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The International Writers Magazine: European Correspondent

Her Majesty's Taxi Driver
• James Skinner
‘His name is ‘Benji’ but I’ll get to him later.


It’s been almost three years since I left Her Majesty’ service as an Honorary British Consul. During my almost five years at the service of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office I wrote several short anecdotes for Hacks about my adventures running around Galicia in search and assistance to Brits in distress. In summary I took care of a number of different cases ranging from shipwrecked yachtsmen to arrested drunks, from desperate victims of theft including passports and credit cards to young couples wishing to get married. I travelled for miles to visit prisoners in jail or take care of a poor deceased tourist whose body had to be repatriated back to the UK. On more than one occasion I was the first person to break the news to the next of kin. Then there was the ‘happy hour’ as I would call it when a Royal Navy ship visited town, or some large commercial event such as the World Fishing Exhibition took place whereby I was called upon to assist both dignitaries and visiting businessmen, all with fish hooks or canned lobster in their brief cases. But alas, it all came to an end. The Tsunami disaster in Indonesia back in 2004 changed all that. Amongst the dead and missing were many Brits and the British government had the gall to accuse the Foreign Office’s consular representations in the area of mishandling the ‘crisis’ as it was known in diplomatic terms. The result was a thorough investigation into the whole international British consular system and hence a full report with a new set or rules and regulations was drawn up to ‘guide’ future posts on how to handle Brits in distress. Most of the Members of the British Parliament who were instrumental in the draft just didn’t have the foggiest idea of what went on overseas. I needn’t go into the details as you can use Hacks’ search engine, type in MP’s and the Walrus and read all about my views at the time. Suffice to say I thought it was all hogwash and hence I resigned. As I said, three years have gone by and they still don’t have a clue! Here goes the aftermath of the story.’

I did a dirty on Madrid! I gave in my notice, according to ‘my contract’ with one month’s notice. This was the first bombshell that proved the stupidity of considering Honorary British Consuls – you have to read my essay mentioned above for the details – as ‘employees’ of HMG. I’ll explain.

Unlike most embassy and consular staff and apart from Ambassadors, ‘proper’ Consuls, the odd senior UK appointed staff, Honoraries have to be given the ‘go-ahead’ by both British Foreign Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the country in question, in this case Spain. It’s known as an Exequatur that allows the honorary diplomat to perform limited notary acts. And this takes more than one month! In other words, my one month’s notice was far too short and I would literally have left this part of Spain with no consular representation. I finally gave in whilst Madrid looked for a replacement. Here comes another ‘funny’. The old method of looking for a replacement was by use of the ‘grapevine’. Not in my case! They no longer trusted me to look for somebody locally. So what did they do? They placed an ad in the press as if they were looking for a janitor or an electrician with a bowler hat as one local newspaper humorously reported in the comment columns. Just imagine, a normal ad looking for a senior type executive with all the necessary conditions that the management of any corporation would be looking for with one caveat. The person required would not only continue to be paid peanuts but would have to bring his or her own office as if he or she were carting it around like a hermit crab! According to Madrid over 100 persons applied.

A young British woman, who had lived here for several years and was in her late thirties was finally chosen, took over the post and set up an office. Madrid even appointed a half time consular assistant to do all the paperwork. Everything was cool and dandy. The Embassy was so proud of the new set up they sent a gunboat, HMS ‘Lancaster’, invited all the Galician dignitaries, some British residents and the press for a local shindig, whilst HM Ambassadress gave a nice little speech welcoming a new British consular representative to the region. Everything kicked off great. My new replacement set about her task with vigour. Apart from all the normal chores like dealing with a Brit who fell off a cliff, or one who beat up a barman, she helped the local community by joining the promotion of a low cost flight to London, welcomed the Arctic Monkeys pop group who were performing in the city and attended the various local ceremonies including the Graduation Day at the Spanish Naval College. She handled one of the most harrowing cases of a Brit in distress when on Christmas Eve of all times, a poor British homeless was found dead in the streets of Vigo. Then suddenly out of the blue, in summer of last year she resigned. Nobody knows why. Once again, Madrid was left in the lurch. However, this time the local office was shut down and numbness descended upon the Galician society. From then on Madrid went silent.

