ask about the allegation.

We are not able to carry out investigations in other countries. However, we can and do raise allegations of torture and mistreatment with local authorities, requesting an effective investigation as required under international human rights law where we have the consent of the individual to do so.

Last year, the FCDO received 189 new allegations of torture and mistreatment from British nationals overseas. Each year, our human rights advisers conduct a review of all such cases to identify trends and develop strategies to engage with relevant countries. For transparency, we publish consular data on torture and mistreatment as part of our annual human rights report. The Government take a taskforce approach to the most serious and complex cases. That ensures that we harness the right expertise across the FCDO and across Government, and the appropriate senior engagement to drive progress. My ministerial colleagues and I are consulted from the outset, receive regular updates on the cases and are involved throughout.

Arbitrary detention has also been raised. The UK deplores and condemns the practice in all circumstances; it is a clear breach of human rights and is contrary to international law. The FCDO is not a fact-finding or judicial body and is therefore not best placed to determine whether an individual’s circumstances could amount to arbitrary detention. Nevertheless, where the United Nations says that is the case or where there is supporting evidence, our expert advisers will form an assessment based on all available information, which will be put to Ministers to decide our approach.

We will never accept our nationals being detained as a means of diplomatic leverage and we are determined to combat the practice. In the very rare instances in which that is the case, a senior official such as that country’s director will lead case handling until the person is released. In that way, we have secured the release of British nationals across the globe, including in Iran, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Myanmar and Libya. We also work with like-minded states—for example, Canada—to end the use of arbitrary detention, to support those who have been arbitrarily detained and to demand accountability.

In all that, our ability to support British nationals overseas depends on the co-operation of the state in question. The UK is a party to the Vienna convention on consular relations, which is clear that we cannot interfere in foreign legal processes, with the detaining authority having jurisdiction over British nationals. The convention provides for consular visits to British detainees but is silent on dual nationality. Many states interpret that as meaning that it does not cover dual nationals in their other home country, which is a complicating factor, as many colleagues are aware. Where we have human rights concerns, we will also lobby to have access to detained British dual nationals. However, the host state’s national law and interpretation of the convention are key in determining whether we are able to gain consular access. That frequently hampers our efforts to support dual nationals, especially in cases that are politicised.

Before coming on to cases, it is important to note that in carrying out this important and complex work, we collaborate closely with partners who provide specialist support. Some of them have already been mentioned in the debate. The charity Prisoners Abroad does wonderful work to support British nationals detained abroad, to help their families and, on their release, to help them settle back into the United Kingdom. In cases where British and dual nationals face the death penalty, our partners Reprieve and the Death Penalty Project can offer support. We are assisting 10 British people sentenced to death around the world. We do all we can to prevent the execution of British nationals and we continue to campaign for capital punishment to be abolished.

A number of sensitive and challenging cases were raised at the start by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West, including that of Jagtar Singh Johal, which other speakers also mentioned. We have consistently raised our concerns about Mr Johal’s case directly with the Government of India, including his allegations regarding torture and mistreatment and his right to a fair trial. The Foreign Secretary met Mr Johal’s brother and the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) on 12 February. The Foreign Secretary is currently reviewing our approach to Mr Johal’s case, which he discussed with Mr Johal’s brother and the hon. Member when they met. Mr Johal’s family and hon. Members will be updated when that review is complete. Our approach will always be guided by our assessment of Mr Johal’s best interests.

The hon. Members for Edinburgh West and for Cardiff North mentioned the very sensitive case of Vladimir Kara-Murza. The politically motivated conviction of Mr Kara-Murza is absolutely deplorable. To answer some of the questions put by the hon. Member for Cardiff North, the Foreign Secretary met Mr Kara-Murza’s wife and mother on 1 March, and our officials continue to support his family.

I am concerned, because rather than run away, Kara-Murza went back to Russia to make the case against the brutality of the war on Ukraine, rather like Jimmy Lai did in his case. He is now incarcerated on trumped-up charges, which we have known for a long time. He is very ill, and his likely death is very much at the forefront of our mind because of the murder of Navalny when he became the main target. To that end, I note that the Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), said that

“we do not and would not countenance a policy of prisoner swaps.”—[Official Report, 19 February 2024; Vol. 745, c. 495.]

I ask the Minister to review that, because I do not think it is correct. That process has been used to obtain the release of British citizens in the past, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and, I remind him, Natan Sharansky and Vladimir Bukovsky during the Soviet period. I am concerned that it will come down to that, as the only method we have available. He may not survive long if we do not do something about it. I would be grateful if the Minister took that away and asked his officials whether we will engage on this, if necessary, with a prisoner swap.

I understand my right hon. Friend’s point. I have always enjoyed his contributions, which are very thoughtful. I respect him enormously, having been his Parliamentary Private Secretary for more than a year. I can say that, as a result of what has happened to Mr Kara-Murza, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office sanctioned 11 individuals in response to his sentencing and appeal, as well as two individuals involved with his earlier poisoning. I understand the points my right hon. Friend makes; I think he understands that we do not normally engage in prisoner swaps, and they are not part of our policy, but I will take his points away and talk to officials.

Other hon. Members have mentioned the case of Mr Alaa Abd El-Fattah. We remain committed to securing consular access and release for this dual British-Egyptian national and human rights defender. The Foreign Secretary and Lord Ahmad have met family members, most recently on 20 December 2023. I hope that hon. Members can see that these sensitive cases that have been raised are being tackled and engaged in at the highest level in the FCDO.

