FCO performance and finances 2011-12 - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

5  FCO staff

Disposition of staff

35.  According to the FCO Annual Report and Accounts for 2011-12, the core FCO[58] employed 13,215 permanent staff: 4,530 of these were UK-based, and 8,685 were locally engaged. Figures derived from the 2006-07 FCO Departmental Annual Report, which may not be strictly comparable, indicate that in 2006 there were approximately 16,200 staff, of whom 6,190 were full-time equivalent UK-based staff, and approximately 10,000 were locally engaged overseas.[59]

36.  Until 2005, the FCO published an annual Diplomatic Service List, which included a directory of UK-based diplomatic staff at each British mission overseas. Certain locally engaged staff in consular posts were also included. The Diplomatic Service List is no longer published, and no breakdown of staffing by name and function is available. In response to a recommendation by this Committee in February 2011,[60] the FCO published the numbers of staff at each post, rounded up,[61] and the ratio of locally engaged staff to UK-based staff in each case. For "operational and security reasons", the FCO said that it could not give a more detailed breakdown, nor could it discuss the situation in individual posts or comparisons between them.[62]

37.  We raised this issue with Mr Fraser during the course of this inquiry, pointing out that the limited information provided on a one-off basis did not allow the Committee to track trends in staffing of overseas posts. Mr Fraser maintained that there were areas of management information where provision was "less easy for us because of the nature of our overseas operations and the fact that we work with other parts of Government". We invited Mr Fraser to share detailed information with us on a confidential basis, but he felt unable to go further than the rounded figures already provided.[63]

38.  We recognise that there are concerns about providing a full breakdown in public of staffing at posts. However, it is difficult for the Committee to keep track of the deployment of staff and trends across the FCO network if comparable information is not provided regularly over a period of time. For instance, in our recent work on British foreign policy and the 'Arab Spring', we were told anecdotally that staffing levels at posts in North Africa had decreased in recent years; but there was no series of published figures available to chart trends in numbers of staff or their functions.

39.  The FCO's refusal to provide precise information on staffing at each post hinders the Committee in its work. We recommend that the FCO, in confidence and on an annual basis, supply the Committee with exact numbers of staff at each post, broken down between UK-based and locally engaged staff. We recommend that rounded figures for each post should be published each year in the Department's Annual Report and Accounts. We further recommend that the FCO should be prepared to supply the Committee, on request and in confidence, with a breakdown of staffing at each post in any specified country, by function, currently and for each of the preceding ten years. The Committee would expect to make such requests in respect of any country which is the subject of an inquiry. We also request that the FCO supply us with a current figure for the proportion of locally engaged staff globally who are engaged in diplomatic or policy work, rather than administrative work.

Staffing at overseas posts

Postings for UK-based staff

40.  The FCO announced in February 2011 that overseas postings for the majority of staff at more junior grades—in Bands A and B—would cease. The number of such posts would reduce from 450 to 50 by April 2015, and the work would instead be performed by locally engaged staff or reconfigured and incorporated with other roles.[64] Mr Fraser was quite open to us in evidence in November 2011 about the reason for the decision, namely the cost. He estimated that the average net gain to the FCO from recruiting a locally engaged member of staff rather than a UK-based member of staff would be about £100,000 per year.[65] The FCO estimated that the change in policy would generate savings of up to £30 million per year.[66]

41.  Locally engaged staff are recruited within the host country for specific jobs in particular overseas missions, and are employed by the mission concerned rather than the FCO centrally. Locally engaged staff do not sign up to the global mobility obligation of UK-based staff and do not have the same terms and conditions as their UK-based counterparts.[67] They do not, for instance, automatically enjoy diplomatic immunity. The proportionate split between locally engaged permanent staff and UK-based permanent staff was approximately 62% to 38% in 2006, 66% to 34% in 2010, and again 66% to 34% in 2011.[68] The FCO expects that 70% of its workforce will be locally engaged by March 2015.[69] If the number of locally engaged staff is expressed as a proportion of FCO staff actually working overseas, then the percentage is considerably higher: 82.5%.[70]

