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Africa (Diplomatic Representation)

Volume 649: debated on Tuesday 21 November 1961

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do adjourn.—[ Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.6 p.m.

In referring to British diplomatic representation in Africa I shall try to be as uncontroversial as I can, but I feel bound to start by referring to some remarks which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations addressed to me at the end of a reply to a question which I put to him in the House last Thursday. In the course of his reply the Secretary of State informed the House that his Department deeply resented certain remarks which I had made in a speech on 2nd November.

I feel bound to say that it is not for a Government Department to express either resentment or approval of observations which are made in the House, and I feel somewhat surprised that my right hon. Friend should have thought it relevant or, indeed, proper to reveal to the House the views of his own civil servants. Naturally, I regret that my observations should have caused distress within his Department, but I do not feel that in my speech on 2nd November I said anything which was not either said or implied in the Report from the Select Committee on Estimates on the Commonwealth Relations Office, which was presented to the House on 15th July, 1959.

Indeed, in the course of the inquiry which took place in the Select Committee, Sir Gilbert Laithwaite, then Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations Office, was questioned as many as four times by members of the Committee about the adequacy of the Commonwealth Service in the light of the fact that so many senior posts in that service were being given to people outside it.

On one occasion, a question having been put to him about adequacy, Sir Gilbert Laithwaite replied:
"I do not like admitting that, but I think it is partly because at the top of the Service, from which one would normally hope to be able to fill these posts, we have at the moment … not got the same supply as we would hope to have in three or four years' time …"
Later, in reply to a similar question about adequacy, he said:
"There is a realisation in the Service that … we have not been able to compete as effectively as we ought to for some of the higher appointments."
There was also, in the course of the inquiry, a most revealing interview with Sir Archibald Nye, a former High Commissioner. He, after regretting the opportunity which the Commonwealth Relations Office had missed of recruiting members to its service from the Indian Civil Service, referred to the C.R.O., which he joined in 1948, as being at that time "a dog's breakfast." On the question of the adequacy of people to fill overseas posts, he went on to say:
"Put bluntly, the men to fill the higher posts were just not there. The C.R.O. therefore had to go into the highways and bye-ways … to fill these appointments."
When the Select Committee on Estimates considering the Commonwealth Service came to report, it had a number of revealing things to say. First, it said:
"The task of the C.R.O. continues to increase as more colonies attain self-government, but it resources of manpower are already strained."
It went on:
"There is, in particular, a shortage of suitably qualified officers to fill the higher posts."
and it added:
"… there is clearly something wrong with a Service when so many of its top posts are offered to men who have made their careers elsewhere."
The final quotation I wish to give from this Report is this:
"… the C.R.O. should not miss the opportunity of strengthening itself by filling its vacancies in the new Commonwealth countries as far as possible from Colonial Service officers … The C.R.O. does not, however, share this view … Your Committee therefore recommend that every possible advantage should be taken of this source of recruits, and that the C.R.O. should throw over its inhibitions concerning the unacceptability of these officers to the new Governments …"
I would like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to understand that I am confining my remarks to the problems of representation in Africa, because these are the only Commonwealth posts about which I can speak with some knowledge.

We are told that the Commonwealth Relations Office is only too anxious to take on former Colonial Service officers, with experience of Africa, in its African missions, but, as a result of a series of Questions which I have tabled to the Commonwealth Relations Office over the last two or three weeks, this is the position which has been revealed. In Ghana, which is, I suppose the key Commonwealth diplomatic post at present, according to the answers which I have been given by the Commonwealth Relations Office, there is not a single member of the post who has ever had any experience in British territories in Africa.

In the Federation of Nigeria, out of 26 serving officers with the rank of second secretary and above, there are only three who have ever had any experience in British territories in Africa. One of those served for two years as principal in Kenya; another served for two years as an information officer in Nigeria, and the third for seven months in a similar capacity. Out of the entire resources of the British High Commission in Nigeria, therefore, we have a total of four years and seven months' experience of work in British territories in Africa divided among three officers.

I repeat that I am referring to Africa. It seems perfectly apparent from these figures that the Commonwealth Relations Office is not recruiting into its diplomatic service in Africa men who have considerable knowledge of British African territories. The Select Committee's Report makes it perfectly plain that the C.R.O. is reluctant to take these people, and I would like the Under-Secretary to tell us exactly why that is.

For example, has the C.R.O. been advised by the former Colonial Territories that this is undesirable? During the last few weeks I have spoken to four former West African Governors, all of whom have told me that they regard it as being disastrous that we are not making use of the reservoir of African experience which we have. Is there tucked away in the C.R.O. a wise old administrator, somebody who is steeped in the folklore of Africa, who has given this advice—this advice which runs contrary to that given by the former Colonial Governors, or did the newly-arrived officers of the High Commissions, when they were set up, send back cables saying, "Fatal to send African experts here. We are getting along very nicely as we are"?

