I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Diplomatic Service and resources.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am grateful for and slightly awed by the array of right hon. and hon. Members present who have much more experience of this issue than I have. It is an extremely important one and I am very grateful to the Minister for being here. I hope that he will be able to address some of the points that I and others raise.
We exist at a time of the greatest turbulence and change. With Brexit, we have the resulting need to engage as never before with countries around the world. We see, never more than this week, challenges to the rules-based order. We see the rise of new powers, such as China, which is stamping its mark on the world politically, economically and militarily on a scale unimagined a few years ago. We also see the influence of political disrupters across western democracies. This is the time to challenge policy of several Governments and many decades that has led to a decline in our commitment to foreign engagement.
It has been a real privilege for me to travel as a Minister, as a trade envoy, as the leader of the UK’s delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and in other capacities, and to see at first hand the astounding professionalism of our diplomatic staff around the world. Numbers are not everything. Having a fluent Arabic-speaking middle east expert as our ambassador to Iraq with the President’s personal mobile number on his speed dial is of incalculable value. However, we have reached a critical moment in our ability to promote our interests abroad.
I had a conversation yesterday with Lord Waldegrave. He has spent time as a Minister in both the Treasury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and he said, in a way that was somewhat light-hearted but nevertheless heartfelt, that in his impression there has been a multi-decadal battle between the Treasury and the FCO, which the Treasury has now won—a battle between the two great Departments of state that vie for influence with No. 10 and across Government. Two decades ago, it was deemed the right thing to hive off international development to a new Department. Part of that perhaps was a good thing at the time, but I have always felt that part of it was distaste for the concept that aid and influence could ever go together. For me, that has never been a problem: of course they can, and they should.
In some areas, the European Union was seen by some as the deliverer of our overseas influence.
My right hon. Friend talks about the Treasury and other Departments. Obviously, the Department for International Development has had successive incredible spending rounds. Does he agree that the military attaché network, which he and I have seen in places such as Africa, does a huge amount of good in terms of influence and building those relationships? Surely, in countries that are basically aid-dependent, DFID should be paying for that network.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Later in my speech, I will talk about defence attachés and how we can copy the way that other countries do that better.
I have travelled to parts of the world where the Union flag might exist in the corner of an island state’s flag but there is no Union flag flying over anything that could resemble a high commission, embassy or diplomatic mission. All aid to the Pacific region was delivered through the EU; I could not find one sign of recognition of the sacrifice that the UK taxpayer made to provide that much-needed aid—it all had the EU mark on it.
Well before 2010, embassies were being sold off. They were bricks and mortar whose value in terms of influence vastly outweighed their real estate value. Our missions abroad were reduced and our diplomatic service language school was closed. After 2010, some good things started to happen: the language school was reopened; embassies that had been closed were reopened. But what that really meant was that our diplomatic missions abroad were marginally broader, but shallower too. I was in Mali just as we reopened our embassy there. An excellent ambassador arrived and she took over with a staff of one locally recruited driver. According to the FCO figures, there are now three FCO personnel there.
This year, the Government will spend £2.15 billion on the winter fuel allowance—a welfare element that we all support—but that is more than the £2 billion we spend on our foreign affairs budget. Let us compare how France and Germany—two similar-sized countries, both in the EU—manage their diplomatic services abroad. France spends £4.2 billion on its diplomatic service—more than twice what we spend on ours. As a country, it has a clear view that in order to maintain its P5 status it will stay true to its spheres of influence. Our 30-year bout of post-colonial guilt syndrome in this country, which may well have abated now, never seemed to have a parallel in the French psyche. France maintains a very clear involvement and commitment to countries in north and west Africa in particular, but also across the middle east. It maintains a much more permanent presence in areas where it has a history of influence.
I am listening closely to what my right hon. Friend is saying. I believe that even some former French colonies are represented in the French Parliament, unlike here. At the end of the day, it is worth remembering that France has Francophonie; they look with envy at the Commonwealth, which is an organisation that they are unable to replicate. They rather wonder at it. I very much hope that my right hon. Friend will mention the Commonwealth in his speech.
I certainly will. Our commitment to the Commonwealth is at the forefront of our minds, with the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting about to take place. There are some very important Commonwealth countries that we owe more attention to. We must see this as a very important part of our foreign engagement in the years ahead. There has not been a more important time for the Commonwealth to exist, and for the Government to have a clear strategy of supporting it both economically and using all the soft-power influence we can, to ensure that this wide variety of economies and countries united by a set of values can be a key part of our foreign engagement in future.
I do not know how many diplomats France deploys in the Central African Republic, Niger or Senegal, but I bet it is many more than the two we have in Lusaka, the two we have in Gaborone or even the seven we have in Harare, according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual report and accounts.
My right hon. Friend mentions Zimbabwe; I was there recently and I noticed that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID sit together in the same building. It is clear, when looking at it, what a remarkable success that is; they each act as a force multiplier to each other. It would be just as well if that was replicated the whole way across the foreign service.
I could not agree more. I saw a similar one-post operation in Addis Ababa, where our excellent ambassador, Susanna Moorehead, has forged a team that includes representatives of DFID, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Trade into one cohesive force. They certainly punch above their weight, and they are able to influence things as a result. I particularly note what my right hon. Friend said about Zimbabwe. There has never been a more important time for us to engage there. If we allow ourselves to be optimistic, there is the chance that Zimbabwe will emerge from the tragedy of recent decades.
Will my right hon. Friend also consider the influence that small missions can have? For example, in the past seven years we have opened embassies in Abidjan, Juba and Antananarivo. Although they have only one FCO-employed official and some locally employed staff, they deliver huge influence and are very warmly received by the host country. Surely we should do that more in Africa and the Pacific.
I could not agree more. As I said, numbers are not everything. Diplomats’ ability to influence and to project Britain’s engagement abroad is of course down to the skill of individuals and their capacity to get that message across. The number of countries where we do not have anyone is missing from the list of personnel in the FCO’s annual report and accounts. We need to look at that.
I said that I would come back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) made about defence attachés. France deploys a cadre of highly professional defence attachés who are proficient in local languages and who develop their careers and are rewarded as resident experts in countries across the middle east and north and west Africa. They often attend local staff colleges. Their career involvement in the regions to which they are posted is considered a virtue. I, too, have met some outstanding defence attachés. I know that there has been a change in recent years to try to develop longer-term postings, and that we send people to staff colleges, for example. However, the French colonel I met who had a direct way in to the Minister of Defence in a particular country had that because he had been in that region for 15 years, was fluent in the language and had embedded himself in the politics of the region.
