Baroness breaks hearts of our men in the embassies

There is a quiet revolution underway at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which could transform the public face of Britain abroad.

To the horror of some of the old guard, Baroness Symons, the minister responsible for FCO personnel, is determined to drag one of the most conservative of government departments into the modern world of equal opportunities and multi-culturalism.

She wants more women, more ethnic minorities, and more people who are disabled among her staff. "It's the right thing to do," she said. "The face of Britain abroad must more closely reflect the face of Britain at home. That must be a good thing."

The highly publicised resignation of Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, Britain's most senior female diplomat, last year was partly prompted by her frustration at the promotion prospects for women. And the power of vested interests in a department set in its ways was highlighted by Chris Patten, who has made clear the opposition he felt from Foreign Office mandarins who considered his governorship of Hong Kong betrayed British interests as they defined them.

Although the Foreign office is no longer the institution inhabited by Carleton-Browne of the FO, the bowler-hatted bureaucrat portrayed by the late actor Terry-Thomas, it is still very tradition-bound. But Lady Symons, 46, has no qualms about treading on a few toes. She headed the First Division Association, the senior civil service union, before her appointment to government and recalls her first efforts to address inequalities nearly 20 years ago.

"One of my trade union colleagues said to me, `I don't mind if there are more promotions for women as long as there aren't less for men.' I can just remember looking at him and thinking, `We've got a bit of a logistic problem here'."

Her action at the FCO has been limited so far. But the impact of even a few pointed questions - why, for instance, were there repeatedly no women's names before the senior selection panel - should not be under- estimated. One FCO insider said some staff were finding the changes "heartbreaking".

Yet with a solid Labour majority, they may have no choice but to adapt. The minister is charm personified, but aides describe an iron fist within a velvet glove. "These things must be done on merit," she said. "But it's the right thing to do. Women, for example, must be given an equal crack of the whip. What one is initially hoping for is a change of attitude."

There were "spirited exchanges" when Lady Symons mooted the idea of family- friendly policies and suggested it might benefit the men, too, if they were able to spend more time with their families.

Unlike other departments which addressed the issue earlier, there are no statistics available to see whether the situation has improved at the FCO. As recently as 1972, women at the Foreign Office had to resign if they married, deterring many from enrolling to begin with.

A snapshot of today shows 35 per cent of the service are women, 3 per cent are from ethnic minorities and 2 per cent are disabled. The baroness regards setting up "career audits" by discussion with staff as necessary to improving the figures, particularly at the highest levels. She is also taking advice. Sir Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, has visited twice.

However, personnel is not her only responsibility. In her first three months, the baroness has had meetings with the heads of all the dependent territories. Among the issues raised has been money-laundering. A new, unpublished National Audit Office report suggests the situation has improved significantly in the last five years.

Consular activities also come within her remit and she has taken an active stance on the plight of Britons in trouble abroad. Although unwilling to discuss details, she admits to being "very concerned" about the two nurses on trial for murder in Saudi Arabia. She has spoken to their families herself.

Referring to the Foreign Secretary's aim of a more ethical, more humane Foreign Office, she said: "When we're talking about human rights, we're not just talking about abstract issues." The families had a right to know, first hand, what the Government was doing, she said. The dramatic shift in approach is "refreshing" in the eyes of those at the Foreign Office who relish a touch of contemporary thinking. No one doubts that change will be slow. But those who have watched Lady Symons in action think she will succeed. "I wouldn't want to pick a fight with her," said one.

The men - and women - from the ministry

The Foreign Office has 35 per cent women; 3 per cent of staff are from the ethnic minorities and 2 per cent are disabled.

In the whole of the home civil service, 51.4 per cent are women, 5.5 per cent are from ethnic minorities and 2.9 per cent disabled.

The Department of Health has 53.4 per cent women, including 30.9 per cent of its senior staff, the Treasury has 42.3 per cent and the Ministry of Defence 30 per cent.

Health also has 4.4 per cent of staff who are disabled and 15.3 per cent from ethnic minorities.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: New Business Sales Executive / Business Development

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Join a fast growing, UK based I...

Recruitment Genius: Tennant Liaison Officer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An experienced TLO is required to manage, deli...

Guru Careers: Tax Manager / Accountant

£35 - £50k DOE: Guru Careers: A Tax Manager / Accountant (ACA / CA / CTA) is n...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketing Operative

£6 - £15 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a well e...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen