MP for Penrith and The Border, Rory Stewart, is backing ’Voice Box’ - a national joke-telling competition for both mainstream and special schools, run by The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy (RCSLT), in partnership with the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). The competition aims to demonstrate the importance of good communication skills and will culminate in a national final at Westminster next year. To reach Westminster, schools should submit their student’s funniest joke to the RCSLT by Friday 1 December 2017. Behind the fun and engaging competition lies a serious message: that communication can be a barrier to development for many young people, with an estimated 2 in 30 students having a form of developmental language disorder. By raising awareness of this and the importance of communication, the competition seeks to improve the confidence and language skills of young people. On the competition Rory Stewart said: “this is a fantastic way to bring to the fore a really serious issue. Communication is fundamental to a child’s development and through an entertaining competition like this one, we can bring the topic to the top of schools and head teacher’s agendas. In politics, like in schools, language skills form the foundations of progress, and it is because of this I will be writing to local schools urging them to get involved in the Voice Box National Joke Competition.” The competition runs from Monday 2 October until Friday 1 December and invites all mainstream and specialist primary and secondary schools to hold their joke-telling competition in that time. More information can be found at www.givingvoiceuk.org/voice-box/
In a meeting at the Jobcentre in Penrith, Rory Stewart MP commended the work of the organisation in helping achieve record employment figures for the Eden Valley. With an astounding 87.8% of 16-64 year-olds employed, the Eden Valley strengthens its position as a thriving hub of productivity in a rural economy.
The figures come as a result of the local MP’s enlightening meeting with Employer and Partnership Manager at the Jobcentre, Shane Byrne. Covering areas from long term unemployment to the low number of constituents receiving job seeker’s allowance, Rory was reassured of the positive trends we are continuing to see in the Eden Valley.
The employment figures, which are the highest since 1942, reflect a wider trend of rising employment under the Conservative Government. Nationally, there are more people in work than ever before with the level of young people out of work dropping below 5 per cent for the first time ever, while the level of women in work is at a record high. Additionally, the unemployment rate is 4.3% which is the lowest it has been since 1975. Though Rory and the Government acknowledge further progress can still be made, the latest figures come as resoundingly welcome news and serve to show the success of government initiatives both locally and nationally.
Speaking on the news Rory said: “The latest figures really demonstrate the strength of our local economy and stand as an example for other rural constituencies to follow. It is a testament to both our small businesses and the larger corporations moving into the area, that we can so proudly claim this record employment. We must also celebrate the work of the Jobcentre in connecting employers to employees helping match supply with demand so effectively. Looking to the future, we hope to continue this trend improving specific areas of employment such as apprenticeships and our disability employment rate”.
Penrith and the Border MP Rory Stewart has returned to Appleby Training and Heritage Centre for an update on the centre’s current provision and their apprenticeship schemes.
During the meeting with Jonty Rostron,Chair of the Board of Trustees, and Centre Manager Hayley Chapman, Rory made it absolutely clear that he would do everything possible to preserve the apprenticeship scheme, which has been threatened following a takeover of Carlisle College by Newcastle College.
The Appleby Training and Heritage Centre provides a range of accredited and non-accredited courses for people of all ages, with a particular focus on vocational education. The centre prides itself on equipping students with practical skills which are easily transferable in a competitive job market, and their work is greatly endorsed by local MP Rory Stewart who says that the centre has helped the Eden Valley achieve its highest employment figures since 1942.
Speaking after the visit, Rory said: “The Appleby Training and Heritage Centre is a fantastic local asset, especially for young people who might otherwise struggle to access vocational training opportunities. The apprenticeship scheme has been a resounding success and must be protected in the face of potential funding issues. Apprenticeships such as these allow young Cumbrians to learn a trade while earning a living at the same time, and are key to maintaining a strong local economy.
The opportunities offered to students from Appleby Grammar School and Kirkby Stephen Grammar School are also particularly impressive – providing a wider range of options and a better chance for young people to pursue their ambitions and reach their full potential after leaving school.”
Rory Stewart MP has picked out two Cumbrian broadband schemes to be national models for community broadband – and is working with the Minister for Broadband to share the Cumbrian example across the country.
Rory met residents in Milburn and Dufton, this week, who are behind two successful community broadband schemes, established to bring high-speed broadband to their remote Eden villages.
