Examination of witnesses (Questions 180-193)|
TUESDAY 24 APRIL 2001
180. I think we are on page 71, Sir John.
(Sir John Kerr) Last year we were at 85 per cent of
the named day PQs were answered on the named day, compared with
66 per cent in 1998-99. I think the answer is that in the current
session we are about 80 per centie, slightly lessbut
that 93 per cent are answered to the standard that this Committee
recommended last year, which was within a week of the day named.
So we have slipped back a little bit from the improvement we were
able to register last year on meeting the named-day time, but
we are doing better, we are really doing pretty well, against
the slightly relaxed timetable you set.
181. Finally, on the question of correspondence,
the target of replies to 90 per cent of MPs' letters within 15
working days has slipped, and I think that last year the actual
rate was only 50 per cent. Do you anticipate improving on that?
(Sir John Kerr) We need to improve. Can I ask David
Reddaway to talk on that.
(Mr Reddaway) Can I reply particularly on the entry
clearance side which was, I think, the most heavily criticised
last year. The target rate for the calendar year in the end was
66 per cent, because we had to deal with a very large backlog
that had accumulated during the summer when we were moving to
our new offices and setting up the unit, but since the turn of
the year we have acted on the advice the Committee gave, and we
have over 91 per cent response rate on time, and I think that
75 per cent of the letters which we did not deal with within the
precise limit were answered within three days of that, so the
performance is really significantly better at over 91 per cent
at the moment.
182. Do you still have the problem of MPs writing
to the actual post in question and bypassing the JCU and the FCO?
(Mr Reddaway) I do not think I would describe MPs'
correspondence as a problem in any aspect. No, I think the system
is working very well at the moment. I hope MPs are seeing results
too, it is getting steadily better.
183. I am obliged. Before we turn to the security
of our diplomatic personnel, Sir John, I would like to sweep up
one or two questions on the personnel side. On the commercial
appointments into the Foreign Service from outside, six years
ago the Foreign Secretary said, "I will want to find out
whether there are people in British industry with experience and
success in British exports who might make suitable ambassadors
to some countries with strategic markets." There have been
no such appointments at ambassador level. Do you anticipate any?
(Sir John Kerr) I do not see any immediately, no,
Chairman. I did describe our attempts by open competition to fill
four of our biggest commercial appointments. We appointed a very
good man from the private sector who is now head of trade promotion
in Canada as Deputy High Commissioner in Toronto. He is the most
senior abroad of those business from outside who have come to
work for us. Of course, David Wright's BTI has a considerable
number of businessmen on its books, as detailed in the answer
to your question 6 which I sent you in advance.
184. Do you find, as an experienced diplomat,
any objection in principle to having someone as head of mission
who has been brought in from the commercial world outside, in
terms of conflict of interest or limited experience?
(Sir John Kerr) I think it would depend on the candidate.
I am all for professionalism. I think that needs to be fairly
tested against the best that the in-house stable can produce.
185. So what conclusion do we draw from the
fact that there have been no such appointments so far?
(Sir John Kerr) Testing the market has not revealed
many businessmen, as I said before, who are prepared to take what
are seen in our Service as very good jobs, at salaries which the
businessmen see as not very good.
186. Before I ask Sir John to turn to the security
of our personnel, we spoke a little about the training, which
has certainly improved enormously over the past years, of our
diplomats. Other countries have a rather more rigorous, non-learning-on-the-job
tradition, of having a diplomatic service college where one might
learn not only languages but learn international law and other
relevant matters. Can you envisage a time when we might move in
(Sir John Kerr) I very much hope not. I annoy my colleagues
and heads of comparable services by criticising them on this.
I think the diplomatic academy concept is actually dangerous.
I think it breeds an inward-looking cast of mind. I think it is
far better that we send out our people to language schools, colleges,
in-country language trainingfar better than getting them
together. I annoy my colleagues who are heads of services even
more by saying, Chairman, that it is a defect in their services
only beaten by the defect of having too many lawyers.