That brings me to the Jimmy Lai case, which has been mentioned by many hon. Members including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). Mr Lai’s prosecution is highly politicised, and the Foreign Secretary recently reiterated his call for Mr Lai’s release with Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Munich security conference on 16 February. There has been some debate about Mr Lai’s citizenship. He is a British citizen but Chinese nationality laws are clear: China considers anyone born in Hong Kong to be a Chinese national. They do not recognise dual nationality, as I highlighted earlier in my remarks. Hong Kong authorities therefore consider Mr Lai to be a Chinese national.

In one second, because I have not quite finished. We have not been granted consular access. The UK Government are equally clear that Mr Lai is a British citizen and we continue to request consular access.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but I have to ask why it took so long for the British Government to claim him as a British citizen. The Chinese position is hypocrisy, because not that long ago the Chinese authorities did not recognise someone who was in Hong Kong as a Chinese citizen. They reversed that only a few years ago, to claim them if they were born in China as Chinese nationals or dual nationals, which they then did not respect.

The problem is that the Foreign Office has got itself into a complete mess over Jimmy Lai, and it must never do that again. We should stand clearly on the basis that we recognise British citizenship and the individual’s passport. It is not for us to allow ourselves to repeat what the other nation says, in this case China, which is a disputed position from start to finish. Why we got into that, I have no idea at all.

I thank my right hon. Gentleman for his comments, but I would like to restate that the Foreign Secretary reiterated his call for Mr Lai’s release on 16 February. That is the Government’s policy. I think my right hon. Friend is pleased that that is the stance and that we continue to push for access to him.

I would like to respond briefly to the point from the hon. Member for Strangford about freedom of religion or belief. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) are the two champions of this vital human right. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for raising it repeatedly and in most debates of this nature. We are committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all and promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. With all the many other rights we have that we obviously need to uphold and support, we must not lose sight of the importance of religion to so many people in this world and how much it means to them. We must respect that. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we continue to hold close this important human right. Most recently I have been focusing on the appalling human rights abuses around freedom of religion or belief in Nicaragua. I know that is an area he feels very strongly about too.

I should also mention the important case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, which has been raised by a number of Members, including the hon. Member for Edinburgh West at the start of her powerful speech. Nazanin, her husband Richard and their family were put through unimaginable torment by the Iranian authorities, and we are glad that that is over. FCDO officials and Ministers worked tirelessly to secure the release and return of Nazanin and other detainees from Iran. The Foreign Secretary met Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Richard Ratcliffe on 15 March.

We should recognise that the Foreign Affairs Committee has issued a report and a follow-up report on what it calls “combating state hostage taking”. We do not recognise that term. However, the Foreign Secretary has fully read the FAC follow-up report and informed the Committee during his appearance before it on 9 January that he is taking more time to fully consider the recommendations before responding in full. These are important issues that require a lot of thought, and we need to pull our actions together.

It is vital to highlight that lessons have been learned from these cases, and we continue to learn as we deal with very challenging circumstances. Following the publication of the Committee’s initial report and having consulted with external trauma experts, FCDO has formalised arrangements to ensure that ongoing psychosocial support is made available to returning detainees—something I think the hon. Member for Livingston would approve of. That is very important. They will also have a named point of contact on return to the United Kingdom, and we have reinforced our partnership with Hostage International, so these lessons are being learned.

We heard from the hon. Member for Edinburgh West and the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cardiff North, about how we can best support British nationals abroad. While we all have that as an aim, the Government have a different view on the case for legislating to support that aim. We believe that a legal right would not change the course and outcome of most complex cases. The Vienna convention on consular relations requires us to provide assistance without interfering in the internal affairs of the host state, so our ability to offer some kind of assistance would continue to remain dependent on co-operation from the host state. A law in the UK would not change that.

Most of our international partners do not offer a legal right to consular assistance to their citizens. That includes our Five Eyes partners: the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Most countries, like us, have discretion in the provision of consular services and have a published policy or charter that sets out what services citizens can expect. There are some exceptions in Europe that have provisions for this legal right—Germany, Sweden and Belgium. It is important to highlight that we are aware of only three of the more than 190 countries in the world that have provisions for some form of legal right, and their laws are specific about the limitations.

Consular assistance is wholly dependent on what the receiving state—the foreign country where the consular services are offered—will allow. Sweden also charges for all consular services and makes having appropriate insurance compulsory. There are some important issues to think through in this area, notwithstanding the fact that we all recognise that consular services are an important way to support British nationals overseas.

I thank all hon. Members for their valuable contributions. We will continue our efforts to support detained British nationals and tailor our approach to specific cases, within the parameters of international law. I thank the families of detainees who help to support their loved ones. I also thank our specialist partners, including Prisoners Abroad, Reprieve and the Death Penalty Project, for their expertise, and the other organisations that hon. Members highlighted. Last but by no means least, I pay tribute to our consular officers, who put huge effort into helping people in the most difficult circumstances. They do important work, and we are very grateful for all that they do.

I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate for making such a concerted and powerful case for change. I fully appreciate what the Minister says about the good work that our embassies and consular services do every day across the world, but it is clear from what right hon. and hon. Members said that more needs to be done. The public in this country need reassurance that if something goes wrong when they are abroad, they will get the help and support they need. I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) for informing us that a new Labour Government would take a different approach and would improve the situation. We will hold her to that if there is a new Labour Government later this year or next year.

I would like the Minister to take this point away and consider it: it is time for change. As the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) said, it has been more than 10 years since the Foreign Affairs Committee report that said that the public expect better than they get at the moment. If we do that, perhaps we can be confident that the service will live up to the promise in our passports of support, help, passage, safety and security wherever we go in the world.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered consular services for cases involving human rights.

Sitting suspended.