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FCDO Staffing

Volume 705: debated on Thursday 16 December 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary, or rather the Minister in his place, about staffing cuts in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for the question. Let me start off by saying that the Foreign Secretary has made it clear—and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also made this clear at questions yesterday—that there will not be a 10% staff cut to the FCDO.

Internal work has taken place that has not been signed off by Ministers, but I remind the House that we are still investing massively in our overseas aid. At £10 billion this year, the UK remains one of the largest ODA spenders in the world, as well as being well above the OECD average. The FCDO must continue to promote a positive, confident, outward-looking global Britain, deploying its diplomacy and development expertise to advance freedom, democracy and sustainable enterprise around the world.

We remain a highly ambitious Department, supporting the integrated review and the aspirations set out within it. To do this, the Department needs to ensure its resources—both its funding and its most valuable resource, its people—are aligned to its priorities. Over the next three years, some areas of the Department will see staffing resources of course increase, reflecting the need to align our people to the nation’s priorities. The FCDO will continue to retain one of the largest overseas diplomatic networks of any nation, while also ensuring value for money for the taxpayer. There will not be a 10% staff cut and Ministers will make the final decisions on workforce changes in the spring.

May I first pay enormous tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work that he has done in his own part of the world as a Foreign Office Minister? The bilateral relationships that he has helped to build, along with his impressive command of Arabic, have transformed some of the relationships and moved them to a whole new footing, and that is enormously welcome. In that work, what he has seen is some fantastic envoys of this country representing what is best about us and achieving what we really need to see, which is a transformational attitude following the revolution that Brexit put into our foreign policy. That is enormously welcome. I am sure the Minister will agree with me that, looking around the world and trying to find staff cuts—even if not 10%, even if only a few—is still going to be challenging, because the reality is that we need more people now, not fewer.

We have found that the policy we had before 2016 of over-centralising on international institutions such as the European Union or others around the world that have caused such challenge has not always served Britain’s interests best, and we have decided—quite correctly, in my view—to invest very hard in the bilateral relationships that matter. This is indeed the policy of the integrated review that the Minister has so rightly cited. It is also the policy of the Foreign Secretary, who has spoken about BII—British international investment—to challenge China’s belt and road and to secure more opportunities for British trade around the world. But that means more staff in Kenya, more staff in Nigeria, more staff in capitals around the European Union—not in Brussels—and more staff around his own network in the middle east that he has done so much to transform. This is not just a question about a 10% cut. This is a question about what investment is going to be made in staff numbers in high commissions and embassies around the world to achieve the aim, interests and ambitions of the British people and the stated aim of this Government. Surely that is not fake news.

To respond to my hon. Friend’s kind words about my command of the Arabic language, shukran jazeelan. Actually, I will accept his compliment on behalf of the members of the FCDO across the network in my region and beyond, who are of course the primary means by which we deliver both diplomacy and development. He is absolutely right that the Government’s foreign policy, as set out in the integrated review, remains highly ambitious. Diplomacy and development are delivered primarily through people. While we are very proud of being a top tier ODA-donating country, with the commitment to go back up to 0.7% set out in the spending review announcements, the integrated review does mean we will need to ensure that our posture globally reinforces that. So changes are inevitable. I absolutely take the point he makes about the value of the people as part of that. When Ministers make the ultimate decisions about this, we will absolutely take the points he makes, with which we very much agree, into consideration.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for securing this important urgent question.

In the last year, we have seen just how vital Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff are to the UK’s operations abroad. While the previous Foreign Secretary relaxed on a beach as Kabul fell to the Taliban, Foreign Office staff were absolutely integral to the evacuation of British citizens and Afghans from Afghanistan. But no one could have heard last week’s devastating whistleblower testimony about a Department that was overstretched, under-resourced and badly led by Ministers, and concluded that the remedy was to actually cut our diplomatic staff. The truth is that the Government have overseen a series of damaging blows to our international influence. The Government have slashed development aid, cut the armed forces and overseen the closure of British Council offices. Many international development staff have left, taking with them their expertise and experience. Now, the Government plan to cut our diplomacy.

Does the Minister recognise that the Government are overseeing a downgraded role for Britain nationally? These cuts could not have come at a worse time. Alongside the pandemic, we face challenges from an aggressive Russia and a more assertive China. We see persistent poverty and conflict, as well as climate change running out of control. We need a properly funded diplomatic and development Department to take on those challenges.

When the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee asked the Prime Minister about the cuts, he called them fake news. I would like to ask the Minister whether he believes that is because it is not a 10% cut, but actually a 20% cut. Did the Prime Minister mislead the House? If so, will the Prime Minister come back to this House to correct the record? Can the Minister also tell the House which regions of the world will be most affected by these cuts and how he believes they will impact on the world’s most vulnerable people, such as the women and girls of Afghanistan, who now face the most appalling and serious oppression from the Taliban?

