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Strategic framework for the Foreign Office

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A debate in Westminster Hall entitled ‘Strategic Framework for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’ was replied to by Meg as Foreign Office Minister. For the full debate: http://pubs1.tso.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmhansrd/cm080520/halltext/80520h0008.htm#08052034000299


Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Meg Munn): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing this debate, which give 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 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 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (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 “ten strategic priorities is too many” and that they should be “simplified and reduced in number”.


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 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 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.


Similarly, we are reducing funding for certain policy areas, including three areas for which other Departments will take on more responsibility: sustainable development, science and innovation, and crime and drugs. We will not withdraw from those areas. Our ambassadors will remain heavily engaged where they are of particular importance to the UK, such as in the fights against drugs in Colombia and crime in Jamaica. Our posts overseas will continue to operate as bases where all Departments can locate their own staff and resources to deliver their own priorities. Our ambassadors will continue to offer Departments advice and act locally on their behalf on all the major issues affecting the UK.


Mr. Hands: Can I take the Minister back to the budget for a moment? She lauded what she called a substantial increase in funding for the FCO; I think that she said that its budget would increase from £1.6 billion to £1.7 billion over five years. That is only a 6 per cent. increase over five years, which is way below current and projected rates of inflation. Surely that means that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs was right to point out the real-terms budget decreases? Does she agree with the Committee? From the evidence that she has just given, she must agree that they are real-terms cuts.


Meg Munn: I said that there was an increase, and I set out the amount. The hon. Gentleman has obviously been sitting there using his calculator, or indeed mental arithmetic, to work that out. We make no apologies for becoming a more efficient and streamlined organisation. I am not sure whether we will get more information from him today about Conservative commitments to spend more money. I am not sure that his Front Bench Members would thank him for that. We are looking at how to work more effectively. I have said that we will reduce administrative posts to put more into the front line. I must correct his figures: the increase will take place over three years, not five. I assure him, as he raised so many points about the financial aspects that I have not finished with the budget.


Our new priorities are also reflected in the work of our partner agencies. The BBC World Service will launch a new Persian television channel and extend its Arabic language TV broadcasting to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition, the British Council will extend its efforts to build mutual understanding with Muslim societies—the hon. Gentleman praised that work, for which I thank him—particularly among alienated younger populations. With the BBC World Service and the British Council, we are pursuing ambitious efficiency programmes, and I make no apology for that. We are jointly committed to delivering £144 million in efficiency savings over the next three years through a wide range of projects.


The process is carefully managed. We have defined our strategy goals and we are aligning our resources with them over time, so that the sorts of problem that the hon. Gentleman wrongly suggested would occur will not occur. The decision on the language centre predates the strategic framework. It was undertaken under the previous Foreign Secretary. Having considered it, FCO Services concluded in 2006 that its language training services cost between 15 and 40 per cent. more than those offered by comparable providers. It is important that we look at the matter sensibly and put our resources where they are needed, ensuring that we are using the money in the best way. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.


On scholarships and fellowships, we have consolidated our scholarship programmes and are focusing on the Chevening and Marshall schemes, the purpose of which is to build strong relations with the international leaders of the future. Again, I make no apologies for considering carefully where we want to have the most impact and putting our resources there.


As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary explained in his statement to the House: “every organisation, including every Government Department, should regularly reassess its own aims and priorities. Successful organisations stay focused on the biggest issues on which they can make the biggest difference, and they regularly readjust that focus as circumstances and priorities change.”


The Foreign Office’s new strategic framework will do that. It will refocus our efforts, reprioritise our resources and refresh our strategic approach. The four new policy goals that emerged from the review present a clear and concise picture of what we are trying to achieve, and associated changes to the resourcing of our network overseas indicate how we are going to achieve it.


Although we have a new strategic focus, we are determined to preserve the strengths of the Foreign Office and its staff: world-class diplomatic skills, understanding of other countries, and a sense of public service. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the combination of those talents with a sharper set of priorities will ensure that the FCO can better serve the UK’s interests internationally.

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