It seems clear that apart from the reluctance of the C.R.O. to employ former British Colonial Service officers in Africa, the fundamental obstacle to their employment is that the C.R.O. insists that they should take an examination on transfer. The whole object of an examination is to assess an unknown quantity in a candidate about whom one has no previous records, but there is a stack of confidential information on every senior British Colonial Service officer, relating to every stage of his career, and this must be superior in value to any kind of examination.

I do not want to appear personal about this, but many people in middle age are not attuned to taking examinations. I wonder whether the Joint Under-Secretary of State, for example, would view with composure among his manifold duties, the prospect of sitting for the School Certificate tomorrow. Only last week I was shown the common entrance examination paper of the Secretary of State's old school, because I have a godson who has gone there, having just passed the examination, and I doubt whether I could have passed that examination without prolonged and expensive coaching.

The reply that the Commonwealth Secretary gave me to my Question, asking why an examination was necessary, was an astounding one. He said:
"For posts which involve an appreciable amount of written work the Commission normally include written tests of a general, non-academic character."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th November, 1961; Vol. 649, c. 646.]
Are we to suppose that the Commonwealth Relations Office assumes that Deputy-Governors, Chief Secretaries, Permanent Secretaries, Provincial Commissioners and District Commissioners conduct their work orally? Do they have some sort of bush telegraph, in which any kind of calligraphy is completely unknown? Do these men come from a jungle where pen, paper and ink are unknown miracles? We must press the Joint Under-Secretary to give us an answer on this point.

Towards the end of last week I saw in a certain journal details of questions to which senior and distinguished civil servants were subjected last time the examination was held. One was:
"Give an account of the aspects of the modern world which have struck Mr. R. Van Winkle, who fell asleep in 1930 and awakened in 1961."
The Commonwealth Relations Office appears to take a view of the Colonial Service which became out of date at the time of Sanders of the River"—and that book was written in 1903.

I have quoted to my right hon. Friend the Commonwealth Secretary the very tragic case—and they are numerous because I have had many letters on this subject—of the Director of Information Services in a dependent territory about to become independent. He wishes to transfer to the Commonwealth Overseas Information Service, and he has been told that to do this he will have to return home at his own expense and sit for a written examination. Is it suggested that the C.R.O. requires written work of a higher standard than the Tanganyika Government require? Is it suggested that his views on Mr. Van Winkle will be of greater value than the confidential reports sent home by successive Governors about the standard of his work? Many people feel that it is a public scandal that men who have served Her Majesty faithfully overseas should be treated in this brutal and Pecksniffian way.

I want to make one or two humble suggestions to my hon. Friend. First, will he please look into the possibility of setting up a joint committee composed of representatives of the Foreign Office, the Commonwealth Relations Office, the Colonial Office and containing on it some senior and respected former Colonial Service officer, such as Sir James Robertson? Will the committee, if it is ever set up, go into the whole question of the diplomatic needs of our missions in Africa, both for C.R.O. and Foreign Office? There were four of these missions in 1945. There are more than 30 today, and many of them are understaffed.

Does not my hon. Friend concede that there is at least a very strong case in the Continent of Africa—which is unknown to most of our C.R.O. and Foreign Office representatives, however good they may be; they may have double firsts, but, by and large, they do not know Africa—for there being an adviser on African affairs in every diplomatic mission that we have there, similar to the oriental secretaries that we used to have in the Levant Service?

I recognise that there would be many members of the Colonial Service who would be thought to be unsuitable for diplomatic posts of this kind. Obviously, some are elderly, and some are perhaps too paternalistic, but out of the 4,000 members of the service still in Africa there are probably several hundred who could be usefully employed in the African Foreign Office and C.R.O. posts. They would provide the very stiffening in the service which it is perfectly apparent from the Select Committee's Report is necessary.

I approach the matter not from the point of view of the tragedy which has befallen the personal lives of many overseas officers, but from the point of view of the real need for Britain. It is in Britain's interest to have throughout our diplomatic missions men with African experience. They are there; we can have them. They will only be lost through the blindness of the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office if they close their eyes to this very important need.

11.22 p.m.

Over the last three weeks my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mr. Berkeley) has been directing a series of criticisms against British diplomatic representation in Africa, especially in Commonwealth countries, culminating in his speech tonight. His theme has been that at a time when the responsibilities of the Commonwealth Relations Office are increasing while those of the Colonial Office are running down, we have failed to make full use of the great reservoir of experience in the Overseas Civil Service.

