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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, on securing this debate and I thank him for the typically comprehensive and thoughtful way in which he opened our discussion. Perhaps I may also thank him for all the help and advice that he has given me in the past. It is one of the great strengths of your Lordships' House that, whatever our political differences, those of us who share a common interest in a subject can and do share real and helpful exchanges on the matters of concern to us. Of course, we all look forward very much to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes. He is a distinguished and welcome addition to this House, is no stranger to the Foreign Office and is able to speak from experience.

It is now more than 30 years since I became a civil servant. Since then, I have represented some of the most senior civil servants, some of whom often sit on the Benches in your Lordships' House. Latterly, I have spent eight years as an FCO and MoD Minister. In all that time I have never known a government department which believed that it was resourced to do all that it was charged to do. It is the common currency of government departments—particularly their Secretaries of State and Permanent Secretaries—to fight tooth and nail for their departments' budgets in the annual scrap with the Treasury.
 
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The rules of the game are very clear. Departments argue ferociously for a great deal more money, describing the dire consequences if they do not get it. The Treasury argues every bit as fiercely to save taxpayers' money and points out that government departments can and do survive by constantly looking at their own procedures to ferret out that fat which certainly arises in all bureaucracies.

That said, the Foreign Office has achieved some extraordinary results on a budget which is under more pressure now than I can recall at any time in the past eight years. According to this year's annual report, the core budget for the FCO is £854 million—a sum which must cover all our subscriptions to international organisations and out of which the FCO pays for 233 diplomatic missions around the world. This year, the FCO has succeeded in securing the modest increase in real terms of 1.2 per cent.

The FCO's annual report sets out comprehensively what it does with those resources, but perhaps I may speak from personal experience. First, foreign policy is not a niche activity. The Foreign Office is now a global network for the whole of UK government activity. The Foreign Office's links with DfID, the MoD and DTI are of course well established in respect of overseas development, defence and trade. But, increasingly, the Foreign Office promotes policy on domestic issues which have become globalised: for example, the Home Office on crime, immigration and asylum; the Department of Health on the diseases of poverty, malaria, tuberculosis and the scourge of HIV/AIDS; Defra on the environment and climate change; and the Department for Education and Skills on international co-operation and exchanges, and, of course, our greatest export—the English language.

The mainstreaming of domestic policy into foreign policy is a real change. It is a clear and growing part of our agenda that makes new demands upon our diplomats and on their resources. The second change is an obvious one: the increase in acts of terrorism and the threat of terrorism around the world. The Foreign Office's role in dealing with terrorism is pivotal in multinational forums and in our bilateral relationships. The resourcing implications are enormous. The FCO now has to spend a hugely increased budget to secure its people in our missions overseas. From our devastated and beautiful consulate in Istanbul to the measures we have now had to take in 167 of our posts overseas, we have a duty of care for all our staff, and the Foreign Office needs the resources to discharge that duty fully.

That brings me to the third point. Preventive action is always better than dealing with the aftermath of a failure to act, not only in human terms but in terms of hard cash. Better by far to build up resources on counter-terrorism than to try to repair wrecked lives and the physical damage to buildings and infrastructure—and, yes, to our trade as well. Nowhere is this more obvious than in foreign policy. Of course, sometimes military action is inevitable, and we can all argue about the point at which such decisions are appropriate, but diplomacy can and does work, often by supporting and encouraging others to
 
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find a way to talk to each other. We can look at India and Pakistan over Kashmir; diplomacy in Macedonia; the struggles to go forward in Sudan; the E3 with Iran; and the huge and sustained efforts in the Middle East.

So prevention is always better than cure, but it is not cheap. It involves people of real experience who know the history and personalities of the countries involved inside out, and building that trust and experience takes years. When the going gets bad, it takes a lot to keep going. It involves not only all those attributes, but also good judgment and a touch of wisdom.

One of the most regrettable outcomes of the recent publicity generated by the memoirs of one of our former ambassadors to Washington is the reawakening of an image of our diplomatic service as an overindulged, rather self-important glitzy clique that owes more to the 1980s than to the 21st century. My experience of the diplomatic community is very different: modest, discreet, full of good judgment and not given to blowing its own trumpet. It is to these people we owe the most, particularly the, often young, people who deal with our consular services.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, has said that public expectations of what the FCO should be doing for Britons abroad has changed out of all recognition. It is the benefit that most British people expect from the FCO. They may not dwell on our policies in remote parts of the world, but they want, and believe they have a right to expect, British Government help if they get into trouble overseas. FCO responses have improved, particularly in the creation of the consular rapid deployment team for when disaster strikes. The FCO continues to learn hard lessons, however, and all of us who are debating today must consider whether the resourcing in this crucial area of consular support is adequate to meet the needs and legitimate expectations of the people of this country.

