I thank the offices of Mr Speaker for allowing this important Adjournment debate this afternoon about my constituent, and a son of the Rock, Jagtar Singh Johal. It has not been straightforward, but as you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have found many ways of raising the issue of my constituent’s ongoing detention in India on the Floor of the House over the past year, and it is a matter of ongoing concern that I must continue to find other ways to do so. Everyone will have heard me say over the past year that a critical element of all this is seeking a meeting with the Foreign Secretary of the day for myself and the Singh Johal family. I am glad to say that Jagtar’s brother is with us today in the Under-Gallery. He has travelled down from Dumbarton.
Jagtar Singh Johal is 31, and he grew up in the ancient burgh of Dumbarton in my constituency, attending Our Lady and St Patrick’s High School in the town, making him a true son of the rock of Dumbarton. In October 2017, Jagtar travelled with his father and brothers, including Gurpreet, to be married to his wife, also known as Gurpreet, on
While the rest of the immediate family travelled back to Scotland on
It is a matter of considerable sadness that this was not the end of the ordeal. Jagtar was taken some considerable distance—I estimate it to be around two hours—from where he had been held in Jalandhar. It was there, according to Jagtar himself, that torture began almost immediately, and I must warn the House that I am now going to describe it:
“The torture took place over 4 days, from 4th until the 7th of November at Moga…
The torture took place intermittently, numerous times each day. Electric shocks were administered by placing the crocodile clips on my ear lobes, nipples and private parts. Multiple shocks were given each day…
At some stages I was left unable to walk and had to be carried out of the interrogation room. Since then I have had problems urinating…
Threats of taking me to a remote location where I would be shot dead were also given. At one point petrol was brought into the room and I was threatened with being burnt”—
I would assume burnt alive. He continues:
“The police forced me to make recordings in which I had to name according to what they were telling me to say. Blank pages were also forcibly signed from me”.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, the importance of which is indicated by the number of Members present. Does he agree that the treatment of any British citizen or national in custody must be a concern of the Government and of the Minister? There is an onus on the Government to ensure that no torture of British subjects is accepted, wherever in the world it may happen. If a Government know torture is happening, action has to be taken.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and am sure he will know that I will not disagree.
It was extremely important to set my constituent’s predicament in context and to relate it to the House. It is also important to note that Jagtar’s letter is clear—some would say it is in unemotional language—despite the horror that he must have experienced. It is available to the state authorities of the Republic of India to investigate, should they ever wish to.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his excellent leadership on this issue on behalf of his constituent. Does he agree that from the outset we have been asking for a fair and due process—for unhindered legal access, unhindered consular access, and an independent medical examination and investigation, which has not happened thus far? We have also asked for answers from Ministers on behalf of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, but unfortunately they have not been forthcoming, either.
I certainly will not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that in the rest of my speech I will answer every element of his questions prejinctly and precisely, and I will not disagree with him.
The UK high commission in Chandigarh was initially made aware of Jagtar’s detention on
It is important to set out the process and the narrative—the historical reality, even over the short period of a year. The Tuesday after officials were granted access, Jagtar’s brother Gurpreet was in the Public Gallery for Foreign Office questions and heard me ask about the case. Like me, he was encouraged at that point to hear the response from the then Minister of State, Rory Stewart, who said:
“We take any allegation of torture seriously, as, indeed, do the Indian Government. It is completely unconstitutional and offensive to the British Government. We will work very closely to investigate the matter and will, of course, take extreme action if a British citizen is being tortured.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 631, c. 858.]
Those were strong words that the family and myself appreciated. I will ask again at the end of my speech, but will the Minister today enlighten us as to what that extreme action was and what the Government’s investigations concluded? We should also note that the then Minister was of course removed with due haste.
The hon. Gentleman has been tenacious on this issue over the past 12 months. Many of us have countersigned letters from him to the relevant Indian authorities. The Minister really has to tell us what the deputy high commissioner was doing making statements in The Times of India that certainly did not help Jagtar’s situation, along with why torture was allowed to continue without any real representations being made. I hope that he will answer these questions. A pattern is developing in which British citizens—either in Iran or in any other country now—seem to be under threat. I wonder what the Foreign Office is doing about that, and I hope the Minister will respond to that today.
I am glad of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and grateful for his tenacious support over the past year, as I am for the support of so many Members from all parties. Many of them cannot be here today since the business has finished so early, because—would you believe it, Madam Deputy Speaker? —we seemingly have nothing to debate during Government time. What an incredible moment in the history of this place to be here when the House’s business falls at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Nevertheless, it does give me the opportunity to talk for quite some time about my constituent’s case.
