Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Eighth Report

1  Introduction

1. Global Security: the Middle East is the first Report in a new series on global security matters. The 'Global Security' series follows on from the seven Reports produced by this Committee and our predecessor Committee on foreign policy aspects of the 'war against terrorism'. In our last Report in that series, we noted that the phrase 'war against terrorism' did not adequately reflect the multi-faceted nature of the security challenge facing the United Kingdom.[1] We therefore took the decision to introduce the 'Global Security' inquiry, giving us an opportunity to scrutinise the work and effectiveness of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in one region at a time.

2. The Middle East is, and will continue to be, of critical importance to British foreign policy. It presents the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with some of its most complex and controversial challenges. In this Report, we focus on the Government's policy towards Israel, its Arab neighbours, Iraq and the increasing influence of Iran in the region. We have taken care to consider the important role that other regional actors play across the Middle East. Given the inter-linkages between many of these issues, we have also sought to step back and consider the Government's broad approach to the Middle East as a region.

3. We held discussions with a range of key interlocutors in a number of Middle Eastern states in March 2007. The Committee travelled in two groups, giving us the opportunity to cover a larger range of countries in a limited time. The first group visited Egypt, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It also received a briefing from the British Embassy in Amman whilst passing through Jordan. The second group focused on Syria and Lebanon.

4. The evidence taken for this Report was received before the change of Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary in June 2007. We heard oral evidence from Dr Kim Howells MP, the Minister for the Middle East, and his officials Dr Peter Gooderham (FCO Director, Middle East and North Africa) and Simon McDonald (then the FCO Director, Iraq). We also took evidence from a range of independent experts. In producing this Report, we also drew on evidence that we took from the then Foreign Secretary Rt Hon Margaret Beckett MP and the Defence Secretary Rt Hon Des Browne MP in a joint session with the Defence Committee on Iraq. We also received a range of written submissions. We would like to express our thanks to all those who took the time to submit evidence to the Committee.

5. We were pleased to receive in April written evidence on the Middle East from the Church of England Mission and Public Affairs Council, supplemented by a personal and private letter to the Chairman from His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury. Substantial extracts from both the evidence and the private letter found their way into a national newspaper early the following month. We have been unable to discover the source of this leak, which we strongly deprecate. The Committee has since revised its policy on publication of evidence and henceforth we intend to publish on our website all evidence, other than that marked private or confidential, shortly after receipt.

6. On 1 May 2007, we wrote to Dr Howells with some questions on FCO administration and expenditure regarding the Middle East. We asked for the number of FCO staff based in various Middle Eastern countries and London in recent years. We also inquired into the FCO's expenditure in a number of Middle Eastern states and the levels of fluency in Arabic held by FCO staff. We set a deadline of 21 May for a response.[2] Dr Howells replied on 23 May stating that because this information was not "readily available", he would respond to these questions "shortly".[3] However, despite repeated reminders to the FCO, we did not receive their reply to our questions until the very day we completed the draft of this Report in the middle of July.

7. Dr Howells' letter to the Committee received a 'confidential' classification. The Committee has previously been concerned about the FCO's attitude towards the publication of administrative information. In our Report on the FCO's Annual Report 2005-06, we concluded that its "over-cautious" marking of documents was "a relic of a bygone age".[4] It is not right that the FCO continues to maintain this approach. We object strongly to the argument that the entirety of the letter sent to us by Dr Howells required a 'confidential' classification. We found it hard to see why data on the levels of fluency in Arabic amongst staff or on how many officials were working on Middle Eastern issues in London could not be made public.

8. Immediately following receipt of Dr Howells' letter, our Chairman submitted a number of Parliamentary Questions to the Foreign Secretary. These questions were similar to those set out in our original letter. In its replies, the only information that the FCO withheld for security reasons was the break-down of staff by grade in various embassies. The rest of the information was made available publicly.[5] It thus appears that the sensitivity of one category of data caused the FCO to classify a whole range of information in its original letter. This has served to confirm our view that the FCO too often classifies material unnecessarily and in ways which, even if they are not calculated to avoid public scrutiny, certainly have that effect.

9. We conclude that the FCO's failure to provide us with a timely response to basic administrative questions has hampered our ability to scrutinise the Government's approach towards the Middle East. We further conclude that the FCO needs to reconsider its approach towards confidentiality of documents. We recommend that when parts of a document can be released without classification, a crude blanket approach should not be applied to that document.

Map No. 4102 Rev. 3 UNITED NATIONS
August 2004
Department of Peacekeeping Operations
Cartographic Section
Source: United Nations

1   Foreign Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2005-06, Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism, HC 573, para 3 Back

2   Ev 124 Back

3   Ev 127 Back

4   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2005-06, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2005-06, HC 1371, para 17 Back

5   HC Deb, 19 July 2007, 517-521W Back

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Prepared 13 August 2007