HC Deb 22 March 1960 vol 620 cc458-70

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Gibson-Watt.]

2.21 a.m.

Dr. Alan Thompson (Dunfermline Burghs)

I must apologise for adding to the many duties of the Foreign Office the burden of replying to me at this time in the morning. There are a number of points which I want to raise and which date from my concern with this problem before my election as a Member of Parliament. For some years I was employed as a university teacher and during that period I made the acquaintance of a number of students who were interested in a diplomatic career, and I watched their progress and observed them attend for interviews at the Foreign Office, with varying degrees of success.

I recall a Scottish student who seemed to me an admirable candidate in many ways. He had a first-class honours degree and a half-blue at boxing, and his special interest was languages. He spoke Russian fluently. His other interests included foreign travel. He combined, as in my experience students rarely do, extremely high academic qualifications with considerable social attainments and a good sporting record. He was, however, from a fairly ordinary school and from an academically good though not-too-fashionable Scottish university. He was rejected for the Foreign Office.

Since that time I have discussed the case with some of the people who rejected him. I do not want to go into the case now; I did not name him at the time, for the benefit of his future career and of his family, and I do not propose to name him now. He is in another occupation and is doing well. Certain facts have since been brought to my notice, and I recognise the reasons behind the point of view taken by members of the Selection Board, although I do not agree with their judgment. I recognise that there is room for disagreement about the selection of candidates. Personnel selection is perhaps still not as scientific as we pretend. In any event, I do not wish to re-open the case at this stage.

This case led me to look at the figures of Foreign Service recruitment and the kind of people who are accepted. I began by studying the Report of the Civil Service Commission of 1957, Cmnd. 232, which contrasted the methods employed by the home Civil Service and Foreign Service. The Report pointed out that the home Civil Service places stress on the written examination, in which all candidates compete equally, whereas the Foreign Service has a traditional aversion to the long written examination and prefers a series of interviews where a candidate's background can be clearly assessed.

There is obviously a case for assessing candidates in a wider context than written qualifications and a written examination. My concern, however, was whether in this other method of interview, where background was taken into account, the results had favoured higher social groups. The figures seem to indicate that this is so. Between 1948 and 1956 nine out of every ten successful applicants were from the Registrar General's occupational groups Classes I & II—-that is to say, their fathers were company directors and members of the professional and managerial classes. Only one out of ten came from the sons of semi-skilled workers—foremen, clerks and tradesmen, for example. There were no sons of unskilled workers. These results seem to be much more biased in favour of the higher social status than the Home Civil Service results. The question remained, however, that although the Foreign Service results showed higher social status of successful candidates, was it nevertheless selecting students with better academic records? If this were so my criticism would be less valid. After all, we want the best men; we cannot have a kind of social snobbery in reverse.

If the best men academically come from higher social groups, then we cannot allow our prejudices to intervene. But when we come to look at the results in terms of academic ability we find that the Home Civil Service, with a better distribution in terms of social origin of successful candidates, also had a better academic record.

In the Foreign Service 28 per cent. of the candidates had first-class honours degrees. For the Home Civil Service 37 per cent. had first-class honours degrees. I think my observations on social bias are supported by figures showing the university background. For instance, Oxford and Cambridge which, by and large, recruit students from higher social categories than the red brick and Scottish universities showed a predominence of successful applicants. In 1948 to 1956, of all the successful candidates, Oxford and Cambridge had 94 per cent. the Scottish universities 3 per cent. and the remaining 3 per cent. came from London and abroad.

When I wrote to the Foreign Secretary about it his answer was that there was a lack of applications from the provincial universities, yet the figures do not show this to be so. In 1948 to 1956, 272 applied from all the remaining universities in England and Wales. Yet not one was successful.

The Foreign Secretary made the additional point in his answer that there was a kind of tradition of going into the Foreign Service from Oxford and Cambridge and the public schools which did not seem to have percolated into the other schools and universities. He suggested that boys in the first category, from Oxford and Cambridge and the public schools, were adventurous and willing to go abroad while grammar schoolboys were more provincial and wanted jobs which kept them at home. I am not sure whether this is correct. My experience of students from ordinary schools, grammar schools and so on, is that they are equally willing to go abroad in commercial jobs—to South America, India and so on—and into services like the Colonial Service.

If we trace the histories of candidates back to their school records, we find that from 1948 to 1956 eight out of ten of the successful applicants were from public schools. Again I think the bias is much more in favour of the higher social groups than in the home Civil Service.