Developing my right hon. Friend’s theme, I too have experience of the outstanding work that defence attachés do in our NATO partner countries, such as the United States, and way beyond, in the Gulf and the far east. Their role extends further than military-to-military relationships; they also play a vital role in assisting commercial exploitation of defence capability and supporting British companies that seek to secure defence and security orders overseas.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The role of defence attachés in our defence manufacturing capability and our ability to market that important part of our economy is so important. I entirely support what he says.
France also has a truly impressive integrated soft power strategy. The opening of the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi is a key indicator of that. Off the back of Government investment—not private investment, but cultural investment by the Government—flows influence that directly benefits France’s Exchequer. It is hard to compare like with like, but it is possible to argue that Germany spends about three times what we spend on its posts abroad. Even if we strip it down, it spends at least £4.6 billion, which is well over twice what we spend. We spend way more than Germany on development aid in Zambia, yet we employ about 11 people to deliver it, while Germany has around 150 people delivering its aid projects there. That is because we deliver our aid through a variety of organisations, including non-governmental organisations and international institutions such as the World Bank, whereas Germany uses a well-developed cadre of in-country experts in education, health, agriculture and other disciplines to implement its projects. At the end of the day, that means that German taxpayers get a better deal because German business is intrinsically linked to the soft power investment that its Government makes.
I am here not just to whinge, but to suggest a way forward. I want the Minister to reassure us. If he cannot, I want him to take on board the genuine concerns of people who have seen how our country operates abroad and believe that, impressive though that is, we need a dynamic shift in our ability to engage in the dangerous and highly competitive world in which we find ourselves. Can he assure us that every penny of official development assistance that can be used to develop a growing number of highly professional diplomats, defence attachés and other personnel is being used to maintain us as a relevant power in the coming decades? Can he convince me that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office understands Africa? Does he understand my concern, as someone who has travelled widely in Africa and was for some years our trade envoy in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, that our position as a favoured partner may be under threat?
In a few years’ time, a quarter of the world’s population will live in Africa. It is a continent of huge natural resources and has massive potential as a partner in trade and so many other areas, but it feels like Britain risks being left behind. China’s investments abroad are not altruistic. In many ways, what it is doing is good—I have seen new roads, electricity generation projects and vast business parks, including in Ethiopia, that are changing people’s lives and providing wealth and opportunities for female empowerment, among other things—but it has a massive benefit to China, too. There can be a similar benefit to Britain if we play to our strengths on a continent where we are still admired and where such things as our language and our time zone are distinct advantages.
The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs was in Paris the other day. We had an interesting discussion about how Britain and France can co-operate in Africa. There are countries where the former colonial power is not well regarded. We have been able to play an important role in places where France is the former colonial power—Mali, the Sahel and so on—in return for exactly the same co-operation where we are the former colonial power. Now that we are leaving the European Union, I wonder whether we need to be wise about how we manage our relations with our European allies.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Our trade envoy, Lord Risby, is doing great work in countries such as Algeria in promoting what we do. I have not heard this from him, but I imagine that he is able to have conversations that the French perhaps find it harder to have. On defence engagement, we are using the Lancaster House agreement to our benefit. We are assisting the French forces in Mali with lift—with helicopters and things like that. That partnership in the fight against terrorism—against organisations such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab—delivers influence and benefit in a variety of ways.
My final point is that Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office require political intelligence.
Perhaps I should have worded that better. They require intelligence about what is going on politically in those countries. They need to know who is on the rise in different parties, who the new influences are and who could be the next generation of leaders. Our diplomats provide that intelligence superbly, but Parliament should hold the Executive to account to ensure that we have enough of them and that we have them in the right places.
I argue that there should be a new strategy, even if we were not leaving the EU. However, Brexit brings a new urgency to our deliberations. It is not too late to see a paradigm shift in our strategy, but influence is hard won and easily lost. We need to understand that with influence comes jobs at home and stability abroad. That is something that even the Treasury should understand.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on putting the case forward so ably, as he always does when bringing issues to the House for consideration.
Many in the Chamber are Brexiteers; some are not, but we are moving forward none the less. It is well known that I am a Brexiteer for many reasons, including so that we can be a sovereign democratic nation, decide what the rule of law is and how it should be interpreted, and set our own foreign and domestic policies to sow into our economy, instead of upholding those of other countries who have nothing but contempt for us and everything we stand for. When I was looking into the debate and getting background information about it, that is what my heart was saying, but that was not enough. We needed to know that we could survive outside Europe—the figures needed to be found and the numbers crunched. They determined that, yes, we could survive, but more than that, we could thrive as a nation in our own right once again by becoming the global Britain that we have heard so much about. How do we do that? That is why this debate is important.
The first step is to enhance the links we have now, taking the complete focus off Europe while firming up our trade partnerships there, and exploring other relationships outside that. We need the diplomatic service and resources to make that happen.
Is it not the case that if industries such as food and drink, which has a deep presence in my constituency, are to make the most of post-Brexit export market opportunities, we need more than ever a well-resourced diplomatic service with a genuinely global reach?
I agree. Each of us in the Chamber can speak for our own food and drink sectors. I am pleased to have Portavogie prawns and Comber potatoes in my constituency, both of which are names in their own right across Europe, and we want to see them across the whole of the world. We will build on that trade to make that happen. A number of new gin distilleries are also starting up: two have done so in my constituency in the last year and a half, and the hon. Lady probably has those as well. The sector is growing, and we want to ensure that that continues.
But according to the Prime Minister yesterday, the biggest threat we face at the moment relates to Russia. We have been proud that, over the past few years, we have managed to go to European Council meetings and get the rest of the European Union to sign up to international sanctions against Russia. At the moment, the Prime Minister is speaking to Macron and, no doubt, Merkel and other leaders around Europe to try to get the whole of Europe signed up to a common position. That will be vital to us. It will be much more difficult for us to achieve that when in future we will not get to sit at the table when common security and defence policy is agreed. How does the hon. Gentleman think that will happen?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his “but.” It is always good to have his input. Let us be honest: we all see the common threat, which at this time is Russia, as the Prime Minister told us yesterday in the Chamber. It is across the fronts of all the papers and front-page news on the media today. Already, France, Germany and other European partners recognise the common threat of Russia. I am confident, as I hope he is, about how we can espy the common enemy, understand where the focus has to be and then move forward accordingly.
An oft-cited statistic on trade with the Commonwealth bears repeating: in 2015, UK exports of goods and services to the Commonwealth were worth some £47.4 billion, while imports were worth £45.5 billion. The right hon. Member for Newbury referred to the Commonwealth, and we cannot forget about it. It is important for us to have it in place.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in all walks of life and every organisation, there comes a time when reinvigoration and renewals is needed, and the diplomatic service is no different from any other? If we are moving away from the European Union, we need to be at the top of our game and, as has been mentioned, have proper staff in place to take us forward into the next century.
