The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written evidence from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS)

1. Thank you for giving PCS the opportunity to contribute a written submission to the Inquiry-The role of the FCO in UK Government.

2. PCS is the largest civil service union within the FCO, we have nearly 1500 members at all grades who are scattered throughout the world in some of the most difficult places in the world, serving their country with distinction.

3. We will focus with a snapshot on three areas that the Committee is looking at. How can the FCO best use its resources, how does the FCO interact with OGD's and the role of FCO Posts overseas.

FCO Resources

4. PCS understand how tight resources are in the FCO but we have struggled, as staff representatives, over a number of months to try and engage constructively with senior management in the FCO on where best resources might be used or indeed saved. Unfortunately, the senior management style over recent years has been a culture of just do it, with little or no consultation with elected staff representatives (and staff).  In looking to make savings we believe that FCO management takes the easy route of  targeting staff rather than some of the more costly estate and IT projects it has engaged in over the years. We think this is because it is potentially easier than actually taking some tough decisions within these areas and the FCO’s poor record of project and programme management.

5. As in many parts of government we believe the FCO spends far too much of its budget on consultants, often with negligible or no discernible benefit. Between May and November 2010 alone the FCO spent nearly £12 million on consultants and in 2010 nearly £5 million was paid to consultants for "rebranding" the FCO corporate image. In a climate of tight budgets we believe resources must be focused on "front line services" and roles supporting these services.

6. In order to make some of the savings required by the recent spending review, the FCO have said they will target so called "back office" functions in order to concentrate resources on "front line diplomacy". We believe there is a false distinction between the front line and back office. The reality is the front line cannot do what it is supposed to without back office support. We believe cuts may focus on finance and other corporate service directorates who carry out vital work which ensures the overseas network of posts can operate effectively. If jobs are cut in these areas, the work will not go away but will be passed on to posts themselves and often to fairly senior diplomats who will have to spend time carrying out administrative work rather than front line diplomacy. The FCO are looking to make cuts to administrative costs of £100 million over the next four years. We believe this is simply not sustainable and will damage the capability of the FCO. It is also likely to lead to substantial job losses and reduced career opportunities amongst UK based staff. This will further damage the morale of FCO staff who have already seen a cut to budgets of around 20% in real terms due to the decision of the previous government to remove the Overseas Price Mechanism (OPM).

FCO interaction with other OGD's    

7. We have noticed in the past a tendency in dealing with other departments who have an international role that the FCO seems to want to take a lead in its attempt to gather political kudos and control the debate. How successful they have been in achieving this is open to question. 

8. Relations with the Treasury have not been good with a feeling the FCO has not been good at getting the resources it required. The most striking recent example of this was the decision to abolish the OPM. This took a big chunk out of the FCO’s budget and has only now been partially restored. The Treasury also took a hard line in asking for big cuts to the allowances received by diplomatic staff working overseas. OGD with staff overseas took a much smaller hit, with FCO staff feeling their own department should have taken a harder line in negotiations with the Treasury.

9. The responsibility for issuing UK visas, which was previously jointly administered by the FCO and UKBA, has now passed over completely to UKBA, although there is a service level agreement (SLA) which gives the FCO in theory some say in this work. The issuing of visas is still an important part of many FCO embassies and consulates around the world and 40% of posts should be filled by FCO staff. However despite the SLA the FCO seems to have a long term policy of having less and less to do with visa work with fewer and fewer FCO staff now working in visa sections. . We do not believe current arrangements with UKBA are working well and should be revised so the FCO has a greater role in the issuing of visa which we believe should be an important part of its service delivery overseas.

FCO Posts

10. The network of overseas posts is the key to delivering the new overall priorities for the FCO of security, prosperity and consular services. There is much debate at present about the impact of the cuts on this network. PCS believes it would be a big mistake to see any significant shrinkage of the overseas network. In order to maintain our diplomatic influence and to seek to increase overseas trade in a rapidly changing world, HMG will still need a physical presence and UK based staff in most countries around the world. In our view, posts also still have a key role to play in providing a full range of consular services and help to UK citizens overseas. In recent years there has been a big increase in UK citizens needing consular help or other assistance from UK embassies. With current patterns of work and travel this is likely to increase. In times of emergency or crisis UK citizens (and their MPs) expect their embassy to help them and FCO staff do a fantastic job, often in difficult or dangerous circumstances. This help is often required immediately and this would simply not be possible if the UK reduced its presence to regional rather in-country in some parts of the world.

11. In order for the FCO network of overseas posts to function effectively we believe the right balance needs to be struck in staffing them with a combination of UK based civil servants and locally engaged staff. There is no doubt that locally engaged staff play an important role in posts around the world. However we have now reached the point where 67% of all FCO staff globally are not UK citizens. We believe this has pushed the balance too far and that this is now having a detrimental impact on overseas posts. The reason for increased localisation has frankly been one of crude cost cutting with no improvement to service delivery. A good example of this is the recent localisation strand of the Corporate Services Programme with which the Committee is familiar. Anecdotally, we understand that replacing UK based management officers with local staff has not seen any improvement in service delivery. Because of security concerns there are many tasks formerly carried out by UK staff which locally engaged staff cannot perform with this work drifting up to more senior staff who are having to spend more and more time carrying out admin tasks rather than concentrating on other diplomatic work. We fear that the FCO is planning more localisation of posts overseas. We believe it would be folly to do this without a proper evaluation of the impact of localisation in the FCO in terms of the impact on UK posts overseas, career opportunities and jobs for UK FCO staff who will have much reduced chances of working overseas and also whether it is in the long term interests of the country to have a UK foreign service staffed mainly by non UK citizens.

8 February 2011