Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I welcome the publication of the document, but I want to raise two issues that arise from a case with which I have been dealing for the past five years. The first concerns honorary British consulates. My constituent, Christopher Rochester, died in Rhodes in 2001, and the honorary British consul there at the time was frankly of little help to the family. It became clear in subsequent legal cases that he was closely connected to people who were involved in Christopher's death.

My second point is about access to legal support. Christopher Rochester's family have found it difficult to get independent legal advice even in Rhodes, which is part of the European Union. Will my right hon. Friend comment on what assistance can be given to families to ensure that they have access to good, local legal advice?

Mr. Straw: I do not know the details of the service that the honorary consul provided in the case that my hon. Friend raises, but I am happy to examine it on his behalf. We have increased the number of honorary consuls and we are trying to increase their training. However many paid staff we have, there will always be a need for honorary consuls so that we can spread the work even more widely. Overwhelmingly, they do a good job.

We cannot provide legal advice to British nationals overseas. That is a matter for insurance.

Mr. Kevan Jones indicated dissent.

Mr. Straw: No, I am sorry. The House must make a judgment about that because the costs could be large. On the whole, people who travel overseas have higher disposable income than the average British taxpayer. I do not believe that an elderly lady in any constituency should pay tax towards covering a risk that should be met by insurance. However, we can provide lists of
 
21 Mar 2006 : Column 164
 
lawyers, whom we believe to be properly qualified to give advice. They may or may not be on the island of Rhodes but they could be elsewhere in Greece.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Foreign Secretary might be aware that I have had correspondence with the Home Secretary on behalf of my constituent, Mr. Jocelyn Waller, who is chairperson of the UK Bali bombings victims group. I am disappointed that the Foreign Secretary has not been able to go beyond what was said on 7 December in "Rebuilding lives: supporting victims of crime", published by the Home Office. Will the Foreign Secretary at least tell the House what progress the Government have made in considering the option for a national charitable disaster fund, and for its retrospective application to the victims of Bali and Sharm el-Sheikh?

Mr. Straw: As I have said, we are giving active consideration to that matter, and we hope to make announcements as soon as we can. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman that I cannot say any more on that at this stage.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): The Foreign Office and its career structure tend to favour the large, traditional embassies over the smaller, more far-flung posts, yet it is often in those more distant postings that the best work is done to promote British interests and to look after visitors, both personal and commercial. What systematic study is the Foreign Office carrying out to ensure that the deployment of resources and staff overseas is brought into line with the tasks that we expect of them?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. There was a period, particularly during the cold war, when the most attractive posts were seen to be in the northern hemisphere, including those in America and the key posts in Europe, the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc. Since I have been Foreign Secretary, post-11 September, I have been determined to shift that emphasis and to ensure not only that we honour the staff who work in very hard posts abroad—which numerically comprise the greatest number—but that they are given the best career opportunities. Yes, staff can go to the more attractive, and sometimes easier, posts but there is an expectation that, if they want a good career, they will have to serve in the harder posts as well. We are doing a great deal in that regard. For example, an exercise is now under way to reduce the staffing of the European directorates in London and of some of the western European embassies, because an awful lot of their traditional tasks are now carried out either on a capital-to-capital basis or in Brussels. We shall use those resources to train and improve the opportunities of the staff of posts elsewhere, including the Arab world.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): I warmly commend the Foreign Secretary on his full apology to the families of the victims of the tsunami in Thailand who did not receive the help from our consular services that they should have done—in stark contrast, incidentally, to what happened in Sri Lanka, the
 
21 Mar 2006 : Column 165
 
Maldives and Indonesia. He says that he hopes that lessons have been learned, but does he not understand that many of the victims' families will wonder whether that can be the case when none of those responsible for the negligence in Thailand has been disciplined or sacked?

Mr. Straw: The situation in Thailand was much more complex than in those other posts. A very high level of service was provided in the Maldives, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, but the situation was very difficult in Thailand. I was there just a few days after the tsunami, and the problems did not arise because of incompetence, negligence or any culpable offence on the part of the staff concerned. In my judgment—this has also come out in some of the analyses of the events—it was due to the fact that some of the staff were exhausted, and that insufficient staff had been sent out with the rapid deployment teams. Those were organisational issues for which, ultimately, I take responsibility. I believe that the lessons have been learned. It does not follow that the only way to deal with the failure of a service is to sack people. If anyone commits a disciplinary offence, they should be—and are—disciplined. In this case, however, I know that some of the people concerned feel an intense personal responsibility for having let people down that will live with them for the rest of their careers. At the same time, many of the individual staff in Thailand who were criticised—there were not so many of them—have also received many bouquets from other members of the public for what they did. Overall, there were many more bouquets than there were brickbats. However, I accept that we let some families down, and I have unreservedly apologised. I am very sorry about that.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): The Foreign Secretary referred to people going abroad by choice. That choice is limited for some people, however, because of their employment. I remind him of the case of Jason Pope, my constituent, who was working in Angola, was sadly abducted and is believed to be deceased. Under the section on missing people, can guidance be given to embassies in countries such as Angola, where there is no effective police force, to be a little more robust and proactive in investigating such missing people, as, I believe, the US would be? Can the Department be slightly more accurate in the information that it gives with regard to presumption of death certificates? On the latter, may I ask—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. We have limited time, and I think that the hon. Gentleman has had a good bite of the cherry.

Mr. Straw: I will follow up the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised. Our staff are robust with local authorities. We also go to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of the travel advice that we put on our website. However, following a change in policy in respect of travel advice, which was endorsed by both sides of the House, I am extremely reluctant, except in very exceptional circumstances, to say to British subjects that   they should not travel to particular countries.
 
21 Mar 2006 : Column 166
 
Our   responsibility is to offer advice. It is then a matter for individual travellers to make their own decisions about whether it is safe for them to travel.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Is the Foreign Secretary aware that most travel insurers have specific exclusions for terrorist acts? Does not that make the case stronger for extending the current availability of compensation for UK nationals, a case made compellingly by people such as my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Corke, who tragically lost their daughter Annalie in the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings?

Mr. Straw: I acknowledge that many insurance policies currently exclude terrorism. As I have said, discussions with our consular directorate suggest that insurers are ready and willing to extend their cover—some are doing so—and I encourage them to do so. Although it is terrible when terrorist incidents occur, the number of British citizens who are casualties of those is very much smaller than the number caught up in road accidents, for example, for which insurance is easily available. That is the responsibility of insurers. That said, we have recognised, as is made clear on page 29 of the report, that in certain circumstances of terrorist incidents and other emergencies active support ought to be put in place, at an appropriate cost to the taxpayer, for victims or their families. We are considering whether we should provide extended compensation similar to the criminal injuries compensation scheme.


Next Section IndexHome Page