Examination of witness (Questions 160-179)|
TUESDAY 24 APRIL 2001
160. I am talking about the new network.
(Mr Kirk) If it is part of the IT kit that hangs on
the end of the network there are stocks of spares deployed around
the world available.
161. In posts?
(Mr Kirk) In most posts, not in all posts yet. There
are also people, Technical Management Officers, who are themselves
deployed around the world who have the right diplomatic visas
to be able to get into the countries that they are not resident
in quickly so that they can get in to support the equipment. This
is an area which we have traditionally used to cover our communications
requirements and we are now looking to extend it across into our
secure IT requirement. I would not say yet that our coverage is
perfect or that our response is as fast as it needs to be in the
posts where we do not have a resident technical officer.
162. How fast do you think it should be?
(Mr Kirk) I think that for the sort of faults that
you expect to have fairly commonly on these systems, we ought
to be able to fix them certainly within half a working day.
163. You mean you have somebody travel from
another country, be in the post and fix it within half a day?
(Mr Kirk) Most of those faults can either be fixed
164. I am talking about the ones that cannot
(Mr Kirk)swapping with the ones you have in
post or by remote access, and that is what we are trying to achieve.
For posts which require a technical person actually to be present
on site, the only way that we can do that with a secure system
is by getting somebody there if we do not have somebody already
posted there. We have quite a large number of these technical
management officers, about 70, deployed overseas at the moment.
165. So what is the time span that you are targeting
for with the location of your specialist officers around different
(Mr Kirk) If it is in the post in which they are resident
it is as soon as they can get to the piece of equipment. That
could be minutes, it could be hours. Again, it depends if it is
a particularly sophisticated piece of equipment that has to be
sent out from the UK.
Mr Chidgey: What have you designed into your
system as the maximum time you allow?
Chairman: I think we are in a vast series of
technical questions which I am sure, Sir John, you would answer
but I would like to move on to Sir John Stanley.
Sir John Stanley
166. Sir John, Mr Rowlands asked you a very
big question about possible new diplomacy and I would like to
ask you an equally big question about the oldest responsibility
of your Office, and that is featured in the first of the benefits
you hold out to the people of this country in your mission statement,
the benefit headed, "Security", in which you say, "We
shall ensure the security of the United Kingdom and the dependent
territories and peace for our people." In the last century
we looked to the Foreign Office to be the eyes and ears of the
elected British Government to assess the risks and to pinpoint
where the next war was coming from. I think the historians would
judge sometimes the Foreign Office got it right and sometimes
they got it fairly spectacularly wrong. In this century it is
certainly arguable that the role of the Foreign Office in this
area is going to be focusing every bit as much on where the next
war is coming from, and possibly more focused on where the next
major terrorist is coming from, both state terrorism and non-state
terrorism. Given the nature of modern conventional weapons, the
conventional explosives, and given the nature and the range of
weapons of mass destruction and the proliferation of information
about those weapons and means whereby they can be put together,
I would like to ask you whether or not you feel satisfied that
your department is retaining a sufficient degree of focus in this
key security area of acting as the eyes and ears of our country
round the world in trying to alert our elected government to security
threats to this country coming from overseas, and of course including
the dependent territories. Do you feel satisfied that with all
the pressures on you to make money for Britain, which we all understand,
the human rights agenda, the huge panoply of international negotiations,
you are retaining a sufficient focus on what is the bottom line
responsibility of your department, which is to be sufficiently
resourced and sufficiently expert and sufficiently well orientated
in trying to alert the government of this country to terrorist
threats and also, of course, threats of war but particularly terrorist
(Sir John Kerr) Chairman, I agree with Sir John about
the importance of the question and I am sure the answer is yes.
It remains number one among our objectives quite deliberately.
If we fail on that priority, it does not really matter about the
rest; and on that I completely agree with Sir John. I also agree
with the point lurking behind his question which is that it has
got more difficult. It was relatively easyit was always
difficultto know where to focus one's effort in a Cold
War situation, it is much more difficult in a situation where
the enemy is as likely to be a terrorist as an unfriendly regime
or foreign army. It is a priority task for our posts. Our Counter
Terrorism Policy Department is one of the growing departments
in the Office. It is a key preoccupation of the International
Security Policy Command working with other agencies who are also
similarly targeted. From my personal view of course the terrorist
threat is high among my preoccupations because it is my job to
worry about the security of our missions abroad which are a prime
target for unfriendly people, and in some ways a surrogate target.
Our American friends spend very large sums of money strengthening
the security of their missions. There is a risk that our terrorist
foe might decide we were a soft target. We are spending quite
a lot of money ourselves in dealing with that and I would be happy
to talk about that when we move into restricted session, Chairman.
