I beg to move,
That this House
has considered British nationals detained overseas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Ali. The first duty of the British Government is to protect their citizens at home and abroad. Being arrested or detained abroad can be a difficult and traumatic experience. Often the detained are unable to see their friends and family, sometimes for years. I am sure that we were all moved by the scenes of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe being reunited with her husband Richard and their daughter Gabriella.
Iran has shown itself to be a serial offender of detaining British passport holders. Morad Tahbaz, a British-American citizen, is still detained there. It has now been over five years. It was only last month that Tahbaz was taken out of Evin prison, the infamous home to many political prisoners of the autocratic regime, and placed under house arrest. Yet this occurred only after America agreed to a prisoner exchange and to allow the Iranian regime to access almost £5 billion of frozen assets in South Korea. In other words, the Iranian regime was using foreign prisoners for ransom. The situation with Nazanin was the same: she was released only after the Government paid £400 million to Tehran.
Mehran Raoof is another dual British-Iranian national who has been detained. At 66, he was detained in Evin prison for supporting and campaigning for workers’ rights. In his own letter, Mr Raoof says the Iranian regime is treating dual nationals as “a valuable commodity”, and the evidence backs him up.
The UK Government must look at the actions of Iran and label them for what they are: state hostage taking. Quite frankly, it is working. The Iranian regime is getting vast sums of money to release foreign or dual nationals whom they have arrested on trumped-up charges. The Foreign Office needs to take a much stronger stance within our role in the UN to call out state hostage taking.
Iran is not the only country guilty of unjustly detaining British citizens. Jimmy Lai, a British national and long-time critic of the Chinese Communist party, was arrested in Hong Kong over three years ago.
I congratulate the hon. Lady for securing the debate and highlighting these important issues and individual cases of concern. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom, I share her specific concern about the case of Jimmy Lai. Does she agree that Mr Lai’s case is not only one of appalling consequences for him personally, having served nearly 1,000 days in prison, but emblematic of the Hong Kong Government’s crusade against free media and freedom of speech?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Mr Lai is accused of violating the new national security law in Hong Kong. Leaving aside our Government’s failure to properly hold China to account for reneging on the Sino-British joint declaration, there is still a duty to protect British nationals. Mr Lai awaits trial this month, yet the Chinese Communist authorities are trying to block his attempt to hire a British defence lawyer.
My hon. Friend raises an important point about people’s access to justice and consular services when detained illegitimately or even legitimately. Other countries require a minimum level of support from their Foreign Offices and consular services, including the provision of approved lawyers. That would mean lawyers approved in other countries but certified by Britain. Is that something that we should consider doing in order to ensure that our consular services are protecting our nationals wherever they are?
I agree with my hon. Friend; of course we should be doing that. It is about justice, not rigged justice.
The use of foreign lawyers by both prosecution and defence is a long-established tradition in Hong Kong. Only last month, the Foreign Secretary met the Chinese Vice-President, Mr Han, known as the architect of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong. The Foreign Secretary raised the case of Mr Lai, but did not go far enough. It is British values that are on trial: the values of freedom and democracy, which we signed a treaty to uphold. The Prime Minister should raise this with the Chinese regime at the highest possible level.
Cases of British citizens being detained abroad are not limited to the middle east and Asia. In 2021, Mr Nnamdi Kanu, a British citizen, was abducted by Nigerian security forces in Nairobi, Kenya. Since his detention, he has been subjected to torture and many other unpleasantries. A United Nations Human Rights Council report released a damning assessment of the Nigerian Government’s treatment and called for his immediate release.
My right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman has worked tirelessly on behalf of Mr Kanu and is urging the Foreign Secretary to do more to secure his release. Nigeria is a Commonwealth nation that receives tens of millions in UK aid; it is one of the biggest beneficiaries. As part of that aid support, there must be a commitment to human rights and upholding the right to a fair trial. Mr Kanu must be given access to a fair and due process. A British citizen travelling on a British passport should not be kidnapped in a third country and dragged to a Nigerian prison. The Government need to get much tougher.
Another case I will raise is that of Alaa Abd-El Fattah, a British-Egyptian activist who was detained in Egypt. Once again, he has been detained and denied fair and due process. He even took to hunger strike in prison to protest against his treatment. The Egyptian authorities also denied his British citizenship and refused British consular support. Our Government need to insist that Mr Abd-El Fattah gets that assistance.