Fellnet in Milburn and Dufton Digital both took matters into their own hands after being told that the main providers could not offer commercially-viable broadband. As a result of their efforts, both are now delivering reliable broadband connections within these rural communities, and plans are already underway to improve speeds even further.
Speaking after the meeting Rory said: “The commitment of Milburn and Dufton’s communities to providing their parishes with high-speed broadband is truly inspirational. I really believe these community schemes could act as a blueprint for other rural communities and I have immediately spoken with the Minister for Digital and Broadband, Matt Hancock, to highlight the work the groups have done and the progress they have made. It is absolutely vital that we continue to roll out and improve broadband services in Cumbria, and I am absolutely committed to bringing broadband to as many homes as possible. It could be that the solution to delivering broadband to the very final rural miles, could be right in front of us, and is largely thanks to the ingenuity and dedication of our communities and people such as Lee Page in Milburn and David Main in Dufton.”
As a result of the Government’s superfast broadband programme 93% of UK premises already have access to superfast broadband – according to independent figures from thinkbroadband.com. That’s expected to rise to 97% by 2020 but even with this investment, there will still be around one million premises unable to access speeds of 10Mbps or more – the level that Ofcom says a typical household currently needs. The costs of connecting these premises are high, particularly for the final 1%, which are in some of the most remote regions of the UK, such as Cumbria, but Rory believes that schemes like Fellnet and Dufton Digital could act as a template to connect this so-called rural ‘last mile’.
Penrith and The Border MP Rory Stewart last week attended a meeting of farmers from Appleby and Upper Eden, organised by the National Farmers Union (NFU) and held at Coupland Beck Farm. The primary focus was on the current bovine TB (bTB) scare in the Eden Valley, but the group also discussed other pressing issues including Brexit, Commons Land law, and the importance of herd health.
Acknowledging the potentially catastrophic effects of the spread of bTB, there was a strong consensus that more must be done to contain the disease, in order to protect the Cumbrian agricultural economy. Similarly, it was agreed there must be a move towards more efficient testing of cattle, along with stronger sanctions on the movement of cattle, to prevent bTB becoming endemic in the area.
Farmers – representing a mix of agriculture, and from farms in and around Appleby, Kirkby Stephen and up the East Fellside – voiced numerous other concerns centred on the ongoing Brexit negotiations, as the agriculture sector is likely to be impacted in a number of ways; particularly by the seasonal migration of workers and the effect of any new trade relationships. Rory reassured the group that he is committed to getting the best possible Brexit deal for farmers, especially given that agriculture makes up such a large part of the Cumbrian economy.
After the meeting Rory Stewart said: “Agriculture is fundamental to both our local community and our economy, and is part of our iconic Cumbrian heritage. We must look to ensure its success at all costs, and dealing with the very real threat of bovine TB is integral to achieving this. I am confident that through continued dialogue between Defra, APHA, the NFU and local farmers, and strong, timely action, we can effectively mitigate the effects of this disease.”
Rory is in touch with both Minister George Eustice, and the APHA, about farmers in his constituency affected by bovine TB. If you have any concerns about bovine TB on your farm, please contact Rory on 01768 484114 or by email [email protected]
The purpose of terrorism is the propagation of terror. And so one of the prime targets – and victims – of the terrorists are the survivors, and in particular the witnesses. As we saw in Manchester, and in London, in Paris, and Brussels, Spain and Tunisia, the impact of an attack extends, deepens, and multiplies, far beyond the physical impact of a piece of shrapnel, a blade or a bullet. A survivor witnesses not only the act of violence, but its consequence – the sight of the dying and the pain of the wounded. As they run through the blood, they will have no way of knowing whether another attack is about to happen. They will not know who to trust or when or where they are safe. Attacks – such as that in Tunisia – can take place far from home, in a place where you may not speak the language and you may not trust the police (sometimes because the attackers are disguised as police). You can find that you are separated from a friend or a partner, with no idea whether they are still alive. The impact of such an experience can persist and deepen through your life. Soldiers have found that they can be subject to post-traumatic stress as much as ten years’ later. A civilian who is not supported by a military unit, has no military training, no background to prepare for what is happening may feel the event even more intensely.
