Compassion should be at the heart of an independent Scotland’s foreign policy

It was Gandhi who said that the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its weakest members. I quoted him in a debate in Westminster last week about the impact of the pandemic on refugees worldwide.

In a Westminster debate last week about the impact of the pandemic on refugees, I was speaking about how we have a duty of care to look after them. To be seen as a leading light on human rights and democracy, Scotland – and indeed the UK – must do our bit on the global stage.

I spoke about how Scotland is very much doing its bit on refugees, how we have opened our arms and communities, as we have always done to folk from other nations in need, who want to come and work and contribute.

As we prepare to become an independent nation, we must also think and talk about what kind of nation we would be on the global stage – and how we can learn from the mistakes of the UK government.

That’s why we need to talk about how we support and protect our citizens when they travel abroad. I am chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Deaths Abroad, Consular Services and Assistance, which took evidence from 60 families and 50 third-party organisations to understand how bereaved families are treated when a murder or suspicious death occurs abroad.

Bereaved families shared with us their traumatic experiences, which highlighted areas where improvements could be made to help families in the future who experience the death of a loved one abroad.

Our report “Why families in the UK deserve better and what can be done” was published a year ago with 92 recommendations to the UK and devolved governments, the travel sector and the insurance industry. While we have made progress in some areas, there is still much work to do.

As the SNP today publishes its submission to the UK government’s long-awaited Integrated Review (which is meant to constitute the biggest rethink of Britain’s defence and foreign policy strategy since the end of the Cold War) and our report reaches its first anniversary, it is timely to consider what has been achieved and what must still be done.

Our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, told Holyrood the Scottish Government would implement all recommendations within its power and we are also seeing welcome changes within the UK Government, with a move towards a change in language and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme (CICS) review appearing to accept via the Ministry of Justice that victims are falling between the cracks and need support.

Both are recommendations we made and, in fact, we contributed to the CICS consultation. Knowing the families who have lost loved ones and contributed to this work have had a direct influence in change happening is hopefully some comfort to them all, and I am proud to have led that work with my constituency team.

We said there needs to be a legal right to consular service and we are working closely with Richard Ratcliffe and the British Rights Abroad Group to explore how best practice in other countries could benefit the UK.

I want Scotland, as an independent nation, to have the best policies on the international stage – but I also want the UK government to do so much better. Everyone in the UK deserves better.

However, while we take one step forward we are forced one step back. We recommended the FCO creates a dedicated unit that is not responsible for international trade and economic interests, to address the potential conflict of interests between negotiating trade deals and advocating for UK citizens.

Eight months later the UK Government announced the merger of the FCO and DfID – exactly the opposite of what we believe needs to happen.

And this is where an independent Scotland can make a valuable difference. Looking towards independence, we want to develop the framework for a foreign policy and an independent consular service with compassion and real meaningful support at its heart.

It’s the perfect opportunity to start with a clean sheet: policy and processes built carefully from the experiences of bereaved families, created in memory of the love and lives they have lost.

We know nothing we say or do will return their loved ones to them, but every single family with whom we spoke was clear that they were giving evidence not for them, because it was “too late”.

Instead, they came forward in a bid to ensure that other families do not have to experience the depths of despair that they have in their crusades towards justice.

We also know of some families who were too broken to come forward and there will be many, many other families who found the process too damaging and simply gave up.
We owe it to all of them to ensure no-one else experiences such trauma and stress; a policy and processes with compassion for citizens at the very heart is the only way to do that.

This is the start of a campaign to which my team and I and are 100% committed. It will be a roadmap for change.