My last point will perhaps be thought somewhat controversial, but one of the benefits of leaving ministerial office is that it has certain compensations. I cannot understand why ambassadors no longer have the budgets they used to, to deploy in pursuance of government policy in the countries in which they serve. The FCO is fizzing with ideas and projects. In the area I know best, the Middle East, I could have spent the meagre budget I had over and over again on global outreach, including the growth of civil society, encouraging democracy, dialogue between the religions, empowering women, promoting the rule of law and human rights—and, believe you me, that was even more true of my ambassadors. Instead, the money was in DfID, much of it channelled through UN agencies and into EU funds, which—and I know this is controversial—simply did not have the expertise that we had in our own Foreign Office back yard. I think that needs looking at.

Having got that off my chest, I will finish with this. We all know that the best resource is people. That is a two-way street. We have terrific people in the Foreign Office. They give us great service, and they deserve to have us invest in them.
 
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11.55 am

Lord Garden: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, for this opportunity to acknowledge the contribution made by so many different parts of the United Kingdom community, both governmental and non-governmental, to the promotion of our interests abroad. I also welcome the fact that we will be able to hear the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, make his important maiden speech in this House.

Your Lordships will not be surprised that I shall concentrate my remarks on the first of the noble and learned Lord's Ds—defence and the work of the British military—first, to recognise the extraordinary contribution that our Armed Forces make around the world; and, secondly, to express concerns about the extent to which they will be able to continue this work in the future.

During the Strategic Defence Review, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, made defence diplomacy one of the eight core tasks for the Armed Forces. I was included in the study for that review, specifically looking at defence diplomacy, and I have subsequently done research work at King's College London for the Ministry of Defence on measuring effectiveness in this area. As we conducted field trips to look at training teams, at loan service personnel and at graduates of British military courses, I was surprised, as were my academic colleagues, at the sheer range of influence which the United Kingdom gains for remarkably small investment. Within the field of defence diplomacy, the training of international students within the United Kingdom also plays an important part, as I know from my time as commandant at the Royal College of Defence Studies. That extends beyond senior military personnel to foreign government officials, who move on to leadership posts in their countries. The long-term pay-offs to British interests can be very high indeed.

I particularly welcome the developing co-operation that has grown between the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and DfID, despite what the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, has just said about problems between the Foreign Office and DfID. This has happened since the establishment of the Global Conflict Prevention Pool and the similar pool focused on sub-Saharan Africa. The arrangement has encouraged the departments to work together to seek the best joint way of promoting stability in difficult areas of the world. Success in this can bring great dividends for British influence.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, said, the money allocated remains relatively small in defence terms, and the problems of the Middle East are diverting a disproportionate amount of even those small resources. Your Lordships have often talked about the overstretch of British forces as they undertake the operational tasks in Iraq, increasingly in Afghanistan, still in the Balkans and elsewhere, and have to cope with the downsizing of all three services. When priorities must be chosen, it is not surprising if the immediate operational tasks get preference. Yet
 
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influence and trust overseas can be built only over a period of years. A training team in a difficult country will gain access only as it demonstrates continuing, sustained commitment. The operational overstretch makes it more difficult for the services to provide people for training teams, loan service, advisory posts, and even to leaven the international courses with British military officers at places such as the Royal College of Defence Studies.

Disaster relief has also, unhappily, become a more frequent requirement for British foreign action. Rapid and generous help to devastated regions builds friends in those regions and increases the United Kingdom's standing both locally and internationally. Yet we have recurring problems with the mechanics of deploying defence assets in sufficient quantity and with sufficient speed. Air transport, both fixed-wing and helicopter, remain the key to rapid and effective relief operations.

I am not making a plea for an increase in the defence budget: it has seen a marginal real increase in funds in recent years. Yet that money is not going towards these sorts of operations. Transport helicopters are already in short supply and have been in constant use for operational reasons. When I asked the Defence Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, about plans for increasing transport helicopter numbers, his Written Answer on 24 October made it clear that there will be no more transport helicopters over the next five years. The money is going to attack and reconnaissance helicopters. Given the role that transport helicopters have in every aspect of modern military operations, this is a very surprising state of affairs and one which affects the good that we can do around the world.

In that respect, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work done by three Royal Air Force Chinooks deployed to help with the Pakistan earthquake. It is clear from the reports that have come back that they have achieved an enormous amount. It is not just the lifting capacity of the Chinook, it is the military organisation that supports it. Loads are used efficiently and sorties are not wasted, because re-supply is what the crews and their Army and RAF support teams are trained for. In 28 days, those three helicopters moved 1,700 tonnes of food, shelter and medical supplies to inaccessible places. However, I had to look deep on the DfID website to find out that they ceased operations on the 25 November 2005, after just 28 days. There was no fanfare of trumpets for them coming home. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate why they have been withdrawn. Have all the problems gone away? Do they no longer need helicopters in the region? In the battle for hearts and minds in the Islamic world, these sorts of contributions are beyond price.

The British military are but one resource that the UK has available to promote its interests around the world. Democracy is more likely to grow from our efforts in sustained security sector reform than in quick, offensive military operations. The Foreign Office and the Department for International Development should take a keen interest in the MoD
 
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equipment programme, and make their future needs clear. The £5.5 billion that the Iraq adventure has cost the UK so far could have bought much greater influence throughout the world than has been the case. Let us learn from our mistakes.

12.2 pm


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