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Brexit: British Embassies in EU Countries

Volume 776: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are considering reversing the cuts made to staffing in British embassies based in European Union countries in order to accommodate increased bilateral negotiations accompanying the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.

My Lords, the FCO maintains a long-established and effective network of staff across Europe and the world. It keeps staffing across this network under constant review to ensure that it delivers the Government’s priorities. Given the importance of managing the UK’s successful withdrawal from the EU, the staffing of British missions in EU countries and our wider overseas footprint is under careful consideration to ensure that we are well positioned to promote the UK abroad.

Does the Minister recall that, when the substantial cuts in home-based staff in European embassies was carried through in recent years, the argument was made that much business is now done in Brussels so we do not need people from Britain in those countries? Clearly, that will no longer be the case. Can she also confirm that the home-based staff from other EU countries in embassies in London is in almost all cases larger than the number of British home-based staff in other countries? Can she confirm, lastly, that we are now dependent on locally engaged staff elsewhere in the EU to do very sensitive political reporting, to a degree to which the Daily Mail would clearly regard as being appallingly dependent on unreliable and not always friendly foreigners?

The noble Lord is focusing on the importance of quality of staff—that is the theme of his Question. First, with regard to staffing across the EU network, even before 23 June we had already allocated a further 16 UK-based posts for our work in the EU, reflecting the changing relationship and conditions across Europe, because of uncertainties caused by changes of Russian policy and migration. So there had already been an increase of flexibility. That, of course, will be part of our 2020 initiative in looking at how staffing needs to respond to the new needs following 23 June.

As for locally employed staff, I put on record my great admiration for them. They bring a depth and breadth of expertise, whether they are cooks, drivers or advisers; they bring knowledge of the culture and the local country that is absolutely essential. In accordance with our agreement with the Select Committee in another place, they will not exceed 70% of the allocation of staff.

My Lords, while I accept what my noble friend has just said, would she accept that there are many bruised people among our partner 27 nations in the European Union, especially among many of the smaller countries, such as the Baltic states? Will we make a very special effort to ensure that they realise that we are in no sense turning our backs on them?

My noble friend raises an essential point. Yesterday it was my honour to record a short video of congratulations to Lithuania to celebrate its 25 years of independence. We will continue our bilateral relations with the other 27 countries across Europe post-Brexit—and, of course, we are still within the European Union, and our relationships must remain cordial. It is important for all of us that they do.

My Lords, there is another side to the coin, not least that—because there was no contingency planning—a lot of effort is now going into the Brexit negotiations. The concentration of effort from the Foreign Office into that may jeopardise other vitally important work, including in the Middle East and Africa. What assurances can the Minister give that that work will not be diminished because of Brexit?

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised a crucial point. As I mentioned briefly in my first Answer, it is the duty of the FCO to reflect Her Majesty’s Government’s priorities across the world. The 2020 diplomatic initiative currently under way is an internal exercise looking carefully at the disposition and number of staff needed—both during negotiations on our exit from the EU and, subsequently, within the EU and around the world—to meet the exigencies of events as they arise.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the Commission is likely to be extremely difficult in the coming years for policy reasons of its own? That makes it all the more important that we should have full and accurate reporting, by British-based staff, from our posts in the European Union.

My Lords, when I have had what are called town hall meetings with staff in our posts around the world, I have always been impressed at the accuracy with which they gather and report information to us across the whole range of issues. It is important that that continues.

My Lords, in view of the assurances on Brexit given yesterday to the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, will the Minister tell the House that there will be a facility, in the embassies of the United Kingdom and the other 27 countries, for staff nominated by each of the three devolved Administrations to work in the interests of those countries?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister set out the way in which she would be consulting the devolved Administrations, and that Statement was repeated yesterday by my noble friend the Leader of this House. I do not intend to embellish upon that, but I will say that the devolved Administrations are key to the way in which the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland as a whole should prosper when we have left the European Union.

My Lords, how much do the Government pay to Brussels for our share of the numerous, large, expensive and pointless EU embassies all over the planet? Upon Brexit, could we not redirect that money to the area which troubles the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, or indeed anywhere else where it would be better spent—which is practically anywhere?

My Lords, when travelling around the world I have found it very helpful to be able to liaise with representatives of the External Action Service, for example earlier this year in Colombia. While we remain within the European Union we will continue to fund that service. However, subsequent to leaving the European Union I would still expect this country to have a diplomatic relationship with the EU, just as other countries such as Norway or the United States do, as the noble Lord will know.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that many parts of the private sector are now actively recruiting among Foreign Office and UKTI officials, who have expertise around the whole area of Brexit, particularly trade? If so, can she tell the House what the Government are doing to try to retain those officials, who have experience over many years and who we cannot afford to lose from public service?

My Lords, I always say that my privilege at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is that I am able to work with some of the most able people I have ever met. Much as I enjoy working with them—whether that be my private secretary or others—what I want is to see them fly in their careers. Throughout the Foreign Office we provide training, whether through the Diplomatic Academy or in other ways, to enable people to gain extra expertise. If they choose to use that outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—on secondment, for example—they are always welcome back. The most important thing is that those with ability should choose how they wish to succeed.