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Foreign Affairs Committee

Volume 682: debated on Thursday 22 October 2020

Select Committee statement

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them and should respect the one-way system around the room. We come in one way, and leave by the door marked “Exit”. Members may speak only from the horseshoe and only if they are on the call list. That applies even if debates are undersubscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list. They are not expected to remain for the wind-up speeches. Members in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move to the horseshoe when seats become available. I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that they stay for the next speeches once they have spoken. This is to help manage attendance in the room. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech, but they should be aware that doing so might prevent Members in the seats in the Public Gallery from moving to the seats in the horseshoe.

Tom Tugendhat will speak on the publication of the fourth report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, “A brave new Britain? The future of the UK’s international policy”. He will speak for up to 10 minutes during which time no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members as they appear on the call list to put questions on the subject of the statement and will call Tom Tugendhat to respond to them. Questions should be brief. We have 20 minutes.

Thank you, Mr Efford. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and it is good to see the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), back from his adventures in the middle east. It is a huge privilege to have him with us today.

This is not the speech that I had hoped to give. I was hoping that the report that we in the Foreign Affairs Committee produced would help the final stages of the integrated defence and foreign policy review, but sadly that has been put on hold. For reasons obvious to all, and to all members of the Committee with whom I was fortunate enough to draft the report, the Government have delayed the multi-year settlement that is necessary to make the document one that will be fit for the future. That is more than unfortunate. It is a mistake. Although I understand the pressures on the Government and on Government finances in the coming years—it is true that the world has rarely been less predictable—this is the very moment in which to invest in the future, because it is at moments like this that change happens.

Over the coming months and years, new deals will be done and norms will be set that change the international system. Agreements over everything from a medical assistance programme or vaccine sharing to new supply chains or travel corridors will set a new tone for a new world. We need to make sure that Britain’s voice helps to shape that. This matters more to us than to most. Our economy is truly global. Our services are international and our historic norms have set the pattern for the world, and we now exploit that today. It did not happen by accident.

Over centuries, British integrated effort helped an emerging order. We all remember the troops and ships that achieved it. Yesterday’s celebration of Trafalgar Day reminds us of the Royal Navy’s contribution to the system we enjoy today. But the reality is that it was the quiet clerks, just like in Parliament, who really ran things. As an aside, I should say that our report was brilliantly drafted by Nicholas Wade of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He has been working with us for several years, and his understanding of strategic integration is matched only by the two who were stolen from the Committee a little while ago to go and work in No. 10 in a very good act of theft by the Prime Minister.

Those organisers and accountants created a network of plumbing and accountability that has shaped the world we enjoy. They encoded the concepts of the individual, the company, the state, and values of privacy and freedom so deep into our system that they now reflect the embedded nature of liberty and the pursuit of happiness that others went on to champion. Today, that operating system is under threat.

We all know that China’s rise is one of the great successes of the free market. Since it broke away from communist isolation and instead turned to co-operation—okay, albeit that it is authoritarian—with the integrated system, China’s people have prospered. Capitalism, the system rejected by Chairman Mao, has lifted 850 million out of the poverty that he reduced them to. With a bit of luck, it will help more.

In the past few years, the international co-operation that we have been used to has been under strain. Its very operating system is being reprogrammed by those seeking to replace networked interdependence with a bilateral obedience. At moments of stress, like now, that will only speed up. That is why Britain cannot afford to wait. We cannot simply focus on our own internal difficulties and hope that others will wait for us to catch up when we are ready. They will not and cannot. The world moves on, and our choice is simple: will we help to drive the change and choose the direction, or will we wait and find out where we are going?

Our Committee speaks louder when it reflects the many voices that we hear as witnesses. The line-up that we had for this report was unprecedented. Serious people from every corner of the Earth said the same thing. We were exceptionally lucky to have a first: His Majesty the King of Jordan spoke to us on the record. Former Presidents of Colombia and Liberia, both of whom have Nobel prizes, shared his view. They want Britain to take a lead. We had three Foreign Ministers, three former ambassadors to the United Nations, and a United Nations high commissioner. On top of that, 80 written submissions were published, and we surveyed more than 1,500 young people from around the world. What was striking was not just the different perspectives but the common desire. They want Britain back on the world stage, not to command, but to shape and enable other voices.

The implication from some, which we hear too often, is that after Brexit, Britain is essentially a diplomatic irrelevance outside the EU. Some even say that it is a small country nostalgic for an imperial past. That is not the view shared by our friends—not even by France’s former ambassador to China. All our witnesses said that the UK is an influential country with a modern and innovative contribution to make. They regretted our recent absence, called on us to do more and feared that we may retreat. That is a view that I hope we can all share.

