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.
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The Independent Culture
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."