Let me turn from this analysis to the question of training. I think it could be argued that the Foreign Service is still a little afraid of the specialist. It favours the sort of elegant dilettante and civilised man-of-the-world who knows a little about a lot of topics rather than a lot about a little, and a man who can deal gracefully with difficult circumstances. These are not unimportant qualities and they can make smooth the path of intricate and delicate routine foreign relations. It is work which requires intelligence and poise. A stupid or reckless man could do untold damage to international affairs by the wrong move.

I accept that these qualities are related to the day-to-day administration of diplomacy. They are not necessarily related, however, to the formulation of foreign policy concerned with long-term goals and a specialist knowledge of the changing pattern of world events, economic, political, demographical and so on. I think that what we need are more diplomats not too preoccupied with the day-to-day techniques, important as they are; we need diplomats who in the midst of this routine can think analytically about these long-term goals, and instead of being completely preoccupied with day-to-day incidents can focus a pattern of events which will enable our Foreign Office to think about these long-term policies.

The Foreign Office tends to say that we cannot make foreign policy except as incidents arise. This is an old traditional view, but I am not sure that it is so correct nowadays. I think we must have men at work in the Foreign Office trying to solve the big questions, the basic questions and the long-term questions, for example, those of our future relations with Africa and China. With these emergent territories we still pursue an ad hoc approach. Do we ever ask such questions as, how we are to adjust diplomatically to the economic development of backward countries, to the pace of technological change? Do we ask how we are to adjust diplomatically to the flood of population in the Far East, which one day will radically alter the balance of power?

I think that in foreign policy we are always reacting to the problems of yesterday and today and not enough to the problems of tomorrow. I could give many examples of this, particularly in Persia and Cuba. I think it not too much to expect that our diplomats should not have been taken by surprise by the nationalisation of oil in Persia. Surely there should have been some awareness of economic and political change in Persia, some study of the new popular movements and their objectives. Why did we not possess the knowledge and resourcefulness that would have enabled us to have anticipated events to begin to re-negotiate in new circumstances instead of waking suddenly one morning to find ourselves facing a fait accompli and suffering disastrous economic defeat? We were caught similarly off-guard in Cuba. The Foreign Office seems to tread perpetually in the wake of Sir Victor Wellesley, the former Assistant Undersecretary, who once wrote in his memorandum on China: The situation is hopeless and we are helpless. I think we have not given sufficient attention to the long-range goals of which I have spoken.

The Americans do this better in their State Department. There are research institutions like the Brooklings Institution Annual Conference on Foreign Policy, the Mid-Western Seminar for Citizenship and the Georgetown University Special Curriculum for Foreign Affairs. Nothing comparable exists in any British research institution or university. It is interesting to note that in the State Department there is a much wider distribution of candidates in terms of social, regional and university background than in our Foreign Office. The State Department is not dominated by a few Ivy League colleges. The officials are not the product of exclusive schools; they come more from Main Street than Main Line. Ten per cent. of their service consists of women whereas in ours there are 2 per cent. There is a much more diversified occupational background. Two-thirds of their Foreign Office staff is recruited from other fields such as banking, the Press and so on. There is also more movement between it and the home Civil Service and vice versa. The result, I think, gives them a more resource ful diplomat.

The State Department concentrates much more on specialists; 28 per cent. of its employees hold the higher degree of M.A. and 17.6 per cent. have a Ph.D., which is a considerably greater proportion than in our Service, although we have to take account of the differences in research degrees in the two countries. We need in our Foreign Office two kinds of specialist, the area specialist who gives a very long observation and study to the area, and the subject specialist. It is absolutely essential if we are to shape the kind of long-term goals for our foreign policy which I have suggested. It is not enough to have a great knowledge of diplomatic techniques, although I admit that that is important. There must be experts. Our diplomats must be experts in the sense that doctors and lawyers are experts. They have the techniques of diagnosis and pleading, but in addition they make a long study of details. The lawyer, in addition to the techniques of pleading, must give very long study to his brief and every individual case.

Although our diplomats have a good knowledge of the techniques, I am not sure that they devote enough study to their individual briefs, for example to the urgent economic and political problems which face them in all parts of the world. The technique of merely getting on well with people might have worked well in the past in traditional static societies, but the rise of popular movements and opinion in the world poses new and deeper problems in diplomacy.

