By David Baird
PITY British pensioners hit by the slumping pound.
Increasingly, more than 300,000 expatriates officially resident in Spain find it hard to make ends meet.
On his September visit to Spain British Consular Minister Chris Bryant promised help for these senior citizens. But what about the passport scandal?
I’m talking about the outrageous discrimination suffered by expats when they renew that vital document. Anybody applying for one of the wonderful new “biometric passports” is hit with an eye-watering demand for 154 euros, plus the cost of courier service delivery.
Total: around 170 euros. That’s DOUBLE what Brits resident in the UK pay, and they think they are hard done by because their passport fees have just been boosted by £5 to £77.50. Meanwhile, the poor, under-privileged Spaniards pay a mere 20 euros for their passports.
Home Office minister Phil Woolas argues that “the British passport is a gold standard in identity documents” and the hefty price helps ensure the “document security British citizens have come to expect”.
He must be joking — these are the same biometric passports from which hackers have managed to steal confidential details using a simple software programme and a scanner. Indeed, The Economist recently labelled the safety claims as “poppycock”.
Security is also cited as one reason the UK Embassy has recently moved its offices in central Madrid (sold for around 50 million euros) for leased space in a tower block on the swish Paseo de la Castellana.
Expats must now trek all the way up the Castellana to reach the embassy and consulate, on floors 38 to 41 of the 774-feet-high Torre Espacio, one of
Spain’s tallest buildings.
Security? A power cut could strand staff hundreds of feet above street level. And let’s not think about the Twin Towers.
In the UK, the Identity and Passport Service (IPS), a Home Office agency, issues about six million passports annually. But the passport-issuing service for British nationals living abroad comes under the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
Vice-consul Andrew Hamilton, head of the UK passport team in Madrid, argued: “We issue fewer than 500,000 passports a year worldwide and must recover the full costs of issuing through the passport fee. It is government policy that the costs of consular services overseas, which includes issuing passports to British nationals resident abroad, should be borne by those who use the service.
“Although we run an efficient operation, we cannot match the economies of scale that the IPS are able to in issuing over 10 times as many passports.”
Nobody doubts that the hard-working consular staff do a worthy job. In the past year they issued 21,000 passports and 9,700 visas. And they provided assistance in 770 hospitalisations, 2,267 detentions, 1,726 deaths, 52 rape and sexual assaults and 26 child abduction cases.
But something is seriously out of balance. An overwhelming proportion of those aided are tourists, among the 16 million Brits who visit every year.
So the relatively few permanent residents, mostly pensioners, are subsidising services for everybody, including lager louts and criminals in Spanish prisons.
Multiply by 154 the 500,000 passports issued annually by the FCO and you have a total income of some 70 million euros. Fees for the 20,000 documents issued in Spain total more than three million euros. Plus the fees for all those visas.
Enough to cover quite a few essential expenses, including cocktails, canapes
and diplomatic perks (including the ambassador’s Madrid mansion in an exclusive area?).
No doubt, Giles Paxman, the new British ambassador arriving in October, will enjoy the fantastic views from his ultra-modern office on the embassy’s 40th floor. Too bad struggling British expats can’t share the excitement.
More than one cash-strapped pensioner on the Costas must be pondering the advantages of Britain’s “gold standard”.