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20 May 2008 : Column 55WH—continued

In 2006, when launching the transformational diplomacy initiative, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, talked about the need for more diplomats to be sent to trouble hotspots, creating regional public diplomacy centres and small, localised posts outside foreign capitals, and training diplomats in new skills.

In the State Department’s budget for the financial year that has just finished, $124.8 million was allocated to transformational diplomacy. That included $40 million for the geographical repositioning of jobs and about $36 million for language training, public diplomacy, technological training and so on. That $125 million was up from $103 million the previous year. Between 2007 and 2008, the United States increased its overall foreign affairs spending by $6 billion. In terms of sheer numbers, therefore, our budget is not only contracting in real terms, but, unfortunately, going in the opposite direction to that of our leading ally and those of some of our European allies.

The change in the number of our embassies and consulates over the past 10 years has been particularly stark. Since May 1997, the Government have closed eight embassies, six high commissions and 18 consulates—that is 32 closures in the past 11 years, and two more high commissions will close this year. To be fair, some new outposts have opened in that time, but only 13, most of which have been in new countries, such as Montenegro, where an embassy had obviously become a necessity. Overall, however, there has been a significant decline in the number of Foreign and Commonwealth Office outposts abroad.

I find it particularly striking that we have less presence across the world than other European countries of comparable size. In Latin America, for example, we have four fewer outposts than France and two fewer than Germany. Strikingly, we are directly represented in fewer UN countries than France, Germany or Italy. In Africa, Lord Malloch-Brown was challenged over why we had no representation in 23 of the 53 African states. He conceded the point, but rather incongruously said that the Government were

I question how we can do that when the number of outposts is rapidly contracting.

On 8 November 2006, Lord Hannay told the Foreign Affairs Committee:

Today, we have no representation on the ground in 50 to 60 states. That includes obvious places such as San Marino and Liechtenstein, where nobody would argue that Britain should be represented. However, it also includes serious trouble spots, such as Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Kyrgyzstan and Somalia. Our diplomatic footprint has therefore been dangerously shrinking, contrary to assurances given in Parliament.

The number of diplomats has also been declining, and that decline is projected to increase. As many people know, at various times the Foreign Office has too many people in a particular coterie to fill certain positions, because of its pyramid structure. I believe that currently it has a lot of people in their early, mid and later forties. Given the number of diplomats that the Foreign Office projects it will shed over the coming years, however, the situation will become very dangerous, particularly in the lower ranks. The Foreign Office recently announced that it would cut the number of diplomats from 6,000 to 5,400 in the next five years, but such people are vital to our efforts. On 8 November 2006, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, also a former ambassador to the United Nations, told the Foreign Affairs Committee:

We are, therefore, looking at not only a reduction in the number of postings, but a significant reduction in the number of those who are posted. Again, that leads me to doubt whether the strategic framework will be realised.

I want to discuss the specific issue of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s language school, which is earmarked for closure. I am not sure whether the closure has already taken place or is about to take place, but it seems that it will go ahead. The closure will save only £1.5 million a year as part of what is described as the “new business model”. The number of diplomats in the FCO who receive language training has been in decline for some time—that is not a new phenomenon. Figures from the Foreign Affairs Committee show that 405 people received language training in 2005-06 and that that fell to 252 in the 2007 financial year. The language school is, however, a crown jewel, which it might be difficult, if not impossible, to recreate in future years.

Of course, languages can be learned elsewhere, and no one would deny that there is no point the Foreign Office setting up a whole infrastructure for small and minority languages where that expertise exists, such as in the School of Oriental and African Studies or the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. While I was at university, I attended Czech language classes that were part-funded by the Foreign Office, and I want to use my experience to illustrate the importance and utility of learning minority languages, which have turned out to be rather useful in ways that one could not have predicted 20 years ago.

I want to use a practical example and to name one of our diplomats. I have not spoken to him about the debate and I have not had any contact with him since I
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met him in November. However, he is a good example of somebody who has used language training to augment and improve our diplomatic efforts on the ground.

I have in mind our excellent ambassador in Skopje, in Macedonia, Mr. Andrew Key. As part of its work, the European Scrutiny Committee visited Macedonia in November 2007, and the FCO website says that Mr. Key presented his credentials only at the beginning of September 2007. None the less, he was pretty much the only ambassador from one of the major European countries to have put significant effort into learning Macedonian. He was already fluent in Chinese and had taken out two months to learn Macedonian.