I thank my honourable comrade for giving way. He is making a fantastic speech, and he has been a tenacious campaigner. Will he give due credit not just to Members of this House, but to the hundreds of my constituents who have written to me about the issue? I am sure that I am not the only Member who has had hundreds of constituents writing in, expressing real concern about the lack of Government action.
I am grateful for that intervention. There are citizens from all across these islands—not just members of our communities who happen to be Sikh—looking to support Jagtar Singh Johal. Of course, the Sikh communities across these islands are profoundly disturbed by the situation, but citizens across the whole of the UK and abroad—in Canada, Australia and other nations—are communicating with me on a regular basis to extend their support for the family’s wish for due process.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his formidable leadership on behalf of his constituent. Does he agree that, apart from direct contact with the Indian Government, it is important that the UK Government also make representations to the UN, in particular about UN special procedures and other UN mechanisms that can push this case further?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for pursuing Jagtar’s case in the way that he has. He has, in solidarity with him, the support of the three gurdwaras in the Glasgow Central constituency. Does he agree that Jagtar’s case raises wider concerns for the members for each of those congregations that, when they travel to India, they may face similar threats and that there are real and genuine worries for their own safety?
I could not disagree, as I often say, with my hon. Friend. The gurdwaras not only in Scotland but across the whole of the UK share that concern about the ability of the Sikh diaspora to return to India and to engage freely. It is an issue for all of us as citizens, not just for those of a certain faith with clear relation to the Punjab. It is for any UK citizen travelling abroad to consider the support that they may be given once an issue arises.
Like others, I have heard from a significant number of constituents about this case, particularly from those who attend the Guru Nanak Sikh temple in Otago Street, but also, as he says, from the wider community. There are concerns about the different approaches that the UK Government seem to take to citizens held in captivity in different countries. Does he agree that there must be consistency of approach from the Foreign Office, that all UK citizens who are held overseas must be treated with fairness and justice, and that, where there is a question of injustice, we must make efforts to ensure that people have the opportunity to return home?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention; I think he might have read my speech and got to the end of it before me, because I was going to raise that point. I know that it is an issue not only for the all-party parliamentary group for British Sikhs—I see its redoubtable chair, Preet Kaur Gill, in her place—but for the all-party group on deaths abroad and consular services, the chair of which is my hon. Friend Hannah Bardell, who is on my party’s Front Bench at the moment.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I, too, pay tribute to him for his dogged pursuit of justice in this case, which is marked by a lack of action by the UK Government in providing some response. Does he agree that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office deserves great praise this week for the work that it has done for Matthew Hedges, and that the speed and application that it has used to resolve that case contrasts with the situation of his constituent, Jagtar? What does he put that down to? Why does he think that things have taken so long in Jagtar’s case?
If I had the answer to that, we would not need to have this debate on the Floor of the House today. I wish the young gentleman who has been released all the very best in their future. The clear issue is that my constituent is yet to appear in court and makes an accusation of torture. The similarity is glaring; my constituent’s situation is profound. I am sure that the Minister may wish to consider my hon. Friend’s question when responding.
My hon. Friend has done an incredible job of making representations on his constituent’s behalf. The details of the alleged torture are horrific. The all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services was set up to understand why people who die abroad or are incarcerated illegally do not have the representation that they deserve from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Does he agree that the challenge between diplomatic relations and consular services is something that we must look into more and that the Government must do everything they can to address, to ensure that Jagtar is released and gets proper representation and due process?
I will not disagree with my hon. Friend. Interestingly, over the last few weeks the BBC has decided to run a programme that is, I suppose, trumpeting the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, critically, the staff who work there—the vast majority of whom do a very good job; I am sure that there are some in the advisers’ Box. Their commitment, which I will go into in more detail later, is second to none. I must be clear that I have much respect for the Minister of State at the Dispatch Box, and am grateful for their personal engagement and support on this issue. However, right at the top of the FCO there are very serious concerns about investment.
When the BBC shows next week’s episode of how wonderful the FCO is—it will cover consular support, which has been mentioned—I do hope it gets to the nitty-gritty regarding the FCO teams on the ground. I am not saying that these teams are making it up on the hoof, but they are having to work with situations as they emerge without what I would consider to be a proper framework like those used by teams in the United States and other Commonwealth nations.
I hope to make some progress, because the fact that the Adjournment was moved early means that I could technically talk until about quarter past 7.
We will move on quickly.
Let me return to my constituent’s position. Things moved very quickly in the initial stages, and the then Secretary of State—Boris Johnson, who I see is not even on the Back Benches today despite having a very substantial Sikh diaspora in their constituency—raised the issue with the Indian Minister of External Affairs. The following day, the UK high commissioner raised the issue again with Indian Ministers, and the deputy high commissioner even met with the Chief Minister of Punjab on
I thank the hon. Gentleman for acquiring this really important debate. He is making an excellent speech. May I put on the record how commendable his leadership in this case has been? I know that the situation has been very difficult. Does he agree that, despite the deputy high commissioner in Chandigarh meeting with Jagtar, it is unclear what representations—if any—he made to the Chief Minister of Punjab in respect of the case and the serious allegation of torture?