What I think we shall expect of our diplomats in future is precisely this formulation of long-term objectives and policy. They must learn to work in a context where war is no longer an acceptable alternative to diplomacy. The first purpose today in all our societies, and particularly in the uncommitted areas of the world, is peace. That is what people everywhere want. We live in a world in which it is just not accepted that when problems become too pressing for diplomats the generals must take over. The eventual renunciation of war as an alternative to diplomacy means that our diplomats will have to face a greater challenge in their work than ever before, a greater challenge of knowledge and imagination. But, I believe it is a challenge which, if taken up with enthusiasm and real belief, can revitalise our foreign service in perhaps the greatest task it has ever faced: to bring us unscathed through the atomic age and to make a contribution to the universal search for peace and the pursuit of happiness.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Robert Allan)

I must at once make clear that the selec- tion of candidates for the Foreign Service is carried out by the Civil Service Commission, by the same procedures and at the same time, as it selects the Home Civil Service candidates. The Foreign Office, therefore, has no direct responsibility in this matter and it would be improper for me to try to answer on behalf of the Commission.

Having made that clear, I can say that the Foreign Office is in very close contact with, and takes the liveliest interest in, the work of the Commission. We naturally do this because, although the question of selection is finally with the Commission, it is proper and possible for us to have discussions and make suggestions to the Commission. It is in that sense that I am glad to have this opportunity of answering the hon. Gentleman tonight.

The selection and training of those who will represent this country abroad is, of course, of the greatest possible importance to everyone in this country; and I mean everyone, because there is no desire whatever to make the Foreign Service into a sort of self-perpetuating clique. As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, both in business and in the Services, my main interest has always centred on personnel problems and I can say quite frankly that when I came to the Foreign Office I had heard many of the things which the hon. Member has mentioned tonight. Like him, I had drawn wrong conclusions.

I can say quite definitely that the Personnel Department of the Foreign Office is unprejudiced, alive to the conditions demanded by modern diplomacy, open to new ideas, and determined to get the best people wherever they may come from. Mr. Speaker, if you should happen to be looking for a "stuffed shirt" in the Foreign Office today, which I rather doubt, you certainly would not find one.

Perhaps I could briefly remind the House of the methods used for selection. There are in fact two methods. Until the war there was only one method, which was a written examination, plus an interview. The hon. Gentleman said that the Foreign Office had a traditional aversion to the examination system, but that was, in fact, the only method of entry until 1943; so there cannot have been any traditional aversion. The 1943 reforms took into account the fact that applicants might not have had the chance of learning a foreign language before they entered the Service, and arrangements were made for them to learn languages at the public expense after joining. In 1943 and immediately afterwards, few applicants had had the chance of a full university training so a second method, known as Method II, was introduced for both the home Civil Service and the Foreign Service candidates. This is based on interviews, using the techniques developed by the War Office Selection Board.

In 1948, when there had been time for candidates to have completed full university courses, the original method of the long examination coupled with an interview was re-introduced and referred to as Method I. The late Ernest Bevin, who was then Foreign Secretary, did not like examinations. He felt that the examination system was unfair to those people who were, as he claimed himself to be, temperamentally bad at examinations. He also felt that the Foreign Service needed not only intellectually brilliant people but people of a certain character and personality as well. He felt that Method II was the best method of selecting the kind of recruit for the Foreign Service whom he had in mind.

He decided, in agreement with the Civil Service Commission, that Method II only should be used for selecting Foreign Service entrants. Method I was therefore used for the home Civil Service only. The 1957 review, to which the hon. Member has referred, suggested that the Foreign Service might be losing good recruits because of its reluctance to use Method I. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary therefore decided in 1957 that Method I should be used in future for entry into the Foreign Service, for a trial period of five years, alongside Method II. Both of them are now open to any candidate wishing to join the Foreign Service. He can choose either and it is possible and indeed not infrequent for candidates to choose both. We are quite open-minded about the efficacy of these two methods and the results are under constant scrutiny. At the moment we are taking five or six recruits annually through Method I and fifteen to twenty through Method II.

Method II consists of a preliminary non-academic examination which con- tains three papers only—general subjects, an essay and English. Those who pass that examination—usually about half— are interviewed by the Civil Service Selection Board. Candidates are divided into groups of six and spend three days being interviewed and tested by a team of three interviewers. These teams are chaired by such people as Mr. Goldsmith, the present chairman of the Board, Sir Antony Abell, Sir Arthur Benson, Sir Wilfred Neden and Sir John Troutbeck, men whom everyone will recognise as unprejudiced and open-minded. Usually that Board eliminates about one-quarter and the remaining three-quarters go before the final Selection Board.

