Documents to download

The Consular Service

The Consular Service is 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 has a role in the event of a crisis abroad and may arrange evacuation “in extreme and rare circumstances” 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. It also provides comprehensive travel advice and warnings. The Consular Charter (updated in 2022) explains what services are provided by the consular service, what people can expect from it and what it asks for in return.

The 2022 FCDO Consular and Crisis Strategy sets out the number of people supported by the consular services:

In any given year, we support around 20,000 to 25,000 British nationals and their families, including approximately:

  • 6,800 detained or arrested abroad

  • 4,500 who die abroad

  • 4,000 who are hospitalised

  • 1,600 who are victims of crime

  • 5,000 who need welfare support

The FCDO annual report 2022-2023 highlights that, in the last three months of the financial year, consular teams responded to:

  • over 114,000 enquires;

  • 5,300 new assistance cases (an increase of 29% on the same period in 2021-22), over 1,700 of whom were considered vulnerable; and

  • over 6,700 applications for emergency travel documents

The Consular Service is funded by fees charged for notarial and assistance services and a consular premium of £15.50 included in the price of each standard British passport issued. A smaller percentage also 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.

Consular and Crisis Strategy 2022

The FCDO published its most recent FCDO Consular and Crisis Strategy in August 2022.  In her introduction to the strategy, Jennifer Anderson, Director for Consular Services described the delivery of consular services as “a vital public service and one of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office’s top priorities.”

The strategy acknowledged there had been a recent period of “unprecedented change and challenge.”  It notes that the Covid-19 pandemic affected “all areas of delivery” and highlights a series of major crisis operations.  It said “this period of change, disruption and crisis has tested our provision of consular services, which we deliver 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.”

The strategy commits to:

  • A 24/7 service with a more resilience Consular Contact Centre;
  • Providing “tailored and empathetic assistance to British people abroad,” including through using an “integrated approach to complex casework” and expanding partnerships with other organisations;
  • Helping British people to stay safe abroad, through travel advice, communication campaigns and working with “local stakeholders to share expertise and build capacity to improve the experience British people have when they need help from another country’s authorities”; and
  • Maintaining a “world leading crisis response capability” through improving crisis communication, and an integrated humanitarian and crisis response

Consular cases involving human rights

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”. However, the Government has highlighted that, while it is a party to the Vienna convention on consular relations (VCCR), its “ability to provide consular assistance remains at all times dependent on other states respecting the VCCR and must be done in accordance with the laws of that country”.  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.

The FCDO guidance, Arrested or in prison abroad, sets out the assistance the consular services can provide British citizens imprisoned abroad.  This includes where there the individual has been subject to torture/mistreatment:

The British embassy or consulate takes all complaints about torture and mistreatment seriously. They will put your best interests first and not do anything that might put you, or anyone else, at risk. 

The British embassy or consulate will do its best to check you’re safe. This may include:

  • visiting you more often to check on your welfare
  • discussing your complaint
  • explaining the local authorities’ complaints procedures and supporting you to make a complaint
  • telling you about any organisations that can help you
  • supporting your request for a transfer to another wing or facility
  • helping you get access to medical treatment

The British embassy or consulate cannot investigate torture and mistreatment allegations, but with your consent it can raise the allegations with the local authorities and request an investigation.  If you do not want to raise the allegations immediately, the British embassy or consulate can help you do this later if you wish – for example, after you have returned to the UK. The local authorities may ask you to provide evidence, such as photos, medical reports or witness statements, to help them investigate a complaint.

There have been recent concerns about the consular service’s approach in cases where British citizens imprisoned abroad have been the victim of torture or other human rights abuses.  A specific issue has been the FCDO’s approach in cases where detained individuals are dual nationals, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national who was detained in Iran for nearly six years.  More information about these cases is provided in a Library briefing, Dual nationals imprisoned in Iran.