Chairman: I am obliged.
Sir David Madel
167. To add one thing, Sir John mentioned that
the Foreign Office had to anticipate where the next war is coming
from, and that has changed obviously now, but you are also anticipating
where the next threat of serious instability is coming from. I
would just like to ask, over the last few months has Russia got
(Sir John Kerr) No, I think in the last few months
central authority has strengthened in Russia. I think Mr Putin's
Russia looks less likely to move into further deliquescence. That
has a hard edge to it. The methods used, for example, in Chechnya
are methods which can cause disquiet even to those of us who would
wish to see authority maintained inside Russia. I think it is
necessary to find in Moscow somebody a position in Chechnya. I
do not think Russia is more likely to fall apart now than it was
two or three years ago, in fact I would say it is rather less
likely to fall apart. There is more money in Russian pockets,
the export position is quite different. There is visibly more
rule of law or perhaps sometimes rule by law but the central authority
is stronger than it was in the latter days of Yeltsin. So I would
think not. You also ask me a very difficult question, where is
the area of greatest instability. If you take a long-term view
and start taking account of population growth and relative economic
strength, I think there is no doubt that the Mediterranean will
remain very volatile long-term. It does not look like a stable
situation if the population on the north shore of the Mediterranean
is set to decline while the population on the south shore will
certainly double in the next 15 years. The answer to that must
be that the north shore must be a little less protectionist and
the European Union must be more open in its trading relationship
with the south shore, because if the jobs are not kept in the
Maghreb, the people will cross the Mediterranean. I think that
is, in the medium term, the most unstable situation in our neighbourhood.
The Balkans, of course, are still an area of instability but the
situation looks less unstable than it did two years ago. I also
worry about the threat from Afghan-based terrorism to the Central
Asian republics where, with the encouragement of this Committee,
we have invested much more effort.
168. You are opening in Jushek Bishkek.
(Sir John Kerr) And we will open a post in Bizhkek
in Kyrgyzstan, which I am sure is right. Kyrgyzstan is a country
under particular threat from terrorism from across the border.
I think there are many people in Central Asia who need more encouragement
from their friends outside to stand up to the threats. But I think
the existential threat to Russia is diminishing.
169. I want to ask a couple of questions about
the allocation of resources in the budget. If you were to go back
to your office and discover the Foreign Secretary had wheedled
an extra £30 million out of the Chancellor, what would you
spend it on? What is high on your shopping list which would really
make a difference?
(Sir John Kerr) I think I would ask these three people
to work harder! I would like Matthew to introduce ITwhich
is really the most important thing for us to do. It improves the
efficiency of everything else we do even faster. He does have
a financial constraint, he also has physical constraints on how
much he can actually do. I would ask Denise to recruit still more,
so that we can improve our training and professionalism still
further. With Peter, I would want to extract more money from him
to expand our network of posts a bit further and go on strengthening
the posts that we have. I was very struck by what the Committee
said when they visited the Cauacus and the Caspian and warned
us they were not sure the little posts first established when
the Soviet Union first collapsed had critical mass. I thought
that was completely correct. We have spent quite a lot of effort
in increasing the size of these posts. There were 22 UK-based
staff there in 1997, there are 34 now. There were 45 locally-based
staff in the six posts, there are now 91. So we have had a 50
per cent increase in people from London and a 100 per cent increase
in people locally engaged. I think the Committee was quite right
there but they are still very small postsYerevan, Ashgabat,
four or five London-based people; Almaty, eight people. Kazakhstan
is a huge, potentially very rich country, there is enormous commercial
opportunity there, but we are still doing it on a shoestring;
a very good shoestring, of course, extremely good people. If you
gave me another £30 million I think I would do everything
170. I thought that is roughly what you would
say. You are right, this Committee is always urging you to open
something here or opening something in Podronica or a mission
somewhere else or strengthen a mission somewhere, and it seems
to be an aim which you share if you had the money. I am interested
in that regard in that your department spends nearly a quarter
of its budget on the British Council and the BBC World Service,
about £300 million out of £1.25, so about a quarter.
I am not going to ask you to justify this but can I preface this
by saying that there are 50 billion people in China learning English,
so does it really need the British Council to encourage people
to learn English? I know it does other things but that is one
of its primary functions. There are commercial language schools
all over the place where people are only too willing to pay, and
most state education systems are much better than we are at teaching
foreign languages and people are learning those languages in schools.
