HL Deb 19 January 1998 vol 584 cc1246-8

2.47 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will invite a United Kingdom citizen from an ethnic minority who has served the nation with distinction to serve as ambassador in one of the United Kingdom's major embassies at an early opportunity.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made it very clear that he wants to broaden the base from which we draw our ambassadors overseas. We are committed to increasing the representation of minority ethnic and other under-represented groups in the FCO, especially at senior levels. If an individual from outside the FCO who had served the nation with distinction had the right personal qualifications and experience to do the job, we would certainly want to consider inviting him or her to serve as an ambassador in one of our major embassies, regardless of his or her ethnic background.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her excellent reply. Will she accept my congratulations on the appointment of Mr. Limbit Spencer, who is the FCO liaison officer for minority ethnic communities? Will she also, at the earliest opportunity, present to the Prime Minister the name of a UK citizen from the minority ethnic community to serve as an ambassador?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am delighted to accept the noble Earl's congratulations. We have no appointments in the pipeline, but we shall want to consider that option in the near future. I thank him also for his remarks about Mr. Limbit Spencer, whom we appointed in December last year. It is the first such appointment in Whitehall. Mr. Spencer will be looking at possible recruitment outside the FCO and at developing the opportunities for staff currently serving within the FCO.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there are no longer any nationality constraints on second generation British citizens joining the FCO?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I understand it, that is the case. The noble Lord is right.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, how many of our citizens of Afro-Caribbean or Asian origin are today in any of the top grades in the FCO?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is because my answer to my noble friend is so gloomy that we have to address this issue with considerable vigour and determination. I am sorry to tell the House that there are currently no individuals from the ethnic minorities that he mentions in any of the 222 posts worldwide which would attract ambassadorial status. For that reason we must attack this issue with determination.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, in approving the principle that ethnic minorities should pay their part in the Establishment, will the Minister assure the House that positive discrimination will not take precedence over the most able qualifications?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am happy to give the House that assurance. We shall continue to recruit and to promote on the basis of fair and open competition. I hope that my Answer that we shall be looking not only for people who have served the nation with distinction but those who have the right qualifications and experience for the job satisfies the noble Lord.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, will the Minister give the further assurance that the Government will not depart too far and too readily from the procedure of appointing ambassadors from among the senior ranks of the Diplomatic Service?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we want to broaden the basis. In answer to my noble friend I had to tell the House that, unfortunately, we do not have considerable numbers of people of ethnic minority background in the pipeline. We need to develop the individuals within the FCO at all levels. I am sure that the noble Lord is right and that the majority of ambassadorial appointments will be drawn from within the FCO. However, the House should be under no illusion; we want to broaden the basis, but we wish to look outside on the basis that I have indicated.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, will the Minister congratulate Sir John Coles who, under the previous Government, was committed to making the Foreign and Commonwealth Office more representative of Britain's ethnic make-up by encouraging applications from ethnic minorities? Under his stewardship the proportion of ethnic minority applicants to the FCO's graduate fast-stream doubled from 1994 to 1995. That shows the seeds sown to address the important issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Janner.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am happy to add my voice to the congratulations expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. Sir John Coles, in particular, played an important part in the FCO's open day, which took place on 15th September last year. He was a firm enthusiast for that day, and I hope that on that basis we shall be able to plan for future open days. But we need to do more: we need to ensure that the appointment of Mr. Limbert Spencer, in examining ways in which we can look further outside the FCO and develop those people already inside the FCO, is taken forward.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I welcome the initiative being taken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the commitment being shown by the Government to tackling inequality. Does the Minister agree that, given the under-representation at senior levels, mechanisms need to be put in place not only to promote individual development but also to promote organisational change?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that organisational change is necessary. We hope to put forward proposals to include community fora within ethnic minority communities, a sustained programme of advertisements and editorials in the minority ethnic press and a special recruitment fair in June. Therefore, I hope that we shall be able to move forward on a number of important fronts.