MPs concerned FCO 'let down British torture victims'

Select committee calls for investigation but gives overall praise to Foreign Office for its work
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Serious allegations that Foreign Office officials have "failed" to help British victims of torture should be investigated by the Government, according to a new report by the Foreign Affairs Committee today.

The concerns arose during a year-long inquiry into support given to Britons overseas by the consular service, and after an increase in allegations of ill-treatment of British nationals abroad which have almost doubled from an average of 50 reports a year in 2005–10 to 95 in 2013.

"We were gravely concerned by allegations that consular officers had failed properly to respond to British nationals who alleged torture in foreign prisons," says the report. "We ask the FCO to investigate the allegations we received and report back to us."

New guidelines for consular staff on how to deal with torture cases were introduced last year, in the wake of a complaint against the FCO by a British aid worker which was upheld by the Parliamentary Ombudsman. The worker had not received adequate support by the British embassy in Cairo after being raped by a military official in Egypt in 2011. Among other failures, consular staff did not accompany her to report the crime or help her arrange a medical examination.

Media attention, or lack of it, "should not affect the FCO's decision making," the report says, "but we have repeatedly been informed that media interest generates a more active FCO response. If true, this is unacceptable, as decisions about protecting prisoners should be made on the needs of each case, rather than how many people are watching."

Carla Ferstman, the director of Redress, which aids torture victims, said: "The UK Government should be doing its utmost to prevent torture abroad, and a starting point is to do more to protect its own citizens from being tortured in foreign states. We hope this important report will result in greater and more transparent efforts being made to do so."

MPs are also concerned about how suspicious deaths of Britons overseas are dealt with. "Support for families in cases of deaths abroad is inconsistent and, at times, has left them feeling entirely let down," says the report.

Despite these concerns, the work of the FCO abroad is given a vote of confidence. The report concludes that there have been "major improvements" during the past decade but cautions: "The FCO should continue to ensure that inconsistencies and problems are identified and addressed... it is important not to dehumanise and minimise the service in the pursuit of professionalisation or excessive cost-cutting."

Overall, the report says: "The FCO provides vital services with limited resources when nationals are suffering under difficult circumstances. To many, it is a lifeline and a comfort in times of great need. It should rightly be proud of its work."

Sir Richard Ottaway, the committee's chairman, said: "Some people expect the FCO to act as lawyer, insurance company or banker when they run into trouble abroad. This is unrealistic and leads to unfair criticism of the unique emergency assistance the FCO does provide."

An FCO spokesman said: "We have worked hard to improve our service and will continue to do so."