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British Citizens Abroad

Volume 802: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2020


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question on the assistance given to British nationals abroad. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, we have FCO staff in all our 280 posts in 168 countries and 10 overseas territories, and they are working around the clock to respond to this global pandemic. Over the last three days, we have seen 80 countries place restrictions on their borders. That situation is unprecedented in scale and our overriding priority now is to assist the thousands of British travellers who need and want to return home, bearing in mind the hundreds of thousands of UK nationals who may be travelling at any one time.

Following last week’s decision to advise against all but essential travel globally, last night I changed our travel advice again because of the rate of new border restrictions. We strongly advise those British people who are currently travelling abroad but who live in the UK to return as soon as possible, where they are still able to do so because commercial routes are still running. Where commercial options are limited or prevented by domestic restrictions, we are in close contact with the airlines and local authorities in those countries to overcome those barriers and enable people to return home. With my ministerial team and across the diplomatic network, we are engaging with numerous Governments to keep commercial routes open, particularly in transit hubs. The Department for Transport is working closely with airlines to ensure that travellers can rebook or find alternative routes home.

I know that Members on all sides have constituents who have contacted them in relation to particular countries, so with your forbearance, I shall update the House on a few of those countries. On Peru, I spoke to the Foreign Minister at the weekend and we have agreed special arrangements for flights to return British nationals later this week.

I spoke to the Singaporean Foreign Minister this morning and we have agreed to work together to help those stranded get back to their homes in the UK. We have also agreed to help Peruvian nationals here get back to Peru. Given Singapore’s role as a transit hub, the commitment to work with us to enable UK nationals to transit via Singapore is particularly important, not least for those currently in Australia and New Zealand.

In New Zealand, the high commission is working with airlines, airports and the New Zealand Government to keep flight routes open and reopen some that have been closed. The high commission in Australia is doing the same. It has also opened a register of British nationals hoping to return to the UK and is supporting them via phone calls and walk-in appointments at the high commission, as well as updating social media pages.

For those trying to get home from other countries, we are providing as much practical advice as is physically possible. We would ask all travellers first to look at the travel advice online. It is the best and most comprehensive source of information and is updated in real time. If people are in need of urgent assistance, they should call our embassies and high commissions and they will automatically be connected to our global consular contact centres based in Malaga and Ottawa. We know that considerable pressure has been created by the restrictions put in place in countries around the world and the rate at which it has been done, with either limited or no notice. We have doubled our capacity and we are now doubling it again to deal with the surge in demand.

We are seeking to reduce travel costs by encouraging airlines to have maximum flexibility on changing return tickets. Where people are in real need, our consular teams will work with them to consider their options and, as a last resort, offer an emergency loan.

More broadly, the UK is working alongside our international partners to deliver our international strategy, which rests on four tenets: to provide resilience to the most vulnerable countries; to pursue a vaccine; to keep vital trade routes and supply chains for foodstuffs, medicines and other things open; and to provide reciprocal support to return British nationals overseas who are stranded.

These are the right priorities. We are working day and night to keep British people safe at home and abroad.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. Since we last discussed this issue, there has been welcome progress. Again, I thank all the staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who have worked tirelessly to address this issue. Anyone who heard the debate in the other place earlier would have been shocked by what was said about the number of people contacting MPs. As we saw in the media this morning, it remains a matter of huge concern.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned working with international partners, including the G7 and EU partners, to try to ensure that we can repatriate those who want and need it. However, he acknowledged—and this is my key point—that clear information is vital for those stranded. He said that the Government were providing certainty through embassies; although physical access is often restricted, they are not closed. The Statement mentioned doubling capacity, particularly through call centres. Can the Minister explain whether this is meeting demand? Certainly, MPs are hearing concerns from constituents that they are not getting a response. Can he address that capacity and demand issue? We have heard on the radio that a number of medical staff are very frustrated at not being able to get back to their job helping the NHS. Has the Foreign Office taken steps to compile a register of NHS staff stranded overseas to pass on to the Department of Health?

Given the scale of this situation, compiling full data is really important. I hope that we can get a better picture of those stranded abroad.

My Lords, once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his support. He and I are talking about the issues impacting British nationals globally, and I am very grateful for his support in this matter. He asked a number of pertinent questions on the concerns that exist. I, too, listened to the debate on the Statement in the other place, and, rightly, genuine concerns have been raised. I am sure that I speak for many in your Lordships’ House today, as well as others.

Noble Lords have been contacting me on an almost hourly basis with genuine concerns that have been raised with them. I assure the House that my colleagues and I are dealing directly with, and taking up, those issues. Only this morning, I was dealing with a consular case that had arisen. We are seeking to speak directly to the Members of Parliament concerned to ensure that we address those issues head on. As the noble Lord will be aware, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will be leading a virtual call with G7 Foreign Ministers tomorrow and this is the item on the agenda. We are not alone in this matter—all countries across the world are impacted. However, the noble Lord is right to raise the need for clarity and information. We are seeking to improve that, as improvements can always be made.