The hon. Member makes a serious point of which the House must be aware. Yes, I am still of that opinion. The deputy high commissioner returned to the UK from India in recent months, and was discussing my constituent’s issue in public meetings. No invitation was extended to me as my constituent’s MP to discuss the case with the deputy high commissioner. No invitation was extended to his family—sitting in the Under Gallery today—to discuss it.
How did it come about that I and my constituent’s family got to discuss the issue with the deputy high commissioner, who has visited my constituent? I have not had that luxury. It was through the office of the hon. Member, who was aware of him being in the country. To say that that meeting was fraught, or even frosty, would, I think, be the diplomatic way of putting it. So, wholeheartedly, I cannot disagree with the hon. Member.
Although the initial contacts have been welcome—I cannot say that they have not—these issues create the consistent narrative over the past year: superficiality underpinned by an incoherent approach to consular support that should concern all of us. Whether or not the Government live up to the promise given by the then Minister of State about extreme action, I hope that when the Minister rises to respond, he will correct me if I have doubts about that.
I am glad to say that the Government have not been the only source of pressure applied to the Government of the Republic of India on Jagtar’s case. In this place, the APPG on UK Sikhs, led by the redoubtable hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston, has been a great source of support for me, for the family, and for my staff—or rather my team; I do not use the word “staff”—some of whom are in the Gallery. It has been a great source of information and has done its bit to raise awareness of the story. A few of its members are in the Chamber today. I am extremely personally grateful to them.
The Sikh community across these islands make an invaluable contribution to our daily life and culture. They have also been vocal in keeping this case in the limelight. Whether it be organisations such as the Sikh Federation, or gurdwaras across these islands, I would not have been buttonholed by so many right hon. and hon. Members asking me about the case were it not for their Sikh constituents raising it repeatedly with them. I pay due tribute to those members of the Sikh community across the UK. They face some very difficult decisions about what it means to be Sikh in relation to India. There is a clear issue in how they approach return to the Punjab in relation to some of the issues we raise here today.
The Singh Johal family and I have been very grateful for the work that the charity Redress has done. Again due to the fact that the House’s business has fallen early, some of its staff and team who wanted to be here today cannot. I pay due regard to them for the work that they have done. Redress helps survivors of torture to obtain justice, and its attempts in this case have been most welcome. We heard earlier reference to the United Nations. It was Redress that sent an appeal to the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Professor Nils Melzer, in December last year, asking the UN to ensure that the Republic of India could guarantee that Jagtar would suffer no repeat of the alleged torture of that November.
Jagtar’s case also featured in the report released earlier this year about the plight of UK nationals tortured abroad. However, it is my deep regret to say that this has not been met with any discernible reaction from the Republic of India authorities, despite the numerous examples cited in the Government-to-Government contacts, and despite my having first raised the issue with them some time ago.
In having this debate on the Floor of the House, I do not intend to disagree with the Government of the Republic of India on their sovereign right and ability to apply the laws of their republic in the way that they see fit. To do so from the Floor of a former colonial Parliament would be an affront to their dignity and the sovereignty of their citizenship. Nevertheless, my duty to my constituent is to highlight that serious charges have been laid, and I must only hope that they are tested in a manner consistent with the laws and practices of the Republic of India—that is, the rule of law and due process, some of the few things that I believe everyone in this House can support. However, I am afraid to say that those two necessary pillars of liberal democratic statehood are being sorely tested in Jagtar’s case.
Just over a month after he was arrested, and just after Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials had met with Jagtar, a story appeared on the “Times Now” website that appeared to show extensive knowledge of the case and, most disturbingly, showed a video of Jagtar confessing to several crimes—something that he obviously contends was done under duress. That has set the pattern for a series of seemingly well-informed leaks and briefings to Indian media regarding the case, which have caused great concern to those who wish to see Jagtar receive a fair trial and which have often had a sinister, if not sectarian, air.
In terms of due process, it is very important that I am not standing here—nor should any Member of any Parliament in a liberal democracy—demanding that under the rule of law a constituent is set free before trial if serious charges are being brought.
I would like to say on behalf of Scottish Labour Members that we support the Sikh community, and we support the hon. Gentleman in the work he is doing for his constituent.
I thank the hon. Member for that.
