Exclusive: Leaked messages show FCDO staff dismay at decision against hiring foreign nationals

Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab with new Permanent Under Secretary Philip Barton at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development office in London, Britain. Photo by: Alastair Grant / Pool via Reuters

LONDON — Leaked messages reveal the dismay among Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office staff at the department’s decision to stop hiring foreign nationals.

In messages posted on an internal forum, FCDO staff said it was a “very sad and disappointing” and “small minded” decision, but one that didn’t “come as a surprise” to some.

“Force for Good'! Is this what it is? Being inward looking?” one wrote.

An internal message from the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents many FCDO staff, also claimed there had been only “superficial” consultation over the issue.

FCDO to become 'reserved' department, will not be hiring foreign nationals

Citing national security concerns, the U.K. government says foreigners will not be able to work at FCDO.

The status of foreign nationals at FCDO, in particular many European Union nationals who were formerly employed at the Department for International Development, has been uncertain since the merger with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office was announced in June. While DFID roles were open to foreign nationals, many FCO jobs were “reserved” for U.K. citizens.

After months of uncertainty, Devex reported on Wednesday that FCDO will become a reserved department, following the FCO model, and will no longer hire people who are not from the United Kingdom.

Existing foreign staff can keep their current jobs and apply for certain other roles to allow them some mobility, according to an internal message written by FCDO Permanent Under-Secretary Philip Barton and obtained by Devex. “Roles within specific functions will be made available to existing non-UK national staff,” he wrote. He continued: “If a non-UK national staff member is successful in their application, the role will be unreserved for their tenure, but will revert to being reserved once they leave it.”

The decision will not affect staff appointed in-country, “local staff,” or British staff with dual nationality, according to Barton’s message. He wrote he was “conscious that this decision may be difficult for some of you.” More than 150 staff members are believed to be affected.

Barton’s message was met with significant criticism internally, according to the messages seen by Devex.

“Very sad state of affairs, and one that seems to confirm that FCDO won't be moving forward but making steps back into the past,” wrote one staffer on the internal messaging board. “I feel awful for those who are affected, I really thought that we, supposedly being a new forward thinking department, would lead [on] bringing the best people to the jobs, regardless of their nationality. But no.”

Others also felt the decision was regressive. “We are told that one of the primary objectives of the FCDO is to portray an image of the UK to the rest of the world. This policy portrays an image that the UK is small-minded and inward looking,” another wrote.

One staffer added: “We work on the international stage and our workforce should reflect that.”

Another official wrote that the “really disappointing” decision was “totally inconsistent with the culture and the outlook of an organisation that many of us want to work for.”

One comment highlighted the roughly “1000 years [worth] of experience on development” held by the staff affected, while someone else asked if “as a department that values data and evidence, has any analysis been done about the impact of this decision on our ability, now and in the future, to deliver FCDO objectives?”

The message seen by Devex from the Public and Commercial Services Union also said the group was “extremely disappointed” in the decision.

“We have engaged with management numerous times on this but the consultation was still from our point of view superficial,” the message read.

It continued: “Since this announcement was made we have met with management twice and the Permanent Secretary. We still have no further clarity on the rationale for this decision, what processes and support will be in place or a full understanding of why it was communicated in this way.”

A spokesperson from FCDO said affected staff had been consulted. “We engaged with staff affected throughout this process and they were all personally informed ahead of the announcement to all staff. FCDO’s senior leadership will continue to speak to and support all non-U.K. nationals employed at the department.” the spokesperson said.

Update, Nov. 20, 2020: This article has been updated to add a statement from FCDO.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.