But traditionally media, governments, professionals and the public have tended to focus on the people who are wounded and killed and bereaved by terrorists, rather than on those who witnessed the incident. This can be particularly true when many are killed and injured – in Tunisia for example where thirty British nationals were killed, and more than 600 families were affected. And when witnesses arrive home, they can feel that even if medical professionals recognise their trauma, they can treat them like other domestic trauma victims, rather than concentrating on the terrorism – the act of focused evil, and deliberate horror – which caused the trauma in the first place.
So how can we build better government systems to ensure that witnesses of terrorism are not overlooked? In the case of the Tunisian attack, it took the Prime-Minister to bring nine separate government departments together to form a joint-government unit focused on the victims of the attack. It was this leadership from the very top which allowed our national health system to develop – for the first time – new counselling programs specifically for survivors of terrorist attacks; and this was what allowed witnesses – rather than simply casualties – to become eligible to receive compensation. Since then, there have been other steps. New mandatory courses have been created, for example, to ensure that all Ambassadors are trained to respond to a terrorist crisis; the Foreign Office have upgraded their statement records to the standard of police reports. Computer systems have been changed to allow real-time access to the case files from any department and anywhere in the world. New contracts have been put in place to allow the government teams to bring in extra support. Funding and partnerships have been formed with charities specialising in victim support. A dedicated murder unit has been formed in the Foreign Office and a new Victims of Terrorism Unit has been formed in the Home Office, with its own designated Minister.
But none of this guarantees that the witness of a terrorist attack will receive they support they need. In the end, it will still come down to the virtues of the individual government officer. This individual needs to be able to simultaneously call bereaved families, coordinate with a foreign police force, stay on top of intelligence assessments, and refine the logistics of evacuation plans. They may have to do all of this in a dangerous security environment, at a time when there is limited, and ever-changing information about what is happening on the ground. They must balance providing medical assistance for some victims, transport for the dead, immediate evacuation for the living, and a continual flow of regular and reliable information to individuals and families at the scene and at home. They need to ensure that at the end of their shift someone else can take over the relationships, and maintain them for the next shift, and ultimately that the witness is successfully handed over to someone in the UK, such as a Police Family Support Officer or a counsellor.
A government can create the culture, the resources, and the framework, to back these individuals. But no government can produce the most necessary ingredient of any emergency response – from flooding to terrorism – the compassionate imagination, which understands that the victims are not only those who were injured, that the pain is not only physical, and that the moment of the trauma can be a matter not of seconds but of years.
Rory Stewart MP is strongly encouraging students from Penrith and The Border to put themselves forward as participants for the 2017 Lessons from Auschwitz Project. The scheme, run by the Holocaust Educational Trust, is a great opportunity for local teenagers to learn about the Holocaust with a chance to visit Auschwitz for themselves.
The Lessons from Auschwitz project offers a four-part course about the history of the Holocaust and explains why the Holocaust must hold an enduring place in our collective memory. Students aged 16-18 from the Penrith and Border constituency have an opportunity to take part in educational workshops, including a one-day visit to Poland with a guided tour through the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. This will ultimately leave the students with a comprehensive understanding of the holocaust, and its relevance in today’s world.
Rory said: “The project is a great initiative aiming to educate our youth about one of the most horrific, yet significant, events in recent history. It gives an invaluable insight into the Holocaust by providing students with a variety of talks and workshops, and an incredible opportunity to visit Auschwitz for themselves. In a rural community like ours, schemes like this allow local students to engage in history in a way not always made available to them.”
As part of Rory’s support for the project, he will be writing to all local schools in the constituency urging them to get involved. The Lessons from Auschwitz project is open to two post-16 students, studying any subjects, from all schools in the local area, and will start on the 2nd of October in Newcastle with the visit to Auschwitz on the 10th of October.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for bringing this important debate to the House.
Terrorism by its very nature intends not just to kill but to instil terror. One of its primary aims is psychological: trauma is at the heart of the terrorist incident. Let us reflect on what somebody goes through during a terrorist attack. It is not simply the act of violence itself and the sense that they might be shot, nor is it simply the consequence of that violence and the blood that they might see; it is the sense of whether it will be repeated—are they seeing just the beginning of a repeated series of attacks?
