HC Deb 06 March 1980 vol 980 cc711-8

Order for Second Reading read.

5.56 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Richard Luce)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill before us is a simple one, with a modest objective—to facilitate the most economical allocation of duties among the staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Diplomatic Service and to ensure that where such duties attract a consular fee we have the power to levy it.

The levying of fees for the performance of consular services requested by the public was introduced by the Consular Salaries and Fees Act 1891. At that time, and right up to the Second World War, the Consular Service was separate and distinct from the Diplomatic Service. The post-war period, however, has seen the absorption of all our official overseas representation into one body, the Diplomatic Service, and the parent Departments into one Department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The fee-bearing functions that were formerly the prerogative of consular officers alone are now carried out by members of the Diplomatic Service and other staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, both in the United Kingdom and at our posts abroad. The issue of passports and visas has assumed a volume and revenue-earned importance unimagined in 1891. While these functions are recognised by the Vienna convention on consular relations as relating to consular officers, there is, of course, no requirement to confine their performance to officials bearing consular titles. However, legislation as it stands at present confines the power to charge the relevant fees to consular officers alone.

Much has been done in recent years to reduce the size of the Diplomatic Service, streamline its activities and make the best use of its resources by introducing greater flexibility. We have, for example, introduced the concept of "small missions", which are mini-embassies consisting of two or three officers with the strictly limited role of supporting our essential interests as economically as possible.

Nevertheless, these missions have to be prepared, from time to time, to perform certain unavoidable consular duties. Yet to confer on them a formal, and therefore unrestricted, consular role would represent a dissipation of resources which ought to be concentrated on more essential tasks. On the other hand, for such missions not to be able to charge the appropriate consular fee when they have provided a consular service would be illogical and involve a loss to public funds. The Bill will close this gap by ensuring that the fee derives from the function and not from the designation of the official who performs it.

The application of this principle will also remedy a deficiency in the existing legislation in so far as the operations of the British passport agency in Belfast are concerned. The Bill will make it clear that the power of that agency to levy fees for issuing passports rests on the same basis as that of the parent passport office in London.

Our purpose is to update and rationalise the earlier legislation. At the same time, we wish to preserve those provisions of the legislation that remain appropriate to present circumstances.

I should like to explain briefly in general terms the purpose of each of the two clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 is the substantive one. Subsection (1) of the clause gives powers to prescribe by Order in Council the fees to be levied by persons exercising consular functions or, within the United Kingdom, functions which correspond with consular functions.

Subsection (2) defines what is meant by consular functions by reference to article 5 of the Vienna convention on consular relations, which is set out in schedule 1 to the Consular Relations Act 1968.

Subsection (3) gives the Secretary of State power, with the approval of the Treasury, to make regulations governing matters such as the levying and handling of fees.

Subsection (4) states that tables of the fees, or extracts from them, are to be exhibited in any office where fees are taken.

Subsection (5) repeals earlier legislation that is replaced by the Bill and makes necessary amendments to other legislation.

Clause 2 simply gives the short title of the Bill.

The House may like to know how we decide the level of fees. In 1970 the Conservative Government decided that fees should be set at a level that would in due course cover the cost of our consular services. This was in line with the policy of the Government of the day that certain services to the public that attracted a charge should be made self-financing. In this case, the decision meant that the cost of the passport offices in this country, public departments in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, dealing with consular, nationality and related matters, and the consular work of 150 or so of our overseas posts had to be paid for. An initial target was set of 80 per cent. recovery of overall expenditure.

In 1977 the previous Labour Government decided to increase fees further to achieve 100 per cent. recovery. As a result, for example, the passport fee was raised from £8 to £10, and other fees were similarly increased. The Government introduced further increases in March 1978, so that the passport fee now stands at £11.

It is the present Government's intention to maintain this balance. With the buffeting that we constantly receive from escalating costs and variable rates of exchange, this balancing act requires the utmost economy in our consular operations if we are to keep the level of fees steady. We have had a fair measure of success, largely owing to the buoyancy in demand for new passports. That is why there has been no increase in fees since March 1978. Of how many commodities and services can one say that much?

