Tracking down a Scottish chef in Belgium who can cook haggis was one of many outlandish requests fielded by British consuls last year, the Foreign Office’s Director of Consular Services revealed at a Consular Corps meeting.
But the days of being a glorified concierge are long gone, said Joanna Roper, whose 750 staff in 170 posts last year provided consular assistance in 90,000 cases, including support to grieving families following 3600 deaths abroad and issuing more than 40,000 emergency passports and travel documents.
Assisting British citizens abroad is a top priority at the FCO. But faced with a rising number of complex consular cases – including the forced marriage, victims of crime, mental breakdown and imprisonment – the Foreign Office focuses its resources on the most vulnerable citizens, Roper told consuls.
To free up frontline staff from handling phone enquiries, (470,000 in 2014), the FCO set up three contact centres – in Malaga, Hong Kong and Ottawa, and an out-of -hours Global Contact Centre. These handle all initial calls, which are triaged so that the urgent cases (13% in 2014) are escalated to a consular official.
Transactional tasks keep consuls desk bound so the FCO’s aim is to reduce these by 30% by 2016 by reducing demand, outsourcing or using online payments.
The FCO also works with, and sometimes co-funds, partners and charities who have the expertise to deliver specialist services.
Managing expectations about what consuls can and cannot do, and modifying traveller behaviour through information campaigns, are key to the FCO’s consular strategy.
“We encourage people to take personal responsibility on their travel decisions,” said Roper, who showed consuls some of the FCO’s recent awareness campaigns encouraging travellers to take out adequate insurance.
Last year, drug-related cases dropped by 19%, which the FCO attributes to raising awareness about the dangers taking drugs abroad.
In 2014 The FCO’s online travel advice pages saw nearly 29 million hits, an increase of 21 per cent on the previous year.
But it is crises – such as the attacks in Paris and Sousse or the Sharm El Sheikh evacuations – where the FCO faces intense scrutiny. “The thought of a consular crisis is what keeps ambassadors awake at night,” said Roper.
In the past decade the FCO’s crisis capability has been upgraded. A crisis centre was opened in 2012 and these days Rapid Deployment Teams can be scrambled and on the ground within 24 hours to assist in an emergency.
All heads of mission receive intensive pre-post crisis training. Crisis plans take a “whole of mission approach,” said Roper, with every member of staff having designated roles, not only the consular staff.
Consuls welcomed the opportunity to compare consular practices, particularly when protection arrangements exist between EU and some Commonwealth services.