Even for somebody in the military who is trained to deal with this kind of violence, the trauma of witnessing an attack can be long-lasting. Veterans experience traumatic consequences as much as 10 years later. For a civilian who does not exist within a military unit, and who lacks that kind of support process, to find themselves a long way from home and hundreds of miles from a British embassy, in an environment in which they may be unable to speak the language and in which they may be unwilling to approach the police—in some of these cases, the terrorists dress as police when they mount the attack—and in a situation in which they are separated from anyone they know, in which their telephone signal may no longer work or their battery may be running out, and in which they feel completely hopeless and unsure whether it is best to remain in a room and take cover or to go out to get help, is one of the most terrifying experiences possible.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to bring this issue forward, and the fact that he has is a real tribute to the work that Members of Parliament—that politicians—can do, because it represents the difference between the thoughts and approach of somebody who represents a constituency, dealing on a personal level with individuals, and the way a Government system works. What do I mean by that? Traditionally, Government systems dealing with this kind of thing have tended simply to look at the nature of the trauma. The traditional national health service approach to this would be simply to ask how intense the trauma and the mental impact are and to ignore the cause and the context in which they arose. What the hon. Gentleman has produced for us is a very important moral lesson, which it is sometimes difficult for systems to take on board: the cause and the context—in this case, the particular form of directed evil inherent in terrorism—mean that the trauma somebody suffers requires a special and different form of treatment from the kind of treatment we might expect for other kinds of trauma and bereavement.
Two particular cases have been raised, and there are serious lessons from both of them for us—for me and for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The first was the Stockholm attack. In that case, there were clearly significant problems with the telephone lines—with actually being able to take the information from the British citizen—and with our ability to get back to that citizen to check that they were okay after they had contacted us.
In the case of the terrible event in Sousse, in Tunisia, where the hon. Gentleman’s constituent witnessed the horror directly, the situation went further. It was about the British Government learning that what matters is not simply whether someone is a victim of the attack. Inherent in terrorism is the impact on the witness, and the trauma experienced by the witness can even be as extreme and long lasting as that of the individual who was subject to the attack.
I would like to take it even further, because there is a broader lesson. In my own experience in Iraq, not only the people who witnessed the attack, but even people who were slightly away from it—who may have been locked in a windowless room taking shelter—and who did not physically act as category 1 witnesses, can continue to feel a sense of guilt, helplessness and trauma for months, or even years, after.
The question, then, is, how do the British Government respond to that? We have taken a number of measures, and I am going to give a list of them. They are going to sound quite bureaucratic, but it is in the nature of a Government that the way in which we address things is by putting systems in place; otherwise, we have nothing that endures—a particular Minister or a particular official can be moved on. We have to try to put systems in place to make sure that things work better in the future.
So what have we done? In relation to Sousse, we set up the Sousse joint officials unit. We brought together nine different Departments, ranging from the Foreign Office right the way through to the Home Office to try to jointly learn the lessons of how we deal with the aftermath of what was the worst single terrorist attack experienced by British citizens overseas—30 people killed, and 600 families affected. Coming out of that, we set up a bespoke mental health programme specifically for victims of terrorism, run by the Maudsley Trust.
We then began to amend—this was a question asked by the hon. Gentleman—the victims of overseas terrorism compensation scheme. The scheme was set up for victims of overseas terrorism, but we have now expanded it—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will communicate this to his constituent—so that witnesses of terrorism are also eligible to compensation.
We have transformed the training in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and that is not only for our consular staff. Before heads of mission go out, they are now subject to training in crisis response. We have improved our systems; they are now better at gathering data. Now, for example, if someone was to ring a British consular office, they would have the full police missing persons form to run through to retrieve any data.
We also have much better IT. It is possible now for a police officer to access the Foreign Office system and for a post thousands of miles away to access the Foreign Office system in real time to get information. We have better follow-up procedures, and we have now put procedures in place so that if something of this nature happens again, the Foreign Office would, hopefully, feel that it was a question not simply of logging the information, but of calling again and following up to check the individual was okay. We have created partnerships. For example, we fund the non-governmental organisation Victim Support. Through the Ministry of Justice, we work with the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace. We have set up new bodies. In relation to the very good work done by Julie Love and DAYNA—Death Abroad You’re Not Alone—we have set up the murder and manslaughter unit, which works specifically within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on dealing with issues of bereavement through murder. We have established a victims of terrorism unit—a bespoke unit set up within the Home Office which has its own Minister. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), is now the Minister for victims of terrorism. We have set up surge capacity. We have set up an ability, if there is a huge attack somewhere in the world that overstretches our resources, to draw in people from other parts of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Departments and reach out to specialists outside Government to enhance the response.
