Westminster Hall Debate: British Nationals Imprisoned Abroad

Yesterday, Mark spoke on behalf of the Government in the Westminster Hall debate tabled by Preet Kaur Gill MP regarding British national imprisoned abroad. To read the debate in its entirety, click here.


Preet Kaur Gill (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab/Co-op)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered British nationals imprisoned abroad.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. In late January, I attended an event organised by the Redress Trust, the international human rights and anti-torture non-governmental organisation, and the all-party parliamentary human rights group to launch Redress’s new report, “Beyond Discretion: The Protection of British Nationals Abroad”. The report uses the NGO’s experience of working with British torture survivors and their families over the past 25 years when trying to get the help of the UK Government.

Under international law, through the Vienna convention on consular relations, to which the UK is a party, all states have a right to intervene on behalf of nationals abroad to ensure that their fundamental rights are respected. It is important to recognise that that is not the same as interfering in cases. Among other protections, the VCCR allows for the freedom of communication between consular officials and a detained person, as well as freedom of access to the detained through consular visits.

Every year, nearly 6,000 British nationals are arrested or detained abroad. Of those, more than 100 tell the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that they have been tortured or ill treated while abroad. In 2016, the latest year for which data is available, the FCO delivered assistance to 118 British nationals who alleged that they had been tortured. The total number who have been tortured is of course likely to be higher, as some might not be able to report such violations, or have the chance to. One such case is that of Jagtar Singh Johal.

In October 2017, Jagtar travelled to India to marry his fiancée. On 4 November, while out shopping, he was seized by plain-clothes officers, hooded and abducted. Following a brief court hearing, he was held incommunicado by Indian police for nine days at an undisclosed location, and he was denied all access to lawyers, British consular staff and family members. On 10 November, Jagtar was secretly presented in court while his lawyer and British consular staff were, outrageously, left outside the courtroom waiting to be called. They were informed along with the media only after he had been presented before the court and had left the courtroom. Subsequently, witnesses reported that Jagtar had great difficulty standing or walking and had to be assisted by the police officers escorting him in and out of the courtroom, supporting Jagtar’s claim of severe torture.


The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) on securing this important debate, ably supported by the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi). The Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), had hoped to take part of this debate as she is the Minister with departmental responsibility for this area, but at this very moment she is appearing before the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.

I will set out some general consular policy before moving on to the detention policy and the individual cases raised. I also undertake to write to hon. Members with more details where that is appropriate. The Government are proud to uphold a long tradition of offering British nationals a comprehensive, responsive consular service. Consular assistance is central to our work at the FCO. This support is not a right, I hasten to add, nor is it an obligation. Contrary to a common misconception, the Government do not have a legal duty of care to British nationals abroad. When things go wrong, our consular staff endeavour to give advice and practical support to British nationals overseas and their families in the UK, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. We aim to provide support and guidance tailored to the specific context of each case. As would be expected, our staff provide professional, non-judgmental, polite and helpful support where possible.

The volume, variety and complexity of the cases we deal with is staggering. In the last financial year alone our staff overseas dealt with approximately 5,000 detentions, 3,600 deaths and nearly 3,500 hospital cases. Naturally, our support is not without certain reasonable limitations. Rightly, the FCO expects and advises individuals to take sensible steps before they travel.

Graham P. Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab)

Will the Minister give way?

Mark Field

I will not, because I have very little time to make the speech I want to make.

UK nationals travelling abroad should ensure that they have sufficient travel insurance and read the FCO’s travel advice so that they can make informed decisions about the obvious risks in certain parts of the world. We offer help appropriate to the circumstances of each case. Our overseas staff assess individuals’ vulnerability and needs based on who they are, where they are and ​the situation they face. Dual nationality was mentioned; I will endeavour to ensure that there is a review of precisely what impact that has and revert to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston.

We work particularly hard to support those who are most in need of our help, and we intervene on behalf of families if British nationals are not treated in line with internationally accepted standards or there are unreasonable delays in procedures compared with the way nationals of the country concerned are treated. We are not, however, in a position to take decisions on people’s behalf, nor are we able to do everything that might be asked of us. As a matter of policy, we do not pay outstanding bills, including legal fees, as we are not funded to provide such financial assistance, nor does the FCO seek preferential treatment for British nationals. That means we do not and must not interfere in civil or criminal court proceedings, as was pointed out. It is right that we respect the legal systems of other countries, just as we expect foreign nationals to respect our laws and legal processes when they are here in the UK.

We have a clear policy that dictates how we engage in detention cases. We typically become aware of such cases when the British national involved agrees that the host Government may notify us of their detention. We then make contact or visit, where possible, within 24 hours. That did happen in the Johal case: as was alluded to, there was simply a delay in British authorities being made aware of his detention.

