I beg to move,
That this House has considered funding levels for diplomatic staff in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
It is a pleasure to open the debate with you in the Chair, Ms Bardell, and I start by thanking Mr Speaker for granting it, and the House of Commons Library for producing a debate pack on this extremely important subject.
The debate is about the United Kingdom’s place in the world—the new global Britain—and it is important because it takes place against a background of huge uncertainty for those who work in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The Library debate pack is extremely useful in setting out the various media reports, and we have had previous debates, Select Committee inquiries and questions, but those have elicited only a simple response, which is, “We’ll let you know in the spring.” The last time I looked, May still counted as spring. As the saying goes, “Ne’er cast a clout till May be out.” When May is out, we can plant our geraniums—I say that only because I have just been to the Chelsea flower show; I was on a fact-finding mission.
The debate is timely because the Foreign Office is one of the great Departments of State and it is in a state of uncertainty—so uncertain that on 15 December, as the news trickled out of a 10% cut, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), questioned the Prime Minister about that, only for the Prime Minister to say that it was “fake news”. Here is my first question to the Minister: is it fake news? Is there a 10% cut to the Department, and if not, what is it?
What we have had is a reorganisation, and I am not clear—I am not sure whether other colleagues are clear either—whether that reorganisation has been factored into the cuts. Effectively, we have a new Department, which is undergoing a seismic shift through the merger and reorganisation of two Departments, although some would say it is three: the Department for International Development, the Department for Exiting the European Union and, of course, the Foreign Office, which does the core work.
DFID has already lost 0.2%—effectively £4 billion—of its budget. That involves the vital work of helping those who need our support the most, whatever the historical reason for their being in that position. DFID is important for aid and for development; those are two separate things. Development can mean sharing experience, such as what is the best local crop to grow to feed people, rather than to service a debt.
My next main theme is the funding of outside organisations. We are an outward-looking nation—that is what we want to be—and we need to think again about cuts to outside organisations that have expertise and connections with civil society. The Government’s strategy for international development, which was published on 16 May, stated that the Government aim to cut the portion of the budget spent through multilateral organisations such as the United Nations from 40% to 25%. The United Nations is a worldwide organisation, and the last time we heard such a thing the President of the United States became the former President of the United States. The United Nations is important to the world coming together, and it will be vital not least as we rebuild Ukraine and in Yemen—the place I was born—where it has a huge input. Will the Minister tell us the figure for the cut to the United Nations part of the budget, and when is the cut likely to be made?
Another organisation I want to mention is the British Council, whose role is to promote arts, culture and education, strengthening our relationships with other countries. It has said that it intends to close offices in 20 countries, just when we need to promote global Britain, and to make a 20% cut in staff. Will the Minister tell us what further cuts there will be? Last night, the chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group, the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), wrote to us all to ask for the cuts to stop. Some £13 million has been made available to the British Council, which means that it is not going to close its offices in New Zealand and Australia.
What about the BBC World Service? That is also an important, outward-looking organisation. As I said, I was born in Aden, and I grew up listening to “Lillibullero”. Anyone who has listened to the World Service will know that tune, which still goes round in my head. My parents would have the radio on at breakfast as we got ready for school and they got ready for work. It is important for listeners around the world to have that impartial organisation, which is a trusted news source. Daw Suu said that she used to listen to the World Service. It was a lifeline for hostages such as Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan, as it is for everyone who listens to it while living under autocratic Governments around the world.
I am not clear from the Minister whether the World Service has yet received its funding, or whether that will increase every year. A flat rate is effectively a cut, and we need to ensure there is no cut. The Government learned the lesson when they made cuts to the World Service in 2010, when I first came here. They realised how important it was to project a proper, trusted source of news. It is needed ever more so now, especially in Ukraine.
We had a debate on the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, in which the Minister announced funding for that organisation, and I thank the Government for that. However, there was a 29% cut during the pandemic, and the increase now is only 25%, which still means a cut. This organisation does vital work in ensuring that democracy is promoted around the world, and will have to do much more, because there are many failed states, which have been ravaged by war.
What the Foreign Office does best is diplomacy, and diplomacy matters. That is why it is essential to have a strong Foreign Office for our global Britain. I saw diplomacy on the ground at first hand during a Speaker-led visit to Burma. We saw how embassies reached out to organisations in civil society. We did not meet just the great and the good at the embassy; we met those who were arrested on the street. It was good to speak to them and to see that the Foreign Office was not taking over what the countries have to do but supporting the move to democracy, which made a huge difference.
The work of the Foreign Office is different from that of DFID. There were people from DFID there, but it is important to keep that work separate. Former ambassadors have said that missions need to be able to travel and engage with people. The concern is that, if staff are cut from the Foreign Office, they are unable to do that core work, which is what they do best.
I want to raise the cases of Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, two British citizens who are still in Evin prison. They have not been released, despite the debt being paid. Will the Minister look into those two cases? That is how diplomacy works. It takes time, and people are skilled at that job. When we were part of the EU and had shared interests, all that work could be divided up, but now the UK is effectively alone. It has been suggested that, by leaving the EU and making cuts in the east Europe office, we might have missed some of the signals regarding the invasion of Ukraine.
This is the time to strengthen democracy and the work of the Foreign Office, not to cut it back. Even after elections, we still see what we call democratic dictators, and people do not have a chance to hold to account the Governments they have perhaps elected.
The right hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. We are seeing the Government push all Departments to make significant cuts to headcounts, and civil service salaries have been stagnating for years. Does she agree that putting our diplomatic services under too great a strain severely risks our ability to build on our international relationships?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. As she will know—she has clearly been listening to what I have been saying—it is so important for the future of the staff and the country that we make sure those staff are properly skilled and are still in place. The world is in turmoil, and we must make sure that people with level heads are still there, with the abilities and experience they have.
I pay tribute to the acting high commissioner in Delhi. When the pandemic first started, Jan Thompson was there, available for all Members. I think she physically saw every single one of my constituents on to the plane. She was absolutely exceptional: she answered every email and made sure that every constituent who had a medical issue was on the plane back. That is the kind of public interest work that our diplomatic service personnel undertake for us.
I have some important questions to ask the Minister. We have assets around the world—our embassies—and she will know that our embassies in Bangkok and Japan have been sold off. Those are public assets; they belong to the people of the UK. Could the Minister confirm that no more embassies will be sold off? Could she also publish an analysis of where the cuts have fallen so far, and will she confirm that the extra staff announced in 2020 are not a rehash of the staff who had previously been announced? Sometimes, when announcements are made, we cannot keep track of whether the same announcement is being made over and over again.
In its pack, the Library helpfully enclosed a letter that was sent to the Chair of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). It is a public letter from the Foreign Secretary, dated 21 March, in which she helpfully set out how many staff there are and what the directorates of the organisations are going to look like. Could the Minister confirm which regions will see these cuts in staff? Will that be decided by the directorate or the Foreign Secretary? There is a board; will the policy be set by the Foreign Secretary and signed off by her, or will it be a matter for the board?
Would it be possible to have an organogram of all the staff who are affiliated to each of those directorates? Many staff were taken on during the pandemic. We are told that they are not needed now, but more and more are needed post pandemic and post leaving the EU. The work is actually increasing. Having been a civil servant, I know that as soon as someone leaves, someone else is given the bunch of files they had and has to do more work. It is important to think about our staff. I also ask the Minister whether a voluntary exit scheme is now in place.
Our staff should not be left in limbo or in the dark about their jobs. We now have a position in the Foreign Office of hiring, then firing, and now possibly rehiring, given the work that is going on. As President Zelensky said this week, diplomacy is going to end the war. We saw that intractable position in Northern Ireland, and resolving it required diplomats, including Jonathan Powell, to name just one, and people around the world such as Senator George Mitchell—those with whom we have built up relationships, who have looked at the UK and seen the strong diplomatic service we have. That was so important; it is a beacon of hope around the world. I talked about it when we were in Burma, and we should never forget the important things we did in Northern Ireland.
In “Global Britain in a competitive age”, under the heading “Global Britain in Action”, the Government speak of
“an approach that puts diplomacy first.”
The essence of democracy requires that this great office of state survives and is enhanced.
It is an absolute pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Bardell. It was a pleasure to hear the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) put forward her case. She asked me last week whether I would be here; I said, “Does night follow day? Yes, of course I will.” I am very pleased to participate. The right hon. Lady made some good points about the diplomatic staff in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which I concur with. We should put on record our thanks to all the staff; I know I have conveyed those thanks on many occasions to this Minister and other Ministers, but we could not survive or do many of the things we do if it was not for the interpretation of events by those staff, and I want to speak a wee bit about that.
I also want to comment on the right hon. Lady’s reference to the progress that diplomatic staff made in the Northern Ireland political process—the right people were in the right place at the right time with the right attitude. Many diplomatic staff were part of that; they were maybe not household names, but they were behind the Mitchells of this world, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Clinton. Many others made it happen, and we should never underestimate the good work that these people do.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I want to sow into the debate the importance of diplomatic staff being aware of all the issues. When it comes to the Minister, I know that I am pushing at an open door, because she always comes back to me. I watch her in the Chamber, and I know she understands this issue really well, but just for Hansard and for the record, I would like some understanding of where it features.
This July there will be an international ministerial conference on freedom of religion and belief, headed by the FCDO. That shows a real commitment from Government and Ministers, including the Prime Minister, to this issue. I am very hopeful about the conference, and I will play a small role in it, but I give credit to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who has been very active in this matter. The conference will provide an opportunity to cast a light on the good work that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland does to promote freedom of religion or belief for all, and on what can and should be done by all countries everywhere to protect this fundamental human right. The Government’s sponsoring, helping and promoting of the conference in July will help to do that and show the good things that the FCDO does across the world. The invitation list includes people from all countries across the world, which will energise the conference and be to the benefit of everyone.
One area of impact is each state’s diplomatic service. All too often, freedom of religion or belief is considered a peripheral concern to human rights or a humanitarian crisis in a given country, rather than integral to achieving not only a country’s strategic objectives but the overall state of freedom. As long as states fail to understand the centrality of freedom of religion or belief in the wider political context, and fail to give full exterior support and backing in diplomatic circles, stable Governments and peaceful co-existence will remain a far-off dream.
