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Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, I believe that I am not required to declare an interest as a former head of the Diplomatic Service, but I would nevertheless like to declare my continuing admiration for what I still believe is the best—if seriously under-resourced—Diplomatic Service in the world. I think that I have quoted before in this House a remarkable tribute paid to the British Diplomatic Service by a former French foreign minister, Monsieur Couve de Murville who described our Diplomatic Service as the second best in the world.

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, for initiating this important debate. Having accompanied him, on at least three occasions, for the FCO's annual public expenditure "scrap"—if I can call it that—with the Treasury, I have some experience of the difficulties which Foreign and Commonwealth Secretaries regularly face in trying to limit the damage imposed on the Diplomatic Service by persistent Treasury pressure on an FCO budget which, even including the sums allocated to the British Council and the BBC World Service, is less than one-third of 1 per cent of overall government spending; one of the smallest budgets in Whitehall.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, whose maiden speech we much look forward to hearing today, will allow me to quote the following from his book Not Quite the Diplomat. He writes:

Since there have been several references to the differences between the FCO and DfID, I would like to pay a tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for having taken the initiative, when he was Minister for Overseas Development and I was Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office, of inviting me to join his policy meetings whenever I could. He made a significant difference to the relationship between our two departments.

I was grateful for the assurance given to the House by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, on 2 November that it is still the policy of Her Majesty's Government to pursue a global foreign policy. The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary's statement of 15 December 2004 no doubt represents the outcome of some painful and agonising decisions on how to meet the continuing demands of such a policy within the inadequate resources allocated to the Diplomatic Service. Many of us will have personal reasons to lament the closure or downgrading of particular posts, but there are two aspects to post closures which I should like to draw to
 
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your Lordships' attention. The first is that diplomacy is largely about making, retaining and passing on personal contacts—what an American book once called making friends and influencing people—a process in which the reduced programme of sponsored visits plays an important part. Once a post is closed, that process of contact-making is severely curtailed until—as often happens—it is later decided, at considerable and unnecessary cost, that the post should after all be reopened. In this uncertain world, a post which appears unimportant today may turn out to be crucial for British interests tomorrow.

The second point relates to our experience during the Falklands War. Although the diplomatic skills of our Ambassador to Washington and our Permanent Representative to the United Nations were rightly praised at the time, too little attention has been paid to the massive and persistent efforts by our diplomatic posts around the world, and in particular with the non-permanent members of the Security Council that year, such as Panama and Togo, to support our case.

I do not propose today to rehearse my familiar criticisms of the Iraq war, but there is one lesson which I hope has been learnt from the many mistakes which have been made over the invasion of Iraq—and that is that wars cannot be waged solely by the military. I have no way of knowing whether Sir Christopher Meyer is right in saying that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was regularly bypassed in contacts between 10 Downing Street and Washington over the invasion of Iraq. But the extent to which the Pentagon excluded the skills and professional advice of American diplomacy and foreign policy over Iraq was largely responsible for the lack of adequate planning for the aftermath. Defence and foreign policy go hand in hand, and it would be a serious tragedy if inadequate resources for the Diplomatic Service were to lead to underperformance by the Foreign Office side of that partnership, both in offering experienced and professional advice to Ministers, and in having the right people in the right posts and, incidentally, speaking the right language, to promote British political, strategic, economic and commercial interests, quite apart from the consular capacity to help British subjects in trouble.

I have much sympathy for my former colleagues—I suppose that I am their former colleague—who had to make these painful recommendations to their Ministers. I do not intend to question the Minister about particular post closures beyond asking him, as the Minister for Africa, whether sufficient thought was given to the implications of closing three sovereign posts in that continent on the eve of the Prime Minister's much vaunted Year of Africa. I hope that the Minister will carry back to his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Treasury a message from this House—that if we are to continue to conduct a global foreign policy there must be adequate resources to do the job.

12.9 pm

Lord Patten of Barnes: My Lords, all of us know that one of the consequences of the increase in public debt, the fall in the growth rate and the rather lame performance in productivity, to which the Chancellor owned up at the
 
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beginning of this week, more or less—I think probably less rather than more—is that over the rest of this Parliament we will see rising taxes and a squeeze on public spending. It makes a mock of our intelligence to suggest other than that. What does that presage? One thing that it clearly presages is another assault on the budgets of the Foreign Office, the British Council and the BBC World Service.

