Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Ambassadors' Public School Perks

I'm struggling for an analogy, so this isn't exact and maybe rather indelicate, but think of the state as offering an engorged teat and public schools are greedily sucking away at it. Hardly is the ink dry on my piece about public school fees subsidies for the military top brass and then another whopping great subsidy appears on the horizon.

In 2009/10 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) paid out £13.3 million for diplomats' children to be educated in the UK and £11.5 million for schools overseas. The maximum subsidy is a rather generous £25,000 per annum.

The last thorough investigation of the scheme was undertaken by 'The Observer' in 2005. They revealed that 181 public schools benefited from the scheme. There were 16 students at Eton, 29 pupils at King's, Canterbury, 20 pupils at Bryanston and six at Fettes. Top of the league was Sevenoaks in Kent which received funding for 33 students at a cost of £200,000.

£5.5 million – or one third of the entire boarding school allowance went to diplomats working or living in Britain after they had returned from foreign postings. This money helped to educate 236 children at public schools.

At the time Phil Willis education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said, 'I find it hard to understand why Foreign Office staff serving in European countries with good quality schools need state funding to send their children to expensive public schools in Britain.'

You might also question the value of the diplomatic service, their expensive embassies and staff perks. A large proportion of the staff aren't actually involved in diplomacy, they are spies and not very effective ones either. Most of the important changes in the world – the fall of the Shah of Iran, the end of communism and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait – they did rather slip through the fingers of British Intelligence. Probably because they spent all their time at cocktail parties and had precious little knowledge of the country they were living in.

As for 'promoting commerce' one of the largest deals was BAE's sale of military jets to Saudi Arabia. This was only made possible through extensive bribes to the Saudi royal family. Let's just say that the British Embassy in Riyadh didn't exactly check all the paper work.

The human rights agenda? Where there is media interest or pressure from public opinion the British Embassy will make a few diplomatic noises and register disapproval. Where that isn't the case it's thought to be 'bad form' to say anything that would upset a local dictator. In 2004 Craig Murray was sacked as British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, he'd had the temerity to complain about the treatment of two dissidents who had been boiled to death.

The public perception of British Embassies is that they are there to assist tourists who lose their passports or get into other difficulties. In times of crisis? On December 18 2009 five Eurostar trains broke down in the Channel Tunnel, leaving passengers in appalling conditions. The Eurostar management went into hiding. It's interesting to read the comments of people trapped in the tunnel -

'What I found particularly reprehensible was that, when I rang the British Embassy in Paris on Monday morning for any information, even if just whether the Calais ferries were working, I was curtly told that it was nothing to do with them. So much for embassies being a beacon of safety and not just expensive venues for parties.'

Many British diplomats are paid more than £100,000 a year and live in rent-free accommodation. They can claim allowances of £40,000 to maintain an 'appropriate' standard of living. The boarding school allowance is paid net of tax, so for a diplomat sending two children to a top public school it would be worth an extra £70,000.

An overseas diplomatic post? It's a fairly easy life, it's part of that career cycle – public school, Oxbridge, Foreign Office. Over 80% of ambassadors are public school educated, they achieve their positions partly on the basis of ability but also through the informal social networks they establish at public school.

The cost of training teachers, charity status, pension subsidies and money for the children of generals and ambassadors. Anyone spot any patterns?

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