HL Deb 16 February 1998 vol 586 cc7-9

2.58 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures they are taking, now that the United Kingdom has 222 embassies and missions abroad, to improve the foreign language skills of personnel.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office runs a dedicated language training unit known as the Diplomatic Service Language Centre based at Cromwell House, which trains, according to changing demands, all Foreign Office and other government department personnel in the languages of the countries to which they are posted. Each embassy or mission abroad has personnel who have been trained to a high level in the local language and all other staff are given the opportunity to learn the language of the country to which they are posted. Staff based in London also receive training in the language skills needed to carry out their work.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. However, the answer to my Question is that 110 heads of mission speak the language of the country to which they are credited; that is, 50 per cent. Does the noble Lord agree that there is a growing need to invite and recruit those from minority ethnic communities to join the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as quickly as possible? Secondly, does he accept that there is a need to impose a moratorium on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Vote so that more money can be spent on language training? Does he further agree that there is a need for the Ministry of Defence to conduct an urgent review of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that the taxpayer receives value for money and our embassies are not a laughing-stock throughout the world?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I really do have to take issue with the noble Earl on his final point. Many noble Lords in this House have borne witness in many circumstances to the efficiency, courtesy and effectiveness of our embassy staff.

To turn to the noble Earl's less lurid questions, I am very much in favour, as my noble friend Lady Symons has reported to this House on many occasions, of the idea of engaging more people from ethnic minorities and, in this context, people speaking some of the languages that are needed in our embassies abroad. However, there is a rapidly changing demand for languages in the Foreign Office. The noble Earl will be familiar, for example, with the fact that some embassies in the former Soviet Union have required a crash programme which is only now coming to fruition. I am not sure that looking at the Foreign Office Vote in the way that he suggested, or bringing in the Ministry of Defence, would improve the status or effectiveness of language teaching within the Foreign Office.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, will the noble Lord tell the House whether the heads of mission in the former Soviet states of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Chechnya, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan can speak the local language?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I was expecting that question on the Baltic States, therefore my briefing is not entirely up-to-date on central Asia. In each of those embassies in central Asia there will be at least one member of staff who speaks the local language to a high level. I agree that it is not always either the ambassador or the head of mission.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, does the system of overseas postings, including the Department of Trade and Industry, allow for division and concentration in broad categories of languages to allow for real confidence to be developed?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the answer is to some extent yes, in that there is an increasing build-up of language expertise in related languages. But in addition, postings and language training can be in entirely new areas. The traditional system of posting for the Foreign Office is still continuing in that respect.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, while the considerable foreign language teaching skills of BBC World Service reporters are informally used by our diplomatic personnel, will the Minister explore the possibility of a formal link, to ensure that that resource base is fully utilised, particularly in relation to some of the less commonly used languages that our World Service reporters employ as their native tongues? That approach was highly successfully followed, not least in Uzbekistan.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am aware of the position in relation to Uzbekistan. Certainly it would be our intention to make use of BBC talent where necessary. However, the main burden will rest on the Foreign Office's own training centre.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House, given that we now have to support well over 200 missions abroad, how far Her Majesty's Government are taking advantage of the possibilities of co-operation in any way in relation to staffing, buildings and security with other European Union member governments?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the answer is

at present to a very limited extent indeed.