Sir Simon Fraser: “big concern” among Foreign Office staff over pay

Permanent secretary Sir Simon Fraser tells CSW the FCO must have “a comparable offer” with other departments

The Foreign Office’s outgoing permanent secretary Sir Simon Fraser has acknowledged “big concern” over pay at the FCO.

Speaking exclusively to Civil Service World, Fraser – who will leave Whitehall at the end of July – said that civil service-wide pay restraint, combined with a reduction in some of the benefits usually associated with FCO posts, had had an impact on his department’s staff.

Fraser told CSW: “One of the consequences of resource pressure is that the terms and conditions for staff over the years have been adjusted downwards.

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 “So for example, we’ve had to change the standard of residential accommodation that we offer people when they go overseas. Allowances that are paid to people to compensate them for living overseas have been trimmed, and of course pay has been frozen across the civil service and then put on a very limited uplift.
“All these things do affect people and I would say clearly at the moment in this organisation, amongst our UK-based staff and indeed our local staff, there is a big concern about pay levels, and a sense that people feel that they’re experiencing quite a lot of pressure from the cost of living going up whilst pay has been restrained. Now that is something that we understand.
“It’s part of government policy obviously and it’s been applicable across the board in both the public and the private sectors. But it’s one of the issues that affects morale and we have to take care of it.
“I hope in the future that it will be possible, given that I think that public sector austerity is going to continue for some time, to find a way to introduce new flexibility so that we can, within an overall pay bill, find ways of managing a bit more flexibly to deal with the particular pressures that arise.”

Fraser was responding to questions about a recent Foreign Affairs Committee report, which earlier this year also warned of a “significant difference” between pay received by some FCO staff and those in comparable departments. MPs on the committee said this could undermine efforts to attract the “brightest and best”.

The committee’s report pointed out that minimum pay for a Grade 7 employee at the Department for International Development in 2013 stood at just under £49,500, while an equivalent at the FCO could expect to earn a minimum of £43,500.

The FCO perm sec acknowledged that this discrepancy in pay between officials from the FCO and those from other departments who were doing similar jobs overseas had "not yet been been resolved”, and said the department had sought agreement for more flexibility to help staff on the pay bands affected.

“It’s one of the issues I’d like to look at again,” he said. “It won’t be me, but I hope the organisation will be able to look at in the period ahead. Because if we’re going to have a policy of bringing departments closer together, and we are great supporters of what we call ‘One HMG overseas’ then clearly you’ve got to have a comparable offer to staff to support that.”

On Thursday, the FCO used its response to the foreign affairs committee’s report to shed more light on measures it had taken to try and tackle the problem in the current financial year.

The department said: “We have secured additional flexibility from HM Treasury for 2015-16 to begin to address – within our existing pay bill – some of the most acute pay discrepancies in two key foreign policy delivery grades.

“As part of the next spending review we intend to pursue wider flexibility to address the pay of other grades where it has fallen behind civil service comparators and to ensure that our pay supports our work force strategy goals and continuing high performance.”

The FCO said that while it continued to attract “a diverse range of high-quality applicants” there had been “declining staff satisfaction in how FCO pay compares to that of our closest comparators in Whitehall”.

A 2014 survey of FCO staff found that just 23% felt their pay was reasonable compared to officials doing a similar job in other organisations, down 3% on the previous year.

Our full interview with Sir Simon – included in the latest print edition of CSW – will be published online next week

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