HL Deb 24 March 1980 vol 407 cc534-40

7.4 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill is designed to enable any official who is authorised by the Secretary of State to perform a consular function abroad or a corresponding function in the United Kingdom, to levy the fee already pertaining to that function. The rationale of this may appear so self-evident as to cause your Lordships to wonder why it is that, nearly 90 years after the passing of the Consular Salaries and Fees Act of 1891, which introduced the general right to levy consular fees, this principle has not yet been enshrined in law. Your Lordships may also be surprised to learn that the authority to levy the fee for such services performed in foreign countries resides in the title of the functionary rather than in the service he performs, and that at home the authority does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Originally, only consular officers (as narrowly defined in the 1891 Act) were empowered to charge consular fees. After the First World War, however, a growing need developed for certain consular services (notably the issue of passports) to be performed in this country and the Fees (Increase) Act 1923 was passed to enable public officers of the Foreign Office in Great Britain also to levy the fees for such services. The next development was the emergence of our former colonies as independent nations, and the requirement for our High Commissions there to perform certain services which had previously been undertaken by the colonial Governments. In fact, we seem to have been rather slow in adapting to the situation, as it was only by the Consular Relations Act 1968 that officials exercising consular functions at our High Commissions in Commonwealth countries were empowered to levy the relevant con- sular fees. In switching the emphasis away from the formal designation of the officer performing the service, and to the service itself, these Acts of 1923 and 1968 undoubtedly were an advance.

We were still left, however, with the problem that in foreign counties, no matter how modest our diplomatic representation, a consular officer would formally have to be appointed before the mission could levy the requisite fee for any necessary consular service performed. In Northern Ireland, which is not embraced by the term "Great Britain", we have been forced to adopt rather contorted administrative procedures in order to levy a fee.

None of this is conducive to good management. Since 1970 it has been the policy of successive Governments to aim to cover the costs of our consular operations by receipts from fees levied for the services. This goal has been attained thanks to the passport fee which is the major source of income. In order to prevent fees from rising beyond a reasonable level and to ensure the best use of manpower, it is however the Government's intention that the consular services should continue to operate as economically as possible. The fact that fees have remained stable since March 1978 testifies to a satisfactory measure of success in this respect. But we find the provisions of the 1891 and 1923 legislation present an obstacle to further rationalisation of our operations. We no longer have a separate and distinct Consular Service. All our representation abroad is conducted by the Diplomatic Service whether its members bear consular titles or not; furthermore the passport agency in Belfast, in common with the other Passport Offices, has been steadily assuming greater importance as the demand for urgent issues of passports has inevitably increased.

This modest Bill preserves what is of continuing use in the earlier legislation, but removes and replaces those provisions which have no relevance to our changed conditions. It does not introduce new fees, nor does it increase the level of fees already charged. It requires no increase in staff.

I should like to explain the one substantive clause; the first subsection of the clause, which reproduces the earlier provision for consular fees to be fixed by Order in Council, states that anyone authorised by the Secretary of State to perform consular functions abroad or corresponding functions in the United Kingdom may levy consular fees. The effect of this clause is to widen the category of qualified officials so as to include not only consular officers in foreign countries and our officials in Commonwealth countries who perform similar functions, but also officials engaged on similar duties in Northern Ireland and in foreign countries, whether or not they hold consular titles.

Subsection (2) defines the consular functions, the performance of which qualifies the official to charge the relevant fee. Use has been made of the list of functions in Article 5 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations; this has already been embodied in our own legislation by its inclusion in Schedule 1 to the Consular Relations Act of 1968. Clause 1(3) reproduces the existing provision of the Consular Salaries and Fees Act 1891 which enables the Secretary of State to make regulations governing the way in which the fees shall be levied, accounted for and applied. This is done by statutory instrument subject to the approval of the Treasury.

Subsection (4) requires the table of fees to be displayed in every office where they are levied. This replaces the 1891 requirement that the tables be displayed in consular offices and in customs houses in the United Kingdom. It ensures that the fees will be displayed to the public wherever the relevant services are performed. The requirement for display in customs houses, mainly for the information of ships' masters, is no longer relevant in present conditions and has been abandoned. Subsection (5) repeals the earlier legislation which the Bill replaces and substitutes a reference to the Bill, where necessary, in other enactments. The remainder of the Consular Salaries and Fees Act 1891 has already been repealed.

I trust, my Lords, that you will recognise this as a useful measure intended to streamline the services performed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and therefore to contribute to its efficient operation. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Trefgarne.)

7.13 p.m.


My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for moving the Second Reading of this Bill in such clear terms. It regularises one or two anomalies, as he said, and one of them is an Irish anomaly: that must be particularly acceptable in any statute! But the more general anomaly to which he drew attention is one that I am sure the House will be pleased to know is finally regularised: that is that at present the power to charge fees for consular services is confined to consular officers. As the noble Lord said, there is no requirement in the Vienna Convention that these services should be confined to officers bearing consular titles; in fact there is and has been for some years a single Diplomatic Service—a foreign service one might call it—for overseas purposes in this country. The Bill proposes that fees for a consular service should be payable whenever and by whichever officer the service is rendered. That surely should help to make the use of Diplomatic Service manpower more flexible, especially in small missions, and particularly as "mini-missions" of two or three people are beginning to emerge.

