Foreign Office Performance 5

An extremely busy media day yesterday as given in the entries below, with Nadira in the Sunday Times (which has had a wonderful reaction) and a review (albeit hostile) of my book in the New York Times, while an article by me appeared in the Mail on Sunday, on our Embassies’ apparent inability to help people abroad. You can find that here

I am pleased to say the comments so far all agree with me!

I thought I’d post the original longer version:

Lord Ahmed and Baroness Warsi are to be wholeheartedly thanked and congratulated for their effort of unconventional diplomacy, which succeeded in persuading Sudan’s obnoxious government to release Gillian Gibbons. But what about conventional diplomacy, our Ambassador and his Embassy, maintained in Khartoum with a British staff much larger than that available to General Gordon. Why could conventional diplomacy and the Foreign Office not obtain her release?

Through many crises affecting Britons abroad ?” including the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the tragic case of Ken Bigley ?” the question of the Foreign Office’s performance keeps coming in for criticism. So much so, that the question is now being raised, by Lord Wallace among others, as to whether Britons abroad should be able to expect the protection of their Embassy. The arguments run that there are more countries than their used to be, some 15 million Britons living abroad and huge numbers travelling, including to pretty well every once obscure corner. Is it time for the FCO to stop pretending to offer consular protection?

There is no doubt that the picture is not good. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, British citizens had been evacuated to the horror and squalor of the Superdome stadium, where thousands of people were crowded among what the BBC described as “knee-high piles of faeces”. After the roads in to New Orleans had become again passable, a British Consulate convoy set out to pick them up. Reaching a checkpoint, they were told they were not allowed to enter without a permit from the Governor of Louisiana. Our intrepid diplomats turned back.

Ten minutes later the Australian consul had arrived. Told he had to turn back, he replied “Are you going to shoot me?” and drove through the roadblock, the Southern Cross flying proudly from his bonnet. . The Australians got out their own people and some of ours. When the British finally arrived at the stadium two days later, having gone through the paper hoops like good little bureaucrats, they found they had almost no-one left to rescue, most of the Britons having been helped out by journalists.

It is an attitude I sadly recognise from my own twenty years in the Diplomatic Service, which is nowadays characterised by lack of initiative, dedication to bureaucracy, clock-watching and an excessive aversion to the slightest personal risk. That of course extended beyond consular activity.

In Tashkent I was under instruction never to travel anywhere, except in an ex-Northern Ireland Police Land Rover bolted over with plate armour, leaving just window slits. That would have made it impossible to mix freely with the local people and move around without fuss. Nor was I supposed to travel into the mountainous border regions, which were the very place we needed to know what is happening.

Of course I ignored these instructions. The FCO constantly burbles on about its “Duty of Care” to its employees, which is much more important than their effective performance of their job. But can we really expect diplomats to live with the risk level of accountants?

I would be the last to argue that British people abroad are always deserving. I am writing from Ghana where two sixteen year old British girls, Yasemin Vatansever and Yatunde Diya, await sentencing for attempting to smuggle six kilos of cocaine. I can see no doubt that they are guilty, and that they received a fair trial. I once tried to go to the aid at midnight of a British citizen who had been arrested in Poznan, Poland. He was accused of sexual assault on a girl in the Poznan Hotel.

He worked for a big name merchant bank in London. After speaking to the Polish police and persuading them to release his arms, which were handcuffed behind his back, I asked him what had happened. He replied:

“Listen here you little shit. I earn more than a month than you’ll see in a lifetime. Now get me out of here, or I’ll make sure it’s the end of your career.”

I motioned to the police to lock him up again. Sadly I believe he did eventually succeed in buying his way out of prosecution.

So I have absolutely no starry-eyed view of some of the reasons British citizens get in trouble abroad. But equally I have no doubt about rejecting the idea that we should not regard consular protection as an absolute priority. The first duty of any state is the protection of its citizens. That is why they accept its authority and pay their taxes. The FCO needs to accept that, and to raise its game in this regard. Everywhere in the World we need to make sure British citizens are well treated and free from abuse, given a fair trial where appropriate, and receive patient assistance for genuine need.

Sadly the culture of British Embassies has to become ever more isolated and inward looking. That is not just my perception. The Conservative Party’s Ben Rogers this week published an excellent article on the Conservative Home website entitled “The Foreign Office has a what can I not do for you today culture.” It gives numerous examples of flagrantly unhelpful behaviour by our Embassies, he characterises the FCO attitude as “reactive, unimaginative, uncreative, unidealistic, inflexible, rigidity”.

A recently retired senior diplomat, Carne Ross, in his book “Independent Diplomat” says the FCO has “A culture of amorality”. I would put the same point another way ?” most FCO employees just don’t care. This came home to me most strongly in the FCO when I failed to persuade an officer in our Embassy in Switzerland to leave a dinner party and open up the Embassy at night to quickly issue an emergency passport to a mother whose daughter was in intensive care in Manchester after a car crash. The passport was given the next day, and the woman reached the hospital less than an hour after her daughter died.

This negative culture is reinforced by the government. FCO management continuously emphasise the EU working time directive and discourage staff from working outside office hours. Just as with the NHS, a massive and ever-increasing proportion of FCO resources are sacrificed to internal administration. This has reached ludicrous levels as New Labour is ever more in thrall to the cult of managerialism, and determined to stamp out local initiative.

The FCO has about a dozen key objectives. Every member of staff in an Embassy has to work out what percentage of their working time is devoted to achieving each objective. If you have a member of support staff, who works for several officers, they have an incredibly complex calculation, depending on the percentage of their time dedicated to each officer they support, related to the differing percentages each of those officers spend on each objective. This is a Yes Minister nightmare which is hard to understand, let alone do.