However, none of the systems that we put in place is ever going to be an alternative to what is really required in a situation like this. These situations are inherently bewildering, chaotic, uncertain and violent, and often take place in very remote locations. Our own staff may be unable to access these people; we may have a very small embassy on the ground; and the information may be changing very quickly. The qualities required are therefore human qualities of empathy, imagination and compassion. Our obligation, as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is to make sure that our staff have the proper resources in place to enable them to act as humans. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our consular staff for the work they do. We have to make sure that they have the time, the systems and the resources so that they really can do this very difficult job, often feeling very powerless themselves, with not as much information as they would like, in patiently dealing with victims, with families and with an array of other people—other Governments, police forces, the army—and keeping the patient engagement that is absolutely central.
In the end, a victim who witnesses terrorism—who has experienced that mental trauma—is dealing with something that is fundamentally connected with the mind, but the mind in the most desperate, horrifying sense. The only way of dealing with that is personal. It has to take into account the context and the origin, and it requires the patient, constant reaction, extending potentially over years, that can bring health, settlement and fulfilment back to a family. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the hon. Gentleman for bringing this extremely important matter to the House, and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the consular staff for the work they do with British citizens in some of the most vulnerable and terrifying situations on earth.
Rory Stewart MP has held a meeting with local Member of Youth Parliament (MYP) for Carlisle and Eden, Jacob Reid, to discuss his support for the national ‘Make Your Mark’ initiative – the nation-wide ballot that gives young people aged between 11 and 18 the chance to decide what their MYPs should debate.
Rory has been a supporter of Jacob’s budding political career, and the two meet regularly to discuss the issues that matter to their constituents. Rory will support Jacob by writing to the secondary schools in Penrith and The Border to encourage them to participate in the ballot, which contains a choice of ten issues. The top five issues will be debated in the House of Commons on November 10th 2017.
Rory said: “I am writing to all secondary schools in Penrith and The Border to encourage students to take part in the ballot. I think it’s great that Jacob is doing such a good job in raising awareness of the importance of politics, and showing how politics impacts on all of our daily lives, from childhood onwards. I am hugely impressed by Jacob’s energy and commitment, and think we are lucky to have such a hard-working MYP.”
Jacob said : “I am delighted to have had another successful meeting with our MP for Penrith and The Border, Rory Stewart, at one of his Constituency Clinics! Initially, we discussed the upcoming Make Your Mark ballot, moving on to Mental Health.
We undoubtedly share a determination to engage even more Young People in Make Your Mark this year; as such, Rory has kindly agreed to send a letter to all secondary schools in Eden, ‘writing to ask (schools) to support and encourage (their) students to participate in Make Your Mark (… and) the democratic process’. I am excited about the potential this has!
Subsequently, we discussed our mutual interest in Mental Health provisions- both of us having been elected on Mental Health as a priority issue- and our aim to see services improved and stigma reduced. Hence, we plan to do a joint Press Release on the issue- one which I hope will receive a significant amount of attention in the local community and start a conversation on the issue!
Again, Rory was more than interested in all of the work of the Youth Parliament, and I am very pleased that we were able to build upon our working relationship. I look forward to continuing working with Rory in the coming weeks and months…”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.
Consular support is fundamental to British foreign policy. It is probably the very oldest element of British foreign policy. Before we had a Foreign Office, protecting British citizens abroad was in our DNA, and it remains for us a very fundamental responsibility. That is why we have hundreds of consular staff working across the world in very difficult circumstances. That obligation is going into a new world—a world that is changing.
When our consular in Aleppo set up in 1570, he saw 12 British citizens in a year. Today, 70 million trips are made by British residents in a single year. Nearly 43 million British citizens currently possess passports. This is one of the most travelled countries on earth, and we wish it to remain so. It is an adventurous trading nation. It is a nation where a lot of our citizens are dual nationals, and many are living in other people’s countries. There are 100,000 British nationals living in South Africa alone, and more than 600,000 British nationals living in the United States. It is not simply that we have more people travelling than ever before; it is that the world is changing. The world is becoming more dangerous.