The notion is quite clear. My constituent has now been in court more than 60 times. Not one witness is brought forward—no one appears—and he is then taken back to prison. I wish for him to either receive a fair, transparent trial based on due process, with charges that are properly laid, or, if there are no witnesses and no evidence, for him to be released.
The point that the hon. Gentleman is making is the critical one. The legitimate role for him as the constituency MP and for others in the Chamber who represent large Sikh communities throughout the UK is not to tell Indian Ministers or Indian courts what to do, but, through Ministers and the Foreign Office, to ask that citizens are afforded proper consular access, due process and fair trials. It is then up to the legal system to pronounce on guilt or innocence, but it is legitimate for us to ask for those things.
I certainly agree. The international rules-based system is being attacked at every corner, and those of us who believe in liberal democratic government should give no inch to calling out undemocratic practice, whether it be by a close ally, the Republic of India or the United Arab Emirates.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, my fellow member of the Defence Committee, for giving way. Is not the crux of the matter that if India is so sure about Jagtar’s guilt and thinks it has assembled so much evidence, it should either let him free or—I hope this is what our Foreign Office is saying—bring this to a conclusion and bring the case to a trial? Otherwise, with over a year having gone by, it has not established a case.
The right hon. Member makes a clear point. Since nearly day one in this case, state authorities in Punjab have been quite open that they believe my constituent to be guilty. They have conducted a trial by media, and they have made it quite clear that they expect him to be found guilty if a trial should ever take place. That clearly undermines the very principle of due process in the Republic of India, which should concern us all.
My hon. Friend is passionate in support of his constituent, as he has been over the past year. Does he share my concern that the Indian authorities are currently not only sitting on their hands, but actually boasting of their diplomatic successes with the UK Government?
I am certainly not going to disagree, because I think everybody is boasting about their diplomatic successes against the UK at the moment in a most dreadful sense, and that should concern us all.
The epitome of the approach was seen in the recent appearance of Indian Deputy High Commissioner Dinesh Patnaik on the BBC Asian Network in January, when he breezily said that
“Jagtar will be charged and he has not been subject to torture”,
despite the lack of any public investigation by the authorities of the Republic of India and the fact that no charges were laid before the courts, basically, for more than six months. These realities must be passed on if people are to understand the true nature of what is happening. Such comments have led many to conclude that due process has been overlooked, if not intentionally undermined, and that many have already made up their mind about my constituent’s innocence or guilt—something that is utterly unacceptable to me, I am sure to the Minister and I hope to Members in all parts of the House.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Just to take him back very briefly to the point about media and press coverage, there are some significant parallels with the case of my constituent Kirsty Maxwell, who was, we believe, killed abroad, in Spain. The stress it causes to the family when there is misreporting and misinformation in the media and often the lack of support from the FCO—I appreciate that there are significant challenges—is something that we absolutely must address. I commend my hon. Friend for the comments he has made and the challenge he has offered to the Indian press in regard to his constituent.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. On the media and differing approaches, since I was first elected to this House in 2015, I have had to deal with several cases of consular support, where media intrusion has had a detrimental impact on the cases. That is true not just in Jagtar’s case. I am mindful of the case of my constituent Lisa Brown, who has been missing in Spain—we presume murdered—and the distress caused to her family by some of the ways in which the media approached that case. It is the same for many Members who have constituents who have died or are in detention abroad.
I can only hope that the publicity generated by this debate will leave the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in no doubt that it must not relent in its efforts to ensure that all these elements—transparency over the torture allegation; due process; the assumption of innocence until proven guilty; and the rule of law in ensuring that all allegations are dealt with appropriately—are addressed by the Government of the Republic of India. The family and I expect the FCO to fulfil these duties. Critically, at some point down the line, we may eventually be able to have a trade agreement with the Republic of India. What type of trade will we have where we might sacrifice our ability to defend democracy and its pillars for free trade?
Let me touch on elements away from Jagtar’s case that give me cause for concern. The job of a Member of Parliament gives you the privilege and the challenge of representing all your constituents, and this often means offering assistance when they have had adverse experiences abroad. As I have said, Jagtar’s case is not the only one that I have seen up close with the FCO. Although I have found the overwhelming majority of those who work in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to be professional, dedicated and diligent representatives of their organisation—I cannot name them, but they have heard me say this—they are dealing with structures and resources that often do not allow them to give the level of service they would hope to. That can cause a large amount of frustration for family members and create a vicious cycle of misunderstanding and failed expectation.
When Jagtar’s brother and I hear a Minister of the Crown say from the Dispatch Box that they will take “extreme action”, we do not immediately appreciate—none of us would—that the staff at the sharp end of that action will be under-resourced, poorly supported and left at the whims of the politicians who lead that organisation. My hon. Friend Hannah Bardell shone a light on that in her work on the all-party group on deaths abroad and consular services. I am sure Members across the House will agree that this vital work should improve the experiences of our constituents, should they find themselves in the same position as Jagtar’s family.