As far as international news services are concerned from the free
western world with its collected values, which is roughly what
the BBC doesa relatively impartial source of news and information
about the outside world and transmitting our sort of values of
liberalism and free trade and human rightsthere are any
number of commercial news services which are providing this. In
view of what you say you could do with £30 million, is it
really sensible to spend £300 million on these two institutions?
(Sir John Kerr) Yes, I am Oliver Twist, I would want
£5 million to share with them too. I sit on the board of
the Council, so I am totally schizophrenic. The Council accepts
it is not its job to compete with private sector English language
teaching providers in developed markets, and it is getting out
of that to the extent it is in it. In China, it has a role on
English language teaching as being the marker, the centre of excellence,
the standard by which the Chinese mark others who are trying to
provide English language teaching. It does a lot of other good
things in China as well, particularly its programme on government
legal reform which I think is crucial, not just from the human
rights agenda point of view but from the commercial point of view.
If the Chinese develop the habit of writing their commercial contracts
under English law, that would be an enormous benefit to the City
of London for a very long time. As for the BBC World Service,
42 vernacular services, that is what our money basically goes
on. They are important tools of diplomacy. I am not allowed to
influence editorial content but they have to consult the Foreign
Office if they wish to close down a vernacular service. Some of
them clearly are not profit-making and there is no income stream
which flows from broadcasting in these languages, but there is
a national interest that the BBC World Service should be heard.
I also think, by the way, the World Service are almost as interesting
on IT as is Matthew Kirk at the Foreign Office. The way they are
moving up-market and going on line in places like China is extremely
impressive and they have a very, very large audience. So I think
we want more of everything please.
171. So if you had a bit more money, you would
share some of it with them even though they are already getting
a quarter of the department's budget?
(Sir John Kerr) The present shares are the broad historical
pattern. It has to be said that in the last years of the last
government there were sharp cuts on the Council. That has now
been turned round and I think correctly so. I think there is a
synergy between what we do and what the Council does. In some
countries they can do things which embassies cannot do, or it
is more difficult for embassies to do. In some places they cannot.
In some places they come in under embassy cover and have an office
inside the embassy. Their network across Russia is an extremely
impressive network, they have many more posts there than I do,
and I think that is correct. I am quite a strong supporter of
172. I am coming from a completely different
position from John. This Committee has actually fought for the
British Council's budget over the years particularly in those
couple of contentious years you talked about. What puzzles me
is we thought we had won, or partly won, and the British Council's
budget was rising. We had a note from them about the grant-in-aid
allocations and I will only read the regional ones. West and South
Europe is going to be minus 24 per cent in the next three or four
years; plus 6 per cent in Central and Eastern Europe; minus 12
per cent in the Americas; minus 6 per cent in East Asia and the
Pacific; plus 1 per cent in South Asia, minus 3 per cent in Sub
Saharan Africa and minus 5 per cent in the Middle East and North
Africa. I thought we had actually expanded the British Council
budget. In all these regions bar one there is actually a reduction.
(Sir John Kerr) Apples and oranges. You are right,
encouraged by this Committee the Government has increased quite
sharply, by 10 per cent, the grant to the British Council. The
British Council has had a strategic review, doing the same sort
of job we have been doing, looking at IT. The reductions you describe
are the reductions in British Council offices, British Council
spend in the areas in question, because the British Council too
is going on line big time. There is a huge increase in centrally-provided
British Council project and programming content. The controversial
area is Germany where
173. £4 million I think it is.
(Sir John Kerr)where they are closing a network
of posts. They will be spending more money on Germany but
they will not be spending it by maintaining small lending libraries
in particular cities. This is because they have done a bit of
research and established that the use of these lending libraries
is not very cost effective. They are aiming at elites, just as
the BBC World Service are. The BBC World Service closed their
German language service because they discovered the audience they
wanted to get at in Germany nearly all understood English. The
comparable effect in the Council has been that they have established
that their German audience basically was already on-line and they
were not on line to their audience. I think the money is going
to be rather well used. There are closures which are causing
some pain here and there, but I know of one British Council library
around the world where we on the British Council Board worked
out that it would actually be more cost effective to close the
library and buy the books from Waterstones next door and give
them to the people who wanted to read them. So the British Council
have made some quite difficult decisions quite correctly.
174. Correct in accordance with FCO priorities,
because there will be a reduction in the applicant countries to
the EU and that accords with your priorities?
(Sir John Kerr) We give a strategic guidance to the
Council. It is certainly in accordance with our strategic guidance.
It is not a very detailed strategic guidance, they are allowed
to make their own judgments country by country, but, Chairman,
it is not the case that for the six applicant countries in the
first wave, or the six in the second wave, taken together, or
taken one by one, the British Council is reducing its investment.
