Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)




  140. Sir Michael, there are a couple of other questions I would like to ask you on the security side. As you will have been briefed, one of the security issues that arose out of the Committee's extended inquiry into arms to Sierra Leone in the last Parliament was the very, very serious lack of ability by the Foreign Office to deploy secure communications rapidly to a high commissioner or an ambassador when the high commissioner or ambassador was obliged by the security situation to move to a different location. I was slightly concerned by what you and your colleague, Mr Collecott, have said so far. Certainly you gave the impression that this was still all under consideration. I wonder whether you could tell us whether you have, as of today, satisfactory systems and back-up in place, particularly in relation to portable secure communications, whereby at literally no notice you would be able to ensure that a senior member of the diplomatic staff who had to move instantly was able to be joined up with secure communications at that new location?
  (Mr Collecott) I think the answer is "yes" and there are two facets to that. Firstly, we have invested and are in the process just this month of rolling out 250 secure mobile telephones as a first tranche for precisely these reasons. We are sending one or two to each of our posts abroad and distributing them to senior officials and Ministers in London precisely to meet the need for secure communications in all types of circumstances and, frankly, to avoid the difficulties that one has with an increasing use of mobile phones which are not secure. That is one immediate answer. The second answer is: yes, we also have a small, portable satellite dish which we deploy extremely rapidly wherever we need it, which can be used either for secure telephone contact, secure data transmission, sending e-mails, which was, for instance, the first thing which the people we sent in to Kabul took with them. It was the development beyond that which unfortunately took a little time.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  141. You only have one?
  (Mr Collecott) No, we have several of them which sit in shrink-wrap packs and are sent extremely rapidly to wherever they are needed round the world, sometimes to places where the local telephone system for other reasons is not as good as we would wish. We are a long way down that track. We also try, as you might imagine, to anticipate difficulties, such as the ones you mention about maybe needing to move the seat of the high commissioner or ambassador. In one or two cases recently we have installed permanent secure communications and secure automation systems in other posts so that we have a back-up and somewhere to move the high commissioner or the ambassador, should we need to in certain circumstances.


  142. The next question I want to put to you, Sir Michael is this: as you are aware, this Committee has taken a very close interest in the follow-up to the tragic murder of Brigadier Saunders in Athens. I would like to ask you whether or not you are satisfied that your Department's requests for close protection of personnel that you judge are needed in your posts overseas will be met adequately by the Ministry of Defence in particular?
  (Sir Michael Jay) I will ask Peter Collecott again as he has been handling that particular issue.
  (Mr Collecott) In the particular case of Brigadier Saunders, as you will know, the Ministry of Defence inquiry has now produced a report which, from our point of view, was very satisfactory. No report like that is entirely satisfactory because it is dealing with a very unsatisfactory event but it gave us the reassurance that the security measures which had been put in place were entirely the right ones in the situation and gave assurance that for the future, in trying to protect people, we are doing the right things. You ask specifically about close protection teams. We still have a close protection team in Athens and in many other places. Money is, of course, an issue. We have to fund the close protection teams in all but the very shortest timescale. Finding the funds for the close protection teams that we believe we need is a high priority. Although at times it looked as if the boundaries were being rather squeezed, I do not believe we have been in a situation where we have had to turn round and say, "We really believe close protection is needed in this place but we cannot find the resources to do it".
  (Sir Michael Jay) We would never put ourselves in the position in which we believed that close protection was needed and we did not provide it.

  143. I am very glad to hear you say that, Sir Michael, because that can be the only proper and responsible stance for all your diplomatic and service personnel for whom you are responsible in overseas posts. I hope you can assure the Committee that if a situation arose in which you had very rapidly to expand the amount of expenditure you were carrying out on close protection, and I wholly understand myself the cost of that, you would, if necessary, go to the Treasury and seek a supplementary expenditure contribution to make certain that crucial requirement was met.
  (Sir Michael Jay) One way or another, Mr Chairman, we would ensure that we had the money so that our staff had the close protection we judge necessary. After 11 September, there was, as you can imagine, a tremendous increase in security requirements worldwide. I do not have the figures in front of me but we increased our security spending quite markedly in order to meet that. That was an absolute requirement. That will continue to be so.

  Chairman: Thank you. I am very glad to hear that and I know the whole Committee will be. Can we now turn to some human rights issues.

