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 Saturday, 4 January, 2003, 02:30 GMT
UK prepares 'flatpack' embassies
The British embassy in China
The emergency embassies will not be very grand

The Foreign Office is assembling "instant embassies" to be flown, in containers, to trouble spots.

They would include flat-pack buildings, tables, chairs, communications equipment and rations.

An official joked there would also be hampers - provided by supermarket chain Tesco rather than upmarket London store Fortnum and Mason.

A contract to supply the embassies is now going out to tender, but it will be some months before any are ready for use.

An instant embassy would have been very handy in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban

This means that if there is an early war in Iraq and Baghdad is captured, one could not be used there - even though the current embassy is in ruins and people who have been there recently say that dogs and children playing football have taken over the grounds.

An instant embassy would have been very handy in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban.

The British embassy there was very run-down and it took time to get it up and active again.

Several modernising ideas

Pristina in Kosovo after the Serb withdrawal is another example of a place where such a facility would have been useful.

The plan is one of a number of modernising ideas which are being examined at a special conference of almost all Britain's ambassadors in London on Monday and Tuesday.

It is the first such meeting of its type, though the French and Germans have an annual get-together for their senior diplomats.

The Foreign Office said the world was getting more unstable and unpredictable, and it had to respond

The Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke at the last German meeting in May. He and the Prime Minister Tony Blair are to address the British session.

The conference was decided on last summer and is not being held in response to the crisis over Iraq, though obviously the ambassadors - 150 of them - will discuss policy issues.

The senior official at the Foreign Office, the permanent under-secretary Sir Michael Jay, said the world was getting more unstable and unpredictable, and the Foreign Office had to respond.

"We can't predict but we can prepare. We need to react more swiftly to crises," he said.

    Among other proposals for reform are:
  • A new more user-friendly travel advice service. The service was criticised by a House of Commons committee after the Bali bomb, for having been too slow to upgrade a potential threat.

    More money and people will work on the system, and there will be more co-ordination with similar services offered by other countries.

  • Rapid deployment teams on stand-by to fly to crises like the Bali or Mombassa explosions, where large numbers of Britons might need help rapidly.

    The Bali experience showed a need for such a response. One team is already ready to go.

  • A crisis centre operating 24 hours a day - or "24/7" as Michael Jay put it, eager to show that the mandarins can use the latest language.

The meeting will also examine changes in the way the Foreign Office works, and how it relates to non-governmental organisations and the media.

There will be more team-working, in which people from across the departments are brought together to work on an issue.

'Not exactly Terry Thomas'

Recent examples include Iraq, European security policy and Gibraltar; the latter not particularly valuable perhaps given the failure of the British initiative.

The sharing of facilities with other European Union countries will be developed though not, it seems, into joint missions.

Recently the French moved their consulate into the protected British compound in Karachi. The British embassy in North Korea is in the German compound.

It's about how to maintain a global reach more effectively

Sir Michael Jay, Foreign Office
All this is a world away from the rarefied world lampooned in the comedy film "Carlton-Browne of the FO", in which Terry Thomas gave work a glancing blow after a leisurely breakfast, and where the British envoy on the fictional island of Gaillardia had been left in post because he had been forgotten about.

But Sir Michael Jay denied it meant a turn away from the traditionally high standards of political reporting, to a more consumer-led operation.

"We must not dilute that", he said. "It is fundamentally important that British ministers have real-time intelligence and political information".

Some might see the proposals as a way of enabling Britain to go on "punching above its weight", in the words of former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.

"It's about how to maintain a global reach more effectively" was how Sir Michael Jay phrased the concept.

No decision has been taken yet on whether to make the London gathering an annual affair.


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28 Oct 02 | England
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