He talked about doubling capacity and asked whether demand was being met. The fact that we are having to double capacity means that current demand is not being met. To be candid, there will be challenges ahead. I am the Minister for south Asia, where, thankfully, the number of cases thus far has been minimal. However, we are challenged by the fact that there are thousands and thousands of British nationals abroad, and we need to react to that positively and proactively. A major part of the Foreign Office effort is that, barring certain priorities that need to be sustained, Ministers and officials are now fully focused on this crisis.

The noble Lord’s point on data collection is well made. We are continuing to collect data on nationals abroad. He made a very constructive suggestion about NHS workers abroad, and I will certainly take that back to see how we can best factor it in.

My Lords, I understand what the Minister says about Singapore, but is he aware that Qantas, for example, is rerouting via Darwin rather than Singapore? What discussions are the Government having with the Australian Government about perhaps rerouting British Airways flights via that route? Is he aware of the BBC story about a couple who were booked on a flight from Egypt? They were told that their flight was cancelled, only to find that it then operated as an emergency flight, with their seats having been sold to somebody else and leaving them stranded. What are the Government doing to make sure that airlines do not profit from this disaster?

My Lords, the noble Lord has, rightly, raised a concern. We are actively engaging directly with various airline operators. British operators and our colleagues at the Department for Transport are meeting regularly—not just not on a daily basis but often several times a day—to establish connectivity. He raised the issue of hubs and the rerouting of certain flights, and specifically mentioned Qantas. Singapore acts as a key hub for those coming from Australasia. I have a vested interest in that, as my in-laws are in Australia, so it is a route that I know well. The other key hub that we have is in the Middle East. Concerns have been expressed about the suspension of flights announced by both Etihad and Emirates, which has implications for travellers going through the Dubai hub. I know that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is prioritising calls in this respect.

The noble Lord raised a specific case relating to Egypt. I did not know about that, but perhaps he can forward the details to me. However, I stress that, if anyone is aware of a constituent, friend or family member in that situation, the first port of call has to be the high commission or the embassy.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that one communication that he received last week was from me, copying him into an email. Having followed Foreign Office advice scrupulously, I travelled to an African country, which, without notice, declared a state of emergency and closed the airport and all borders. I secured an exit via another country and travelled back to the UK over the weekend. When it came to getting accurate, up-to-date advice that could be shared with a small group of British nationals, including me, and colleagues who were British residents but European Union citizens, I saw at first hand the reality of the UK not being in the same room as the European Union delegation in that country. It is not too late for the Government to think again about having a treaty relationship to ensure that the same level of support can be provided to EU and British citizens who are abroad in multi-country delegations or groups. It is not too late to accept Theresa May’s position on such a treaty, rather than Boris Johnson’s, which is to decline it.

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord. First, I pay tribute to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who is doing an incredible job in leading our country through an unprecedented crisis, and now is the time for us all to get together and ensure that we act as one. The noble Lord raises the issue of co-operation with our European partners, which is a genuine question. We are indeed co-operating. There were 1,444 British nationals repatriated, including from Wuhan, the “Diamond Princess” through Japan, the “Grand Princess” through the United States and the “Braemar” through Cuba. There were an additional 254 non-British nationals. We are readily talking with our European counterparts, acting as one and ensuring that we help each other. I quote a phrase we have often talked about: we are all in it together.

My Lords, many people are trapped overseas. As the Minister says, some routes are still open. However, people are being financially crippled because of the extortionate rise in some ticket prices. I declare an interest, with a cousin trapped in Brisbane. The hike in Emirates air tickets is quite rightly described as extortionate. Will the Minister, along with other Foreign Ministers, therefore put pressure on the airline carriers?

And, although this is not in the Minister’s remit—it has been raised with me by airline personnel—is he aware that social distancing rules are not being thoroughly followed in some UK airports?

On the latter point, I am aware of it. I have family members involved in the airline industry in the UK, and that is a concern being addressed directly by colleagues.

In response to the noble Lord’s first question, I agree with him and we are working with airlines to ensure that any prices charged reflect the true nature of the emergency.

My Lords, I echo the thanks to all our staff around the globe and here in the UK who are working day and night to help British citizens stranded abroad. Can my noble friend assist me? I have a friend whose daughter is one of the 400 stranded in Peru. Apparently, the problem is not so much that they cannot get any flights but that they are stuck in an area that is not by the airport and are not able to get to an airport. I ask my noble friend to give some information to the House on what the Government’s plans might be to get them to the airport.

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. Noble Lords will know that Peru has been high up on the agenda. There are approximately 1,000 British nationals seeking to return. My noble friend is also correct that it is not just an issue of them being able to fly out from Lima; many are dispersed throughout the country. I assure my noble friend that we are working directly with the Peruvian authorities. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary had a productive phone call with his opposite number over the weekend. They have assured us of co-operation in ensuring that we can repatriate from Peru all British nationals seeking to return. Indeed, the first flight will leave tomorrow and arrive back here in London on Thursday. It is a series of flights with a commercial operator. Each flight’s capacity is circa 200. We hope that with that schedule of flights we will be able to repatriate all British nationals wishing to return from Peru.

Sitting suspended.