Marlborough HouseOne official will work at the Secretariat’s Marlborough House HQ and the other will be based in the Cabinet Office. [Photo: Commonwealth Secretariat]

A former advisor to Patricia Scotland has defended the Commonwealth Secretariat in response to British media coverage of the appointment of two high-level British government officials to work with the Secretariat in the countdown to upcoming Commonwealth meetings in the UK.

News of the appointments had been broken by the BBC on 26 January.

The BBC report said that Tim Hitchens, a senior Foreign Office official and former ambassador to Japan, has been put in charge of a team preparing for the Commonwealth summit in London next year and that Sir Simon Gass, a senior official who retired from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in 2016, had been appointed acting chief operating officer at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

The report said that Mr Hitchens, a former assistant private secretary to the Queen, will be based in the Cabinet Office and will report directly to Prime Minister Theresa May. Simon Gass will work at the Secretariat’s headquarters at Marlborough House. The BBC said that Gass had been appointed at the suggestion of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office which is funding his salary.

The BBC wrote that ‘The appointments are being seen in Whitehall as an attempt by the government to shore up a troubled organisation at a crucial time.

‘Ministers are keen to ensure that a meeting of Commonwealth trade ministers in London in March is a success and shows how Britain after Brexit can do more trade with countries outside the European Union.’

“Part of the reform process”

On the same day, a former communications advisor to Baroness Scotland’s transition team, Matthew Doyle, outlined in a BBC radio interview why the officials had been brought on board.

“It’s right that the UK takes more of a role in providing officials to support these events [the trade ministers’ meeting and the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting]” Mr Doyle told the BBC’s The World At One.

“Just as Australia is providing new officials for the Commonwealth to support the work in the run-up to the next Commonwealth Games.”

Matthew Doyle, who has formerly worked as an advisor in Tony Blair’s office, said that Patricia Scotland had been seeking expertise for the reform agenda at the Secretariat which she had been elected to see through.

“The fact that the Secretary-General sought to bring in senior officials, as part of the reform process, is entirely sensible,” he said.

“It would be slightly odd if she wasn’t looking to recruit the brightest and the best people that there are available from the 52 member states so that they can be part of delivering the change agenda that she is committed to leading.”

Mr Doyle told the BBC that Patricia Scotland’s transition team had in April 2016 identified a clear “need to reform” and this had started with a “huge” staff survey which “threw up a number of challenges”.

Questioned about press reports about his own salary while serving on the transition team, Mr Doyle said “the figures aren’t correct”.

Post-Brexit Commonwealth focus

Also speaking on the programme, the BBC’s Diplomatic Correspondent James Langdale said that he had been hearing “disquiet” about the operations at the Commonwealth Secretariat for some time and that this had now reached the British government.

“The Commonwealth is going to really matter…post Brexit”, he said.

News of the two UK appointments follows a string of UK press allegations about spending at the Commonwealth Secretariat and at the grace-and-favour home of the Secretary General which had led to press reports in other parts of the Commonwealth, including India and the Caribbean.

The Secretary-General been dogged by a series of critical media stories, particularly from Britain’s Daily Mail which are the subject of a complaint laid by Patricia Scotland  with Britain’s Independent Press Standards Organisation, IPSO. IPSO is yet to issue its judgement.

Commonwealth Trade Ministers meet in the UK in March and The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is scheduled to take place in the UK in 2018.

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