‘Here, I feel I am making a real difference’

news: ‘Here, I feel I am making a real difference’

WITH 2005 drawing to a close, the new British Consul to the Algarve, Bill Henderson, who succeeded Roger Nuttall on September 1, spoke to The Resident’s Caroline Cunha about his first three months in the job, his 40 year career in the diplomatic service and the improvements planned for consular services in Portugal next year.

The Resident: When did you come out to the Algarve and how are you and your family settling in?

Bill Henderson: My wife Carrie and I arrived in August and we are living in between Portimão and Alvor. Our arrival was a little later than we had hoped, due to the fact that I had to undergo an operation on my foot. I, therefore, initially met up with my predecessor, Roger Nuttall, in London and we continued with the hand-over by e-mail.

I have four colleagues here at the Consulate to assist me and they are a very experienced and helpful team, which is great. I am still learning the ropes, but I am very happy with the way things are going.

I have two grown up children and two grandchildren, all of whom are living in the UK. We feel happy to be here and my wife is busy building a new life for herself in the Algarve.

It may sound a little odd but this is actually a post retirement position for me. I retired from the Foreign Office in August, aged 57, but through this new role, I will still be in contact with the Foreign Office on a regular basis and so, on a certain level, I will continue to work for them.

I spent 40 years working in the diplomatic service and half of that time was spent working overseas. I have worked in Spain, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, among other places. I am delighted to be working in Portugal now.

R: What was the last post you held, and is this new role quite a departure from that for you?

BH: My last job, from 2001-2005 was as director for the Middle East and Africa at UK Trade and Investment, the trade arm of the Foreign Office in London. This job included responsibility for co-ordinating the efforts of British business to take part in the reconstruction of post-war Iraq. I visited Baghdad in 2003, after the war ended, which was a fascinating experience.

My job as British Consul for the Algarve is very different and, in some ways, more satisfying. I am really enjoying it. I find helping to solve people’s individual problems very rewarding. My input previously during my Diplomatic Service career was perhaps more diluted, when my involvement was part of a wider bureaucracy. Here, my input is more direct and I feel I am making a real difference.

R: What links have you enjoyed with Portugal and the Algarve in the past?

BH: I first learned Portuguese while working in a management position at the Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for three years in the 1970s. There are obviously some differences between Brazilian-Portuguese and the Portuguese spoken here, but that experience has helped me a lot and I find I can get by reasonably well. I have previously visited Portugal on several occasions for golfing holidays, mainly Estoril and the Algarve.

R: Are you a good golfer then?

BH: I would say I am very keen but not that good!

R: Can you explain a little about what consular work involves?

BH: Broadly speaking our work here at the Consulate in Portimão can be divided into two areas:

1. Passports and documentation (birth registration, marriage documentation, verification of documents and certificates, etc).

2. Assistance to British nationals in trouble overseas.

Although the percentages vary depending on the time of year, around 70 per cent of our work relates to assisting British tourists on holiday in the Algarve and 30 per cent relates to residents.

Last year up to March 2005, the British Consulate in Portimão issued 400 emergency passports and we expect this number to rise this year. Unfortunately many tourists lose their passports and some have them stolen. And in some cases residents here make travel arrangements and then, at the last minute, realise they cannot find their passport or that it has expired

In general terms, we try to encourage visitors to follow our slogan that says, “get it right before you go”. This means making sure that visitors have all their documentation in order in advance, enough funds, confirmed arrangements, health check/sufficient medication, travel insurance and so on, but, of course, this isn’t always the reality.

We estimate that there are 1.2 million British visitors to the Algarve every year and over 60 per cent of passenger movement at Faro Airport is now related to flights to and from the UK. Even more British visitors are expected in the future due to the increase in low-cost flights generally and new routes being operated from UK regional airports to Faro.

Due in part to the consulate general in Seville closing, we are experiencing some extra demand for consular services as we are the closest Consulate for many visitors to the Huelva region of Spain – the nearest consulate in Spain is in Malaga. So, all in all, we expect to be kept busy.

R: Can you give examples of the kind of assistance you provide, aside from the issuing of emergency passports?

