The Consular Service of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides vital support to British nationals overseas. It offers a wide range of services, handling anything from lost passports to kidnap, a major crisis evacuation or verification of a document. It is the FCO's public face, and it is central to its reputation at home. It does not always receive the attention it deserves, and we welcome the current Government's decision to make consular services one of the FCO's three top priorities.
Britons undertaking more adventurous travel, large expatriate populations and a series of major overseas crises have tested the Consular Service in recent years. In 2013, the FCO dealt with over 450,000 consular customers, over 17,000 of whom received personal assistance. The Consular Service has responded with a "strategic shift" to provide a more standardised and professional service, with greater clarity on what it can and cannot provide, and a new focus on the most vulnerable. This has resulted in some welcome innovations, such as global call centres to remove the pressure from consular officers and a new crisis centre that can handle multiple concurrent crises. It has also meant a shift to a 'digital first' strategy, which has made the service more accessible to many, but risks leaving some older expatriates behind.
However, the strategic shift to a "smaller and better" consular service has also meant that some services have been limited or withdrawn where they could be provided by other organisations or governments, and standardisation has meant the end of so-called "over-service" as well as under-service. The FCO has consequently put great emphasis on encouraging self-help, managing expectations and explaining the limits of its assistance to British nationals. We found that despite these efforts to explain to the public what the FCO can and cannot do, there was still a significant gap between the high expectations of the public and the reality of what the FCO could provide. Less frequently but more worryingly, we also found that there was, on occasion, a gap between what the public could legitimately expect, and what the FCO currently provided.
The consular network and directorate have undergone substantial change: in staff terms it has more than halved in size, and over 90% of overseas roles are now filled by locally engaged staff. Locally engaged staff are a strength of the FCO and are particularly suited to consular work, which is advantaged by lower turnover and local networks. However, such an imbalance creates management challenges, risks the morale of UK based staff, and also risks creating a senior FCO leadership in the future which has no consular frontline experience at all. The FCO will need fully to address and plan for the consequences of this staffing change, and we recommend that it set a target of 20% of its overseas consular postings to be filled once again by UK-based staff. In addition, the closure of consular posts in Europe has not been matched by the equivalent number of openings elsewhere, nor has it been accompanied by substantial increases in alternative means of consular representation.
In cases of deaths abroad, we received substantial anecdotal evidence to indicate that FCO services to bereaved families are inconsistent and have at times fallen well below the expected standards of the FCO, with repeated failures of communication and compassion. We welcome the FCO's ongoing review of how it provides services in cases of suspicious deaths abroad, and give our support for a proposal for a specialised central unit to provide expert and dependable assistance.
Supporting British nationals who are arrested and detained overseas takes up a substantial amount of consular time, but the service is still judged by the FCO's NGO partners to be uneven and minimalist. There is serious disquiet about the FCO's closure of consulates and withdrawal of routine visits from British nationals imprisoned in EU states, as visits are seen as the main way to provide consular assistance and visible support. We were gravely concerned by allegations that consular officers had failed properly to respond to British nationals who alleged torture in foreign prisons. The newly updated internal guidance for handling torture cases is a big step forward, particularly if accompanied by comprehensive staff training, but we ask the FCO to investigate the allegations we received and report back to us.
We considered the transfer of responsibility for the issue of passports overseas from the FCO to HM Passport Office, which was completed in March 2014. We also considered the cause and impact of the passport delays in summer 2014. We found that service, and particularly waiting time, for overseas nationals had been poorly affected by the transfer, and that the FCO's reputation had been damaged.
We concluded that the FCO has put substantial resources into the improvement and professionalisation of the Consular Service, and that the benefits can already be seen, though it should continue to ensure that any inconsistencies and problems are identified and addressed. The general public often has unrealistic expectations of what the Consular Service can do for it, but we are satisfied that the FCO is rightly focused on the core areas where it has a unique and important role. The Consular Service provides vital help to British nationals in distress, and is a lifeline in times of great need. It can be proud of its work.