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The Foreign Office at work

The Foreign Office
The Foreign Office: nineteenth century grandeur, but twenty first century challenges.
Once, diplomats were expected to have their own private income.

Now, the Foreign Office is trying to broaden recruitment and overcome its stuffy image.

To be Foreign Secretary is still regarded as one of the great offices of state. Along with Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, it's at the top of the ministerial pecking order.

The First Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Charles James Fox, was appointed in March 1782. In 1861 the Foreign Office held its first competitive recruitment exam. Until 1914, diplomats were expected to have a private income.
With his headquarters in one of Whitehall's most distinguished Victorian buildings, the Foreign Secretary also has at his disposal his very own country mansion - Chevening in Kent.

To advise him, he has some of the finest minds in the country, chosen by a fiercely competitive examination system.

Charles Fox
Britain's first Foreign Secretary, Charles James Fox
The Foreign Office has been making efforts to widen its recruitment: in recent years, it has dramatically increased the number of women and ethnic minorities it employs. In the Autumn of 2001 it even opened a creche for staff at its headquarters in King Charles Street, just off Whitehall.

Even so, the image of the inscrutable Foreign Office Mandarin, Sir Humphrey's colleagues from Yes Minister, is a very powerful stereotype.


One former diplomat, Michael Shea, described how - in the early 1960s - even growing a beard could provoke disapproval:

Audio Clip AUDIO
BBC R4 series:
Beautiful, Clever Rich and Free: Dame Pauline Neville Jones on life in the Foreign Office in the early 1960s
"My head of Department…told me that diplomats were allowed one small eccentricity each. The trouble was that I was using mine up in this hirsute way. The problems would arise if I developed another eccentricity without knowing it. I might not then be considered a safe pair of hands."

Until 1972, the Foreign Office still expected women to give up their jobs if they married. Even after the so-called marriage bar was abandoned, the Foreign Office retained something of its stuffy image.

Video Clip VIDEO
True Brits, BBC TV, 1994:
A Rolls-Royce machine: Civil Servants and ministers explain how they work together.
But it has been making efforts to change: the number of women ambassadors and heads of post doubled between 1997 and 2000 and the number of staff from ethnic minorities increased by fifty per cent.

The working relationships between politicians and top civil servants can be very close, despite huge differences in approach. This BBC documentary, made at the height of the Major government's crisis over Europe, gives a good idea of the contrasts

Consular work

Jack Straw
Jack Straw is the current Foreign Secretary, appointed in a cabinet re-shuffle in summer 2001
But there is another strand to the Foreign Office's work: the nitty gritty of consular representation abroad. British consuls abroad protect the interests of British nationals - perhaps finding a lawyer if they've been arrested or advising on immigration and visa problems.

Most British people abroad will never meet their ambassador, but they might come into contact with the Foreign Office's consular service if they have particularly disastrous holiday. These two functions are entirely separate and are governed by separate international treaties.

Structure of the Foreign Office:


The Foreign Secretary (currently Jack Straw) has two Ministers of State beneath him and three Parliamentary Under Secretaries. These are all politicians, subject to elections and cabinet re-shuffles: they will not spend a working life-time at the Foreign Office.

Civil Servants

Britain has more than 220 diplomatic posts across the world in 190 countries. The number changes all the time: posts are continually being opened, for instance in the former Soviet republics and in Afghanistan.

The Diplomatic Service

The Permanent Under Secretary (PUS) is head of the Diplomatic Service and is responsible for the flow of advice on all aspects of foreign policy to the Foreign Secretary. With the help of his Deputy Under Secretaries, he supervises and co-ordinates the work of directors who formulate policy within their area of command. These are career civil servants, recruited specifically to work at the Foreign Office.

Consular staff

The welfare of British people abroad is the responsibility of Consular staff. These can be career civil servants posted from Britain, or, sometimes, permanent residents of the country in which they work (Honorary Consuls).

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