HL Deb 22 March 1999 vol 598 cc956-60

2.52 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle asked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures they are taking to improve the selection process, the preparation and the language training of Ambassadors and Ministers prior to their appointment to lead the 212 British Embassies and Legations abroad.

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

My Lords, ambassadors, other heads of mission and ministers who act as deputies in the largest embassies are chosen on merit by Foreign and Commonwealth Office selection boards. They receive individually tailored programmes of training and briefing, including relevant language tuition, before their postings. We plan further improvements to these arrangements. From the end of 1999, promotion into the FCO's senior management structure will depend on successful performance at new assessment and development centres. There will also be enhancements to training packages prior to officers' overseas appointments.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her most helpful reply. Does she recall that on 9th January last year I asked when Her Majesty's Government would appointment an individual who had shown distinguished service from one of the minority ethnic communities to head one of our embassies or legations abroad? Fourteen months have passed. What consideration has the Minister given to that issue? Why is there the delay?

Will the Minister assure us that ambassadors can be given at least nine months' warning before they are in place in their embassies so that they can seek to fulfil Diplomatic Service Regulation No. 28, thereby learning the principal language of the nation to which they are posted, so that they do not make complete fools of themselves before the host nation or the 10 million of us who live and work abroad and bother to learn the language?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, before I answer the noble Earl, perhaps I may take this opportunity to express on the record of the House my condolences to Lady Gillmore on the sad death of Lord Gillmore of Thamesfield. I am sure that the House will join me in recognising the great contribution he made to this country both in recent years as a Member of your Lordships' House and previously as one of our most distinguished diplomats. He was an example of the Diplomatic Service at its very best. He was authoritative, highly skilled and unfailingly courteous. He was also an extremely kind man.

I turn to the specific points raised by the noble Earl. Very occasionally, it is possible to appoint an individual to a particular post, but, on the whole, they are political appointments, or appointments on short-term contracts such as the contract we have with the FCO's ethnic liaison officer. Most appointments are rightly made on the basis of fair and open competition. That fair and open competition for the most part—we depend on the expertise and experience of our diplomats—comes from within the Foreign Office. On occasions it is possible to have open competitions. We have held three such open competitions in the past year or so. But we tend to rely on the recruitment end to ensure that more women and more people from the ethnic minorities come into the Foreign Office.

I believe that we have succeeded modestly in the past year. At the DS8 level—the policy entrance level— 9 per cent. come from ethnic minorities. There are some 13 per cent. at DS9, the operational level.

The noble Earl's second point related to linguistic competence. I do not think that any of our diplomats are in danger of making what the noble Earl describes as "fools of themselves" abroad. Sometimes people have to be posted at short notice. Events happen. They cannot always have the language training that we should like, but I can assure the noble Earl that when they are not up to the required level the language training continues in post.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, first, I endorse the warm remarks of the Minister about my successor at the Foreign Office, Lord Gillmore of Thamesfield, whose widow I saw this morning. I know that the remarks of the noble Baroness will be of great comfort to her.

Turning to the Question on the Order Paper, does the Minister agree that in most cases—of course not in all— the appointment of ambassadors or ministers to head missions abroad is a matter of not 14 months' training but of a lifetime career's training? Is she aware that my experience of learning Arabic 23 years before I was first appointed to head a mission in an Arabic speaking country was by no means unusual?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, by the time our diplomats reach the stage in their careers of being appointed as ambassadors they have an enormous wealth of experience. The point we must bear in mind is that ambassadors and other senior officers in our overseas posts, and those in London too, have to be chosen on merit. I am sure there would be many protests if they were chosen on any other basis. They are chosen by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office selection boards at different levels. Those boards are staffed by senior diplomats; and all except the No. 1 Board have women sitting on it; the No. 1 Board does not have a woman sitting on it. However, I am an observer on that board as were my predecessors, so I suppose that I provide a female element in that capacity.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the tributes paid to Lord Gillmore will be echoed in all parts of this House, especially by those of us who were helped so much by him during his period of office and who enjoyed his friendship afterwards?