Yes, we do need to invigorate. It is like a marriage: every now and again we need to invigorate it. It is important that we do so at this level, and that we do it well.
Those statistics on Commonwealth exports and imports give us a good idea. It is clear that great work is being done, but there is massive potential for more to be done. We are looking at how we can advance that. The UK’s trade is heavily focused on a small number of the 51 Commonwealth countries: in 2015, Australia, Canada, India, Singapore and South Africa accounted for 70% of UK exports to Commonwealth countries and 65% of imports from the Commonwealth. Those are massive figures, but we can build on that and do better.
How are trade links to be developed to deliver their full potential? A big key is through our Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Minister and the embassies. I know the Minister is committed to that at every level. Our teams in the embassies do a phenomenal job. I spoke recently in a debate highlighting the great work that the FCO did in bringing the body of one of my constituents home, and praise goes to the FCO for the marvellous work it does, but that case showed clearly that it could help so quickly and bring so much relief and peace to a grieving family because there was someone on the ground to sort it out. That was because we already have phenomenal staff in the embassies doing great work.
My hon. Friend has given one example from his constituency, but does he agree that we need to see more of what the diplomatic service does in many countries, which is work in alerting the United Kingdom Government of international security consequences and relief that can be offered in terms of Africa as well as the business of creating trade, which benefits both the recipient country and ourselves?
My hon. Friend is right. The work that the embassies do cannot and does not happen when we are busy bringing people from our embassies into our EU embassies. We cannot afford to continue to have our focus split in such a way by robbing Peter to pay Paul. It is necessary to have trading partnerships in place in Europe, but it is also necessary to have representation globally, outside of Europe. That is where our focus should and must be as of now, and particularly as of 31 March 2019.
The FCO feels the same way, which is why it has sold off part of the family silver in the form of the Bangkok embassy. I understand that prime real estate can be sold to help make the changes needed to evolve the FCO while maintaining a presence, but my fear has been succinctly put in the words of a Guardian article, which cited a former Minister saying:
“Yes, we can sell the family silver for a bit and, yes, we punch above our weight, but unless we are careful, we are about to step into the ring with people way above our weight and without any gloves.”
We must be careful about what we do—that is the gist of that article. I want to take this opportunity to impress upon Government and the Minister how essential it is that funding is given to allow the FCO to do what we ask it to do: to establish a presence, build on that presence, and ensure that the links and support on the ground are there. The right hon. Member for Newbury put down a clear marker for that in his introduction.
To take this matter to a constituency level—everything relates to back home in our constituencies—I am currently working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to attempt to circumnavigate the mounds of red tape that exist between differing nations such as China and ourselves.
A business in my constituency is ready with a product and raring to go in China, yet it is being held up by the wording on a veterinary certificate. It is immensely frustrating to see how people can introduce words to become obstacles to moving forward. We have been negotiating and working on this—I praise that Minister, who is going through the same frustration—and it is clear that in such situations our Departments need the help and guidance of the FCO.
In achieving for constituents and businesses in the UK, we achieve for ourselves. When a business in Ards thrives and takes on more staff, my local economy thrives. Because of the nature of tax, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs also thrives, and therefore on the national level we thrive as well. To do that we need staff on the ground in those countries to help departments, and we cannot have them all sent off to shore up embassies in Europe. We must send those staff where we will need them in the future. We must be able to work both inside and outside Europe, and to do that we must have the finance and staff in place. That is where we are at present.
The point of this motion, at least for me, and most certainly my take on it, is that for us to succeed globally we must be present and effective globally. That will not happen if we scale back globally to focus on Europe alone. Hopefully the Minister will confirm that we are branching out and developing our embassies across the world, taking up global opportunities and doing all the things referred to by my hon. Friend and colleague the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). We should be helping people in other countries, but also trying to advance our export and import trade.
I understand that the Department is in a difficult position, but we need to play the long game, which I do not believe means pulling back in other nations. We must keep the gloves on and be prepared to fight for our global position, and not allow Europe to seem to be the be-all and end-all of our future aims and strategies—that is why we voted to leave the European Union. Let me be clear: I must not be misunderstood as saying that we should pull out of Europe—certainly not. Trade with Europe is important for our future, but so is global trade and we must find a way of doing both and doing them well. That will mean recruiting more and spending more now, as well as in the long term, and receiving more for all our benefits. I implore the Minister: sell no more family silver, and instead focus on polishing what we have and putting it to the best use possible.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on his excellent speech in opening this important and serious debate. I will not respond to what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—he is also my friend—said, other than to remind him of famous lines written in worse days: “To hell with the future and God bless the past, and may God in his mercy look down on Belfast.” I think that to characterise the situation with the European Union in the way that he did is not sensible or helpful to his constituents.
I will commence my remarks by paying tribute to the Foreign Office and all those who work there. What it now achieves on its very, very limited budget is exceptional. Generally speaking, the standard of our people and our representation abroad is astonishingly good, as my right hon. Friend made clear. I hope the House will acknowledge that, and thank those staff and praise them for their efforts.
I strongly endorse the words of my hon. Friends the Members for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) and for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) about military attachés. When I was Minister of State for the Armed Forces I used to interview every military attaché personally, because I believe it is a significant and important position within an embassy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow said, military attachés are part of the golden currency and their role is far wider than just the military. In places such as the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and particularly in the middle east where the golden currency is relationships, those military attachés play a vital role that should be seen—as indeed it is—not as a sort of job at the end of a distinguished career, but as a job for someone very much on the way up. It is an important part of our diplomatic effort.
It seems yet another act of self-inflicted British mutilation that, at a time when the risks and problems abroad are ever increasing, and when through a very poor decision this country has decided to leave the European Union and make our way in a complex and difficult world alone, we should so ill resource our Foreign Office. We must put that right immediately. Contrary to what most of the tabloid press believe, this country is not a superpower, and it is inevitable that our influence—already sadly but quite clearly on the wane—will further decrease as the realities of the folly of our exit from the European Union become clear. A middle-ranking power, for that is what we are, must work very hard indeed to protect and further its interests. It must burnish and sustain its alliances, networks and friendships to keep them in good working order, and above all in good repair, ready for the day when we need them for the big stuff. Such a day is today, and the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister, and all those concerned will be doing all they can to bring our allies and friends alongside us in the very difficult task that we have over the next 24 hours when dealing with the Russians.
