Looking after our own: strengthening Britain's consular diplomacy
This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Foreign Secretary William Hague talked about the role of British consular services, and plans for the future in a speech at the Foreign Office today.
I have given many speeches as Foreign Secretary about our approach to foreign policy, our work for international peace and security and our strong emphasis on commercial diplomacy. But today I want to describe what we are doing in a vital area of the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but one which rarely receives so much attention: strengthening Britain’s consular diplomacy.
When an Air France jet plunged into the Atlantic and 228 people died; British consular staff and police worked painstakingly to identify the 8 British victims from amongst the wreckage and body parts.
When the worst hurricane in Mexico’s history struck, Foreign Office staff battled along flooded roads, downed trees and tangled power lines to reach Cancun to help evacuate 9,000 British citizens.
And last year in Bangladesh, Foreign Office staff rescued four girls from forced marriage in a single day and returned them safely to Britain, including one girl who had been kept chained to her bed.
As these stories show, consular work is a very personal business.
It touches the lives of British citizens in difficult and sometimes extreme circumstances.
It is the only way most people come into contact with the Foreign Office, and it is one of our main responsibilities as a Department.
When we came into Government we boiled down our objectives to three priorities:
First, security: the Foreign Office has to safeguard Britain’s national security by countering terrorism and weapons proliferation and working to reduce conflict.
Second, prosperity: we must build prosperity by increasing exports and investment, opening markets, ensuring access to resources, and promoting sustainable global growth.
Third and the subject of my speech today, the Foreign Office must support British nationals around the world through the provision of modern and efficient consular services.
In the front of each and every British passport is a message which reads: “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and Requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary”.
That is an expression of the responsibility we have to stand up for the rights of British nationals wherever they are in the world. When people travel our moral obligation to them does not stop at the Cliffs of Dover. At home, the first duty of the Government is the safety and security of British nationals. Abroad, it is the first duty of the Foreign Office, and consular work is one aspect of how we keep Britons safe.
I am giving this speech today because I want people to have a better understanding of the consular work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
We already run one of the best consular services of any nation in the world, and I want to set out our plans to make it even stronger in the future.
And I want to pay tribute to all the staff involved, for their outstanding dedication and commitment. They help tens of thousands of British nationals cope with problems ranging from family breakup to natural disasters and revolutions. Often their work does not get the recognition it deserves and I want to begin to redress that.
Foreign Secretaries do not often give speeches on this subject. In fact, I am told that I am the first to do so.
But one of my personal priorities is to strengthen the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as an institution, for the long term and in all its areas of work.
I want the Foreign Office always to be a centre of excellence in government, attracting the best talent from across our society, bound by a strong sense of identity and common purpose and home to the very best diplomatic skills, and I know that the Department as a whole aspires to the same thing.
This is good for our country, because a thriving democracy needs strong institutions.
It is good for British citizens, because strong diplomacy helps protect them and secures things that matter to them, from reducing terrorism to supporting jobs.
And it is good for the world, because it means our country plays a leading role in promoting human rights and democracy and in helping others.
So the need to strive for excellence in our diplomacy applies as much to consular work as it does to all other areas of foreign policy.
We need talented and highly trained UK-based and locally-engaged Foreign Office staff in many different countries.
We need people who speak the local language; who know the country inside out; who have a deep understanding of its government, its society and its institutions, and who are able to use the latest technology in creative ways to help British nationals, as our staff in Japan did to use Facebook to track missing people after the tsunami.
We need courageous people, who will travel to disaster areas, comfort the victims of violent crime and comb hospitals and morgues when our nationals are injured or killed overseas.
And we need people with judgement, who know when we should tell British people to leave a country but can also avoid over-reactions. During the Revolution in Egypt we were one of the few countries to judge accurately that the Red Sea resorts would remain safe for travellers.
So in this speech I will explain how we will maintain and strengthen this work around the world.
But first, I want to describe what it is that we can and cannot do.
If you are a British national and you get into genuine difficulty abroad, you can turn to the Foreign Office for certain types of assistance.
We help people who have lost their passports or need to find a doctor or legal advice, or who are struggling with bereavement in a country they don’t know well.
