SPEECH: BRITISH NATIONALS DETAINED OVERSEAS

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Martin spoke in the Westminster Hall Debate on the detention of British Nationals Overseas, raising the case of his constituent Jagtar Singh Johal. Here is an extract of his speech transcribed via Hansard:

Martin Docherty-Hughes MP (SNP, West Dunbartonshire): It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms Ali. I thank the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) for securing the debate, and it is always good to follow the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (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 the hon. Member for Rhondda (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, 21 November 2017; 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 the Member for Livingston (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.

Watch the debate in full here.

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