To continue that theme, if we are to have any credibility, and ultimately if we are to maintain our seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is it not ever more important to stamp what the United Kingdom stands for around the world, and redouble our commitment to NATO and other organisations?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. He was a distinguished and successful Foreign Office Minister, and he has seen all these things in action. He is completely right: we will have to redouble all our efforts, call in all our chips, and work very hard to retain our influence and position on the world stage. That is an incontestable fact.
Some people have suggested in recent months that after Brexit, instead of spending so much time on Brussels, we should spend more time on other European capitals. My feeling is exactly the opposite: to secure the foreign policy and security outcomes we want, will we not have to double our efforts in Brussels to ensure that we win arguments?
I agree, and I would say further that we will have to ride every single horse in the park, not just the European horse. We no longer have a diplomatic network in the way that we used to, because our diplomatic network has been subordinated, in a perfectly sensible way, to working within the European Union. We will have to revitalise that, and indeed there is now a great rush to hire people or move them around, to ensure that the embassies are properly equipped. My father was for a time the British Ambassador in Paris. I was in the Army at that time, and I look back on those days, before we were members of the European Union, at the sheer scale of British diplomatic efforts to achieve what we set out to achieve, which was truly remarkable. We will have to replicate that right across Europe in order to retain our position.
I will continue if I may.
These relationships with allies, friends and networks do not just drop into our lap; they require continuous and ceaseless effort, and the most serious diplomatic work. Take the example of the last few months. With our allies we continue to be engaged in an active diplomatic and other campaign to counter Islamist extremism. We have also once again entered an era of deterrence in the face of threatening rhetoric and aggressive behaviour from Russia. While military deterrence must be properly integrated with political, economic, diplomatic and other hybrid deterrence measures, credible conventional military capability remains a vital part of a strategy designed to keep the peace. It also ranks, pari passu, with the diplomatic effort required to ensure the same thing. In an environment of uncertainty, it is essential that we stand with all our diplomatic, military and other assets, ready to reassure, and if necessary defend, our allies in a manner that will force any potential opponents to think twice. As I have said, that requires not just military assets, but most especially our diplomatic reach across the world.
On the news this morning one suggestion made by one of the experts in response to Russia’s actions was that we should withdraw from the World cup in Russia, and instead hold it here in England. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that that would be an impressive way of putting pressure on Russia to bring about change? It is perhaps a diplomatic way—well, it might be an undiplomatic way of doing it, but it is an important way.
I do not think that it is nearly serious enough for the kind of steps that the Government will need to take against Russia. Just to say a lot of dignitaries will not be sent to the World cup is nowhere near good enough. It is a pathetic response. We will need to do much better and be much tougher, so that it is understood across the full spectrum that the behaviour in question is something up with which we will not put.
It is not just a question of money, although that is vital, of course. It is also a question—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury made the point extremely well—of how we marry our hard power, which is sadly considerably diminished, to our exceptional soft power, and ensure that they both work closely together in achieving our diplomatic objectives. It is frankly far too casual and complacent a habit, into which this country falls at the slightest opportunity, to assume that that happens by magic. It is my view that our exceptional and truly remarkable soft power is not well or effectively co-ordinated with our other diplomacy. Indeed, there is a view in the Foreign Office that it should be left well alone to get on with it by itself. The issues of security, development, energy, climate change and all the rest of it have to be worked through in tandem with soft power, as well as with diplomacy, the military, development aid experts and everyone else involved, so that they work together and not in competition.
I want to return to a point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury has already enlarged on, and mention how extraordinarily impressed I was by our diplomatic mission in Harare—our excellent ambassador and her wonderful staff—and by the DFID staff, who are excellent. They are working together and acting as a force multiplier for the United Kingdom and for our objectives in Zimbabwe. We could not have been so successful in Zimbabwe with that extraordinary aid programme, which is brilliant, without everyone working together. It is a model for the rest of the diplomatic service. There are still places, in the lands of the ungodly, where that does not happen. It is unthinkable, to my mind, that the Foreign Secretary does not issue a fatwa to the effect that it will happen everywhere—and that right soon. It is a ridiculous waste of money and assets for the two to be accommodated separately. They should be accommodated together and work together for British interests.
I cannot believe that my right hon. Friend the Minister believes that it is sensible even to consider closing more diplomatic posts. Indeed, we must now be pretty much at the bare minimum of our representation. We need adequately to staff the smaller posts, so that we do not just have an ambassador and a locally engaged driver. It is all very well having locally engaged staff. They are marvellous and do a good job, and they are very loyal; but they are not, at the end of the day, Brits. We are after promoting our British way of life and our values. I again endorse the point that we must return constantly to making sure that people understand the values of this country as we make our sad way from the European Union. It is right that we re-establish our values as they are. That requires a good, decent diplomatic story.
I also reaffirm my unstinting support and admiration for the BBC World Service and congratulate everyone who works in that extraordinary organisation on the excellent job they do for this country. It would be a foolish short-term measure to reduce in any way the financial support to the BBC World Service, and I look to the Government to give me an assurance that that will not be the case. I endorse the views of the provost, or rather Lord Waldegrave—he is the provost of the school that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury went to—about the winner of the battle between the two great Departments of state, with respect to the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. I always used to say—I hasten to say it was as a joke, because I actually got a letter from the Foreign Office stating that it did not work for the Russians—that the Treasury works for the Russians, given how successfully it has undermined our military effort. I wholly support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in the energetic and earnest campaign that he is rightly waging to increase our military spending to about 2.5% as a bare minimum.
My right hon. Friend has mentioned the BBC World Service. Does he agree that in many of the countries that he mentioned, where we need to have one family in one location, the role of the British Council is also extremely important and is a crucial way of building up our soft power, as is the role of the BBC World Service?
My hon. Friend has always been known for his natural exuberance. If he would pause for a second, he would hear the magisterial exposition that I am about to give of the British Council. Another balls-up by Bellingham.
To pre-empt my hon. Friend’s over-excitement, we have a priceless asset in the British Council. I again urge the Foreign Office to accept its vital importance. It is important that it should work extremely closely with the Foreign Office and in the general promotion of the British aim, and that the Government should continue to fund it, recognising the exceptional results that it achieves for Great Britain. I try always, when I am lucky enough to travel abroad, to call on the British Council. I cannot tell you, Mr Bailey, how much I admire the remarkable work done, in place after place where I have been, by the people who work for the British Council. It is extraordinary. They build profound relationships with people—for example, through the learning of English, which hopefully equips people to come here and study. It is part of a greater British effort, and important for that.
