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The Consular Service

The Consular Service can be the most high-profile aspect of the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), and the part of the UK Government to which British nationals turn when they encounter serious problems overseas: from lost passports to kidnapping, detention or death. The Consular Service also acts as an emergency service in the event of a crisis abroad and will arrange evacuation for British nationals.

The FCDO provides guidance on support for British nationals abroad, outlining the type of help it can provide and offering general advice on staying safe overseas. The FCDO also provides comprehensive travel advice and warnings.

Structure and financing

The Consular Service network is unique in that it is entirely fee-funded and does not derive any financing from taxation. There is a Treasury requirement to set fees at a level that enables income to match costs.

The FCDO receives a consular premium of £15.50 from each standard adult passport issued (this represents 21% of the cost of the passport), to fund its non-fee bearing consular services (PQ107678).

A smaller percentage goes towards the Emergency Disaster Relief Fund, which the FCDO is able to draw on to fund its response to major crises on a cost recovery basis.


In a letter to the Foreign Affairs Committee in February 2021, then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab explained that, in 2019, the FCDO had:

  • provided personalised consular support to over 22,000 British nationals
  • provided advice to a further 415,000 British nationals via Consular Contact Centres
  • issued almost 30,000 emergency travel documents.

The Foreign Secretary’s letter added that consular service continued throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and, in addition to mounting the largest consular crisis response in the history of the then FCO, longer-term assistance was provided in over 14,000 welfare cases, almost 3,000 detentions, over 3,000 deaths and more than 2,600 hospitalisations.

In 2020, personalised consular support was provided to more than 27,000 British nationals; the highest annual total of new cases over the previous five years. This support ranged from supporting those who lost their passports, been victims of crimes or had accidents in another country, through to complicated, long-running consular cases such as people detained overseas.

However, in its report assessing the FCDO’s consular response to the pandemic (Flying Home: The FCO’s consular response to the COVID-19 pandemic, HC 643, 28 July 2020), the Foreign Affairs Committee identified areas in which the Government fell short:

  • The Government’s repatriation operation was considered too slow and placed too much reliance on commercial providers.
  • Other countries acted faster and organised more charter flights
  • Whilst a relatively large financial package was developed for those suffering from COVID-19 related financial hardships in the UK, little was done to provide help for those UK citizens stuck abroad. The FCO should have done more to provide financial support to those citizens stranded abroad, and to communicate clearly what help was available to them.
  • Many UK citizens stuck abroad reported that they were unable to access the information that they needed, whilst others were not treated with the empathy and compassion that they should expect.
  • Though there were notable successes, the FCO was outpaced by events leaving many seeing it as out of touch with the needs of those in difficulty. Too many UK citizens were not provided with the support that they should reasonably expect to receive.

Consular assistance

There is a gap between what the public can legitimately expect and what the FCDO provides. Some families feel let down by the level of service provided and a perceived lack of support. This can cover everything from translation of documents (court documents or basic health documents, for example), to inappropriate advice or inaction to repatriate the body of a loved one.

The more serious cases in which British nationals contact Consular Services for help can involve responding to a death or imprisonment abroad.


The FCDO supports about 4,000 families affected by death abroad annually (HC Deb 702 c119). In its guidance on support for British nationals abroad, the FCDO sets out the assistance it can provide to the partners or relatives of a British national who has died abroad.


The UK Government provides consular assistance in approximately 5,000 new cases of arrest or detention overseas each year (PQ114271).

Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, states which detain British nationals should notify the British Embassy or consulate, and if requested, consular officers must be given access to those detainees “without delay”.

This places high demands on the Consular Service; the FCO states that arrests and detention of British nationals overseas constitute the greatest number of consular cases each year, and take up a substantial amount of consular time.

One of the more prominent cases concerns Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national currently detained in Iran. Members discussed her case in a Westminster Hall debate on 16 November 2021 (HC Deb, Vol 703 cc191-18WH). More information on Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case can be found in the associated Commons Library Debate Pack.

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