There are people in this room who will have contemporaries who would have been able to take a bus from Victoria station to Delhi in the 1970s. They would have been able to drive across Syria, Iraq and Iran. They could have gone across Afghanistan, from Herat to Kabul. They would have been able to travel to the north-west frontier province of Pakistan. None of that is possible today for a British citizen. In fact, nearly 50 countries in the world are in a fragile or conflict-affected state. It has never been so dangerous.
At the same time, our relationship with other people’s countries is changing. In the 1850s, Lord Palmerston stood up in this House and established the principle that any British citizen getting in trouble would involve the deployment of a British gunboat. When a British dual national in Athens in the late 1830s was not paid for some damage to his property, an entire squadron of the Royal Navy deployed to Athens to try to deal with it. Today, we have a situation where even the United States of America—a country that is able to deploy 105,000 troops on the ground and spend more than $100 billion a year—frequently struggles to get even quite small countries to provide the respect to its citizens that it wishes. That is not just a problem for the United States, for Britain or for Europe; it is a problem for every country in the world.
Given the 70 million-odd trips that British citizens make around the world every year, the challenge for our consular staff is dealing with a huge variety of problems. For example, I have been to see the consular activities run out of Marbella, where we have to deal with hundreds of British citizens who end up in Spanish jails, frequently because they have had too good a night out. Consular assistance needs to extend from that to British citizens who are captured by Islamist terrorist groups and end up in a boiler suit in the desert, about to have their heads chopped off, in some of the most difficult and inaccessible countries on earth. In between, they have to deal with the fallout of Hurricane Irma, with earthquakes and with military coups. The cases that have been brought up by hon. and right hon. Members show exactly how difficult it is. Members of Parliament have advocated for these cases very powerfully. They are difficult cases. They show exactly where Britain is having to respond. Let me take them in turn.
The first case raised was that of a British national who, as we heard, travelled to southern Iraq. I served in southern Iraq. It is not a safe place. We advise against travelling there on our websites. British embassy staff basically cannot travel to those areas of southern Iraq; it is too dangerous. He went there with an American construction company. We absolutely support the commercial drive and adventurous spirit that leads a British citizen from the constituency of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) to wish to travel to southern Iraq. He found himself in a situation in which his company had not paid the hotel, and the hotel had taken his passport.
The hon. Gentleman then championed his constituent’s case very powerfully with our Department, but our consular staff acted. They acted by calling the hotel repeatedly and pushing for the passport to be returned. They acted by calling the US embassy repeatedly, and they acted also by trying to provide support for his constituent to access legal advice. We feel absolutely the frustration of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. If I were stuck in a hotel in southern Basra in a difficult situation, with my passport held, I too would feel extremely frustrated and angry with the company, with the hotel and with my Government.
We are very fortunate that the situation was resolved. I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for all his pressure and the telephone calls he made. I have no doubt that one of the reasons it was resolved was his very active work, but I also pay tribute to the consular staff in the embassy, because I believe that their telephone calls and the pressure they brought also contributed to it being resolved.
The second case raised is an even more difficult one, because it brings us into the Indian legal system. In this particular case, Gary McCann was in a rickshaw when it was struck by a bus in 2004. The consular staff at that moment—we are now going back 13 years through Government records, and it was not this Government but a previous Government who were then responding—identified a lawyer, tried to advise Paul McCann—Gary McCann’s brother—to contact that lawyer when he visited, and were able to identify a witness who had seen the rickshaw struck and introduce him to the witness. Mr McCann understandably feels real frustration and fury at the slowness of extracting promises from the Indian High Commission, getting hold of a death certificate, getting the prosecution done and making sure the lawyer from the Supreme Court brings the case fully forward.
The British Government must balance what we feel we ought to do with what we can do. The balancing act is difficult. We must respect the fact that India is not a British colony, but an independent, proud state with a rapidly growing economy and its own legal system. It does not want to be told what to do by a former colonial power and we must balance that with our belief in the rights and justice that are due to our citizens and the sort of support we can provide for them to work within that legal system.
That brings me to the Chennai Six. Six British nationals were on a ship that had arms on it—the intention was to provide support for actions against piracy in the horn of Africa—docked in an Indian port. The Indian Government, particularly the Q branch, argued and successfully won a prosecution in court that bringing arms into India in that way was illegal and the men were detained. At the very most, these man were guilty of being on a ship that docked in Indian waters. They have been cleared once. The case was then brought a second time and they were prosecuted a second time. They have appealed and it has taken nine months for that appeal to be heard. Meanwhile, they have spent nearly four years of their lives in jail. Some of them are very young. I went to see John Armstrong in Chennai and I met the deputy Chief Minister’s family, consular staff and all the men. These men are in a really tough and unfamiliar situation. An Indian jail is a challenging place to be.