It is if you take Ted's numbers and if you take the offices, but
if you take the proportion of the British Council budget which
is going to be spent in these countries or on these countries,
some of it from the centre, it is rising. And that is with FCO
encouragement because, as you say, we have a particular interest
in making more of an impact in these applicant countries.
175. Perhaps I show my old fashioned nature
but we have heard a lot, and we have had it all day from Mr Leonard
and Co as well, about the internet and the new ways of contact,
and obviously they are, but a physical presence is important.
I remember in Prague the significance of that British Council
office in some of the worst times when people used to sneak in
there at nightwe were there to observe themin the
last months of the old regime. The physical presence of an office
like that is extremely important both symbolically and in practical
terms. So you might become visible on a screen, but you become
invisible on the ground. Perhaps we end up with Mr Leonard's virtual
(Sir John Kerr) I accept the point. Mr Rowlands is
right, but Prague is not the Prague he is remembering. Prague
is a place where our embassy in those days, which he will remember
vividly, was a small place which was very enclosed, felt very
watched because it was very watched, kept quite a good eye on
the Foreign Ministry, tried to keep an eye on the Defence Ministry.
We now have an embassy which is a lot bigger, which is very public,
which needs to get to know the Ministry of Industry, the Ministry
of Agriculture, because these guys are coming into the European
Union to vote on our laws, so we need to look at them. It is a
completely different society there now. There are places in the
world where that particular functionthe candle burning
in the night functionis still very important, and the Council
will go on carrying it out where it is relevant.
Chairman: Sir John Stanley on this point about
new posts, then I shall come to Mr Rowlands
Sir John Stanley
176. The question I want to put to you, Sir
John, is this. Under your departmental arrangements with the Treasury
do you have freedom, within your cash limit, to open up a new
post without Treasury agreement? The reason I am putting that
to you is that in our supplementary list of questions we asked
you to set out the procedures that your department followed in
opening up new posts, and in the series of questions we put to
you the last one was "Is there Treasury involvement at any
of these stages?" In the middle of your reply there is this
little sentence which says that "HM Treasury are not directly
involved". Why did you use the word "directly"?
(Sir John Kerr) Because I was concerned, as always,
to be totally honest with the Committee. They are involved, because
if they decided we could have no more money, then we would not
be able to open up more posts. They are involved in the annual
exercise when the departmental budgets are fixed in Whitehall.
But we no longer have what Sir John will remember, Treasury attempts
to micro-manage the use of that money, and decisions on where
we open posts, or where we close posts, or where we strengthen
posts are now decisions for us, within a quantum of money which
we have had to negotiate with the Treasury. It is also the case
that sometimes, in making the case for more money, we adduce as
a particular plank in our argument the need for more posts, often
adducing the support of our friends in, say, the Foreign Affairs
Committee. It would therefore be slightly awkward, not just vis-a"-vis
the Treasury, if, having got the money, we ran off with it and
did not open the post. So they are indirectly involved because
we have, in the process of negotiating on the quantum of resources,
talked illustratively about what we will do with them.
177. But within the cash limits, you are then
free to decide where you have the posts, where are the places
you have new posts, within the agreed cash limits, without any
further reference to the Treasury?
(Sir John Kerr) Yes.
178. I have a few questions on relations with
Parliament. First of all, has there been any progress on the proposed
induction course for new Members of Parliament, which was suggested?
Have there been any steps taken to involve Members of Parliament
in Foreign Office seminars?
(Sir John Kerr) Thank you, Mr Illsley. Yes, we were
grateful for the advice that the Committee gave us in the winter,
in December or January. We will, when a new House assembles, as
you advised, be running a series of contacts and induction meetings
in the Foreign Office, to tell new Members what we do. We will,
following the Committee's advice, focus that particularly on the
consular and entry clearance bits of our business. We will be
carrying forward our seminars. We maintain the two courses that
we run for our staff. Also, of courseI am not quite sure
how to put itwe will be very sorry to lose the excellent
Clerk from this House who is sitting behind me, who is on loan
to us and has been beefing up our parliamentary operations. Alas,
I hear that another of your Committees has decided to make him
its clerk, so we shall lose him, but we very much hope that the
Clerk of the House will send us somebody else, as it has been
a great advantage to us to have him.
179. Turning, then, to the percentage of named
day Parliamentary Questions answered on the day named, that has
now increased from 66 per cent to 85 per cent. I would like to
ask, how close are you to achieving your goal of answering all
named day questions on the actual day or within the week in which
they are asked?
(Sir John Kerr) Can you remind me which page we are