In August 2023, the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman found that the FCDO had not acted on its own guidance in relation to the mistreatment of prisoners and did not act on warning signs that Matthew Hedges (a PhD student detained in the UAE on suspicion of being a British spy) was being mistreated.  The Ombudsman said that Mr Hedges was “failed by the UK government and that it must not happen again. The FCDO formally apologised to Matthew Hedges, committed to reviewing its internal guidance on cases where there are allegations of or concerns about torture and mistreatment, and providing training to all consular staff.

In its April 2023 report, Stolen years: combatting state hostage diplomacy, the Foreign Affairs Committee described an increase in the arbitrary imprisonment of British citizens where there is a risk that they may be used for political leverage. The report called for a “zero tolerance” approach and said the Government’s approach to state-level hostage taking was “failing British citizens”. It describes poor communication between consular staff and detainees and their families and calls for the creation of a new high-level role “Director for Arbitrary and Complex Detentions (DACD)” to lead on these cases. In its response to the Committee’s report, the Government rejected the proposal for a new role, stating that the current approach reflected “the Foreign Secretary’s primacy within Cabinet as the Secretary of State responsible for foreign affairs, including consular affairs, with direct access to the Prime Minister.”

A February Parliamentary question response from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the FCDO, David Rutley, sets out the Government approach to supporting people detained abroad:

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) consular staff are available to offer appropriate and tailored support to British nationals and their families, 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. Consular staff work tirelessly to give support to the c.4000 British nationals who are arrested or detained each year. We tailor the consular assistance we provide to British nationals who have been arrested or detained abroad depending on their specific circumstances. This includes raising individual cases with the relevant overseas authorities, including at Ministerial level, where appropriate. The FCDO seek continuously to improve our processes and services by acting on feedback and reviewing what we do.

Proposals for a legal right to consular assistance

There is no current legal right to consular assistance but there is increasing support for enshrining this right in law for individuals whose human rights are at risk. This is a change that has been campaigned for by charities and NGOs, such as Redress.

In a 2022 conference speech, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, said he would introduce a legal right to consular assistance under a Labour government.  He criticised the Government approach in dual national cases such as those of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Morad Tahbaz and Jagtar Singh Johal and said Labour would legislate for a new legal right to consular assistance.

In October 2023, he also announced that a new Special Envoy for Arbitrary Detention would also be introduced if Labour won the General election.  In comments to the Evening Standard, Mr Lammy said that a British hostage special envoy would offer a “centre of expertise in a very challenging environment” and highlighted the success of the US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

In December 2023, Liberal Democrat MP, Christine Jardine introduced a Private Members Bill, the Consular Assistance Bill, which would establish the legal right to consular assistance for those who have been victims of human rights abuses and false detention.  In comments in the Sunday Post, Christine Jardine highlighted the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and said “we assume that if something happens, someone will speak to the Foreign Office and you’re guaranteed assistance – but you’re not.”  She said that there was cross party support for the Bill, but that it was likely to run out of time in the parliamentary session before the election. Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband has expressed support for the Bill:

“The system, as it is now, is just unfair. If you make noise, you get attention, you can get protected from torture and other abuses. But if you are unable to get Ministers’ attention, you can be left to a different fate.”

“Petitions and hungers strikes shouldn’t be necessary to beg a government to do the right thing and look after their nationals both at home and abroad. There should be a framework for all British citizens.

In January, Redress (an NGO which provides support for individuals who have been the victims of torture and human rights abuses) published a briefing setting out the case for introducing a legal right to consular support. It notes that, whilst the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations gives individuals the right to communicate with consular services, it does not explicitly require states to provide consular services to its nationals.  It proposes a legal framework that it states would be a commitment to the human rights of British nationals, recognise the “crucial role of consular assistance in international law” and enable detainees and families to know the level of support they should expect.  The principles are supported by British Rights Abroad Group, The Free Nazanin Campaign, Hostage International, and Prisoners Abroad.  

Documents to download

Related posts