Foreign Office ‘will not get Premiership talent with Championship salaries’, say MPs

Written by Richard Johnstone on 28 November 2018 in News
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The “prestige of the Foreign Office as an employer hangs in the balance” at time when its role is increasingly important, select committee warns

The Foreign Office is faced with a “considerable challenge” to ensure it has the skills required for European diplomacy following Brexit based on current salaries, MPs have warned.

In a report published today, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said that the government needed to boost the prestige and the pay of the FCO to ensure it had the skills needed for modern diplomacy after the UK leaves the Europe Union.

MPs concluded that department’s crucial post-Brexit role was being hindered by pay rates that were the civil service equivalent of a football team trying “to attract Premiership talent if it consistently offers Championship salaries”.


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The uncertain role of the Foreign Office following two decades of fragmenting foreign policy, through the creation of departments for international development and trade,means that its “future as a home for the best that the civil service has to offer is at stake”, according to the committee.

“Britain’s diplomats and Foreign Office have been among the best in the world and one of the jewels in the crown of the British civil service,” committee chair Tom Tugendhat said, but “recently, the committee has had cause to question that”.

In particular, there has been a lack of clarity over the aims of the government’s  post-Brexit Global Britain foreign policy, as well concerns about levels of staffing across EU member states and specific failures of diplomacy such as the 2017 elections to the International Court of Justice, which saw the UK left without representation on the court for the first time in its 71-year history.

“To maintain and strengthen our place in Europe and the wider world as we prepare to leave the EU, we need an agile and experienced Foreign Office and that means hiring and keeping the best staff,” Tugendhat said. “The prestige of the Foreign Office as an employer hangs in the balance.”

The committee’s top recommendation is that the department needs to boost its pay to meet these “unprecedented” challenges.

According to data from the Cabinet Office, the FCO paid the lowest median of any government department for policy officers and middle management officers, and 70% of those leaving cite poor pay as the main reason.

The committee urged the government to look at options for improving the pay offer at the FCO, both for centrally contracted staff and for local hires abroad, and should develop an external review procedure to keep the reward package of officials doing similar jobs at departments such as DfID.

The department should also define its priorities for skills, and there is also a call for government to go beyond foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt’s to make “one or two” external hires for ambassadorial roles each year.

MPs called for the plan to “more ambition about seeking high-quality external candidates to complement high calibre existing staff” by taking practical steps to make them as accessible as possible to external candidates.

The review also called on the department to further boost language skills, including in Russian and Arabic. Hunt’s plans for expanding language skills will require considerable extra resources which have not yet been put in place, the report added.

Responding to the report, a FCO spokeswoman said that following negotiations with the Treasury, the FCO is increasing pay for policy officers and mid-ranking staff with effect from this month, with the increase backdated to April, ensuring that it is more closely aligned with international comparators. The department was also launching a new system of training and development to ensure support is provided more systematically.

“Britain already has the finest diplomatic service in the world but we continue to reinvigorate and expand both in terms of people and places,” she added. “That includes the biggest expansion of Britain’s diplomatic network for a generation,  broadening the talent pool we tap into for our ambassadors and a massive boost in language training.”

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Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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