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
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas