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Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Ministerial Guidance

Volume 787: debated on Monday 11 December 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what guidance is given to Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office concerning the diplomatic skills required for the performance of their duties.

My Lords, all Ministers are bound by the Ministerial Code, which sets out the standards of conduct expected of Ministers in how they discharge their duties. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not provide any specific additional guidance. The Permanent Secretary is responsible for discussions with Ministers about what is expected under the umbrella of the Ministerial Code, and for advising them on routine day-to-day issues as they arise.

Is the Minister aware of the immense damage being done to Britain’s reputation abroad, and to the rights of British citizens abroad, by the tendency of the present Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, to speak first and think afterwards? Can he and his colleagues in government please convey to him that he needs to reverse that process, because he has a bad reputation for it both in this country and overseas, and it is damaging Britain’s relationships and damaging individuals?

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, as I am sure that many in this House acknowledge, represents our country and the Foreign Office in exemplary fashion, and this weekend’s example is testimony to that. Over the past week, he has raised some important issues of counterterrorism and countering violent extremism. This again demonstrates the importance that he attaches to representing the Government abroad, as do I in my responsibilities as a Minister of State who serves with him on that team. I have seen him in operation directly as a Minister within his team; he operates with a strategic outlook and in a very positive fashion.

Does my noble friend agree that, however accomplished the Foreign Secretary may be, the influence of the United Kingdom will be reduced if we are generally seen as the demandeur in negotiations rather than a leading voice in a settled group?

My Lords, I think Britain is recognised as a country that provides balance and leadership through various international fora. Let us not forget that we are a P5 member on the UN Security Council. My noble friend will be aware that the Commonwealth summit and Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is around the corner in April. Again, the United Kingdom is honoured to be hosting it and working with the Commonwealth Secretariat to set the agenda for what will be a positive example of global Britain in action.

My Lords, an issue of concern—to me and I think many noble Lords—has been the capacity of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to deliver on behalf of this United Kingdom with the necessary tools to do the job; the noble Viscount referred to that. It is an important issue that the Minister needs to address. Only last week, when we were discussing President Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, the Foreign Secretary made a speech in which our concern was to be included but that section was omitted. That is not a matter of capacity; it is clearly a matter of design. Will the Minister explain why such an important position of the United Kingdom was ignored by the Foreign Secretary?

My Lords, I draw attention not to myself but, in looking to my right and around this Chamber, I am sure that all noble Lords would acknowledge the tremendous service to this Government that my predecessors have given as Ministers of State in the Foreign Office. My noble friends Lord Howell, Lady Warsi and Lady Anelay are examples of how the voice of the Foreign Office is heard not just in this House but across—oh! The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, is perhaps casting aspersions on my performance; that remains to be seen.

The noble Lord raises an important point about international issues. I draw his attention and that of my noble friend to the statement given by Ambassador Rycroft at the United Nations, where we stood side by side with other European nations to make clear our position on the issue of east Jerusalem. I understand that that question was raised here. We remain consistent with all Governments in saying that we need a two-state solution where the capital of Jerusalem is shared by both states. That point has been made consistently by all Governments of all sides. We should focus on challenges facing the Foreign Office such as retaining the nuclear deal with Iran. The Foreign Secretary has led the way in ensuring that balance, communication and contact is retained on an international front on that very important issue.

My Lords, the Israeli press comment on the recent visit was rather critical, and I have seen many other critical comments on the Foreign Secretary’s performance in other foreign media over the last year. Can the Minister try to redress the balance by telling us about the Foreign Secretary’s close, mutually confident relationships with any particular senior Ministers of foreign Governments?

If I started talking about the Foreign Secretary’s close and constructive relationships—there are many I could name—I fear it would take us beyond the 30-minute limit. We shall be coming to the subject later, but I can say briefly that the Foreign Secretary has just returned from a very important and constructive visit to Iran and the Middle East, where I am sure noble Lords will agree that we have important relationships. He is leading from the front in ensuring that those relationships are not just sustained but strengthened.

Does my noble friend agree, in answer to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that diplomacy does not require guidance or any teaching at all? We have been fortunate in this country to have had many interesting individuals who have carried out the role of Foreign Secretary over centuries. Not all of them have been straitjacketed by guidance or anything coming from an official level. Surely my noble friend agrees that the only way in which we can judge the success of diplomacy is whether it serves the best interests at any time of this country.

I agree with my noble friend and add that in the role of Foreign Secretary, any Foreign Office Minister—or, for that matter, any Minister—personality also counts.