42.   The PCS union objected to the FCO's plan to cut the number of overseas postings for staff at more junior grades, arguing that greater use of locally engaged staff would reduce the number of UK-based staff with experience of working abroad and would reduce the FCO's capacity to respond to a crisis.[71] In evidence to this year's inquiry, the PCS pointed out that locally engaged staff did not receive security clearance to the same level, thereby limiting the work which they could undertake; nor did they benefit from full diplomatic immunity; nor were they under any obligation to be available for work at any hour of the day if circumstances required.[72]

43.  Recognising that staff in Bands A and B risked becoming demotivated by the new policy, the FCO increased targets for promotion to Band C,[73] increased the level of support available to those at Bands A and B, including coaching and mentoring, and introduced short-term overseas attachments[74] for junior grades. The FCO told us that these attachments had been well received and that both those taking part and the overseas posts involved had provided "resoundingly positive feedback".[75] We note that not all of the 200 postings have been taken up, although Mr Fraser told us that take-up had improved from 66% to 75%. For some staff, absence on a short posting was difficult; for others, lack of suitable notice was an issue. In some cases, line managers were proving reluctant to release staff.[76]

44.  The FCO told us in July 2012 that the Human Resources Directorate had agreed with posts which positions would be "eliminated".[77] Mr Fraser told us that "about 300 jobs" filled by overseas postings at Bands A and B would be lost; of these, 88 staff had already returned to the UK, and a further 55 were expected to return by the end of the 2012-13 financial year. He said that the majority of "returns" would occur in the 2013-14 financial year, as the FCO "wanted to give people time and phase this in over the spending round period".[78] We note that the original target of £30 million in savings was revised to £23 million "to reflect the Management Board's decision on the number of Band A and B positions overseas agreed for localisation or elimination".[79] Mr Rycroft explained that there were two reasons for this reduction: the number of jobs which were "in scope" had turned out to be 350 rather than 450, and the original target of £30 million had been based on assumptions and predictions that had "turned out not to be completely accurate".[80]

45.  We asked Mr Fraser about the current state of staff morale: in reply, he stressed the increased opportunities for promotion from administrative grades to diplomatic work at higher grades.[81] However, we note that the pass rate for promotion from Band B to Band C is only 46% and that staff struggle to understand why good ratings for effectiveness at individual staff appraisals fail to translate to passing boards for promotion to higher grades. The FCO is aware of this and is taking steps to improve the prospects of those who apply for promotion, particularly from Band B to Band C.[82] We asked about the rate of staff turnover, and Mr Fraser replied that there was not a problem with turnover in the FCO overall.[83] We asked the Department to supply us with more detailed figures on turnover during the course of the last three years, broken down by staff at different bands. Outflow figures at each Band for 2011-12 are lower than for each of the preceding two years, as is the number of staff permanently leaving the FCO.[84] We shall monitor carefully figures for the next few years, as the cutbacks in overseas postings take effect.

46.  Other indicators of morale—direct and indirect—provide a mixed picture. If absence from work is treated as an indicator of levels of morale and contentment in employment, then the figure for the average number of working days lost by staff at A1 grade (the most junior grade) during the period from 1 July 2011 to 30 June 2012 appears startling: 24.4, up from 18.2 in the period from 1 October 2010 to 30 September 2011 and 8.6 in the period from 1 October 2009 to 30 September 2010.[85] However, the FCO subsequently indicated that the 24.4 figure had been distorted by a few instances of long-term sickness absence.[86] Figures for average working days lost at other administrative grades—A2 and B3—are in single figures and show only limited variance from those of previous years.[87]

