157 British Nationals Abroad
21 MARCH 2006
British Nationals Abroad 158
[Mr. Jack Straw]
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that we must examine the question of financial support for those caught up in terrorist attacks overseas. At present, neither our domestic criminal injuries compensation scheme nor any other victim compensation scheme covers those killed or injured abroad. We are now considering a range of options in that respect, and we will make an announcement when we have concluded that consideration.
I have sent copies of the new guide to all hon. Members, and we will also send copies to all libraries and citizens advice bureaux across the UK and to our partners in the travel industry and other associated industries and bodies. We are producing a summary document in leaflet form, which will be available at airports and our travel agency partners. Information based on the guide is being sent out in the form of a checklist for travellers, which will be included with every one of the more than 5 million British passports that we issue each year. We will place the guide on our travel website, from which hard copies can also be ordered. We are also translating it into Welsh, Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu, Gujurati, Arabic and Chinese, and those versions will be available on our website or in hard copy on request.
Within the Foreign Office, the new guide will provide our staff both overseas and in London with a clear statement of exactly what they can and should do for British nationals in difficulty, and it will therefore be an important tool for further improving the quality and consistency of support across our consular network. Next week, I shall launch an updated document setting out the Government’s international strategic priorities for the next decade. For the first time, consular work will become a strategic priority in its own right, which means that every one of our heads of mission abroad will have personal responsibility for delivering support for British nationals in difficulty as set out in the new guide.
Almost a year ago to the day, I made a statement to the House on our response to the tsunami in the Indian ocean. I was struck then by the tributes from both sides of the House on the work of our consular staff around the world. Our staff deal face to face and on a regular basis with the kind of traumatic situations that most people rarely have to confront over a lifetime, and I pay tribute to them again today. I am proud that the consular support that we give British nationals abroad is among the very best in the world. 1 am determined and confident that it will stay that way, and the new guide will be an important tool to that end.
Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and the publication of the new booklet of advice. Our nationals are prolific travellers who, regrettably, will sometimes fall victim to crime, natural disasters or even kidnappings and terrorist incidents. It is absolutely right that they should know what help they can expect from their nearest embassy or consulate and that the common-sense responsibilities of travellers are also made clear. Ijoin the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to our consular staff around the world, who take on such trying tasks with such incredible dedication.
Within that general welcome, may 1 press the Foreign Secretary on a few points? First, have all possible lessons been learned from the handling of previous disasters affecting British citizens overseas? Foreign Office staff worked very hard and generally very successfully on the aftermath of the tsunami. However, the Foreign Secretary has referred to the action taken following the Bali bombings, after which, he will recall, the Foreign Office apologised for a lack of co-ordination on bringing home the bodies of British victims, which placed families under enormous pressure. Is he confident that such a lack of coordination is now a thing of the past? In looking at the range of options, he has referred to a victims’ compensation scheme: what lessons is he learning from the reserve funds and other arrangements for this purpose already established by Australia, Spain, France and Italy?
Secondly, what plans have been put in place to benefit from inter-departmental co-operation in the event of major catastrophes with, for instance, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development? The Foreign Office is not the only arm of the British Government with a presence overseas, and the forced marriage unit run between the Foreign Office and the Home Office is a welcome example of such cooperation. Will the Foreign Secretary explain why the lead Department on looking after victims on their return to the United Kingdom is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—there is presumably a good reason for that? The Foreign Secretary is smiling, but I am sure that there is a good reason for that.
Given that the security of our missions abroad is of paramount importance to deliver such services to British citizens, is he satisfied that all necessary and proportionate steps have been taken to ensure the safety of embassy and consular staff throughout the world? In considering the position of British nationals abroad, will he comment on US-UK extradition measures and their current operation? Does he accept that there is concern that British citizens have been extradited to the United States for non-terrorist offences without full reciprocity yet by the United States?
Given that the document asks British nationals to have confidence in what the Foreign Office can do for them, will the Foreign Secretary respond to the recent report by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which commented on a
“woeful lack of professional skills and a disturbing series of failings in senior FCO management”.
It said that
“the FCO needs to catch up with the rest of Whitehall. by recruiting professionally qualified, experienced people to . top
• . • roles”.
Is the Foreign Secretary satisfied that those criticisms are invalid? If not, are they being acted on?
Finally, what is the impact on the Foreign Office’s ability to give appropriate help and advice of the closure of overseas posts and missions? Four posts have closed in Africa, five in the Asia Pacific region and three in the United States. Has any assessment been made of the impact on British travellers? Again, does the Foreign Secretary agree with the Foreign Affairs Committee report that the changes to overseas posts lacked a clear rationale? Does he accept its concern that
“a number of the affected Posts are in Commonwealth countries, with which the United Kingdom has had a long and particularly close association.”