Support for British nationals abroad: The Consular Service - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents


Conclusions and recommendations


Consular strategies

1.  We welcome the elevation of consular services as a vital part of the FCO's work that can provide unique assistance to British nationals overseas. (Paragraph 16)

Major organisational changes since 2007

2.  The Consular Contact Centres appear to be an efficient and effective innovation by the FCO that allows frontline consular officers to focus on their main work. (Paragraph 19)

3.  The FCO has rightly dedicated significant resources to improving and developing IT systems capable of meeting the demands of consular services. (Paragraph 21)

4.  Demand for online services will continue to grow, and it is right that the FCO has embraced this approach. However, the FCO's assurances that it continued to support those who could not access digital services via phone and in person were not borne out by the feedback we received. We are concerned that the digital strategy has resulted in a service that is harder for some expatriates to reach without third-party support. This could make vulnerable people even less able to operate independently. The Contact Centres should function as a genuine resource of consular information and support for people who have made the time and effort to call, rather than simply a 'signpost' to the FCO's online services especially when people are not in a position to access these easily. (Paragraph 22)

5.  It is of the utmost importance to get the FCO's response right in a crisis. We believe that the FCO has responded to earlier serious problems in its crisis response with energy and the seriousness they deserved, and that lessons have been learned and effectively applied. By their nature, crises are often unpredictable and the FCO will require continuous vigilance to maintain and improve its crisis systems. (Paragraph 25)

6.  There appears to have been a shift from attempting to keep track of British nationals abroad in normal circumstances so that they could be contacted if a crisis occurred, which proved difficult, to making it easier for British nationals to contact the FCO at times of crisis. This may be less reassuring for long-term expatriates who enjoyed the comfort of knowing that their embassy knows their number and address, but it is a sensible response to the problems encountered by previous systems. However, we remain concerned about potential over-reliance on internet-based services to distribute information in a crisis, when internet services might not be working, or the internet is deliberately cut off by the Government in question. In its response to this report, the FCO should set out the contingency measures it has in place to mitigate the loss of internet-based communication in a crisis, such as its surge capacity on phone lines. (Paragraph 28)

7.  We conclude that there has been a net reduction in the size of the consular network on the ground, which is a concern. The closure of posts in Europe has not been replaced by the equivalent number of openings elsewhere, nor has it been accompanied by substantial increases in alternative means of consular representation, such as honorary consuls. We are concerned that vulnerable British prisoners abroad are reportedly receiving less assistance than before. The FCO should set out in its response how it intends to review allegations that the support it offers to prisoners has deteriorated as a result of the closures. (Paragraph 32)

Honorary Consuls

8.  We consider Honorary Consuls to be an important and efficient part of the FCO's consular network, enabling it to extend its reach beyond capital cities. They do important work for British nationals at very low cost to the service. We understand concerns about potential conflicts of interest, and we recommend that the FCO consider recruiting Honorary Consuls on shorter contracts and that the FCO require Honorary Consuls to declare any relevant business interests throughout their tenure, and that the FCO ensure that training and supervision of Honorary Consuls in connection with potential conflicts of interest is standardised. We further recommend that, where the FCO replaces a consular office with an Honorary Consul, it sets out in public the duties it expects the Honorary Consul to perform. (Paragraph 36)

Reduction in documentary and notarial services

9.  The FCO's notarial service must take officials' time away from more vulnerable and needy cases, so the FCO's decision to reduce this service wherever other providers are available is a sensible one. The FCO should carefully monitor any implications of the loss of income from this service, as it would not be advisable for the FCO to increase other fees for mandatory documents to make up the shortfall. (Paragraph 39)

10.  We agree that there are circumstances in which it is not only compassionate but a most effective use of funds to help a national to return home, and prevent further problems. The FCO is right to review its debt recovery systems, and it should pursue repayment more rigorously in future. In its response to this report, the FCO should set out how it intends to improve its debt recovery systems. (Paragraph 39)

Consular staffing

11.  Locally engaged staff are vital members of consular teams and have language skills and knowledge of local issues that are highly valuable in consular work. However, we are concerned that the reduction in UK-based overseas consular work to only 9% of overseas consular posts will have the short-term consequence of making consular work less attractive for younger FCO staff due to the lack of overseas postings, and a longer-term consequence that very few senior Ambassadors or FCO staff in leadership roles will have frontline consular experience. Such a significant change to FCO careers should be carefully planned and reviewed, rather than an inadvertent result of a cost-cutting strategy. The FCO should make at least 20% of overseas consular positions available to UK-based staff. This would have cost implications, but it will ensure that valuable consular experience is maintained among the future leadership cadre in the Foreign Office. (Paragraph 47)

