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Diplomatic Service: Foreign Language Training

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 2 May 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What proposals they have to deliver foreign language training to members of the United Kingdom Diplomatic Service.

My Lords, excellent foreign language skills remain essential for all British diplomats. We are introducing a new language-training policy after extensive consultation within the FCO. We will require heads of mission to be trained to a level where they can communicate fluently, locally and with the media, as many now can. Our training and examinations will align to a recognised international standard. More time will be spent overseas learning languages. Our teaching in the UK will become more flexible and cost-effective as we source our services from private-sector providers.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Will he give an assurance that the commercialisation of the FCO language services will result in greater efficiency and effectiveness and not be a cost-cutting exercise? Will he give further assurances, perhaps with a Statement to this House at a later date, that the security and maintenance of these services will be maintained at a time when Britain sorely needs such language skills to protect itself at home and to promote businesses and diplomacy abroad?

My Lords, I think that assurances can be given on both fronts. We have a history of good language training, but it is not entirely efficient—it certainly could be done more efficiently. It is not sufficiently flexible for the users, whose needs must be paramount on occasion, and sometimes the provision is not as efficient as it ought to be. In some languages, for example, we use just 11 per cent of a teacher’s capacity, and the highest use is 55 per cent. We can do a lot better for those learning the languages, and we can certainly sustain the overall spread of the languages, which we unquestionably need. They should be usable in all the circumstances that my noble friend described.

My Lords, I was a little interested in this Question. I did not really think that it was necessary. I have a daughter in the Foreign Office who learnt Swahili before her posting abroad, and she seems to speak it very well. Does the Minister think the Foreign Office could teach her to speak English now that she has come back after four years in New York?

My Lords, some tasks may be even beyond the Foreign Office. Embedded in that, however, there is a significant point. Sometimes diplomats spend not just years but decades abroad, and are not as familiar with the country they represent, whether in terms of language or anything else, as they might be if they were back here a little more often. One of the points about flexibility is to ensure that those who represent us abroad not only speak languages, but speak authoritatively for our language and culture.

My Lords, I declare two distant interests: as a former and extremely satisfied affiliated student of the Diplomatic Service language school some years ago and as the parent of an official currently learning Mandarin at SOAS. Is co-operation with non-profit private-sector providers such as universities, which teach a whole range of foreign languages and which are also often understaffed, taking place? Given that moves in the NHS to private-sector providers have sometimes cost more than public-service providers, can we be assured that we are looking for cost-effective provision rather than just moving to the private sector?

My Lords, the noble Lord knows from his experience, perhaps rather like mine, that whether universities are in the private or public sector is sometimes hard to define. I can certainly give the assurance he seeks, though. One of the reasons why I am confident that standards can be of the highest level is that I expect some of the providers to be institutions that are exactly like SOAS, where the record for doing this kind of work at the highest international levels is so great. We must make use of those kinds of resources in the mix. They are capable of offering what we need.

My Lords, I think I am right in saying that at the moment 96 per cent of our heads of mission speak the language of the country in which they are accredited. I am glad that under the new arrangements that figure will increase still further. Does the Minister agree that, for the Diplomatic Service, professional language skills have never been more important than they are now? Does he also agree that for that and other reasons it is extraordinarily important that the Diplomatic Service and the Foreign Office get a good settlement from the present Comprehensive Spending Review negotiations?

My Lords, on that last point, I shall ensure that the Chancellor is aware of your Lordships’ wishes in the matter; they are egged on by a very considerable authority in that regard. It is vital that we speak all the languages that are required. It is not just a courtesy to the countries concerned but enables us to have a range of understanding. More flexible language teaching could achieve an even stronger idiomatic sense of a language and the culture from which it springs.

My Lords, now that DfID is not a part of embassies anywhere and its staff are often present in larger numbers than embassy staff, will they be taught languages, too?

My Lords, I answer questions about what DfID staff will be asked to learn with the greatest trepidation. In the places that I have visited, they try to deal competently with the different linguistic communities. If that can be enhanced by the programmes that we now plan, it would be a great advantage.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on the reformulation of the service, which takes into account new policy challenges to the Government. For instance, I have in mind improving languages in environmental policy where we need to speak to new colleagues in the world. Can he ensure that the process is accelerated to make sure that there is a proper match with Britain’s needs in a contemporary world?

My Lords, I think so. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, there is much knowledge of the way these things are developing and of the sorts of issues which must be addressed by a language in a particular context. Therefore, there is every prospect of our being able to build on what we have done and to enhance precisely the areas that my noble friend described. It is a matter not simply of having a larger lexicon, although that helps, but of understanding the real relevance of the discussions that people want to have with us.