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FCDO Staffing

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 16 December 2021

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, we now come to a repeat of an Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the House of Commons today on FCDO staffing.

My Lords, my apologies—I was just checking what the latest convention is.

“My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has been clear that there will be no 10% staff cut. Internal work has taken place which we are looking at in the light of preparations, but that has not been signed off by Ministers. We are investing massively in overseas aid. At £10 billion a year, the UK remains one of the largest ODA spenders in the world and 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.

To do this, the department needs to ensure its resources, both its funding and its people, are aligned to its priorities. Over the next three years, some areas of the department will see staffing resources increase, reflecting the need to align our people to our 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 decisions on workforce changes in the spring.”

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement.

In the other place, James Cleverly was quite categorical, as was the Minister in repeating the Statement, that there will be no 10% cut, but, as Tom Tugendhat said, this is not a just question about a 10% cut, but about the investment in staff numbers needed to meet the aims of the integrated review and, we hope, next spring’s development strategy. Recent whistleblower revelations about the failures in the Afghan withdrawal point to an FCDO that is overstretched and under-resourced. Which high commissions and embassies around the world will receive more resources and which will see fewer? Which of the desks in the FDCO will be strengthened to meet the strategic threats this country now faces? What we need from this Government is greater transparency and actions that match their words.

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord said but, in planning to 2025, it is right that the department reviews its workforce and capabilities to ensure it has sufficient resources in the right places to deliver both ministerial and integrated review priorities. That is our focus. Some areas of the department will see staffing and resources increase, as I have said, reflecting the need to align our people to our priorities. We will also look to move resources to the department from other areas to meet these priorities.

The noble Lord asked specifically about the network. As he is aware, we have actually increased our footprint in increasing our missions overseas. That reflects equally our ambition, in the strength of what we wish to achieve on the world stage, and the importance of our excellent diplomats and development professionals who, now together as one unit, represent Her Majesty’s interests through high commissions and embassies around the world.

My Lords, I think that everyone knows that morale in the FCDO is low, that the merger of the two departments was handled poorly and that the report of the whistleblower mentioned is only one example—a public example—of the reality. The Minister wants us to believe that, in two years, that department will be able to plan, implement and deliver an extra £5.2 billion of development spend if we return to the legal 0.7% of GNI. In her Chatham House speech, the Foreign Secretary said:

“The Office itself is a national asset”,

but we know that there are reductions in the capability of that national asset.

Will the Minister now provide public, baseline information on staffing—local and UK staff—the network itself, and roles and responsibilities, so that we can judge the results of this review properly and avoid a situation in which the Government obfuscate on roles, responsibilities and scale? Baseline information would be helpful now and necessary to hold the Government to account.

My Lords, as the FCDO Minister responsible for operations, I can say that we are currently going through our planning both for the next spending review and, as the noble Lord is aware, for the workforce, specifically to ensure that the very priorities he listed are fully resourced. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, talks of greater transparency, as did the noble Lord, Lord Collins. We will certainly provide more details as these plans are finalised.

The noble Lord also mentioned morale. I can perhaps talk with some insight and experience, and I have read the report to which the noble Lord refers, but the fact is that we have some of the best diplomats in the world and incredible development professionals. In preparing for this Question, I asked quite specifically about the level of staff turnover, through the merger, the reductions and the difficult challenges we have had in respect of ODA and, recently, Afghanistan. I can share with noble Lords that, at this time, there is nothing different from the standard level of turnover we have seen over many years, both in the FCO and DfID. That means we are retaining our professionals not just in the Diplomatic Service but in the development sphere.

My Lords, my question follows neatly from the response that the Minister just gave, because I note that a freedom of information request, sent by Devex, revealed that 212 former DfID employees have left the department. The response given to Devex at the time was that this was a normal level of turnover, but that is heading towards 10% of centrally employed staff who were formerly with DfID. DfID was very well known for its expertise in global public health, sexual and reproductive rights, and water and sanitation issues. That seems a large loss of people. Will the new, merged department be able to attract the same kind of people with the same levels of expertise, given that it does not have the same focus?

My Lords, on the final point of focus, of course when you have two separate departments, they run two separate mission statements in terms of key priorities. However, through the merger that created the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office the element of development has remained a key priority of the department’s focus. The noble Baroness rightly points out the importance not just of retaining staff but of attracting new staff. I have been looking specifically at the figures for senior management and others. We want to attract the best and brightest into the FCDO, but equally we want to retain the expertise.

I have looked very closely at the issue of development and our development professionals. Even in the challenges that we have had through the ODA reduction, we have sought to retain that professionalism in terms of both programmes and people. As we return to 0.7%, which we intend to do, we need not just the expertise to ramp up the programme but the people to be able to deliver it.