Hague plans diplomat 'alumni network' to shape policy

image captionThe protests in Bahrain are one of many crises UK diplomats are having to deal with

Retired ambassadors should continue to contribute to policy making through a Foreign Office "alumni network", William Hague has told MPs.

The foreign secretary said it made little sense for the UK to "say goodbye" to senior diplomats when they turned 60 and "never see them again".

Earlier this year the Foreign Office asked former diplomats who speak Arabic to help out during the Egyptian crisis.

But one Labour MP said the idea was an extension of the "old boys' network".

Mr Hague was asked about the idea by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee while he was answering questions about his department's response to the recent uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa as well as the earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand.

'Crisis skills'

Labour has criticised the Foreign Office for what it said was a tardy and disorganised response to evacuating British nationals from Libya. Critics have also questioned whether diplomats could have done more to foresee the unrest in the Arab world and also questioned regional expertise.

Mr Hague, who has described events in North Africa and Middle East as one of the most important events of the 21st Century, told MPs that former diplomats had a "tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise" that could be utilised in such exceptional situations.

"I want to develop a much stronger network - an alumni network if you like - where we can use the skills of those people on various crises but also on longer-term issues for the Foreign Office.

"They can help improve capacity but they can also help improve the health of the entire institution and of foreign policy-making in this country in the long term."

The senior civil servant at the Foreign Office, Simon Fraser, told MPs that the department could not employ sufficient staff to continually deal with "seven consecutive crises" and it had been "running hot" in recent weeks in terms of how it deployed staff.

"We have to have resilience and agility to respond," he said, while stressing that more junior staff had made a "tremendous contribution" to the response to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in particular.

But Labour MP Frank Roy said the alumni idea was not a good one and the civil service should focus instead on "nurturing young talent".

"It reminds me of the description of an old boys' network, bringing in people who have retired," he said.

Mr Hague said the two were not mutually exclusive and he would "not be taking" Mr Roy's advice.

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