HL Deb 01 February 1999 vol 596 cc1279-81

The Earl of Carlisle asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to improve the morale of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government attach importance to maintaining and enhancing the morale of public servants. In the case of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we believe that staff morale has benefited from the results of the comprehensive spending review, which will provide a 2 per cent. real terms increase in resources, allowing modernisation of the FCO's network of posts and IT systems. Morale should also be enhanced by other measures being taken to modernise the FCO, such as greater openness, improved personnel policies, more professionalism, and increased training.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her comprehensive reply. I am grateful to hear her emphasise the word "openness". Is she aware that on 2nd June 1979 there was published in the Economist the valedictory dispatch of Sir Nicholas Henderson, our then Ambassador to Paris? In view of the fact that neither Britain nor the Foreign Office fell down as a result of that rather novel and unusual situation, does she agree that Ministers do not have the time, and sometimes do not have the inclination, to read the 212 valedictory dispatches from our embassies and legations that appear in the Foreign Office every three years? Will she therefore consider either having those dispatches or a selection of them printed or placed in the Libraries of both Houses of Parliament so that the openness of the Foreign Office can be seen by all?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can assure the noble Earl that I read all the dispatches that come into my box. I read them not only because I am a dutiful Minister, but also because they are highly informative, usually well-written and occasionally very funny. But they are also, without exception, very free and frank in their opinions and advice to Ministers about a whole range of issues, including their host countries. To release those dispatches in the way the noble Earl suggests would almost certainly result in some of those free and frank opinions perhaps on occasions being a little harmful. I am bound to say that the overall effect would be for the dispatches to be much less free and frank and so defeat the purpose.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, would not the best way to enhance the morale of those who work for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office be for us to thank them for the tremendous job that nearly all diplomats do, most of them in decent privacy and quiet, and especially for the help that they give people like myself who travel to those lands and whom they look after, brief and help beyond the call of their duties?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for those remarks. It is a pity that our newspapers and media try to focus on the negative. In fact, the Foreign Office receives many letters of thanks such as those just articulated by my noble friend from people who are helped abroad not only for the briefing given to eminent figures who are abroad but also for the completely unsung help, particularly from our consular divisions, given to people who find themselves in difficulties—people who may be in prison and so forth. I shall take great pleasure in conveying my noble friend's thanks to my colleagues.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, does not the noble Baroness agree that the morale of the Foreign Office might be greatly enhanced if the Foreign Secretary did not engage in antics which generate such adverse publicity?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary is an excellent Foreign Secretary. He is respected in the Foreign Office and we need no greater demonstration of how much he is respected by others than that he was the Foreign Secretary asked to be the emissary to Kosovo this weekend. We need say nothing more about the respect in which he is held.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, can the Minister say what progress has been made in addressing the systemic and cultural factors and the cumulative succession of failures of communication in the FCO which were identified by Sir Thomas Legg's important investigation last year?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the fact that the factors were suggested to be systemic and cultural suggests that they did not begin on 1st May 1997. As my right honourable friend pointed out on 27th July last year, we accepted every one of the recommendations in the Legg Report. They include a central unit for sanctions enforcement, new procedures for handling intelligence, guidance on contacts with private military companies, recruitment of professional managers in the administration and a greater exchange of staff with the private sector and NGOs. But the most important thing that has happened has been the CSR settlement and the prospect now of 200 new recruits in the Foreign Office who will be contributing to everything, including a new IT system which will help with communication.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that in large areas of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office morale appears to have been damaged by our effective cession of much of our foreign policy to 28 working groups in Brussels in which, of course, we have only a minority voice?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord should come to the Foreign Office and experience, as I do, how good morale is in most parts of the office. It has been enhanced by greater openness; by the holding of two open days in the past year and recruitment fairs; by inviting school children to visit the Foreign Office; by the commitment of the permanent under-secretary to racial equality; by a mentoring programme; and by many other measures. I simply do not recognise the lack of morale in those parts of the Foreign Office to which the noble Lord refers.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the thanks which have been expressed to our diplomatic staff in posts overseas should be extended also to those in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office here in London who invariably answer queries from Members with great courtesy and alacrity? Will she also congratulate those concerned with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website which is an important development in greater openness and clarity of FCO policy?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am delighted to thank the noble Lord for pointing out that there is, of course, a strong diplomatic corps at home and to remind the House of the excellence of the Foreign Office website which, at the moment, receives 1 million visits each week. An enormous number of people look at that website. It is to the great credit of the Foreign Office that it is as well run as it is.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, while echoing the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Janner, concerning the excellence of the Foreign Office and our diplomats abroad, which many of us have experienced, can the Minister say why it is not possible to publicise many of the success stories that the Foreign Office has had over the years? That would be extremely beneficial to all concerned.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, if the noble Viscount would like to put his points to the editors of our national newspapers and to those who edit the media, I am sure that we would all be interested in the response. There are some excellent success stories to tell of the Foreign Office, from foreign policy initiatives to those on openness and recruitment of young people from ethnic minorities. In the last DS9 competition, over 13 per cent. of those recruited were from ethnic minorities. That is an issue on which we have been pushing forward very hard in the past year. I am delighted that the noble Viscount has made such a point and, accordingly, I look forward to seeing his letter in The Times.

Back to