47.  Staff survey results for 2012 were generally positive. Scores were consistently higher than for the Civil Service overall,[88] sometimes significantly so, for example for attachment and commitment to the Department. Scores also generally showed small (1% to 3%) increases upon those recorded for FCO staff in the previous survey (2011). However, low positive scores (below 50% agreeing with a positive statement) were recorded for satisfaction with pay, opportunities to develop a career in the FCO (46%), satisfaction with management of change (42%), and satisfaction that promotion was based upon merit (44%).[89]

48.  We concluded in our report last year on the 2011 Departmental Annual Report that the decision to reduce the number of overseas postings for UK-based FCO staff was "an error" and that the limited savings which would be achieved hardly justified the policy, given the effect upon morale and possible consequences for the FCO's ability to respond quickly to crises overseas.[90] Now that the target for savings to be achieved has diminished, from £30 million to £23 million, the value of this exercise seems to us to be even more in doubt. The FCO's career development offer for staff at administrative grades is not as attractive as it used to be. Despite efforts being made by the FCO to improve the situation, there is a risk of widespread demotivation, which could have long-term consequences for the pool of experience for administrative work overseas. We are particularly concerned that the majority of FCO staff do not believe that promotion within the department is made on merit.

49.  We have in the past acknowledged that 'localisation' of staff could bring benefits and that locally engaged staff are a major strength of the FCO.[91] We remain of that view. We have also warned, however, that the 'localisation' policy is not capable of indefinite extension.[92] The FCO is moving inexorably towards the point where 70% of its workforce will be locally engaged. The esprit de corps of UK-based staff is already at risk and will need careful management if it is to be preserved. To exceed the 70% threshold might mean that duties which can only be undertaken by UK-based staff would be concentrated on fewer personnel, who could be placed under unacceptable stress as a result. We recommend that the FCO give an undertaking that the 70% threshold for locally engaged staff will not be breached.

Terms and conditions for locally engaged staff

50.  Employment contracts between the FCO's overseas posts and locally engaged staff are governed by the employment law of the host country, and their terms and conditions of employment therefore differ from those of UK-based staff. Mr Fraser saw no prospect of any change in this regard.[93] However, the FCO, recognising that locally engaged staff form an increasingly important element of the FCO's workforce, has taken steps to give them "some voice and a sense of belonging and participation in the Foreign Office as a whole". For instance, there is now more uniformity in grading structures for UK-based staff and locally engaged staff; and an attempt has been made to give locally engaged staff more of a right to comment on decisions made by the FCO in London.[94] The PCS told us that the FCO's initiative made it easier for locally engaged staff to be deployed in different locations around the world, including the UK.[95]

51.  We, and our predecessors, have drawn attention to the limited scope for locally engaged staff to enjoy any level of diplomatic immunity. Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, nationals of a receiving state who are working for a foreign diplomatic mission may receive diplomatic status only with the consent of the receiving state; even if that is granted, the level of diplomatic immunity is limited in comparison to that enjoyed by nationals of the sending state.[96] Local courts can decide whether or not a particular act can be classified as 'official' and whether immunity can be upheld accordingly.[97]

52.  We asked the FCO to supply us with figures for the numbers of staff for whom the FCO had sought diplomatic and consular immunity. The FCO told us that requests had been made on 61 occasions (across 37 countries). Accreditation was granted in 45 cases and refused in eight cases. A further eight cases are outstanding. Mr Fraser told us that all Heads of Mission had been encouraged in November 2011 to seek to accredit their local staff as diplomatic agents or consular officers if their roles merited it.[98] There will always be areas of the world where staff employed by the FCO are at risk of attempts at coercion, threat or intimidation. The FCO has a duty of care to all of its staff, and we are encouraged to see evidence that it is prepared to try to secure diplomatic immunity for certain locally engaged staff. However, the FCO should consider whether the undeniable demand for parity of treatment between locally engaged and UK-based staff (which is likely to become more pronounced if locally engaged staff increasingly take on diplomatic work) may over time erode the projected savings from 'localisation'.

