Human Rights: Consular Services — [Dame Caroline Dinenage in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:56 pm on 16 April 2024.

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Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North 2:56, 16 April 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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