BH: I can tell you about a few cases that we have dealt with here recently. For example, a gentleman recently called us from the UK to ask for assistance in contacting his elderly parents living in the Algarve. He was worried because they were not answering the phone. We tried contacting them by phone and then arranged for the Portuguese police to make a house call. The couple were not at home, but when the police called a second time, they were in and asked to make contact with their son. We were then able to report back to the man in the UK who was very relieved and extremely grateful for our quick response.

Another recent request for assistance came from a woman in the UK whose fiancée (on holiday here) had been taken into hospital in the Algarve, but she didn’t know which one and, therefore, was unable to contact him. We phoned all the hospitals until we found him and obtained a report on his condition. This information was then passed on to the lady, who was relieved and reassured

We also recently received a call from a father who was due to attend a child custody hearing at Faro court. He wanted to check whether or not an interpreter would be provided at the hearing as he spoke no Portuguese. We checked with the court who confirmed that an interpreter would be available. Here again, a much relieved customer. I think that these cases highlight the value of what we do and the positive impact it has on our customers.

Part of our job is also to visit UK nationals imprisoned in the Algarve. As a first step, the police usually inform the Consulate about British citizens who have been arrested or detained. For example, last week, the Police informed us of three British men who were arrested onboard a fishing boat some distance off Cape St. Vincent (see report on p.5), when they were alleged to have been attempting to smuggle large quantities of drugs into Portugal. I paid a visit to them in Faro prison on Friday, where they are currently on remand awaiting trial.

R: Are you happy with the service currently provided at the British Consulate in Portimão?

BH: Yes, absolutely. The vast majority of visitors to the Consulate are very happy with the service we provide. The results of a recent questionnaire survey confirmed this. We receive many e-mails and letters thanking us for the assistance that has been provided and I think this can be directly attributed to the professionalism of the staff we have working here.

R: How are the consular staff trained and what are the requirements?

BH: Staff must of course be bilingual. They receive training on the job and also attend specific training courses that are held in London. They must also have good customer care skills and an ability to deal sensitively and discreetly with the problems experienced by UK nationals in the Algarve … Periodic surveys are carried out to measure customer satisfaction.

R: Are there any particular aims, innovations or improvements planned for next year?

BH: First and foremost we must aim to continue providing a good service to our customers. I have identified some areas that could benefit from slight improvements and we will be working on those. It is always important in any organisation to look at ways of improving procedures and providing a better service. We will also continue to keep in touch with issues affecting the British community in the Algarve, for example through the work of organisations such as AFPOP. We also monitor the English language press in Portugal (for example The Resident), and keep close links with the British tour operators. We are ready to discuss any issues with the local authorities whenever necessary.

Biometric passports are being introduced in the UK in 2006 and according to present plans will be rolled out at the Embassy in Lisbon in June. All existing passports will still be valid, but those applying for a new passport or a renewal will receive the new biometric version (biometric technology makes use of the unique features we each have and involves measuring the distance between key points on the face – these can be derived from the passport photo).

The new equipment and technology will be installed at the Embassy in Lisbon and the procedure for applications will still be the same for those British citizens here in the Algarve. We will continue to receive applications here and forward them to the British Embassy in Lisbon, a process which takes around 10 days.

R: Why are biometric passports being introduced?

BH: The first generation biometric passports will have many new security features, including a chip with the facial biometrics taken from a passport photograph. The UK is introducing biometric passports to help fight passport fraud and forgery, and to ensure that the British Passport stays one of the most secure and respected in the world. The new generation of passports will also facilitate more robust border controls and, in time, will allow automated immigration checks. Finally, the introduction of Biometric passports will ensure that British citizens can continue to benefit from visa free travel to the US.

R: What has been the greatest challenge of your career to date?

BH: When I served as the press attaché at the Madrid Embassy in the late 1980s I was given the challenge of organising the media aspects of a state visit to Spain from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. This involved much planning and preparation, particularly over issues such as security and press access. It was an unforgettable experience.

R: How will you spend Christmas this year?

BH: My wife and I will return to the UK to spend Christmas with our children and grandchildren at our home in Twickenham.

R: Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?

BH: To take more exercise and, with this weather, I don’t really have any excuses not to walk more! Also, I would like to improve my Portuguese.

R: Do you have a message for our readers?

BH: I’d like to take this opportunity to wish readers of The Resident a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.