THE BLOG

Bring Billy Back

09/05/2017 13:01 BST | Updated 09/05/2017 13:02 BST

As Westminster prepares to go into a long campaign because of Theresa May's U-turn on a snap election, many issues MPs have been working on are in danger of disappearing into the political long grass.

One of the issues that has been a major concern for me as the member for East Renfrewshire is the case of the so-called 'Chennai 6'. This is something the UK government has consistently fallen short on and will now - unfortunately - fall to the next parliament to sort out. We must not lose sight of this issue.

The Chennai 6 are British anti-piracy seamen imprisoned in pretty dreadful conditions in the Indian city of Chennai - formerly known as Madras. The six ex-paratroopers were working for Advanfort, a US maritime security company, to protect ships in international waters. They were arrested in October 2013, when piracy was at its peak, when their vessel, the Seaman Guard Ohio, entered Indian waters. My constituent, Billy Irving was jailed for five years, along with five other UK nationals and thirty other members of the ship's crew.

All of the vessel's crew were jailed for five years 'rigorous imprisonment' because the vessel was carrying firearms in Indian territorial waters. The Chennai 6 continue to protest their innocence and their families, colleagues, and politicians in Britain have branded their punishment unjust. The men have presented documentary evidence that the vessel was licenced to conduct anti-piracy activities in international waters. It is also clear that the men were unable to influence the course sailed by the vessel or the decision to enter Indian territorial waters.

I have raised this case on a number of occasions - and last week had a final chance to press the Conservative Government on this unacceptable situation. We need to get these men home. But, now, because of this election campaign - the issue is being kicked into the long grass.

I initiated an All Party group for the Chennai 6, and was one of a number of MPs, along with the imprisoned seamen's families, who presented a petition signed by 35,000 people to 10 Downing Street. I have raised their plight numerous times with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and made the case with Indian High Commissioner.

Families like Billy Irving's, where his son William faces growing up and going to school without his Dad, are in limbo, their family life in tatters.

The UK government strategy of leaving well alone has not paid off. The same government has secured the release from other countries of people who have admitted their guilt. So, there is a terrible irony here, if these military veterans, who have consistently protested their innocence and backed it up with documentary evidence, can't be helped.

When I had the opportunity to ask the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson directly about getting the men home he looked completely pre-occupied; no doubt focussed on the Brexit shambles his government is creating. It is so unfair that these men are left languishing in an Indian jail, and now we have been plunged into an election campaign in which, frankly, everything has stopped in its tracks. The men's families had plans for a rally in London - once again to raise awareness of the situation - but that is now in doubt.

The families have worked tirelessly since the men were first taken in to custody. No one could have done more than they have, and I applaud all of them for the dedication they have shown.

The election has added uncertainty in UK politics, so we must ensure we do not forget the plight of these men and that the case remains a key priority for the next parliament. The families have campaigned tirelessly for the release of these men - and if returned to parliament on June 8th I will be with them, until we get Billy and his colleagues home. We must do everything we can to keep the pressure on the Indian Government, and ensure the UK Government is taking real steps to secure their release.