Just this morning there was a news story about China. There is an evidential base documenting China’s suppression of the Uyghurs. That goes as far up as the President of China himself. I know we try to do things diplomatically, but sometimes we have to be critical of what other Governments do. We need to be critical of China, as we are of many other countries across the world. This is an example of the Chinese Government failing to look after their minorities—not just the Uyghurs but Christians, whose churches are destroyed or who are unable to worship. Members of the Falun Gong, a small religious sect in China, are not able to express their views in the way they should. There is the systematic removal of organs of Falun Gong members and many others who just happen to have a different opinion from the state. Those are the things that the FCDO highlights across the world and that FCDO diplomats and officials have a responsibility to highlight.
A constituent who works for the FCDO in East Kilbride wrote to me. He is unbelievably stressed about the rising cost of living and his minimal annual pay award, and he tells me that he may be forced to leave his job. Does the hon. Member agree that tightening the budget impacts not only on frontline diplomatic services, but on everything that FCDO officials do behind the scenes to make things work?
I thank the hon. Lady for, as always, bringing very wise words to the debate. Yes, it is important that staff are remunerated in such a way that they can continue to do the job. I often think that diplomatic staff are perhaps called to it as a vocation because they have a really deep interest in the subject matter. But any person who does any job deserves to be remunerated correctly. I thank the hon. Lady for that point.
It is vital also that diplomatic staff in the FCDO receive adequate funding so that key elements of its work do not suffer. Corners must not be cut; the service will suffer and be reduced. For example, the highest level of training for desk officers comes at a price. We do not produce great officers and great staff on a low budget or a low wage. And when they come with the quality that we have, there is good reason to spend the money on their training. It is through that bespoke training, not through complacency on religious literacy, that British diplomacy can truly lead the way in promoting democracy and the rule of law. I believe that soft power has a really strong role to play; I am talking about the soft power that the FCDO staff display in their engagement. I wanted to mention that as well, because I think it is really important.
The issues where we need this diplomacy range from the heartbreaking advance of the Taliban in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries’ responses, through to Russia’s use of the Orthodox Church in its own soft diplomacy. I have watched that happen in a very perverse way, if I can say that, because I think the way it does it is wrong. The fact that the Ukrainian and Russian Christian Orthodox Churches have divided themselves and the Ukrainian Church has come away from the Russian Orthodox Church tells me that many of the churches and priests are unhappy with what is happening.
We need diplomats who understand the intricacies of these situations and are literate in religion, so that Britain can be relevant in resolving today’s conflicts. I am always greatly amazed and encouraged by what the staff do. That is why, in my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I urge our Government to consider religious literacy training as a top priority for funding when it comes to considering the FCDO spending levels. We need diplomats who understand religion, so may we have an assurance from the Minister that that training will take place among our diplomatic staff, and that it will be a priority? I understand that the Government have given it a priority, along with other things, but I think it is important that we know that our role as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a role that can help to resolve problems across the world.
We need diplomats who understand the centrality of religion and belief to geopolitical dynamics, international security and overall governmental stability. It is really important that we get this right, and that we then can portray it across the world. And if we want our diplomats and civil servants to advance freedom of religion or belief for all, and therefore contribute coherently to the overall human rights situation in any given country, we need to ensure that the training of civil servants in freedom of religion or belief is funded adequately. I should perhaps say that I have been on the road since half-past 3 in the morning, so my voice may be a wee bit dry after the plane flight.
I receive regular emails on this matter each week. Many of my constituents follow the issue daily and weekly, and they contact me about it, so I seek from the Government and from the Minister an assurance that there is a commitment to these standards, and that these roles will continue to be key roles for the FCDO across the whole world.
I conclude by acknowledging that this is merely one of the many demands on the FCDO budget. I understand that we are constrained by moneys and we cannot expect to spend moneys ad infinitum, but whenever we see something good that can deliver for us, it is money well spent; that is how I look at it. It is no surprise that we want more, not less, funding for the key roles that our diplomats play. It is vital that the Government fund their work sufficiently, so that they may be an asset to our country and to our promotion of human rights and democracy abroad.
As the world becomes increasingly Zoom-friendly, feet on the streets, building relationships and face-to-face contacts are important. During the two years of covid, Zoom meetings were a useful way of contacting people, but they were never ideal. It is nice to come and see people again and shake hands. We have events across our constituencies, as I did last night, and it is nice to shake hands and press the flesh. It is important to do that, so face-to-face contact, shaking hands and having a meal and a chat are really important, as is taking time to understand the culture and nuances that can be understood only by living somewhere and not doing it from a distance.
It is essential that we retain our diplomats in the right places and invest in a support structure for them that reaps benefits for international relations and the strengthening of relationships. With that in mind, I fully support what the right hon. Member for Walsall South has said. It is important, and we look to the Minister for an adequate response to our concerns.
It is a pleasure and a pleasant surprise to see you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. I thank the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for securing this important debate today and for raising really fundamental concerns; and it is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
The Prime Minister’s foreword to the integrated review boasts:
“The UK will continue to be renowned for our leadership in security, diplomacy and development, conflict resolution and poverty reduction.”
What a boast that is. Since it was published just over a year ago, we have seen the UK abandon that leadership in a number of the areas mentioned.
To begin with, in development, the UK Government have doubled down on their tragic decision to cut lifesaving aid spending from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%, ensuring that that supposedly temporary cut will be in place for years to come owing to the fiscal tests required to return to 0.7%.
In addition, poverty reduction was barely touched upon in last week’s international development strategy, with trade and investment opportunities proving to be the focus and driving force behind that strategy, rather than the globally agreed UN sustainable development goal No. 1 of removing poverty. Secondly, commitments to conflict resolution have been undermined by cuts to the conflict, stability and security fund, significantly so by cuts to programmes in the middle east and North Africa, and also by cuts to other programmes in fragile and conflict-affected states. All that has undermined the UK’s own national security in the process and damaged the UK’s ability to lead and be trusted on the global stage.
The FCDO has also been guilty of several gross diplomatic miscalculations, including the shambolic military and diplomatic withdrawal from Afghanistan—indeed, the Foreign Affairs Committee is calling for the resignation of Sir Philip Barton today—as well as the diplomatic fallout that resulted from France being excluded from the AUKUS security pact, and the UK Government’s renewed antagonism of the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol, with threats to unilaterally end that legally binding agreement. Rather than projecting an image of a stable, reliable international partner, the UK looks impulsive, short-sighted and removed from reality.
Diplomacy cannot be the next victim of cuts, particularly if the UK wants to repair its damaged reputation on the world stage. In December, the Prime Minister told the House that a reported FCDO staff cut of 10% across the board was, in Donald Trump’s famous words, “fake news”. That was reiterated by the then Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), who said:
“There will not be a 10% staff cut and Ministers will make the final decisions on workforce changes in the spring.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 1155.]
Yet within the last weeks, the Government have revealed their target of cutting 91,000 civil service jobs. Will the Minister address how many of those jobs will be cut in the FCDO and how that will affect diplomatic staff?
Over the weekend it was reported that the Cabinet Office was poised to write to all permanent secretaries, asking them to model what would be required to slash staffing numbers in three different scenarios. The fascinating bit about that is that when working out the 91,000 figure, the answers should be there before any asking is done. But no; let us have a look at this. What scenario does the Minister expect for the FCDO? The cuts, according to the different scenarios, are 20%, 30% and 40%. That is like the back of the proverbial fag packet. Are those figures not in excess of the 10% cut dismissed as fake news by the Prime Minister in December, or will the jobs within the FCDO be ringfenced—yes or no?
The Foreign Secretary said in March that her staff would not be cut, and would instead be redeployed to key geostrategic areas. There is no coherence in the Government’s statements or certainty for FCDO staff, with a spokesman for the PCS union stating:
“Morale is incredibly low, and there’s a feeling of understaffing in some areas, with people being shifted from crisis to crisis.”
So we go to the very heart of the question: when we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, threatened by a potential global food supply crisis, facing a climate catastrophe and witnessing war in Europe once again and across the world, is this really the time to be considering cuts to diplomatic staff? All those challenges are international in their scope and consequence, so diplomats should have as much funding and resources available to match the UK’s ambition to be a force for good in the world alongside allies, rather than being hampered by cuts to staff and funding.
I should have said this in my contribution, but I wish to make the point that the hon. Gentleman is outlining the importance of the staff. I am not sure whether people read the obituaries in The Times, but if they do and they look at the diplomats who have contributed across the world, they will find their commitment, interest and knowledge, and the way that they have used their positions on behalf of this good United Kingdom, incredible. The hon. Gentleman is very right in what he says: the importance of diplomats can never be underestimated.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. On that important point, institutional memory stretches across years—decades, in fact. With Governments coming and going, whether Labour or Conservative, diplomats are a continuing presence and the mainstay of the voice for the UK. So cutting staff is short-sighted; it is brutal, and most of all it means that our reach in the world is fundamentally more short-sighted, so that we go from one crisis to another.
To add insult to injury, efforts to address global challenges have not been helped by the deeply mistaken merger of the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office. The fundamental fear that the expertise that had made DFID world-leading would be diminished as a consequence is now coming to fruition. Earlier this year, it was reported that nearly 100 former DFID technical directors left the FCDO between September 2020 and November 2021, with no one hired to replace them. In fact, there are recent reports of how the German Government have benefited from some of those people, who have gone over to help with their international development. The Institute for Government director Bronwen Maddox recently told a House of Lords Committee that it was frequently heard that DFID people were not convinced that the Department was the place for them.
Furthermore, an FCDO official told Politico:
“The department is so unwieldy right now. It’s like three departments shoved into one, with all the responsibilities of DfID and [the Department for Exiting the European Union] DExEU and now a war.”
Not only has the merger resulted in death-sentence cuts to millions in the world as a result of an erosion in the aid budget and the focus on poverty reduction; it has also caused talented staff to leave and added to the confusion and lack of direction within the Department. That simply cannot continue. Funding levels for diplomacy need to be maintained, with funding for aid and development restored, at the very minimum.
