Human rights charities have welcomed Labour’s pledge to create a new legal right to provide consular assistance for British citizens who fall into difficulty abroad.
The proposals led by shadow foreign secretary David Lammy come in the wake of several high-profile cases of the Foreign, Development and Commonwealth Office (FCDO) receiving criticism for failing to secure the release of British citizens detained abroad.
These include British citizen Jagtar Singh Johal, who is still being held in an Indian jail without charge and British-US national Morad Tahbaz, who is still being detained in Iran and Alaa Abd el-Fattah who is being imprisoned in Egypt.
Amnesty International has described the proposal as “positive” but says they need to see the detail.
The human rights body added that in addition to full consular assistance, UK ministers need to have regular meetings with affected families.
While Redress, an NGO that pursues legal claims on behalf of survivors of torture in the UK, said that this policy could dramatically improve the lives of British nationals detained abroad.
At present there is no legal obligation for the UK government to provide consular assistance to a UK citizen, even in cases involving allegations of torture or arbitrary detention, leaving it entirely at the discretion of government.
Some EU countries such as Germany recognise a specific right of citizens to consular assistance.
Speaking at the Labour conference Lammy said: “Too often the government’s efforts to secure the release of British nationals unjustly detained abroad have been arbitrary, haphazard, uncoordinated, lacking resources and lacking transparency.
“Morad Tahbaz should not still be suffering in an Iranian prison, after the Foreign Office assured his family that he would be released along with Nazanin.
“Alaa Abd el-Fattah should not be locked up in prison in Egypt simply for sharing a Facebook post and not even being visited by British diplomats.
“And it is unacceptable that Jagtar Singh Johal has faced years in arbitrary detention, without ever facing a trial.”
He added: “Labour will end the notion that help from the British state when you are in trouble abroad depends on the whims of Tory ministers, by legislating for a new legal right to consular assistance.”
Eilidh Macpherson, Amnesty International UK’s individuals at risk campaign manager, said: “We need to see the detail, but this looks positive.
“Currently, the families of British people arbitrarily detained overseas are often left in the terrible predicament of having to fight exhausting battles with FCDO officials to get help and support when a family member has been thrown into jail.
“The families of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori have told us time and time again that the UK government was too slow and seemingly unwilling to be properly assertive with the Iranian authorities.
“Even now, months into a punishing hunger strike, the family of Alaa Abdel Fattah are struggling to get the help they need and deserve from the UK government to secure Alaa’s release from jail in Egypt.”
She added: “In addition to full consular support, we need to see UK ministers establishing regular meetings with the families of people such as Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof in Iran so that the families can be fully reassured that the UK is taking all necessary steps to secure the release of their loved ones.”
Rupert Skilbeck, Director of Redress, said: “It can be highly problematic for the UK government to have such a wide discretion over the provision of consular protection, especially when this may be the only link between the detainee and the outside world and their only protection against abuse from their captors.
“We welcome Labour’s commitment to introduce a legal obligation to provide consular protection.
“We think this could dramatically improve the experiences of British nationals detained abroad, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Jagtar Singh Johal, and their families, and provide much needed certainty for others like them.”
The families of former Iranian detainees Anoosheh Ashoori and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe have spoken of the difficulties of getting consular support while their loved ones were imprisoned.
Speaking at a seminar this month on the legal battle to release Nazanin, Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband described his meeting with the former Foreign Secretary Liz Truss as a “car crash.”
Ratcliffe went on hunger strike outside the Foreign Office for 21 days last November, in an effort to pressure the government to take action to help free his wife.
“Liz Truss… my meeting with her when we were on hunger strike was a car crash,” he said.
“I walked out of there openly disdainful and angry and frustrated. But in some ways it was the most effective because it was just honest.
“And she clearly said I never want to be in that situation again.”
Morad Tahbaz who was supposed to return home along with them still remains in detention in Iran.
His daughter Roxanne Tahbaz has repeatedly asked prime minister Liz Truss to “stand by her word” and secure her father’s release.
The Foreign Office has been contacted for comment.