LIFE ABROAD – Part 20: TURBULENT TIMES
Posted on March 21st, 2013

Dr.Tilak Fernando

Caretaker at the Sri Lanka High Commission, Buluwela, finally retired after rendering an extended service, with an added bonus of a few extra years due to some problems experienced in appointing new staff to the London Mission as the British Foreign Office did bring down the curtain on Sri Lankan foreign office due to “ƒ”¹…”non-compliance of basic regulations’ where many diplomats as well as the Administrative Service staff sent from Colombo began to abandon the “ƒ”¹…”ship’ after their tour of duty and sought employment elsewhere in London.

The situation turned into a chaotic state of affairs when the existed diplomatic and administrative staff automatically became “ƒ”¹…”fibrously’ rooted at the Mission (without being transferred according to the norms of the Foreign Ministry regulations) when those who had finished their contracts did not return to Colombo as expected.

Undoubtedly this caused an immense embarrassment to the Sri Lankan government when the UK Foreign Office imposed a constraint on new officials taking up duties at the Sri Lanka High Commission in London until such time those officers who had completed their contracted period were made to return back to Sri Lanka.

Bad experience

The complexity experienced by both the Sri Lankan government and the British authorities at the time was that when diplomats were given leave to enter the UK on “ƒ”¹…”diplomatic passports’, no conditions were attached at the port of entry as opposed to any normal visitor or student who was subjected to various stipulations, especially restricting employment. The diplomatic privileges included only a date stamp on their passport at the port of entry with the word “ƒ”¹…”embarked’.

There was no social stigma associated with the division of labour (at least overtly) in the UK. In such a backdrop whether it was a High Commissioner or any other diplomatic official, it did not matter what they did for a living once they “ƒ”¹…”walked out of the High Commission office’ except the fact that those who were once “ƒ”¹…”pretentious’ had hit the floor with a thud and transformed into sober citizens!

Impish act

During such turbulent times the British Foreign Office started to pick a bone with the Sri Lanka High Commission and tightened the clamps on future diplomatic recruits to London temporarily.

An impish act by a Second Secretary (Consular) once managed to bring the whole hornet’s nest upon the shoulders not only on the Sri Lankan High Commissioner but on the Sri Lankan government as well by using official government stationary to write a supporting letter to the Visa Officer at the British High Commission in Colombo on February 14, 1990 sponsoring two of his brothers as “ƒ”¹…”visitors’ with an assurance thus: “I will be responsible for all their expenses and accommodation during their stay in the United Kingdom” (sic).

Gladstone intervention

It was later considered as a blatant violation of the Public Service Commission Regulations to use official government headed paper for personal use, and the worst being signing officially as “ƒ”¹…”Second Secretary (Consular)’.

On May 9, 1991, D.A.S. Gladstone, British High Commissioner in Colombo, wrote a personal letter to Dehsamanya Gen D.S. Attygalle, who was the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in London, which read: “My Dear Sepal, I am afraid I have to bring to your attention to another visa problem involving your Second Secretary (Consular) Mr. ……”.(sic)

“On March 13, 1990 we issued visas to Messrs….X and ….. Y, to enable them to visit Mr. ….Z, their brother, for a short holiday. A copy of his letter in support of the application is enclosed for ease of reference. We have now learned that Mr. X has applied for political asylum in the UK. Is there anything you can do”? With Kind Regards, David (D.A.S. Gladstone, High Commissioner)”. (sic)

On July 23, 1993 V.C. Wallis at Protocol Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London SW1 2AH, wrote to the Acting High Commissioner at 13, Hyde Park Gardens London W2, under Ref. TXA which read as follows:

“Dear Mr. M…………e, (sic)

” Mr. …………………………………… &………. Mr. …………. …………. (sic)

“I write to seek your assistance about the above-named former members of the High Commission’s staff”. (sic)

“I have reason to believe that they did not leave the United Kingdom at the end of their appointments and remain in this country, in breach of the immigration rules and the spirit of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations”. (sic)

“You will no doubt agree that if they have become illegal immigrants, with no right to live or work here, this would be a matter of some embarrassment to your mission”. (sic)

“May I therefore ask your assistance in locating their present whereabouts, with a view to establishing their right to remain here or otherwise”. (sic) “”…” sgd. V.C. Wallis, Protocol Department (DN02.130793). (sic)

It was later revealed that the diplomatic officer concerned was reprimanded after an enquiry by the Public Service Commission and subsequently reinstated with compensation paid after intervention by a “well known” Foreign Minister, upon his taking up reins as the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the second time! Immediately the catch phrase, “ƒ”¹…”How can you expect to find ivory in a dog’s mouth’ became the topic of conversation among Sri Lankan expatriates in the UK when this took place.

Risky decisions

One of the drawbacks which the Foreign Ministry overlooked at the time was believed to be for posting officers with young families on overseas assignments. When such officials arrived in London their first priority, as parents, had to find suitable schools and give their children a “ƒ”¹…”British Education’ which is understandable.

When their contracts came to an end and the children were either studying for GCE “ƒ”¹…”A’ levels or half way through their higher education at British seats of learning such circumstances placed these officials in a dilemma.

Naturally not a single parent would like to have “ƒ”¹…”abandoned’ their children in a foreign land on their own to so great an extent, even if they were able to afford financially. This was thought to have been the major factor for such a calamity by “ƒ”¹…”forcing’ officials to vacate their posts at the end of their contracts which in turn caused an extra burden on themselves by having to forgo their pension rights once vacating their posts from the government service.

When family units were sent abroad the government had already paid for their air fares, baggage allowances etc., which became a waste of money when they could not return home until such time (after a certain period of time) they found a way of residing officially in the UK.

During this process a few locally recruited staff with a long service record were automatically promoted to diplomatic status as 1st Secretary (junior diplomatic post) and Protocol Officer etc., The situation also opened up avenues for those Sri Lankans who were legally permitted to work and live in the UK to join the High Commission staff as ‘local recruits’.

High Commission staff consisted of three categories. Head of the Mission (High Commissioner) with senior diplomatic staff termed as 1st 2nd and 3rd Secretaries; Administrative staff recruited from Colombo were known as ‘Home based’ and the Service staff (which included Sri Lankans who lived in the UK and British Nationals ) locally recruited from London.

For a long time local recruits were paid according to Sri Lankan salary scales until at a later stage their contracts were linked to British Civil Service (government) salary bands, at which point their salaries were converted into rupee equivalent for the purpose of income tax deductions on a monthly basis and huge sums were deducted as tax!

This kind of action created a certain amount of uneasiness among locally recruited staff who took their case up with the Commissioner of Inland Revenue in Colombo, sighting an example as to how a locally recruited ‘Secretary/Personal Assistant’ had to pay 15 Pounds a month as tax, out of her wage packet, as against an insignificant sum of Pounds three deducted from the High Commissioner’s pay (according to his Sri Lankan rupee salary band)!

Although Sri Lankan diplomats’ rupee salaries were paid in converted Pound Sterling, they were compensated by various types of other allowances and perks such as special entertainment allowances, housing allowances etc. with many other perks such as duty free petrol, duty free booze, cigarettes, free road tax on motor vehicles, tax free brand new automobiles, tax free telephone charges, free television licences etc.

Finally the dispute concerning the local recruits’ tax deductions was finally resolved to everyone’s satisfaction with the personal interference of the Commissioner of Income tax in Sri Lanka.

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