Right of Reply: Baroness Symons

The Foreign Office Minister replies to our leading article criticising the British consular service

YOUR LEADER yesterday accused the Foreign Office of giving a low priority to the protection of British nationals abroad. You could not have been more wrong.

Last year, the Consular Service dealt with more than 9,000 British nationals who needed our help. Almost 6,000 British nationals were arrested. Our consular staff are dedicated and professional. Many work in the world's most unpleasant places, looking after British nationals with an impressive commitment.

For the British nationals concerned, no consular case is unimportant. Our consular staff know this. They know that every death, every arrest, every mugging needs sympathetic and efficient handling. The vast majority of consular cases are resolved quickly and easily.

When cases become more difficult, the whole machine will swing into action. A great deal of my time is spent discussing problem cases with officials and talking to the families concerned.

Robin Cook and other ministers get involved as well, using their influence to ensure that our nationals are protected. The Foreign Secretary has telephoned the Prime Minister of Yemen three times in the past week - to demand consular access to the detained British nationals. We cannot demand special treatment for British nationals. But we can demand their rights.

From our 9,000 cases last year, we got around 40 complaints about our consular service. That is hardly the sign of a "service in disrepair". We got twice as many letters of thanks.

We are proud of our consular service. Our people do a difficult job, often under immense pressure and in the most difficult circumstances. Your leader was off the mark.

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