Only this week, the Foreign Office was told by the parliamentary ombudsman to make a formal apology to Matthew Hedges, who was accused of spying and tortured in the United Arab Emirates. The Foreign Office failed to do its duty to Mr Hedges, a British citizen being tortured by a country we consider one of our closest allies in the region. The chief executive of the ombudsman’s office, Rebecca Hilsenrath, described Mr Hedges’ experience as a “nightmare” that was
“made even worse by being failed by the British Government.”
Quite frankly, that is not good enough, and it calls into question whether the current guidelines need reviewing.
The cases that I have raised are examples. There are many others that I could have gone into, and I am sure that other colleagues present may well do so. I appreciate that these cases are often complex and no country is the same when it comes to Foreign Office engagement. However, there is much more we can do, especially with countries that we financially support. We can also work with our allies to take a much tougher stance on state hostage taking in countries such as Iran.
Many British citizens detained abroad do not even get the necessary consular assistance. That is why Labour is looking to introduce a legal right to consular assistance, which I am sure that the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Catherine West, will go into in further detail. Consular support to British citizens must be a given. After all, it is the first duty of Government to look after their citizens.
Thank you, Ms Ali, for calling me to speak in this debate. I very much agree with the comments of Ms Rimmer about the importance of how a country supports its citizens overseas when they are in distress, in particular in prisons. I congratulate her on securing this important debate.
I will speak briefly on behalf of my constituent, Saiful Chowdhury, who is a leading member of the Muslim community in Shrewsbury and does a great deal to support our mosque. He contacted me because of his two cousins, Murad Rahman Khan and Yadur Rahman Khan. They were at the airport in Dubai in February 2023, trying to secure a wheelchair for their elderly mother. They were travelling as a family, with their elderly mother and their children, on holiday in Dubai. They tried to secure a wheelchair because their mother had difficulties walking, but the staff were unhelpful, rude and confrontational.
Unfortunately, that led to a verbal confrontation between the two British citizens and the airport staff, resulting in them being convicted to a six-month jail sentence. They are appealing, but their passports have been stamped to prevent them from leaving the United Arab Emirates. They are in a hotel at their own expense. They have spent thousands and thousands pounds already on accommodation since February, while they wait for their court process to be concluded.
The Minister is a very good and responsive Minister, and I would like him to take a particular interest in this case. The reason why I feel compelled to raise it is that some of the allegations put forward include no CCTV evidence being presented to the court. The defendants are keen for that to be shown to demonstrate that the altercation was purely verbal, rather than physical in any way, and yet the authorities refuse to allow CCTV evidence from the airport. That is the allegation. Another concern relates to the repeated refusal of the Emirati authorities to facilitate ongoing and effective dialogue and communication with the defendants, our British embassy officials and indeed their lawyers. My concern is also about the length of time taken to date.
The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston mentioned the United Arab Emirates as one of our closest partners in the middle east. I would go further: it is the closest British ally in the middle east. We have extensive commercial and political links with the Emiratis. I am extremely concerned to hear about this case, and I will give the Minister the details, via his Parliamentary Private Secretary, Cherilyn Mackrory. I will be extremely grateful if the Minister could look into it. I will also send a link to the debate to our British ambassador in the United Arab Emirates. I will be grateful to the Minister for any support that he can give to Mr Saiful Chowdhury, my constituent, who was clearly extremely concerned as to the welfare of his cousins and about the impact not just on them, but on their elderly relatives and children, who have come back to the United Kingdom and are separated from their loved ones.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Ms Ali. I had not expected to be called so quickly.
I warmly commend my hon. Friend Ms Rimmer for securing this debate, not least because I think all the members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs have been making arguments about some of the issues for some considerable time.
In particular, there was the situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The former Prime Minister managed to make things more difficult when, as Foreign Secretary, he suggested to the Foreign Affairs Committee that she was engaged in other activities. That possibly led to her being kept in an Iranian jail for much longer than was necessary. In addition, as the current Chancellor admitted when he was Foreign Secretary, sometimes we have not devoted enough energy to making sure that British citizens get a fair trial and are treated properly in prison, or that, if possible, their sentence can be served in the UK.
