Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Special Report


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; and

    (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.

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Prepared 9 January 2001