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.
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.
Dr Howells replied on 23 May stating that because this information
was not "readily available", he would respond to these
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".
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.
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
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
Department of Peacekeeping Operations
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
Ev 124 Back
Ev 127 Back
Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2005-06,
Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2005-06,
HC 1371, para 17 Back
HC Deb, 19 July 2007, 517-521W Back