Hague packs off British ambassadors – for lessons in the art of diplomacy

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Indy Politics

British embassy staff around the world are to get "diplomacy lessons" – or training in the pursuit of excellence – in extensive reforms being carried out by the Government, The Independent has learnt.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, believes that essential diplomacy skills have been neglected in the past, such as obtaining the maximum advantage for the UK in negotiations with foreign states, as well as improving internal efficiencies.

The Government is said to feel that British diplomats have lost out to other states in securing, in particular, commercial advantage for the country.

The Foreign Office is looking at training staff to meet Mr Hague's stipulation that it should be "reinvigorated, reformed and modernised".

Mr Hague believes that under New Labour, especially during the Blair years, the centralisation of power at Downing Street led to the Foreign Office being sidelined, affecting morale and leading to a lack of coherent strategy.

The Coalition has also been critical of aspects of the prevailing culture within the UK's diplomatic community. Mr Cameron caused considerable resentment soon after coming to power, by telling 200 ambassadors, high commissioners and senior officials that they had to justify their "plush" lifestyle. Speaking about the diplomats to business leaders gathered at Downing Street for a drinks reception, the Prime Minister, with Nick Clegg at his side, said: "We made them all travel economy class, wherever they came from, I am pleased to say."

Mr Cameron was accused of scoring cheap points by senior diplomats. One complained of the Prime Minister's "humiliating" treatment of people "who are working hard for their country – sometimes at personal risk".

Mr Hague insists that his efforts are designed to ensure that the Foreign Office is empowered and returns to its central role in driving policy abroad.

During trips abroad, Mr Hague has been dismayed to see diplomatic staff busy responding to a myriad of bureaucratic emails from London – a legacy of the last government, he claims, instead of promoting the UK.

The core objectives of his reforms would include "more effective commercial and economic diplomacy"; running "a strong global network... at lower cost"; and building "a workforce that is lean, effective, well trained and well supported and with strong values".

The ambitious restructuring, however, is supposed to take place while the FCO suffers budget cuts of 10 per cent as its part of overall economies across Whitehall.

The Foreign Secretary said recently that an absence of focused foreign policy has led to "the reduction of this country's influence in the world. We have had governments that deal with issues like Iraq and Afghanistan, but no foreign policy. No one could describe the foreign policy of this country."

A Foreign Office spokesman said "Diplomatic excellence is the FCO's reform and modernisation programme for the next four years. The programme is designed to build up the traditional skills of the Foreign Office. The Foreign Secretary did not think enough emphasis had been given to this under the previous government."

Simon Fraser, the senior civil servant at the Foreign Office, who was appointed by the Cameron government from a background in trade issues, maintained that the budget reductions were a "tough but good outcome" and he wanted his staff to develop a "commercial mindset".

But some senior former officials have been critical. Lord Howe of Aberavon, who was Foreign Secretary for six years in the 1980s, argued that the budget should be increased, and Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, the head of the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2002, said: "The fat on the diplomatic service is long gone. You can't wield the knife again without losing global reach and influence."

Carne Ross, a former senior British diplomat who is now in charge of the Independent Diplomat advisory group, said: "Similar wishes were expressed by previous foreign secretaries in the early days of taking office, if not in such formal terms. What we need to see is just how effective this turns out to be.

"The Foreign Office has, actually, done a lot to modernise, and some very talented people are now getting senior posts. But there are also still mediocre ones, often senior, who have got their position because of their connections rather than their talent."

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