Commonwealth Foreign Ministers outside Marlborough HouseCommonwealth Foreign Ministers outside Marlborough House in July. [photo: Commonwealth Secretariat]

An internal report leaked to the BBC has revealed ‘deep concerns’ within the Commonwealth Secretariat over the organisation’s governance, priorities and financial stability and indicated opposition among some member countries to Patricia Scotland being automatically reappointed for a second term as the secretary-general.

The BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, James Landale, said that a separate dispute had erupted over the Secretariat’s plans to save money by prematurely ending the lease on a new building in London’s Pall Mall, which had only been opened by Queen Elizabeth in 2016, and forcing other Commonwealth bodies to move their operations into the headquarters at Marlborough House. To add to the Secretariat’s woes, the BBC was also leaked a survey of staff at the Secretariat that has revealed ‘low morale’ and ‘high levels of dissatisfaction’ over career progression.

The 52 Commonwealth high commissioners, who make up the Commonwealth’s board of governors, are reported to have drafted new rules for reappointing the secretary-general that suggests Lady Scotland might face a challenge when her first term ends next year.

In 2018 Scotland set up a ‘high-level group’ of mostly former Commonwealth foreign ministers to review how the Secretariat was run. Its report last year was never published but the BBC said the group had concluded there was ‘an urgent need’ for the Secretariat’s governance to be overhauled, greater clarity in setting policy and identifying priorities, and for the organisation to be more ‘transparent and accountable to stakeholders’.

Though Sonny Ramphal served three terms, the convention has been that the secretary-general automatically serves two terms (with Don McKinnon in 2003 being the only predecessor to be challenged). However, the new rules state explicitly: ‘Reappointment of a secretary-general for a second term is not automatic.’ Scotland is reported to be lobbying behind the scenes to be reappointed and is said to have an ally in Prince Charles, according to the Daily Mail. The newspaper quoted Scotland as saying she had been ‘vilified’ for trying to reform the Secretariat.

According to the BBC, she also has backing from a bloc of eight Commonwealth foreign ministers, who have raised objections to the proposed changes to the rules on the secretary-general’s reappointment and oversight. It said the eight who have ‘rallied to Lady Scotland’s cause … are thought to include the Seychelles, Nigeria, St Lucia, Barbados, Dominica, St Kitts and Nevis, and Belize.’ A meeting of Commonwealth foreign ministers in London on 10 July is expected to bring the issue to a head but the BBC report added that while informal discussions have begun on potential names, ‘no strong alternative candidate has yet emerged.’

With the organisation facing acute financial pressures, Landale said the high commissioners had ordered an audit of the Secretariat’s procurement spending under Scotland. The organisation’s budget fell to £29m in 2016-17, from £52m a few years earlier, after contributions from member states plummeted. Staff numbers have fallen from 295 to 223 since 2016. The mounting financial pressures have forced the Secretariat to break the lease on Commonwealth House in Pall Mall, forcing affiliated organisations such as the Commonwealth Games Federation, the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum to look elsewhere for office space.

With the Secretariat under budgetary pressures and the secretary-general facing a barrage of criticism (albeit mostly from the Daily Mail), it is probably not surprising that the Commonwealth Secretariat Staff Association’s survey found ‘low morale’ among employees, with ‘a large proportion’ of them having looked for work elsewhere and that ‘66% of respondents would not recommend a friend to work at the Secretariat’, according to the BBC.

A spokesman for the Commonwealth Secretariat said: ‘The High-Level Group reports to Commonwealth heads of government and the latter have not yet considered this report, so it is not appropriate for the secretary-general or Secretariat to make comments about its content or its conclusions.

‘Since her assumption of duty, the secretary-general has made changes to the Commonwealth’s organisational structure to make it more dynamic and integrated. She is confident that the great majority of staff are hard-working and committed to the Commonwealth. They are producing exemplary results.’

The spokesman added: ‘The secretary-general is focused on delivering the mandate given to her by the 53 Commonwealth heads of government. During her tenure, the Secretariat has received numerous commendations from member governments for its work.

‘It is the responsibility of the 53 heads of government to appoint (and reappoint) the secretary-general. To date, no new rules for appointment of the secretary-general have been agreed by the 53 heads of government.’

The spokesman said it would not be appropriate for the Secretariat to comment on the proceedings of confidential board of governors meetings, adding: ‘But please note that the Secretariat operates a multi-layered system of checks, balances and audits that work independently from the secretary-general, including an audit committee that reports directly to the board of governors.

‘The Secretariat is working to mitigate a declining budget from member countries by entering into partnerships with international organisations and foundations. During recent years under the secretary-general’s stewardship there has been a significant increase in extra budgetary funding, from £700,000 in 2012 to £3.5m in 2017.

‘As part of the Commonwealth’s effort to operate more efficiently, its board of governors approved a plan to move all Secretariat staff in Commonwealth House to Marlborough House by the end of 2019. Prior to the establishment of Commonwealth House, the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Commonwealth Games Federation had their own headquarter buildings.’