I shall now digress slightly into today’s standard practice for Brits in distress.

If you are a tourist and are going on a holiday anywhere in the world your travel agent may or may not give you a brochure or a set that is issued by the Foreign Office explaining all about the pros and cons of overseas travel. At least that was the case three years ago. However, if you check out their webpage its all there! Where to find the nearest Embassy or Consulate, what to do if you need assistance or help and a very important ‘tip’ under ‘help when things go wrong’ that explains all about what your good Samaritan British government representative will do for you if you get into trouble. As far as Spain is concerned the government’s page will also direct you to a link and presto, there you have it, all singing and dancing with news about the Ambassador and once again, what the consular department can and cannot do for you. But here comes the catch.

In the Spanish link, under ‘contact us’ you’ll be directed to a list of their offices in Spain. There are nine regular consular offices, giving addresses, phone numbers and e-mail links and twelve honorary consular posts without any contacts or indication of whereabouts. Therefore, if you happen to be in an area that is only represented by an honorary, you’ll have to use the Internet to search for and phone the nearest regular post if you need help. There is no way in hell to find out where the honorary or anybody else for that matter is hiding! So, if you’ve been arrested, or you happen to be in an emergency ward with a broken leg you’re chances of receiving instant attention are remote. By the time a local cop or doctor got through to somebody at the consulate, the judge has probably passed sentence or the doctor is attending to someone else. Can you picture yourself on holiday, having just lost your passport, or even worse have all your documents and credit cards stolen and having to go to a Cybercafé to ‘search’ for help from your nearest consular ‘white knight’? Crazy! In this area where I live the nearest regular post is Madrid which is even worse. Being the HQ in Spain you’d be lucky if the local authorities even took the time to go through the labyrinth of phone options on the Embassy switchboard’s 5-minute answering machine to reach a diplomatic officer in your name. Madrid once told me that the police have all details. My answer was, ‘there are over 300 police stations around Galicia. Do you think they will all take time to fool about with your phone system or browse through the Internet to find you guys?’

I’ve actually proved it! Here goes!

Just under a year ago I happened to have a minor and rather embarrassing operation known as a hydrocele. I won’t go into details except to say that it was the left one! During my short stay at the hospital I asked if there were many British cruise ship passengers hospitalised during the year as the number of ships visiting Vigo had increased enormously over the last twelve months. A couple of the nurses who remembered me during my role as HBC confirmed that many an elderly gentleman or lady has passed through the wards. ‘Did anybody from a British Consulate visit or call any of them?’ I asked. Remember that my lady replacement had already resigned. ‘No’, was the answer. Slightly puzzled, I then asked, ‘apart from the shipping agents who put them here, does anybody else take care of their needs if they’re distressed?’ ‘Oh; no problem,’ said one of the nurses, ‘Benjamin the taxi driver is constantly coming and going if they need anything. He brings them English newspapers, takes the next of kin shopping, acts as interpreter with the doctors and finally runs them to the airport once they are discharged. They all love him!’

I gave Benji a call to wish him Happy Christmas. I took advantage to ask him if he was still dealing with the passengers and if there was still no response from Madrid whenever one was hospitalised. His first answer was yes and his second was no. As a final confirmation I called both shipping agents in Vigo and Corunna to confirm what Benji had told me. I don’t need to go on any further as you can all guess the answer.

Without going into the full blown text, both of her Majesty’s Government web sites state categorically that when a person is hospitalised: ‘We aim to contact British nationals within 24 hours of being advised…’ If this were true, Her Majesty’s taxi driver, dear old Benji would be out of a job! These examples I have given regarding this area of Spain apply to only one sector of assisting British citizens abroad; hospitalised cruise ship passengers. I have no idea of cases that may have involved arrest, deceased, stolen passports or others. I’m sure that there must be some that have been taken care of, especially lost passports or deceased tourists and the like here and in other parts of Spain. But then again, only Madrid HQ knows the answer as the whereabouts of Honorary British Consuls is one of Britain’s best kept secrets! 

A Prosperous New Year to all of you out there and remember, if you’re visiting my area, the motto is: ‘Don’t call me I’ll call you!’’                

© James G. Skinner. January 2010.

James Skinner on Women's Rights

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