With major cuts like this there will inevitably be consequences for the efficacy and the performance of the Department. Does the Minister agree with the former British ambassador to Germany, Sir Paul Lever, who has said that the planned cuts would affect Britain’s “presence and performance” on the international stage? So much for global Britain. The reality is cuts, downgrades and a diminished international role. It is a disgrace.

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have a huge degree of respect for him. However, his questions are predicated on a starting point which I have just said at the Dispatch Box is not the case. He starts throwing around figures like 20% in terms of staff reductions in a clear attempt to generate scaremongering. I have said, and the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have both said, that there will not be 10% cuts, as has been brought up—[Interruption.] There will not be. Therefore, his whole line of questioning is predicated on a statement that is incorrect.

The hon. Gentleman said that we have had to spend less on ODA this year and, of course, that is the case. I remind the House that that is because we have experienced the largest economic contraction in three centuries as a direct result of the pandemic. Nevertheless, we still remain one of the largest ODA-donating countries in the world. We maintain one of the largest diplomatic networks in the world. The Foreign Secretary hosted G7 Foreign Ministers in Liverpool, showing global leadership on a range of issues, including girls’ education and humanitarian issues. At COP26, we saw the UK demonstrate global leadership on the existential crisis of our generation—climate change. We will remain a top-tier diplomatic powerhouse.

Can we just remind ourselves that the UK diplomatic service is in fact part of our vital capability to maintain the competitive stance of this country around the world? The cost of the diplomatic service is a minute pinprick in the overall scheme of public expenditure, well within the margin for error of many other Government Departments’ expenditures. Why would we want to squeeze this capability when it is so vital for our global future? Can we also think about what the diplomatic service is for? We value real subject knowledge and expertise, and country knowledge and the ability to speak the local languages more than perhaps we have recently. We value our history and understanding of our place in the world and the intelligence that those in the service gather and feed back to the centre. It is the centre that has to value that if our diplomatic service is to produce value for money.

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important and accurate point about the value that our diplomatic network and our diplomats around that network provide. We are all incredibly proud of the level of expertise of the FCDO staff, and I know the Foreign Secretary has said this to them directly. Our diplomats are an absolutely top-tier team. We retain a high ambition for our international relations, as set out in the integrated review. We will continue investing in our people, including in language skills and other skills, to ensure that we retain that position. He is right that they are the primary means by which we exercise soft power around the world, and they will continue to be very much at the forefront of our thinking when it comes to planning for the future.

It should come as no surprise that there are reports that the FCDO is facing job cuts of up to 20%, although I have not yet heard from the Minister what those cuts will actually be. Over the past two years, the Prime Minister has frequently talked about global Britain, but the reality is that it has been nothing but a nasty little Britain. For example, we have seen the merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office—a merger that has yet even to integrate the IT and email systems—the ideological death sentence cuts imposed by reducing the aid budget and breaking the 0.7% manifesto commitment and the chaotic response to the Afghanistan crisis in the summer. People there will be facing the consequences this winter. This UK Government have routinely reneged on their commitments, and this staff cut, whatever the percentage will be—I look forward to hearing it—will further erode the UK’s diplomatic and development capabilities. Given the huge cuts to aid, and now the direct hit to the number of diplomats carrying forward the Government’s incoherent vision for the UK abroad, is it not the case that the global Britain slogan has been laid bare as simply a fig leaf covering up the UK’s retreating and ever-diminishing role in the world? Can the Minister confirm the actual percentage of the cuts as staff face Christmas with job insecurities?

Once again the hon. Gentleman throws around the figure of 20% staff cuts. I can tell him that it is nonsense. The UK remains a top-tier global diplomatic powerhouse. I pay particular tribute to the FCDO staff based in Abercrombie House, whose invaluable work adds to the huge diplomatic output of the FCDO. Were his party to fulfil its dream of isolationism, I cannot believe that those jobs at Abercrombie House would be maintained. We support the fantastic work that Scots do within the UK’s global posture. We intend to make sure that they are supported and retained and their work enhanced.

I welcome the assurances that the Minister has given, but speaking as one of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys, may I emphasise the important work that the FCDO contributes to the work of envoys not just through the briefings that it gives here in London, but in our embassies? I urge the Minister to give a reassurance that that aspect of the work of FCDO staff will be taken into account in any structural changes.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. When I visit our posts around the world—around my region—I am incredibly pleased to see the seamless integration of various Departments that are represented on those platforms. Trade is an incredibly important part of our global posture. He is absolutely right that maintaining the FCDO’s ability to support the foreign-facing work of other Departments will remain a top priority for us.

