Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 180-193)



  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 cent—ie, slightly less—but 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 that direction?
  (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 training—far 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.

Mr Rowlands

  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 or function?
  (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 respond accordingly.

  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.

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