LETTER:Hard-working ambassadors

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From Sir Peter Heap

Sir: Polly Toynbee's article "A very undiplomatic incident" (6 February) makes comments about the Foreign Office that should not lie unchallenged.

As a recently retired ambassador, may I offer the following comments.

It is odd surely to surround the article with 18 photographs of a bowler- hatted grey man seemingly well over retirement age. I have not seen a bowler hat in the FCO for 20 years. It is the 1990s for male diplomats, too.

Odd to contrast the Paris and Bonn embassies so much in favour of Paris. Both are in the top five jobs. Most diplomats would give their eye teeth for either. The last well-publicised FCO resignation because of an alleged failure to get a chosen post was Sir Con O'Neil, because he did not get Bonn.

Odd to be critical that there are only seven women ambassadors in the Foreign Office. As you rightly say, women have to make bigger personal and family sacrifices than men to pursue the career to the end. And ambassador posts only come towards the end. Nevertheless, there is a growing number of women in the diplomatic service (three in my last embassy) who take husbands around the world who they support. If that continues the numbers will soon be more balanced.

Odd to assert that "ambassadors are increasingly empty vessels" and that embassies are a soft reward for hard work done elsewhere. The ambassador job, in this era of cost and staff cuts, gets harder, not easier. Ministers and company chairmen may flood through Paris and Bonn (and less glamorous places), but the success of their missions often will depend on the aptitude of the ambassador, who will know the country and the people they wish to see better than they ever could and will brief and advise accordingly.

Ambassadors are by far the most senior people in the machinery of government, devoting their whole time to the achievement of British objectives in the countries concerned, and most of their work is helping others to do that. Heading any of the larger embassies is every bit as demanding as the more senior jobs in London.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Heap

London, SW1

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