There is a compelling—indeed, unassailable—case for Britain to retain and develop its active diplomacy, which means it must be better resourced, and to provide the money needed to do the job properly. We are all struggling to retain a rules-based world, which is clearly in our best interests and which we have always promoted. We have, over the years, been its architect and great supporter, with our American allies and others. It is today a concept under considerable threat. Our country is truly at a crossroads. Our global influence is already coming under considerable pressure and it is essential for the further success, safety and security of this realm that our diplomacy is properly resourced, so that it can do the very good job that it currently does on a shoestring.
Thank you, Mr Bailey, for getting round to this knight, as Sir Lancelot may have said to Guinevere. I am delighted to join in this important debate this morning. I hope that it will not be the last we shall have on the subject.
I do not seek to replicate much of what my right hon. and hon. Friends have said. I just want to pick up on one or two issues, the first of which is our physical global imprint—our estate. I hope to go from here later to a lunch to congratulate James Stourton and Luke White, who have produced a magnificent book called “British Embassies: Their Diplomatic and Architectural History”. It is an extraordinarily good book on Britain’s overseas estate. Looking through it, it is possible to have one of two reactions—to giggle in bemused embarrassment at the awful post-colonial life that our embassies represent, or feel rather proud that we possess some of the finest properties, many of which, incidentally, were gifted to us by the then Heads of State of the host countries. That is something that other countries look on with envy.
In my four and a half years at the Foreign Office, I was pleased to open some rather small embassies that had been closed, in Asunción and in El Salvador, and a consulate in Recife, and so on. It was always a source of pride to be reopening embassies, however small, rather than going around closing them. I cannot think of a single example, in retrospect, about which we can say, “Gosh, weren’t we clever to sell X embassy: we are in much better accommodation now”—Madrid being one of the great disasters. I was rather involved in the Bangkok embassy site; the rationale for the sale was that it was inappropriately located and no longer fit for purpose, although, needless to say, we had just spent some huge amount of money on accommodation on that site. I note with horror what I have picked up on my various visits—that the Chancellery building in Paris, which will be well known to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), whose bedroom no doubt overlooked it for many happy years, is possibly going to be sold. What a ridiculous message it would send to Paris, at the heart of Europe, as we exit the European Union, to sell our Chancellery building on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
My right hon. Friend the Minister does an excellent job in the Foreign Office now. I do not know whether he sits on the body I sat on—the Foreign Office board, where many of these things are discussed. It strikes me, in my experience, that these things are never brought to the attention of Ministers. Perhaps they are brought to the Foreign Secretary, but on the whole they are decided by the permanent under-secretary and others—the mandarins within the Foreign Office. There is absolutely no doubt, to my way of thinking, that these are Treasury-led decisions. It is about saving money, not about looking at our global footprint and where we want to be represented.
In future, whenever there is any discussion, there is an oversight role here for the Foreign Affairs Committee, on which many hon. Members sit, to have a view on any proposed changes to the diplomatic estate globally, and not at the eleventh hour, when the decisions have effectively already been taken. I would like to see that change, and I would welcome the Minister’s view on that.
I will take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention first, and then that of my right hon. Friend.
The Foreign Affairs Committee intends to do exactly as the right hon. Gentleman suggests. If I can correct one thing, I do not think the Madrid decision was made on a Treasury basis. The old building was difficult to maintain and was listed under Spanish law and all the rest of it, but we did move to the wrong place. I opened it, as it happened—the highest embassy we have in the world, I think, because it is in the highest capital in Europe and on the 75th floor, or whatever. It is virtually inaccessible to lots of people and it was a terrible mistake for us to move there. My biggest concern—
Order. Interventions should be short and not speeches. I want to bring the Front-Bench spokespersons in at 10.30, so would everybody bear that in mind?
I will take a brief intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury.
I was in Panama just after we sold one of the few nice buildings in Panama City, on the main corniche, and moved the embassy residence to the suburbs. The ambassador said to me, almost with tears in his eyes, that he could have made a business case for the use of that building that would have allowed us to continue there. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such decisions are often taken with a short-term perspective, which results in a failure to understand not only the long-term business case, but the influence case?
My right hon. Friend is clearly right. I see that on 21 February, in a topical question, I asked that there be a moratorium on any asset disposals until such a review is complete. That question was answered with tremendous agreement by the Foreign Secretary. Let us have a moratorium until we decide what our global footprint will be, and let us have no more selling off of properties until the Foreign Affairs Committee has some formal oversight role.
Another thing I campaigned for, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex touched on briefly in describing his experiences in Zimbabwe, is what I called “one HMG”. I should be interested to hear an update from the Minister on that. Over the years, many different Government Departments have crept into some of these places and have other organisations in many capitals around the world; they include the Scotland Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Often, the ambassador does not have much control over some of these other organisations.
In some countries—I think Nepal was one—the head of the Department for International Development was a much more senior figure than our ambassador and would not kowtow to them. It is my view that, very simply, the individual who represents the British Government abroad is the ambassador, and everybody should work for the ambassador. There should be no discrepancy in employment, accommodation and so on, and where possible, all those other agencies should be brought under the British embassy or the British high commission and co-located on that estate.
That leads me to my next point: we are still shadow-boxing about the independence of DFID. Increasingly, as a lot of the Foreign Office is funded by overseas development money, that skews things and the lines are getting blurred. I wish at some point someone would have the bravery to say that DFID belongs back with the mother ship. We could have huge economies and savings, and greater alignment of British views and values overseas, by bringing it back to the mother ship. To anyone who says, “We can’t do that; all the non-governmental organisations will get too upset,” I say that I do not think the NGOs are in any position to do anything at the moment—at least some of them—and the stock rejoinder to them is, “Look, we stand by our pledge of 0.07% of GDP. That’s our answer. How we actually apply that is up to the Government, not the NGOs.”
We are about to see a major change to the European External Action Service, the force under Federica Mogherini. I always thought it to be pretty hit and miss around the world; it seemed to me very often that the head of the EEAS was always going off to the British embassy to find out the latest intelligence, but we paid a lot of money to the EEAS and a lot of our best people were employed there, on better terms than our own people locally. That is something we want to withdraw; I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on how many British people who currently work for the EEAS will be pulled back into the FCO and where they will be deployed.
Overall, it seems to me that a major piece of work needs to be done—a major realignment of what the UK is seeking to do abroad. That involves the World Service, the British Council and different Departments of State; it involves redefining what we mean by soft power as well as ensuring that that soft power is backed up by a sufficient military capability. It is pointless to have soft power unless we have decent armed forces which, if necessary, can support that soft power. That is a fundamental piece of work that needs to be done, and I am not convinced that it is being done cross-departmentally or that it is being done by Ministers. I believe a Cabinet Sub-Committee should be set up without further ado to bring together all these competing demands on the Exchequer, to articulate what we expect from our superb diplomatic service—the envy of the world—to ensure that it is given the tools to do the job, and to better co-ordinate all the different parts of the state to that end.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing this debate. It is one that I seem to find myself in more and more often; I am sure the Minister is thinking, “Oh, not Docherty-Hughes again,” but I am also delighted to see the Minister in their place.
