FCO – what it can – and can’t – do to help British nationals overseas

In view of the successful information session with the Consulate in Los Cristianos the other night, it seems an appropriate time to pass on this press release from the FCO on some of the stranger – and inappropriate – requests they receive for help. Last year the FCO’s Contact Centres received more than 365,000 calls from British nationals. The vast majority of these were genuine and appropriate calls from people who needed help, but still there are thousands of enquiries every year relating to issues for which the FCO is absolutely the wrong agency to call. The FCO says that these enquiries can take valuable time away from those in genuine need of assistance.

Some of the stranger – and inappropriate – calls include:

  • a request for a recommendation for a Scottish chef in Brussels to make haggis
  • advice on how to tune a TV antenna to receive English TV channels in Italy
  • finding cheap flights to New Zealand
  • arranging  someone to put up ‘British-style’ hanging baskets at a trade show
  • checking whether a British woman’s Albanian fiancée was already married
  • how to treat a cat’s infected paw
  • finding out if a mobile phone had been left on a plane

The FCO says that such enquiries stem from a lack of understanding of what consular teams can do for British nationals abroad, and they are launching an awareness campaign to remind UK travellers and residents overseas of the services they can and do really provide, and what they actually cannot do. They say that the FCO’s priority is to protect the welfare of British nationals abroad, and consular staff will always do their best to assist people when they find themselves in difficulty. However, it is important for travellers to understand what services the FCO provides before getting in touch. There are also some simple pre-travel steps that you can take to reduce the risk of getting into difficulty and needing help, such as taking out comprehensive travel insurance, researching the destination and any health risks and ensuring access to emergency funds.

Foreign & Commonwealth Office Minister, David Lidington, said “it is important for FCO consular staff to be able to focus on our most vulnerable customers, such as victims of crime, those who have lost a loved one abroad or people who have been detained or hospitalised overseas. Consular staff support thousands of British nationals who encounter difficulties overseas every year and we handle over 365,000 enquiries annually. We will always try to help where we can but there are limits to what we can do, so it’s important for people to be aware of how we can help. We can issue an emergency travel document if your passport is lost or stolen, offer support if you become a victim of crime or visit you in hospital or prison, but we aren’t able to pay medical bills, give legal advice or get you out of jail, or indeed act as veterinary surgeons.”

Head of the FCO’s Global Contact Centres, Meg Williams, said that “the role of the FCO Contact Centres is to help enable consular staff to focus on what is important and to concentrate on those in need, but we continue to receive misdirected enquiries from British nationals. We receive hundreds of thousands of calls every year and while the vast majority of these are from British nationals in genuine need of our assistance and services, in 2014 38% were not related to consular support at all. For example, one caller asked us to help find his son’s missing suitcase – as it had apparently been lost by a British airline, the caller thought the British consulate would be able to locate it.”

Recent UK Travel Habits Tracking research revealed that the number of people who actually know what embassies and consulates do has dropped to the lowest in three years among the 16-24 age group, down from 62% in 2011 to 55% in 2014. That’s almost half who could find themselves making inappropriate calls, leaving themselves without an adequate response, and even worse, taking up time that should be dedicated to genuine and appropriate calls for help – calls that they might one day need to make themselves. Here is a straightforward chart of what the FCO can and cannot do for British nationals abroad.

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