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.

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