If I may summarise his arguments over this period and tonight, it is that instead of opening the doors of the Commonwealth Relations Office to proven and experienced administrators, we are making it as difficult as possible for them by subjecting them to written examinations; that, partly for that reason and partly for reasons of prejudice and indifference, the Commonwealth Relations Office is failing to make proper use of first-class material; that as a consequence the Commonwealth Service is lacking in knowledge and experience of Africa; and that for these and other reasons it is inadequate in quality, or, to use my hon. Friend's actual words in his speech of 2nd November, its members generally:
"… are of a markedly inferior calibre …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd November, 1961; Vol. 648, c. 436.]
These criticisms are superficial and misleading. They are unfair. They are wounding to a great service. What is more, they are based on a fundamental misconception of the rôle of the Commonwealth Service.

For one thing, we are not comparing like with like. Unlike the Overseas Civil Service—

I cannot give way. My hon. Friend has had his say over a long period. He must listen to what I have to say.

Unlike the Overseas Civil Service, whose members are the servants of the employing Governments, the Commonwealth Service is part of the Home Civil Service. That is a perfectly logical arrangement. The primary task—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Joint Under-Secretary misrepresented some remarks that I made by leaving out what was, in fact, the most important part of the quotation. Am I entitled to correct him on a point of order?

This is a very short debate. The difficulty about that is that if it is true it does not raise a point of order.

The primary task of the Commonwealth Service is to provide a channel of communication between the British Government and the Governments of independent Commonwealth countries, to heighten understanding of British policies, to further British interests and to facilitate co-operation in every possible way. Recruitment to its permanent and established staff, from whatever source, is conducted, therefore, through the Civil Service Commission, which is, of course, an independent body.

In dealing with recruitment, there are two general principles which the Commission has to take into account. First, it is incumbent on it to see that the standard for admission to the Home Civil Service and the Commonwealth Service is maintained at the highest level. Secondly, it is obliged to take account of the fact that the work of the Overseas Civil Service, however responsible and dedicated, is not entirely similar in content and character or grading to that of the Home Civil Service and is substantially different from that of the Commonwealth Service.

In appraising candidates, therefore, the Commission carries out tests it considers necessary to maintain the existing standards. At the higher levels interviews play an important part, though for posts which involve a great deal of written work it seems sensible, I would have thought, to include written tests of a general non-academic kind.

Moreover, the Commonwealth Service, despite its heavy and growing responsibilities for representing Britain in the independent Commonwealth countries, is a relatively small one. I do not think that my hon. Friend realises this. Its administrative staff—and that is the staff in which members of the Overseas Civil Service are normally interested—totals only 160.

The Overseas Civil Service, on the other hand, is still relatively large. There are almost 300 Overseas Service officers in Tanganyika alone doing administrative work. There are 1,130 in Africa as a whole compared with 160 spread over the entire Commonwealth.

Thus, with the best will in the world, the Commonwealth Service could absorb only a tiny fraction of the Overseas Civil Service, and in suggesting otherwise my hon. Friend is doing a very great disservice to the very people he wishes to help.

Even so, our small Commonwealth Service has absorbed a remarkable number of officers who have served in dependent territories—13 from the former India and Burma services, 21 from the Overseas Civil Service, and 11 from the Colonial Office itself, most of whom have spent a period of service in Colonial territories.

Broadly speaking, ten years ago the administrative strength of the Commonwealth Service was about 120. Today, it is 160, and the total intake of 45 officers from other overseas services and the Colonial Office exceeds the growth in the size of the Commonwealth Service in the last ten years.

I think that this should answer the astonishing and quite unfounded assertion made by my hon. Friend on 2nd November, and repeated tonight, that the Commonwealth Relations Office takes the line that it cannot recruit Overseas Service officers "since they are branded as colonialists".

It is significant that on this very point the noble Lord, Lord Perth, speaking earlier this year in full knowledge of the facts as Minister of State for Colonial Affairs, said:
"I should like here to pay a tribute to the readiness of the Commonwealth Relations Office, whenever they can, to take people from the Colonial Service into their scheme of things as they grow and have need of new recruits. I think they have been both forthcoming and helpful on that."
I come now to my hon. Friend's charge that the Commonwealth Service is lacking in knowledge and experience of Africa. This charge cannot be sustained. My hon. Friend asked a Question last Wednesday about our High Commission in Sierra Leone. Three of the five senior officers, namely, the High Commissioner, the Deputy High Commissioner, and a First Secretary, have previous experience in Africa.

My hon. Friend might have looked further. In the case of our High Commission in the Federation, nine senior officers share seventy-one years' experience of Africa between them, service in six African countries, and knowledge of six African languages. In addition to those currently serving in our African posts, one-fifth of our administrative staff have had previous service in Africa, and many more have specialised in African work in London.

But this is the point. African experience is by no means the only requirement for manning our posts in Commonwealth Africa. Experience of other parts of the Commonwealth, however, experience of how the Commonwealth system itself works, both here in London and elsewhere, is essential, and so is knowledge and experience of Britain herself, because this is a representational job.

