Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 179)



  160. As you become more reliant on ICT systems what back-up have you got in the event of any failure, because clearly with written systems you have the back-up there and with IT it is absolutely crucial, as I have found to my cost.
  (Mr Collecott) Could I say a word about that, which I would like to link also to the discussion we had previously about the question from the Chairman about whether we were better prepared for any kind of disaster in the future, whether that be a natural disaster or a technical disaster or some kind of terrorist incident? Even before 11 September we started putting a considerable effort into what is known in the jargon as business continuity planning in the middle of last year. Obviously, that was given a considerable boost by the events of last September. In particular then we began to focus very clearly on the resilience and the degree to which we could build in extra resilience into our IT systems. We have spent considerable time, effort and money in designing a certain redundancy into the systems, into using the full capabilities of the global telecommunications network which we now have to ensure, for instance, that if, for any particular reason, we were not able to use one of our buildings in London or the building we have in Milton Keynes where most of our IT equipment is, we would still be able to operate worldwide from within about an hour or two of some disaster, natural or otherwise, striking. There has been a considerable intellectual and physical effort to make sure we are much more resilient. Some of the systems we are introducing, in particular the knowledge system, which, as Michael Jay said, will have a global registry, means that inherently we will be much more resilient. If something were to happen in a particular post, a technical disaster, which meant that it lost the information which it had, then that would be available from the global registry to any other location around the world. There is an inherent resilience which is being built into these new systems.

  161. Individual posts' crucial data then is backed up automatically presumably, across the globe?
  (Mr Collecott) Yes, very quickly it will get backed up into the global registry, and that will be duplicated here.

  Sir John Stanley: Sir Michael, we will now turn to your immigration and visa issuing functions.

Mr Illsley

  162. It was in fact an IT failure in Islamabad which prompted a sub-committee from this Committee to visit that post and Delhi in relation to immigration. Since that time the Committee has taken a close interest in immigration matters. The first question is to ask what progress you are making towards the targets of dealing with 90 per cent of Members of Parliament's letters within 15 working days, bearing in mind that in the annual report last year the target met was 78 per cent. Are you making progress towards achieving that? The second question, while you are thinking about that one, would be, again Pakistan's visa issuing post I seem to recall was closed earlier this year because of the problems between India and Pakistan. Could I ask whether that embassy now is fully functioning in terms of visa issuing, bearing in mind that this is perhaps the busiest time of the year for posts such as Islamabad and Delhi?
  (Sir Michael Jay) Perhaps I could answer on the second point on Pakistan. Staff was drawn down, as you know, a few weeks ago in response not just to the increase in tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, but because of specific threats of security against our staff in Pakistan. The judgement was that it was right to draw them down. The resumption of a full service across the board in Pakistan is unlikely in the near future. What we hope to do is to increase the level of staffing in Islamabad while looking into alternative visa accommodation in Lahore, but there are at the moment no plans to re-open the mission in Karachi. This is something which is kept constantly under review and the Foreign Secretary is very conscious of the need to find the right balance between the security threats to our staff and the need to provide a visa service to people who have every right to want to come here. It is not an easy balance to draw.

  163. Presumably that then is leading to a backlog in visa applications in either Lahore or Islamabad.
  (Sir Michael Jay) Yes. Islamabad is at the moment offering a reduced service which is accepting via courier only applications from certain specific categories of people. There are two entry clearance managers and ten entry clearance officers at the moment as opposed to six and 46 in Pakistan before the draw-down. Inevitably the service is not what it was before and not what we would want it to be.

  164. One other, sadly, related issue is the question of forced marriages. What progress is the Foreign Offie making in relation to discouraging forced marriages and protecting British citizens abroad, usually young girls who are taken to the sub-continent and married against their will?
  (Sir Michael Jay) There is now a unit in the Foreign Office which works full time on forced marriage issues. I visited it the other day and I was extremely impressed by the professionalism of the people there and by the work that they are doing.
  (Mr Collecott) I can only add that my impression is exactly the same. The feedback that we have been getting from some of the people that we have been helping has been extremely positive. If I remember the figures, I think there are something like 200 people who have been in this situation whom we have managed to help in a sense from a standing start a year or two ago. I am afraid I cannot delve too much more into the detail. Perhaps I can say a word about your earlier question about correspondence. Whereas we report in last year's departmental report that we managed to do 78 per cent, as you said, within the 15-day limit, if I remember, the year before we were reporting a figure which was considerably less than that. It was somewhere in the sixties, I think.