It is a curiosity of public life in this country that we review so frequently and underfund so equally regularly the things that we do best and the institutions which are most admired around the world. There is another review in train on our public diplomacy. I am sure that the noble Lord responsible for it will conduct it extremely well, but I ask myself: what is wrong with our public diplomacy? The institutions of private and public diplomacy in this country are widely admired around the world. Where we are unpopular—for example, in parts of the Islamic world—it is not because of failings in our public diplomacy, but because of the policies that we have pursued. It is rather easier to change the policies than the institutions of public diplomacy.

The Prime Minister, whose chutzpah we should, I suppose, rather admire, offers us the vision of a Gladstonian foreign policy for this country. It is a tad vainglorious to propose a Gladstonian foreign policy without the Gladstonian resources to follow it through. As my noble and learned friend said at the beginning of the debate, we cannot cut much of a dash in the world if we do not adequately resource the Foreign Office, the British Council and the BBC World Service. It is difficult to retain the enthusiasm for our national values if we assault, once again, the budget of the BBC World Service. I will say in passing that it is a rum old world in which Mr Rupert Murdoch suggests that the Prime Minister probably prefers Fox News to the BBC.

My second point is an institutional one, which has already been touched on rather delicately. Perhaps I bring to our discussion too much of the bruiser habits of another place, but we all know that the Treasury hates the Foreign Office, and has done so for as long as I can remember. The Treasury thinks that the Foreign Office is a waste of space. The mindset, if I may follow the noble Baroness, is that all ambassadors wear red socks and that their principal function is exchanging gossip at the glitzy cocktail parties to which the noble Baroness referred. I suspect that the present Chancellor's personal prejudices reinforce the institutional prejudices of the department that he leads.

In addition, the Prime Minister, whose profound belief in his own diplomatic skills is not perhaps always borne out by what happens—one considers, in passing, the present discussion about the EU rebate—has brought into No. 10 a great deal of policy-making from the Foreign Office. The noble Lord who has just spoken touched on some consequences of that. Despite the abilities of the officials concerned, the results have not been conspicuously successful.

What has happened as a result is that the Foreign Office has been pushed into a rather defensive posture. It seeks to justify itself not by what it does best, which is to define and pursue our national interest in both political and commercial terms, but by turning itself into a sort of glorified management consultancy.
 
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Almost every ambassador and senior official with whom I have spoken in recent years has grumbled about being drowned in questionnaires and choked in management guff. That is not good management of a great public service. Frankly, a lot of it is charlatanry, as Peter Drucker would have said; and charlatanry at the behest of the Treasury.

The last point that I want to make will sound a little counter-intuitive. Yet in spite of the death and destruction from Haiti and Colombia, via west Africa and Sudan, to Iraq and Afghanistan, we have actually become better in the past few years at avoiding conflict. The number of conflicts has fallen dramatically, while the number of casualties as a result of conflicts has also fallen dramatically.

When I was Minister for Overseas Development, I sometimes used to worry that our ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, often necessary because of political failure, was greater than our ability to prevent the political failure in the first place. But there has been remarkable progress in the past few years. We have done a lot better through proactive diplomacy in preventing conflicts. I have seen a great deal of that myself, in my previous job, for example, in the Balkans, where this country played a formidable role. It is equally the case in west Africa. It makes no sense whatever to cut back on the resources that are required to conduct that proactive diplomacy—the resources that are required to ensure rather greater peace and stability around the world. We can do better, but we need the resources to do the job.

I have one further point—my noble and learned friend touched on it at the outset in discussing the origin of a phrase that we all use. It has been a feature of our debates about Britain's role in the world in the past 40 or 50 years to discuss how we can ensure that the rest of the world sees us as a great country even though we are no longer a great power. We often talk about how we can be seen to "punch above our weight" to borrow that expression again. I do not want to be seen to be borrowing from my noble and learned friend's previous use of sporting metaphors but it is very difficult to punch, let alone above your weight, if you do not have boxing gloves. I very much hope, for what it is worth, that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will bear that in mind in the months and years ahead.

12.16 pm


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