Jack Straw should go and see The Consul. He could learn about what it means to be an asylum seeker

I went to Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul in Holland Park last week, the poor person's Glyndebourne, where you can picnic in style, hear excellent young singers, find stylish and witty productions - and all at reasonable prices, without having to leave work in the middle of the afternoon. The Consul was first staged in Philadelphia in 1950 and has rarely been performed since.

It is a moving piece, with lush music and a sharp libretto. The story is of a man trying to get a visa to escape the authorities in an unnamed country; his wife haunts the offices of a consul (of another unnamed country). The couple are living with his strong, solid mother - who has some of the best arias in town - and their sickly baby. We never meet the consul. He is represented throughout by his efficient, unbending secretary, asking endless questions, never giving way.

Desperation takes over, and a macabre dance hints at a world gone mad, as the magician - also looking for a visa - hypnotises them all. But "the system" gives way to no magic. There are only papers and more papers, questions and more questions. The baby dies. The grandmother dies. Hope dies - and the mother contemplates suicide. She leaves the consul's office to kill herself just before her husband rushes in, looking for a place of safety - and his wife. He is removed by the secret police - and the secretary shows her first human touch, promising to telephone his wife. She does, too late. The phone rings as the wife sits dying, with her head in the gas oven. The bitterness, the pointlessness, the fear, the violence and the oppression are all there in the music and the staging, brilliantly directed by Simon Callow.

I don't know whether they decided to stage The Consul just as the asylum bill was being debated in the House of Lords, but it felt just right. It was actually written after a young Polish woman committed suicide on Ellis Island when she failed to get into the US, and it no doubt reflected the horror of people trapped in Nazi Germany and elsewhere before the second world war. But it has a strong resonance today, as the UK becomes less and less welcoming to genuine asylum seekers. Jack Straw, eat your heart out. Or, better still, go and see it.

Of course, not all consuls are or were invisible. I am just rereading Michael Smith's excellent biography of Frank Foley, Foley: the spy who saved 10,000 Jews, which came out in paperback recently. Foley was MI6 head of station in pre-war Berlin. His day job, and cover, was as passport control officer. Knowing what was happening to the Jews, he risked reputation, personal safety and British government irritation in helping people to safety - some tens of thousands, in all probability. And there were others who helped, too. But the bureaucratic, uncaring, absent consul is infinitely nearer the asylum seeker's experience, then and now.

The cabinet reshuffle, hotly debated in the press, turns out to be a damp squib. I leave for a conference in Spain before the details are fully announced, but I am able to tell the Welsh contingent at the conference I am attending that they have a new Welsh Secretary in Paul Murphy, though none of us really knows what his role will be with the Welsh Assembly. If we have true devolution of powers, do we need a Welsh Secretary? At more junior ranks, it is excellent to see so many women on the first rung of the ladder - and to see Philip Hunt in a health job, after running the NHS Confederation in a previous life. It feels just right.

The conference is outside Barcelona, in the mountains. It is the Johnson & Johnson European Healthcare Leadership programme, run jointly by the King's Fund and the Insead business school, now coming to the end of its summer session. Teams of three - a doctor, a nurse and a manager - from seven European countries are here. I am here for their presentations - along with their home countries' sponsoring organisations, some sponsors from Johnson & Johnson and a few previous participants.

What emerges is a sense of having learnt an enormous amount. It is undeniably moving. Apart from the British and the Irish, everyone is having to speak a foreign language, yet conversations are complex, emotionally charged and full of subtleties. The sense of passionate involvement is palpable. Questions of equity and social justice abound, while the poor quality of many healthcare services is hotly debated.

I came away encouraged by the passion and amused by the last-night dinner, with Irish and German folk songs being sung till dawn and the Spanish staff looking on with pleasure, instead of trying to clear the tables and go home. The pudding arrived to a darkened room, lit by sparklers, and I was handed a huge sword with which to cut the cake. I drew my Johnson & Johnson neighbour to her feet to join me - we held the sword together - and cut the cake as the sparklers fizzled out. Corny, but some participants were visibly trying not to cry!

Then on for the weekend to the parador near Vic, overlooking the River Sau. I am not a summer person, so I cheered up visibly as the thunderstorms started. And to be in an area that had a high degree of religious tolerance - before the Inquisition and the Christianising of Spain - gives me great pleasure. With Jewish communities dotted around this whole area in the 12th century, and visible Moorish influence, one wonders how people lived together - and one mourns the fact that it did not last and that its end was so terrible.

Julia Neuberger is chief executive of the King's Fund

This article first appeared in the 09 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Immortal longings grow again