There seems to be a consistent narrative, when we debate the diplomatic service and resources, of concerns about investment from across the entire House. The right hon. Member was right that it is not just a numbers game. It is not just about numbers; they are not everything. Many of the right hon. and hon. Members here, who are far more learned and knowledgeable on these matters than I, will recognise that connectedness and relationships can also be critical in diplomacy and are equally important.
I have just returned from Washington DC with the Defence Committee, where I saw the work of the French diplomatic corps regarding some of the activities on Capitol Hill. Being a member of the European Union has not stopped them covering Capitol Hill like a rash and speaking vocally on behalf of the French Government. That is something that we have clearly forgotten about here in the UK. That is in the practical sense of their own diplomatic activity, but it is also about a recognition of how modern states engage; it is not just about the past, but about modern relationships under the international rule of law.
Clarity is also needed about how we strengthen our diplomatic networks without undermining further the institutional integrity and, importantly, the institutional memory of the FCO. While investment to create what I am led to believe will be 150 jobs to deal with the complexity of Brexit is welcome, we should have clarity that those new jobs do not undermine the capabilities of the FCO’s teams across Asia, Africa and even both of the Americas.
From my perspective, there are clear issues that the Government must consider in moving forward. First, we should recognise the relationships with our closest allies that support and enhance the rule of international law, which is critical if we are to move forward. Secondly, we should utilise diplomacy to enhance economic stability and discourage mercantilism, which undermines liberal democracy. Third—the Minister will no doubt know where I am going with this—we need to recognise the challenges that UK citizens face abroad if, for instance, they are arrested or held without charge. Many nations already have legislative frameworks under which their own diplomatic corps deal with this, but we do not. Consular support would offer clarity to our FCO teams, the families and Members. The Minister probably no doubt knows the example of my constituent, Jagtar Singh Johal, who continues to be held in India.
Fourthly, we should work with devolved Governments across the UK. For example, existing frameworks, such as the Scottish Government’s international framework, could be a useful tool in building those relationships we have in specific locations. We should recognise opportunities to strengthen the devolved Administrations’ offer, such as the work being undertaken by the Scottish Government with the Arctic Council and some of the Nordic states on the high north, where some would say we have key gaps, and also their hubs in Berlin and Paris. As I said to the Prime Minister yesterday after her statement, we should also challenge some of our closest allies, such as Spain—a NATO member—which allows the refuelling and supply of the Russian fleet. Those are the kind of diplomacy implements that we should take forward.
We should also recognise that, with reduced resources, relationships are critical. In Washington DC, I noticed representatives of another European Union country—one with a population of 3 million—covering Capitol Hill in the most extraordinary way, but without a huge embassy to go with it: Ireland. Its diaspora is so interconnected that it could teach us a thing or two.
I have been consistent on how we should deal with Russia. When I turned on Radio Scotland this morning, I have to admit that I thought that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) had suddenly become a Member for a Scottish constituency. However, I did not disagree with the majority of what they had to say. The challenges are clear, and they need to be rebuffed in a coherent and cohesive manner with our allies.
How are we supposed to cover the economic challenges that China poses while wanting to cover all the other bases? The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) wanted us to ride all those horses. Given that we are leaving the European Union, how will we meet that challenge? I understand where they were coming from: it is about how we use our economic challenge to ride the horses such as China, the political, military, economic challenges of Russia and some of the most extraordinary challenges coming out of the United States.
There are great links to be had in the Commonwealth, but there are also huge challenges in how we diplomatically face down challenges to the international rule of law, such as human rights for women, Christians and Muslims—people of all faiths—and the LGBTI community. How do we do that during the complexity of leaving the European Union? Having voted to remain myself, and representing what I would say is a working-class constituency that voted to remain within the European Union, I, and I think the majority of Scottish constituency MPs, have yet to be convinced about the Government’s approach to securing a more stable and peaceful future founded on sound diplomacy.
Finally, on an element of complexity in international law, will the Minister advise us how we will go forward in financing our diplomatic resources—people and those relationships—to make sure that we substantiate and add to the rule of international law and are not a detriment to it?
It is very nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing this timely debate. He described the context in which we live at the moment as extremely turbulent, which is undoubtedly true, both in the short term, with our relations with Russia, and also with these big, strategic changes with the growth of China. I agree with him; I saw it 15 months ago in Lusophone Africa, where the Chinese are investing a great deal more than Portugal.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, everything is about context. In 1990, as a Treasury civil servant—we have heard about the divide between the Treasury and the Foreign Office; I am afraid to say that I was a Treasury civil servant—I was sent to Prague. It was obviously a very turbulent time. The Berlin wall had fallen and the Czechoslovak Government were extremely worried that they would face the sort of energy crisis that Ukraine has suffered from, because the Russians were ramping up the prices for the oil and gas that the Czechoslovaks were wholly dependent on.
I was sent to work for a few months in the Czechoslovak Prime Minister’s office. It was a very confused and chaotic time. Havel was in the Castle, but the rest of the Government contained communist members. The first thing I did was report to the head of mission. I went off, and I sat and waited, and the meeting was delayed and delayed. It took place an hour later. When I went in, he was incredibly stressed. I asked him what the matter was, and he said that his servants were on strike and he had been trying to sort it out.
I hope that the Foreign Office has moved on since 1990 in that respect, because it is extremely important that Foreign Office officials project Britain as we are now. I could not agree more with the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) on Britain’s place in the world today. We are a middle-sized nation, not a superpower, and it is extremely important that we behave intelligently and appropriately. Fantasising about what we were and where we have been is distinctly unhelpful. He was also absolutely right that, in order to maximise our power and influence at the moment, we need to build relationships, whether with EU colleagues, in the United Nations or in NATO. We will never achieve anything except by collaborating with other countries.
The hon. Lady is making an impressive speech, but may I disagree with her on one tiny point? Although it is important that we do not think that we are what we were, we do have this absolutely wonderful architecture and a brilliant inheritance of vast experience all over the world, in good times and bad times. Our values and everything we stand for are built on rock-firm footings. It is now our job to see that that legacy is expressed in contemporary terms, which requires a much more aggressive approach.
I will come to the soft power aspects and the institutions that contribute to that in a moment. First, I want to look at the numbers and the reductions that the Foreign Office budget has had since 2010 and is projected to have.