Mr Hamilton

  165. It was 50 per cent.
  (Mr Collecott) It was pretty bad the year before. We did put more staff in, trying to improve the procedures. We have got some better ways of handling and some new technology but I fear that this is an issue which we are going to have to continue to work at in those same old ways to, if you like, grind down the problem and make ourselves more effective and more efficient and get the number up from 78 to as near 90 as we possibly can.

  166. Can I pick you up on that, Mr Collecott? It has improved considerably, I have to say. When I was first elected in 1997 one particular letter, which will remain nameless, took 18 months to elicit a response. There were good reasons behind that, but it is a lot better than it was; there is no doubt about that. My concern is this, that within the constraints of UK immigration law—and obviously our staff are constrained because there are certain things they have to do in order to ensure that people are genuine applications—in a constituency like mine and many others up and down the country, where we have a high level of people from a Pakistani or Indian background, where people are applying through Delhi and Islamabad and the other posts, and obviously it is difficult at the moment as you pointed out, for visitors' visas for weddings, sometimes for funerals, in a small percentage of cases some of our constituents' relatives are treated in a way that I do not find acceptable. I have often complained about that. What are we doing? I know you are constrained for staff and I know you have improved it considerably. How much more quickly can we go to ensure that, even with locally engaged staff, we treat some of those applicants more humanely because sometimes they are treated quite rudely (only sometimes) and also that we cut down the number of visits people have to make, which often take 12 or 15 hours from where they live to the post itself, and then we send them away again and they come back and we send them away again. Again, there could be good reasons for that, but I want to know how quickly we are going to be able to cut down on the bureaucracy behind that and ensure that we have a much quicker and more efficient service.
  (Mr Collecott) I do believe that the standards of service we have offered have increased remarkably over the last two or three years, both in terms of the way people are treated and certainly our entry clearance officers are under clear instructions about that, but also in the degree to which we have been able to reduce the queues which are sometimes part of the problem of not being able to process on one day and therefore having to send people away to come back a few days later. Certainly in a few posts that I visited recently there had been dramatic reductions in this. I agree: we have not done as much but we are extremely conscious of the problem and we are extremely conscious from our ministers downwards of the need to continue that effort to improve the quality of service we are offering.
  (Sir Michael Jay) And which we have to do by good management in post and by training, and we are trying to do both. In any case it is unacceptable if people are not treated well.

Mr Chidgey

  167. Sir Michael, I want to turn briefly to the question of forced marriages and ask you a bit more about the applicants to come to Britain on visitors' visas, and then the situation arises where in some cases they apply to remain indefinitely at the end of the six months. Both questions relate to the liaison you have with the Home Office. On the first one, of forced marriages, you say that you have helped 200 people approximately. I would like to know what research has been done to find out what the scale of the problem is. It is all very well to say that you have helped 200. Is that 200 out of 2,000 or is it 200 out of 250? Can you give us any information on the research you have done to assess what resources you need to put into your special unit to eradicate this particular issue? Again, what liaison is there with the Home Office. On the second one, is there a process of liaison between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office where a person who is granted a visitor's visa then decides, when the visa comes to an end, that they would like to apply for indefinitely to remain? Do the Home Office talk to your entry clearance officers at the post to check what was said in the interview to substantiate or otherwise this change of mind of the person who is now looking for residency here?
  (Sir Michael Jay) I have to take note of those two questions.
  (Mr Collecott) I think I might add one point on the second one. I do not know the answer to the first one. It is a question of research.

  168. A note would help us with that.
  (Sir Michael Jay) We will send a note[12].

  (Mr Collecott) On the second, one of the efforts we are putting in, and again IT comes into it, is to be able to link up the databases of cases which are held currently in IND in the Home Office and that held by the FCO at posts abroad or here, so that the process of consultation, if there is such consultation, between the Home Office and the FCO will be much better in the future.

  169. Sir John, I would be very grateful if we could have a note on this. It is anecdotal, I know, but I know of one case where there seemed to be no liaison at all between the Home Office who were looking at the application for indefinitely to remain quite separately from the fact that the original application for a holiday visa clearly had different statements on it.
  (Sir Michael Jay) I will look into that.

  Sir John Stanley: Sir Michael, we would be grateful for a note on that please. Can we now turn to the chapter of your report on the security and prosperity of our overseas territories.

