Britain's consular services are undergoing a major overhaul, the FCO's new head of consular affairs announced at a recent Consular Corps meeting.
A record turnout of nearly 60 consuls listened to Julian Braithwaite, who was appointed Director General of the FCO's consular services in September last year.
The one-time Downing Street speech writer for Tony Blair admitted his first four months in office had been "a baptism of fire" contending with two simultaneous consular crises in Mumbai and Bangkok, while overseeing the rationalisation and modernisation of consular services in a tough economic climate in which a reduction in visa fees was making it harder to fund improvements.
Braithwaite explained to consuls new changes to the UK entry clearance operations, with the transfer of UKVisas, the agency shared by the Foreign Office and Home Office, to the UK Border Agency.
Consuls said they had found the transition to dealing with the new agency difficult and asked whether a point of contact could be established to communicate with foreign consuls. Braithwaite said he would look into a "docking point" for the UK's consular community.
Another strategic change will be the merger of the FCO's overseas passport operation with the Home Office, which is due for completion by 2011.
The launch of a 'consular duty centre', in April will provide 24-hour coverage of consular enquiries across the globe, managed from a call centre in London. The centre will cover 100 posts by September, with the remainder joining the operation within the following six months.
"This will be complicated technologically but it is intended to relieve the huge burden on consular duty officers in many posts to have a single system operated centrally," said Braithwaite.
The FCO's consular emergency plans were tested in November, with two simultaneous crises in Bangkok and Mumbai. Priority was given to Mumbai where citizens were in immediate danger, said Braithwaite. Rapid Deployment Teams were in the city within 12 hours and a consular reception centre was set up in the British Council Library to help British citizens, many of whom had destroyed their passports.
The FCO was criticised for neglecting citizens in Thailand, reinforcing the importance of crisis management communications, said Braithwaite. "The FCO is only in the spotlight during consular crises so ambassadors need to be trained to deal with the media in these situations as soon as possible. If there is a sense that no one is in charge then the situation will escalate politically."
Preventative consular work
The emergencies also underlined the need for preventative consular work, added Braithwaite. This included initiatives, such as the FCO's Know Before You Go campaign and the new LOCATE system, where British citizens register online to inform the FCO of their whereabouts in case of a consular emergency.
Looking ahead to consular strategies for the second decade of the 21st century, Braithwaite said the use of technology, particularly biometrics, would become increasingly important.
He also said a strategy needed to be developed for Britain's diaspora communities around the world.