HL Deb 19 April 1999 vol 599 cc931-3

Lord Hurd of Westwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have yet completed the review announced on 11th January by the Foreign Secretary of the system by which his department gives advice on safety to British citizens living or travelling abroad.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the review of Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice should be completed by the end of June. Travel advice is under constant review and the FCO aims at all times to provide accurate and timely information to enable British nationals to make informed decisions. But we also look to travellers and to the travel industry to take responsibility for their personal safety when overseas.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer on a subject which is not the most important but one of the trickiest with which she and her colleagues in the Foreign Office have to deal. Is there not a strong distinction between the tourist and the British resident who works, perhaps is married, has settled down and put down roots in a foreign country and who may he just as competent as the Foreign Office to assess whether they should stay or leave?

As for the tourists, is there not some danger of drifting, under pressure from the travel companies, into a position where the Foreign Office—not the travel companies nor the individuals—takes responsibility which does not belong to it for the decisions of individuals? Can the noble Baroness make a little more clear the distinction which emerged somewhat opaquely from her Answer between the giving of facts and information and the giving of advice to individuals whose circumstances vary greatly?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, I can agree with much of what the noble Lord said. Foreign Office advice is exactly that: it is advice. It is not intended to indemnify either tour operators or individuals against eventualities of their travel. Individuals and tour operators must take responsibility for their personal safety. But the advice is intended to allow travellers to make informed decisions. There is no such thing as risk-free travel in any part of the world, as sadly we have seen.

I also appreciate the distinction that the noble Lord makes about tourists on the one hand and residents on the other. Many residents in foreign countries will generally be more familiar with local circumstances. But on occasions they will still look to the Foreign Office for the political advice which may inform decisions that they need to take about their own safety.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, what lessons does the Minister believe have been learnt so far by the Foreign Office as a result of the tragic kidnappings and murders of British tourists and workers in Chechnya, the Yemen and Uganda? In what way have those lessons been incorporated into the Foreign Office system of travel advice?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, in considering the travel advice in relation to the tragic events to which the noble Lord referred, I personally looked at it searchingly. At the time one could not have known the circumstances which would have led individuals to take different decisions from those that they took. It is all very well being wise after events, but we must act on the basis of what is known at the time. We review all travel advice every month as a matter of routine and some travel advice in particularly difficult parts of the world is reviewed more often than that.

We do not have all the answers, otherwise we would not be having the current review. I welcome any suggestions which any noble Lords wish to make to the Foreign Office. They should be sent to the office for the purposes of that review. We have already had a very useful seminar with members of the travel industry and they have put forward a number of suggestions which we shall now review and take into account.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, does the Foreign Office give its advice to travel firms without being asked, or does it rely on the travel firms to seek that advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? When it gives advice to the travel firms does it recommend that that advice be passed on to customers?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, travel notices are distributed throughout the travel industry as a matter of course, via electronic information systems. The Federation of Tour Operators, the Association of British Travel Agents and the Association of Independent Tour Operators then forward the advice to their respective members. In that way, more than 90 per cent of the travel industry are able to access the information. So it goes out, as a matter of course, but on occasions, particularly when trouble is apparent in different parts of the world, tour operators will want to telephone the Foreign Office to find out about certain parts of the world or particular regions of a country where they have fears or worries.

It was suggested that the Foreign Office should have a dedicated line just for tour operators rather than for the general public. That was one suggestion which came out of the seminar to which I referred. We hope to introduce such a dedicated line for tour operators by the end of this week.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us who travel abroad but who do not go through travel agencies are grateful to the Foreign Office for the intelligence that it gives us? In the light of that information we then make up our own minds.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for making that point. A good number of people who want to access Foreign Office travel advice do so as individuals and not through tour companies. It is worth remembering that a number of countries throughout the world seek to emulate the travel advice of the Foreign Office. Canada is one example. Very recently a number of French colleagues visited the Foreign Office to look at the way in which we give travel advice. They were favourably impressed and used it as a model for their own travel advice.