Another area of expertise that has not been touched on so far, but which is just as important and needs sufficient investment, is linguistic capabilities. For example, the number of fluent Russian speakers in the Foreign Office fell by a quarter in the years before the most recent invasion of Ukraine—let us not forget that the invasion of Ukraine began in 2014. Given the security challenges of today’s world, it is essential that across Government, staff are equipped with the correct skills to predict and handle the myriad international security problems. The UK Government must address those linguistic shortcomings as a matter of urgency. What assessment has been made of staffing cuts and the FCDO’s ability to operate across languages?
Finally, the SNP will of course continue to push the UK Government to adopt a foreign policy akin to the good global citizen policy proposed in the Scottish Government’s recently published global affairs framework. That framework aims to amplify marginalised voices, share experience in policy making and learn from others on global issues, such as global inequality, migration, human rights, biodiversity and, of course, the changes in climate that are looming ever closer. Scotland is looking out to the world to build friendly and socially conscious relationships with others, while the UK is retreating and looking inward, viewing aid and diplomacy as a profit and loss exercise.
Faced by the own goals of Brexit, departmental mergers and budget cuts, alongside the global challenges of conflict, climate change and health and food crises, it is ever more urgent that the UK has a full-scale rethink of how it conducts itself on the world stage. Cuts to FCDO diplomatic staff funding would simply be another own goal, and another indication that “global Britain”, as they call it, is nothing but a worn and ragged slogan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. This debate is very timely, so I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for securing the debate. It comes at a time when our country’s place in the world, and the influence we possess as a democracy, is under attack from authoritarian forces around the globe. My right hon. Friend made some important points. She thanked the House of Commons Library; where would we be without our wonderful Library and the important briefings it regularly gives us? She said the debate was timely because that mighty office of state—the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—is now in a state. Will there be a 10% cut to FCDO budgets? We will let the Minister tell us more.
My right hon. Friend rightly pointed out that DFID had lost £4.2 billion from its budget through the temporary cut of 0.2% of GDP. I have seen, as have many hon. Members from across the House, the good that our development aid money does all across the world. We have seen the schemes that relieve poverty and push people into self-reliance when they have not had that before, thanks to our expertise, our knowledge and the money we can give through our development and aid budget. My right hon. Friend rightly said that development and aid are two different issues, but they came under that one Department. It was praised throughout the world, not only for value for money but for the expertise and the development that it helped give to so many of the poorest communities across the world.
My right hon. Friend rightly said that the UK is an outward-looking nation. We have always been an outward-looking nation, and we have always tried to maintain our place in the world and the reputation that we have rightly earned. The cut to the budget of the United Nations is, as she said, a deeply serious issue. She asked what the actual cut would be; we await the answer.
I have heard from many British Council workers that the British Council, for which I have shadow ministerial responsibility, is closing its offices in 20 countries—just when we need it the most. I also have shadow ministerial responsibility for the BBC World Service. I have had a connection with the World Service almost since I was first elected as an MP in 1997—nearly 25 years ago. I used to listen to the World Service as a child growing up in London and Essex; my right hon. Friend listened to it in Yemen, the country of her birth, where she grew up and went to school. All across the world, the BBC World Service is trusted as a source of news that is balanced and neutral. It is not fake news—it is real news.
I recall the veteran broadcaster Baqer Moin, who was head of the Persian language and Farsi service many years ago—he won an award for his work—telling a story about going to Afghanistan after its first liberation from the Taliban in the early 2000s. He went into a local shop, and they asked him in Farsi—in Dari, I think it was—“Where do you work? Where are you from? Your accent is different.” He said, “I am actually Persian-Iranian, but I work for the BBC World Service.” They said, “Ah, the World Service—the radio that kept us going and gave us hope throughout the dark years of the Taliban. What’s the weather like in BBC World Service today?” They thought it was a country on its own.
My right hon. Friend spoke about the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. It is really good that the funding was announced during the debate, but it is still a cut, as she said, and that resource is essential for failed states. Diplomacy matters more than ever today. She mentioned the two remaining British citizens in Evin prison in Tehran—let us not forget them. My right hon. Friend and I met one of the released prisoners at Speaker’s House last week; he still has nightmares, and will do for many years to come. I hate to think what Nazanin is going through and what the two prisoners, and the others who are still in Evin jail, are suffering. As my right hon. Friend said, now is the time to strengthen the FCDO, not to cut it.
We should never forget about the excellence of our diplomats. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Dundee West (Chris Law) drew our attention to that important point. Our diplomats are praised throughout the world, and we cannot threaten that excellence. I always call the hon. Member for Strangford my hon. Friend, because he always attends these debates and makes really important points. His contribution to the debate was not just to thank all our diplomatic staff, but to point out the importance of FCDO staff in protecting freedom of religion or belief—something for which he has been an unswerving spokesperson for all the years that I have known him and, I dare say, many before.
FORB, or freedom or religion or belief, is essential to democracy in any country, and, by implication, the FCDO is essential to protecting and promoting it. The hon. Member for Strangford said that it is vital that staff in the FCDO receive adequate remuneration, or we will not continue to see the high-quality diplomacy that we have grown used to and for which we have rightly had such a good reputation. He also said that soft power is essential, but comes at a price.
