Memorandum submitted by the Foreign and
Commonwealth Office on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration,
Case No: 1488/96 (29 January 1998)
In April 1994 a British national working for
a major British company in Saudi Arabia complained about unsatisfactory
treatment by the Consulate in Jedda. His complaint led to an exchange
of letters with the then Ambassador. The Ambassador also wrote
to the man's employers complaining about his attitude. The man
subsequently resigned. It later emerged that he claimed that the
company subsequently told him that they had been embarrassed to
receive a complaint from the Ambassador, and that if he did not
resign he would be dismissed.
In 1995 the man's MP, Mr David Congdon, wrote
to the FCO Ministers of State, Mr Hogg and then Mr Hanley, about
the Ambassador's correspondence with him and the company. In reply
Mr Congdon was sent a copy of the Ambassador's letter to the company:
it was pointed out to him that the letter contained no suggestion
that the company should take action. In 1996 the man complained
formally to the FCO and received a reply which repeated inter
alia that the decision to terminate his employment was a matter
for the company alone.
The man's MP then took his complaint to the
Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (the Ombudsman)
complaining about the Ambassador's action and arguing that the
FCO had failed to give his complaint prompt and proper consideration.
Following a full investigation the Ombudsman
issued his report in September 1998. He said that the man was
entitled to complain to the Consul and then the Ambassador. He
found no justification for the Ambassador's letter to the complainant's
employers: it served no purpose in the proper handling of the
man's complaint, and it implied that he had no right to complain
and that the matter was likely to spoil relations between the
Embassy and his employers. The man was entitled to expect that
his correspondence with the Ambassador would remain confidential.
Moreover the FCO had been at fault in not admitting, in 1995-96,
that the Ambassador's action was indefensible.
The Permanent Under Secretary of the FCO, not
previously aware of the case, accepted the report's findings in
full; apologised unreservedly on behalf of the FCO for the fact
that the Ambassador had written in such terms to the man's employers
and that the man's correspondence with the Ambassador had been
sent to his employers without his consent; and for the subsequent
FCO mishandling of his complaint. Though not entirely convinced
that adequate account had been taken of the contextual background
or of circumstances in Saudi Arabia at the time, the Ambassador
associated himself with the apology.
The Ombudsman recognised that the complainant's
cessation of employment was primarily a matter between him and
his then employers. Though noting that there was no clear evidence
that the man had lost his job as a result of the correspondence
from the Ambassador, the Permanent Under Secretary decided to
offer him an ex gratia payment of £5,000 (since accepted)
to make amends for the general mishandling of his complaints.
In his testimony to the Public Administration
Committee on 12 January, the Permanent Under Secretary commented
that this was a most unusual case. In 1998 the FCO's Consular
Division handled 9,248 cases; and its overseas posts issued 399,000
passports. They received only 86 complaints. The FCO processed
over 1.4 million visa applications, the vast majority within 24
hours. Migration and Visa Correspondence Unit (MVCU) received
only 84 complaints.
In the light of this case he had nevertheless
taken steps to ensure the proper handling of complaints, and improvements
in the handling of inquiries by the Ombudsman. To ensure thorough,
prompt and consistent investigation of complaints, Parliamentary
Relations Department had been designated as the contact point
for dealing with all PCA cases. Heads of Mission had been instructed
to handle complaints against overseas posts personally, and the
Head of Parliamentary Relations Department had been instructed
to oversee the handling of Ombudsman cases.
The PUS told the Public Administration Committee
that Heads of Mission had been reminded of the need to deal courteously
and quickly with complaints from members of the public. When dealing
with complaints from British subjects at home or abroad, the following
guidelines should be followed:
(a) correspondence with members of the public
should be treated in confidence. Correspondence should not be
disclosed to third parties without the author's knowledge;
(b) the FCO fully respected the citizen's
right of complaint. All complaints should be thoroughly investigated;
(c) when reviewing the handling of complaints,
officers should go back to first principles and to the basics
of the case. They should not simply defend a position or argument
because it had been used before.
Finally, the Permanent Under Secretary noted
that complaints to the Ombudsman about the FCO and overseas posts
were relatively rare. The 1997-98 PCA report records that only
two full investigations had been completed; in one the complaint
was found to be unjustified, and the other partly justified. By
comparison, 214 complaints against another Department had been
fully investigated: 167 had been found fully, and 41 partly, justified.