Often the circumstances are tragic and upsetting: we help the parent whose child has been abducted by their former partner; the traumatised victim of rape; the devastated family whose son has committed suicide; the distraught boyfriend whose partner has been murdered; or the vulnerable girl or boy who has been forced into marriage against their will. Last year, the youngest person we provided assistance to help rescue from a forced marriage was just five years old. At this very moment, our consular officers are dealing with saddening cases involving young vulnerable children being abandoned by their families overseas.
We help the victims of kidnappings and their families, maintaining daily contact if they need it and using all our diplomatic means to locate and help release their loved one.
We deal with crises such as terrorist attacks and conflict as well as natural disasters; and we plan for major events such as the Rugby World Cup and Euro 2012 so that British fans are helped to travel safely.
And we are also there when people bring trouble on themselves by breaking local laws, ignoring advice or committing crimes which lead to a prison sentence and, in the worst cases, even the threat of the death penalty.
Foreign Office staff have a responsibility to provide you with professional, non-judgmental advice and help; and to treat you fairly and equally whatever your gender, race, age, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, religion or belief.
This impartiality and dedicated public service reflects the highest values of the Foreign Office as a whole. And it can make a huge difference to anyone who finds themselves in any of these frightening and stressful circumstances.
The sorts of things we can do include issuing you with an emergency travel document if you lose your passport abroad and need to travel urgently. We will provide help if you are unfortunate enough to be the victim of serious crimes such as sexual assault overseas. If you are injured in hospital, we will visit you if there is need. If you are arrested or detained, we will also visit you as soon as possible after arrest, if that is your wish. And if you are in prison, in most countries we will visit you to monitor your welfare, to help you understand the local legal and prison system, to put you in touch
with support networks and to help you find an English-speaking lawyer.
We do these things every day somewhere in the world.
But there are also things we cannot do, which is unsurprising when you consider the context.
Britons make more than 55 million individual trips overseas every year, and at least 6 million of our nationals live abroad for some of or all of the time. In the space of a year, approximately 6,000 Britons get arrested, and at any one time more than 3,250 British nationals are in prison around the world. At least 10% of all the murders of Britons in the last two years took place overseas, and on average more than one hundred British nationals die abroad each week.
As you can imagine, this produces an immense demand for our services. In fact, just under two million people contact the Foreign Office for some form of consular assistance each year: that is more than 37,000 people a week.
When you are aware of these vast numbers, you can understand why it is that Embassies cannot pay your bills, give you money or make travel arrangements for you, and why we cannot arrange funerals or repatriate bodies. We try to look after everybody in the same way, and to be consistent in how we help people whether they are rich or poor, famous or unknown.
We also have to observe the law. That means we cannot help you enter a country if you do not have a valid passport or necessary visa. We cannot get you better treatment in hospital or prison than is given to local people, and we cannot get you out of prison. We cannot resolve your property or other legal disputes for you. We cannot override the local authorities, such as police investigating crimes. And we cannot give you legal advice: consular staff are not lawyers.
There are also cases where members of the public waste time and scarce resources with ludicrous requests.
It is not our job, for example, to book you restaurants while you are on holiday. This is obvious, you may think. But nonetheless it came as a surprise to the caller in Spain who was having difficulty finding somewhere to have Christmas lunch.
If like a man in Florida last year, you find ants in your holiday rental, we are not the people to ask for pest control advice.
If you are having difficulty erecting a new chicken coop in your garden in Greece as someone else was, I am afraid that we cannot help you.
Equally, I have to say that we are not the people to turn to if you can’t find your false teeth, if your sat nav is broken and you need directions, if you are unhappy with your plastic surgery, if your jam won’t set, if you are looking for a dog-minder while you are on holiday, if your livestock need checking on, if you would like advice about the weather, or if you want someone to throw a coin into the Trevi fountain for you because you forgot while you were on holiday and you want your marriage to succeed. And our commitment to good relations with our neighbours does not, I am afraid, extend to translating ‘I love you’ into Hungarian, as we were asked to do by one love-struck British tourist. There are easier ways to find a translation.
These are a just a few examples of bizarre demands that get put to our staff overseas.
Criticism that is sometimes levelled against us should be viewed in that light. An effective consular service does not mean a nanny state.