We had a meeting with the Prime Minister of Macedonia, Mr. Nikola Gruevski, and my knowledge of Czech allowed me to understand enough Macedonian to get the gist of what was going on. It was quite clear from the exchanges with the Prime Minister that Mr. Key could speak Macedonian to an extremely good level. The Prime Minister said to me how important that was, and what a message it sent: although the Prime Minister could speak very good English, and most other people whom our ambassador would come across could speak it in their official capacity, it still conveyed a positive impression and gave our ambassador an edge over some of the other people on the ground.

Macedonian is a small language, but Macedonia is an extremely important country at the moment, not least for being next door to Kosovo and being an EU applicant country. It is also a potential trouble spot in its own right. It is important for us that our ambassador can engage fully in his role there. I do not know whether he learned his Macedonian at the Foreign Office language school, and do not want to give that impression if it is not so. I merely use the example to show how important the knowledge of languages—even obscure minority languages—can be for our efforts on the ground. The language school decision will obviously save a little money, but over a longer period it will prove a false economy. Greater savings could be made elsewhere in Government.

I want to deal briefly with two or three other matters, starting with the BBC World Service and the economies being driven through in the Russian language service. The eastern European services were closed a year or two ago, which probably made sense. It did not seem to make much sense still to broadcast in Polish and Czech when those countries were pretty much fully integrated members of the EU. However, many of the cuts in the Russian language service are disturbing. The reliance placed on local providers—especially on shortwave networks that have since been closed down by the Russian Government—is a disturbing phenomenon.

The second topic I want to mention is Commonwealth scholarships, which are featured in the annual departmental report. I understand that they have been greatly reduced or eliminated. I mentioned earlier that in Nigeria I met two or three people who had such scholarships and that it struck me that the value for money was extremely good.

The third issue, which is very important and which I am surprised has led to budget problems, is increased security in several of our consulates and embassies. The Istanbul consulate bombing was in 2002 and I know for a fact that in a number of our embassies and consulates, such as in north Africa and the middle east, it led to a
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serious and understandable review of security. The embassy in Algiers, for example, is undergoing, or is about to undergo, an expensive reconstruction project. That seems inevitable and right, but I am disturbed to hear that, in a general sense, some of the budget for security improvements and changes that was already agreed has been cut out by the Treasury.

An Opposition politician may say that spending should not be cut on this, that or the other, but where could savings be made? The Foreign Office could make significant savings by looking at one of its biggest projects: the FCO website. Everyone recognises the importance of a good, capable website for the FCO, but I doubt whether it will replace highly trained staff on the ground and fixed facilities. The FCO is not like other Departments in the matter of trying to find economies. It strikes me that the money being poured into the development of what must be one of the world’s most expensive websites could be better deployed.

In a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O’Brien) on 25 April, the Minister for Europe called the website change an “upgrade”, with an

That is just for one website. Admittedly, it is a portal serving the whole FCO globally, with all our embassies, consulates, high commissions and so on being run out of the same website, but as well as that initial cost of £9.7 million, we were told that

We were also told:

I agree with that, but the amount being poured into the website—almost £20 million, which is far more than has been spent on the language school—is questionable. I am interested to hear the Minister’s defence of spending that enormous sum on one website.

I disagree not so much about the Foreign Office’s strategic framework as about how it can be achieved, and about some of the directions being taken by the FCO. I believe strongly that the FCO will need a growing number of experienced and highly trained diplomats on the ground—skilled in languages, technology, commercial and other important skills—in as many key places as resources allow. Ironically, the United States and some of our European allies are showing the way forward in that respect, and we seem to be going in the wrong direction.

I look forward to the Minister’s response to the points that I have made. It seems to me that we are asking more and more of the FCO and giving it in return fewer and fewer resources to achieve it.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing this debate, which gives us an opportunity to highlight the important topic of how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can best promote UK interests internationally. Although the hon. Gentleman’s title for the debate should perhaps have referred to the
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budget, rather than the strategic framework, I shall try my best to answer the points he made.