But that is only the start. You then have to calculate the amount of floor space of the Embassy dedicated to each objective, by working out what percentage of which areas are used by which staff, and what percentage of those staff are used for each objective.

This incredible exercise can paralyse an Embassy for weeks, and is just one of many such management exercises. No wonder they don’t have time to help British citizens.

Nor are our resources in the right place. The European Union contains massively more British diplomats than any other region. Despite the fact that the government claims to be emphasising Asia and Africa, the percentage of diplomatic resources deployed in those areas has fallen steadily over the last ten years.

We maintain massive Embassies in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and throughout the EU, situated in vast expensive palaces. Yet the function of these Embassies has greatly shrunk with the advent of the EU, which has subsumed much of the traditional diplomatic function.

Twenty years ago, if we wanted to discuss widgets with the Austrians, our ministry of widgets would have sent a message to the FCO, who would have sent a message instructing the Embassy First Secretary in charge of widgets to go into the Austrian Foreign Ministry and talk with their widget man. The Austrian foreign ministry would then send a report to their ministry of widgets.

Nowadays, the British and Austrian ministry of widget experts will have a close working relationship, and meet in meetings in Brussels at least once a month. In between, they email and phone each other. Not only would they never think any more of communicating via Embassies and Foreign Ministries, they have fallen out of the habit of even copying in the FCO on what is happening.

You can substitute the word widget with fish, aviation, food safety, regional development or pretty well any field of government, and that analysis will remain true. The large bulk of the function of our Embassies in EU countries has vanished. And yet those Embassies have grown, not shrunk, and contain a disproportionate number of our most senior diplomats.

I don’t imagine we will ever convince the FCO that more of our top diplomats need to be in the World’s troublespots, rather than in places with good opera and easy access to Cannes and Aspen. British embassies suffer a whole battery of malaises ?” an uncaring culture, social isolation from British communities, excessive management workload and irrational distribution of resources ?” which make them of little and decreasing use to the British abroad, be they businessmen or citizens in trouble. It will take a fundamental shift of institutional culture to change this.

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5 thoughts on “Foreign Office Performance

  • Badgercourage

    It's the result of management consultants having taken over public administration in the UK. The late great Douglas Adams had it right: when asked to invent the wheel, the drones spent ages in meetings and came up with nothing, explaining: "it's not easy deciding what colour it should be!"

    Civil servants are now assessed and promoted on the basis of how well they have filled in monitoring returns and implemented procedural hoops, not whether they have achieved anything. I bet the person who devised the system of allocating time to the twelve key objectives (******* ridiculous – how can 12 objectives all be key ones!) has been promoted for doing it.

  • blue_monday

    I realised recently that the primary function of the British Embassy here in Tokyo is to look after British interests, not British citizens.

    I sent a letter to Mr Fry enquiring if they planned on taking any action over the Japanese indiscriminate fingerprinting of all foreigners entering the country. he replied with the classic "America does it so it must be OK", (not true, America does not fingerprint people with working visas), his other line was "we will do it in the UK too" (again not true, the UK will not fingerprint Japanese tourists).

    So America is the standard for UK policy in the 21st century ? I wonder if Mr Fry has heard about their success in Iraq, their stable economy and their safe and peaceful country.

    Many years ago I approached the British Embassy over an English school which was recruiting staff from the UK on one contract then making them sign another on arriving. I was given the brush off. This year we saw the Nova English School collapse, which reduced many teachers to abject poverty. I think the refusal of the embassy to take any stance over labour issues in Japan concerning British nationals was one of the factors which allowed the practice of treating foreign employees as an expendable commodity to get so badly out of hand.

    In stark contrast the Aussie government and consul issued a warning when it became obvious that trouble was ahead for Nova, and Qantas offered cheap flights to the teachers left jobless and moneyless after not receiving two months salary. The best the Brit Embassy managed was the phone number of the labour standards office on their homepage, a promise they were monitoring the situation and a warning they could offer no financial help. Oh, and the offer of a phone call home, in the age of Skype & email.

    The refusal to get involved in situations where it will be clear whether one succeeds or fails denies them the chance to deal with Japan on a real basis rather than the cushioned environment created around the embassy.

    Having said all that, one junior member who has just left did give a buddy of mine some timely off the record advice. So they do help people out when it gets quite serious, but perhaps if they were prepared to get down and dirty with us commoners more often they might acquire a few real skills.

  • writeon


    Interesting and informative peice.

    I believe it's indicative of the way the institutions of the state are evolving into agencies primarily concerned with control functions, both internally and externally.

    I think what we're seeing, using the broad brush, is the creation of the National Security State.

  • topulatis

    I note that my comment on your Daily Mail piece did not make it past the censors… it spoke to the withdrawal of consular services from "remote" locations (incl. Barcelona and most Caribbean islands) "to serve you better".

    Having worked in the Caribbean for the last 7 years, I find it shocking that the Queen's face is still on the East Caribbean Dollar when, frankly, I doubt she gives a **** about her "subjects" here… and she'll probably end up having her head on it long after the pound has disappeared! (An ironic side note being that the EC dollar structure was adopted as the foundation for that of the Euro.)

  • BenHarris

    Small point, but: "our Ambassador and his Embassy"? According to the FCO website, the Ambassador is Dr Rosalind Marsden. (Interestingly, she's also shown as having gone from HMA Kabul to Consul-General Kabul …)

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