Mr Illsley

  144. Sir Michael, according to the Annual Report, all Foreign Office staff are now required to take a one-day course in human rights. How would you evaluate the effectiveness of that human rights training for your staff?
  (Sir Michael Jay) I would be better able to answer that after the next course, on which I am going to go myself. I have not yet been on it but will be on it. I do feel that there is a much greater understanding of human rights issues in the Foreign Office than there was, let us say, five years ago, partly because human rights has become a more important part of our policy and partly because we have been providing the training necessary to ensure that works and the Human Rights Department is staffed by some extremely able people. I do not know if any of my colleagues have a more specific answer but I am struck, having come back to the Foreign Office after six years away, by the greater emphasis that we are giving, and the greater professionalism of our staff, to handling human rights issues and in managing our Human Rights Project Fund.

  145. Just moving that along, you have appointed human rights advisers to certain embassies abroad. How has that impacted on the work of the posts abroad by having those advisers in place? Following on, how was it decided which embassies should have a human rights adviser?
  (Mr Collecott) Mr Illsey, I cannot maintain that I am very close to the detailed question of how the choices were made between posts. I have had experience of a couple of the advisers that we have had: one in the Philippines and the other in Moscow, I believe.[11] Both the posts and the individuals concerned believe that both of those appointments in particular have been a great success. It has actually opened the horizons and enabled us to do things which otherwise we might have been able to do but less well, less professionally, and has broadened the range of contacts which we, as an embassy, have been able to have with local NGOs and given them a degree of extra credibility because we are putting in place human rights professionals. My balance sheet would be wholly positive about that.

  146. Does it create any tension between the country in which the post is located with human rights advisers attached to the British Embassy? Does that reflect on the country? Obviously it must, in view of the fact that human rights advisers are there. Is there any feedback?
  (Mr Collecott) One has to be sensitive in the way that these posts are projected and sensitive in terms of the project which the human rights advisers are trying to work on. Obviously our intention is to work, as far as we can, with the trends within the country, whether they are NGOs or, quite often, with governments in the country and government departments who realise that there are issues which needed to be tackled in the human rights area per se or in the broader field of good governance, setting in place proper judicial systems, the rule of law et cetera.
  (Sir Michael Jay) It is not always easy, Mr Illsley. I was in Angola a few months ago and there needed to and wanted to talk to NGOs and others about the human rights situation. Now, that is not always welcome to governments but I think it is accepted that that is a proper role for diplomacy and a proper role for embassies. It has to be done with a certain sensitivity.

  Chairman: We are going to couple with human rights some issues in relation to the protection of British citizens abroad.

Mr Hamilton

  147. Sir Michael, you may think it is a strange jump but I wanted to jump to the protection of our own citizens abroad, and in particular to an article written in The Times on 18 June entitled, "Why has the Government let these people down?" The article is written by Stephen Jakobi, not obviously somebody who has not an axe to grind, but somebody who has drawn attention consistently to the plight of people languishing in foreign jails. He draws attention in particular to the celebrated and well-known case of Ian Stillman. I know that Baroness Amos has been working very hard as the Government Minister responsible. I know that you have staff in the Foreign Office who are working hard to try and resolve the case for the release of Ian Stillman. I have to declare an interest in that his sister lives in my constituency. However, I want to know how you respond to the accusation contained in that article, particularly that we are not doing enough when people are tried, or mis-tired as we often think, and imprisoned. I think Ian Stillman's case is a particularly good example because of his profound deafness and disability.
  (Sir Michael Jay) It is a tragic case and one which is very much at the top of the list of priorities for our Ministers, and indeed our High Commission in Delhi. We continue to make representations at the highest level and take the advice of our High Commission about the best way in which to try to ensure Ian Stillman's release. All I can say in response is that in that case, and in others, I can assure the Committee that we regard this as a very high priority indeed. We cannot, alas, always achieve what we want, which is getting another sovereign government to release somebody from prison, even when we may be convinced ourselves that the case is just. It is a very important part of our task overseas. As I say, it is not just our embassies and high commissions but something which is constantly on the minds of our Ministers, particularly Valerie Amos, but not just Valerie Amos. The Foreign Secretary has taken a personal interest also in the case of Ian Stillman, and continues to do so.

