Fast Track: A diplomatic change of face

One man is out to change the statistic that only three per cent of Foreign Office staff are from an ethnic minority.

Around 500 guests will mingle in the gilded grandeur of the Foreign Office tonight as Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, hosts a reception. It marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, which carried hundreds of people from the West Indies "home to the mother country". And it is fair to assume there will be an uncharacteristically large number of black faces among those raising their glasses.

If you think about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), you probably think white, public-school male. Accurate, in many ways. Only three per cent of FCO staff are from the ethnic minorities. A third are women.

But when Labour swept to power last year, they demanded change. Baroness Symons, the minister in charge of personnel, went on the record as wanting more black and female faces, and more people with disabilities. She asked for action.

On 1 December, Linbert Spencer, a 50-year-old management consultant and expert on equal opportunities, was appointed minority ethnic liaison officer. "The brief was for me to work with the Foreign Office in order to increase the number of minority ethnic diplomatic service staff," he says.

As soon as Linbert arrived in office, he organised a blitz of publicity encouraging people from ethnic minorities to apply for Foreign Office jobs. He believes that his efforts are already working.

This year's recruitment for mainstream staff - the Civil Service equivalent of a graduate management trainee in the private sector, except that you do not have to be a graduate - began in February, and applicants from ethnic minorities have more than doubled from the previous year's 200, making them 25 per cent of potential recruits. Selection is still under way, but Linbert is confident that more will be successful than last year's two out of 17 appointments.

To improve the number of entrants into the diplomatic fast stream, the FCO yesterday held its first recruitment fair, opened by the Foreign Secretary himself. Around 1,000 graduates and undergraduates, all from ethnic minorities or with disabilities, were welcomed to Westminster.

The idea is to get out into the community and to get the community to get a glimpse of the Foreign Office. There have been a series of specially targeted advertorials in newspapers such as the Caribbean Times and Eastern Eye. And there have been any number of meetings.

The Foreign Office has recruited organisations - race equality councils, advice bodies, housing trusts - with clear influence on their communities. "People who are listened to, people who have authority, what we call multipliers," Linbert says. Forty volunteer members of FCO staff have gone out to places such as Nottingham, Manchester and London to meet and talk. The feedback has been positive. "From the communities, I think there's a general awareness of the idea that there's a seriousness on the part of the Foreign Office" Linbert says. "It's not a one-headline wonder."

One of the main problems for the FCO, he believes, is image. "It's not so much that people have this detailed knowledge of what's going on, but they have an image of men from Oxford and Cambridge who went to public schools. While there are people from these backgrounds in the organisation - and who obviously make a tremendous contribution - that's not the sole make-up. Neither is it the organisation's aim that they should be the only ones sought after."

The Foreign Office wants the public to know this. Although not the main purpose of the Windrush reception tonight, many of the guests will be exactly the kind of people Linbert Spencer wants as "multipliers". And though he knows some people turn up their noses at the ostentation of the FCO's imposing Whitehall offices, he believes that most of the guests are glad they were invited.

"I've not met any resistance from people wanting to come and be part of what's happening. They are very pleased to be invited into the heart of government. We don't always make the right assumptions, especially about people of Caribbean and south Asian origin. There is a sense of loyalty to crown and state."

There may be a commitment to public service, too. The Asian community, for instance, may have traditionally encouraged its children into professions such as medicine and the law, but Linbert Spencer believes that many of them could be attracted into the public sector.

"We want to attract the brightest and the best in the community and sell to them the idea of a career in the public sector," he says. They are no less likely than their white counterparts to have a sense of commitment to services, he says. "If you look at minority ethnic communities and the social welfare activity that carries on on a voluntary basis, you can't argue that there isn't a sense of commitment to service."

Linbert, whose parents brought him to the UK from Jamaica at the age of seven, began work at the Foreign Office by talking to people and securing enthusiasm at the highest levels.

"It was agreed that if we were going to make some progress on this agenda, there needed to be clear leadership given from the top of the organisation," he says. Ministers have shown support, and parliamentary under-secretaries alerted staff to the project through their regular telegrams.

Asked whether he has found support from the men of the Foreign Office, Linbert Spencer replies a wholehearted yes, though there is always a need to explain why there has to be a budget for such work.

According to Linbert, the Foreign Office has not traditionally seen ethnic communities in Britain as its constituency. It is a big leap in thinking for some, but Linbert believes the long-term benefits will be enormous.

"I'm doing this because I think it's important," he says. "Not just for fairness in distribution of employment in different communities. I absolutely believe that organisations that are ethnically and culturally diverse in terms of staff will come up with better policies, better ways of doing things and more effective practice at the end of the day. I think diversity adds value."

This is even more important if you are a government organisation dealing with social policy world-wide. It makes sense to use the whole range of people living in Britain, if among them you already have representatives of nations that you need to deal with.

He thinks the Foreign Office understands that. "They're not engaged in notions of fairness or morality or social engineering. There is a clear business case."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport