Adjournment Debate - Jagtar Singh Johal

Yesterday evening, Mark responded on behalf of the Government in the Adjournment debate tabled by Martin Docherty-Hughes MP regarding Jagtar Singh Johal. To read the whole debate on Hansard, please click here. Please find Mark's speech pasted below.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (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?

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)

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 the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), to try to get to the bottom of this issue.

Mark Field

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.

Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab)

I reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (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 the hon. Member for Walsall North (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 the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) about this case. It is important that we try to convey that to the Foreign Secretary.

Mark Field

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.

Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)

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.

Mark Field

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.

Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)

I am grateful to the Minister for the beginning of his response. I just want to reiterate all Members’ understanding of the commitment and ​diligence of many of the members of staff in the FCO, who are the Department’s greatest asset. That needs to be put on the record yet again.

Mark Field

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 5 November. These visits allow us to monitor Mr Johal’s welfare and check that he continues to be able to meet his legal representatives in private, which was obviously not the case in the early months of his incarceration.

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. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (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.

On 14 December 2017, Mr Johal asked us to raise these allegations of torture and maltreatment. Once we had the details, we did so without delay, making clear our expectation that India should conduct an impartial investigation and an independent medical examination. We continue to raise the allegations vigorously.

Martin Docherty-Hughes

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?

Mark Field

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—the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (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.