The other view that was widely shared was one of struggle: not that we are countries at war, but that we are under threat. We are engaged in an intense struggle to protect our values and interests as democratic and free powers. The UK is admired abroad as stable and prosperous. It is a predictable country, but one that stands for something more than itself. That should not be taken for granted and must be protected. We have to take decisions that will matter and make a difference.

I hope my fellow Committee members will forgive a slight digression from the report. Although we did not cover defence, which is rightly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), my views are clear. We need to ensure that this interconnected world is addressed with an interconnected strategy. That is the point of the integrated review. Too often in our country and our defence industry, we have made decisions that have cost our country influence and cash because we have made them for the short term. We need this review to reverse that, to address long-term thinking and shape a new future in which recognising that we need allies and partners shapes our decisions as we purchase, not just as we operate, so that the kit that we buy works with the shallower end of the technology pool, not just the most exquisite and unique.

Those decisions should not be made in the Ministry of Defence alone. We should no more be planning defence equipment in isolation than buying a kitchen for a house that we have never seen. If we do not know where it is going, we will spend a long time trying to force it to fit. That is why diplomacy matters. Talking to each other and helping partners to solve problems and realise opportunities is a huge chance for Britain. Get it right, and we see a rising tide that raises all ships. Get it wrong, and we see the rocks emerge, and wrecks are more likely.

Diplomacy is the glue that holds global co-operation together. It is seen as the key skill that the UK possesses on the world stage. Do not take just my word for it or that of the Committee: it was emphasised by witnesses and the British Council survey. We have a great diplomatic service and some of the world’s finest diplomats—use it, resource it and come up with a strategy that allows it to lead. 

Yesterday’s announcement was understandable, but it does make life for our diplomats harder. They can only shape the views of partners and achieve the aims that we need for our country if Whitehall is clear in the strategy that it seeks, with tasks and outcomes prioritised in the crisis we are in. We know that this is not a time to rest. Although I know that no one in King Charles Street or Downing Street is sitting idle, the reality is that we need to up our game. Nigerian protests today show the instability that can exist in countries with very young populations, especially when covid has knocked the economy for six.

If a deep international crisis breaks out tomorrow, on top of the pandemic we are already in, the rest of the world will not care whether we have launched our reviews or not—they will only care if we are ready to help and if we have thought about it. If the Government seek to publish the integrated review now, it should be followed by a clear plan for how it can be delivered in the current circumstances. Writing a strategy is the easy bit; it is delivering on it that is hard. That is why we call on the Government to make it clear that their foreign and national security priorities are clear, have been determined and are now prioritised as regards the funding that they will require to be delivered.

We need to make sure that businesses in Glasgow have the reach they need in the Gulf; that in Cardiff, the regulations that shape manufacturing are built on principles we share; and that from Belfast to the great county of Kent, the strength of our services continue to underwrite that growth.

This is not an academic exercise that can simply wait. The integrated review is about promoting the prosperity and happiness of the British people across these islands, and nothing is more important than that. As, today, the Government rightly announce the space programme out of the Shetland Islands, we should think about not just our islands and space, but the world that comes between.

Order. We have 10 minutes for questions, so brief questions and brief answers, please. I call Wayne David.

My congratulations to the Chair of the Select Committee on an excellent report. He said that it has been indicated that the Government intend to delay the publication of the integrated review. Has he any indication of when that publication will see the light of day?

I am afraid I cannot speak for the Government on that, and I do not know. All I can say is what I read in the newspapers yesterday and heard from the Treasury.

I congratulate the Committee and the Chair on its report. Who knows who else No. 10 might snatch for promotion!

The hon. Member has touched on this point: does he share my concern that there is a bit of a mismatch between the rhetoric and the reality of the Government, particularly the domestic-facing Departments? We have UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office embassies saying, “Come to the UK and study on Chevening scholarships,” and the Home Office refusing visas to students who have been granted Chevening scholarships; we have the FCDO publishing frameworks on business and human rights and then we have the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy funding companies that are perhaps in breach of some of those business principles. The integrated review needs to be properly integrated.

Could the hon. Member also say a word on the scrutiny of official development assistance and the role of a dedicated ODA Committee in this House?

I agree. The point about integration is that it is not just about having Foreign Departments for the sake of co-ordinating embassies—it is about delivering effects for the British people across these islands. That means that integration needs to include the Home Office, of course, and Education and Justice. That does not mean, I hasten to add, that everything should be run by our diplomatic service, but merely that it should be co-ordinated so that the effect is properly strategic. The hon. Member’s own work in Malawi, to which I pay huge tribute, is a demonstration of how co-ordination can work between the public and private sectors and between different levels of government on our islands. I think there is a real opportunity there.

