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Diversity and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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Acacia’s founder Julie Cook FCIPD reflects on diversity in HR after a recent visit to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

My enjoyment of the Open House weekend in London 21st and 22nd September included a visit to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) HQ in Westminster adjacent to Downing Street. Expecting to see some superb architecture I found so much more including a lot about the FCO’s diversity journey.

The Foreign Office was established in 1782 and by 1854, long before the birth of Human Resource (or its’ predecessors Welfare Workers, Labour Managers, and Personnel). The Northcote-Trevelyan report recommended that staff recruitment should be on the basis of merit rather than family connections and facilitated by the use of exams.

Moving forward in time, the issue was revisited by Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary, in 1943 recommended revisions to the FCO’s recruitment practices. He noted the need to widen the pool of candidates. In 1946 women were admitted to the Diplomatic Service for the first time.

In 1962 the first female ambassador Barbara Scott was appointed to be Ambassador to Israel, but never took up the post as she developed polio and was wheelchair bound (we come onto disability issues later!). Barbara remained in a management role in London.

In 1973 Eleanor Emery became High Commissioner for Botswana. In this year the FCO ended their ban on married women working in the Diplomatic Service. This coincides with the start of my career, when for the first time other branches of the Civil Service were actively recruiting women into management roles. In my case to the then Department of Health and Social Security – not quite so glamorous!

This was an era of positive change for diversity issues in the UK with the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 and the Race Relations Act in 1976. Application can take a bit longer and it was 1987 before the first married woman ambassador, Veronica Sutherland, was appointed (Republic of Ireland and a variety of African countries). Veronica ended her career as head of HR for the FCO.

The next big step in the FCO’s diversity journey came in 1991 when John Major lifted the ban on homosexuals serving as diplomats.

In 1993 the first BAME ambassador Noel Jones was posted to Kazakhstan.

In 1997 the first disabled person was recruited into Diplomatic Service Fast Stream – Victoria Harrison is partially sighted. This was followed by the appointment of the first openly gay ambassador James Clark who was posted to Luxembourg in 2004.

In 2018 the first black female was appointed as Head of Mission in Maputo – Nne Iwuji-Eme.

The FCO reports annually and publicly its Diversity and Equalities Report as required by the 2010 Equalities Act. The last report published in November 2018 recorded 30% of the most senior jobs being held by women, 14% BAME employees and 11% disabled. 40% of those in top roles described themselves as Christian and only 4% were over 60 years old. It will be interesting to see what the 2019 report reveals!

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