Press release

FCO: “No madam, we can’t find a chef to make you haggis”

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Foreign & Commonwealth Office reminds travellers what it can do to help British nationals overseas

Can you recommend a Scottish chef in Brussels who can make haggis? How do I set my antenna to receive English TV channels in Italy? Can you find me cheap flights to New Zealand? These are just some of the recent enquiries the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has received from around the world.

Last year the FCO’s Contact Centres received more than 365,000 calls from British nationals. The vast majority of these were genuine calls from people who needed our help, but we still receive thousands of enquiries every year relating to issues we are unable to assist with. These enquiries can take valuable time away from those in genuine need of assistance.

Some of the more unusual calls we received in 2014 include:

  • a caller asking for help with setting up ‘British-style’ hanging baskets at a trade show because the professional gardener hired for the purpose had stage fright
  • a British woman asking the consulate in Albania how to find out if her son’s fiancée was already married
  • a caller asking for advice on how to treat a cat’s infected paw
  • a man requesting that staff at the Embassy in Mexico City go to the airport to check whether he had left his mobile phone on a plane
  • a woman in Italy calling to enquire how she could synchronise her TV antenna to receive English channels
  • an event coordinator in Brussels asking for the name of a Scottish chef based in the country who could make Haggis for a Burns Night event

Such enquiries stem from a lack of understanding of what FCO consular teams can do for British nationals overseas, so we are launching an awareness campaign to remind UK travellers and residents overseas of the services we provide, and what we can and cannot do.

The FCO’s priority is to protect the welfare of British nationals abroad, and consular staff will always do their best to assist people when they find themselves in difficulty. However, it is important for travellers to understand what services we provide before getting in touch. There are also some simple pre-travel steps that you can take to reduce the risk of getting into difficulty and needing our help, such as taking out comprehensive travel insurance, researching the destination and any health risks and ensuring access to emergency funds.

Foreign & Commonwealth Office Minister, David Lidington, said:

It is important for FCO consular staff to be able to focus on our most vulnerable customers, such as victims of crime, those who have lost a loved one abroad or people who have been detained or hospitalised overseas.

Consular staff support thousands of British nationals who encounter difficulties overseas every year and we handle over 365,000 enquiries annually. We will always try to help where we can but there are limits to what we can do, so it’s important for people to be aware of how we can help.

We can issue an emergency travel document if your passport is lost or stolen, offer support if you become a victim of crime or visit you in hospital or prison, but we aren’t able to pay medical bills, give legal advice or get you out of jail, or indeed act as veterinary surgeons.

Head of the FCO’s Global Contact Centres, Meg Williams, said:

The role of the FCO Contact Centres is to help enable consular staff to focus on what is important and to concentrate on those in need, but we continue to receive misdirected enquiries from British nationals. We receive hundreds of thousands of calls every year and while the vast majority of these are from British nationals in genuine need of our assistance and services, in 2014 38% were not related to consular support at all.

For example, one caller asked us to help find his son’s missing suitcase – as it had apparently been lost by a British airline, the caller thought the British consulate would be able to locate it.

Recent research* revealed that the number of people who have knowledge of what embassies and consulates do has dropped to the lowest in three years among young people (aged 16-24), from 62% in 2011 to 55% in 2014.

For more information on how the FCO can help British nationals overseas, please see our guide to support for British nationals abroad.

Also check out our Buzzfeed article 7 Calls British Embassies Weren’t Expecting

Further information

If you would like further information please contact 0207 781 2300 or ForeignandCommonwealthOffice@consolidatedpr.com

*Figures taken from the UK Travel Habits Tracking Research, July 2014

The Know Before You Go campaign targets a number of audiences, from gap year students to package holidaymakers; sports fans to older travellers and people visiting friends and family abroad. The campaign works with more than 400 travel industry partners to communicate its messages. For more information visit our Know Before You Go web page.

If you have any enquiries for FCO consular staff before you go or while abroad you can use the FCO’s Twitter service @FCOtravel. Questions are answered 9am – 6pm GMT, Monday – Friday and FCO staff aim to respond within 30 minutes. This service adds to the ways that British people travelling or living overseas can already get in touch with the FCO: by emailing our travel advice team or contacting local consular staff

You can also keep up-to-date with the latest FCO travel advice by signing up to the FCO’s Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Information about how the FCO can help British nationals abroad:

The FCO can: The FCO cannot:
Issue you with an emergency travel document Help you enter a country if you do not have a valid passport or necessary visas
Provide information about transferring money Give you legal advice or translate documents
Provide help if you have suffered rape or serious sexual or physical assault, are a victim of crime, are ill or in hospital Investigate crimes or get you out of prison
Give you a list of local lawyers, interpreters, doctors or funeral directors Get you better treatment in hospital or prison than is given to local people, but we will raise concerns if treatment falls below internationally recognised standards
Contact you if you are detained abroad Pay any bills or give you money
Contact friends and family back home for you if you wish  
Assist people affected by parental child abduction Make travel arrangements for you
Provide help in cases of forced marriage  

Enquiries Checklist

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