Reminiscing about her arrival at the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in 2012, Sahota stated a sense of wonder as she “walked up the ‘Grand Staircase’ with a mixture of pride and awe.” The main concern, she said, was “not race or gender” but whether she was “the only person to have not attended Oxford or Cambridge” and whether this would “fit the image of an archetypal diplomat.” Now a much valued asset to the ministerial department, she dispels more than one myth. As we talked about her journey – liaising with Baronesses Warsi and Anelay thereafter, her jet-set lifestyle, and the dynamic practice of policy making – we saw that working in government can be as thrilling as it is reachable:
You are currently Private Secretary to the Minister of State. What does the role entail?
I am the interface between the Minister and our policy departments. On the one hand you are there to help the foreign office achieve their goals through the Minister, but equally to help the Minister set their priorities, and occasionally get those pushed those through Whitehall. A lot of people don’t know what a Private Secretary actually does. The usual response is a very commercial idea of the position, ‘oh, you answer calls’ etc. What I do is at the very heart of government. I’m getting to know policy – how it applies internationally and domestically. I work particularly on Human Rights and Migration and am the Private office lead on those areas. The job consists of speech-writing, being a spokesperson for the FCO - for example during meetings at the House of Lords, occasionally acting as the gate-keeper, and negotiating on the Baroness’ behalf. Another great aspect is the travelling. I’ve been involved in Islamic finance when I was working under Baroness Warsi. We toured around the Gulf State, and also worked across South East Asia. I’ve attended meetings with the Sultan of Brunei, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and met with the Pope’s representatives in Vatican.
This is an eventful time in government. Could you tell us more about the direction you are taking?
Well I am currently working for Baroness Anelay who was in the last government and has been reappointed to this one. We are working to re-energise Human Rights, also looking at women’s liberties and the freedom of religion. Of course we have just started work on the policies and there will be much more to say.
Are there issues regarding cultural cohesion where the solutions may lie abroad?
With freedom of religion, there is a huge cross-over in debate. As we get more globalised, these questions become more relevant, especially for second generation immigrants who are negotiating two competing traditions. How do you cope? How do you open up a dialogue? It gets even more interesting when you consider religious groups who want to preserve their practices and still live practically alongside each other such as Islamic and Christian groups: it is a growing conversation on an international scale.
You are a Diversity and Equality Champion. Tell us more about that?
Ok so we organised a university road show where we reached out to people who would not normally think about a career in the Foreign Service. This included travelling to Yorkshire where I’m from so that was quite nostalgic and fun. I’m also a role model for the champion of difference scheme that the FCO has just launched, and finally I founded the Sikhs in Government network. This engages colleagues across Whitehall- including parliamentarians in the House of Lords - and is the first civil network for Sikh staff. We work with parliamentarians and figureheads abroad such as the Deputy High Commissioner in Punjab, David Lelliott. In the UK we’ve had a great response- from officials in the police department to the FCO home office so that’s been fantastic. It’s about championing people of different backgrounds into more senior positions as well as fostering awareness at the top. It extends to showcasing work in the arts, business, and sports worlds, establishing a better relationship between our community and the government.
Is there a major goal you had in mind for multiculturalism?
To have a government, inclusive of the networks overseas, that accurately represents modern Britain. For example, I currently work opposite the Old India office Council Chamber and I see that as a real reflection of how the city has changed for the better. The fact that I could work with Baroness Warsi, and accompany someone of a BAME background in such an influential role was equally inspiring in this respect. I want to reflect the progress of multiculturalism in the country as it stands today.
Were you always interested in Foreign affairs?
I’ve had interest in politics from a young age and my father was very much behind that. I often muse that if somebody had informed me when I was younger that I could combine my love of politics and Human Rights, and told me that this profession was that of a diplomat’s, I could have transferred over much sooner. Because I was still finding my way, I took the more customary route of a legal career: I graduated in law, and found that very fascinating, later moving to NY, and going out into the legal industry before I came back to the UK and joined the civil service. It wasn’t an easy transition; sometimes you take a couple of steps back before you can move forward. A friend of mine pointed out that my interests seemed to converge in the direction of the foreign office. After seeing the advert in The Guardian, I joined the Home Office in 2008. I was interviewing refugees and representing the department in tribunals. It really opened my eyes to what was happening globally. Ultimately then, there are different routes to different positions and it just goes to show how you can tailor your career where there’s not one way of progressing. I’ve now gathered a wealth of experience across the public and private sectors.
What have been some of your proudest moments?
Representing the UK at the United Nations in Geneva (see picture) and leading on the FCO’s work to honour the contribution of Indian soldiers to WW1. My role was to lead on our approach and coordinate an event at Lancaster House for members of the Royal Household, Parliamentarians and Military. I found it inspirational to learn more about the Commonwealth contribution to WW1 (not something we’re taught at school) and then be able to reflect that deep connection between our countries to help strengthen bilateral ties.
Do you have a Role Model?
Can I have two? My parents – they both said if they could give me nothing else, it would be the gift of education. I look now at the work that I do across the world to champion women’s rights and know just how important education is to achieving your dreams. My mum is a fighter, strong and not so much the silent type and I really look to my dad for his values. I’m lucky. They’ve instilled a strong sense of self-confidence, work ethic and belief that I can do whatever I put my mind to. Plus, they supported me and my love of the world (both the travelling and the politics)!
A wild-card question for you: Do you enjoy political sitcoms such as ‘The Thick of It’ or ‘Ambassadors’? I’d like to know how much of what is shown represents the actual office.
(Laughs) I actually spent the weekend getting caught up on ‘House of Cards’ and it certainly isn’t as dark as all that! I’m also a fan of ‘Veep’ – it’s the American version of ‘The Thick of It’ - and I think they capture the humour of the environment: thinking about current affairs and how they might unravel, and those everyday absurdities that could apply to any workplace really.
Finally, what are your hopes for the future?
It’s very open to me, but a dream of mine is to become, or to witness for myself, the first female Sikh Ambassador. It would be a real reflection of the state of equality in the future.
Motto: Any time a door’s been opened for you make sure the door remains open for others: ‘one hand reaching up, one hand reaching down.’