Today the Foreign Affairs Committee publishes a wide-ranging report on the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and two of its sponsored bodies, the BBC World Service and the British Council.
It makes key recommendations on language skills for top diplomats, BBC World service funding and priorities, and funding for the British Council.
By excluding foreign language skills and relying entirely upon general management competencies in assessing staff for promotion to top posts, the FCO risks not having enough people with the range of skills and credibility needed to command respect in key diplomatic postings. Richard Ottaway MP, the Committee Chairman, said:
"We endorse the Foreign Secretary’s vision for a greater emphasis on expertise in hard languages at the top levels of the Department, but the FCO is still using promotion criteria which entirely neglect facility in foreign languages. To be able to speak the local language fluently is a fundamental requirement for diplomats, and the FCO should change promotion criteria to reflect that".
BBC World Service funding and priorities
In the transition to licence fee funding and the new arrangements for oversight by the BBC Trust from April 2014, the BBC World Service is being given too little time to plan ahead. The Committee finds it "unacceptable" that the World Service will not know its budget, priorities or objectives until only a few months before the new arrangements come into effect.
The Committee is also not persuaded that the distinct interests of the BBC World Service will be fully represented at the BBC’s Executive Board by the Director of News, and it calls for "some form of direct representation" from the World Service at the Board.
The Committee urges the Foreign Office to maintain pressure at the highest levels on countries which block access to BBC World Service programmes and online content. Any relaxation of that pressure would be interpreted by host countries as a softening of the UK’s approach.
Funding for the British Council
The British Council will struggle to deliver the UK’s foreign policy objectives if cuts to grant funding from the FCO continue at a similar rate. Trading off the competitive advantage in public diplomacy enjoyed by the UK for relatively minor savings "would be the worst sort of false economy", says the Committee, and it recommends that the FCO should shield the British Council from the effect of any further cuts to the FCO budget in 2015-16.