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3 Mar 2003 : Column 613—continued

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): My right hon. Friend mentioned 675,000 page impressions a month. I suspect that all those are the direct result of people choosing rather than being urged to seek advice when they buy a holiday. That applies especially to buying a holiday online. Millions of people do that through Opodo or directly through the airline. I understand why an airline might not want an automatic rather than a chosen link; information on Bali might read, "Please don't go there." None the less, could the Foreign Secretary push the matter a little further with the Association of British Travel Agents and others, who remain somewhat reluctant about ensuring the availability of the advice?

Mr. Straw: Although I am happy to take up that point, co-operation with ABTA has been good. I have no evidence of travel agents trying to discourage people from seeking advice on the website. It is happily in the nature of the anarchic-cum-democratic internet that people cannot be prevented from gaining access to it.

We have ensured that our website includes links with the equivalent travel advice of several countries. The right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) made that suggestion, which I was happy to follow up. The original suggestion was to do it with a couple of countries but we have done so with eight or nine. People who are not certain can thus look at other websites.

To return specifically to travel advice, I accept that, at times, our advice has not been as clear, simple and informative as it should be, so in the aftermath of the Bali attack, I asked officials to undertake a comprehensive review of the travel advice system, taking advice from external sources, including the Plain English Campaign and ABTA, from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Intelligence and Security Committee.

The review also took account of comments made by others—Members of Parliament and the general public, including relatives of those who died in the Bali bombing. I have made myself available to see those relatives who wished to see me, and some of them have been extremely forthcoming in the detailed advice that they have given to us not only about the nature of the travel advice, but about the important improvements to consular assistance that we have put in hand.

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As a result of the review, we have improved the content and layout of our travel notices. The aim is to ensure that the summaries are short and precise and that there is a specific terrorism paragraph where the situation in a country requires it.

To pick up a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), the report also drew attention to the importance of ensuring that the advice given to British travellers is no different from that we offer to British residents overseas, and I very strongly agree. It has always been our policy to ensure that the advice given to residents and travellers must be entirely consistent. In the aftermath of the Bali attack, we have issued strict instructions to posts to ensure that any information issued locally to British residents—whether by e-mail or otherwise—is entirely consistent with the FCO travel advice.

Of course if those in a local post have information that they think is not reflected in the travel advice, they are under a duty not only to use that information to warn local residents through their warning system—these days, it is online using e-mail in most areas—but to get in touch immediately with the relevant department in the Foreign Office, so that that information is properly reflected in the advice that we publish worldwide.

Our provision of travel advice, however good, must be subject to continual improvement. For example, it must be sensible to include a longer section in our travel advice assessing the risks to UK interests, thereby allowing British residents and travellers to make up their own minds, rather than being over-prescriptive. That is an important issue, and it was very striking that, when I made the original statement about the Bali attack on 21 October and, again, when I came to the House to make our initial response to the ISC report on 11 December, different opinions that transcend party loyalties were expressed about how prescriptive, or otherwise, we should be in our travel advice.

Since the Bali attack I have had to pay a lot more attention to the specific nature of advice for specific countries. I shall be interested to know what the view of the House is, but the more that I have to pay attention to travel advice, the more that I have come to the view that the advice ought to tilt towards being just that—advice—and that it should be as accurate as possible and describe the risks but that it should be left to travellers or residents to make their own judgment about whether to go to the country or, if they are in the country, whether to stay there or to leave.

Obviously, there have to be limits on such a permissive arrangement and, if we receive specific intelligence advice about high-level threats, it is our plain duty to tell people to leave. Whether they accept that advice is a matter for them, but we have that duty and, when we have to be much more categorical, my own view is that gradations in the advice about whether people ought to travel may be less effective than simply providing the advice and telling them to look at and make their own decision. I have come to that judgment particularly post-Bali, but also in the light of experiences relating to other countries last year. As I say, I shall be interested to hear what colleagues in the House have to say.

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We can never achieve perfection. Some will criticise us for being too alarmist; others will always demand that we issue more and more specific warnings. We look forward to advice not only from hon. Members, but members of the public. However, what certainly does not help us—happily this has not been a feature of debates or comments in the House—is for people simply to attack FCO travel advice in a way that undermines people's trust in what has been a popular and much used service, run by staff replete with skills and integrity.

Given the nature and scale of the terrorist threat that we face, we have to recognise that we cannot guarantee that there will not be another attack such as that in Bali. The Government have to prepare for the terrible eventuality that, on any given day, a terrorist attack may claim British lives in any corner of the world. We have learned important lessons from our consular response to the Bali tragedy. As I told Parliament on 21 October, in the immediate aftermath of the attack we failed to get sufficient extra staff on the ground quickly enough. I want to reiterate my apologies for that to the relatives of the victims and to those who were injured.

To ensure that we deliver the most professional response in the event of any future major incidents, I have set up rapid deployment teams, on standby in London, ready to leave for the scene of an emergency anywhere in the world at 24 hours' notice or less. Each team is led by a senior FCO official and combines a mixture of skills and experience. Those teams may find themselves working in the most trying circumstances imaginable, but I am confident that they will live up to the finest traditions of the diplomatic service in delivering the highest level of consular assistance to British nationals.

One of the many sadnesses of having to apologise to the House, to the relatives of victims and to those injured for the fact that our service had fallen below the standard that all of us wanted was that that represented no criticism of any of the staff who were involved in responding in Bali, every one of whom worked phenomenally hard and often at great risk to their own safety in Bali and elsewhere.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I welcome what the Foreign Secretary has just said about the availability of a rapid deployment team in the future. May I point out to him that a prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate in the next election, Mr. Tobias Ellwood, featured prominently in the aftermath of Bali? He and his sister went out there and had to search by themselves, without any significant support whatever, for the body of their brother. Something like that should never have to happen again.

Mr. Straw: I accept that. I have met Mr. Ellwood and his sister, who are very courageous people. I discussed what had happened to them, and this is the first time that I have had any idea of their political affiliations. It was not of remote interest to me—

Dr. Lewis: Mr. Ellwood was selected later.

Mr. Straw: Mr. Ellwood is a free citizen. I would not have minded if he had been selected before. It is entirely a matter for him. I do not think that he would mind me

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saying that, notwithstanding the terrible grief that he and his family have suffered, he has been extremely helpful in offering us advice on how we should improve the service in the future. Of course, what happened to him, his sister and their parents should never have happened.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): These terrorist outrages are likely to increase, they may occur in remote parts of countries where we have representation, such as Indonesia, or countries where we have no representation. There is, therefore, a premium on international co-operation. On this occasion, that co-operation was with Australia, and it may occur frequently with our European partners. Will my right hon. Friend say to what extent the question of co-operation, in respect of terrorist outrages, has been addressed at an EU level, and with what result?

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