Career development and promotion

53.  The system for promotion of staff to middle-ranking and senior levels of the FCO uses core competencies: these are general skills such as leadership, managing and developing staff, strategic awareness, and communicating and influencing. Candidates are measured against the competencies pertaining to the job sought rather than the job already held, on the basis that that is a more effective method than staff appraisal for predicting potential at the higher band. The FCO provided sample lists of competencies and a full description of arrangements for promotion in written evidence to our inquiry into the Role of the FCO in UK Government.[99]

54.  We have challenged the Permanent Under-Secretary regularly since the start of this Parliament on the relative weight accorded to management skills and policy skills in decisions on promotion, and on the use of core competencies which take no account of language skills. Our concern, which persists, is that certain strengths, such as depth of understanding of a country or a highly developed ability to communicate in a local language, appear not to carry significant weight in comparison to more generic skills, including management skills, which make up the core competencies. Witnesses and others frequently stress the importance of language skills in diplomatic and commercial work. A former Ambassador to Bahrain, Robin Lamb, told us that a facility in Arabic could be a necessity for doing business outside a capital city; and he added that, even when interlocutors spoke English, they could warm to a person who had taken the trouble to learn the local language. Mr Lamb said that he was "a great fan" of including linguistic ability in the promotion criteria, and Sir Roger Tomkys (also a former Ambassador to Bahrain) believed that downgrading linguistic competence was "a terrible mistake".[100]

55.  In particular, it seems to us that the course being taken by the FCO is somewhat at odds with the tone of speeches by the Foreign Secretary. In evidence to us in September 2010, the Foreign Secretary signalled a wish to "tilt things" in a different direction - "to accentuate in a diplomat's career the value of serving in a difficult place, or knowing a region of the world with great intimacy and … the language expertise that comes from that". His intention was that "the people who get to the top of the organisation 20 to 30 years from now [would] have come through that background."[101] When asked a few months later whether he planned to change the core competences that determined promotion, in order to reflect the new emphasis on geographical expertise, Mr Hague replied "Certainly, we will place a greater emphasis in the coming years on such matters as hard languages, as having served in difficult postings", adding that "it's necessary to have a really strong representation of those things in the top management of the Foreign Office in future years".[102]

56.  However, Mr Fraser immediately followed Mr Hague's response by saying that he was "not proposing to change" the current core competencies. [103] He defended that position in November 2011, saying that he did not think it would be appropriate to change the appraisal system "because it has served us well and it gives a common base against which everybody can be assessed", and because "changing it would take a long time and would absorb a lot of administrative effort". He did, however, concede that

It may be the case that in the past that that balance [between competencies and expertise] has shifted a bit towards rather generic competences, in some cases, rather than focusing also on the specific expertise that the individual brings. If that is the case, we need to make sure we redress that.[104]

57.  We raised the issue once again with Mr Fraser during the course of this inquiry. We pointed out that the Secretary of State, in a speech at the British Academy on 17 October 2012, had re-iterated his views on the subject, saying that "our diplomats need to have an unrivalled knowledge among diplomats of the history, culture, geography and politics of the countries they are posted to, and to speak the local languages", adding that "this is a fundamental requirement of diplomacy and we have given renewed emphasis to it".[105] Mr Fraser maintained that while promotion to a grade was on the basis of attainment against competencies, appointment to a particular job would take into account candidates' skills and expertise, which would include language training. He warned against conflating the two; [106] and he pointed out that "somebody may be the most brilliant linguist but they may not be the most brilliant diplomat".[107]

58.  We do not mean to imply that language skills are currently neglected by the Department. On the contrary, there is something of a renaissance: the FCO in-house language school, closed in October 2007 as a cost-saving measure,[108] is to be re-opened this year and will be located in the FCO's King Charles Street premises. Current plans would allow about 1,000 students to attend the language school in any one year, including students from other Government departments; and about 30 private, individual tuition rooms would be provided alongside classrooms.[109] Mr Fraser reminded us that the FCO had significantly increased the money spent on language skills—from £3 million in 2010-11 to £3.9 million in 2011-12.[110] We also note that training times for key languages such as Mandarin and Arabic are to increase.[111] Given that the language allowance is a key incentive for language training, we invite the FCO to increase the size of the allowance.

59.  The FCO is also increasing the number of posts overseas for which local language skills are a requirement. That requirement might be for proficiency at 'confidence' level, at which someone would be able to deal confidently with routine everyday issues in the local language, or at a higher 'operational' level, roughly equivalent to degree level, or at 'extensive' level, representing the most advanced level of fluency.[112] The FCO told us that there are currently about 800 such posts—known as 'speaker slots'—and that approximately 15% require proficiency at 'confidence' level, 65% at 'operational' level, and 20% at 'extensive' level.[113] Mr Fraser told us that 101 Head of Mission posts carried a requirement that the postholder be able to speak the local language, and that "well over 90" of those postholders did so.[114] While this may sound promising, there remains ambiguity about whether the level of proficiency in the local language attained by a postholder consistently matches that which is required (or desirable). We therefore asked for further information on how many postholders in posts where there was a language requirement had passed FCO exams in the local language at the level of proficiency required. The FCO has agreed to supply this information before Easter 2013.[115]

60.  The FCO and the UK also suffer indirectly from the UK's limited supply of graduates with the language skills that are necessary to work in the EU institutions. For instance, latest figures (from March 2013) indicate that 4.6% of the Commission staff are British; yet the UK population as a proportion of the total population of EU countries is 12%.[116] Mr Fraser acknowledged the disparity and suggested that the language requirements for Commission staff were "particularly difficult for British people, who do not normally speak two other European languages fluently in the way that citizens of other countries often do".[117] The Government also attributes the unduly low figure to the retirement in recent years of a large tranche of staff taken on in 1973, on British accession to the EEC.[118] We expect to look more closely at this issue in discussion on British influence in the EU as part of our forthcoming Report on the UK Government's policy on the future of the European Union.

61.  We accept that the Department needs to promote people who have proven managerial and leadership skills. We do not accept, however, that a framework for promotion should entirely neglect an essential skill in many FCO postings at different grades: facility in a foreign language. For some posts, a lack of fluency in the local language will limit the credibility of the postholder. The risk in relying upon promotion by general competency, which excludes technical competencies such as language skills, is that it may not provide the upper echelons of the Diplomatic Service with an adequate supply of staff who have all of the skills and credibility needed to command respect in key diplomatic postings. We endorse the Foreign Secretary's vision in this field; but we believe that the FCO should make changes to the criteria for promotion in order to achieve it.

58   Excluding staff employed by Wilton Park (an Executive Agency) and by "other designated bodies": see FCO Annual Report and Accounts 2011-12, page 92 Back

59   Foreign and Commonwealth Office Departmental Report 2006-2007, Cm 7099, page 134 Back

60   FCO Performance and Finances, Third Report of Session 2010-11, HC 572, paragraph 47 Back

61   Figures for posts with fewer than 100 staff were rounded up to the nearest 5, and figures for those with 100 or more staff were rounded up to the nearest 10. No figure was given where there were five or fewer staff at the post. Back

62   Government response to the Third Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee of Session 2010-11, Cm 8060, page 7 and Annex 1 Back

63   Q 59-60 Back

64   See Departmental Annual Report 2010-11, Eleventh Report from the Committee, Session 2010-12, HC 1618, paragraph 41 Back

65   Q 74, evidence given on 8 November 2011, published with the Eleventh Report from the Committee of Session 2010-12, Departmental Annual Report 2010-11 Back

66   See Departmental Annual Report 2010-11, Eleventh Report from the Committee, Session 2010-12, HC 1618, Ev 40 Back

67   See Fifth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, FCO Annual Report, HC 145, Session 2009-10, paragraph 194 Back

