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Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Educational Allowances

Volume 721: debated on Monday 1 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what was the total cost of educational allowances paid to Foreign and Commonwealth Office and associated departmental officials in the last 12 months for which figures are available; and whether they intend to amend the cap on those allowances.

My Lords, we contribute only towards the education costs of children of staff who are required to work in posts overseas. These officials pay UK tax wherever they work and are entitled to have their children educated at public expense. In 2009-10, we spent £13.3 million on children educated in the UK and £11.5 million on children at schools overseas. The ceiling on the amount that parents can claim towards boarding schools is reviewed annually and was reduced in September this year.

Is it not true that excellent quality, state boarding-school education is available in the United Kingdom at an average price of around £9,000 per annum, plus a £3,500 contribution towards tuition by the state as against public school fees of between £22,000 and £30,000 a year? Why cannot the Foreign Office save tens of millions of pounds by capping the amount of money that a Foreign Office official can claim to the level of state boarding-school fees?

I am grateful to the noble Lord. It is true that state boarding-school places are excellent, but unfortunately it is not true that they are available. Diplomats with children who need to be educated when they go abroad to places where they cannot take their children—I have a list of 48 countries to which children are not allowed to be taken—need to find places quickly. However, they find that they are not at the top of the queue for the 5,000 boarding places available in state schools in this country. I appreciate very much the point that the noble Lord makes but it does not add up if you are trying to find a place for your child.

Does my noble friend agree that it is a very important part of keeping the best people in the Foreign Service that we provide this service for their young children, as without it we would not have the quality people whom we expect? It is about time that people stopped sniping at the Foreign Service on this issue.

I am grateful to my noble friend for that support. He is absolutely right but I shall correct him on one thing, if I may. It involves not only senior staff as 75 per cent of the children helped are of parents with quite junior salaries. The Foreign Office sends junior people to very difficult posts and they may have young children who need to be educated.

My Lords, I declare two interests. First, I was a beneficiary of these allowances for a large part of my career. Secondly, 19 years ago I gave evidence to the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, and the Public Accounts Committee in support of these allowances, so I am somewhat biased. Does the Minister agree that the continuation of these allowances is essential as members of the Diplomatic Service are often posted abroad with very little notice and such allowances are necessary for the uninterrupted education of their children? Does he also agree that they are very much in line with those given by practically all international companies, and so are essential if recruitment and retention in the Diplomatic Service is to be preserved?

I agree with the noble Lord, who obviously speaks with enormous authority on this subject. I would just add, referring back to my Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, that we are looking at ways of bringing the cost of this operation down. However, the basic requirement is that these children are educated; we do not want only childless diplomats. Therefore, we have had to make the provision that the noble Lord has just described. I believe that it should continue and that it is essential for an effective diplomatic effort by this country.

Further to his first Answer, will the Minister say in simple pounds, shillings and pence what is the annual maximum tax-free contribution that can be made to the education at a secondary school of a child of a Foreign Office official? Secondly, will he rebut in their entirety articles in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph suggesting that this Government will abolish the continuity of education allowances which are so important to our Armed Forces and, indeed, the Foreign Office?

There is no suggestion, as I made clear, that these allowances will be discontinued for the Diplomatic Service. I cannot comment on other branches of the Crown service or other public services because that is another question for which a rather different set of arrangements apply. The figures for which the noble Lord asks are that the ceiling for junior boarders in the current year is £7,239 per term and £8,236 for senior boarders, which is a reduction of £100 since last September. The figures are considerably lower for those attending as day pupils.

Will my noble friend comment on whether, given the large sums involved and these rather austere financial times, there are any efforts to have negotiations with DfID and the Ministry of Defence for a collective purchase agreement at a limited number of schools so that the costs might be constrained in that way?

That is a very valuable thought. As far as Foreign and Commonwealth Office is concerned, the numbers are rather small. We are talking about a maximum of 2,000 children, of which only 500 are being educated in the United Kingdom. Given the circumstances of where these children go—whether to be near their grandparents or to where an available space is found—it is very difficult to concentrate on a single discount operation. This is slightly outside the question, but I believe that the Armed Forces are large enough to have a kind of discount arrangement, but we do not have the numbers or the weight to engineer that kind of system for the Foreign Office.

My Lords, if the cap were to be reduced from over £25,000 per annum to the £13,000 to £14,000 that I am suggesting, surely that would create the demand in the state boarding school sector that the Minister said in his first reply is missing?

My Lords, the difficulty that the noble Lord must appreciate is that although there are state boarding-school places, and perhaps there ought to more, they tend to be filled up very rapidly with children with real boarding needs from domestic households and families. Diplomats inevitably come along at the last minute, because postings sometimes have to be on an emergency basis, and they find that those places are filled. If the sums were reduced to the levels that the noble Lord is talking about, parents who are already on fairly modest salaries and are paying a contribution to meet the total requirements of the school where their children are being educated would simply not be able to afford it and the children would not be educated. We have to face it: if we want good diplomacy, we have to allow the children to be educated.