Public messaging and managing expectations

12.  We agree that the expectations of the general public about what the FCO can do for them are often too high, and welcome the measures taken by the FCO to explain its services more clearly. (Paragraph 49)

Suspicious deaths abroad

13.  The FCO's official guidance for families who have suffered a bereavement due to murder or manslaughter is timid and cautious in comparison to its guidance on its other services. It is understandable that support is tailored to each individual case, but the guidance gives the impression of very limited support and no guarantees of assistance. The FCO should update its guidance to be clearer and more generous about what the families can expect to receive. This should include the more extensive commitments that it has agreed internally. (Paragraph 54)

FCO's response to complaints

14.  The submissions we received indicated that consular support for families in cases of deaths abroad is inconsistent and, at times, has left them feeling entirely let down. Many of the complaints we received were not focused on extra funding but rather on things that the FCO could and should do better, like consistently returning phone calls, and providing the clear advice set out in its own guidance, as well as responding with compassion and support. (Paragraph 57)

15.  We recommend that the FCO review its training and guidance on handling non-suspicious deaths abroad, and engage in a consultation with families to discuss what went wrong, and the measures have been implemented to ensure that it will not happen again. (Paragraph 57)

16.  We welcome the FCO's review of its services to families who have been affected by the murder or manslaughter of a relative overseas. The evidence we have received from families with cases throughout the last ten years shows that the review is long overdue. The review should address why repeated failures of communication and compassion have occurred, and should examine whether more staff or more training are required. The FCO should inform the Committee of the conclusions reached by its review and any policy changes or action subsequently undertaken. (Paragraph 59)

Assistance with funds

17.  We understand that the FCO cannot commit to fund repatriation, legal fees, translation etc. especially where adequate insurance would have covered costs. The FCO's policy of working with partners who can provide funding where needed is sensible. However, more needs to be done to make the criteria and availability of third party funding more clear and consistent. When families must petition third party organisations for funding, it risks a situation in which the loudest voices will get the most funding, and a very inconsistent provision of help. The FCO provides funds to these bodies, so it is right that the public understand what they can and cannot expect from these organisations. (Paragraph 64)

18.  The FCO or its partners should look to implement a mechanism by which they can provide short-term loans to families who want to repatriate the body of a loved one, or travel to attend a court case abroad, as a compassionate response in difficult times. In light of its current poor performance in recouping discretionary loans, the FCO should include more robust recovery mechanisms in this scheme. Although we sympathise with British nationals who are forced to pursue legal cases abroad, due to the length and uncertainty of court cases, FCO loans should not be provided to cover legal fees. (Paragraph 65)

Communication

19.  It is not sensible to expect bereaved family members to remember detailed information conveyed by phone. It should be standard practice for consular staff dealing with any kind of death abroad for all calls to family members to be followed by an email or letter re-stating the information provided, for reference. (Paragraph 66)

A new central unit for murder and manslaughter cases

20.  The FCO's standards for what it will provide to families coping with deaths abroad are applied inconsistently by consular desk staff and consuls in posts for whom such cases are a small part of their overall jobs. This results in some exemplary experiences and some poor ones for families who are already going through a deeply traumatic time. (Paragraph 69)

21.  We find the case for a small central unit on deaths abroad, particularly murder and manslaughter cases, to be persuasive. A central unit providing support for families in the UK would support, rather than undermine, consular work in country, and we recommend that the FCO implement this proposal. (Paragraph 69)

Detention abroad

22.  Consular services are immensely important to British prisoners abroad. It is troubling to have such consensus among our witnesses that the quality and type of FCO services available to prisoners vary from post to post. (Paragraph 74)

Lawyers lists and legal information

23.  We welcome the FCO's commitment to update and improve its lists of lawyers and prisoner packs, which have been the subject of many complaints to this inquiry. The FCO should also consider ways in which it can co-operate with other European and Western partners who have already produced comprehensive guides to share this information and pool resources. In its response to this report, the FCO should provide a deadline by which it expects to have updated all of these documents and placed them on its website. (Paragraph 79)

Torture allegations and FCO guidance

24.  We are deeply concerned about the allegations we have received that the FCO has in some instances not responded adequately to protect and support those who said that they had been the victim of torture or ill-treatment. Any failure to support vulnerable nationals in such circumstances is deplorable. We recommend that the FCO launch an investigation into the allegations that have been raised during this inquiry, including identifying and interviewing staff involved, and that it present us with its findings, which we intend to review. (Paragraph 84)