I slightly disagree with the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames). I do not know whether my hon. Friend noticed, but Emmanuel Macron went to India the other day and said, notwithstanding our historic relationship with India, as part of the former empire and all the rest of it, that he intends France to be India’s prime access point to the European Union in the future. We have to be very careful about not relying on the past.
If we leave the European Union, we obviously cannot be the prime access point to the European Union. That stands to reason.
I will come to the soft power assets in a moment, but I just want to say something about the numbers. The Foreign Office budget reduction is slightly unclear. Is it 16%, 30% or 40% over the 10-year period? Whatever it is, it is quite a significant amount of resource. I realise that some of the Foreign Office budget has gone into the Department for International Trade and some into the Department for Exiting the European Union, but the smallest cut that one can glean from looking at the numbers is about 16%, which is none the less extremely large. It seems to me that it is difficult for the Government to project the global Britain role while at the same time reducing resources in the Foreign Office.
Turning to our soft power assets, we are all very proud of the World Service and pleased with the British Council, and we all think that the Commonwealth is a fantastic network. There is another soft power asset, which I think we should look at alongside those assets. I am talking about our universities and higher education. We have soft power assets in this country as well as overseas.
Will the hon. Lady take this opportunity to applaud the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the Chevening scholarship programme and the Commonwealth programme? These are hugely important ways of promoting the United Kingdom domestically to an international audience.
Yes, and of course the English language is the root of much of this.
However, I disagree with what was said previously in this debate about overseas aid. The Labour Government set up the Department for International Development as a separate Department in order that we could be absolutely clear that the aid budget had aid objectives—sustainable development objectives—and we have now agreed, on a cross-party basis, on the 0.7% target. We believe that aid has been much more effective and much better because it has not been jumbled up with other policy objectives. In my opinion, the foreign policy benefits from a good aid programme are greater than can be achieved when people try to go along to the Development Assistance Committee and fiddle with the rules, saying, “Oh, couldn’t we please put the hurricane money for the Caribbean into the overseas aid programme?” No. The reason why we get credibility and support from those countries that are receiving our aid is the very high quality of the aid, so I would certainly not wish to pull those two things together again.
One thing that is not very clear in the Foreign Office annual report and accounts is how the money is spent. In particular, it is not clear how the conflict, stability and security fund, which is the share of the budget going from the aid Department to the Foreign Office, is spent. I think the Government should be extremely cautious about merging those two.
I also think we need to put a question mark over the switch from Africa, Latin America and Asia to the European Union. Perhaps the Foreign Office simply does not have enough resource, in which case Foreign Office Ministers need to go back to their colleagues in the Treasury and make the case, but it seems to Opposition Members that if we want to develop our relationships across the globe, we cannot be cutting our resource in those other parts of the world. I submit that the switch of 50 people to the European Union will probably be quite a short-sighted change.
The question is really whether global Britain is a slogan or a policy. As the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs said, there is a risk that it is becoming a slogan rather than a policy. If Ministers need to bid for more money, so be it. We do not see holding to the current limit as necessarily a hard line. We should be investing in our relationships across the globe.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for securing this vital debate on an issue of national importance. I pay tribute to his valuable work on the Intelligence and Security Committee. I know from experience the time-consuming but absorbing nature of its activity, albeit that, by its nature, it is rather unsung and, in theory at least, low profile.
I thank everyone who contributed during the debate; there were some excellent contributions. I shall endeavour to answer all the questions, as I have a little more time than I had anticipated. There are one or two more technical aspects on which I will write to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), if I am able to do so, subsequently.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury rightly talked about the need for a dramatic and dynamic shift of resource. He touched on our Africa strategy. As he will be aware, our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out, at her first G20 meeting in July 2017, a new long-term vision for our partnerships with Africa, centred on supporting African aspirations for economic growth, trade, job creation and investment. Ministers across Her Majesty’s Government have worked closely together to refresh our approach in order to deliver on that vision. We are clear—I reiterate the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury—that our substantial development spend in Africa needs to be directed more broadly towards the UK national interest, as well as supporting those in greatest need in Africa.
Let me touch on the point raised just now by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. I agree with her fundamentally, in that I think it is dangerous for us to look on aid as intermingled with other strands of British interest. We can take, for example, the deteriorating political situation in Cambodia at the moment. We have some important long-term aid programmes in Cambodia that deal with mine clearance and are designed to work for the most vulnerable in that country. The notion that we should hold the Cambodian Government of the day, however much we might disapprove of their work, to ransom in some form in that regard would be quite wrong. Indeed, I made it very clear in my meeting with the Cambodian ambassador only a few weeks ago that we would continue, on exactly the same terms, to fulfil our aid obligations.
However, I do believe that there is at least some mileage in the view that we need to look at this issue. I have sympathy with a number of my right hon. Friends, who talked in their contributions about the idea of DFID coming back into the Foreign Office. There is a sense in which there needs to be a broader focus. Particularly in the post-Brexit world that we will be living in, we need to focus all our energies in a one-Government situation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury talked about official development assistance, which was also raised by the Opposition spokesman. It is right to say that the Foreign Office is and will continue to be a large ODA-spending Department. The Department closely complements DFID’s efforts, and we are trying to deliver on the Government’s aid strategy commitments through our own programmes—in particular, the cross-Whitehall conflict, stability and security fund and the prosperity fund, for which I now have responsibility in the Foreign Office. That also involves grants to external organisations, and our global remit means that we are designing those to deliver a breadth of programming in support of our national security strategy that other Departments simply do not have the resource to do. I believe that programmes of that sort will very evidently begin to add value by responding quickly to specific or niche requirements in volatile environments. I am talking about pursuing higher-risk programmes where political sensitivities require a different approach, but also exploring and testing options before scaling up and unlocking larger interventions by others.
It is recognised that some of the ODA and non-ODA programmes will have to be blended together, in order to secure some of the best outcomes in the future. That applies not just to Africa, but to Asia and the Pacific—an issue close to my heart and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire). I accept that an unintended consequence will be that some aspects of our annual report will be rendered more opaque.
In many ways it would be a pleasure to have a much broader debate, along the lines that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) developed. I hope that we will be able to have further discussions both offline and on the Floor of the House in future. He is well aware that I have a significant amount of sympathy with much of what he said. We need to be realistic about where we are in the future. I will be honest: I gave considerable thought to whether I should be a Minister in this Government. I was, like him, passionately—on emotional and geopolitical grounds as much as anything else—keen that this country should stay in the European Union. Yes, in my heart of hearts, I do believe it was a mistake. However, we have to make it work. I think it is also important that people of my mind play their part within Government, rather than just beyond Government, not to frustrate that Brexit outcome, but to try and make it work as well as we can and to put that voice across.