I can recommend the Bill as the good housekeeping measure that it is intended to be. It entails no extra staff and no extra expenditure. Indeed, by ironing out a minor difficulty, it helps to smooth one area of our operations and should result in a marginal economy.

6.3 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe)

Once upon a time, the carrying of a British passport was regarded as a right and not as something given to us as a God-given gift by Governments provided that we were prepared to pay a certain amount of money for it. I should like the Minister to confirm that no decision has been taken so far to change the existing British passport. Those who travel a great deal regard it as essential that our existing passport documents should have proper covers. We do not regard suggestions that the passport should be printed in imperial purple as an advance.

Passport documents, given the increasing shrinkage of the world in terms of travel, should simply be a clear statement of the right to travel from one country to another. I hope that at some stage we shall return to that state and avoid the innumerable difficulties that now appear to be put in the path of British citizens. I regard as wholly reprehensible the splitting into different categories and the compartmentalisation, if I may use an appalling word, of British citizens into groupings.

The Minister, in moving the Bill, suggests that the whole point of consular fees is that they should equal, as far as possible, outgoings in regard to the Consular Service. The hon. Gentleman says that the Consular Service was originally separate from the Foreign Office. Some of us regard with disfavour the suggestions that the number of consular services should be cut down. There was a great deal of ill feeling in various countries when it was suggested that consular services should be consolidated into large embassies. I hope that the Foreign Office will not progress gaily along the path of centralisation without consulting areas where there have been consulates.

Gothenburg is a case that springs instantly to mind. A great deal of work was done by the consulate there, not only in the economic sphere but specifically in commercial work of tremendous importance to this country. If that was true of Gothenburg, it is undoubtedly true of a number of consulates elsewhere. If the Minister is looking for means of balancing fees, he should be sure that his sums are correct and that he is balancing them in a way that will enable us to keep as many consulates as possible in areas where they are useful. I say "useful" in the sense of commerce as well as providing services to citizens.

The Bill, as the Minister says, amends several existing Acts, including section 20 of the Foreign Marriage Act 1892 and the Marriage with Foreigners Act 1906. I examined both pieces of legislation, as they obviously had some specific effect. It is interesting that although both relate to the marriage abroad of British citizens and subjects to foreigners, nowhere do they actually say "male" British citizens. There is no suggestion in those Acts that only male Britons should have certain rights in relation to marriage to foreigners. Both these Acts are different from existing legislation that the present Conservative Government are trotting out. The Conservative Government have no doubts about the matter. They know that women are inferior and intend that this should be enshrined in legislation.

This has happened despite the fact that in previous years the House of Commons actually passed without a Division a little Bill, introduced by my now ennobled Friend Lady Jeger, that provided that British women should have the same rights as British males in relation to foreign citizens. That has been conveniently forgotten. The wording of the Marriage with Foreigners Act 1906 is of use only in that it gave permission to charge more money for consular functions. It is not of interest in saying that any British subject who desires to be married in a foreign country to a foreigner may, if I can paraphrase, have that right provided that he or she has complied with certain straightforward rules on identification and status.

How things have changed. It is simple when talking about money. One can always find a way of bringing a simple Bill before the House. When talking about the rights of the female Briton as opposed to the male Briton, one is talking of two different subjects.

I welcome the Bill in respect of the fact that if we are to have efficient consular functions they should be paid for, but I do not welcome it inasmuch as I do not see any demonstration that the Government have thought about the implications of cutting down the number of consulates. I certainly do not welcome it because it repeals those parts of existing Acts which, however they were framed in the past, had one basic understanding, which was that British subjects, even if they wished to marry foreigners, were still British subjects whether they were male or female. Even though the first of those two Acts dates from 1891, they were both way ahead of the present Government. I only wish that we could say that such a degree of enlightenment existed in Whitehall today.

6.10 pm
Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

It is a little odd that the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) should attack the Conservative Government so strongly for their denigration of the female sex, because, after all, we have elected a female as leader of our party.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Does it not occur to the hon. Gentleman that that right hon. Lady has absolutely no time for women's rights and that she is doing her best to destroy them?

