March 24th 2010
If you are heading abroad for Easter, and if your plane is not strike-bound, then you will find that in very many destinations the pound in your pocket does not go anything like as far as it did only a couple of years ago. No bunny that Mr. Darling has pulled out of the budget hat is likely to make any short-term difference to the value of sterling against the dollar and the euro.
For holidaymakers that may mean less sangria and cava, less retsina and ouzo, less vin rouge and vin blanc. For those UK citizens now resident in the euro-zone and beyond it has already meant a great deal of belt-tightening as the value of British pensions has fallen while prices and heating costs (yes, winters are cold in France and Spain as well) have risen.
We are now told, though, that the fall in the value of the pound has hit the budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That is equally serious for citizens of this country living or travelling abroad on business or pleasure.
Superficially it might seem to indicate a few less cocktail parties on embassy lawns, a few less staff to fetch and carry, the closure of a few minor outposts. In fact, in terms of not only the prestige of Great Britain but of the wellbeing of those that we represent it is clearly having an effect already and it cuts rather closer to home than you might think.
I have at least five constituents currently in need of embassy or consular help. One is facing a death sentence in a Congolese gaol. One is awaiting trial in a prison in France. Two are engaged in a prolonged battle for justice having had their life's endeavour and property stolen from them by an African crook and one is engaged in a civil action with threatened criminal proceedings in the Caribbean. All are dependant, in one way or another, upon the assistance of the Foreign and Commonwealth office in Whitehall and its Ambassadorial and High Commission representatives overseas. I do not think that they are all, any longer, receiving the assistance that they deserve.
I have hitherto always had a high regard for our Embassy and High Commission teams. I have, generally, found them to be dedicated and hard working., Many are wise and some (I am thinking particularly of Craig Murray when I met him in Ghana and John Perrot who was our High Commissioner in the Gambia when I was there as an election observer and Edward Clay in Kenya) are hugely courageous, independent, outspoken and determined.
I sense that that is in danger of changing. From requiring that the bearer of a British passport be allowed to pass freely and without let or hindrance I note a reluctance to become involved to assist British subjects with "civil" matters that may prove to be embarrassing or complicated. Do we defend the interests of those in trouble in foreign parts or are we now so strapped for cash, short-staffed and demoralised that we shrug our shoulders and leave them to their fate? It may matter to you if you find yourself in unexpected difficulties while abroad.
There is another side to this equation as well. While the F&CO is cutting we continue, through the Department for International Development, to pour millions of pounds in aid into countries that are, quite simply, corrupt. If we are in the business of hard choices - and I appreciate that this will be contentious - then it is my view that we are likely to serve not only our interests but those poorest in the world best by maintaining a strong and effective diplomatic presence rather than by propping up failing regimes and dictators to whom human rights mean nothing. Perhaps a fresh government and a new Foreign Secretary will reappraise the priorities.