I do not disagree with what the Minister has just said, but the key thing is how we ensure that we are able to secure the policy outcomes on defence, security and foreign affairs, in relation to places such as Russia, the middle east or Iran, after Brexit. I urge the Foreign Office to do a full review of our presence in Brussels itself, because it will need to become much more like a lobbying operation than it has ever been before.
I have a lot of sympathy with that view and I think there is little doubt that we will need to do that. I saw that when I attended the Foreign Affairs Council only last week, in the stead of the Foreign Secretary.
I will talk a bit about the British Council, because that was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex. I fully recognise the fantastic work of the British Council and its soft power potential post-Brexit. I have seen that with my own eyes in virtually all my overseas visits in Asia, and indeed even last week when I was in Paris. Funding for the British Council has increased over the spending period. There are issues, as I think my right hon. Friend is aware, about the signing off of accounts. We need to get those accounts ready, not just to impress the Treasury, but because I want to be able to make the most aggressive case for the importance of that soft power, and the British Council’s integral importance in that, when we leave the European Union, but that does require the British Council having its financial house in order. We are working closely with the Treasury to try to achieve that impact.
If I may, I will make some progress, as I am now running out of time, having tried to address a number of the issues.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon made strong points about the issues around estates. We have discussed this in the past, but I have to say that I think all of us regret the idea that the embassy building in Bangkok had to be sold off. One rather hopes that having lost Bangkok, it will be the last of such sales. As he is well aware, a considerable amount of that money is being reinvested in improving our estates across the world. I have to say, I have not heard in any way the issue he raised about the Paris Chancellery. As for the EEAS people being sent back by the FCO, I will try and write to him in some detail on that.
I believe that a well-directed, properly funded diplomatic service is vital to delivering the United Kingdom’s overseas objectives at such a crucial time. The world today is more complex, challenging and costly than at any point since the end of the cold war. At the same time, we are striving to deliver a positive, hopeful, optimistic and, I still hope, a successful exit from the EU, while simultaneously turning our vision of global Britain into reality by increasing further our already significant international reach and influence. It is no underestimate, however, to say today that the UK faces—I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex—its greatest diplomatic challenges in decades.
This Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that the diplomatic service receives the resources it needs to support a resilient and adaptable network, with sufficient capacity to respond decisively to fresh priorities and challenges. This includes exploiting the inevitable opportunities that will arise in a post-Brexit world.
We have some 274 posts in 169 different countries and territories. The FCO’s current overseas network provides a crucial platform from which the 30 other Government Departments and agencies are able to operate. Our diplomats cultivate the deep and nuanced relationships that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have referred to, which provide critical political insight and access. This helps deliver all other aspects of Government policy around the globe. The diplomatic service must remain crucial to delivering that wide range of Government priority work, from counter-terrorism to cultural engagement, and from consular assistance to trade. I have a lot of sympathy with the direct point that was made about the importance of our ambassador or high commissioner being the leading light, irrespective of all the other aspects of the one platform set-up.
Historically, it has been impossible to deliver this at comparatively little investment. As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s budget this financial year is only £1.2 billion, which represents just 6% of the Government’s expenditure on a major overseas Department. Once cross-Whitehall funds and non-discretionary spending, such as UN subscriptions, are removed, the remaining FCO budget is about £860 million. Delivering diplomacy at a relatively reduced slice of public expenditure in recent years has also been made partially possible through our membership of the European Union. Within the EU we have been able, hitherto, to amplify our voice in a range of international institutions. By leveraging the European Union we have been able to gain influence in countries where we have had a limited presence, such as francophone countries in west Africa. However, as our relationship beyond the European Union evolves, we must all accept that resourcing of the diplomatic service will also need to evolve to ensure that Britain’s voice and influence is not diminished.
I have responsibility for the FCO’s economic diplomacy and I recognise that sector-wide specialism in areas such as technology—whether FinTech or cybersecurity—international energy strategy, pharmaceuticals, and climate change and green finance will enable us to maximise our global impact. This will require not just bilateral co-operation, but a redoubling of our multilateral relationships, whether with the UN, the OECD or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to name just a few.
Will the Minister give way?
If I may, I will make progress, because I am running out of time and I really do want to cover all the points.
Needless to say, when it comes to free trade agreements, the single most important deal that the UK shall strike in the years ahead is the one we are able to agree with the EU27. More investment in the diplomatic service is essential, so that it is able to deal with the increasingly complex challenges it faces, so I am pleased that this important task has already begun. Last September, the FCO received almost £6.5 million from the Treasury to help deliver its EU exit priority work. These funds were used to create over 150 new positions across London and the Europe network. I take on board the point raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) about the importance of Brussels in that whole set-up. These diplomats are looking to work hard to deliver a new sanctions framework to transition the most crucial third-party agreements, to mitigate the risks of our EU exit for our overseas territories, for example, and to deepen bilateral relationships.
We recognise, however, that other countries are also investing heavily in their overseas networks, as my right hon. Friends have rightly observed. Germany is increasing its budget for its ministry for Foreign Affairs by a third, to some €5.2 billion over a three-year period. The French, the Dutch and the Turks are all investing substantially. Needless to say, in Asia, a part of the world for which I have responsibility, China, India and Japan are all doing likewise. If we are to maintain and increase our global outreach and influence, we need to ensure that the vision of a global Britain is more than just a mantra. I accept that for this, we must ensure that we provide the investment that is required. The FCO will evidently require reinforcements in Asia and the Pacific if the UK’s global and security goals are to be properly achieved.
I have been heartened by the reaction of my ministerial colleagues across Government, as they have been alive to that need, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to work closely with the Treasury to ensure that the diplomatic service is sufficiently resourced, not simply to deliver EU exit and global Britain, but to ensure that they are a success.
I will conclude, as I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury wants to speak briefly. I agree that if the UK is to continue to thrive and not simply survive, it is essential that we address the resource pressures of our diplomatic service. If we are to deal with the challenges and opportunities of the EU exit, I accept that we now need to consider where further investment is needed. I am pleased that we are debating this issue today. I hope that we will continue to debate it. I look forward to working closely with all of my colleagues here, who have this issue so passionately in their heart. Finally, the Government are committed to enabling Britain to have the diplomatic service it needs, as we work to realise our vision of a truly global Britain.
I am grateful to the Minister for coming here and giving such an honest and frank assessment. It was very impressive to hear. I hope he can convey a message back that many of us are looking, over the next few months, for a major setting out of a new strategy for these extraordinary times in which we live. That is going to require looking across the many issues that we have discussed. I am grateful for his reply to us today.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).