I will very briefly explain one of the things that I did when I was a Foreign Office Minister for five minutes. There was a British woman who was arrested in Laos. I will not name her, but she was pregnant, and she was arrested for an offence that would have been an offence in the United Kingdom. Laos is a very closed country, politically—a communist country and very difficult. At the time, we did not have an embassy in Laos and we were being helped by the Australians. I said, “Well, I’m sorry, but she’s pregnant; I don’t want a British child to be born in a Laos prison, in filthy conditions, and likely to have a miserable life, if a life of any kind at all. I want that child to be born in a British prison.” All the officials said, “No, that is nonsense, Minister. It is nothing to do with you. It will simply make life difficult.” But I went and I had a difficult but good, thorough meeting with my counterpart in Vientiane. We had a wonderful lunch afterwards, and it thawed the relationship. I said, “I’m going to ring you every Monday morning.” That is what I did, and after three months we got her out and she came back to a British prison. She has no idea; I am absolutely sure of that.
Ministers may be doing that all the time and we do not know about it—I have never told that story before—but I gently say to them that that is kind of what a Minister is for. There will be times when officials will go, “Oh, Minister, that is very brave, very courageous,” but I think there are times when Ministers need to do exactly that.
Another case that is very prominent for me is that of Jagtar Singh Johal, who is still in prison in India. As I understand it, our Prime Minister is going to visit India soon. I do not know why the Prime Minister is not saying clearly and categorically that he should be released. Every single independent assessment that has been done shows that this man is innocent of the crimes that he has been fitted up for, but, as I understand it, the Foreign Secretary has actually written to the families concerned to say that he will not raise this matter because it
“could impact the co-operation we depend on from the relevant authorities to conduct consular visits, resolve welfare cases and attend court proceedings”
I think that is to presume that the Indian Government will react negatively, but I think that every single time we do that, particularly with Governments who have a tendency towards autocracy—not so much perhaps in India but certainly in other countries—all we end up doing is inviting them to adopt a yet more hard-line attitude.
That takes me to the situation in China. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston is absolutely right about the situation facing Jimmy Lai. I understand that the British Government regular position is, “Well, we don’t want to push too far”. I am sorry, but I do not understand why a British Foreign Secretary would not say before going to China that some of the people in this Chamber should not be on a sanctions list. That is incomprehensible, because it is as if we are saying, “I’m sorry; our democracy doesn’t really matter. We don’t really mind what you’re doing.”
I am very much enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Three Sundays ago, we joined the fastest-growing, biggest trading bloc in the world—the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-pacific partnership in the far east. Does he agree that we ought to use our position in the CPTPP to restrict Chinese entry to the bloc as long as it continues to behave in this manner?
Yes, and not only because of the sanctioning of the right hon. and hon. Members present but because of the complete reneging on our agreement with China on Hong Kong. When I talk to Hongkongers who have left Hong Kong, who now nearly all leave with nothing, leaving everything behind them, they talk of genuine fear for their family back at home, if they have stayed.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will get there eventually. I fear that the reasons for the non-intervention and non-comment in respect of Jimmy Lai’s case are explicable—they are not worthy but they are explicable—but this is a moment that really matters for Jimmy Lai, because he now has a trial date set for December, and an intervention at this critical stage in the criminal proceedings against him could make a material difference to the outcome. Does that in itself not merit a more robust intervention from our Foreign Secretary?
I think it does, and I was going to make that point myself. This is a very opportune point at which to make an intervention.
I have another, broader point to make, which is that when people around the world are asked to name the UK’s unique special achievement in foreign affairs, most say it is the rule of law. It is the fact that our word is our bond. It is the fact that a case can be prosecuted properly in a legal court in our country, and that we stand for democracy, the freedom of the individual and equality under the law. That has to be just as much part of our foreign policy as our mercantilist desire to do better trade with other parts of the world. My experience of working on issues in Russia and countries in central Asia is that if we do not tie the two together, we make a terrible mistake, because British businesses simply cannot flourish because they have to pay bribes and deal with an autocratic regime.
To conclude, I very much hope that the UK Government will adopt a more robust, more coherent and more determined approach in their relationship with a series of different countries: China, Russia and India.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Ms Ali. Others wish to speak so I will try to keep my comments brief.
I congratulate Ms Rimmer on securing this vital debate. We should hold such debates regularly because there is so much to be done in this policy area. British citizens carry British passports, and those British passports have a clear statement at the front that none should let or hinder those who hold that passport, yet too often we find ourselves apologising and running around that major statement at the front of the passport.
I want to focus carefully on the case of Jimmy Lai. I had the privilege of meeting the international team of lawyers who are attempting to defend him, even though they have now, appallingly, been barred from Hong Kong by the Chinese authorities, such is their approval. Nevertheless, I congratulate his team on the huge efforts they are making around the world to draw attention to the plight of a man whose only crime is to cry freedom for all those he lives with.