We all appreciate that we are in the middle of the greatest upheaval in this political state’s foreign policy since 1921. If Members do not know what happened to what was then the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1921-22, they should go to the Library. It has been all too often left unsaid in our present predicament that a “global Britain” of any sort must be properly resourced and that resources must not be to the detriment of consular services across the globe. Ensuring a consistent service, allowing the best practice, which we know exists in the FCO, and listening to the thousands of dedicated, diligent and professional staff across the globe to ensure that families who experience the worst are given a clear but compassionate idea of the roles of the FCO and the responsibilities it has towards them, would make a world of difference. They are not asking for huge elements of massive investment; they are asking for clarity and a process that we can all agree on.
Families such as Jagtar’s appreciate that there is no simple way to assuage their concerns, and that the efforts made by Ministers cannot always be made public or be shared with them. The family and I appreciate the efforts of the Prime Minister in raising the case with her counterpart, Prime Minister Modi, in April, but I am sure the Minister appreciates that we are wondering why it is still necessary to be asking many of the same questions as we were a year ago through an Adjournment debate on the Floor of the House of Commons.
You may be glad to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am going to start bringing my remarks to a close.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he share my concern about properly resourcing and training our consular staff? They do a very difficult job in some of the most challenging circumstances, but they will be facing up to £1 billion of cuts in the coming financial year. Add to that the challenge of Brexit, and our FCO needs the support of this Government and its Ministers to ensure that our constituents are properly represented when they get into challenges or trouble abroad.
I am not going to disagree with my hon. Friend. There is a resource issue. One of the FCO’s greatest resources is its members of staff. They have knowledge and capacity. No matter what I think of the constitutional position of this country, they are diligent professionals in their jobs.
I praise my hon. Friend for his tireless campaign on behalf of his constituent Jagtar and his family. Does he share my deep concern that, given the FCO’s recent success and the publicity around the Matthew Hughes case, it is simply not good enough for the Minister to stand here today and offer platitudes? There has been inaction and a lack of capacity in this case, which has resulted in Jagtar’s family being adversely affected. Does he share my concern that the Minister can and should do more in this case?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. As parliamentarians, we all appreciate that every consular case is different. We cannot assume that any case is the same and therefore we appreciate a level of flexibility. As I said earlier, in the case from the UAE, it is extraordinary how this has suddenly happened. I am delighted for them, but there are levels at which even the Minister could not answer the questions. I will give them that, because as I said the Minister of State has been resolute in their support.
We now need to wind up and ask the questions specifically on the case of Jagtar Singh Johal that the Minister will be able to answer, or to take away and write to us on. First, what does extreme action mean? Can the Minister tell us how that has been undertaken since those words were uttered by the then Minister of State at the Dispatch Box? What have the authorities of the Republic of India done, if anything, to address the allegations of torture that now rest with the UN rapporteur? Does the Minister agree with me that the leaks and briefings to the press from the authorities in India risk making a fair trial for Jagtar all but impossible?
Will the Minister tell me what plans the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has to improve the experiences of families of UK citizens who have adverse experiences abroad? Finally—this is the important question—when will the Secretary of State fulfil the commitment of their predecessor to meet me and the Singh Johal family? How has it come about that I am having to make that request on the Floor of the House of Commons when time and again communication with Ministers has not even seen a reply? It even got to the point, Madam Deputy Speaker, where I had to ask Mr Speaker how to go about getting an answer, to which the reply was, “You have written your letter, and if you have not had a reply, how about putting down a written question?” What an extraordinary state of affairs in a modern parliamentary democracy. What do we have to go back to? The quill and paper?
That question is important, because of the inconsistency of the narrative in other cases. The Foreign Secretary—both the present one and their predecessor—have unequivocally opened their doors to meet certain families in specific cases. I am absolutely delighted for them, but this is an extraordinary state of affairs. I see my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes across from me. I said earlier that I would mention an incident that happened to us both in relation to this case. My hon. Friend, as a constituency MP, met the then Foreign Secretary and that meeting about my constituent—any MP can talk about an issue raised by their own constituents—made its way to social media. I was delighted that that raised the issue, but I was not delighted that the Foreign Secretary was sitting talking to another constituency MP about my constituent’s issue when they would not respond to letters and—I give a nod to the Minister, who is on a sticky wicket here—said from a sedentary position, “Wurr wurr wurr” and then was off within a week.
I use the words “hon. Friend” deliberately. Jagtar’s cousin lives in my constituency and came to see me. I have a strong and large Sikh community in my constituency, so of course I took that the opportunity to raise that case on their behalf. All I meant to do was add my weight to support the case being made by my hon. Friend.
