Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Third Report

Other scrutiny activities


17. At around one and a half billion pounds a year, total public spending on the FCO is relatively small compared to many other government departments. However, the Committee has always taken a keen interest in the FCO's management and allocation of resources. In our scrutiny of the Department's Annual Report we gave close attention to financial matters, including the Office's progress toward the annual efficiency-saving target and the recently agreed contract with Cap Gemini Ernst and Young (CGEY) to deliver the Prism ICT (Information and Communication Technology) programme.[35]

18. One expenditure issue on which the Committee has maintained a close 'watching brief', for a number of years, is the FCO's management of its extensive property portfolio. The Department has substantial estate assets, with a total value of over one billion pounds as at 31 March 2001 (83% of the FCO's total assets).[36] The Department is currently pursuing a policy of "asset recycling", whereby properties that have, "become surplus through reprioritisation, or fail to be operationally effective or good value for money, are being sold," in order to fund increased investment in ICT.[37] We commented, and made recommendations, on several aspects of this programme and other property-related matters in our reports during 2002. We highlighted, in particular, the importance of looking beyond the pure monetary value of buildings owned by the FCO, to the overall contribution that they made to the effectiveness of British diplomacy.[38]


19. As part of our Report into the Foreign Office's Annual Report, we examined its 2001 Public Service Agreements (PSAs) with HM Treasury. These set out how the FCO's performance is to be measured against its objectives (for example by setting consuls abroad the target of issuing 95% of passports within five working days). We concluded that the PSA targets generally reflected, "with relative accuracy the work and aims of the FCO". However, we noted that it was very difficult to measure objectively much of the Office's progress against these targets in any simple way, for example to what extent it had helped to "reduce tension in South Asia".


20. The two principal public bodies associated with the Foreign Office are the BBC World Service and the British Council. Like our predecessor Committee in the last Parliament, we have maintained a close interest in the important work carried out by both these bodies, for example through visits to their premises and meeting their staff when abroad.[39] The Committee also took oral evidence from representatives of both organisations during our inquiry into the FCO's Departmental Report. We were pleased to note in our Report for that inquiry that the two bodies had received significant, real-term increases in their funding following the 2002 Spending Review, as had previously been recommended by the Committee.[40]


21. The Committee has not inquired into any major appointments by the Secretary of State or other senior ministers this year. However, we indicated in our Report on the Foreign and Commonwealth Annual Report 2002 that should the Government choose to make a political appointment to an ambassador-level diplomatic post, we would wish to inquire into the nominee's suitability for the position and to invite them to provide oral evidence before us, if we felt that course to be necessary.[41]

Departmental response

22. We are pleased to report that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, through its Parliamentary Relations and Devolution Department (PRDD), has continued to respond promptly to the needs and requests of this Committee. It has generally responded in a timely fashion to our Reports, and where it has not been able to produce a reply within two months it has provided an explanation and successfully sought an extension to the deadline. We welcome the fact that these replies have all been produced in command paper form, reflecting the importance attached by the FCO to our scrutiny. The Committee expresses its gratitude to all members of the Office for the assistance rendered to us during the course of our year's work, particularly when travelling abroad.

Assisting the House

23. The Foreign Affairs Committee, like all select committees, aims to assist the House in its duties, principally by aiding well-informed debate on issues of national consequence and in exercising detailed scrutiny of the executive. Two of our Reports were the subject of debates in Westminster Hall during 2002: that on British­US Relations, which had been published in the previous year, and our initial Report on Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism published in June.[42] In addition, our work, particularly that on the war against terrorism, has been frequently referred to during debates in the Chamber and has provided valuable insight into matters of interest and concern to Members from across the House.

The future

24. In this Report, we have set out our work over the last year. By its nature, much of our work is reactive, responding to the output of our own Government and to the actions of other nations and organisations. It is, therefore, very difficult for us to envisage in detail our programme for the coming year. However, we intend to continue our work in scrutinising the foreign policy aspects of the war against terrorism, following the developments in Iraq and elsewhere very closely. We will also examine the Foreign Secretary prior to major EU Councils and other international meetings (as we did prior to the NATO Prague Summit in October).[43] In March, we plan to visit the Islamic Republic of Iran to explore a range of issues arising from our inquiry into the war on terrorism, as well as developments in British-Iranian relations. This visit was one our predecessor Committee had hoped to make in 2001 but was unfortunately prevented from so doing by the General Election. As in 2002, we also intend to take evidence on the FCO's Departmental Annual Report and on its Human Rights Report. We hope that our work will continue to be useful to Parliament, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the press and public, in illuminating the vital issues of foreign affairs.

35   Foreign Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2001-02, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2002, HC 826, paragraphs 49-72. Back

36   FCO, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 2002Departmental Report, Cm 5413, June 2002, p 136. Back

37   Ibid., p 138. Back

38   Foreign Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2001-02, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2002, HC 826, paragraph 56. Back

39   For example in Cyprus and Turkey, see: Foreign Affairs Committee, Turkey, Sixth Report of Session 2001-02, HC 606, pp 48-49. Back

40   Foreign Affairs Committee, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2002, paras 44-46. Back

41   Ibid., paras 83-84. Back

42   The Committee's Second Report of Session 2001-02, British­US Relations (HC 327) was debated on 25 April 2002 in Westminster Hall; the Seventh Report of Session 2001-02, Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism (HC 384) was debated on 31 October 2002. For details of the debate, follow the links to the appropriate day at: Back

43   Minutes of Evidence and Appendix, Session 2002-03, The Prague NATO Summit, HC 66-i. Back

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