Ministers must give serious thought to raising salaries for civil servants working on the UK’s relations with the European Union – or risk losing talent to other areas of government and different organisations, a report has warned.
The Institute for Government’ Influencing the EU after Brexit paper argued that maintaining influence with the world’s largest free-trade bloc will require more resources and the right expertise – meaning better-paid staff and more of them.
It said the UK’s new status as a third-party nation will make retention and recruitment of the best and brightest staff more important and that the government may need to invest in new facilities to boost its hospitality offer.
The report said that before the 2016 referendum on EU membership, the EU was seen by staff as a “credible career anchor” offering opportunities for interesting jobs in UKRep and high-profile London departments such as the Foreign Office, Treasury and the Home Office.
But it questioned whether working on EU policy will have the “same traction” once the UK has left the union and UKRep has been renamed UKMis – short for the UK Mission to the EU.
It cited evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee in 2018 suggesting base pay for Foreign Office policy officers was 19% lower than comparable roles at the “leading department” while the gap at middle management stood at 20%.
“The benchmark will not only be UK departments, but also other member state representations, third-country missions and EU institutions, many of which – Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Norway and Switzerland, for example – offer higher salaries for positions at the same level,” the report said.
“If the FCO cannot compete with departmental salaries at home and foreign ministry salaries abroad, it will struggle to attract the talent it needs.”
The report suggested that in addition to offering staff more competitive salaries, UKMis and British embassies in the EU should at least maintain staff levels at those reached after the EU referendum, when a 14% cut in headcount enacted during the coalition government years was reversed.
It added that as part of its post-referendum boost, the FCO updated all ambassador positions to senior-management level and used £36.3m of EU exit funding to hire an additional 600 staff, with plans for a further 250 posts in London and overseas to support EU exit work.
The report warned that the UK government would be more reliant on personal relationships and soft diplomacy skills once Brexit had taken place, with civil servants needing to step up their monitoring of what is going on in the EU and identify areas where the UK’s interests align with those of member states.
It added that officials would also need to continue to build relationships with EU officials and EU27 and third-country diplomats in the bloc, along with civil society actors – as well as maintaining good relations with EU and member-state embassies outside of the EU.
Senior IfG researcher Georgina Wright said UK officials would have to work harder to ensure the nation’s voice was heard once it lost the veto on policy decisions that member status carries.
“Brexit provides an opportunity for the UK and the EU to find new ways of working together,” she said.
“But getting the EU to listen to British ideas will be much harder once the UK is no longer in the room.
“Countries outside the EU show us that influencing the EU is possible but that the government will need to get better at targeting EU institutions, member states, and other missions in Brussels.”
Last year the FCO agreed a bespoke pay deal with the Cabinet Office and the Treasury worth 6.4% to staff over two years in a nod to pay disparity at the department.
On the wider importance of hospitality for third-party nations, the IfG report said the government should reassess whether UKMis and British Embassy had the facilities they need to deal with the UK’s changed role.
The report said Brussels was a small city and it was not uncommon for diplomats to “bump into each other” at events, at lunchtime or even during school runs, and that it was often a lot easier to schedule last-minute diplomatic meetings in Brussels than in other locations.
“After Brexit, British officials will need to foster new opportunities to wine and dine EU officials and to host events,” the report said.
“Officials in third-country missions to the EU try to take part in as many events and receptions – at the EU institutions, embassies, think tanks or business gatherings – as possible. They also host events at their own premises, particularly if a delegation is visiting from out of town.
“British embassies may need an even bigger hospitality budget to accommodate the number of government, parliament or business and civil society delegations travelling to the EU.”
The report said unnamed officials had suggested the UK’s residency in Brussels was “overstretched” because it was currently being used by the British ambassador to Belgium, UKRep and the UK’s representative to Nato – all of which made it “difficult to provide a round-the-clock service”.