The point about Jimmy Lai’s case is the reality of the change in Hong Kong. The Chinese authorities have trashed the Sino-British agreement that protected people’s rights in Hong Kong as a special case, once it was all agreed. That agreement is an international treaty. The problem we have is that the authorities can now proceed against people such as Mr Lai for sedition and other appalling charges. He has already been forced to lose his company, and the assets of Apple Daily have been seized. It is unprecedented and could not happen here in the United Kingdom.
Here is the point: Hong Kong is still meant to be a common-law area, but it cannot be a common-law area if people can have their assets seized on charges that have not yet gone through the courts. It is a peculiarity that we go on pretending, as do some of our justices who serve out there. It is no longer really a common-law jurisdiction because it has the national security law over it. People such as Jimmy Lai will now suffer under the national security law without any redress or protection, as would normally be the case here in the United Kingdom, for example, where English common law protects our normal and natural rights. Those rights have been completely decimated in Hong Kong.
The interesting part is that Jimmy Lai has been prosecuted in four separate sets of criminal proceedings arising from his peaceful participation in the high-profile pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020, which were organised by civil liberties groups. His crime, therefore, is to have attended the protests; that alone, apparently, is the key. The thing is that he has already been prosecuted and found guilty. One of the charges against him was eventually dismissed on appeal—others were upheld—but he had already served his sentence when that happened. He now faces even more serious charges. He has faced spurious prosecution on charges of fraud, which is why his equipment was seized. He was convicted in October 2022, and in December 2022 he was sentenced to five years and nine months’ imprisonment.
The conviction has meant that, as my hon. Friend Rob Butler said, Jimmy Lai has spent some 1,000 days incarcerated on trumped-up charges. But worse is to come. Those charges were all precursors, giving the authorities time to build a case that, under the national security law, will put him inside for a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life.
The point that I want to make about Jimmy Lai, which is very important, is that he could have fled Hong Kong. He had made enough money to leave Hong Kong and go elsewhere, and complain about the Hong Kong authorities and the Chinese authorities from outside. But he did not. He chose to stay in Hong Kong, because he knew that if he fled then a lot of the hope about what they might eventually be able to achieve would also go. He is a beacon of freedom, and freedom of speech, in a way that no other that I know of globally is at present. I do not decry others; I simply say that he is remarkable.
Jimmy Lai’s choice to stay put in Hong Kong came with the full knowledge that he would not enjoy freedom for long. That has been realised, with these trumped-up charges, and now he faces a full prosecution—it has been delayed, but is likely to happen towards the end of this year, maybe in October—under the national security law.
My right hon. Friend, I and indeed you, Ms Ali, attended a conference in Prague over the weekend that was full of parliamentarians from around the world, many of whom, including my right hon. Friend and I, have been sanctioned by the Chinese authorities. The whole subject of Jimmy Lai was very much the focus of that conference.
However, does my right hon. Friend agree that the issue of Jimmy Lai is not just about Jimmy Lai himself but about what this country stands for? In the case of Jimmy Lai, the Chinese Communist party has enacted two criminal acts, one of which is breaking the Anglo-Sino agreement over Hong Kong, an international treaty to which we are a signatory. As a result of its trashing of that treaty, all the protections under the rule of law that might have applied have been swept away. That is why Jimmy Lai, one of the most successful businessmen and whose company was the largest quoted on the Hong Kong stock exchange, is now facing this prosecution.
Jimmy Lai is a British citizen—there is no doubt about that—and therefore he is entitled to the full force of the British Government’s protection. Why has that not been shown and why have there been no consequences, despite the warm words from the Foreign Secretary and others, for the fact that my right hon. Friend and I, along with five other parliamentarians, remain sanctioned and Jimmy Lai continues to be denied the basic justice that we take for granted in this country?
I am very grateful that my hon. Friend intervened, because I agree, of course, with everything he said. He and I are sanctioned; in our case, it is for raising the genocide in Xinjiang, which is another case altogether.
I agree with my hon. Friend about Jimmy Lai. I will come back to Jimmy Lai, but I want first to say something more widely about the many British citizens who languish abroad. I am afraid that we too often find reasons and excuses to believe that behind the scenes we can somehow do something that will help them without raising the fact that they are British citizens and therefore, under international law, they require full consular access and rights. I simply say that that is a mindset that we need to get out of. We need to say: “If you are a British passport holder—and, most importantly, a British citizen—then you have the protection of this United Kingdom, which is supposed to believe in human rights and freedom.”