The fact is that a great deal of the experience gained in the Overseas Civil Service, important and valuable as it is—and I would be the first to acknowledge its usefulness—is not nearly as relevant to the work of the Commonwealth Service as my hon. Friend seems to think. It is often much more relevant to work in the field of technical assistance, where there is an acute shortage of men and women with specialised knowledge of a certain territory, or of the language, customs, and needs of a particular people. In fact, of the 10,000 Overseas Service officers in Africa 85 per cent. are specialists who are not only outside the scope of this debate, but are specially equipped for continuing their work in the field in a world hungry for their services.

My hon. Friend has suggested that a committee should be set up to consider how best the African experience of Overseas Service officers could be conserved. I hope that what I have said will have shown that his arguments about the use of African experience are not nearly as relevant to the requirements of the Commonwealth Service as he supposes. Neither is the Service of a size to absorb a large number of new people, nor can African experience be regarded as more than one of a good many possible criteria that have to be taken into account in its recruitment. Frankly, I do not think, therefore, that a committee would serve any useful purpose in this limited context.

I appreciate that there is a problem here, but, looking at the matter in its broader aspects—that is, outside the restricted field of diplomatic representation—Her Majesty's Government are well aware of the wealth of African experience that is available to us in the Overseas Service and are anxious to use and conserve it as far as possible. That was the main purpose of the Overseas Service Aid Scheme, which was to make it possible for officers who so wished to continue to serve on in territories where their help was required. As regards other means of continuing to draw on this experience, I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Technical Co-operation will always have this point closely in mind in considering the recruitment of staff for further service overseas.

Within the Commonwealth Service, however, too great a degree of geographical specialisation in the affairs of, say, Africa or Asia, would not only create an undesirable rigidity in staff structure, which would eventually throw up at the top senior officers whose experience was based only on one part of the Commonwealth, but it would hardly contribute to the effective discharge of the Commonwealth Service's wider responsibilities.

I now come to the last set of criticism—that relating to the quality of the Commonwealth Service. My hon. Friend cannot disconnect what he has said tonight from his remarks made earlier. Indeed, one must start on 2nd November and follow him through the various Questions he has asked to the comparatively innocuous remarks which he has made tonight. He made a good speech, full of fun, but taken in the context of all his remarks and observations, a great deal of what he has said would have been better left unsaid.

My hon. Friend made the point—he is not original in this respect—that a number of top Commonwealth posts overseas have been filled in recent years by people from outside the Service. That is true. There are two reasons for this. First, the responsibilities of the Commonwealth Relations Office have been increasing very rapidly, especially during the last five years, and, quite naturally, our Department has needed some temporary assistance in filling its higher posts. Also at certain times and in certain places there may be sound reasons for appointing as High Commissioners men of special political background and experience. Neither of these reasons cast any reflection whatever on the quality of the senior staff of the Commonwealth Service.

To adduce from this, as my hon. Friend has done, that in some way the Commonwealth Service is markedly inferior to the Foreign Service, is both unfair and inaccurate. Quality in human being As always difficult to measure in terms of statistics. It may, however, interest the House to know that there are in the Commonwealth Service 57 officers of the established rank of Assistant Secretary and above. These are the officers who abroad normally fill High Commissioner, Deputy High Commissioner or Counsellor posts. Of these, 25—almost one-half—have first-class honours degrees; 17—almost one-third—have served on full secondment to the Foreign Office in Foreign Service diplomatic posts abroad and have returned to us with good records; and 14 have had the experience of serving as Principal Private Secretaries to British Cabinet Ministers.

My hon. Friend began his speech by objecting to the remarks made last Thursday by my right hon. Friend the Commonwealth Secretary. As to the propriety of those remarks, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that is a matter which should be properly addressed to you and not to me. My hon. Friend should not be so sensitive. He should be aware that it is not the custom in the House, and never has been—and this is something that I do not think he should laugh about; and I hope that he will reflect on this—for hon. Members to make disparaging remarks about the Civil Service. Ministers are here to be shot at—no doubt we often deserve to be shot at—but not the personnel of our Departments. When, in addition, the remarks are unjustified and based on a faulty appreciation of the facts, they are bound to evoke a strong response. They did so from my right hon. Friend. As he made plain last Thursday in no uncertain manner, he completely rejects my hon. Friend's criticism of the quality of the service. He said that he had the highest confidence in the quality and experience of those who work at home and overseas in the service of his Department, and so have I.

I am astonished at the way in which hon. Gentlemen opposite have been addressing themselves to one another tonight. I hardly thought that such violent adjectives would be addressed from the Government Front Bench to a Government back benches—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-four minutes to Twelve o'clock.