There are some 2,000 Britons in detention at any one time, the greatest number—approximately 400—in the United States of America. Our priority is always the welfare of UK nationals: to ensure that they receive food, water and medical treatment as required, and that they have access to legal advice. I know personally from dealing with the notorious cases of the Chennai Six and the group that was recently detained in Cambodia just how important that is.

The number of consular visits depends on the context of a particular case. Some have described those visits as a lifeline, and they may be the only visits a British national in detention abroad receives. Our assistance does not stop there. If a British national tells us they have been mistreated or tortured, our consular staff will, with their permission, do their best to raise concerns with the authorities and seek an investigation. To strengthen our support, we often work with partner organisations, of which the charity Prisoners Abroad is one example. Prisoners Abroad supports detainees and their families and helps to facilitate contact. If there is no family, it can help find detainees a pen pal or send them books to read or study. It can also help with prisoners’ resettlement in the UK after release.

The death penalty exacerbates the anxiety for all those involved in consular cases where a British national is at risk of receiving or is in receipt of a capital sentence. Working to abolish the death penalty remains a key priority of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is an important part of our day-to-day work and that of all our diplomatic missions in countries that still carry out the death penalty. Our message to them is clear: we believe the death penalty to be unjust, outdated and ineffective, and it risks fuelling extremism. There are currently 15 British nationals on death row around the world. Irrespective of the reason for their conviction, we do all we can to ensure that the death penalty is ​commuted and is not carried out. As with all countries that retain the death penalty, we hope that the Government of India establish a moratorium on executions, in line with the global trend towards the abolition of capital punishment.

Let me turn to some of the specifics of Mr Johal’s case. Only this morning, his tenacious and hard- working constituency MP, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), who is here, was able to speak to our high commissioner in India, Sir Dominic Asquith. I was asked directly why consular officials have not been given private consular access. That is a matter of great frustration. We frequently requested private consular access when Mr Johal was first detained, but as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston will know, he has since been moved to the Nabha prison—a maximum security jail where, for security reasons, private visits are not permitted. I will write to Members who raised the issue of CHOGM, particularly the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire.

John Spellar (Warley) (Lab)

Our understanding is that the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, will come that conference. Will the Prime Minister raise this issue directly with him, and will the Foreign Secretary raise it with his counterpart from India?

Mark Field

I will try to ensure that that is done. The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that these things rightly often have to be done on a private basis rather than through megaphone diplomacy.

Mr Johal’s case is well known to me and to senior colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Our staff have been working hard to provide assistance to Mr Johal and his family in the UK ever since his arrest in India in November 2017. I have met Mr Johal’s brother twice in the past six months, along with the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire. Since Mr Johal’s arrest, consular staff have visited him fortnightly. The Foreign Secretary spoke to his Indian counterpart about his case in November, and I raised it with the Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs on 11 January. Furthermore, various officials in our high commission have continued to raise concerns at the highest level. As Members pointed out, there are major concerns. Our high commissioner spoke to the Indian Foreign Secretary as recently as 7 March, and the basis of that conversation was relayed to the hon. Gentleman this morning.

I assure the House that we shall continue to raise this case at senior levels with the Indian authorities until the serious allegations raised by Mr Johal have been properly investigated. I recognise that this is a desperately difficult and distressing time for Mr Johal, his family and many in the UK Sikh community. I assure all hon. Members that his case remains a priority for me personally, and we shall continue to raise it with the Indian authorities as necessary.

Let me touch briefly on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I recognise that her husband is here today. We shall continue to approach that case in the way that we judge is most likely to secure the outcome that we all want—in other words, her release. I hope the House will understand that I am not in a position to provide a running commentary on each and every development in Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, save that I believe there needs to be a review of what happens in relation to dual ​nationals. I am not convinced that anything untoward necessarily happened here, but we need to try to review that issue.

I am unaware of the facts of the case of Mr Tsege, the British national in an Ethiopian jail to whom the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston referred, so I hope she will forgive me if I say I will write to her with full details of the issues she raised.

Understandably, much of this debate has related to Mr Johal. It is important to put on the record that India, as a partner in the Commonwealth and in many other ways, has a strong democratic framework that is designed to guarantee human rights. However, it also faces numerous challenges relating to its size and development, and when it comes to enforcing fundamental rights enshrined in its constitution and wider law, not least given the power of its states. Members are absolutely right to raise concerns about human rights in India in this forum and, as I said, I am happy for them to do so via correspondence. Because we share those real concerns, the UK Government are working alongside the Indian Government to build capacity and share expertise on the promotion and protection of human rights. I hope Members will understand that that is sometimes best done quietly and privately rather than through public pronouncements.

In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston once again for her contribution.

Graham P. Jones

Will the Minister give way?

Mark Field


I take this opportunity to thank the families and friends of British nationals detained overseas for working with us to support their loved ones through the most distressing situations. I also thank our consular officers, who at times work under great stress, for the support they provide British nationals during their most difficult times. The support by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for British nationals in difficulty abroad is and will continue to be an absolute priority.