It is difficult to disagree with anything the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree with me that a legal right to consular assistance would be one step in the right direction to help to protect our citizens when they get into trouble abroad?
Well, I would not be against it, but if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not go into that now. I am sure she can make her case on that, and I shall be happy to discuss it with her later.
I want to use this opportunity to return to a human being who is now likely—as he must believe, given the way the Chinese authorities are working—never to see the light of day again. He will never see his son or his family ever again, because he took the brave choice: to stay. He did not run away. All those people who have left, quite legitimately, have had their bank accounts frozen and their pension funds frozen illegally—it goes on. But Jimmy Lai stands like a beacon in the middle of this to say, “No. No further. We will not put up with this. Freedom is our right. It is not something that we get given; it is our right, and I am standing up for it.”
Here is what I want to raise with my hon. Friend the Minister, who is going to defend the Government’s position, and I use my words carefully. I noticed that the Foreign Secretary has used this phrase—we had this debate recently, and we did not reach an agreement, so I am going probe that lack of agreement further. He said in connection with his conversations with the Chinese Government that they
“deliberately target prominent pro-democracy figures, journalists and politicians in an effort to silence and discredit them.”
So far, so good. He continued:
“Detained British dual national Jimmy Lai is one such figure. I raised his case”.
Can I just pause there? Jimmy Lai is not a dual national. He has never had a Chinese passport. He has only had a British passport. He is a British citizen, under British law and British protection, and he has appealed for that protection. His own defence counsels have reiterated their inability to mount a proper defence because they cannot get access to him, and now they have been barred from ever seeing him because they were too much trouble and were causing problems.
I say this again: every time we say that Jimmy Lai is a dual national, it plays into the hands of the Chinese authorities, for they know that they can claim rights over his position as a dual national that they do not possess. He languishes as a result, because they do not recognise other nationalities, so they do not allow consular rights of access. Here is a big problem for us. I again call on my Government: please, just get to your feet today, if you might, and say that we believe that Jimmy Lai is a British citizen and a British passport holder, full stop. We do not need to debate it, we just need to agree it. I therefore claim that that is the problem. The UN has made recognitions. The United States has recognised Jimmy Lai as a British citizen. The European Union has recognised him as a British citizen. The only country that I am aware of that does not recognise him as an out-and-out British citizen is—why, that would be the United Kingdom. For some reason, we have reticence.
When the Chinese Government trashed the Sino-British agreement, the Americans sanctioned 12 of the most senior people responsible—and the same with Xinjiang, by the way, when they sanctioned something like that many as well. We have sanctioned nobody in Hong Kong since the start of this saga. Why are we not sanctioning them? Why are we so worried about what they might say or do? If it is to get their help in stopping the Russians in the war, then they are busily supplying them with weapons, parts and all sorts of stuff at the moment. When it comes to net zero, there is nothing zero about their net. It is off the charts, and we are the ones who will pick up the pieces.
To end, I simply say this to my hon. Friend the Minister: please, please, please defend a British citizen. Proclaim it from the rooftops that the British Government stand for freedom and human rights, that when a British passport holder and British citizen is incarcerated, we will move heaven and earth and demand that that individual receives our full support, and that there is no way on earth that the normal access to justice will be blocked, for freedom must prevail.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms Ali. I thank Ms Rimmer for securing the debate, and it is always good to follow Sir Iain Duncan Smith when we probably fundamentally agree completely on something.
This is not the first time that I have risen to my feet in Westminster Hall to speak on this very subject, and many here today will have heard me speak about it before, so I will do my best to say something new about the subject. There are many parts of the job that we are elected to do that our constituents expect us to do. Making speeches is one of them, as is helping constituents with the issues we all come up against as we deal with the authorities that be. There are, of course, others we do not expect to be involved in. I can say now, after eight years in this place, that dealing with constituents who are themselves in some sort of distress, or getting in contact on behalf of their family members who are, is certainly one of those things that we cannot prepare ourselves for before being elected.
Whether it is the distance, the unfamiliarity with the language and the culture, or just an enhanced feeling of helplessness, there is always a heightened feeling around such cases. I am afraid to say that the added extra in such cases always tends to be the disconnect, which is fairly unique in these instances, between what the UK citizen and their family expect and what services are actually available to them, as I think was alluded to by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. In this debate today, we are talking about UK nationals imprisoned overseas, but much of what I will say will also applies to many of those who come into contact with consular services.