  148. Is it easier to deal with governments within the European Union than governments outside? I am thinking, for example of the case of Andrew Beaumont, the lorry driver currently in jail in France, who is again a constituent of mine, and drugs were found in the back of his lorry. Is it easier to deal with the French Government because we have a much closer contact with them and we know their legal systems perhaps better?
  (Sir Michael Jay) Yes, I think it probably is easier to work with governments whose systems we are closer to and working with day by day. Certainly from my time in France, I know that we had very close co-operation from the French authorities over, sadly, the very large number of British citizens that there are in jails in France, particularly in Lille. It is more difficult elsewhere but that does not mean it is less important or that we give it less priority, rather the reverse; I think the more difficult the relationship, the harder we try.

  149. The annual report says that we do not try and make judgements as to the guilt or innocence of the British citizen abroad, but surely in some cases where there is a clear miscarriage of justice do we not make that point to the government involved?
  (Sir Michael Jay) We would certainly make the point if we believed that there had been a miscarriage of justice. If we believed that the process was in some way flawed or unfair we would certainly make that point and we would work through the lawyers of the person concerned to try and do our best to ensure that justice was done.

  150. So do you think that Stephen Jakobi was wrong in saying that we have let down the people that are languishing in jails abroad?
  (Sir Michael Jay) I can understand why he says that and I can understand why the people themselves feel that we are not doing enough. They will always feel that we are not doing enough as long as they remain in prison; I understand that. All I can say is that from my point of view and that of ministers and that of my colleagues overseas, this is something which is really very high up our list of priorities and that will continue to be so. There are very tragic cases and Ian Stillman is in some ways one of the most difficult and one of the most tragic we face.

Mr Illsley

  151. I also have a constituent who is currently in jail but in Australia on a drugs charge which seems to have been a slightly difficult case which I have raised with the Foreign Office. It brings to mind that there is also the case of the young back-packer murdered in Australia, the disappearance of Peter Falconio. A lot of these are related to the back-packing route through places like Thailand with the drugs influences there. It just occurred to me whether the Foreign Office is doing anything to try and draw people's attention to the dangers of that back-packing/drugs route, the back-packing adventurers who go to Australia because of the obvious attractions there. Does the Foreign office do anything to try and educate these people or try and keep them away from this obvious temptation to smuggle drugs?
  (Sir Michael Jay) It does that through the travel advice which is put out through our web site on every country in the world which gives quite full advice on where to go, where not to go, what precautions to take, what risks you are running. I do not know whether there is anything specific about the back-packing trail; I would like to look into that, but it is precisely this sort of risk that people are running that we are trying to warn them off beforehand and the programme that we have got, "Know Before You Go", which is a consular public diplomacy effort which we launched a little while ago, is designed to make people to think before they go about the risks that they are running and, in so far as they can, to minimise those. I think this is going to become probably more rather than less an issue for us because more and more people have a spirit of adventure, they want to go to places where the tours are not going, they are going on their own or sometimes in small groups, they are more likely to get into trouble, and they are more likely to call on our services. We have identified this as one of the management and policy issues for the future and it is something which is high up on our list of priorities.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  152. I try in my own constituency to encourage people to let me know if they are going abroad and then I in turn inform the Foreign Office and even supply constituents with a letter, "To Whom It May Concern", which they can give to an embassy official and so on. What you have just said about "Know Before You Go" makes me wonder whether you should not be even more proactive. What steps do you take to ensure that posters and information of this sort are on university campuses, in public libraries and so on around the country, because the aim ought to be to try and reach out to wherever these frequently very intelligent as well as adventurous young people tend to go?
  (Sir Michael Jay) The judgement we have reached is that the best way of getting through to the largest number of people is through our web site and that is very widely looked at. It gets an extraordinary number of hits each day. There is one new feature which has started recently which is called "Travellers' Tips" which is a country advice page. Let us consider whether we can do more through universities. Even if universities say, "Before you go look at the web site", that is one way through, but I think that that generation does tend to look pretty automatically now, much more automatically than in the past, at web sites where there is information available.

  153. I accept that, but I am a member of St Anthony's Oxford, and the notice boards are still plastered with things and I think that you probably ought not to neglect slightly more ancient forms of communication as well as the more advanced forms.
  (Mr Collecott) May I make one additional point, which is that the "Know Before You Go" campaign is not just something we are doing on our own. It is actually a joint venture between us and the travel industry. They have very large numbers of outlets through which we are disseminating that kind of material but we will take on board your suggestion.

