The good life of sweeteners at the Foreign Office
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Friday 14 September 2012
Thanks in part to Ferrero Rocher, leading figures in the Foreign Office believe the modern image of ambassadors is one of days spent in black tie and tuxedo, wining and dining the world's elite on limitless expenses; living in palatial residences, their kids schooled for free at Eton or Harrow.
"We laugh at the image," one former ambassador told The Independent. There was, he said, no caviar in his shopping basket, and his kids were not at Eton.
Under FCO rules, salaries are taxed as if they were in London, and any additional allowances are calculated on the "Sainsbury's shopping basket" index. There is no clothing allowance. If ambassadors want to look like James Bond, they have to pay for it themselves.
However, embassies' "entertainment" budgets take care of business if the ambassador is using his official residence to look after guests. Should the Foreign Secretary or a Trade minister drop in, the food bill won't come of out his pocket.
"The thing is, when you become an ambassador, the expectations of those around you changes. You are expected to behave and look like an ambassador, but you are still paid the same as if you were in London," said another former diplomat. "But what most people don't understand is that this is a career. The old days of those born with a silver spoon in their mouth are long gone."
Free school fees, however, is one substantial perk. Worth hundreds of thousands a year, the FCO's school bill has been rising steadily with every increase brought by independent schools. It doesn't pay Eton or Harrow rates, but reflects the average UK boarding fee. Most ambassadors will fight hard to resist any attempt to have this particular sweetener removed.
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