Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Report


8  Transparency and openness

Relations with Parliament

FLOW OF INFORMATION

193. Among the documents, other than regular or routine publications, that we received over the last year without having to put in a request were:

- findings of the Capability Review of the FCO and the FCO's response;

- the NAO's reviews on Handling Staff Grievances at the FCO and on FCO Controls;

- FCO results of the Senior Civil Service Staff Survey;

- an updated Follow-up Action Plan for implementing the recommendations of the NAO's review of Consular Services; and

- the consultation document on the establishment of a Trading Fund in respect of FCO Services.

We continued to receive quarterly reports on the FCO's estate sales and purchases. Lord Triesman also offered us an annual progress report on two major change programmes in consular services, an offer which we have accepted.[329] We requested and were supplied with the FCO Services Framework Document.

194. However, analysis of the unclassified minutes of the FCO Board's meetings between January and July 2007 suggest that there has been mention of or consideration of other papers or proposals on, among other things:

- Review of Language Training (January)

- IT performance (February) and a new IT Directorate Strategy Process (April)

- Resource Accounting Department Risk Indicators (February and March)

- new Business Planning System (February)

- FCO's risk management (February & March)

- Small Posts paper (March)

- Diversity business case (April)

- Europe Zero Based Review (January & May)

- Local Staff strategy (May)

- High Level Change Plan (June)

The Board also received regular Key Performance Reports and updates on Prism and Future Firecrest.

195. In June 2006, Sir Peter Ricketts' predecessor, Sir Michael Jay, offered us "a report for publication on the main management issues that have been at the top of our agenda in the previous three months".[330] In a subsequent letter he was even more precise: "I would like to restate the offer I made during the evidence session on 28 June that we should let you have a quarterly report, for publication, on the main management issues that have been at the top of our agenda in the previous three months".[331] He also undertook "to put systems in place which will enable you to get information on a more systematic basis, in particular […] key management papers".[332]

196. In our last Report we expressed disappointment that we had not yet received any of the promised quarterly management reports from the FCO.[333] In February 2007 we received a letter from Sir Peter Ricketts, which stated that "in consultation with our ministers" the FCO had taken the decision to "offer the Committee an account of the main developments roughly halfway between Departmental Reports".[334] We replied, asking why Sir Michael's commitment had been withdrawn and whether the FCO still accepted that we should see FCO key management papers.[335] Sir Peter's response made it clear that the decision to reduce the amount of managerial information sent to us had been taken by the then Foreign Secretary:

It is her firm view that, while we should be careful to keep the Committee informed of our work […], we should not routinely send Management Board papers to the Committee. […] She does not believe that a quarterly management letter would add materially to […the existing] flow of information.[336]

When we wrote directly to the then Foreign Secretary,[337] her response repeated the decision and emphasised that it reflected her views.[338]

197. On 10 July 2007, after the appointment of the new Foreign Secretary, Sir Peter Ricketts wrote to us again, stating that he had discussed quarterly management reports with David Miliband and would be happy to provide them.[339] We welcomed this as a sign of a new era of openness and transparency with the Committee. We were therefore disappointed when, in August 2007, our request to see a copy of the FCO's Top Risks Register was refused. Although details of the FCO's risk management were included in the quarterly management report we received in September 2007, discussed in Chapter 5, the FCO argued that it would not provide us with a copy of the Register because it was "a confidential internal document to inform the Board of Management on resource and operational decisions."[340] Last year we requested and received, in confidence, a copy of this Register.

198. We were very disappointed by the previous Foreign Secretary's decision to withdraw a commitment to send us a quarterly management report. We welcome the fact that under the new Foreign Secretary this decision has been overturned. We remind the FCO that the other aspect of the commitment made to the Committee, was an assurance that we would be sent information, particularly key management papers, on a systematic basis. We recommend that in its response to this Report, the FCO set out whether it now intends to send the Committee key papers being considered by the FCO Board, such as the "Top Risks Register"

SCRUTINY OF SENIOR DIPLOMATIC APPOINTMENTS

199. In previous Reports we have announced our intention to scrutinise the appointments of individuals outside the diplomatic service to senior diplomatic posts, hopefully before the appointments are formally made.[341]

200. In August 2007, it was announced that Scottish Labour leader and former First Minister, Jack McConnell, would become the next British High Commissioner to Malawi, after being nominated by the new Prime Minister.[342] The current High Commissioner's posting is scheduled to end in 2009.[343] We intend to hold a confirmatory hearing with Mr McConnell before he takes up post as British High Commissioner to Malawi.

Protective marking

201. In our last Report, we recommended that the FCO should examine the way it applied protective marking criteria, following the classification of the Hogarth Review of ministerial private offices as "confidential".[344] The FCO's response made it clear that it had no intention to revise its policy.[345]

202. During our recent Global Security: The Middle East inquiry we wrote to the FCO asking questions about its administration and expenditure in the Middle East. We received a reply with a "confidential" classification. However, with one exception, answers to similar questions submitted by the Chairman as Parliamentary Questions were not withheld. We concluded that the FCO needed to reconsider its approach towards confidentiality of documents, and recommended that it should not apply a blanket classification to documents, when parts of them could be released.[346] In response the FCO told us that in future it would consider how it could release parts of documents in order to help meet our needs.[347] We welcome this response.