The First Civil Service Commissioner, at present Sir George Mallaby, is chairman of this Final Selection Board. It has on it a representative of a university, usually a don; a woman—perfiaps the head of a women's college, and Lady Albermarle has served on it; a trade union representative—Mr. George Woodcock has served; an industrialist; a retired senior Foreign Service officer and one active Foreign Service officer.

It is not my business, of course, to discuss the Civil Service Commission or the Final Selection Board, but I think that from what I have said it is quite clear that they are not likely to be prejudiced in their selection. I am sorry to have spent so long in describing this method but I think that in doing so I must have shown that there is not the bias which the hon. Member suspects. Bias cannot come into Method I at all because the main emphasis is on the written examination, and success or failure is judged only on the aggregate of marks. In this case the interview accounts for only 300 marks out of a total of 1,300.

Dr. Thompson

This has always perplexed me. Why is it that in Method I, purely a written examination, there is a wider dispersion of social origin of recruits than there is in Method II where interviews and social accomplishments are taken into account? This is not only the concern of the hon. Gentleman. The home Civil Service too seems to show this.

Mr. Allan

The hon. Member is talking about successful candidates. He must remember that I am talking about all the candidates, and he will find that percentage-wise the relation of successful candidates to the whole number of candidates is about even throughout. If I have time I want to take up that point later.

What I want to say at this point is that I should be very pleased if the hon. Gentleman would care to come and look at this procedure, to observe it at first hand.

Dr. Thompson

I shall be pleased to do so.

Mr. Allan

Several hundred outsiders have already done so, and I am told that, with one or two exceptions, they have all been greatly impressed by the procedure and have remarked on its fairness and efficiency.

There are two other main sources of recruitment which together account for about 40 per cent. of Branch A. These are the over-age competition and the ordinary promotion through Branch B. I will not go into the details of that at this moment, but I should like to say that half of those promoted from Branch B have attended day schools maintained or aided by local authorities, and more than half of them have not had university education.

This brings me to some of the other points that the hon. Member made which I will try to answer. The hon. Member has been complaining in general that too many successful candidates come from certain groups. But this ignores the fact that most of the candidates as a whole, whether successful or not, come from those same groups. For instance, he said that nine out of ten successful applicants were from the two top—as they are called—occupational groups. The fact is that eight out of ten of all candidates came from those groups. So their success was not really out of the ordinary. He also said that only one out of ten successful candidates were sons of skilled or semi-skilled workers. Those figures, given by themselves, are misleading. There were only twenty-two competitors who came from those families altogether They got two places out of twenty-two, which is one out of eleven, and the general average is one out of fifteen. So, if anything, those who came from the homes of skilled or semi-skilled workers benefited as against the others on that interpretation of the figures. The hon. Member said that there were no sons of unskilled workers who were successful. There were only five applicants of that type, and it is not surprising that none of them was successful because only one in fifteen were successful anyway.

I must just make a quick reference— there are many other points that I should like to take up with the hon. Gentleman —to training. I think he has forgotten that Lord Clitheroe when a Member of this House and Financial Secretary to the Treasury was chairman of a committee which examined the training of civil servants and issued a Report. The Report indicated the principles on which the Civil Service should work, and we follow them. The main principle is that the work of those in the Foreign Service at any rate must be learnt on the job, that too much theoretical training is not desirable.

The hon. Member also complained of lack of specialisation. I would point out to him that in the 'twenties and up to then the Foreign Service was highly specialised, particularly in the Consular Services, which had watertight compartments—Siam, the Levant, China and so on. In 1938 the Consular Service as a whole was integrated, those watertight compartments were broken down, and their highly specialised members were brought into a wider pool. In 1943 the whole Service was unified. I cannot help thinking that to go back to this sort of specialisation would be retrograde.

Finally, if the Foreign Service is not drawing recruits from as wide a field as we would all like, this is not because of the methods of selection. It is because candidates from those wider fields do not come forward. I am sorry to say that I feel that the sort of criticisms which the hon. Member has made—with the best intentions in the world, I know —are discouraging people still further. What concerns me is not whether we are criticised or not but that we should have the position put accurately. I feel that the picture that he has painted may 'have an effect on recruitment. That is why I was delighted to hear him say that he would take up my offer. I am sure that if he sees the procedures at first hand he will be convinced that we are as anxious as he is to have a broad-based and well trained Service. When he does appreciate that, he will, I know, be ready to help us and we shall be only too ready to welcome his help.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Three o'clock a.m.