Skip to main content

Diplomatic Service (Structure)

Volume 950: debated on Wednesday 24 May 1978

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.


asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he plans any changes in the structure of the overseas representation of the United Kingdom.


asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he now expects to complete consideration of the Central Policy Review Staff report on the Diplomatic Service.

The Government are considering the structure of our representation overseas in the light of the CPRS review and the recent report by the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee. As my hon. Friend told my hon. Friend the Member for Woverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) on 11th May, the Government expect to present their conclusions to the House before the Summer Recess.

I welcome that reply. Does my hon. Friend agree that Britain's overseas representation is more extensive and expensive than that of almost any other country of comparable size and that, indeed, it has hardly changed since Imperial times? Does he further agree that our status in international affairs will be measured not by the plumage or titles of our ambassadors but by the extent to which our foreign policy is consistent, is truly our own, and has a clear underlying morality?

I certainly agree that cost-effectiveness in our overseas representation is most important, but I should add that my first-hand experience is that in many parts of the world we have an unrivalled and outstanding service and quality of personnel at our disposal. My hon. Friend is right to underline the importance of the policy. In our age of post-imperialism, foreign policy and its effective implementation for a nation such as ours become more, not less, important.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is some urgency in the implementation of the report on the background and training of the commercial departments of some of our overseas embassies? Is it not high time that we took some of our commercial work overseas out of the hands of the pinstripe brigade and put it in the hands of people who have some understanding of the problems of industry and business?

Our commercial work has to be second to nobody else's if Britain is to survive. In all seriousness, I wish that my hon. Friend had been with me last week in various parts of North America when I was meeting people involved in this work in the Foreign Service. Their professionalism and sense of commitment were outstanding.

Is the Minister of State aware that his remarks to his hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) will be wholeheartedly supported by Opposition Members? Is he also aware that there is some concern that the Government are not taking steps early enough to consult our friends in the Community with a view to the possible setting up of a co-operative diplomatic venture in certain parts of the world?

On an ad hoc basis, where co-operation makes sense, we are prepared and ready to undertake it, but we are concerned that in multilateral institutions, no less than bilaterally, we are able to play a full and effective part. If we are to play a full and effective part in multilateral institutions, our direct overseas representation is most important, in order to ensure that we are well enough informed to do so.

Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to reject the CPRS policy on the British Council? Will he also make it clear that Britain's influence in Southern Africa would be very much heightened if military attaches were not photographed and seen to be grinning at South African military exercises which, in fact, took place only days before the recent invasion of Angola?

The function of all those working in diplomatic missions overseas is to further the foreign policy enunciated by the Government of the day. On the point made by my hon. Friend about the British Council, I should simply say that when we have completed the intensive review of our overseas representation which we are now undertaking, our objective will be to make all our services more, not less, effective.

Bearing in mind the resounding vote of confidence in the Foreign Service given by the House of Commons Sub-Committee and the unsettling effect on the morale of the service after two years of critical investigation, will the Minister give an assurance that the service will now be left alone to plan its own future? Also, as the salaries of the senior members of the service have been allowed to get absurdly into arrears, will he tell us when the Boyle Report will be published and implemented?

On the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question, I repeat that for this Government the effective conduct of foreign policy has never been more important than it is today. Britain's survival depends upon it. In that context, I believe that we in this House owe it to those who are working on our behalf to make it clear that we want to support, not to undermine, what they are trying to do. What I find refreshing is their own desire at all times to examine the way in which the job is being undertaken and to see for themselves how it can be improved.

Bearing in mind the obvious dangers—by background and training, and many years spent abroad—of ambassadors and their staff being somewhat remote from contemporary British industrial and economic life, how many ambassadors spend any part of their time getting close to British industry when they are at home, in order to understand our problems and how to present the issues abroad?

I should not want to reject the point implicit in my hon. Friend's question, which is that it is important—

—that our overseas representatives should be in touch with the character and nature of life and, indeed, industry in Britain today. But I must tell my hon. Friend that my experience is that ambassadors, high commissioners and their staff are anxious, when on leave or when in Britain, to keep closely in touch with what is going on.

Is the Minister aware that some of us find rather more realism about life in the Foreign Service than in the CPRS? Does he recall that the CPRS report stated that either BBC external services should be reduced or that the means of transmission should be strengthened? Will he confirm that the Government have rightly come down against reducing the services? What are they doing to strengthen or replace the necessary transmitters?

As I have said, we shall be making our policy clear before the Summer Recess. I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I said about the British Council, that our intention in all that we are now undertaking is to make our overseas representational tasks in the Foreign Service more, not less, effective.

Is not the verdict of business men engaged in export business overwhelmingly favourable to the work of the Diplomatic Service? Will my hon. Friend confirm a recent calculation—that the Diplomatic Service costs rather less than the Swansea driving licence centre?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend appreciates that I should need notice of the second part of his question.

On the first part, I endorse the point that he made, because in my job it has been my pleasure to read a great number of testimonies from business men and others which underline how effective they have found the support given by British representatives abroad to the work that those business men are trying to do.