Inside File: Foreign Office axes staff

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THE Foreign Office is cutting 19 per cent of its diplomatic staff across the United States. In the Washington embassy alone 16 jobs are being scrapped. The mission's Foreign Office-funded, UK-based staff is being cut by 18 per cent, from 94 to 77 people. It means, for example, that there will no longer be a full-time press counsellor in Britain's hitherto largest mission abroad.

The cuts follow a visit by one of the roving teams of inspectors whose job is to trim the fat off Her Majesty's representation abroad. One diplomat said: 'They are genuinely cutting jobs. Not just people sitting around doing nothing - we don't have any of those, we hope.'

But the inspectors - themselves diplomats - thought differently. The staff level dates back to the early Cold War, when the special relationship was all important; its continuation fails to reflect the fact that much of the trade work and military liaison these days is done by the European Union and Nato respectively.

The case is in contrast to that of Britain's embassies in the Middle East, many of which also came under inspection this year. In Saudi Arabia, one of Britain's biggest arms export markets, the inspectors did recommend staff cuts. But in a reminder of what speaks loudest in British foreign policy, the recommendations were overturned after protests from British trade associations.

Most individuals whose jobs are being axed in the US will be redeployed elsewhere. But at the end of the merry-go- round, some people will have to go. In London there are currently some 50 voluntary redundancies taking place. 'There's never an official figure on these things,' said one diplomat. 'They just quietly ask anybody willing to take early retirement to step forward.'

As the Foreign Office struggles to retain Britain's role as a medium-sized global power, British diplomats point out that the nominal increase granted by Kenneth Clarke's budget in fact means a loss: as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Britain - in this case the Foreign Office - is obliged to pay 6.3 per cent of the UN peace-keeping budget (some pounds 3bn last year). The budget also fails to compensate for the effective devaluation of the pound in 1992, which hit particularly hard at departments working abroad.

'We will require substantial further efficiency savings to cope with unforeseen peacekeeping costs,' said one official in response to the budget. 'With careful management, we should be able to maintain our global presence at current levels, though we cannot rule out post closures.'

Since 1990, Britain has opened 20 new posts, mainly in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and Eastern Europe. At the same time, massive embassies to Western capitals such as Paris and Bonn have been reduced by 10 per cent (though despite that, Paris retains no fewer than 94 UK-based staff, 150 local employees, and one of the 8th arrondissement's largest underground car parks).

The Foreign Office points out that at 2,600 staff abroad, it has far fewer than France, at 4,637. The British total including London, however, is more than 6,600.

Following the recent appointment of a new permanent under-secretary - the most senior diplomat in the Foreign Office - a reshuffle among the other top dogs is due to be completed by next summer. There are not enough top- ranking positions to go round; while the world is getting bigger, most of the new posts in the FSU and elsewhere are staffed at counsellor rather than full ambassadorial rank. Some will no doubt opt for voluntary retirement. The top tier will then remain frozen until 1997, when a large number of them happen to turn 60, and will have to retire.

THE Foreign Office could, of course, raise a bit of money by selling off some of its prize properties overseas. It recently dispatched a team of 'estate consultants' to its five-hectare compound in Bangkok. Sale or lease of the property, on Ploenchit Road, could raise over pounds 100m. 'It is good estate practice to regularly monitor how properties are best used,' said a Foreign Office spokesman. 'But no decision has been taken.' Diplomats in the mission would probably argue that the Paris embassy car park should go first.