21 MARCH 2006

British Nationals Abroad 156

3.32  pm

British Nationals Abroad

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement in respect of today’s publication of the first-ever comprehensive guide to the Government’s support for British nationals in difficulty abroad.


It is obviously traumatic to be caught up in any emergency, to fall victim to crime or to have to go to hospital in an emergency. When that happens abroad, it can be worse still for those involved, who might be far from friends and family and unfamiliar with the local language, laws and procedures. It has therefore long been a central task of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to assist British nationals who get into difficulty while travelling or living overseas.


Demand for such support has never been greater. People from the United Kingdom now make more than 65 million overseas trips a year—three times as many as

20 years ago—and a greater proportion of them are travelling independently and to more distant and sometimes more dangerous destinations. Meanwhile, some 13 million British nationals live overseas.


Our travel advice covers 217 countries and territories and the website receives nearly 5 million hits a year. Our consular staff now deal with nearly 3.5 million inquiries a year, including from the 860,000 people who visit our consulates in person, and we help around 85,000 people a year in need of more acute assistance. For example, last year, we supported 4,200 British nationals in hospital abroad, helped the families of 3,900 people who died overseas and dealt with the detention of 6,000 British nationals. Last year, we also assisted nationals affected by major crises, including the hurricanes in America and the Caribbean and the terrorist attacks in Egypt and Turkey, and we continue to provide support to the British victims of the tsunami and their families. In addition, we are the only western nation regularly to provide special consular services for Hajj pilgrims in Saudi Arabia.


We have responded to the growing and changing demand through a programme of major improvements to the consular support that we offer British nationals. After the Bali bombings in October 2002, we set up consular rapid deployment teams, which are on stand­by to travel quickly to the scenes of major emergencies. Today we have twice as many trained consular staff on 24-hour stand-by for those teams as before the tsunami. In addition, we also have a new team based in Hong Kong that covers the Asian region and we will launch another in north America before the hurricane season this year. Our teams now include staff from the police and the Red Cross and medical personnel when they are needed. We have raised the quality of training for our consular staff and made crisis management training obligatory for all our heads of mission overseas. We have set up specialist teams in specific areas, such as forced marriages and child abductions, and recruited specialist advisers in family law and police and social work. We have expanded our 24-hour response centre in London and have new call-handling arrangements with the police to allow us to deal with a very high volume of calls in a crisis.

We are determined to keep improving the support that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides. To that end, in the summer of 2004, we asked the National Audit Office to review our consular operations. Its report was published in November last year and I have accepted in full its recommendations-­indeed, many have already been implemented. In the report, the NAO noted that the UK

“has a reputation among other countries’ foreign ministries as world leaders in consular crisis management”.


If we are to deliver consular assistance in the most effective and efficient manner possible, the public need to know what support the ForeignOffice’s staff overseas can provide to them in times of need, and, just as importantly, people need to be clear about what we cannot do. For example, we cannot get people out ofjail and nor can we pay their hospital bills. Helping British travellers better to understand what support is available should encourage them to prepare thoroughly and minimise the risks that they take.

It was for those reasons that in the manifesto for the last general election, the Government said that they would

“consult widely before publishing a comprehensive statement”


on the support that they could offer British nationals in difficulty abroad. I launched the consultation process with a written statement to the House on 20 October last year. My noble Friend Lord Triesman, the Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for the matter, hosted a major consultative event on 27 October with representatives from the House, the travel industry, non-governmental organisations and consumer groups. The consultation period lasted until 30 November and produced an overwhelmingly positive response. The result is the document that I am launching today.

The fundamental responsibility in respect of the risks of travelling abroad must be met by travellers themselves through an appreciation of the risks and with comprehensive travel insurance that covers the loss of personal effects, medical care, accidents and criminal acts, and, if necessary, repatriation to the UK. The only alternative to the personal responsibility of the traveller is that the taxpayer should meet the cost, but since travel abroad is plainly a matter of choice, and those who do travel abroad tend to have more disposable income than many in this country, it cannot be right for the burden to fall on the taxpayer as a whole.

However, since the atrocities of 11 September 2001, we have accepted that there may be circumstances so grave and exceptional that it is appropriate for the Government, from public funds, to provide exceptional assistance. The available assistance is set out on page 29 of the guide. When we trigger such assistance must be a matter of judgment at the time, and its potential availability should never be seen as a substitute for good insurance cover.

Where there has been a major disaster and we have triggered an emergency package for victims abroad, there has often also been a need for comprehensive support for victims and/or their families on their return to the UK. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has very kindly taken the lead on this. For victims of the tsunami and their families, for example, we worked with the Red Cross to help those worst affected to gain access to financial support on their return.