Freedom of Information

203. The FCO received 1030 requests under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act in 2006.[348] Of these requests, 72 generated requests for internal review of the FCO's decisions and 40 generated complaints to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). Three ICO decisions were appealed to the Information Tribunal.[349] The ICO has disagreed with the FCO's response in two of the 24 complaints it has so far decided. In both these cases the FCO is appealing to the Information Tribunal.[350] In a further two cases the ICO has required the FCO to disclose partially withheld material. [351]

204. There has been steady improvement in the FCO's performance in meeting permitted deadlines for FoI requests. In 2005, the FCO's performance in this area was 86%. In the last quarter of 2006, the FCO achieved a 96% success rate.[352] This improvement continued into 2007, with the FCO answering 98% of requests within the permitted deadline between April and June 2007.[353]

205. The success rates for meeting permitted deadlines include requests dealt with under the provisions allowing for an extension of the statutory 20-day period. In our last Report we drew attention to the fact that the FCO had the highest number of permitted extensions of any Whitehall Department, with 25% of requests dealt with under this provision in 2005.[354] By April to June 2007, the FCO's proportion of permitted extensions had declined to 14%.[355]

206. We welcome the FCO's steady improvement in meeting permitted deadlines under the Freedom of Information Act. We are also pleased to see that the FCO's proportion of extensions is reducing.

Ban on valedictory telegrams

207. Sir Peter Ricketts is reported to have banned the practice of valedictory telegrams as a result of Sir Ivor's leaked dispatch.[356] In response to a written parliamentary question about this ban, the former Foreign Secretary said:

All Heads of Mission overseas are encouraged to provide their frank and confidential advice on policy and management issues at all stages of their posting, not just at the end. Modern communications allow this to be done in a more targeted way than the traditional valedictory telegram.[357]

208. When we asked Sir Ivor Roberts for his views on the ban, he told us:

I think it is depressing to think that people's advice will not be given a full airing so that people can reflect on what has been said by those who have lived a full and varied life and want to impart something to a wider audience as they leave.[358]

Sir Ivor also told us that he had seen figures which suggested that his dispatch had been read by 4000 people.[359] We put to him that, given this wide distribution, it might be sensible to have a ban in order to prevent diplomatic embarrassment. He replied:

My valedictory dispatch was in two parts. The first was a valedictory to Italy and the second was a valedictory to the diplomatic service. It is right to ensure that comments made about a Government to whom you are accredited should be protected, but comments that are meant to give food for thought to Parliament, serving diplomats and the rest on a long career in foreign affairs might usefully be shared and discussed in forums such as this. I can see no technical reason why the two things cannot be divided.[360]

We agree. We recommend that the decision to ban valedictory telegrams should be reversed, other than in respect of comments about the governments to which the outgoing Ambassadors or High Commissioners are accredited or comments likely to cause diplomatic embarrassment.


329   Ev 29 Back

330   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2005-06, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2005-06, HC 1371, Ev 17 Back

331   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2005-06, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2005-06, HC 1371, Ev 38 Back

332   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2005-06, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2005-06, HC 1371, Ev 17 Back

333   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2005-06, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2005-06, HC 1371, para 14 Back

334   Ev 14 Back

335   Ev 26 Back

336   Ev 54 Back

337   Ev 62 Back

338   Ev 63 Back

339   Ev 109 Back

340   Ev 114 Back

341   See, for example, Foreign Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2004-05, The Work of the Committee 2004, HC 112, para 50 and Foreign Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2005-06, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2004-05, HC 522, para 143 Back

342   "PM appoints High Commissioner to the Republic of Malawi", Prime Minister's Office press release,15 August 2007 Back

343   "McConnell quits to fight Africa poverty", The Scotsman, 15 August 2007 Back

344   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2005-06, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2005-06, HC 1371, para 17 Back

345   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Response to the Eight Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee Session 2005-06, Cm 7008, para 2 Back

346   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2006-07, Global Security: The Middle East, HC 363, para 9 Back

347   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Response to the Eight Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee Session 2006-07, Cm 7212, para 10 Back

348   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, FOI Annual Report 2006-07, p 1 Back

349   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, FOI Annual Report 2006-07, p 1 Back

350   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, FOI Annual Report 2006-07, p 2 Back

351   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, FOI Annual Report 2006-07, p 2 Back

352   Ev 114 Back

353   Freedom of Information Act 2000, Statistics on Implementation in central government: Q2 April -June 2007, p 26 Back

354   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2005-06, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2006-07, HC 1371, paras 20-21 Back

355   Freedom of Information Act 2000, Statistics on Implementation in central government: Q2 April -June 2007, p 26 Back

356   "Former envoy makes devastating attack on Blair's 'bullshit bingo' management", The Independent, 27 April 2007 Back

357   HC Deb, 16 April 2007, col 35W Back

358   Ev 178 Back

359   Ev 178 Back

360   Ev 178 Back


 
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Prepared 19 November 2007