I am delighted at what my hon. Friend did, because it gave the case impetus. It reminds the nation state and Members that this continues, but the Foreign Secretary had to be asked via someone else on the Floor of the House, “Are you going to meet him?” What a ridiculous proposition—that it comes to that stage. So the final question is: when is the Foreign Secretary going to meet the constituency Member for West Dunbartonshire and the Singh Johal family?
These allegations of mental and physical torture, of threats of violence against family members, simulated executions and forced confessions were horrifying enough when we first heard them more than a year ago. It has got harder as the year has gone on. Furthermore, the longer it takes for the authorities of the Republic of India to address the issue, the possibility of torture reoccurring cannot be ruled out. I hope everyone in this House can join me in beseeching the Government of the Republic of India to do all they can to ensure that transparency, due process and the rule of law win the day in this case.
I am grateful to the hon. Members who have attended this debate today, and to those who have intimated their support but who have not been able to be here. We are showing our support to the wider Sikh community across these islands for my constituent, a son of the Rock of Dumbarton.
I am grateful to Martin Docherty-Hughes for securing this debate on the detention of his constituent in India, on whose behalf he has been working extremely hard this past year or so. I recognise the deep concern felt by a number of other Members who are gracing us with their presence in this Adjournment debate about Mr Johal’s situation. Representing as I do an inner-city seat—the one that covers where we are today—I, too, have a reasonably sized Sikh community in my constituency, and it has made me well aware at the outset of the issues in this case.
May I also say how much we appreciate what a desperately difficult time this must be for Mr Johal’s family and friends, as well as for the wider Sikh community in the UK, particularly in view of the specific concerns about mistreatment and torture, about which the hon. Gentleman gave us details?
Does the Minister appreciate and acknowledge that the family of Jagtar Singh Johal have been resolute in persisting that Jagtar is innocent? On the serious allegations of torture and confession under duress, the very least the family deserves is for the Foreign Secretary to meet them, along with Martin Docherty-Hughes, to try to get to the bottom of this issue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As he knows, although perhaps the House does not, we have tried to work together on issues to ensure that the important contribution the Sikh community has made is recognised. Work is ongoing to try to get a proper memorial of the work done by that community during the wars. Obviously, I do not have control of the Foreign Secretary’s diary, but he will be well aware that this debate is taking place. It has not been a standard half-hour, two-Member Adjournment debate; the fact that so many Members have contributed is powerful. I will make representations to him that he should do as the hon. Gentleman wishes.
I reinforce what my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi said. I accept that the Minister cannot commit the Foreign Secretary to meeting the family, but he can certainly convey the message. With all due respect to Eddie Hughes, who secured a meeting with and spoke to the Foreign Secretary, it does not look good if the Foreign Secretary does not meet Martin Docherty-Hughes about this case. It is important that we try to convey that to the Foreign Secretary.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, I always try to work on a cross-party basis, particularly on these very difficult matters. For those who are interested in the BBC programme on the Foreign Office, I believe that Thursday’s programme will talk about a particular consular case from Cambodia—my part of the world—on which half a dozen MPs on a cross-party basis expressed particular concerns.
Let me try to respond to many of the points that have been raised. I undertake to write to those whose questions I may not be in a position to answer fully.
Before the right hon. Gentleman comes to those points, I say gently to him that when I set up the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services, I could not have imagined the impact that it would have on me and my staff, who have heard evidence from over 50 families. I cannot imagine what it is like for the family of someone who has died abroad, been incarcerated, held prisoner or gone missing. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, on a personal basis, that the testimonies of those families have highlighted to me that there are significant challenges and failings, and I believe that there are areas on which we can work together across the House, because almost every Member has had such a constituency case. I hope that he will give a commitment today to work with me and the all-party group to fix some of those issues and look for solutions to make sure that no family has to go through what Jagtar’s family—or any of the other families that we have heard evidence from—have had to go through.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. While I inevitably cannot make a guarantee that no other families will go through some of these difficulties, I am clearly only too happy to work with her. Unfortunately, it is the nature of being a Foreign Office Minister that in the past 18 months, I have met several families—not constituents of mine, but of other hon. Members—who have been through the harrowing experiences to which she referred.
I am very pleased to hear that, not least on behalf of my private office and all who work in my team; I am very honoured and lucky to be a Minister in that Department. While I accept that, on occasion, mistakes can be made and there can be oversights—that is human nature—we generally have an extremely professional and dedicated team throughout the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but particularly in the consular area, where some extremely harrowing work goes on; that team deals with that daily. MPs all deal with constituents’ cases that are heart-rending to the first degree, but those cases are probably the exception, rather than the rule. In consular cases—I think particularly of our consular help in some of the Balearic islands, or in places such as Thailand—staff deal with the tragic deaths of young people virtually daily, and these things are very difficult.
