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Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Funding

Volume 767: debated on Thursday 19 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the current level of funding of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is sufficient for the department to fulfil its mission of promoting the United Kingdom’s interests overseas and supporting United Kingdom citizens and businesses globally.

My Lords, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to play a leading role in delivering the Government’s ambitious international agenda. The Government are committed to eliminating the deficit. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has played its part and will continue to do so. Since 2010, the FCO has cut its operating costs by more than £100 million while flexing its network to meet new opportunities and challenges. We have opened or upgraded 18 diplomatic missions, increasing our presence in the fastest-growing economies.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his Answer. The terrible attacks in Istanbul, Beirut and Paris remind us that security is the most valuable currency of our times. From the Middle East to Asia and Europe we face challenges that cannot be resolved by aid or military deployments. Although hard power is sometimes necessary, these problems require diplomatic solutions, yet the Foreign Office has been at risk of being stripped to the bone. The department protects British interests in 168 countries with far fewer staff than Sheffield City Council. Its diplomatic network is the same size as that of France—

Certainly. I fully understand that we have to meet our financial obligations, but I respectfully ask the noble Earl whether, as we wait for the national security strategy—no doubt with more tasks for the Foreign Office—he can assure the House that the FCO will be funded in the current spending review?

My Lords, we all have the greatest respect for my noble friend Lady Helic and her work on the preventing sexual violence initiative. She is quite right to draw attention to the national security strategy, but perhaps the best way of answering her is to quote my right honourable friend the Prime Minister when considering the picture of diplomacy, which cannot be neglected and will not be. He said on Monday:

“The National Security Strategy that we are publishing next week will give Britain the resources it needs to increase both its hard and soft power and build the relationships that can project and enhance our influence in the world”.

My Lords, it is a truism that development works best in a climate of security. Do the Government recognise the interrelationship, as demonstrated by Syria, between the military budget, the foreign affairs budget and the development budget? To reduce the FCO budget, as they are doing, not only harms our development effort but leads to a substantial decline in FCO morale.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, has mentioned the ODA budget. We have an excellent record of leveraging the ODA for the broader priorities of Her Majesty’s Government, not just the important role of poverty alleviation but the other areas to which the noble Lord has drawn attention.

My Lords, when the Ukraine crisis broke out, the FCO really felt its lack of expertise on Russia. If the FCO’s staff is cut further, expertise to analyse what is happening at the moment in countries in other very sensitive areas such as Central Asia, the North Caucasus and the Middle East will be in short supply. Do the Government take that into account when considering whether they can further cut the FCO both at home and abroad?

My Lords, I always take careful note of what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has to say, due to his previous role in the department. Just to go into the number of posts, yes we have fewer posts than we had 10 years ago. However, since 2010 we have not closed any sovereign posts and we have opened or upgraded 18 posts under the network shift programme and strategic reprioritisation exercises, as well as deploying around 300 extra front-line staff in more than 30 countries.

Has my noble friend noted that we are now actually spending less on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is the spearhead of our overseas influence, than we are expending on, for instance, one individual experimental programme for reducing carbon—namely, the carbon capture and storage system at £1 billion—which so far has produced very few results? Is it not time for some rebalancing?

My noble friend is an expert on both subjects, while I try my best at them. I should say that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has scrutinised the FCO budgets closely and has tried to identify further efficiencies which can be delivered through reductions in running costs, travel and staff costs and by reviewing our support for arm’s-length bodies.

My Lords, given the importance of diplomatic efforts for the reasons that have been explained by other noble Lords, will the Government give a clear guarantee that whatever the level of cuts in the Budget to be announced by the Chancellor later in this Session, the Government will bring to the House an opportunity to debate the strategy behind the implementation of those cuts to the Foreign Office budget, and in particular to look at what opportunities there are to work more closely with the European External Action Service, which now has diplomatic offices in many of the countries where we are represented as well?

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, not long ago we had an interesting debate on the responsibility to protect, to which I was able to respond from this Dispatch Box. It is up to noble Lords to put down debates on this subject at any time, and I am sure that the noble Lord will attempt to do so.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is not just about the amount of the allocation but about the efficiency with which the money is spent? Will he join me in welcoming the comments made by many businessmen, both from SMEs and from large businesses, about the dramatic change since 2010 in the FCO’s ability to help exporters abroad?

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. Perhaps I should underline the facts about the good work being done by UKTI. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has helped to deliver some £37.6 billion-worth of business wins for UK industry. We also have the GREAT campaign, which emphasises that this country is a great place to visit, a great place in which to study and a great place to do business in.