What the world needs to see from Britain right now is the confidence to be outward-looking and to engage with our international partners, which is why maintaining and improving our diplomatic service is so vital to restoring Britain’s place in the world. I spent 10 years on the Foreign Affairs Committee, from 2001 to 2010, during a time when my party was in Government, and I saw at first hand how brilliant our diplomats were—not just how good they were and how well they spoke languages in locations from Japan through to Tibet. We went to Tibet with the person who I think is now our ambassador in Beijing, and she not only spoke fluent Mandarin, but was able to contradict the official interpreters, who were giving us a false view of what was happening in Lhasa, by translating from the Tibetan, because she spoke fluent Tibetan. That is so brilliant, but it costs money. We must not cut back on language training, because it so important.
I have just got back from Cyprus, where our brilliant high commissioner has gone into all the communities to listen to the dialogue that is taking place between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. As a guarantor power, we have such an important role in Cyprus. Our diplomat is looked to by all parties to try to bring people together. He is nearing the end of his term of office there, but what a brilliant job he and all his predecessors have done to try to ensure that violence never returns to that divided nation, and that once again we can have a reunited Cyprus. It is our diplomacy that makes a difference in such places, where we have had a huge influence over the years, decades and even centuries.
Let me turn to Turkey, where the ability of our diplomats in Ankara to speak fluent Turkish, which is not an easy language to learn, means that they can appear on national television and give the British point of view in fluent Turkish, so that the public can understand where we are coming from and that we want to help Turkey to be better, more democratic and more open. We also want to encourage Turkey to ensure that there is a solution in Cyprus.
British diplomats have historically been revered for their professionalism and their passion for the values of this country that we hold so dear. It is time to empower them further, not subject them or their institutions to cuts and further squeezed budgets. Last December, it was extremely disturbing to learn that many FCDO-funded British Council diplomatic staff were trapped in Kabul, where, having been left behind during the evacuation, they were subsequently living in fear of reprisals from the Taliban. Our diplomatic staff and associated FCDO contractors deserve so much better than that, and it simply cannot be allowed to happen again.
Instead, we have heard worrying reports that the FCDO is to undergo another major restructure. The idea that the Government would pursue such a restructuring at a time of unprecedented international crisis is, quite frankly, staggering. The war in Ukraine rages on; now cannot be the best time to begin a complex restructuring of the UK’s most outward-facing Government Department. I would be grateful if the Minister could put those reports to bed today and, if there is to be a restructure, if the Government could reconsider the timing.
I also ask the Minister about her plans to extend the UK’s soft power, to which our diplomatic staff at the FCDO are central. Alongside the British Council and the BBC World Service, they form a vital part of our presence and influence abroad. While reports of this restructuring include the creation of two roles focused on security, which is completely welcome, it is worrying that there is still no official whose role is focused on harnessing the UK’s soft power. With staffing cuts apparently looming, it seems that that extremely important part of our strategic foreign policy could be further neglected.
The integrated review recognised that it was the Government’s role to assist organisations in
“building mutually beneficial international relationships”
“create a conducive enabling environment in which that independent organisations, assets and networks in every part of the UK can flourish.”
With that in mind, will the Minister tell us what proportion of the FCDO staffing budget will focus on extending the UK’s soft power?
Although it is clear that there will be cuts to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, as laid out by the Government in the spending review, it is not clear what form those cuts will take. As has been quoted during this debate, the FCDO last year told staff that there will be at least a 10% cut to staffing. The Prime Minister called that fake news, but several members of the Cabinet have failed to rule it out. For the sake of our international partnerships and FCDO staff livelihoods, the Minister really should make clear today what those plans are. This lack of transparency is needless and irresponsible.
Staffing cuts at the FCDO will cause unnecessary disruption to and dismissal of our obligations to the world’s most vulnerable. They will undoubtedly damage the UK’s reputation abroad and do nothing to strengthen our democratic values where they are needed most. Should the Government go ahead with cuts to our diplomatic service, it would serve as a slap in the face to our brave diplomatic staff who risked their lives to evacuate British people from Afghanistan. I urge the Minister to guarantee today that the enormous potential power and influence of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will not be blunted as part of the Government’s huge cuts to our civil service. Britain’s place in the world, no less, is at stake.
What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Ms Bardell. I thank the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for securing this important and wide-ranging debate. I will endeavour to cover many of the points that have been raised.
There is a commonality in many of the remarks made today—on the importance of the diplomatic service as an essential arm of the UK Government. As hon. Members have mentioned, our diplomats play a key role in protecting and promoting British interests around the world. They help us to establish and maintain strategic partnerships with our allies and partners, and address some of the major global challenges we face—everything from covid, climate change and the conflict in Ukraine to the protection of endangered species, and the control of arms and weapons of mass destruction. They help us to strengthen the defence and security partnerships that make us more safe and secure, and to alleviate the suffering of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. They stand up for British values, open markets and the rules-based international order. They support British citizens abroad who get into difficulties, and champion British culture, science and technology. They bring prosperity and jobs to these shores by helping British exporters, attracting investment and negotiating trade agreements.