I am sure there will be general support in the House for the application to the Diplomatic Service, as to all other activities in this country, of the principle of avoiding all the rigid lines of demarcation of duties. Specialism and adaptability are not incompatible, I am tempted to say as any Minister who has seen the progress of these gifted young men and women through his private office will confirm. They are at once destined for proper specialisation and also trained in flexibility and adaptability. And why not? True specialism and adaptability are complementary, particularly in the Diplomatic Service, I would say. Indeed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office understand this very well. It has given a very good example (dare I say?) to other departments over the past 10 or 12 years of how to conserve and indeed reduce staff without impairing efficiency; and that in a period when the wide-ranging demands of its services have been particularly marked and increasing, perhaps especially so in the consular field.

As to the level of fees, it has been the policy of successive Governments to bring them up to a level that meets the costs of the services provided. The last increases, as we are reminded, were made in March 1978. The passport fee then became, as it is at the moment, £11. There has in fact been no increase for two years, largely because of the increase in demand for passports. Productivity in this particular case— differently from the Gas Board—has led at least to stability in prices. That trend of the increasing take-up of passports, together with the further streamlining of staff and its more flexible use by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, should, I hope, postpone any further increase, even in these days of galloping Tory inflation. I hope that the Minister will allow himself half-a-minute at the end of this important debate to give me an assurance that there is no immediate intention of increasing these levies.

At the same time we should be constantly on our guard against false economies. In reviewing from time to time, as we do, the number and strength of our posts abroad, including consulates, we should avoid the risk of attenuating the quality of service and the impact of influence. It is against the need for efficiency and effectiveness as a country that economies in this direction should be pursued. The range of worthwhile activity undertaken by our Diplomatic Service here and abroad is immense. It is also vital to the prosperity and security of our country. We are all familiar with its work in the political field and indeed in the commercial field, and I think that tribute should be paid to our Diplomatic Service for the devotion and skill it brings to bear on these aspects of its work. I am tempted to reminisce a little, but I will restrain myself except to say this: I saw this devotion and skill, both here and abroad, over a total period of some eight years as a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Hardly a week passed without some indication of appreciation of the efficiency, promptness and courtesy of the men and women in London and in posts outside this country when approached for help and advice by an amazing range of individuals and firms. Equally, they have helped countless individuals and families in personal distress in foreign countries, and this is an aspect of their work which I hope will not be scamped whatever the pressures of financial retrenchment may be. Anyone in difficulties in a strange country, ignorant of the language and the law of that country—even of the usages of that country—is especially vulnerable, and deserving of the help and protection that our representatives can extend.

It is of very great importance that we maintain and, where necessary, expand that aspect of our Diplomatic Service: first, because of the number of our citizens who travel abroad. The number is increasing every year, and I understand that last year alone nearly 2 million new passports were issued. Secondly, the impact and influence of this country depends, in great measure, on how we are seen to deal with these cases of distress and difficulty for individuals and families, as well as on the way we help our firms and commercial people in those countries. It is not only a matter of prestige, important though that is. What our representatives do abroad in our name, and what they are enabled to do—because they must be provided with the resources with which they can discharge their duties—has a real, if' unquantifiable, effect upon the standing of Britain and, as such, it influences our political and commercial achievements in those countries. This is a small but significant Bill, and I feel sure that all quarters of the House will agree to the Motion moved by the noble Lord.

7.21 p.m.


My Lords, I fancy that the only British consular fee that most of us are ever likely to be called upon to pay is the passport fee, although we sometimes contribute to the revenue of other countries by seeking entry visas for pleasure or business. But how often are we required to swear an oath—I mean in solemnity, rather than anger—to obtain verification of a translation from Aramaic, to obtain a certificat de coutume, which I gather is a French document, or to transfer a mortgage on a ship? Yet these are necessary services which properly attract a fee, and which help to bring in the necessary revenue.

But the fee which really enables us to provide essential protection to our citizens abroad is the passport fee. At … 11 for a 10-year standard passport, you may agree that it is a bargain and we shall try to keep it so. To answer the point put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, I can say that all these fees are kept under constant review, as he knows, but there is no plan to raise any of them at the present time.

Nevertheless, as holidays abroad become ever more popular, the number of our citizens who seek assistance from British posts abroad is likely to increase in absolute terms, even if they represent, as now, an infinitesimal proportion of the total number of travellers. We therefore have to make sure that all fee-bearing services in fact yield the necessary return, and that our staff are not prevented by outmoded legislation from charging what is due.

In referring to the staff, may I join the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, in the tribute that he paid to them? I have not yet served eight years in the Foreign Office—I have hardly served eight months—but I have already come to realise that the high qualities which they possess, and which were described by the noble Lord, are of the greatest value to the country. As I have said, the main purpose of this Bill is to correct the anomalies to which the noble Lord referred, and which I described in my opening remarks. I am obliged to your Lordships for so readily recognising the modest merits of this measure.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.


My Lords, I beg to move that this House do now adjourn during pleasure until five minutes past eight o'clock.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.20 p.m. to 8.5 p.m.]