I start by putting a formal apology on the record—this is something that I have done in writing—to Mr Gurpreet Johal for my Department’s failure to respond to his freedom of information request in a timely manner. We aim for the highest standards of customer service, and I am deeply apologetic about not having met those on this occasion.
As I said to colleagues in the House when this issue was last debated in March, Mr Johal’s case is very well known to me, and has been a priority for the Government at the highest levels since his arrest just over a year ago. The then Foreign Secretary raised concerns with his Indian counterpart soon after Mr Johal’s arrest, pressing for effective consular access. As the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire pointed out, the Prime Minister raised concerns about Mr Johal’s case directly with Prime Minister Modi of the Republic of India when he visited the United Kingdom in April.
Mr Johal’s situation has also been a priority for me. I personally raised his case with the Minister for foreign affairs during my visit to India earlier this year. I also raised it last month with India’s outgoing high commissioner to the UK, Mr Sinha, and just this morning, I was able to reiterate those concerns to the new Indian high commissioner. I can reassure the House that she is apprised of not just the FCO’s interest, but—very importantly—the interest of many parliamentarians in seeing a thorough and effective investigation of Jagtar’s allegations.
I would like to say something about the role of all-party parliamentary groups. In my view, they are invaluable. As many right hon. and hon. Members will know, I try to engage with their members in meetings as far as I can—I was at a joint meeting of the all-party groups on Bangladesh and Burma only yesterday. They are valuable because what happens in the House, whether in parliamentary questions or through all-party groups, is noticed and quickly reported back by high commissions and embassies, so I encourage hon. Members to work through APPGs—they are an effective way of making a strong case, even if they do put pressure on us as Ministers.
I want to touch on one of the disappointing things about this case. When I came into office 18 months ago, I inherited the notorious Chennai Six case, which had been dragging on for almost five years by that stage, and we were able to get the individuals released within a matter of months. These things often take time. The Indian legal process can be slow, as indeed can ours—I am not making a value judgment—and, as I hope the House will understand, I have always tried when dealing with consular cases to downplay expectations, to under-promise and over-deliver, and to make it clear that sometimes one has to wait a long time for a response. I know it can be incredibly frustrating, particularly when there are allegations, as there are here, of maltreatment and torture, in which case it becomes an even more serious state of affairs.
As the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire will be aware, we have met with Mr Johal’s brother, Gurpreet, three times in the past year to discuss the very slow progress of this case, and I have offered the family a further meeting. I will try to make representations so that they can meet the Foreign Secretary, although I suspect that I would also be at any such meeting. Embassy officials, including our high commissioner in New Delhi, have raised concerns with the most senior officials of the Indian authorities on a number of occasions, and our consular staff have been working hard to assist Mr Johal and his family, both in India and here in the UK. I understand that staff in India have visited him 15 times since his arrest, most recently on
One of our key concerns in our representations has been Mr Johal’s allegations of torture and mistreatment during his initial period in police custody and his right to be afforded a fair trial. In all fairness, I would probably not have used the phrase “extreme action”—“extreme” is not something that many people would associate with me and my brand of politics—but none the less, such allegations are taken extremely seriously. Emma Reynolds, who is no longer in her place, asked about raising the case with the UN and about the UN’s special procedures. We will continue to co-operate closely with all the mechanisms of the UN Human Rights Council, and we encourage all other countries, including India, to co-operate with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. We will ensure that this case is brought to his attention.
Is the Minister saying that the authorities of the Republic of India have yet to respond to those questions, are refuting the allegations or are saying that these things happened?
At this stage, they are refuting that these things happened, but again, I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the full details, if I may, because I would rather not inadvertently say something inaccurate on the Floor of the House.
Torture and mistreatment of detainees is prohibited under international law, and is absolutely unacceptable in any circumstances. We therefore take allegations of such conduct very seriously, but we must also take care to avoid doing anything that might put the person making an allegation, or those connected with him, at any further risk. Our priority is always to ensure the best interests of the detainee.
I think many Members will understand that in cases such as this, a great deal of work often goes on underneath the radar rather than with a hell of a lot of publicity. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that any sense that there have been leaks and briefings to the press—again, I am not suggesting that that has happened, but clearly the press have run some stories in India—risks undermining any chance of a fair trial. That is not an acceptable state of affairs, and it would be no more acceptable here in the United Kingdom. Our priority will always be to ensure the best interests of the detainee. Decisions on the precise action that we might take in response to allegations of mistreatment will be made on a case-by-case basis, and only with the individual’s consent.