68   Figures for permanent staff taken from FCO Annual Reportsand not necessarily fully compatible with each other Back

69   FCO Annual Report and Accounts for 2011-12, page 53 Back

70   HC Deb 6 February 2012, col 51W Back

71   See Departmental Annual Report 2010-11, Eleventh Report from the Committee, Session 2010-12, HC 1618, evidence from the PCS Union, Ev 63 Back

72   Ev 41 Back

73   Equivalent to Second Secretary in diplomatic posts. Band C is the first significant level for staff and resource management responsibility and policy development. Back

74   Typically of about three weeks: see footnote to Q 70 Back

75   Government response to the Committee's Eleventh Report of Session 2010-12, Cm 8360, page 10-11 Back

76   Q 70 and 71 Back

77   May to July 2012 Quarterly Update on FCO Management Issues, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmfaff/writev/fcomanage/contents.htm Back

78   Q 63 Back

79   May to July 2012 Quarterly Update on FCO Management Issues, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmfaff/writev/fcomanage/contents.htm Back

80   Q 68 Back

81   Q 66 Back

82   Excellence through People: One Global Workforce, FCO, December 2012 Back

83   Q 67 Back

84   Ev 44-5 Back

85   HC Deb 9 November 2012 col 813-4W Back

86   HC Deb, 13 December 2012, col 473W Back

87   HC Deb 9 November 2012, cols 813-4W Back

88   "Civil Service overall" as represented by the median percentage figures for positive responses across all organisations participating in the 2012 Civil Service People Survey Back

89   https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/foreign-office-staff-survey-results-2012  Back

90   See Departmental Annual Report 2010-11, Eleventh Report from the Committee, Session 2010-12, HC 1618, paragraphs 44-5 Back

91   See for example Seventh Report from the Committee, The Role of the FCO in UK Government, HC 665, Session 2010-12, paragraph 175; also Departmental Annual Report 2010-11, Eleventh Report from the Committee, Session 2010-12, HC 1618, paragraph 46 Back

92   FCO Performance and Finances, Third Report from the Committee, HC572, Session 2010-11, paragraph 46 Back

93   Q 78 Back

94   Q 78 Back

95   Ev 41 Back

96   The role of the FCO in UK Government, Seventh Report from the Committee, Session 2010-12, HC 665, paragraph 171 and Ev 136. Back

97   Ev 44 Back

98   Ev 44 Back

99   Seventh Report from the Committee, Session 2010-12, HC 665, Ev 95 to 129 Back

100   The UK's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, evidence taken on 22 January 2013, HC 917-i, Q 64 Back

101   Evidence given on 8 September 2010, Developments in UK foreign policy, HC 438-i, Q 16 Back

102   The role of the FCO in UK Government, Seventh Report from the Committee, Session 2010-12,HC 665, oral evidence given on 7 February 2011, Q 319 Back

103   The role of the FCO in UK Government, Seventh Report from the Committee, Session 2010-12, HC 665,oral evidence given on 7 February 2011, Q 320 Back

104   Evidence given on 8 November 2011, published in the Eleventh Report of the Committee, Session 2010-12, Departmental Annual Report 2010-11, Q 96. Back

105   https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/foreign-secretary-speech-on-diplomatic-tradecraft Back

106   Q 88 Back

107   Q 92 Back

108   FCO Departmental Report 2007-08, Cm 7398, p102 Back

109   Q 97; see also HC Deb, 5 February 2013, col 166W Back

110   Q 91; also unpublished letter from the Secretary of State to the Committee Chair, dated 22 September 2011 Back

111   Unpublished letter from the Secretary of State to the Committee Chair, dated 22 September 2011 Back

112   HC Deb, 19 December 2011, col 969W Back

113   Ev 46 Back

114   Q 92 Back

115   Ev 46 Back

116   See http://ec.europa.eu/civil_service/docs/europa_sp2_bs_nat_x_grade_en.pdf (relates to permanent staff and temporary agents); also HL Deb, col 29WA Back

117   Q 80 Back

118   HC Deb, 30 October 2012, col. 176W Back

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Prepared 19 April 2013