Let us remind ourselves of the words that form part of our passports—recently updated, of course—to which, again, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green alluded:
“His Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of His 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.”
I would say that, for example, prisoners—those accused or convicted of wrongdoing—are the very definition of vulnerable people at the mercy of the state and how it administers justice. Regardless of their culpability within any jurisdiction, the very least the UK Government can ask of countries in which their citizens are imprisoned is that they are treated consistently and fairly.
Indeed, when I have previously spoken about the case of my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal, who was alluded to by Sir Chris Bryant, I have used three phrases: transparency, due process, and the rule of law. Those are three things that I would hope any Indian national imprisoned here in the UK could rely on and should be the very least we expect in Jagtar’s case.
The case of my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal is a considerable matter of public record, and I have spoken in debates here and on the Floor of the House on a number of occasions since Jagtar’s initial detention in November 2018—coming up for six years ago. The circumstances of Jagtar’s arrest—being snatched off the street by unidentified men, held incommunicado, and then signing a confession, which, it later emerged, was extracted through torture—meant that the case got attention. His family, though understandably frantic, managed to have the presence of mind to bring together many of the elements within the Scottish, UK and global Sikh diaspora that eventually became the “Free Jaggi Now” campaign, which has fought tirelessly on his behalf.
Jagtar’s family also very quickly got in touch with their MP. I raised his case immediately in a point of order, and then at Foreign Office questions, when the then Minister stated at the Dispatch Box that the UK Government
“take extreme action if a British citizen is being tortured.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 631, c. 858.]
I and the family were surprised to hear those words at the time, and they seem increasingly like a cruel joke for Jagtar and those close to him. On one level, we were fortunate that there was the initial publicity in the case and that the Minister’s words at least made the case something of a priority. Not every UK citizen—full UK national—detained will be able to say the same. As time has gone on and I have heard more about the plight of those in similar positions, as has been spoken about today, the more I have seen the gap between the expectations of families and what the FCDO can deliver.
I should say something about the consular prisons team before I take their superiors to task. Along with the staff at post in Delhi, who have made great efforts to visit Jagtar—bringing news from home and taking notes from his family to him—the team in King Charles Street have really done its utmost to keep up very good communications with the family, even with the political aspects of the case being uncertain or, indeed, negative. The professionalism that they have shown has been greatly appreciated by me and the family, and their ability to go above and beyond, putting in long hours in the offices at the top corner of KCS, never quite knowing when another crisis may strike, is to be commended. So why do they remain so deprived of the resources to do a job that is very much the bare minimum that UK citizens should expect from their Government?
Whenever I sit in on these debates, I hear the same list of grievances. I hear kind words from the Front Bench, but we continue to see the de-prioritisation of consular budgets. I reference at this point the excellent report published by the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad, consular services and assistance, led by my very good friend, my hon. Friend Hannah Bardell. It is an APPG set up in the wake of a similar realisation to the one that I have described with my constituent.
The report is a testament to the work that the APPG did in giving those families a voice. It is full of excellent recommendations to ensure that the importance of consular services is recognised and informed by the lived experience of those families, in an attempt to ensure that their trauma in such situations is recognised. Consular services should have a much clearer identity within the FCDO, and the obligations it has towards UK citizens should be stated in a much clearer manner. One thing that I also hope that approach would achieve is helping families navigate what can be quite an intimidating bureaucracy.
Despite the initial statements about an extreme reaction, we now appear to be getting ready to announce the UK-India free trade agreement—quite a statement of priorities from a succession of Governments. I know that I need to come to a conclusion.
I could talk for three hours about this subject, which is very close to my heart and my constituents. I will sum up by referring to those words on the passport—and I hope the Minister takes note. This Government, and the one that is about to replace it, need to do much more to ensure that holders of that document receive
“such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”
That means funding consular services properly. To lead is to choose, and, frankly, they have chosen badly.
It is a delight to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Rimmer on her excellent introductory speech.
For any British national, the idea of being wrongfully detained abroad or denied true legal processes is bone chilling. Kept away from friends and family, dealing with foreign laws and customs, in some cases subject to arbitrary processes, and with an uncertain outcome, it is a situation none of us would want for any of our loved ones. We saw how hard my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq worked, along with the family, on freeing Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. There are many of us who are also doing similar work in our constituencies. I had the case of Aras Amiri, who was in the same prison as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
When someone is detained abroad, many people have the expectation that an official from the British high commission or embassy will provide advice and support until they are returned to the UK. It is a great credit to our hard-working officials that they put in the hours abroad, attending many visits to prisons and providing that important link back with home. I know that all Members will pay tribute to the important consular work that goes on day in, day out.