Mr. Kershaw

I do not recognise that description at all. Anyway, I think that there is one ladies' right for which she stands up extremely well.

I should like to ask several questions of my hon. Friend. He said that the fees were increased again in 1978 in order to cover extra costs. As, presumably, we do not seek to make a profit from consular fees, I take it that they were increased in order to achieve 100 per cent. cover. If that occurred in 1978, is it likely that the fees will have to be increased again because of inflation?

I echo what the hon. Lady said about passports. There was a sinister plot—I do not think that it emanated from the Foreign Office, but it slipped through without the Department looking too hard at it—to give us a horrible bit of pasteboard because that could fit into a computer machine. I hope that we shall have no nonsense such as that. We like our stiff, awkward passports, which are less easy to forge, and so on. I very much hope that they will be retained.

I do not find it unacceptable that people who want passports should be asked to pay something for them. It may be desirable to go everywhere without passports, but if we want a passport for the conveniences that are attached to it we ought to be prepared to pay. Furthermore, it is almost the only revenue that the Consular Service receives.

The Consular Service sometimes does other quite agreeable things, such as enabling one to get married. Very often, one pays for that on the dot and, no doubt, in future years. But consuls often have to remedy disasters, such as the personal disasters of tourists and others. I very much hope that in looking at the fees my hon. Friend will try to temper the wind to the shorn lamb in such casts. Is he able to give any progress report about distressed British subjects? Do they cost a lot? Do they increasingly repay the travel money that they receive, or does that occur less and less often? What is the cost, each year, of repatriating people who deliberately run out of money when they are abroad?

6.13 pm
Mr. Luce

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall seek to reply briefly to some of the points that have been made. I do not wish to respond to the attack by the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) that it is the Conservative Party's view that all women are inferior. I would not dream of making such a remark, especially when my wife reads Hansard with great care. The foreign marriage Acts do not make any distinction between males and females; they apply equally to both sexes.

Both the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) raised related questions about the fees for the service and the cuts in consular services. The Government believe that the Consular Service should play its part in the objective of reducing the size of the Civil Service. We think that it would be quite wrong to exclude the Consular Service from that.

The hon. Lady mentioned Gothenburg. The consulate there has not been closed: rather, it has been reduced in size. But it is true that certain consulates in other regions have been closed. That is simply part of the overall objective, as part of the public expenditure exercise, of making our contribution to the cut in size of the Civil Service.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I understand that there used to be something called the European Integration Unit in the Foreign Office. Does not the hon. Gentleman feel that we are now fully integrated into Europe, and could not some of those units be got rid of first?

Mr. Luce

It is not just the Consular Service that has been cut in a small way. Every aspect of the Department has been examined very carefully, and we are playing our part in every area.

My hon. Friend asked about fees. He asked whether, because of inflation, it was likely that the fees—particularly the £11 for a passport, and the other fees for the various services that consulates provide—would be likely to rise. As I implied in my opening speech, the demand for passports is increasing at a tremendous rate. Last year there were 1.8 million applicants for passports, and all the evidence this year suggests that the demand is increasing at a considerable rate. Fortunately, because of that it is not necessary at the present time to consider the need for an increase in the cost of a passport. As I said earlier, the cost has remained static since March 1978, and it would be refreshing if we could keep it that way for as long as possible.

My hon. Friend also asked about distressed British subjects. I shall give him a detailed answer, but perhaps he will allow me to do so by letter. From the evidence that I have received and from my responsibilities in this regard, I can tell him that we have a duty to help those abroad who are in distress, to bring them home and to seek to recover the money from them over a period of time.

So far as I am aware—I shall seek to confirm it—there is no evidence of any great increase in the number of people who apply for that assistance and who are repatriated if they satisfy the criteria. I cannot give the cost of that service at present, but I shall seek to give my hon. Friend a proper answer by letter.

With those few remarks, I hope that the House will be satisfied with this small Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Cope.]

Bill immediately considered in Committee reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third lime and passed.