I know how personally the Minister has been involved in this case, but does he think the Foreign Office and the consular staff in Chennai have done absolutely everything they possibly can to help the men currently in jail?
The honest answer is that we can always do more for British citizens, but the consular staff have done a great deal and they have done a great deal recently. They have provided a lot of support for families to have access to the jail and in respect of conditions in the jail. The High Commissioner has visited, the previous Minister has visited and the consular staff are putting an enormous amount of time and energy into the case. I have met the lawyers representing the men and, without being a lawyer, I have tried to give as much advice and support as I can to the families and men to make sure they get the right legal advice.
The problem is fundamentally within the Indian legal system and I believe the Government and Members of Parliament have a legal obligation to be honest with people about their expectations. One of the most tragic things that can happen in such situations is to raise expectations and to pretend that the Indian legal system will move faster. I believe that again and again the men have been promised a swift resolution, but it has not come and I am not sure that that has been the most honest or kind thing we can do.
I am very aware of the number of meetings that have been held. Our own Prime Minister raised the matter again with Prime Minister Modi at their latest meeting and it was raised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he was Foreign Secretary and by the current Foreign Secretary, but the fundamental problem remains with the Indian legal system and we must keep pressing.
Unfortunately, the case is similar to that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is an Iranian-British dual national who unfortunately has been detained, like many American-Iranian dual nationals and many other dual nationals in Iran, by the Iranian Government on very unclear grounds, and consular access has been refused. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East has just paid a visit to Iran and raised the case directly with the Iranian Government.
Again, we are facing a struggle with how we exercise British power and influence in these very different contexts. We have heard about southern Iraq, Iran and India, but in fact our consular work takes place in nearly 200 consulates around the world, every one of them with different, specific local conditions.
I will end by being constructive. What must we do to improve the situation? How can we do better for British citizens going forward? How do we face this new world where 70 million people are travelling? How do we face a new world with these dangers? I have three ideas.
First, we need to focus much more on how we assess vulnerability. We will never be able to deal with every one of the 70 million trips that British nationals make worldwide, even with 700 consular staff, so we need to get much better at mixing compassion, intelligence and some difficult prioritisation to make sure the people in the toughest situations receive support. That means understanding the context, their family and financial situation and, above all, what we can actually do to help.
Secondly, we must try to work with British citizens to make sure they take responsibility and precautions, such as getting adequate travel insurance, following British embassy advice and not engaging in activities that are inherently risky. That means not just personal responsibility, but industry responsibility. How do we make sure travel agencies, employers and others fulfil their obligations to citizens?
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston asked about a company’s obligation. Again, with the Chennai Six, what on earth is the obligation of the company that employed these men? It has stopped paying their salaries, has not paid their legal fees and has made no attempt whatever to represent its employees. It has left six British citizens—as well as 10 Estonians and a dozen Indians—in jail because it has not represented them.
Finally, we must be clear about prevention. What can we do in advance to stop these situations happening? If there are problems with the prison systems of other countries, how can we work in advance with those countries to begin improving their prison systems? If there are problems with the legal systems of other countries, can we do things now to start working respectfully, diligently, persistently and courageously to drive change in those legal systems so that British citizens are not caught up in these problems in future?
The issue is important because we want British citizens to travel and to keep travelling as they never did before. We want to acknowledge the fact that the 70 million trips we make abroad are just the beginning. We want British citizens to be educated abroad, to trade abroad and to enjoy themselves abroad. The entire existence of my Department is predicated fundamentally on trying to enable that spirit of adventurous trading in an outward-facing nation whose citizens feel confident that wherever they go the strong arm and watchful eye of Great Britain is with them with realism, pragmatism and humility. The connection between the citizen and the state in some of the most difficult and dangerous situations on earth is one of the most challenging foreign policy challenges of our era.
That is why I pay tribute to Parliament and the way it has today—and for nearly 200 years—championed the interests of British citizens abroad. I also pay tribute to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our consular staff who, for all the frustrations and bewilderment of so many constituents who feel let down, isolated and afraid abroad, continue in difficult circumstances to provide what support they can.