Sadly, however, that is not the case in every situation. We know from Martin Docherty-Hughes, who has talked about Jagtar Singh Johal, the opportunity that the UK has right now to be talking publicly about that case. We know from the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee—which my hon. Friend Sir Chris Bryant has sat on for quite some time, and that published a report about the shortcomings of the current offer for people who are in trouble abroad—that too often the Government’s efforts to secure the release of British nationals unjustly obtained abroad have been, according to the families, arbitrary, haphazard, uncoordinated, and lacking resource and transparency.
This week, we have seen a formal apology from the FCDO for its appalling handling of the case of Matthew Hedges. These ongoing individual cases have been raised many times by their respective constituency MPs. I wonder whether the Minister will outline what learning he has made as a result of the apology issued just this week.
We must remember that there are many others who do not share the same profile as Jagtar Singh Johal, Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe or others, but there is still no legal obligation for the UK Government to provide consular assistance to a British citizen, even in cases involving allegations of torture or arbitrary detention, leaving it entirely at the discretion of the Foreign Office and Ministers. That stands in contrast with a number of other countries that recognise there is a specific right to consular assistance. We have looked at examples from German consular outposts and Estonia; even smaller countries, in some cases, are doing a better job. Whether the case is high profile or not, British nationals deserve the support of the British Government, and I am proud that Labour’s commitment to legislate for a legal right to consular assistance for British nationals in trouble abroad, should we form the next Government, will be a keystone of our foreign policy. Until then, Ministers must do more to reassure British nationals that they will be supported.
Many Members in the debate have highlighted the cases that have been put on record in a number of cases. We share the concerns about Jimmy Lai. We have had meetings with the council and we have met Sebastian Lai; he is desperate about the situation of his father, who was wrongly imprisoned for freedom of the press. We also know that, with the G20 coming up in India, this is a great opportunity for the UK to highlight the case of Jagtar Singh Johal. We understand that Morad Tahbaz has been released into house arrest. Can the Minister give the House an update on that? I know that Mr Tahbaz is also a US citizen and the State Department has led negotiations, but can the Minister update us on the UK’s role and whether we can expect that he will be allowed to leave Iran soon?
Finally, for two years Egypt has continued to deny Alaa Abd El-Fattah his basic right to consular access as a British citizen and paid no diplomatic price for doing so; the Prime Minister raised this in person with President Sisi 10 months ago. Do the Government have any concrete plans or an update for the House to secure access beyond raising it in meetings? Have the Government considered amending their travel advice to warn British nationals about their inability to guarantee the provision of consular support to them in the event that they themselves are detained, particularly if they are dual nationals? I conclude my remarks here and note the cross-party consensus and commitment in the Chamber to seeing a better deal for Britons detained abroad.
It is a great pleasure to be here today, Ms Ali. I am here in the place of the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan. She has responsibility for consular policy, but she is travelling; I am very pleased to be here in her place. I am grateful to Ms Rimmer for securing the debate and for the passionate contributions of other colleagues across the Chamber.
I will set out some general principles of our consular and detention policy before covering some of the specific questions asked about individual cases. Consular assistance to British nationals abroad remains at the heart of our work at the FCDO. Our trained staff are contactable 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they offer empathetic and professional support tailored to each individual case. They have a huge case load—some 20,000 to 30,000 cases annually—and we continue to review and improve the service that they offer; we always welcome feedback on how it can be improved.
Consular staff help about 3,000 British nationals who have been arrested or detained abroad each year, and their welfare and human rights are our top priorities. Consular officials are contactable 24/7, including if a British national is detained, and our support can include seeking consular access and providing relevant information to detainees. We can also raise specific consular cases with foreign authorities and support the families of those detained. Of course, this is considered on a case-by-case basis. I should like to be very clear that we thank our consular staff for the tremendous work that they continue to do.
As a general principle, we are guided by international law and the Vienna convention on consular relations. Our ability to offer support in a particular country is of course constrained by the laws and practice of that country. In detention cases, the detaining authority has jurisdiction and control over detained British nationals, and the British Government may not interfere in the foreign legal process. But we can and do intervene when British nationals are not treated in line with international standards or where there are unreasonable delays in proceedings. Of course, there are a number of areas where, sadly, consular staff cannot help. We cannot offer or pay for legal services, pay outstanding fines or ask for British citizens to receive preferential treatment on the basis of their nationality.
