British Diplomats and Foreign Language Skills: Some Brushing Up Required

Article written by David Blair and Alex Spillius for The Telegraph, April 19, 2013:

The current system may not produce enough diplomats with the “skills and credibility needed to command respect”, warns the report from the foreign affairs select committee.

In 2000, the Labour government dropped language skills as a criterion for promotion from one grade to the next, concentrating instead on “managerial” and “leadership” ability.

Mr Hague has criticised his predecessors for neglecting the importance of British diplomats learning difficult languages. Since becoming Foreign Secretary in 2010, he has decided to reopen the Foreign Office language school and increased the amount spent on linguistic training from £3 million in 2010 to £3.9 million last year. But he has left the old promotion rules unchanged.

The select committee urged him to restore language skills as a criterion for advancement. “When you’ve got a half a dozen guys going for one job, if one is at the top of the frame for language skills, that should count for something,” said Richard Ottaway, the Conservative chairman of the committee. “We’re just trying to give the government a nudge here. We think it’s important that language ability is reflected in promotion criteria.”

Sir Ivor Roberts, a former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Italy and Ireland, said that no envoy could do the job properly without speaking the local language. “Your job is to represent Britain directly and not simply to filter your message through the foreign ministry or a national capital. Direct engagement through TV and radio is an essential part of your job. If you can’t give interviews in a foreign language, then you’re not able to do that.”

Rory Stewart, a Conservative member of the select committee and a former diplomat, said that Mr Hague was “committed” to restoring the institutional strength of the Foreign Office, but “it will be a long hard fight to change the culture, because many modern diplomats have risen in the new system”.

Mr Hague responded to the report by stressing that language skills were a vital factor in selections for many foreign posts. The Foreign Secretary added: “As a result of the changes we have introduced we will have 40 per cent more speakers of Mandarin and Arabic in our posts overseas than in 2010.”

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