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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. I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to our consular staff around the world, who take on such trying tasks with such incredible dedication.
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Within that general welcome, may I 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 co-ordination 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 co-operation. 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 Sportthere 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
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
He asked whether we have learned lessons from previous emergencies overseas. I believe so, but I am not at all complacent. We all learned from an unsatisfactory performance in Bali. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) is in the Chamber, and I know that he had a tragic and personal experience of that. We must continue to learn lessons. As for a victims' compensation scheme, we are looking at the examples provided by France, Spain, Australia and the other countries mentioned by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). On the question of whether there is sufficient interdepartmental co-operation abroad, I have never, in fact, seen any problems affecting the co-operation between representatives of different Government Departments abroad. When they are abroad, they represent the British Government and, as I saw in the aftermath of the tsunami and several other disasters including the Istanbul bombings, they do not stand on departmental loyaltiesthey get down to business. A bigger issue is the co-ordination between British Government Departments once people return home, and the right hon. Gentleman asked why the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has responsibility for co-ordination. In the aftermath of 11 September there was a need for a Department without parti pris to try to bring together other Departments. It was for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister invited the Departments of Health, Social Security and others to co-ordinate their work, and I think that that arrangement has worked rather well. I accept that it appears slightly eccentric, but there is method.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether necessary and proportionate steps have been taken to protect the security of our staff. Yes, I believe that we are taking such steps, and a very large amount of money has been spent on protecting staff. However, one can never guarantee staff security, as I saw on 20 November 2003. Moreover, we must ask our staff to take risks. I do not want reach the position in which some Governments have found themselvestheir staff are in bunkers, unable to communicate with members of the publicand neither do our staff.
I understand the concerns that have been expressed about extradition. It is sometimes the case, not only in respect of extradition treaties with the United States, that there is not symmetry when it comes to ratification of such treaties. That is my understanding, but I am happy to pass on the concerns of the House, if such they be, to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the criticism from the Foreign Affairs Committee about a skills shortage in the Foreign Office. I shall respond to
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that report in due course. I thought that the criticism was over-harsh, but I accept that we needed more professional skills, and a great deal of effort is going into recruiting higher levels of professionalism in the finance, human resources and information technology directorates.
The last question was in respect of the closure of posts. We do assess the effect on British travellers and British interests abroad. Some posts have closed; quite a number have opened as well. I hope there will not be any more closures for the foreseeable future. In any event, we never know where the next emergency will arise. We could pepper a country with posts. We might be lucky and the emergency arises close to a post, or we might be very unlucky and it occurs thousands of miles or thousands of kilometres away. We must ensure that we are flexible and can respond rapidly, wherever the emergency takes place.
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I can assure the Foreign Secretary that what I am about to say is not over-harsh. I refer him to the aspects of his statement that take up what the Foreign Affairs Committee was calling for when we asked in our report for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to make it clear to the public that there are limits to what can be done, and that people sometimes have unrealistic expectations about the support that might be available. The Committee praises and is very supportive of the work of our consular staff over the recent past in the case of the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.
I hope my right hon. Friend's statement is the first step towards implementing measures that we have called for. Will he look at the other recommendations in our second report and act on them in a similarly positive way?
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