A Foreign Office mandarin urged a cleaning firm to discipline staff who had complained to the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, about their pay, a newly released document shows.

Fourteen cleaners employed by the Foreign Office contractors Interserve said in October that they were “punished” after seeking a meeting to discuss the London living wage with Hammond. 

The foreign secretary later told parliament that no redundancies or disciplinary action took place as a result of the letter sent to him by the cleaners.

But an internal email shows that an unnamed FCO official told Interserve in August that their cleaners “must stop” writing to Hammond’s office and should be “spoken to and disciplined where appropriate”. The FCO official claimed the cleaning staff had signed confidentiality agreements to “prevent this occurring” and it was assumed action would be taken against them.

The document raises serious questions about Hammond’s evidence to parliament and whether he has ever been made aware of the email sent by his own official. The email was released following a freedom of information request, which has been published on the government’s website.

In a note accompanying the email, the Foreign Office says the email was “neither authorised nor seen by a minister” before it was sent. It adds: “The FCO official who wrote the email has recognised that neither the content nor tone of it were appropriate, and has expressed regret.”

The cleaners signed a letter to Hammond congratulating him on his job in the new Conservative government and seeking to discuss their pay on 21 July. Six weeks later the 14 staff were served with a letter by Interserve, saying they were under investigation for “bringing the contract into disrepute”. Their letter to Hammond was enclosed as evidence.

Cleaners at the FCO are paid just above the minimum wage, at £7.05 an hour, which will rise to the government’s “national living wage” of £7.20 an hour for over-25s from April. The cleaners were asking to discuss the London weighting of the living wage as calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, based on the cost of living in the capital. It was then £9.15 an hour. The UK living wage is currently calculated at £8.25 an hour and for London is £9.40 an hour.

Names in the email, sent on 5 August, have been redacted, but it appears to have come from the Foreign Office’s estates and security directorate, with the recipients including two Interserve addresses and two FCO addresses.

The email from the Foreign Office official says: “I am really disappointed that your cleaning staff are again writing direct to the FS [foreign secretary’s] office over the LLW debate. This must stop, they are your employees not ours, if they have issues they should take them up with you not the FCO FS. I thought they had all signed confidentiality agreements to prevent this occurring, so I assume they will be spoken too and disciplined where appropriate. My team have enough to deal with without this issue keep re-occurring and having to draft responses etc. Please can you again explain to the cleaners they do not work for the FCO (they work at the FCO only) so any future management escalation need to go through the right channels THIS IS NOT THE FCO!! Regards. Please let me know what actions are being taken on this matter.”

The Foreign Office’s note accompanying the FOI explained thecleaners had previously written to the foreign secretary on the subject in 2014 and to his predecessor, William Hague, in June 2012.

The note states: “These letters were shared with Interserve management as they are responsible for setting the terms and conditions of their employees. The FCO replied to both these letters, setting out the FCO’s position in relation to the cleaners’ wages. In addition, in July 2012, FCO officials met with the cleaners and Citizens UK to listen to their concerns. It was within this context that an FCO Official sent an email of 5 August 2015 to Interserve, with the intention of ensuring that, as Interserve employees, the cleaners should initially raise concerns about their pay with Interserve management. This email was neither authorised nor seen by any minister prior to it being sent. The FCO official who wrote the email has recognised that neither the content nor tone of it were appropriate and has expressed regret.”

This article was written by Rajeev Syal, for theguardian.com on Thursday 17th December 2015 20.31 Europe/London

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