Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 39 of Session 2005-06, dated 20 April 2006


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today:

"FCO consular staff have a very difficult job to do, especially given the tightness of the resources available to them. I applaud their commitment and skill in carrying out that job - both on a day to day basis and when disasters strike. What they must concentrate on now is providing a service which better meets the challenges of today.

"FCO consular staff increasingly have to deal with the appalling results of British tourists carousing abroad. The Department should get a clearer idea of the effectiveness of its publicity aimed at improving the behaviour of the groups who most often end up needing help, such as stag and hen parties. Where our nationals have landed themselves in trouble as a result of their own irresponsibility, the FCO should not hesitate to charge them for its services.

"It is unclear why FCO Posts differ from one another in the level of service they provide. If you go to hospital in Bratislava, you'll almost certainly find at your bedside a member of the consular staff; in Budapest, nobody. The Department should set minimum standards of service and, more broadly, address its lack of reliable management information systems.

"Consular staff had to deal in 2005 with nine major overseas emergencies- and showed tremendous dedication and determination in helping British nationals in distress. I recognise that the FCO is taking steps to improve its emergency plans, especially in the light of its experience during the Tsunami when its call handling system was overwhelmed. The quality of emergency plans should be raised to the highest possible level."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 39th Report of this Session, which examined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's progress in influencing British nationals travelling overseas; developing consular services as a responsive service; and reacting to consular crises.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (the Department) provides a wide range of consular services from over 200 Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates ("Posts") worldwide. In 2004-05 the Department published travel advice for more than 200 countries, issued 465,000 British passports and provided assistance to 84,000 British nationals overseas. The Department also prepares for, and responds to, major overseas crises which involve, or are likely to have involved, British nationals.

To address the challenges faced by a rising demand for consular services, the Department has looked at ways of reducing calls for consular assistance by influencing the behaviour of British Nationals travelling overseas. The take-up of country-specific information and general travel advice has been variable, and changing the behaviour of those groups of travellers who are most at risk while overseas is a major challenge.

The Department recognises that its consular work is a service delivery business, and should be run as such. It has looked at more resource-efficient ways of responding to customer requirements, including securing representation through the use of honorary consuls and partnership arrangements. The Department's Consular Guide, published in March 2006, is intended to address the expectation gap that currently exists between the consular services it can provide, and the services the public expects.

In 2001, the Department procured a casework management system at a cost to date of £3.3 million. As yet, this system has not been successfully embedded across the organisation, and so has not yet produced the management information the Department needs to manage its consular business effectively.

The Department's current arrangements for issuing passports at over 100 Posts are costly to Britons living overseas, and it is difficult for the Department to manage consistent standards of security against fraudulent applications. These difficulties are likely to increase with the move to the next generation of biometric passports unless the Department makes major changes to its passport issuing network.

Responding to crises overseas is a high profile aspect of the Department's work. The Department has improved its crisis management capabilities since 2001, although there has been slow progress in updating and testing emergency plans at Posts. The Indian Ocean Tsunami presented an extreme challenge for consular services; their call centres were overwhelmed and they were unable to assist British nationals in some affected areas as soon as they would have wished.

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