Andrew Mackinlay

  170. Sir Michael, on page 12, formally but correctly it sets down the fact that you are the principal adviser to the ministers and the manager of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and then on page 16 you have got the command directors, and I looked there for Overseas Territories and I see that there is a gentleman called Fry who has responsibility for Overseas Territories, except for Gibraltar. I look down a little further and I find a man call Ricketts who, amongst his duties, has Quality of Life, which probably is appropriate when it comes to Gibraltar, and then a move sideways and I look then to see who has got Gibraltar and I happen to know that it used to be Mr MacGregor who is Wider Europe, I think. I am told he is not now, although he was down in Gibraltar with the Polish Ambassador recently and I am still awaiting a reply from the Foreign Secretary about that matter. Let that pass. Mr MacGregor has not got responsibility for Gibraltar. It is with Mr Bevan who is South East Europe. Gibraltar—the next land you reach is Virginia Beach. It is certainly not South East Europe. Why is Gibraltar with South East Europe, Mr Bevan?
  (Sir Michael Jay) It is with Mr Bevan rather than with South East Europe and Mr Bevan. When the work on Gibraltar began to increase, as the discussions under the Brussels process got going, it was decided that there needed to be an Under-Secretary, a Director, who had sufficient time to spend on Gibraltar. The conclusion was that Mr Macgregor, because of his other responsibilities, would not have enough time to spend on that issue and Mr Bevan, who had just been promoted into Director of South East Europe, would have more time and then formed a team in the Foreign Office which dealt with the Gibraltar issue. In a sense it is not so much where he fits into the organogram but that he was chosen by the Foreign Secretary to lead the team on Gibraltar.

  171. When did that change happen approximately?
  (Sir Michael Jay) That must have happened towards the end of last year or the very beginning of this year.

  172. When we visited NATO, I remember Mr Emyr Jones Parry hosting us, a very busy man at NATO. He told us he still had some responsibility for Gibraltar.
  (Sir Michael Jay) Because he had that responsibility as Political Director. When he left as Political Director and went to NATO it was decided that since he had the experience it would be best for him to maintain that experience working with James Bevan.

  173. The logic of that is not plainly obvious to me.
  (Sir Michael Jay) The idea was to create a team.

  174. The whole western world is collapsing around us. He is looking after NATO and he has still got Gibraltar?
  (Sir Michael Jay) The idea is to ensure that there was an experienced team with the time to address to Gibraltar. The decision was at the level of a Deputy Under-Secretary that should stay with Emyr Jones Parry who had been handling it and who had the expertise, and that he should be supported by James Bevan who was promoted a Director and had the time to spend to focus on that issue, and around them form a team which has been working closely with Mr Hain and with the Foreign Secretary on Gibraltar.

  175. On page 134 there is a piece here about the cost/benefit, financial regulation, money laundering and the Caribbean Overseas Territories and Bermuda. Funnily enough, it does mention Gibraltar. I read it three times this morning and it seems to me that what it is saying is that there have been problems which we, the Foreign Office, have very sensibly had to buttress and with some of the Overseas Territories with regard to financial regulation, but if I read it again and again it seems to me that that criticism does not apply to Gibraltar, which I think is very good news, but I just want to clarify: you are happy, are you not, about the financial regulation in Gibraltar? Before you answer that, if you say no I shall be putting down a written parliamentary question to say why. This is your chance. Gibraltar is okay, is it not, with regard to financial regulation, in the broad sweep of things?
  (Sir Michael Jay) I think, Mr Mackinlay, since you have given me that warning, I should like to consult the experts on Gibraltar. I am not an expert on Gibraltar.

  176. What, in NATO?
  (Sir Michael Jay) No. I am not an expert on Gibraltar.

  177. Now, come on, Sir Michael. You know, and I have put it to you, that in fact Gibraltar is signed up in every respect to financial regulation. You can be generous enough to grant that this morning despite the fact that it is highly political. Is that right, from your point of view as the custodian of good administration and governance and bearing in mind that people in financial regulation in Gibraltar are answerable to you ultimately, and the Government.
  (Sir Michael Jay) They are answerable to the Government, I think. This is a highly sensitive issue.

  178. Too right.
  (Sir Michael Jay) I have not been following the details of it in the last few weeks and I think it would be unwise of me to get into this particular issue without taking advice.

  179. Could we have the response with some despatch?
  (Sir Michael Jay) Of course[13].

12   Ev 81-82. Back

13   Ev 82-83. Back

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