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The Honorary Consul Bows Out

MP's and the Walrus - The British Abroad

So You think the British Government will look after you abroad
James Skinner

‘I’ve finally decided to retire as Her Majesty’s governmental representative in this remote part of Europe known as Galicia after nearly 5 years of rescuing Brits from the gallows or sending them off to the nearest registry office to get hitched. I use the verb ‘hitched’ with tongue in cheek as due to globalisation and other worldly niceties, marriage is ‘old hat’ and human carnal ‘joint ventures’ are the vogue.

So much for that! My reasons for leaving were multitudinal but boiled down to the fact that I was tired! Too many hours of my personal writing and leisure time wasted on keeping the Union Jack flying at full mast. Too many days and sleepless nights thinking about some poor sailor stranded in a hostel waiting for his passport and clean dry clothes to arrive as his yacht continued to drift somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. Too many weeks of wrangling with beaurocracy for not having acted according to Whitehall rules or filled in the proper form showing how many ball point pens were used per Brit in trouble over the last 12 months. There were moments of glory when a letter would arrive in the post from an elderly couple, whom I’d completely forgotten about, thanking me for the 3 day old Sunday Times I managed to find for them whilst in hospital. There were other more serious reasons that were to do with the British Parliament’s ‘forthcoming budgetary constraints and other dubious attractions’ that directly affected consular services worldwide. I shall try to elaborate.

Just after the Tsunami disaster, Her Majesty’s consular service came under fire by a multitude of MP’s who had no idea of what life was like across the Channel let alone the Far East. They went for the Foreign Secretary’s head for not acting sooner, leaner and more efficiently in dealing with the Brits that were caught up in the area at the time. Ironically it was an Honorary Consul, not a ‘paid’ one, who was first on the spot. Since then, an enquiry was held that subsequently turned into a complete review of the Foreign Office Overseas establishments, from ambassadors and consuls down to the janitor and gardener level. The results were presented in Parliament, debated, thrashed about, chewed with Soy sauce and finally transformed into a full blown report with new guidelines to be put into place for the future assistance of Brits abroad by HMG agencies. There were changes alright, especially those that affected consular services! In other words; yours truly!

For the benefit of all those Brits travelling or living abroad, consular services are now set on similar lines to that of any other money making activity, be it industrial machinery for making cars or wholesale worldwide distribution of paper dolls. In other words they have gone commercial. All overseas consular posts are to become profit centres with proper marketing and sales programs with corresponding control of income and costs. This included a complete review of ‘who’s who’ and how much they were costing the government. Naturally, redundancies and early retirement were front runners to all other cost cutting exercises. Ah; but they discovered a gold mine! Transform a great deal of ‘paid’ consular posts into honorary ones and, presto! Your staff costs are cut down to the bone! As far as business clients are concerned, all those holding one of Her Majesty’s passports are now considered ‘customers’ and treated accordingly.

The moment you walk through the door of a consular office you must have your credit card ready or else you won’t get served! Funny thing is that consular services are still a monopoly. Her Majesty’s Government will always have the upper hand, money wise!

Internally, all consular staff must justify their existence. They are to record every minute of time spent (or wasted!) on telephone calls, visits, e-mails and front desk attendance that is then dissected into non-profitable and profitable usage of their workload. In other words, if you have sold a passport, you’ve earned money for the Foreign Office. If you have visited some poor old dear in hospital, you have literally wasted money! It’s that simple.
So what should I have done, having being presented with this new scenario? I already was an honorary consul, so why all the bitching? The rules did not change on my patch as I was being paid peanuts and working my backside to keep all those Brits dropping in to visit me content and happy as Larry! But then the human side of me took over. I started studying the infamous report on consular services, put two and two together and realised after weeks of deliberation that all Brits travelling or living overseas were at the mercy of ignorant MP’s back home in the UK that were calling the shots. On the one hand, these political animals were seeking votes by bashing the Foreign Office in the House of Parliament because some Brit had dared to complain about his treatment overseas (remember my mention, and with all the due respect to the tragedy itself, of the Tsunami disaster) whilst on the other hand demanding that these same Brits should under no circumstances have their tax money used for overseas cocktail parties and other supposed niceties that went on in the FCO’s overseas departments. A load of hogwash! The last time the Queen’s Birthday was celebrated I was still in my nappies! In other words they literally wanted something for nothing! So what have we got?

All services offered to any Brit overseas must be paid out of the income from passports and other charged consular services. This means that the fees charged for passports have skyrocketed and if you wish to get married and need a certificate of any kind you’ll have to pay an arm and a leg. Meanwhile, any nicety you may indulge in due to your status as an Honorary Consul must come out of your own pocket. This includes expenses such as fifty pounds worth of sending Christmas cards to the local dignitaries, to taking a taxi to visit the grave of the local, in my case, Spanish poet on the anniversary of his death. I forgot to mention. In my new job description – yes we now have a job description - it is absolutely essential that I keep all local authorities and other public folk happy, just in case I need to go through the back door to save, as I said before, a Brit from the gallows. At my own expense of course!

I summed it up after all these years. I was putting in an average of 20 hours per week and being paid an honorarium of 1850 pounds per annum. I worked it out. As honorary consular work is what is known as a 24/7 (24 hours per day, 7 days per week) my hourly rate for those so called taxpayers back in the UK was exactly 2.36 pound per hour. Enough to pay for a pint of bitter at my old local, the ‘Chain and Locker’ in Falmouth! So I said goodbye. I sent a nice letter to my employer, the Ambassador, stating politely my reasons for leaving whilst sending a farewell message to the rest of my consular colleagues around the Iberian Peninsula that went like this:
‘"The time has come," the Walrus said, "To talk of many things: Of shoes –and ships – and sealing-wax – Of cabbages – and kings – And why the sea is boiling hot – and whether pigs have wings."

Most answered, appreciating my hidden meaning and bade me farewell!

I only wish I could stand up in the British Parliament, address those MP’s who need educating and recite the same extract from Lewis Carroll’s lovely poem. I’m sure many have no idea what goes on behind the scenes at a British Consular post let alone what they have in common with a fictitious XIX century walrus!’

© James Skinner. May 2007.

Note: Don’t forget about my book ‘The Goa File’ Good reading folks!
Note: Now available‘The Goa File’ ( Good reading folks!

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