The strange story of the ambassador's missing letter

The state never explains, never apologises, and its high servants won't be denied their rewards
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THIS INCIDENT took place in a Third World country with which the United Kingdom has close relations. When I first read the full report of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, I guessed that it was in the Middle East, probably not Saudi Arabia, but a neighbour. At all events the work which a British company did for the government of this country was considered so important that our ambassador at the time made it his business to keep in close touch. He was wont to remind the chief executive that "the British embassy, under successive ambassadors, has played a major role in establishing and maintaining the company's position in this country".

Unfortunately, an employee, who will have to be called "Mr X", must have believed - naturally enough - that the two entities, his company and the British Government, were quite separate. If he wanted to protest about the British Government's actions as they affected him, he could do so quite freely. When he made a complaint to the British consul he cannot have guessed that he would lose his job as a result.

Mr X had been annoyed that he was charged a fee for a letter of introduction required by another consulate in order to be issued with a tourist visa. He found the person with whom he dealt officious, unhelpful and rude. He couldn't think why the consulate didn't employ more British staff, such as the wives of British employees in the area. On 20 April 1994, he wrote to the British consul about these matters, and delivered his letter by hand to the consul's residence. He must have felt that if he had posted his letter in the normal way, a minor official would have kept it away from the consul, and he would have received a pro forma response.

Six weeks passed. There was no reply. Afterwards, the consul said that he had not been able to trace the letter, and that he had not received it at his house. How often key documents disappear when there is trouble. The police lose them, government departments mislay them and, typically it turned out, as we learnt last week, that the producer of the documentary, into which Carlton TV's management carried out an investigation, destroyed evidence.

On 1 June an exasperated Mr X wrote to the ambassador saying he had received neither an acknowledgement nor a reply to his letter, and repeated his complaint. This time there was action. The embassy asked the consul for his comments so that the ambassador could reply. He told Mr X he was sorry that he had been disappointed by the consulate, his letter could have gone astray, and that the consul would be glad to see him. Impeccable.

Except that the ambassador's letter was unaccountably delayed in the post. Had it arrived more promptly, Mr X would almost certainly have kept his job and the ambassador would have kept his reputation. Dispatched on 18 June, it still hadn't reached Mr X by 28 June. He wrote again to the ambassador, a bit more tartly this time, but the tone remained polite. The ambassador was stung. He became angry. Goodness knows how he behaves when a real crisis blows up.

Quite improperly the ambassador wrote to Mr X's chief executive, saying that Mr X's tone was "pretty aggravating", and added that he assumed "he was not paying the income tax which enables HMG to maintain representation here". On the same day he wrote to Mr X, saying his "intemperate" letter of 28 June must have crossed in the post with his own letter.

The chief executive likewise lost his temper over what remained, in all its aspects, a trivial matter. Is it the hot climate which does something to these fellows, making them behave as if they were potentates themselves? Poor Mr X was asked a series of aggressive questions: why had he gone direct to the consulate rather than through the company; by whose authority had he written his letters; what business was it of his how the ambassador and the Government decided to run the consulate; had he been aware of the likely effect of his actions on the reputation of the company? Two days later, he was forced out. Mr X alleges that he was told that if he did not resign immediately, there was every chance that he would be dismissed, thus losing all his benefits.

Not easily cowed, Mr X returned home, and in 1995 asked his Member of Parliament to take up his case. When an explanation was sought by the Foreign Office, the ambassador was completely unrepentant. However, we now know what Foreign Office officials thought. One minuted that the tone of the ambassador's second letter had been "uncalled for". Another official called what had occurred "unfortunate". The then Permanent Under-Secretary thought the company had over-reacted. The Foreign Office's legal advisor commented that the ambassador's decision to write to the chief executive had been "impetuous, ill-judged and unwise".

What, then, took place next? Did Mr X receive a letter of apology from the Foreign Office and an offer of compensation? Did the ambassador find that further promotion was denied him; did he fail to receive a knighthood when he expected one?

No, none of these things happened. Perhaps this is the most appalling aspect of the story. Ministers were caused to write anodyne replies to the MP, disclaiming any responsibility for Mr X's misfortune. And the ambassador was duly promoted and became Sir David. I can say this last with near certainty because on Friday, Mr X's MP tabled two questions for the Foreign Secretary: to identify the ambassador concerned and to inquire why Sir David Gore-Booth, now High Commissioner in India (but who is leaving at the end of the year) and formerly ambassador to Saudi Arabia, resigned.

There are two lessons here, one to be learnt anew and one from which I take encouragement. The first is that the State never explains, never apologises, never allows anything to interrupt the steady progress of its high servants, who will prevail and won't be denied their rewards. Ministers rarely challenge this. But successive MPs for Mr X did fight his cause tenaciously. The parliamentary ombudsman was brought in and obtained the apology and financial compensation which Mr X deserved. And even after that, Mr X's present MP, Andrew Mackinlay, went the further, necessary step with his questions to the Foreign Secretary. Parliament checked the power of the State. That is the second lesson. In all its aspects, this is a textbook case.