The once mighty and revered Foreign and Commonwealth Office is failing to offer acceptable levels of help to many Britons abroad and their families – including those alleging torture in prisons overseas – according to a highly critical report by MPs.
The conclusions of the all-party foreign affairs select committee – which says it is “gravely concerned” that allegations of torture are not being dealt with adequately and that families of Britons killed overseas often feel “entirely let down” – will be a serious embarrassment to ministers.
The report, based on evidence from members of the public who have had experience of consular services, former ambassadors, NGOs and other experts, suggests that cost-cutting and “over-reliance on internet-based services” risks dehumanising support systems in which personal contact should be central.
The decision to end the issuing of British passports in FCO offices abroad, with all new applications now being dealt with in the UK, has also been deeply unpopular with the public, it says. The Foreign Office “failed to make clear the benefits of the new system or to address its drawbacks”, the MPs say.
Since 2010, the Foreign Office’s budget has been slashed by 30%, from £2.4bn to £1.7bn, leading to the closure of many consular posts abroad and a drastic reduction in the number of permanent staff from the UK who are employed abroad.
In early 2011 the FCO employed just over 5,000 civil servants from the UK, while 8,500 were hired locally in foreign countries. It now employs just over 4,600 permanent UK staff, while the number of locally hired staff has grown to 9,200. Since May 2010, the FCO has shut down 15 consular posts – nine of which are in Europe – while opening four new embassies with consular functions and upgrading others.
The committee says it received “substantial anecdotal evidence” to indicate that FCO services to bereaved families were “inconsistent and have at times fallen well below the expected standards of the FCO, with repeated failures of communication and compassion”.
Diane Ashton, the mother of Stephen Ashton, who was killed, aged 22, at a full-moon party in Thailand on New Year’s Eve 2012, told the inquiry that the level and nature of service from the Foreign Office following her son’s death was “totally unacceptable”.
“My experience is that the FCO, particularly in London, rely on detailed information being given over the telephone with no follow-up in writing. Taking in this detailed information and then remembering this days later is a huge task when you are in a complete state of shock.
“I recall at the time that I was in disbelief and found it quite incredible that we had received more formal correspondence from the Met police regarding my daughter’s mobile phone that had been stolen just before Christmas than we had received from any public body about the death of Stephen.”
The FCO has also come under fire from the partner of a British man who is being detained in an African prison and has criticised the Foreign Office for in effect abandoning him to his fate. Florist Kirsty Thomas, 40, from Mottram in Greater Manchester, said Lee Talbot had been detained in Tunisia since early August with barely any support from the British government.
So far, Talbot, 38, who works for Northern Rail, has received just one visit from an FCO official, with another due in mid-December. Thomas said: “It’s beyond a joke really. There really isn’t the help you’d think that there would be. The consular service should be there to help, and help when you’re in trouble, but it’s not – you are on your own.”
Talbot was randomly drug tested while on holiday in Tunisia during the summer. The tests detected traces of cannabis ,which he had sampled during a trip to Amsterdam, two weeks earlier.
Tunisia has mandatory sentencing for cannabis consumption, with serious charges that may even result in more than 20 years’ imprisonment.
“They [the Foreign Office] tell you one thing and then something else entirely. Their approach can be very contradictory,” said Thomas.
The handling of allegations by Britons of torture in prisons abroad was a particular worry to the committee. “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.”
The MPs say that despite its shortcomings, the FCO can still be proud of what it does to help Britons overseas and their relatives. While they welcomed moves to offer more support online, the MPs said assurances from FCO staff that they were helping those who could not access digital services “were not borne out by the feedback we received”.
In a speech in April 2012 the then foreign secretary, William Hague, said the closure of some consulates had allowed new ones to be opened elsewhere. But the committee found there had been a clear net loss of services in the lifetime of the coalition government to date.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “The committee’s report recognises the high level of consular support staff provide to thousands of British nationals in distress overseas every year and the improvements we have already made. This is a priority for the Foreign Office. We have worked hard to improve our service and will continue to do so. This report will play an important role in this. We will consider the recommendations carefully and respond fully in due course.
“Some of the issues that the committee has identified, including our response to tragic murders abroad, are areas that we are already working to improve and we will consider the points that they have made.”
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