Will the Minister also accept that the criticisms on the appointment of ambassadors made by the noble Earl and others are not because we seek to deprecate what they do or the help we receive from them? However, it is totally unacceptable for a country with such a vast proportion of people from ethnic minorities not to have any ambassadors, few deputies of whom I know, and almost no one at the highest level from ethnic minorities. It is no answer to say that we have to wait for 30 years. We have to help people to progress up the ladder by training them. In those circumstances, will my noble friend be kind enough to say how many people at the top levels today are from ethnic minorities; and what hope is there of improving that number while those of us present remain alive?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that the remarks of my noble friend and those of the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, will be of comfort not only to the family of the late Lord Gillmore but also to his many colleagues in the Foreign Office who are very, very sad at his passing.

In the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we are committed to having people who are representative of Britain's diverse society and to developing the potential and maximising the talents of all FCO staff through our policies covering recruitment, career progression, training and different kinds of harassment.

We aim to double at least the number of women in the senior management structure by the year 2003. In the 1998 recruitment campaign, we succeeded in attracting very high levels of young people from ethnic minorities to join the FCO. We started from a very low base and we aim to build on our successes. We aim to do that not only through recruitment but also through holding open days and having individual shadowing not only of FCO officials but also of Ministers. The shadowing that we have done with young people from ethnic minorities may be something—who knows?— which people in other parts of the House may wish to take up as a genuine commitment to ensuring that young people feel that they have a role to play in that respect.

My noble friend asked me some particular questions about numbers at different levels in the Foreign Office. I have many figures here, but I can tell my noble friend that unfortunately, at the highest levels, at present we have fewer than 1 per cent. of people from ethnic minorities. As I say, we are trying to improve that and we shall continue to do so. However, it must be done through fair and open competition.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a grave danger in the kind of talk that we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Janner? As a member of an ethnic minority which had to wait over 200 years before an ambassador came from its ranks, I ask the Minister to say that in no circumstances will the characteristics of our representation abroad be determined by anything but the merit of the individual? Will she confirm also that quota systems, whether ethnic or gender based, are wholly alien to the best traditions of the British Diplomatic Service?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course I give the noble Lord that assurance. All appointments, whether on recruitment or through promotion, must be made on the basis of merit. A number of questions about opening up Foreign Office recruitment at different levels are being examined. There are a number of different and important issues. We are determined to ensure that people are aware that whatever their background, as long as they have the ability, they may be able to find a career in the Foreign Office. But everybody must know that such a career will take place only on the basis of merit and that such recruitment will take place only on the basis of fair and open competition.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, will the Minister accept that when I was a Minister in the Foreign Office many years ago, I visited most of the principal diplomatic posts in the world? Is she aware that I found there ambassadors and heads of mission of the highest intellectual and diplomatic ability? Will she confirm that that situation is still the case all these years later? Will she confirm also that intellectual and diplomatic ability will remain the main criteria for selection to those important posts?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord is more fortunate than I. Sadly, I have not visited most of the posts abroad. I am afraid that your Lordships keep me much too busy in this House to enable me to do so. Nevertheless, I can certainly say to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, that I have been extremely impressed in those whom I have met by their intellectual calibre, wealth of experience and commitment to the job. It is a job where a good deal of flexibility is needed. After all, governments come and governments go, but the Diplomatic Service is the service on which we base so much of our international effort. I agree with the noble Lord that appointment is and should continue to be based on merit.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Baroness said that she wishes diplomatic appointments to be on merit only—and she is quite right. She said also that in the next 10 years she wishes to see the number of females double. Are the two objectives not contradictory?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, what a brave man the noble Earl is. No, I do not believe that for a single moment. I said that that is our target. It is not a quota. It is a target to ensure that young women believe that they can have a career in the Diplomatic Service in the same way as young men. Therefore, we have raised the target for recruitment from 30 per cent. to 50 per cent. I am sure that all noble Lords who have daughters who wish to become diplomats will be extremely pleased to hear that.

Lord Laming

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not inconsistent to have a system based upon merit which also reflects entirely the make-up of our society?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course I agree with that. I believe also that in trying to convey that message, it is extremely important to ensure that young people, whatever their background, know that there is a possibility of joining the Foreign Office. For that reason, my right honourable friend and, indeed, the whole ministerial team in the Foreign Office have been so committed to trying to open it up. We have put advertisements in the ethnic minority press and we have had open days which have been extremely successful. For that reason, we were successful in last year's recruitment competition in attracting not only a record number of applications from young people from ethnic minorities but in attracting also a record number of successful candidates in the competitions that we held.

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