Campaigning for Consuls

Bernard Silver has pledged to campaign hard on behalf of London’s consular community as the new president of the Consular Corps. Elizabeth Stewart went to find out what he has planned.

Bernard Silver loves a good joke. The consul for the Seychelles and newly-appointed President of the Consular Corps of London likes to tell the story of the High Commissioner and the Ambassador heading off to Buckingham Palace in their carriages to present their credentials. The Ambassador gets two horses, but the High Commissioner gets four.

And the consul, what does he get? “The consul gets to feed the horses!” grins Silver.

Not the poor relations
But the joke makes a serious point. “Consuls are sometimes considered to be the poor relations of diplomacy, but in a modern diplomatic service the work they do in assisting their nationals is becoming more important – certainly more relentless with the increase of international travel,” reflects Silver.

For this reason, even in these austere times, many consulates in London are expanding. “This was especially evident during the Olympics when many consulates in London were working 24/7,” he says.

While international travel has become easier, the bureaucracy surrounding international mobility has proliferated. “It’s getting harder to get in and out of countries and often it falls to the consul to guide their nationals through this labyrinth,” says Silver.

Added to that, the UK – and London in particular – is one of the largest hubs of immigrant communities in the world which means there are a lot of people needing assistance, “and a whole lot of paperwork!” sighs Silver, who looks after a Seychellois community numbering some 20,000 (out of a total population of 80,000 in The Seychelles).

Learning the ropes
But finding one’s way around the British bureaucracy is no easy task, which is where the Consular Corps of London comes in.

“We can help consuls navigate the corridors of British bureaucracy through networking and sharing information and contacts. So the Consular Corps performs a really useful service. It helps to train and inform consuls about how they can do their job more effectively. Consuls are only in London for a limited time so they need to learn the ropes really quickly.”

Technological advances mean consuls are constantly having to learn on the job too, whether it’s the use of biometrics in visas or passports or the use of social media in connecting with one’s community.

“Technology can make our lives more difficult – for instance the introduction of biometrics means expensive equipment and it takes longer to get visas and passports and they’re more expensive. But technology can also make life easier. Social networking can be a useful tool to stay in touch with your nationals, particularly in a consular emergency.”

Finding out how to use technology could be a theme for a series of seminars that Silver would like to introduce where consuls could learn more and share best practice.

Accessible to all
Silver also wants the Consular Corps to be accessible and affordable to all and so has already passed a resolution that missions should pay for the membership, not individual consuls. He is also appealing to some of the larger missions for the use of their facilities to keep costs down.

Unafraid to shake things up, Silver brings to the job practical experience from a varied career. Prior to his consular career he ran a successful business in publishing, advertising and international marketing and languages. His business background made him a very effective honorary consul, helping to facilitate trade and tourism, so much so that, in an unprecedented move, his status was changed to career consul and he has served as Acting High Commissioner for the Seychelles as well.

Campaigning for consuls
Also a politician in a previous life (he served on the Liberal Party’s central committee and his claim to fame is coining the term Lib Dem), Silver certainly knows how to run a targeted campaign.

And lined up in his sites is the UK Border Agency. “We deal with the UKBA on a daily basis so why can’t they have the simple desk officer system that the Foreign Office uses so we have a point of contact? It’s a huge organisation and it is unnecessarily hard to navigate.

“The UKBA also has the habit of losing passports. Consuls put up with this because they think they don’t have a choice. I think we do have a choice and we should be making overtures.”

The Consular Corps is also a good platform for advocacy work, he adds. “We should start a campaign to get all governments to encourage their nationals to take out travel insurance. That’s doing something practical that could spare us all a lot of grief.”

Although he has hung up his yellow rosette, Silver hopes to attract a few heavy-weight political speakers in the area of immigration and home affairs.

“Politics and consular work are actually not that different,” he muses. “An MP’s surgery is similar to a consulate. It’s all about people coming to you with their problems and enquiries.”

Has he had any strange consular requests? “Oh hundreds!” he chuckles. “Honestly, I could fill a book. If you don’t have a sense of humour, you shouldn’t do this job.”

Bernard Silver