I have a great many constituents with family members trapped in Afghanistan who are living in hiding and fearing for their lives. One family member writes:

“It’s such a struggle to be here, we have no idea what to do…we are literally running out of everything and it’s getting cold”.

Surely this is not the time to be considering cutting resources when we desperately need more action to help those left behind in Afghanistan and increasingly desperate when we know that the country faces a humanitarian crisis.

The situation in Afghanistan remains terrible, which is why we have doubled our financial support to it, for the very reasons that the hon. Lady highlighted. We will continue to work through diplomatic channels both internationally in support of stability and improvement in Afghanistan and with the countries immediately neighbouring it. Our commitment to Afghanistan remains undiminished, notwithstanding the fact that we no longer have a military presence there, and we will encourage the Taliban to do the right thing to abide by the commitments they have made with regard to such things as girls’ education, women’s freedom and not being a home for terrorism. We will judge them on their actions, not their words.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on securing his urgent question and thank the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa—my successor—for the reassurances that he has given. There can be little doubt, however, that over time, the FCDO has been diminished, although it remains formidable. Given that the talent base has been reduced over time, what thought has the Minister given to widening the net from which senior appointments overseas are drawn, noting particularly the need to promote trade and commerce as part of our international effort and the actions and appointments of countries with which we can reasonably be compared, such as France and Germany?

I thank my right hon. Friend and predecessor for that point. Diplomacy and the nature of international relations are changing. We have to invest in future-facing resources, which means things like IT, most obviously, as well as ensuring that we have a network of experts across a wide range of fields, including commerce. In response to his former point, we already see a very close integration in London and around our overseas network of trade, development, aid and diplomacy. I can only assume that that will continue to be the case when it comes to our people.

I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for securing this urgent question. It is more than a year since my urgent question when the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development was announced. Despite what the Minister says about this being seamless, we are hearing lots of reports that it is not going well at all, and surely that must create a degree of inefficiencies. Although we have maintained the International Development Committee, we have seen further cuts to aid. In my urgent question last year, I sought an assurance that there would be no forced redundancies. The Minister may not be willing to give us a number or a percentage of cuts, but can he assure us that the review in the spring will not involve compulsory redundancies?

As I have said a number of times, the decisions about the future structure, prioritisation and orientation of the Department will be made by Ministers in due course and the details will come out in the new year.

I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Lady’s point about the merger: some of the most successful ODA-donating countries have merged Foreign and Development Offices. Prior to the merger of the Departments, I was a Minister across both of them, and I have found it easier to work with one set of civil servants in one Department than I did working across two sets of civil servants across two Departments. Our commitment is to retain our standing as a top-tier donor country, in respect of not just the scale of what we give but the sophistication of how we do it, and that will be enhanced through the merged process.

At a time when we see an increasingly aggressive China, a resurgent Russia and the United States’ strategic withdrawal from the world platform, it is important that we continue to project global Britain and our soft power around the world. When we restore our overseas aid budget to its previous level, we will need people to monitor that spending to make sure we get good value for money for taxpayers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is the worst time to reduce staff because we will want them in place when we go back to providing the aid?

My hon. Friend makes the important case that we need to ensure our aid is spent effectively. That is why we value so much the experience of our professionals not only in King Charles Street but around the globe. I assure my hon. Friend that the effective deployment of aid—ensuring that it does not fall into inappropriate hands and gets to the people who need it most—will remain a core priority for the UK. That commitment will remain undiminished and I assure my hon. Friend that I will take his comments to heart as we go through the process of ensuring that the FCDO is oriented to support the integrated review priorities.

If, as the Minister has said several times, we are a top-tier diplomatic nation, why is a family in my Cardiff West constituency facing yet another Christmas at which their relative, my constituent Luke Symons, remains held captive in Sana’a by the Houthis, when other nations, including America, have succeeded in getting their citizens out of that same situation and that same prison? My constituent Bob Cummings, Luke’s grandfather, recently met some of the Minister’s officials and was confused by their account of what is going on. Will the Minister now commit to a meeting with the Foreign Secretary, as soon as possible, to get some real traction and attention on to this case?

The hon. Gentleman has raised the case of Luke Symons previously, and directly with me, and I commend him for his work in support of his constituent and his constituent’s family. He will know that the situation in Yemen is incredibly difficult and it is hard to maintain anything like normal diplomatic relations at the best of times. Indeed, it is incredibly difficult to interact with the Houthis, who are responsible for Luke’s ongoing detention. This case remains a priority not just for the Department but for me personally. I raised it on my most recent trip to Oman, which is geographically one of the closest countries to Yemen, but even Oman is limited in the influence it can exert. Nevertheless, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to prioritise this terrible case.

