The Role of the FCO in UK Government - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Further written evidence from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS)


The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the biggest union representing Diplomatic Service staff, has in recent months made two submissions to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Both submissions have highlighted our concerns about the increasing localisation of posts in UK embassies and consulates around the world and the impact this will have for the operation of the FCO and UK Diplomatic Service.

The committee themselves shared some of these concerns. In their report on the performance of the FCO (Foreign Affairs Committee—Third Report on FCO Performance and Finances, 2 February 2011) they commented that, "A further reduction in the opportunities for more junior UK based staff to serve in overseas posts, and a consequent diminishing of experience and morale among FCO employees, will over time have a damaging effect on the quality of British diplomacy and the effectiveness of the FCO.[40]

While the date has now passed for submissions for the committee's current enquiry into the role of the FCO in UK Government, there has been a recent major development related to the deployment of Diplomatic Service staff overseas that PCS would like to make the committee aware of.

On 23 February the FCO announced a decision made by the Executive Board to end nearly all overseas postings for A & B band officers in the Diplomatic Service and wider FCO. A & B band are the most junior grades within the Diplomatic Service and FCO. There are currently around 450 of these posts and the plan is to reduce this number to around 50 "essential" posts by 2015. The FCO say this is being done for two reasons: to make savings as a result of the recent government spending review, it was claimed this measure will save up to £30 million a year by 2015 which will be recycled into "frontline" diplomatic work; a diminishing requirement for this type of work to be carried out overseas by UK based officers.

The FCO announced there would then be a 60 day consultation period with staff and trade unions to discuss these proposals. However they made it clear they have already made the decision to end nearly all overseas postings for more junior staff and the consultation period was to discuss how they could implement this decision.

PCS is extremely concerned about this decision apparently made by the FCO Board and the impact it will have for FCO staff, FCO operations overseas, UK diplomatic capability and also the ability of HMG to assist UK nationals overseas.

Our first concern is that this decision, with far reaching consequences for the FCO and Diplomatic Service, has apparently been taken with no consultation with Heads of Mission, FCO staff, its unions, other government departments, SIS and other stakeholders and interested parties. The decision has also been taken without any actual business case being put forward to support it nor any cost benefit analysis. PCS has seen the papers on which the Board made their decision and these contain only assumptions about the likely impact of the decision with no actual hard data or evidence to support these assumptions.

The FCO have said that they will now go through the 450 A & B band posts overseas to see which can be localised, reconfigured, replaced or upgraded to leave them with 50 "essential posts" which largely for security reasons will need to remain. PCS believes this work should have been done before any decision was made to get rid of nearly all these posts. This appears to be a case of post-hoc rationalisation.

The FCO has tried to characterise the jobs as back office functions. This is simply not the case. Although the jobs are more junior within the FCO's grading structure they are still jobs which are key to FCO work overseas. Many B band jobs are political officer jobs which involve lobbying host governments on behalf of HMG, reporting political developments and promoting human rights. Other jobs at B band are involved in promoting trade and inward investment, one of the FCO's new priorities and also consular work, including acting as the front of house contact point in UK embassies overseas. A lot of A band jobs are in the Registry and other IT and communications roles, all of which are essential for embassies and consulates to maintain contact with the FCO in London.

The FCO claim the jobs that will go will either be localised, reconfigured upgraded or replaced. PCS believes that getting rid of this many posts (the 400 jobs slated to disappear over the next four years represents nearly a third of all UK Diplomatic Service posts overseas) will inevitably seriously damage FCO operations overseas and UK diplomatic capability.

Localising posts does not provide any improvement in service delivery. The FCO recently published an interim report into the impact of their recent programme of localising management officer posts. It found there was no discernible improvement to service delivery and also that for security reasons many of the tasks previously performed by UK based officers was now drifting upwards to more senior diplomatic colleagues. In some posts they have also had recruitment and retention problems with new locally engaged staff.

