In a highly critical report by MP’s the once revered Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been accused of failing to meet acceptable levels of help to many Britons abroad or their families back home, it even goes so far as to mention that some of those requiring assistance, but have not adequately received it, have alleged torture in prisons overseas.
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.
This report has been based on evidence from members of the public who have had cause to use and experience consular services, information has also come from former ambassadors, NGO’s and other experts who suggest that cost-cutting and over-reliance on internet based services risk dehumanizing support systems in a situation where personal contact is paramount.
Deeply unpopular with the public was the decision to end the issuing of British passports in FCO offices abroad, now all applications are dealt with in the UK. MP’s have said that the Foreign Office has failed to make clear the benefits of the new system and have not addressed the shortfalls
The Foreign Office’s budget has been slashed from 2.4bn pounds to 1.7 billion pounds (30%) since 2010. This measure caused the closure of many consular posts abroad and a huge reduction in staff numbers employed abroad.
In early 2011 the FCO employed over 5,000 civil servants from the UK while 8,500 were hired locally overseas. Now it employs 4,600 permanent UK staff, while local staff numbers have increased to 9,200. 15 offices have been shut down since 2010, 9 of those from Europe, four new embassies with consular functions have opened since then and some existing offices have been upgraded.
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”
The mother of Steven Ashton who was killed aged 22 at a party on Thailand’s party island of Koh Phangan famous for its full moon parties on New Year’s Eve 2012 told the inquiry that the level of service she got from the Foreign Office was “totally unacceptable”. She said “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.”
Another case that was brought to light was that of Lee Talbot who has been detained in Tunisia since early August, his girlfriend said that Lee had only had one visit from an FCO official since he was detained and the next time he was due for a visit was be in mid December . She 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 found himself in jail after a random drug test while on holiday, the tests proved positive for traces of marijuana that he sampled on a visit to Amsterdam a couple of weeks earlier.
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.”
However, the MP’s said that despite the shortfalls the FCO could still be proud of the help it offers to British Nationals overseas and their relatives. I n 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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