According to the UK-based The Telegraph, complaints about “incompetent” and “flippant” consular staff were detailed by relatives of dead Britons in a review published by the Foreign Affairs Committee on Sunday (November 23).
The MPs who compiled the report noted: “In cases of deaths abroad, we received substantial anecdotal evidence to indicate that FCO services to bereaved families are inconsistent and have at times fallen well below the expected standards of the FCO, with repeated failures of communication and compassion.”
Karen Walchester’s son, Jordan Walchester, 24, of Heron Cross, Stoke on Trent, was found dead on a beach in Tenerife in September 2010 during a holiday with two friends.
Karen Walchester told the report's authors: “We had no contact with the British police, no contact was allowed with the Spanish police, no liaison officer, there was no framework, no one to take responsibility for care of a broken-hearted family trying to muddle through a chaotic system whilst in terrible grief and confusion.”
An inquest in the UK determined that the cause of Jordan Walchester’s death could not be ascertained. The family member added: “I actually went out to Nepal to visit the crash site-- an event I think must be quite rare in these situations. The Ambassador did not meet me (despite having said on TV that they would do everything to help). One of his juniors did. They arrived in shorts and T-shirts. They hadn’t even been to visit the crash site. When I asked why not they explained that it was because of "staff cuts." He had made no effort to research answers to my questions and was very flippant in his responses when he was dealing with a bereaved widow.”
Jeanette Rooney, whose mother was found dead in France, said: “I feel that at times that certain diplomats I have dealt with were rude. I felt like a nuisance calling to ask for information. I felt that certain diplomats did not do their job to the full potential, they didn't consult with French authorities on a regular basis. At times I was waiting weeks for replies to my questions which caused me a massive amount of stress on top of my loss.”
Another grieving person, who remained anonymous in the report, lost their partner of eight years in a plane crash in Nepal in September 2012. They wrote: “I was really disappointed with the consular support I received....I experienced several errors of communication and incompetence that added to my distress in the most traumatic of circumstance anyone can ever find themselves in.”
COMMENT: I soon discovered after I retired from DS (US State Department's of Bureau of Diplomatic Security) in 2006 that I was no longer a member of the "club" as I had been prior to my retirement.
In point of the fact, I quickly learned that US citizens of all categories were summarily robbed at gunpoint, raped, sexually assaulted and even murdered with apparently no support whatsoever from DS.
It is a rarity that DS even investigates crimes against US citizens, leaving crime victims to sort things out on their own, often unsuccessfully, given huge gaps in embassy or consular support.
The folks I really empathize with are those foreigners who are arrested abroad and subjected to mistreatment and physical abuse in developing world penal systems. Contrary to reality, not all incarcerated foreigners are guilty, as many diplomats have convinced themselves to be the case.
Anecdotally, I also quickly became enlightened that if you die while abroad about the only service you can expect to receive is an autopsy, particularly if your death stemmed from suspicious circumstances or acts of violence.
For those that live and don't die abroad, I also discovered, to my amazement, that very few US embassies and consulates are particularly empathetic toward crime victims whose lives never quite return to normal.
The majority of crimes against US citizens are never thoroughly investigated
In point of fact, only 30% of US citizens even possess a passport, whereas roughly 75% of Britons travel abroad extensively.
The UK Foreign Affairs Committee is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the expenditure, administration, and policy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
In the report, the committee said: “The submissions we received indicated that consular support for families in cases of deaths abroad is inconsistent and, at times, has let them feeling entirely let down."
“Many of the complaints we received were not focused on extra funding, but rather on things that the FCO could and should do better, like consistently returning phone calls and providing the clear advice set out in its own guidance as well as responding with compassion and support.”
The Committee recommended that the FCO review its training and guidance to staff. The MPs noted that the consular service has been cut in size and budget, and that over 90% of overseas roles are filled by locally engaged staff.
It suggested that 20% overseas postings should once again be filled by UK-based staff.
It welcomed an ongoing review by the FCO of how it provides services in cases of suspicious deaths abroad and supported a proposal for a specialized central unit to provide “expert and dependable assistance."
The Committee concluded by saying that despite the concerns raised in the report, the consular service “provides vital help to British nationals in distress, and is a lifeline in times of great need. It can be proud of its work”.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We have worked hard to improve our service and will continue to do so. This report will play an important role in this. We will consider the recommendations carefully."
The spokesman added: “We aren’t commenting on the detail of the report at this time. The FCO will lay a command paper before Parliament in January 2015 which will address all the conclusions and recommendations in the report.”