Sunday Times – Foreign Office faces probe into ‘manipulation’

Sunday Times – Foreign Office faces probe into ‘manipulation’ (by Robert Winnett)

THE Foreign Office is facing an investigation into the way it treats its staff amid allegations that diplomats and mandarins are being “politically manipulated”.

A friend of one of those affected said: “People’s careers are being ruined because they are not toeing the political line.

“The independence and probity of Foreign Office staff is something that is paramount yet recent events have undermined this key principle.”

A number of senior diplomatic staff claim they have been victimised for speaking out against government policy.

They include James Cameron, a diplomat in Romania, who made allegations about Britain’s lax immigration controls, and Craig Murray, the ambassador to Uzbekistan, who claimed that the government was turning a blind-eye to human rights abuses.

Other senior diplomats and London-based officials have also voiced concerns about the management of the department and are thought to be co-operating with the inquiry by the National Audit Office (NAO), the government’s watchdog.

Some of the complaints are believed to be about ministers’ failure to deal with concerns expressed by diplomats and officials in the run-up to the Iraq war.

With a general election imminent, details of the investigation could not have come at more sensitive time. Tony Blair has been heavily criticised for his informal style of government which has prompted complaints about presentation stifling Whitehall.

It is rare for the management practices inside a government department to be subjected to NAO scrutiny.

The First Division Association (FDA), the union representing the most senior civil servants, is also understood to have serious concerns about the Foreign Office.

It has hired an independent consultant to assess complaints made privately about the department by serving officials.

The consultant is thought to have concluded that there is a serious problem.

The FDA’s report has been sent to Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, who will come under pressure from Tory MPs in parliament this week to issue a statement.

The Sunday Times detailed last year how the department’s personnel unit “systematically mistreated” and bullied staff.

A former Foreign Office official claimed that the personnel office had a white marker board on the wall headed “Tosser of the week” on which staff were encouraged to write disparaging remarks about potential recruits and existing personnel.

The official said: “We were encouraged to write derogatory remarks about anyone who was annoying or who we were upset with.”

Clive Howard, an employment law specialist with the solicitors Russell Jones & Walker who has been contacted by dissatisfied diplomats, said: “The Foreign Office appears to have institutional failings in the way it deals with its staff.”

The Foreign Office and the NAO declined to comment yesterday.