FCO performance and finances 2011-12 - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

6  Security at overseas posts

62.  In November 2010, James Bevan, then Director-General of Change and Delivery at the FCO, assured the Committee that reductions in capital spending over the Spending Review period would not compromise the security of buildings and staff. He said that the FCO's top priority would always be the safety and security of staff and that "If we were to conclude that we could not adequately protect the safety and security of staff, we would recommend that we withdrew those people." [119]

63.  Since then, the level of personal risk for staff and the number of incidents have, according to the FCO, been very high, even at unprecedented levels. For instance:

  • The Embassy in Tehran was stormed by a mob on 29 November 2011. The Ambassador's residence and the homes of staff in the city-centre compound were vandalised and looted, and the main Embassy office building was set on fire. A second Embassy compound in north Tehran was also attacked, and staff homes were looted. No staff were injured;
  • The Damascus Embassy was evacuated in February 2012, on the basis that the security situation had deteriorated to such an extent that Embassy staff and premises were at risk;[120]
  • The Embassy in Bamako, Mali, was evacuated in April 2012, although it subsequently re-opened;
  • The number of terrorist attacks against staff and missions in the period from February to April 2012 was more than double that over the equivalent period in 2011. Afghanistan accounted for much of the increase;[121]
  • The Embassy in Buenos Aires was subject to violent protests and civil unrest in April 2012, at the anniversary of the Falklands conflict;
  • A convoy carrying the British Ambassador to Libya was attacked in Benghazi in June 2012. The Ambassador was unhurt, but two close protection staff were injured;
  • The US Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012; and
  • Violent protests took place across the Islamic world in September 2012, in response to an anti-Islam video. The outer wall of the German Embassy in Khartoum was stormed and buildings in the compound were set on fire, at which point German diplomats fled to the British Embassy, which became the next target. The US Embassy compound in Tunis was entered by protesters and cars were set on fire.

64.  We discussed in very general terms with Mr Fraser how the FCO might respond to the greater threat to premises and staff from civil unrest. He paid tribute to all staff—both UK-based and locally engaged—for their efforts in the face of considerable risk. He set out the FCO's policy of taking a risk-management approach rather than a fortress approach to security, "because we want our diplomats to be out and about and active".[122] Mr Rycroft told us that

The concept that we secure our staff by is not so much having a secure space in the mission; it is more that, if there is a risk of civil unrest leading to the mission or the residence being overrun, then they should not be there … we would gradually or if necessary dramatically draw down the numbers of staff present in a city and, if necessary, evacuate before the embassy was overrun.[123]

We endorse the approach taken by the FCO in treating the safety of staff as paramount and removing them from a mission or residence if there appears to be a serious risk from civil unrest.

65.  We asked whether the FCO would be prepared to approach the Treasury for money from the Contingencies Fund if a new and widespread security threat were to emerge, and the cost of any preventative measures could not be met from existing funds. Mr Fraser confirmed that he would certainly be prepared to do so.[124] We strongly welcome the indication by the Permanent Under-Secretary that the FCO would be willing to seek extra funding from the Treasury if there were to be a new threat to security which emerged rapidly, was systemic, and needed to be addressed across the overseas estate without delay.

119   Evidence given on 24 November 2010, FCO Performance and Finances, Third Report from the Committee, Session 2010-12, Q 184 Back

120   HC Deb 1 March 2012,col 142WS Back

121   FCO Management Issues February to April 2012, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmfaff/writev/fcomanage/contents.htm Back

122   Q 103 Back

123   Q 103 Back

124   Q 105 Back

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Prepared 19 April 2013