On his second point, there is always a challenge in the rhetoric. We have to make sure that the rhetoric matches the reality. That is why linking up the strategy with the money really does matter.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on a really interesting and readable, well-presented report, which should be the foundation of our thinking about a new and confident United Kingdom as we progress to our new independent status. I also commend him on emphasising how important delivery is. Strategy is not complete unless it reconciles ends, ways and means, which means that we need to consider what resources we are prepared to commit before we can decide what policies we should adopt. Can I ask him, in particular, to focus the attention of his Committee on the people? Our people are our greatest force multiplier: how will they be trained and developed, including developed for leadership roles in a way we perhaps have not thought about deeply for many years?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The one brief response I will make is that one of the big changes William Hague made when he was Foreign Secretary was to reopen the language academy. Bringing together understanding, as well as leadership, is fundamental if we are to have the delivery that my hon. Friend rightly emphasises, and bringing that together with the military elements of leadership and co-ordination makes a huge difference.

I confess that when I listened to the witnesses, I kept remembering those words of the Victorian poet:

“We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven”.

However, the truth is that much still abides for this country. The BBC is the most respected newscaster around the world; English is still becoming the world’s language; we are often the penholder in all the major international institutions; and many people want to do their legal business in this country because we respect the rule of law. Do we not need to find that new niche where we are still special?

I personally pay huge tribute to my friend the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), whose work on the Committee in recent years has been so important, and I agree with him totally. We came up with the idea of a very lateral system, as we have been calling it: a system in which the enabling element, the bureaucratic element, if you like, of the UK is the strength that brings people together. I agree with him entirely that there is a huge opportunity for us to co-ordinate and cohere with other countries.

I commend my hon. Friend on his statement and the quality of his report. Were the Government to accept his recommendation to tilt to the Indo-Pacific and to deploy atrocity prevention capabilities, how much of the Government’s Foreign Office efforts does he think would be taken up with China?

It is quite clear that a lot of our effort will be taken up with China over coming years, no matter what we do. However, the tilt to the Pacific should be seen not just as a tilt towards China, but a tilt towards the countries that we also have as friends in the region—Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and I could go on—and the effort we could make there not just to balance against some of the nefarious aspects of China, but to help China grow into the integrated global system that we think will enable future prosperity for all of us, including the Chinese people.

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement, and congratulate him on the publication of his report. I firmly believe that the FCDO’s work, as well as having a global impact, can have a really positive impact on my constituents as they live their lives across Bishop Auckland. From the findings of his report, can I ask my hon. Friend how our diplomats, who, I know, do great work across the network, can ensure that my constituents have more job opportunities, better services and a cleaner environment, and can continue to stay safe?

The truth, as my right hon. Friend knows—my hon. Friend, I mean, although I have no doubt that she is very soon to be right honourable—is that the people of Bishop Auckland depend not just on their proximity to Durham, or indeed their place in the wonderful County Durham, but on a global and international system that is linked through services and trade to an entire world. The delivery of an integrated review is not just about the prosperity of some people in some parts, but about the fundamental prosperity and happiness of the British people: our ability to travel and trade, love and study, anywhere in the world.

I thank my hon. Friend for having brought forward this report at a crucial crossroads for Britain’s future as a global power. Britain has many international opportunities lying ahead of us, and part of the risk—as highlighted in the report—is not grasping those opportunities in defence and aid. Perhaps our largest strategic threats are the destabilising effects of Russia, China and Iran on the global scheme. Could my hon. Friend share some of his thoughts and concerns on that matter?

I pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend, who knows more about Iran than I will ever know. His work with the various communities in the area that have been particularly concerned about it is inspiring. At the moment, we seem to be falling between two stools—the E3 and the United States. We can bring together an integrated review and we can make it count.

I commend my hon. Friend on this fantastic and digestible report. When it comes to our wider strategy, one way to ensure that all parts of the country benefit from a truly strong FCDO, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) mentioned, is to consider how we package brand Britain. Part of that is ensuring that our diplomats understand the regional variances in our country so that, as we go out there with that soft power, all parts of the country benefit.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Whether it his constituency or indeed that of the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), different parts of the United Kingdom have different aspects that need to be prioritised. That is hugely important, and having diplomats who can speak not only for Kent—although it is, of course, the most important—but for places such as Scotland and the north of England is absolutely essential, and of course, who could ignore Wales, which is so well represented on the Committee.

Order. I will suspend the sitting for one minute while we get Mr Linden into the room. Those of you who are taking part in the next debate should please remain. We will get going as quickly as possible.

Sitting suspended.