For many of the roles which the FCO now wish to cut locally engaged staff would simply not be as effective as experienced, committed members of the Diplomatic Service. It should be remembered that Diplomatic Service staff have a 24/7 work obligation overseas while locally engaged staff only have to work local office hours. All Diplomatic Service staff are UK taxpayers and voters. As we have seen recently with various overseas crises, the 24/7 obligation is a key part of FCO operations overseas and this capability will be severely diluted if even more localisation takes place.

The FCO have set up a working differently group to look at how the A & B jobs can be deleted without this work simply not being done or drifting up to more senior diplomats. Once again PCS believes that detailed work of this sort should have been completed before a decision was made to get rid of 400 overseas posts. We are sceptical as to whether this work can be reconfigured or replaced. However the danger is having made this decision the FCO will now simply try and engineer a solution which doesn't actually address the problem.

One of the main consequences of this decision is the negative impact it will have on the morale of FCO staff, an issue already identified by the committee. Staff joined the Diplomatic Service precisely because they could expect to spend a major portion of their careers working overseas. The FCO will now find it increasingly difficult to motivate staff in more junior grades who will now spend their entire career in the UK, unless they are able to get promoted to a higher grade.

It also sends out a very negative message about the work carried out by staff at more junior grades, as though it is somehow not important to the office. It will also set up a very dangerous divide within the office between the more senior grades who work overseas and the more junior grades who won't. The FCO very much relies on an esprits de corts amongst staff. This has been clearly in evidence during the various recent crises around the world where staff have volunteered to work in the 24/7 crisis centre in the UK and to go to North Africa as part of Rapid Deployment Teams (RDT). This readiness to help and volunteer will we believe diminish if large sections of the FCO feel that they are in some way not part of the main work carried out by the office.

The ability of the FCO to respond to a crisis will also diminish over time if large parts of the office have no experience of working overseas. RDT rely on staff having experience of working overseas to be able to go overseas at short notice and to be able to get to work immediately on the ground. Staff without experience of overseas work will be far less effective than those who do. This could seriously undermine the ability of the UK to help UK nationals overseas in times of crisis.

Jobs performed overseas at A & B bands, also act as very effective training grades for more senior posts. If these posts go the first posting for UK diplomats will often be at Deputy Head of Mission level. It will be very difficult for a diplomat with no previous experience of working in an embassy or consulate to go out and be effective in this sort of role.

The final major impact of this decision, will we believe be on diversity within the FCO as an organisation. At the moment ethnic minority staff within the FCO are disproportionately represented within the A & B grades. If these grades are denied the opportunity to work overseas then Diplomatic Services staff overseas will become far less diverse.

We believe that the long term plan of the Foreign Office is to make the entry point for the Diplomatic Service at C4 level. The main new entrants at this level are from the civil service fast stream, with a disproportionate number from Oxbridge. More junior grades will not be allowed to join the Diplomatic Service. This risks turning the Diplomatic Service back into an elitist organisation with entrants drawn from a narrow social background. Over the last 20 years the Diplomatic Service has been able to attract candidates from a wide variety of different social backgrounds and this has been a great strength of the service. We fear this will be lost if the FCO go ahead with plans to stop posting more junior staff overseas and eventually prevent more junior staff from being members of the Diplomatic Service.

PCS is well aware of the current financial restraints which the FCO has to operate under, however the £30 million annual savings the FCO say not posting junior staff overseas will save could we believe be achieved by looking at other areas of running costs. The single biggest area of expenditure is estates and some fairly minor reconfiguration of estates could yield similar savings. Significant savings from IT projects could also be realised.

PCS is currently urging the FCO to reconsider its decision as we believe it is fundamentally the wrong decision to end posting more junior staff overseas. If they do want to look at this subject, then we have suggested running an independent review to look into how the FCO deploys its staff overseas.

We hope the committee will find this submission useful and that you may wish to question the FCO closely on their proposals. I would also be more than happy to provide any more information required by the committee or even to come and speak to members of the committee myself.

21 March 2011

40   Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2010-11, FCO Performance and Finances, HC 572, paras 46 & 47 Back

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