THE PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

(HANSARD)

in the first session of the fifty-second parliament of the united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland commencing on the seventh day of may in the forty-sixth year of the reign of

HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II

FIFTH SERIES

VOLUME DLXXXIII

FOURTH VOLUME OF SESSION 1997-98 House of Lords


10 Nov 1997 : Column 1

Monday, 10th November 1997.

The House met at a quarter past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

Mrs. Ruth Barbara Rendell, CBE, having been created Baroness Rendell of Babergh, of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Baroness Gould of Potternewton and the Lord Paul.

Lord Montague of Oxford

Michael Jacob Montague, Esquire, CBE, having been created Baron Montague of Oxford, of Oxford in the County of Oxfordshire, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Northfield and the Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill.

Lord Onslow of Woking

The Right Honourable Sir Cranley Gordon Douglas Onslow, KCMG, having been created Baron Onslow of Woking, of Woking in the County of Surrey, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Lane of Horsell and the Lord Jopling.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Organisation

2.49 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to reform the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, we have refocused foreign policy priorities. Staffing of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should also reflect the diversity of modern British society by attracting more women, members of ethnic minorities and people with disabilities; and officials should be more open and accessible to the public generally. Steps taken to achieve these goals include the Foreign and Commonwealth Office mission statement, open days, work experience schemes and improved consultation procedures with interest groups, academics and businessmen.

In addition, as part of the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review, work is being undertaken to ensure that the organisation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is structured effectively to achieve the objectives of the department's mission statement.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer, most of which appeared in her article in the Guardian on 12th June this year. However, is the Minister aware that the grave problems lie deeper? I refer, of course, to the obsessive secrecy of the Foreign Office, which leads more often than not to ill-considered policy which, combined with the enormous amount of paperwork with which the legations and embassies have to deal, makes what the Foreign Office regards as a Rolls-Royce machine appear like a rather antiquated penny-farthing.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am glad that my Answer at least has the merit of consistency. The noble Earl raises the question of obsessive secrecy. This Government are committed to a freedom of information Bill and, naturally, the Foreign Office will be covered by that legislation. In addition, access to officials has improved through the publication of telephone numbers and e-mail addresses and information that is offered on the FCO web site. That web site is visited every week between 10,000 and 15,000 times. The noble Earl has also raised the

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question of bureaucracy. All government departments have a great deal of paperwork, but the Government are committed to improving efficiency. Staff numbers have been reduced by 23 per cent. since 1980, but there are now more overseas posts than ever. Currently, there are 222 Foreign Office posts abroad.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Diplomatic Service have initiated a very large number of reforms during the past decade? Does she also agree that the noble Lord, Lord Gillmore of Thamesfield, and Sir John Coles, the head of the Diplomatic Service, who retires in two day's time, deserve the warmest congratulations on the way in which, within a budget that has declined by 18 per cent. over the past five years, they have managed to meet the increasing demands of industry, exports and investment overseas and the vastly increased consular demands of the 43 million British subjects who now travel abroad each year and have opened 29 new posts since 1990 to protect and promote our interests in the new countries formed by the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am very happy to join the noble Lord in his congratulations to the former PUSS of the FCO to whom he referred. In particular, I should like to add my congratulations to Sir John Coles, who retires this week. Staff costs in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are now lower than ever. The current pay bill is £175 million compared with £221 million in 1991-92. It is important to remember that a number of policies have been introduced, notably by Sir John Coles in his recent pursuit of family-friendly policies, and those are policies which this Administration has been happy to adopt, focus upon and develop in the past six months.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices has had one disastrous consequence; namely, that Commonwealth citizens in Australia are inclined to regard the head of the Commonwealth as a foreigner?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I believe that these issues were dealt with rather successfully at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference. All who attended that conference warmly congratulated Her Majesty the Queen and in particular were delighted to see her at the opening ceremony.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, can my noble friend elaborate on the steps that are being taken to improve the recruitment and promotion of members of the ethnic minorities in our community, bearing in mind the terrific opportunity they present to this country by virtue of their knowledge of different cultures and, in some cases, foreign languages?

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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am very happy to elaborate on those policies. We believe that insufficient numbers of young people from ethnic minority backgrounds have joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to reflect the make-up of the United Kingdom in 1997. Many noble Lords will be aware that the department held an open day in September to give many young people from different backgrounds across the United Kingdom a chance to see the FCO at work. It was an exhilarating day and because of its success more open days are planned. We also plan to produce a video to encourage young people from ethnic minorities and women to apply to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Before I am asked the question, let me say that the cost of launching that video is £95,000. We have also prepared new recruitment literature. In addition, Sir Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, has come to speak to managers within the FCO. We also plan to recruit an officer with special responsibilities for ethnic minorities.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I welcome what the noble Baroness has said about making the Foreign and Commonwealth Office more open and widening its basis of recruitment, but does she agree that it is wise for a new Government, having spent 18 years in opposition, to take a fresh look at the operational pattern of the Foreign Office to take account of the fact that many of the new embassies referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wright, have totally transformed the responsibilities of the FCO in Europe outside the European Union while within the European Union old-fashioned Foreign Office bilateral diplomacy is pretty much out of date? Further, does the noble Baroness agree that with the departure of Hong Kong the whole of the dependent territory relationship with the Foreign Office requires a fresh look?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, indeed it does, and that is exactly what is now being undertaken. The four major initiatives announced by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State shortly after 1st May include concentration on security, prosperity, quality of life and mutual respect. As part of the comprehensive spending review, work is currently being undertaken to ensure that the organisation of the FCO properly reflects those priorities and that the structure can effectively deliver on those priorities in future. I believe that the point that is raised by the noble Lord is already covered by the work now being undertaken within the FCO.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that many people consider that the Foreign Office is by far the most efficient and the smallest department in Whitehall? As one who travels frequently abroad, particularly to Latin America, may I ask whether the noble Baroness agrees that far more, not fewer, diplomats are required? Whether that can be achieved by these cuts is open to doubt. Can the Minister reassure the House that there will be no further erosion of posts in that part of the world?


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