187. Possibly finally from my side, a question
either for yourself, Sir John, or Mrs Holt. The people you recruit
now will come from a serious professional background. Their spouses
also are likely to come also from a similar background and will
revolt against being considered as part of the diplomatic baggage
of their spouses, particularly as they become more senior in their
own professions? How important a deterrent is that either to recruitment
or to retention?
(Sir John Kerr) I would like to refer the question
to Mrs Holt. I think she is living proof that it is not a total
deterrent to retention.
(Mrs Holt) Because quite a lot of us married colleagues
is the sub-plot. In fact, it is an interesting one, because I
suppose if you spoke to anybody dealing with personnel and diplomatic
services five or ten years ago, they would have seen this as the
looming disaster that was going to hit us all, and we would find
it impossible to keep people going overseas. In practice, my impression
is that this is not a problem that has become more acute over
the past five years or so; if anything, it has steadied off. I
do not know how to account for it, except to say that there is
no evidence that this is causing us serious retention problems.
The Permanent Secretary referred earlier to the fact that we have
not got a serious retention problem really anywhere above the
most junior support grades where people are learning about life.
I would say, though, that it is perceptible that more and more
people either do not marry or go overseas unaccompanied by their
spouse. I think that is reflected also in the experience of the
private sector, that the way that people live their lives is perhaps
different to the way I expected to live mine when I first married
20 years ago. So maybe that is the answer, I do not know.
188. Could I ask one final question which has
puzzled me from evidence you gave last time. I have seen you and
your predecessor come before this Committee for 14 years as Permanent
Secretaries. Where did the title "Principal Policy Adviser
to the Foreign Secretary" come from? Does it mean a shift
in the kind of responsibility you are taking?
(Sir John Kerr) It is probably a very erroneous description,
and it is certainly not a title. No, the title is still the old-fashioned
one of Permanent Under Secretary of State.
189. That does not mean any change in your role
(Sir John Kerr) Compared to some of my predecessors,
I have spent more time on policy than some have. I think that
is the only point the Foreign Secretary was making.
Chairman: Sir John, perhaps we could now suspend
the session for ten minutes, and Sir John Stanley will begin on
the security of our diplomatic personnel. We shall begin in private
but, Sir John, if we come to a point where it would be embarrassing
for you to respond, and there is a string of questions which may
need to be dealt with in private, do please tell us and we shall
The Committee suspended from 6.06 pm to 6.15
pm for a division in the House
Chairman: Sir John, may I now ask Sir John Stanley
to begin on the security side.
Sir John Stanley
190. Sir John, in the Committee, of course,
we are very mindful that as we have this discussion on the security
of our posts overseas, it is now almost a year since the murder
of our Defence Attache« in Athens, Brigadier Saunders, and
that nobody has yet so far been brought to trial or been charged
in connection with his murder. We are grateful for your classified
memorandum which you have given to the Committee. I just have
one question for you. In that memorandum you give us the figure
for expenditure on physical security measures for our posts in
the current financial year, and obviously I am not going to disclose
that figure. What I wish to ask you is whether you, as the Permanent
Under Secretary, are satisfied fully that you have got an adequate
amount of money from the Treasury for those crucial physical security
measure for the diplomatic estate around the world, or alternatively
do you feel it is less than adequate? If so, is it somewhat less
than adequate, or is it possibly seriously less than adequate?
We would like obviously a very straight and frank answer on that
point. We do wish to know whether or not you are being resourced
adequately, whether perhaps it is a wider government problem and
you can only spend what you have been allocated, but we do wish
to know whether you are being adequately resourced by HMG to provide
full and sufficient protection for our posts overseas.
(Sir John Kerr) Chairman, I would like to come back
to adequacy in a second. First, I would like to say that we have
been given the money that we asked for. Last year the Committee
was good enough to say that it thought that the sum which I had
mentioned and which the Committee mentioned, which we sought for
increased embassy security, should be made available. The sum
was made available. The sum we are spending this year is as much
as we think we need to spend this year. We shall spend a larger
sum next year and a larger sum the year after, as a result of
the good settlement we secured in the Comprehensive Spending Review.
Adequacy, of course, is a very difficult concept in this area.
