The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Email from Rt Hon Jack Straw MP

Stating the "role of the FCO" in a mission statement or its equivalent is very straightforward. It is words to the effect that the FCO is there to represent the United Kingdom, its people, government, businesses and other institutions - and its values - in dealing with nations and peoples overseas.  As Foreign Secretary I put my name to a number of such statements.


Much more difficult in my experience is setting out the priority which should be accorded the separate parts of the activities which make up this role, agreeing on metrics (if any) to measure activity and its outcomes (as well as outputs), and determining with the Treasury whether and how this should all be paid for.


As I sure members of the Committee are well aware there has been a long-standing suspicion of the FCO in the Treasury. (This goes back well beyond the last Labour administration).  It is partly cultural. The Treasury at official level like to compare the difference to that between "gentlemen, and players" (with the Treasury the latter) - though there was never any evidence that I saw that the social background of Treasury officials was very different from that of  FCO officials.


Part of the work of the FCO is difficult directly to measure, but this should not obscure its value.  Building successful networks, gaining the confidence of those in key positions of power or influence, is a key role for all our diplomats abroad.  If relations with a particular country are in any event on an even keel, the breadth and depth of the diplomatic relationships will not make much difference to Britain's interests in that country.  But if there is, for example, a political or consular crisis involving the UK and that country, then the success - or otherwise - of our relationships will become all to clear. I'd be happy to offer some examples.


The consequence of the Bali bombing, and criticisms of our response, in October 2002 led me to oversee an upgrading of the standing arrangements for dealing with consular crises, with a separately staffed 24 hour Response Centre in London, and "rapid response teams" on standby around the world. On the whole these arrangements have worked well.  But in the world of 24 hour news, and the internet, handling consular crises has become more difficult, as expectations from British citizens, and demands on the FCO are raised, and the FCO's work has to be undertaken in full public scrutiny.


One aspect of the inquiry is relations with other Government departments. The then Permanent Secretary (now Lord Jay), and I greatly encouraged secondments both ways. (My Principal Private Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, 2008-10 came from the FCO (since returned), and did an excellent job for me). I am however unclear how extensive is the two-way traffic, and whether there have been any studies of the effects of secondments both for the individuals' careers, and in the interests of better governance.


These are just a few thoughts which the Committee may find helpful.


Let me know if you would like any further details.

25 January 2011