Our 280 overseas posts—coupled with our aid and development budget, which is one of the largest in the world—and our P5, G7, Commonwealth and other multilateral networks give us unrivalled global reach and influence. According to the most recent figures, the total net cost of our diplomats and permanently employed FCDO staff was less than £829 million. In the light of what they achieve for our country, that strikes me as good value for money.
I want to pick up on a couple of points that hon. Members have raised. We have all experienced the diplomatic network in post; we have heard about a number of different posts today. If I were to rattle of the list of posts I have visited in the past few weeks, it would probably be quite a long list and I would feel quite dizzy again. I want to place on the record my enormous thanks to our diplomatic network for all their tremendous work, including in incredibly challenging times—for example, the repatriation of British citizens at the beginning of covid; the 15,000 Afghan citizens who have come here; and the work of the diplomatic post in Ukraine. It has been a real pleasure to meet our diplomats in post to see what they actually do on the ground, because their work is wide-ranging. It is not just meetings with Government officials; it goes much further.
A core part of the debate was a discussion of levels of cuts to the Department, with a specific reference to the geographical and estate impact. The Foreign Secretary and her ministerial team will be making careful choices to ensure that we target the resources that we have secured through the spending review to deliver on the UK’s international ambitions. That includes ensuring that we expand capability in areas to reflect the new priorities, including our geographical strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, the US and other key alliances that are most critical to the UK. In addition, we look to further our ability to understand and influence China and, more widely, to further our country and regional expertise, global insights and analysis around the world.
As the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) set out in the House on 15 and 16 December respectively, there will not be an across the board 10% reduction in FCDO staff. The Foreign Secretary also made that clear in her letter to the Foreign Affairs Committee on 10 January. There has been a public announcement that the civil service will look to reduce staffing to 2016 levels. No decisions have been made and I am not in a position to comment on specific impacts on the FCDO ahead of the work being completed by officials over the next few months, but the Foreign Secretary and the UK Government are committed to ensuring that we have the right people in the right places to deliver on the UK’s international priorities. That means that we must be agile and ready to use the fantastic resources of our UK civil servants and overseas country-based staff in our many embassies and posts, as needed.
We have no current plans to change the overseas network significantly with regard to staffing or estates. Our regional footprint will continue to evolve and change, so that we modernise and update our overseas property estate. The mission of the FCDO is to pursue our national interests abroad and to project the UK as a force for good in the world. With that in mind, we want to ensure that we maintain a world-class platform from which we can promote UK interests while maximising value for money for the British taxpayer.
The Government advance national interests and champion the UK’s many world-leading assets, including our much-envied democratic institutions, businesses, financial services sector and the City of London, schools and universities, NHS, scientists, researchers and innovators. We have just over 16,700 staff around the world, including the country-based staff employed by our embassies and posts in addition to the UK civil servants based in the UK and overseas.
The size of the workforce has increased by 8% since the 2015 general election, as the Government strengthened our relationships around the world in order to take advantage of our post-Brexit freedoms. Earlier this month, the Prime Minister set out the need for the civil service to focus on controlling expenditure and delivering the best possible value for taxpayers. In the normal way, the Cabinet’s Efficiency and Value for Money Committee will work with the civil service departments to agree key parameters and workforce plans within the next spending review period.
As a Department, we have an ongoing dialogue with Her Majesty’s Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the civil service’s human resources experts, and we will set out our staffing requirements in the usual robust way. As the Prime Minister is a former Foreign Secretary, I assure Members that he fully understands the vital role played by UK diplomats and the FCDO.
I want to pick up on some specific points that were raised in this wide-ranging debate, including on the UN and multilateral channels. Spending more through bilateral channels will allow us to have more control over how taxpayers’ money is used to achieve our goals. Multilateral channels will continue to be key to achieving our objectives and tackling global challenges that we simply cannot solve alone. Regarding the World Bank, we have reduced our commitment by 54%, but it is important to note that we remain its third largest funder. We have not yet finalised any decisions on allocations to specific institutions.
The BBC World Service was mentioned a number of times. We are providing it with a flat cash three-year spending review settlement of £94.4 million per annum for the period from 2022 to 2025. In 2022-23, we will provide an additional £1.44 million to counter disinformation in Russia and Ukraine. That settlement represents a good outcome for the BBC World Service.
Despite the challenging financial context, the Foreign Secretary agreed to provide the British Council with a total of £511 million of grant in aid funding across the 2022-25 spending review period, including £10 million to enable the British Council to avoid further closures.
The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is a key partner in delivering our objectives on open societies and democracy. That is why the Foreign Secretary agreed to increase its grant in aid from £5.1 million in 2021-22 to £6.5 million a year from 2022 to 2025.
Turning to the FCDO pay awards, we are in dialogue with Her Majesty’s Treasury to establish a process for pay controls. Officials are highlighting the significant variation in global inflation rates and the need for flexibility to react to labour market pressures in our strategically important posts. On language capability, I am always astonished by the excellence of our diplomats and their language skills, which are truly phenomenal—many of them speak numerous languages. We have more than 16,700 staff around the world, with a number of them engaged in full-time training, and we are committed to that training and the essential support it provides to the FCDO’s diplomatic and development work.