So we ask British nationals to be responsible, to be self-reliant and to take sensible precautions. This includes following our travel advice so that you ‘know before you go’, getting the right vaccinations and visas; and familiarising yourself with local laws and customs. We cannot emphasise enough the importance of good travel insurance as we don’t want to see more heart-rending cases of families forced to remortgage their house to pay for a hospital bill overseas. If you do find yourselves needing our help, we do ask British nationals to be prepared to pay for certain services; since Consular assistance is paid for from fees not from taxation and where we do charge a fee for a service, we only do so to cover our costs.
In return, we maintain one of the most extensive and most effective consular networks of any country in the world.
We have consular representation in over 180 countries. More than 740 full time staff work on consular issues at any one time, and we have 160 other staff, trained in crisis management, ready to be deployed at any moment in response to crisis overseas. Last year we despatched them to New Zealand, Cote D’Ivoire, Japan, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and to Tunisia to reinforce our Embassies and High Commissions there. And we provide travel advice on 227 countries and territories which is viewed by more than eight million people a year, giving the public a detailed picture of the risks they may face around the world.
And I am also proud that we not only react to events, we also lead campaigns to change things for the better:
The Foreign Office works to alter attitudes to forced marriage; to improve conditions in prisons; to abolish the death penalty and to restrict the cases to which it to applies; to extend human rights; to combat the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation; and to deter people from crime by warning them about the potential penalties, all in support of British nationals and our democratic values. We were the first country to launch a special section on travel advice for gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender travellers and we are the only country to have published an advice document for LGBT victims of forced marriage. And increasingly, we now give advice to hotels and governments on how to boost security in coastal resorts in Africa to reduce the risks of kidnapping.
When you consider that last year we issued 345,000 passports; provided nearly 18,000 Emergency Travel documents; helped some 20,000 Britons who had been arrested, hospitalised, whose relative had died overseas or who had been a victim of crime; provided face-to-face assistance to nearly half a million people; gave written support to another 350,000; answered nearly 1 million phone enquiries; assisted in 356 cases of child abduction; led the rescue overseas of 205 victims of forced marriage; successfully protected 6 British nationals from the death penalty and helped Britons after flooding in Thailand and Australia and instability across the Middle East, in addition to the other crises I have mentioned;
When you reflect that this entire service was provided to British passport holders, every day of the year, week in and week out, at a cost per person of £1.50 a year over the life of a 10-year passport, and without burdening the taxpayer;
And if you note that on top of this, Ministers are involved in many consular cases; meeting families and MPs and raising cases on visits overseas, for example to challenge slow judicial processes that leave British nationals in limbo;
Then you really do see that we provide a vital service to British nationals, and that foundations of our consular services are extremely strong.
Of course we do make mistakes, and sometimes things go wrong.
With so many tens of thousands of cases, many of which are unique, sometimes we do fall short, and often Members of Parliament take up these cases with us on behalf of their constituents.
In Libya for example we were criticised last year when a plane broke down that was due to go to the aid of British nationals, delaying that mission.
We will always constantly strive to improve what we do, and to ensure that we learn lessons from each major crisis.
We published a report on lessons learned in the case of Libya and we have implemented many recommendations from that report, including building more resilience into our consular system. But it is also worth noting that in Libya we succeeded in evacuating 800 British nationals who wished to leave the country, and 1,000 other nationals from over 50 countries.
In general, the Foreign Office receives three times as many messages of thanks as it does complaints or criticism. A very unusual experience for a Government department in my experience.
“Life is unpredictable and dealt me the worse possible blow at what should have been the best possible time of our lives”, wrote a man whose wife had died overseas, in a letter to our Ambassador and his team: “I would have been at a complete loss but for all your unforgettable and truly helpful assistance.”
The words of one young woman whom we helped to cope with a personal tragedy overseas are also typical of many messages that we receive. She wrote: “I was truly amazed by the reactions of the Embassy and Foreign Office. I have been travelling and working overseas for just over 8 years now and up to this point have never needed the assistance of an Embassy. I never could have imagined how supportive and comforting the people who work in this job could be…I really feel that the Embassy and Foreign Office worked above and beyond the call of duty on my behalf and I have nothing but thanks for everyone who was involved.”
We could not do this work as well as we do without other government bodies including the Home Office, the Identity and Passport Service, the Ministry of Justice, the UK Border Agency, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Ministry of Defence.
We also could not do it without the travel industry, charities, NGOs, voluntary organisations and local support networks, and members of expat communities who give their time for free. Some of those groups are represented here today. To them I say we are very grateful to you all and we value our connection with you.
