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The FCO has made significant improvements in the consular service it provides, but further progress is needed to deliver a service which meets the changing needs of Britons overseas, according to a National Audit Office report. The main elements of consular services are advising on overseas travel, issuing passports abroad and assisting Britons in distress overseas, including those affected by major crises such as natural disasters or terrorist incidents.

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Consular Services face unprecedented demands. More British nationals are travelling and living abroad than ever before, (65 million overseas visits in 2004/05 compared to 54 million in 1999/2000). More than half of holidays are now organised independently, without the overseas support of holiday operators. And the changing nature of British society has led to the provision of new services such as support for pilgrimages and work to protect victims of forced marriages. Assistance to Britons in difficulty is funded by a “consular premium” of £9.65 levied on the cost of all adult passports, a level of funding which has been substantially unchanged for several years. Against this background the FCO’s invitation to the National Audit Office to review this vital service fitted well with our own plans for coverage of FCO activities.

The FCO’s advice to travellers is of a high quality. It covers almost all countries and territories, draws on a wide range of information sources and is regularly updated. But although more and more travellers are accessing it, it is still consulted only by a minority. There is further scope to reach and influence the behaviour of travellers, particularly those who do not normally consult the internet, who do not take out proper insurance, or who do not research their destinations.

The report identifies the need for the FCO to remodel its passport operation, which prints standard passports at over 100 locations, far more than other comparable countries. It is an extremely quick service, but also a relatively expensive one to customers, and there are doubts that such a large network can be sustained in the long term. Substantial investment would be needed to upgrade all its Posts to produce the next generation of high technology, secure biometric passports by 2009. The FCO has already responded to our conclusions by initiating work to rationalise its passport business by planning to reduce the number of posts which would print passports, and to bring its eligibility tests on applications more in line with those planned on applications for passports issued in Britain by the UK Passport Service. This should lead to a more cost-effective and more secure service which still meets the needs of citizens. This will not affect issuing of emergency passports to those with an urgent need to travel.

The FCO has recently taken a range of steps to improve the professionalism and resourcing of its service to British nationals in difficulties overseas. The overall standard of consular service is generally high, but British nationals can experience a very different level and nature of consular service depending on where they are in the world. Some but not all of this can be explained by the different conditions and the extent of British representation in different regions. The National Audit Office report also highlights the particular difficulties in achieving a smooth, joined-up service when the FCO hands responsibility for customers returning to the UK to other government departments and providers, for example in medical repatriations and psychiatric cases. In response to these challenges, the FCO is producing a Guide to Consular Services to better define and publicise the services it offers, and to promote steps customers can take to help themselves. A Consular Review Team has been established to help address staffing resource problems overseas and in London.

In recent years the FCO has dealt with an unprecedented series of major crises including terrorist incidents and natural disasters, and has learned lessons from each. It is seen by other countries’ consular operations as a world leader in the way it has innovated in major crisis management. It has contingency plans in place at all Posts, though repeated diversion of staff to help deal with successive crises has delayed progress on ensuring that all plans are fit for purpose and adequately tested. As with other consular work, effective crisis response depends on working well with other agencies in government and the voluntary sector, and the FCO is developing useful new partnerships in this area.

Sir John Bourn commented today:

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides consular services that are increasingly professional and which are a vital facility for British nationals travelling or living overseas. But the FCO can do more to target its resources to meet priorities. Its response to emergencies is internationally respected and gets better and better over time. But as the FCO recognises there will always be important lessons to be learned.”


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