How much is enough? How secure must one make ones posts? I am
responsible for keeping the Diplomatic Service alive. To me it
is a very, very high priority, so I do not think Sir John need
worry that I am taking a sort of accountant's view. On the other
hand, one really does not want, if one thinks the risk in a post
is not high, to turn that post into a fortress. Our posts should
seem reasonably welcoming. one does not want to have a perception
of grilles, bars and security. One wants to have an open presentation.
So it is a matter of risk assessment and nothing else. I am assisted
in this by a very good professional cadre of overseas security
advisers based in London who make a series of visits on regular
cycles and additional ones when a new risk or concern arises.
On the best professional advice, we are spending adequate money.
I cannot swear that we have got it right. It may be that there
is a post that will come under attack that we have not protected
sufficiently adequately to resist that attack. We have been given
as much money as we thought we needed. We are spending it on the
best professional advice, but there are risks in diplomacy, and
the fun and adventure of the distant post is accompanied by a
risk which we cannot completely eliminate.
191. The other question that I wish to put to
you is this. It is evident from what you have told the Committee
that if the measures that have been taken now, since the murder
of Brigadier Saunders, had been in place at the point he was murdered,
almost certainly he would have survived. Given that there are
clearly lessons to be learnt, are you satisfied that the lessons
have been learnt, as best your office can?
(Sir John Kerr) Yes, I think both your propositions,
Sir John, are correct. Had we known what we learnt on 8 June,
he would not have been driving a non-armoured car. There now are
more armoured cars in the post in Athens. But my answer to your
second proposition is also yes, I think we have done what we should
have done to learn the lessons of the murder.
192. Sir John, the terrorist enemy will clearly
look for the weakest link. On that basis, any post where our diplomats
are could be vulnerable. You mentioned earlier the surrogate effect,
whereas our US colleagues will perhaps be in fortresses, that
we may be the next down the line, the softer targets. How significant
do you believe this surrogate element to be?
(Sir John Kerr) One has to get into the mind of the
terrorist. I think it varies geographically area by area. I think
that the attack on our embassy in Sana'a may very well be related
as much to American policy as to British policy. I am struck by
the extent to which the Americans are investing, 11 billion dollars
in embassy security improvement, particularly as a result of the
Nairobi and Dar es Salaam outrages. I think it is difficult to
give you a global answer. I think it is a matter post by post
of assessing local conditions, the ability of local law enforcement
to maintain surveillance or security, the extent to which we are
or are not associated with our American friends in the country
in question. I think it varies. However, we do have very professional
people who do this, and they are satisfied that we are doing the
right things and have sufficient money to do them.
193. I am obliged. Sir John, it is appropriate
that this, which is almost certainly our last public session of
this Parliament, should be with you and your senior colleagues.
We really come from different directions, we have different roles
as parliamentarians from yourself and your colleagues, but we
have worked together and we have a particular debt of gratitude
to the posts overseas who have facilitated our work enormously.
In our reports I think without exception we have paid tribute
to those diplomats who work so hard for us. So we would certainly
wish to thank them through you. Alas, at the end of the Parliament,
some of our colleagues will be retiring, and some of the faces
that you have got used to, including two of our colleagues who
are here now, Mr Rowlands who has been of long standing on these
Committees, and Sir David Madel, will be retiring from Parliament.
Dr Godman also will be retiring, and Sir Peter Emery. So whoever
is on the next Foreign Affairs Committee it will be rather differently
constituted from now but I am sure they can expect the same excellent
co-operation from the Diplomatic Service as we have enjoyed over
our time. Thank you very much indeed.
(Sir John Kerr) Chairman, it was very nice of you
to say that, thank you. May I say in reply that posts greatly
welcome visits by the Committee or Members of the Committee not
just for the influence you have on your Parliamentary counterparts
or the host government but also for the interest you take in the
working of our operations on the ground, particularly in small
posts in distant places. This is very valuable. Your recommendations
have been consistently helpful over the years. May I say, also,
that I will greatly miss Ted Rowlands and David Madel. I think
it is absurd, I mean I must be getting near retirement if these
guys are retiring: ridiculous, it cannot be true.
Chairman: Ted and David, you take a bow as well.
Thank you very much indeed.