We do provide tailored support to detainees who raise allegations of torture or mistreatment—something that we take incredibly seriously. Although we cannot investigate such allegations ourselves, we will, with the detainee’s permission, raise our concerns with the local authorities and request an investigation. Last year, the FCDO received 133 new allegations of torture or mistreatment from British nationals overseas. Each year, we conduct a review of all such cases to identify trends and develop strategies to engage with relevant countries.
Yes, indeed—we consider all these cases. If I may, I will come on to that case, because the hon. Gentleman has been a champion of it. Let me assure him—I am sure he knows this—the Government have raised concerns about Mr Johal’s case with the Government of India, including allegations of torture and his right to a fair trial, on over 100 occasions, and we will continue to do so. We take the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s opinion in this case very seriously. We have consistently raised concerns about Mr Johal directly with the Indian authorities and we will continue to do so, as I say. Having carefully considered the potential benefits and risks to Mr Johal of calling for his release, as well as the likely effectiveness of doing so, we do not believe this course of action would be in his best interests. But as I say, we will continue to raise his case with the Government of India.
Let me turn now to two cases mentioned by Catherine West and the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston. The first is the case of Morad Tahbaz in Iran. We are pleased to see that British national Morad Tahbaz has been released on furlough. That is a first step, and we remain focused on his permanent release. Of course, the UK is not party to negotiations between the US and Iran; the details of any agreement are a bilateral matter for those two countries. But we do think that his release on furlough is a positive step.
I turn now to the case of Mehran Raoof, also in Iran. We are supporting the family of Mr Raoof, who is a British-Iranian national and has been detained in Iran since 2020. Of course, his welfare remains a top priority. It remains entirely within Iran’s gift to release any British national who has been unfairly detained and so we should urge Iran to stop this practice of unfairly detaining British and other foreign nationals and urge it to release Mr Raoof.
I turn now to the case of Mr Alaa Abd El-Fattah, in Egypt. Of course, we remain committed to securing consular access for dual British-Egyptian national and human rights defender Alaa Abd El-Fattah. We continue to raise Mr El-Fattah’s case at the highest levels with the Egyptian Government. We remain committed to supporting him and his family. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met family members on
I was very grateful to my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski for raising the case of his constituent Mr Saiful Chowdhury. Of course I give him my absolute assurance that we will be happy to correspond and raise this case. Perhaps we could exchange details after this debate. We look forward to corresponding on that case and we look forward to offering any support we can to Mr Chowdhury, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that case.
Turning to the case of Jimmy Lai, which was raised by several Members, let me be very clear that we are using our channels with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to raise Mr Lai’s detention and request consular access. The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, last met Mr Lai’s son and his international legal team on
In the course of this debate, the question of whether the Foreign Office considers Mr Lai to be a British national has been raised. Could the Minister please elaborate on that because it is key to the sort of approach that we in this House take, but also which legally the Foreign Office should be taking? I have met the wonderful leader of the Hong Kong mission. I know he is doing his utmost but this has to be pushed at a much more senior level in order to get a result. I know that that is the view of the House.
I am grateful for the opportunity, and I will reiterate the language used by the Foreign Secretary and referred to by Sir Iain Duncan Smith: Mr Lai is a dual British national born in China, and the reality of the matter is that Chinese nationality laws are very clear in that they do not recognise dual nationality and therefore have not allowed us consular access to Mr Lai. We are therefore using our channels with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to continue to raise his case.
May I ask my hon. Friend something very clearly? The question was: do the British Government recognise Mr Lai as a British citizen and passport holder? The answer came back that he is a dual national. The Chinese Government say that he is a dual national and do not recognise it, so what do the British Government say? Is he a British citizen and a British passport holder? That was the question.
He is a dual British national and we will continue to look at this case. We will continue to use our channels with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to raise his case and call for his release.
I thank everyone for contributing today because this is an important matter and something that has deserved the attention it has had in this debate. Hopefully we can get some movement from the Government and we can get this man’s citizenship sorted. I think he and his family know his citizenship better than anyone—far better than the Chinese would know. It is surely a con, isn’t it? I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate. We need to keep going. We need to do this as soon as possible. Please grab hold of it, Minister. We would congratulate you if you got things started now.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered British nationals detained overseas.