When British nationals are detained overseas, their health and welfare are our top priority. We make every effort to ensure that prisoners are receiving adequate food, water and medical treatment, and that they have access to legal advice at the earliest opportunity. In cases of dual nationality—Alison Thewliss raised a particular case—we do not have that locus, a position that I think Members will understand, if not entirely support. If a person with dual nationality is incarcerated in the other country of which he or she is a citizen, it is not our place to have consular standing.
As soon as we hear about a detention or arrest, our consular staff will attempt to make contact and visit the individual as early as possible. Subsequent visits will of course depend on the nature and context of the case, and, in some cases, on the practicalities—someone who is imprisoned many hundreds of miles from the nearest consular headquarters or high commission may be more difficult to visit on a regular basis—but we are aware that for many detainees our visits are a lifeline, and that our staff may well be the only visitors that some receive.
I can assure Members that we aim to afford every case equal importance, and to provide tailored support and guidance for individuals and their families. There are more than 2,000 British nationals in detention around the world at any one time, and in the last financial year alone, our staff overseas dealt with approximately 5,000 detainees. It is difficult to operate a standard procedure when dealing with those numbers, and in some cases, with the best will in the world, we will be seen to have fallen short. I will try to ensure that we have flexible standards that we can apply across the board, while taking account of the differing circumstances. I am happy to work with the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad and consular services to try to find a protocol that works for the future.
Providing consular assistance for any British national in distress overseas is central to our work at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Although the Government do not have a legal duty of care to British nationals abroad, we are proud that we continue to provide a comprehensive, round-the-clock service for anyone who finds themselves in difficulty. We work particularly hard to support those who may be vulnerable and are most in need of our help. We also have a long-standing partnership with a charity called Prisoners Abroad, which gives practical and emotional support to British people who are detained overseas.
There are, of course, limitations to the extent of the service that we can offer. We are not in a position to make decisions on behalf of people, nor are we able to do everything that might be asked of us at any one time. As a matter of policy we do not pay outstanding bills, including legal fees, as we are not funded to provide financial assistance; nor does the FCO seek preferential treatment for British nationals. That means we do not, and must not, interfere in civil and criminal court proceedings, and the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire was very understanding on that in his contribution. It is right that we respect the legal systems of other countries, just as we would expect foreign nationals to respect our laws and legal processes when here in the UK. However, we can intervene on behalf of British nationals when they are not treated in line with internationally accepted standards or if there are unreasonable delays in procedures.
A number of colleagues have raised the case of Matthew Hedges, and everyone is delighted that the UAE has chosen to pardon him in such short order. The assistance we provide to British nationals depends entirely on the individual circumstances of the case and the local conditions, so it is unfair to draw, or make any implications about, comparisons in particular cases. Our actions are designed to be appropriate to the individual and as effective as possible. There is no suggestion of preferential treatment because of any cultural or other difficulties. The Chennai Six were all long-standing British, English and Scottish citizens; no racial element could possibly have been suggested for their lengthy incarceration.
In many ways the Matthew Hedges case is a good example of something all of us in the Foreign Office and in consular circles can rejoice in: a case that gets turned around unexpectedly very quickly. But for every win, as it were, of that description, there are many other cases where we are working extremely hard for many months, perhaps under the radar, without quick and positive results of that sort.
A number of colleagues have spoken movingly about the impact that a death overseas can have on loved ones, particularly when that death takes place in violent or distressing circumstances. Our staff across the world will continue to work with dedication and empathy to support British nationals when they require our assistance. We welcome feedback from British nationals who have received consular assistance, and indeed from their relatives who have also had that assistance, and we will try to improve our services and staff. I make a pledge to work closely with the all-party group, and I hope Members present will play their part in that.
We are talking about some of the most distressing and difficult cases, and it is distressing to me that there are British citizens who feel that the FCO has fallen short in its consular service on some occasions. We will continue to take that very seriously, and if we can work together as a Parliament on a cross-party basis to find a way to make improvements, I stand ready to work with colleagues.
The detention of a loved one is distressing in any circumstances —it would be distressing to any of us if one of our relatives were in that position—and particularly when it happens overseas, where contact with friends and family is limited and the legal process is unfamiliar. Our consular staff at home and abroad work hard to support families in such situations. We often have locally employed members of staff who can speak local languages and have a greater understanding of the culture and the different legal processes, and they play an important part in our consular teams across the world. We take every case extremely seriously and provide dedicated consular assistance to those most in need of our help literally seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
In the case of Mr Johal, I can assure the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire that we will continue to do all we can to support him and his family. The fact that we have had this debate here today will make it clear to the Indian authorities and the new Indian high commissioner here in London that we will continue to raise our concerns about his case at the highest levels until there is a resolution.
Question put and agreed to.