Having just returned from a trade visit to Brazil, I can confirm that our staff in country are absolutely first class. Will Ministers and the Secretary of State consider further prioritising our efforts in a country that is the size of Europe, that dwarfs all other South American economies, that produces 25% of the planet’s food, and that was one of the first to show us a hand of friendship post the Brexit referendum and is therefore well placed as a strategic ally?

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised his recent trip to Brazil. He is right to say that that country plays an important role commercially, agriculturally and environmentally, and I have no doubt that we will continue to make the most not only of our bilateral relationship with Brazil but of his language skills and experience in that incredibly important country.

FCDO staff need only to look at the experiences of the staff at the British Council, a departmental agency, where there have been massive cuts and job losses. Will the Minister tell us what is being done to minimise redundancies at the British Council? Also, why was the decision taken to outsource the Turing scheme, which will undermine the jobs, skills and experience of the British Council staff?

I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that we have gone through an unprecedented financial contraction because of covid. The British Council, which derives a significant proportion of its income from tuition, has been hit because of the difficulty in providing tuition in the era of covid, but it has done genuinely fantastic work using technology to continue to provide those services. The Foreign Secretary and I recently had a meeting with the senior leadership of the British Council to discuss what we could do to protect the things that we value highly in terms of its delivery of soft power, to ensure that it not only survives but thrives, once we are able to get past this covid situation.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) on securing this urgent question. I am not reassured at all by the Minister’s statement. I have seen the email to the FCDO staff. It says, “We are planning on the basis of just under 10% reduction in our overall workforce size by March 2025”. So is that actually a 9.9% reduction, or something else slightly different from 10%? The Minister was careful to say that there would be no 10% reduction, but will it be a figure that is close to 10%, but not 10%? The aid cuts are a disgrace, and it is easy to spend that money on big multilateral programmes, on the World Bank and on the United Nations, but not on those local projects on the ground that the former DFID staff are so good at supporting and that result in real poverty reduction and real peace building on the ground. Can the Minister reassure the House that the cut will not be anywhere near 10%, and that local staff who know the projects on the ground and who can really effect poverty reduction will not be cut?

I remind the hon. Lady and the House that there is a difference between the figure that is used internally by officials for planning purposes and decisions that are made by Ministers. The decision around these issues will be made by Ministers. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have made it clear that that figure is not a ministerial figure. With regard to the balance between multilateral and bilateral, the hon. Lady makes an important point. We very much value the work that is done bilaterally in the sometimes small but incredibly highly effective projects that are delivered by the British Government underneath the British flag to some of the most poor and dispossessed people in the world, and that will remain a priority for this Government.

Cuts have consequences, and it is really clear that there will be serious consequences as a result of these cuts. It seems that this has been Treasury-driven, rather than looking at our strategic aims. Can the Minister confirm exactly where these cuts are going to fall and tell us what impact they are going to have?

I repeat my point that these decisions will be made by Ministers in the new year in line with the timetable set out in the spending review.

Members were taking bets here on the Back Bench as to who would be called first—me or the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier). I am not sure who won. I want to put on record my praise and thanks to the ministerial team at the Department, who I have found to be extremely courteous and helpful at all times. I want to put that on record because that is something that I have experienced in my contact with the Department in the last period of time. Covid has shown the sheer magnitude of the pressure on FCDO staff, with consular staff being asked to cover many areas and in some cases many countries. No matter how good and capable the staff are, there simply are not enough of them. Will the Minister consider a graduate scheme to make use of young and intelligent people who wish to experience life abroad? Would he be happy to commit to providing a five-year contract or five-year stint, and can he tell us what incentives could be provided to entice those graduates in?

The hon. Gentleman invites me to make spending commitments at the Dispatch Box, and sadly I am not able to. He raises an important and interesting point. I will pass on his thanks to the ministerial team and to our team of civil servants, both here in the UK and around the network. He is right that they have gone through an unprecedented period of pressure. The repatriation of British nationals around the globe when covid hit, the evacuation from Afghanistan, and a number of other, less high-profile things have put huge pressure on them. I commend their work, and I thank him on their behalf for his kind comments.

The UK has world-class civil servants who are not often given due respect as public servants. Their pensions have been cut, and their salaries have risen below inflation. Morale is already low in the Foreign Office after the merger with the Department for International Development due to substantial pay discrepancies. Fewer staff means more work for those who are left, and even less incentive. As that will inevitably lead to rising stress levels, how will the Minister support staff?

The integrated review sets out our priorities. The Government will ensure that our diplomatic teams and our civil servants, both in the FCDO and in other forward-facing parts of Government, are aligned to support the integrated review, which will give direction, purpose, structure and parameters. That is how we will ensure that the workflow of our civil servants is managed.

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words about our civil servants, both in our Department and more broadly. They are excellent and world-class, and we value them very highly.