25.  We welcome the new guidance for consular staff on torture and mistreatment, which is a clear step forward. For the new guidance to be effective it should be accompanied by comprehensive training, and the FCO should set out how many staff have been trained on the new guidance so far, and in what countries. The FCO should also keep records of the number of complaints about alleged mistreatment it pursues with authorities abroad, and make these statistics available to the Committee and its NGO partners, in order to better assess the scale of the problem. (Paragraph 86)

26.  Publication of the guidance would enable victims and their families to have a more full understanding of what can be expected, but we understand that these are internal guidelines meant for FCO officers' use. We recommend that the FCO produce a separate updated public document setting out what it can and cannot do in these cases, based on its revised internal guidance. (Paragraph 87)

Death penalty

27.  There is a difficult balance to be struck when considering government support for death penalty cases. We were moved by the cases we heard. On one hand, such prisoners are among the most vulnerable of British nationals abroad, on the other, funding cases could mean that large amounts of public money go to a very small number of people. We do not recommend that the FCO singles out death penalty cases, many of which take years to reach a final judgment, for an open-ended commitment of funding. The FCO's approach of providing consular support to the family, as well as funding and working with the specialist organisation Reprieve, is the right one. (Paragraph 89)

A "lack of proactivity"

28.  The FCO talks about the minimum services it can provide to prisoners, rather than doing the most it can to protect them. This policy does not align with its stated goal of focusing services on the most vulnerable. We recommend that the FCO prioritise fair trials rights training for its consular staff so that they can more intervene proactively, if necessary. (Paragraph 91)

29.  Press interest should not affect the FCO's decision making, but we have repeatedly been informed that media interest generates a more active response from the FCO. If true, this is unacceptable, as decisions about protecting prisoners should be made on the needs of each case, rather than how many people are watching. If the FCO has in fact been working behind closed doors on the national's behalf, it must improve its communication with the prisoner and their family to make them aware of this. (Paragraph 93)

Passport transfer and crisis 2014

30.  We do not question the security and cost efficiency rationale for the move to repatriate passports to the UK and end the process of issuing them abroad. However, it has been unpopular among expatriates, and the FCO has failed to make clear the benefits of the new system or to address its drawbacks. The reduction in the price of passports applications from overseas offers expatriates a chance to share in the benefits of the efficiency savings, and is warmly welcomed. (Paragraph 102)

31.  The Government should offer expatriates an express service option, which would attract a premium price, as in the UK, or the possibility of keeping their passport while waiting for a new one to be issued, by submitting a certified copy of the passport instead. (Paragraph 103)

Passport crisis

32.  The transfer and subsequent problems in passport processing for overseas nationals has caused reputational damage to the FCO. The speed with which the Passport Service ran into trouble just six weeks after the final transfer of responsibility from the FCO to HM Passport Office strongly suggests that planning was not properly done. The emergency measures were well-implemented, but should not have been necessary. The FCO should request that HM Passport Office reimburse any costs resulting from the increase in Emergency Travel Documents and other measures that the FCO took this summer. (Paragraph 107)

Complaints handling

33.  The Committee will continue to monitor consular complaints handling and the FCO should include its customer satisfaction statistics in its annual reports. (Paragraph 110)

Conclusion

34.  The FCO has made major improvements to its consular service over the last eight years, with sensible and effective innovations such as the call centres, the crisis centre, and the reduction in notarial services. (Paragraph 111)

35.  We consider that the organisational changes have been generally well-handled, but further changes, particularly further reductions in staff or consulates, risk damaging morale. (Paragraph 112)

36.  British nationals must share the responsibility for their own safety and security abroad. The FCO's public messaging campaigns to improve understanding of its services, and what British nationals can legitimately expect from such services, are a sensible measure. (Paragraph 113)

37.  Setting clear core levels of service has undoubtedly brought improvement, and benefits can already be clearly seen, though the FCO should continue to ensure that inconsistencies and problems are identified and addressed. Nonetheless, as the Consular Directorate proceeds in implementing changes, it is important not to dehumanise and minimise the service in the pursuit of professionalisation or excessive cost-cutting. The FCO provides vital services with limited resources when nationals are suffering under difficult circumstances. To many, it is a lifeline and a comfort in times of great need. It should rightly be proud of its work. (Paragraph 114)


 
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Prepared 23 November 2014