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Diplomatic Service (Closures)

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2008

No UK embassies closed in 2007. Two diplomatic missions were closed: the high commission office in Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the British consulate in Nagoya, Japan.

We continue to manage the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s overseas network to reflect changing demands and challenges. We will ensure that our resources are aligned with our priorities and that the UK has a cost-effective and flexible network of overseas representation around the world.

Since 1997, when the Government came to power, more than 35 embassies, high commissions and sovereign posts have been closed. Given the Chinese scramble for Africa, is it right that out of 53 African countries, 23 do not have any British diplomatic representation at all?

It may help the House if I give it the actual facts, rather than the partial presentation given by the hon. Gentleman. In 1997, the UK Government had 242 overseas posts. In 2007, there were 261. In the past 10 years, the number of overseas posts has increased by 19 by any calculation.

In respect of the situation in Africa, I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that a measure of a country’s commitment to Africa or its engagement is not the number of posts but the effectiveness of its activities, including its funding. By no stretch of the imagination is it possible to argue that the UK’s influence in Africa is lower today than it was 10 years ago. In fact, it is massively enhanced. There has been cross-party agreement about the activities of the Government on this issue over the past 10 years.

How does my right hon. Friend determine the relationship between the Government’s Foreign Office priorities and the resources at their disposal in deciding which diplomatic missions to keep open?

The most important criterion is that the Foreign Office’s network is aligned to the shape of the modern world rather than the world as it was after 1945. There has already been a 20 or 25 per cent. reduction in the number of personnel deployed in Europe, which in part reflects the amount of extra business done in UKRep—the UK Permanent Representation to the European Union—in Brussels and the multilateral engagement that we have. I see that continuing, with the shifting of more of our diplomats—UK staff and locally engaged staff—towards the middle east and south Asia, where, by any stretch of the imagination, we need more representations to meet all the national interests that we have at the moment. That seems to me to be the alignment of people and priorities that we should be seeking.

What consideration has the Secretary of State given to accrediting Department for International Development staff in countries where there is no Foreign Office support, particularly in Africa, in countries such as Lesotho and Swaziland, where there are excellent DFID staff?

Of course, in most of Africa DFID and FCO staff work side by side. Many of the problems that DFID focuses on are complementary to the work on conflict prevention or good governance that is at the heart of the FCO’s work. On the accreditation of staff—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman means that technically—DFID staff, like Foreign Office staff, are there to represent the whole UK. They do that extremely effectively.

As my right hon. Friend knows, my particular concern is East Timor, and the closure of the embassy there in 2006 and the removal of our remaining staff in 2007. East Timor is a country that is emerging out of considerable conflict and it needs a lot of help. I know that there is an ambassador in Jakarta and that the intention is that the ambassador and his staff should visit East Timor. However, given the continuing concern in East Timor, can my right hon. Friend tell me how often the ambassador has been there since the closure of the embassy?

My right hon. Friend has anticipated some of my answer. I do not have to hand the number of times that the ambassador in Jakarta and his staff have visited East Timor, but I shall be very happy to provide her with that information.

The Foreign Secretary has been somewhat creative with his figures in respect of embassies, high commissions and consulates. He says that their numbers reflect how the world is changing, so I presume that the closure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office language school and the withdrawal of the FCO’s contribution to the cost of maintaining defence attachés are also connected with that. Do not the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) have more to do with financial cuts imposed by the Treasury than with any changes in the nature of the world? After all, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has said that the Foreign Office budget will see a reduction of 5.1 per cent. per annum across the board and that that will jeopardise its work. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many more embassies, high commissions and consulates have been identified for closure over the next two years to pay for those cuts?

It is very odd to define increased spending as cuts. The increased spending over the next period will be used in the areas of greatest need. Moreover, it is right that we do not use defence attachés for non-defence work, as they are specialists and should work on defence matters. The hon. Gentleman accuses me of creative accounting, or at least creative number work, but he may be interested to know that Germany has 226 posts, the US 262 and France 275. The UK holds a diplomatic network of outstandingly qualified individuals who work closely with DFID and British Council staffs. They provide a network that, in times of crisis, has shown itself to be more than adequate for the country’s needs. I am sure that he will seek to criticise the Government about many things, but I believe that we should all be proud of the nature of our global network and its deployment around the world.