Mary Dejevsky

Should locals be allowed to work at British embassies?

Should locals be allowed to work at British embassies?
Berlin police officers walk in front of the British Embassy in Berlin (Getty images)
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It is just short of 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and suddenly there comes a reminder of how the world used to be. A member of staff at the British Embassy in Berlin has been arrested in Germany on suspicion of spying for Russia. The arrest took place in Potsdam, which used to be in East Germany, and the Glienecke Bridge separating the town from Berlin proper is where Cold War spies used to be exchanged.

The suspect has been identified only as David S, and it is believed he worked in a security role at the embassy. Two details that are known, however, are that he is a British citizen and that he was what is known as a 'local hire'. This means that he was recruited on the spot rather than being sent out from London on a diplomatic tour of duty – which, along with the nature of his work, suggests that he does not enjoy diplomatic status and would not have had access to classified information. That, at least, is the relatively optimistic take of UK officials. We’re not talking a latter-day Kim Philby, they say.

Whether his status should be quite as reassuring as it is being spun, though, it another matter. Security officers, while low in any embassy pecking order may well know where to find things that are not supposed to be found. What is more, as a 'local hire', David S was most likely already living in Berlin when he started work for the embassy, which calls into question the quality of any vetting procedures. The case could also prompt a wider consideration of the principle, as well as the practice, of local hiring. I doubt that it will, but it should.

I am not sure when Western diplomatic services started the practice of 'local hiring', but it probably came in after the Cold War. It entails some embassy or consular jobs being open to people who live in the country rather than people posted there from the home country. They may be expatriates or nationals of the country where the embassy or consular offices are located.

On the face of it, the arrangement suits everyone. Money is saved for the UK taxpayer, because local hires do not benefit from the extra allowances, removal costs, accommodation costs, school fees for the children, etc that come with a diplomatic post. With dual career couples now more common, local hires can help offset the shortage of wives (it was usually wives) and partners free to take lower-level, often clerical, jobs. Recruiting locally can also provide employment for nationals of the country concerned, stable work with pay equal to or more than on offer from a local employer.

It is not a practice I favour for several reasons, however. First, any diplomatic representation ought, to my mind, to be a showcase for that country, and that includes the staff who deal with members of the local population, be they visa applicants or guests at formal occasions. Second, the legacy of the Cold War and former conflicts elsewhere casts its shadow. Russians or East Europeans may still have qualms, to put it mildly, if they face a fellow-citizen behind the visa counter of a foreign embassy.

Third, there is the question of loyalty and first allegiance. When relations are friendly, there may be no problems. If relations are generally bad, or turn so – as a result, say, of a change of government – then the good faith of local hires may be considered questionable, by either side. The host country asks why a fellow-citizen or a long-standing foreign resident would work for a foreign representation. The foreign representation, for its part, might start to ask what happens to the inside knowledge acquired by their local hires. David S may or may not have been doing what is alleged, but it appears to have been the German authorities that tipped off the British.

And, finally, even the most conscientious and loyal local hires can be vulnerable in a way that diplomatic staff are not. They are working in a foreign representation, but they do not enjoy diplomatic immunity. Russian staff at UK representations have found themselves harassed by their own authorities at low points in bilateral relations. The risks have only increased as more senior and sensitive positions have been open to local hires, including research posts analysing, say, the politics or economics of that country. In 2009, an Iranian working as the chief political analyst at the UK embassy in Tehran narrowly avoided the death penalty after being tried for spying.

It can actually be easier for real spies to be freed under time-honoured swap arrangements than it is for a foreign country to intercede on behalf of a former staff member, which is immediately condemned as attempted interference in the local justice system.

This is why I question the wisdom of local hiring for diplomatic missions abroad. But I would go further and question, too, the number of non-British specialists recruited to UK university departments, think-tanks and policy-related roles related to their home country. I am not talking about the teaching of foreign languages – native speakers are essential to this – but about those whose teaching and research may be used as the basis for advice to government in its relations with those countries.

Of course, there is good reason why this has happened. As with medics, the UK is simply not producing enough of its own specialists. The number taking even one foreign language to ‘A’ level has been on the slide for years. University language departments have closed, merged, or shifted their focus to 'area studies', which tends not to require a foreign language. Employers meanwhile know that almost any foreign applicant will have an excellent command of English along with their native tongue, even if their expertise is the politics, economics etc of their home country.

But I wonder, too, whether there is not some self-perpetuating discouragement going on, too. Even the Foreign Office tends not to always regard a foreign language as an asset for entry, subsequently training its chosen recruits at vast expense. As for other employers; if they want someone who specialises in foreign parts, they may well favour a candidate from outside the UK: a Continental European for European Studies, a Chinese person for Chinese Studies, and so on.

This is a change, and it marks the completion, in a way, of a circle. After World War Two, many regional specialists were emigres, including one-time refugees. Their British students then succeeded them in specialist and advisory positions. Now, with so few British area specialists, the gap is being filled by non-Britons.

But there is a downside. A big plus of British diplomacy, it used to be said, was that it tried to see the world as others see it – a skill we seem, alas, to have lost. But is it not equally important that our officials and diplomats see the world as their fellow-citizens see it? I am not suggesting that non-British specialists are disloyal or inadequate in any way; far from it. What I am saying is that they may struggle to see the world as it might be seen from the UK grassroots and that a British perspective surely needs to be a key component of policy-making, along with a keen sense of the UK national interest.

This country badly needs to rebuild a cadre of its own regional specialists – who speak another language and know another country, but see it from a UK perspective. I am not saying that embassies should dispense with all local staff, but that if we cannot 'grow' our own specialists, if we rely on other nationals to provide the assessments that inform our view of foreign parts, we risk outsourcing our foreign policy almost without knowing it.

It may seem quite a long way from spying allegations against a Berlin-based security officer at the British Embassy to a call to replenish the ranks of UK area specialists. But local hiring needs to be recognised as more of a risk and less of a solution than it currently is, whether the job advert is for linguists or political analysts – or security officers.