HL Deb 19 June 2000 vol 614 cc1-4

Lord Janner of Braunstone asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will increase the retirement age for ambassadors from 60 to 65.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, we have no plans to increase the retirement age of ambassadors. Whatever their age, our ambassadors and high commissioners defend British interests abroad with tenacity and dedication. But all organisations benefit from being regularly refreshed with new talent at senior levels. We shall continue to ensure that younger, talented staff can rise, while profiting as much as possible from more experienced diplomats.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that driving senior diplomats out of their jobs at the zenith of their influence and talents may contribute to the well-being of others but does nothing to contribute to the well-being of this country? It is a waste. When my noble friend looks around the Chamber, does she agree that, if a similar rule were to be introduced here, this House would lose many, if not most, of its outstanding talents—including my own? Happily, however, we would of course retain the talents of my noble friend! In those circumstances, please could she look again at what is an archaic and awful rule?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that many people are willing and able to exercise their talents beyond the age of 60. Your Lordships' House is a prime example. Where there is an operational requirement, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is able to re-engage experienced staff after they have retired. A good example of that is Sir David Hannay, who, since his retirement, has acted as the Foreign Secretary's Special Representative for Cyprus. Furthermore, wider benefits are gained for the UK when, on their retirement, senior diplomats take up appointments in the private and voluntary sectors. I hope your Lordships will have noted that at least eight noble Lords are former members of the Diplomatic Service. I am sure that my noble friend would not seek to deprive us of such illustrious company.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, if the retirement age were to be extended to 65, as the noble Lord, Lord Janner, appears to seek, that would represent a considerable setback to attempts which have been made over many years in the Diplomatic Service—even as long ago as when I was head of the service—to "refresh" the service, as the Minister put it? Efforts have been made to bring on younger members by giving them embassies at a younger age. Does the Minister agree that an extension of the retirement age for ambassadors would, I presume, apply to other senior members of the service at home? That would appear to conflict with the Prime Minister's reported wish to see younger Permanent Secretaries in the public service? Finally, is the Minister aware that many European and other diplomatic services which currently retire their senior diplomats at the age of 65 find that their public servants are often regarded as too old and exhausted to be able to contribute effectively to their public or private sectors after retirement? Is it not better to retain the age of retirement at 60 years, but also to retain a measure of flexibility to allow for occasional extensions, as has happened as regards extension and re-appointment three times over the past 20 years in Washington?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. This is a difficult balancing exercise. While one wishes to give every opportunity to the young and vigorous talent that we have in abundance, one also wishes to take advantage of the sagacity that comes, regrettably, only with age. Happily, there are ample opportunities to do both. We are taking a balanced approach here. I understand the importance of what my noble friend has said, but at the moment we appear to have the best of both worlds. We are able to utilise the mature talents of our senior ambassadors while at the same time younger members are being given opportunities to succeed and to shine.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we should bear in mind that, if we were to keep people on until the age of 65, those who are between, say, 35 and 45 years old would feel that such a log jam had developed that they would never be given the opportunity to reach the top ranks? We would then run the risk of losing that younger talent; those members of staff would choose to go elsewhere. Can the Minister assure the House that she will stick by the proposition outlined in her original Answer?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am most grateful for the noble Baroness's comments, with which I respectfully agree. However, we are looking at how best to take advantage of the talents of those who leave the service; and in particular at how to engage them in a creative way so that they can still serve their country. Furthermore, in the years to come I am confident that your Lordships' House will continue to be peppered by Members who have served as diplomats.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some "oldies" like myself regard the age of 60 as merely the beginning of life? Men and women of that age are youngsters, only neophytes. Does the Minister agree that we should look forward to their development—especially since they have hardly begun to exist?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, with respect, I certainly agree with the noble Earl's point of view. I can tell him that we have the ability to gain and benefit from the richness of experience such young people have acquired. We hope that they will continue to contribute from the age of 60 to 99 or even 100 years old. We look forward with keen anticipation to the benefits that they will bring to this country.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I hold no strong feelings on this issue except that of an affection for the age of 65 that is growing day by day. But does the noble Baroness agree that this might be the right occasion to note once again the extraordinary courage of our ambassadors and their staff as they exercise their duties around the world? Perhaps we should also express again our sorrow, horror and anger at the murder of Brigadier Stephen Saunders in Athens a fortnight ago. He is to be buried tomorrow in Salisbury. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing sympathy to his wife and two daughters. Can the noble Baroness reassure the House—I know that she can and that she will—that security will always remain a matter of top priority as regards the lives and work of our diplomats serving abroad?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am happy to endorse everything that the noble Lord says in regard to the quality and dedication of our staff, who give us wholeheartedly of their very best. I share his horror at the disgraceful way in which the Saunders family have been treated and at the horrific death that took place. We cannot condemn it more strongly. I endorse the noble Lord's remarks with every energy available to me.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, do not the Government consider this policy to be in conflict with their measures to encourage older workers to stay in the labour market, including the code of practice that they introduced recently? Does it not send a different message when our representatives abroad have to leave their post before the age of 65? Perhaps genuine flexible retirement would be a better way forward.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are considering the recommendations in the report, Winning the Generation Game. There may be scope for introducing more flexibility around retirement age for some grades in due course. We shall consider carefully the possible structural effects of extending flexibility to staff in the senior management service. There is no contradiction as is suggested by the noble Baroness. The report, Winning the Generation Game, mainly addresses the waste that arises when people aged 50-plus want to remain active but cannot find the opportunities to do so. By contrast, many senior staff in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office find no difficulty in taking up new appointments after retirement. As I said, the balance has been struck. Once our civil servants leave, they find that many are willing to take them up, and that the opportunities are good, because their skill and talent are second to none.

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