We are determined to maintain and strengthen the Foreign Office’s consular work in the years ahead.
We will do this first and foremost by maintaining our global diplomatic reach and expanding it in some places.
We must always retain our ability to look after our own nationals through consular work as well as our wider diplomacy. We can never rely entirely on anyone else to do this.
Our government understands this, and that is one reason why we are expanding Britain’s diplomatic network in parts of the world and opening new Embassies.
We of course look for ways to work with other countries so that our nationals get the best possible protection wherever they are in the world, including arrangements with Commonwealth nations and the EU.
The Australians recently went to great lengths to secure the safety of a British national who was in grave danger in Papua New Guinea. Just last week we helped a Singaporean stranded in Mali by the coup to get home. And we were recently very grateful to Germany for evacuating an injured British national to hospital, after an attack on tourists in a remote area of Ethiopia in which five people were killed.
We benefit from the European Union arrangement that EU nationals with no Embassy of their own can turn to any other Member State for help.
But those who think we are ever going to subcontract consular services are mistaken. For us consular services will always remain a national responsibility.
Within the European Union, there is no role for EU institutions in defining the consular assistance that Member States should provide to their citizens, or in providing frontline consular assistance. These are matters for which national governments are accountable to their Parliaments and we will oppose EU competence creep in this area.
We will always ensure that our diplomatic network is configured in the best way to support British nationals as well as our wider interests. We have opened or are opening new British Embassies in South Sudan, Madagascar, Kyrgyzstan, Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia, El Salvador and as security improves, in Somalia; we have opened two new consulates in Canada and Brazil and plan to open six more in the emerging economies. In Europe, changing customer demands and the opportunities of new technology mean we no longer need large established Consulate offices in, for example, Florence and Venice, where the bulk of routine consular services are being delivered by consular hubs in Rome and Milan; or Funchal and Lille, where routine calls are now centralised. We plan to re-structure our consular services in Naples along similar lines this summer.
On top of all these improvements, we are introducing six new measures to improve our service.
First, we are opening a new crisis centre this summer with 50% more staff compared to this time last year, so that we can respond to multiple crises at the same time. We will be able to bring together teams of more than a hundred people from across Government to coordinate the response to crises, with a new call handling centre for worried citizens and families in trouble, and better audiovisual and IT equipment.
Second, we will set up a new network of contact centres which people can call, to provide round the clock coverage and free up more front line staff to deal with difficult cases.
Third, we are increasing our ability to respond to crises in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia by setting up a new Rapid Deployment team, on call 24 hours of the day, seven days a week, ready to be despatched to help British nationals wherever need arises.
Fourth, we will introduce a new mobile registration system by the end of this year for British nationals caught up in a crisis, which will enable people to register with the Foreign Office by text message from their mobile phones.
Fifth, we are freeing up resources and making our services more accessible by moving them online where we can, reducing queuing and unnecessary phone calls.
Finally, we are going to increase our focus on vulnerable people, so that we narrow the gap between the help they would get in the UK and that which they are likely to receive overseas. We already have arrangements to ensure that if someone is bereaved by a murder or manslaughter abroad, they will receive practical support from the Victim Support National Homicide Service, to help them access services like travel, translating and repatriation of remains. We want to build new partnerships to extend this sort of help to other bereavements and to support victims of other serious crimes, such as rape or other assaults resulting in life-threatening injuries, and people with mental health problems.
So this will be our approach: Maintaining and extending our diplomatic network, so that we are in the right places to help British nationals;
Increasing our capacity to respond to crises, and our accessibility to the public;
Using the latest technology to help British nationals get the information they need as quickly as possible;
And training our staff to the highest standard, so that British nationals, including the most vulnerable, get the best possible advice and support.
In two years in the Foreign Office, I have come to see how consular work typifies the very best of the institution and the values it stands for, including commitment to public service, fairness and impartiality.
I have seen the ingenuity and determination of our staff in overcoming problems, their willingness to go the extra mile, and the resourcefulness and courage with which, time and again, they confront the unexpected.
All these things give me great pride in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, great confidence about what we can achieve in the future, and the certainty that it performs an indispensable role for the British public in this area as in so many areas; a service on which we can rely, and which we could never and will never do without.