Mr Hamilton

  154. You launched a new web site I think in June.
  (Mr Collecott) Yes.

  155. There is a link on the home page marked "FCO e-Services". Last time I looked it produced a blank page saying, "Sorry: this page cannot be displayed". I just wondered whether you had sorted that out yet and what the e-services will comprise and when you will begin to deliver them.
  (Mr Collecott) I do not know the answer to the first of your questions, whether it is now still a blank page.

  Mr Hamilton: I will check when I leave here.

Sir John Stanley

  156. Could we have an answer as to why it was blank, a note afterwards, please?

  (Mr Collecott) I suspect that the reason it was blank is that, as you know, the going live of the new web page was somewhat delayed and was some months later than we had hoped. I will give you a written note on that. The e-services that we are intending to deliver are set out in the e-governance strategy which is a public document and is also on the web site. I might just draw your attention to the particular things that we are doing at the moment, in particular in the big public service areas of consular protection and of the visa operation. Just taking an example from the latter, we are at the moment in the first few months of pioneering a web based system of applying for visas in the US and just yesterday I was told that something like 40 per cent of applicants are now using that. There are still issues over quite how far one can go and we still are not yet at the stage of being able to have identification on the web. One needs a certain amount of iris recognition or some kind of technology which we are already looking at, but this is very much the direction in which we are going. We wish to go relatively quickly but in a measured way to make sure that we get it right in a country like the US, where access to the web is very ubiquitous, before spreading it much more widely.
  (Sir Michael Jay) I sent a note round to all heads of departments in the Foreign Office last week stressing the importance of keeping the web site for which they are responsible absolutely up to date because it does seem to me that there is nothing more frustrating than a web site with a blank page or a web site which is out of date. We will continue to put particular emphasis on that.

  157. Can I move on to your "Bricks to Bytes" policy, in other words, move from real estate to information and technology? I think one of the concerns that many of us might have is that obviously estates, buildings, are appreciating assets in most countries in the world. However, information technology is not and therefore are we using a appreciating asset, or often appreciating asset, to fund something that depreciates pretty rapidly? Would you like to comment on that?
  (Sir Michael Jay) I have two comments and I would like to ask one of my colleagues to say a bit more. First, our experience is that our bricks overseas are not appreciating; they are depreciating, which is hence one of our problems with impairment and so on. Secondly, I do not think we have any choice but to work increasingly electronically and to continue with our IT modernisation programme. If I can just say a word about the IT modernisation programme, we describe that in the report. It is very important. It is using up a lot of our funds, but I think that the aim of being a global on-line organisation and not just a hub and spoke organisation is hugely important. Mentally we are still too hub and spoke and we need to become much more lateral in sharing best practice with posts who are doing a good thing in one country teaching others and sharing knowledge more laterally as well as back to London. I think that the combination of IT programmes that we are putting in place, the FTN, the worldwide communications electronic network, the standard IT system, Firecrest, which is extremely popular, the knowledge management system which we call Focus, which will provide a single global registry and an FCO intranet which will link into the Whitehall Government secure intranet, will enable us to be far more effectively joined up than we have been in the past. I do myself attach a great deal of importance to this programme of IT modernisation.

  158. Is there any risk that you will feel obliged to sell valuable real estate to fund the continuing development of what sounds like a very exciting IT project?
  (Sir Michael Jay) We are, as we discussed earlier on, obliged to look for and want to look for properties that are not performing well, and I think it makes sense to use some of the proceeds of that for funding IT, which is essential if we are going to become a modern 21st century diplomatic service. I wish it were true that all our properties overseas were appreciating.

  159. One final thing is on page 143 of the annual report regarding the Prism programme, basically the integrated processes and management information systems that you are introducing. How crucial is the success of Prism do you think in meeting the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's objectives?
  (Sir Michael Jay) Absolutely fundamental. We do not yet have the management information system which enables us to meet all our objectives and when the Prism system comes on line in the first half of next year it is going to make it possible for us, I believe for the first time, to meet many of our objectives fully. I am conscious myself, having spent a certain amount of time talking about Prism and talking to the people who are designing it now, that we must not think of this as just a piece of kit that comes into operation on 1 April and then everything is fine. We are going to need to have quite a mental adaptation in the office, at home and abroad, to ensure that we do make full use of it when it comes on stream. I think it is a very important programme indeed. It lies at the heart of a lot of what we want to do in the next few years.

11   Note by Witness: The FCO has a total of five advisers at posts-Manila (appointed in 1998), Kathmandu (2001), Caracas (2002), Kuala Lumpur (2002) and Kiev (2001). Back

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