HL Deb 18 December 2003 vol 655 cc1279-82

11.9 a.m.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will review the system by which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issues advice to British citizens planning to travel abroad.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, yes. We are already doing so. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary announced a review of the basis of FCO travel advice in a Written Statement to Parliament on 10th December. We have done a great deal in recent years to ensure that our travel advice is as accurate and as timely as possible. The review will look again at how we can best ensure that it enables its users to make informed and responsible decisions about risks overseas.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and, indeed, for the review which has been announced. The full terms of reference are in Hansard. As she knows, this is an extraordinarily difficult balance: Foreign Office Ministers must weigh up the particular danger at particular times in particular places against the negative effect which negative travel advice has. Will she confirm that this can include not only tourism, although that is important enough, but trade missions, which lose their grant and are cancelled, and professional conferences, which collapse? It could lead to the withering away of the whole range of our contacts, as British people, with overseas countries, which are so important and which, of course, are precisely what the terrorists want to destroy. Would it not be possible to set out the facts, as plainly and fully as intelligence considerations allow, but then in general leave grown-up people to make up their own mind in the light of those facts on whether to maintain their plans?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I know how difficult this is, for the very good reason that I am both the consular Minister and the Minister for counter-terrorism. So I have in my portfolio both the aspects to which the noble Lord has quite rightly drawn our attention. Of course, any travel advice about not going to particular countries disrupts tourism and commercial relationships. As the noble Lord has rightly pointed out, in many respects it can be argued that it precisely meets the terrorists' objective by causing the very disruption they seek.

The noble Lord's point about simply setting out the facts and leaving people to draw their own conclusions is precisely the sort of area on which the review needs to focus a good deal of its attention. Many people want advice about whether they should or should not travel. Should they undertake non-essential travel? Is the Foreign Office talking about particular cities or towns? We need to have as much factual advice as possible. The question of judgment in the review will then involve the very question that the noble Lord has raised about advice. If I may say so, I hope that he contributes—I saw his excellent article on this very point, which is most important in this discussion.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there will be a great deal of support for the thrust of the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd? Does she agree that this new phenomenon of suicidal international terrorism is likely to be a long haul? Does she also agree that, given our considerable experience over the decades of terrorism in Ulster, we are in a position to give a lead in seeing these matters in proportion and not giving the terrorists the satisfaction of disrupting disproportionately our foreign travel, whether it is for business purposes or tourism?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with that point but I also put to your Lordships the very important point that the first responsibility of any government has to be the security of their citizens. This is an enormously difficult issue. When I was in Turkey, very shortly after the appalling bomb in Istanbul, the point that noble Lords have made was put to me by the Turks themselves. They said that the advice might do the terrorists' job for them. But I also had to make it clear that it is the Government's responsibility not just to lay out the facts but to decide about the advice. One of the points in the terms of reference of the current review is precisely this balance: what should be the balance in our travel advice between information, warning and advice? That is the nub of the issue, and we would very much welcome the views of your Lordships.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, personally, I find the current level of Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice extremely good, particularly its website, which I strongly recommend to your Lordships. However, does the noble Baroness recall that after the Bali atrocity more than a year ago, the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee produced its own report on questions of travel advice and strongly recommended that there should be a more sensitively graded system of warnings, steering between alarmism at the one extreme and complacency at the other? Has that idea been adopted and is it enfolded in the current level of advice?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, travel advice is a dynamic process—it is changing all the time and the approach to it is changing all the time. This is a major review to look again at whether we need to focus in a different way. The short answer to the noble Lord's point is yes. The travel advice regarding Turkey at the time of the terrorist outrage on our Consulate-General in Istanbul was already more nuanced than, for example, the travel advice of the United States. Its advice was aimed at the whole of Turkey; ours very specifically pointed out that the dangers were very much greater in big cities and towns. We have tried to pick up the very helpful points that came out of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee report and to be more sensitive in the way that we nuance it.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, is there not a difficulty in not giving specific advice that tourists should not visit particular places because of the problem of travel insurance? Will my noble friend confirm that travel companies will allow people to change the date or get a refund if there is clear advice that people should not travel, but in the absence of that advice, there might be insurance problems?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, that is true, but I do not think that that consideration should determine what the travel advice is. The travel advice has to be accurate; 60 million trips are made overseas from this country every year. I would advise everybody to look at the Foreign Office's excellent "Know Before You Go" campaign which focuses on what I would describe as common sense issues, such as having proper travel insurance, having the right inoculations and knowing something about the customs of the country to which one is travelling. There is advice specific to backpackers and to skiers. People should consider those basic points—and the point about insurance is important—very carefully before they travel.