A debate would not be the same if the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) were not here. I thank him for all the work he does in advocating for freedom of religion and belief. We are committed to defending FORB for all and promoting respect for different religious and non-religious communities. Promoting the right to FORB is one of the UK’s long-standing human rights priorities, and we will drive that forward through our international efforts at the UK-hosted ministerial conference that the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned, which is taking place in July. Regarding training on FORB, Lord Ahmad and the Prime Minister’s special envoy on FORB, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), launched the core training unit in July 2021. That training is essential for FCDO officials in relevant posts, and is highly recommended for all FCDO staff. It is also accessible across Government. I reassure Members that the Department and the embassy in Tehran continue to engage with the Iranian authorities on behalf of the British nationals who seek consular assistance, and those in detention.
The temporary reduction in the official development assistance budget does not drive workforce allocations, but it is worth noting that, as set out in the spending review statement, the Government remain committed to the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, and to spending 0.7% of gross national income on ODA once the fiscal situation allows. The international development strategy that was published last week is about helping partner countries, and low-income countries in particular, to build their economies sustainably through honest, reliable investment in infrastructure and trade. It is not about providing tied aid, or aid in return for trade. The UK wants to offer a clear alternative to malign actors, so that low-income and middle-income countries are not burdened with unsustainable debts and strings attached.
To conclude, some of this Government’s most important achievements have been built on the work of our first-class diplomatic service—from the global collaboration that has helped us put the worst of covid behind us, to the agreements forged at COP26 in Glasgow, which can save the world from the most serious impacts of climate change, and our unflinching support for the brave people of Ukraine. I reassure right hon. and hon. Members that this Government will not do anything that undermines the UK’s effectiveness on the world stage.
I will not take the full amount of time available to me; everybody can go and have a cup of coffee or something afterwards, given the early start.
I thank everyone who has taken part in this vital debate. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is an amazing institution in Parliament, and he is absolutely right about freedom of religion and belief. We must support everyone’s religion, throughout the world, and ensure that they can practise their faith, whatever it is, or no faith at all, in freedom, and that they should not face persecution or have to leave their country in order to do so.
The Front-Bench spokespersons—the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton)—have touched on two different angles. We need to reward our staff or they will go somewhere else. With all of their expertise, there are many other demands on their time. As we have all said, they have not only the language skills but the diplomacy skills, and that is so important. It is time that we reward them and make them feel that they are wanted in this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East touched on aid. I recall that when Justine Greening was Secretary of State, she made sure that there was an audit of the aid given around the world. It was nice to see the UK aid branding on the backpacks of girls going to school. That was an amazing sight, and people do notice that.
I still come back, however, to the central point that this is about two different things: diplomacy and aid. We must be very careful about mixing the two, because they involve two different skillsets. In my view, if we start giving aid, it hampers the work that the diplomats do. We must be careful that we are not seen as funding certain organisations that then may be slightly subversive to a country’s democracy. That is why the two separate skills are very important.
It is also important to acknowledge that, looking at this issue in the round, it is part of why people leave their war-torn countries. By ensuring that we do not reduce the skills of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and by support people in their own countries, the migration issue will not be at the fore. We need to consider that in the round.
I thank the Minister for some of the commitments that she has made. I understand what it is like to stand up in a debate and make a commitment. I was warned, when I was a councillor, “If you say something, that is basically committed expenditure.” However, I did not quite get an answer, other than, “It is not a 10% reduction”, and “No decisions have been made yet—they will be made in the next few months.” I hope that does not mean that we will be back again with a further debate to find out exactly where the cuts, if any, will be made.
The Minister said that we need to have the right people in the right places. Well, that is the point about this debate and about the Foreign Office—because we do not know what is going to happen throughout the world. We do not know where the next flare-up will happen. It may be Russia and Ukraine now, but that is why we have the diplomats that we have. I do not feel that we actually got an answer from the Minister. I am pleased with the £94 million for the BBC World Service and that there will be an increase. The Minister said that it was flat cash, but there is £1.4 million extra for Russia and Ukraine, which is important.
I hope that, as a result of this debate and all Members taking part in it, people will realise what a wonderful Foreign Office and international development Department we have, that the expertise continues and, more importantly, that we need people to come in. As I have said, having worked in the civil service, I know that there are people who come in at ground level who are then trained up. We must not lose that. Very often, when there are cuts in Departments, people forget about the training aspect.
The point about the language skills, which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East made so eloquently, is that someone has to be in the country to pick them up; they cannot just go to a school. They can learn it for GCSEs and A-levels, but it is better to actually be on the ground. I know that the Foreign Office has now taken the decision to have people who work and live in the countries as part of the team. I hope that that will continue, because it will certainly make our presence felt.
At the end of the day, while this has been an excellent debate, I have not felt that we have actually pinned the Minister down to say that there will not be a 10% cut. I appreciate what she has said and that some of the outward organisations have received funding, but we should not have to wait until the last minute. There are two elements to this: we must be able to support our staff and our reputation throughout the world. I again thank everyone who has taken part in the debate, and I hope that everyone feels that it has contributed to that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered funding levels for diplomatic staff in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.