As globalisation proceeds and speeds up, the barriers between domestic and international affairs are breaking down. Almost every area of domestic policy now has important international dimensions. The role of the FCO has to change in response to those changing circumstances, to ensure that it continues to deliver for the UK. We keep the role and objectives of the FCO under regular review and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the latest such review was announced by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on 23 January. I stress that it was not an efficiency exercise, but was carried out to provide greater clarity about the purpose of the Department, and to focus our resources where they can achieve the greatest positive impact for the UK.

The new strategy identifies the three main roles for the Foreign Office: providing a flexible global network serving the Government as a whole; delivering essential services to the British public and business; and shaping and delivering the Government’s foreign policy. The new strategic framework will replace the 10 strategic priorities set out in the Foreign Office’s 2006 White Paper. That is in line with the view expressed by the Foreign Affairs Committee, among others, that

and that they should be

The conclusions of the latest review were the result of a dialogue which took place externally with key stakeholders and on the FCO’s website; across Government, through discussions with other Departments; and internally, through contributions from staff across the world. The new strategic framework has been welcomed for its clarity by stakeholders and staff. The new strategy explicitly recognises for the first time the importance of the Foreign Office’s global network. We provide that network for the whole of the British Government, giving a platform for achieving the UK’s international objectives and for serving British people and businesses.

The global network remains vital and we continue to review it to ensure that resources are deployed in line with priorities and that they provide the best possible value for money. That is where the hon. Gentleman is plain wrong. Since 1997, the overall number of Foreign Office posts around the world has increased, from 242 to a total of 261 today. That includes three more embassies than there were in 1997.

The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the strategic framework. In no way have we hived off the promotion of democracy to the Department for International Development or anybody else. It continues to be mainstream Foreign Office work, just like a range of other issues, including human rights. The Foreign Office regularly discusses such matters with Governments overseas, as do Foreign Office Ministers with their counterparts.

The new strategy recognises the importance of the essential services that we provide to the British people and British business. Our consular services will be sustained and our dedicated staff will continue to provide invaluable assistance around the world to Britons living, working and travelling abroad. Incidentally, the FCO website is a key platform for that work. Not only can people
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access information about the FCO there, but our new service, Locate, which I have launched in the past few days, enables people to register where in the world they will be. It has already had benefits in identifying where people are in crisis situations, such as the China earthquake.

Mr. Hands: The United States has had that function for US citizens abroad for at least the past five years. My main point about the website was not whether one is needed, but its extreme cost. How does the Minister justify a cost of almost £20 million for a website?

Meg Munn: I am talking about the whole range of our work. I merely point out to the hon. Gentleman that the website is an important part of everything else that we do.

We will continue to help British business and the UK economy through UK Trade and Investment. In addition, the Foreign Office will continue to support Britain’s migration objectives through our own work and in co-operation with the UK Border Agency.

To help to focus the Department’s policy efforts, the new strategic framework identified four policy goals where we can make the most difference: countering terrorism and proliferation, preventing and resolving conflict, promoting a low-carbon, high-growth global economy and developing effective international institutions, especially the UN and EU. As the new strategic framework is implemented, resources are being reallocated to the new priorities. We must ensure that our limited resources are deployed where they can have the greatest impact, including the new resources provided under the comprehensive spending review.

Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman suggested, the Foreign Office’s budget will increase from £1.6 billion in 2007-08 to £1.7 billion in 2010-11. That will provide substantial increases in resources, particularly for counter-terrorism—I thank him for his kind comments on that—climate change and our work in Afghanistan.

Mr. Hands: Will the Minister give way on the budget?

Meg Munn: May I make a bit more progress? I am conscious of the time. I shall come back to the budget issues.

Funding for counter-proliferation, conflict prevention and international institutions is also set to increase, but by more modest amounts. We are increasing substantially the number of front-line officers in priority countries. About 60 extra policy staff will work on or in south Asia, Afghanistan and Asia Pacific. The number working on or in the middle east will also increase significantly, and more modest increases will occur in Africa, Russia, central Asia and multilateral organisations.

In our work force planning, staff numbers are predicted to decline slightly during that period. We are saving on back office and administrative functions to put resources more precisely into front-line work. At the same time, we have agreed a decrease of diplomatic staff in Europe. It is not that we consider Europe to be less important now; Europe will remain vital for the UK, not least because we live in it. However, we can do the essential work with fewer staff by delivering in a more flexible and targeted manner. Whitehall Departments can now operate more efficiently with fewer staff by taking advantage of modern technology and quicker and easier travel.

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