Westminster Hall Debate: Diplomatic Service and Resources

Yesterday, Mark spoke on behalf of the Government in the Westminster Hall debate tabled by Richard Benyon MP regarding the Diplomatic Service and resources. To read the debate in its entirety, click here.

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Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Diplomatic Service and resources.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am grateful for and slightly awed by the array of right hon. and hon. Members present who have much more experience of this issue than I have. It is an extremely important one and I am very grateful to the Minister for being here. I hope that he will be able to address some of the points that I and others raise.

We exist at a time of the greatest turbulence and change. With Brexit, we have the resulting need to engage as never before with countries around the world. We see, never more than this week, challenges to the rules-based order. We see the rise of new powers, such as China, which is stamping its mark on the world politically, economically and militarily on a scale unimagined a few years ago. We also see the influence of political disrupters across western democracies. This is the time to challenge policy of several Governments and many decades that has led to a decline in our commitment to foreign engagement.

It has been a real privilege for me to travel as a Minister, as a trade envoy, as the leader of the UK’s delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and in other capacities, and to see at first hand the astounding professionalism of our diplomatic staff around the world. Numbers are not everything. Having a fluent Arabic-speaking middle east expert as our ambassador to Iraq with the President’s personal mobile number on his speed dial is of incalculable value. However, we have reached a critical moment in our ability to promote our interests abroad.

I had a conversation yesterday with Lord Waldegrave. He has spent time as a Minister in both the Treasury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and he said, in a way that was somewhat light-hearted but nevertheless heartfelt, that in his impression there has been a multi-decadal battle between the Treasury and the FCO, which the Treasury has now won—a battle between the two great Departments of state that vie for influence with No. 10 and across Government. Two decades ago, it was deemed the right thing to hive off international development to a new Department. Part of that perhaps was a good thing at the time, but I have always felt that part of it was distaste for the concept that aid and influence could ever go together. For me, that has never been a problem: of course they can, and they should.

In some areas, the European Union was seen by some as the deliverer of our overseas influence.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for securing this vital debate on an issue of national importance. I pay tribute to his valuable work on the Intelligence and Security Committee. I know from experience the time-consuming but absorbing nature of its activity, albeit that, by its nature, it is rather unsung and, in theory at least, low profile.

I thank everyone who contributed during the debate; there were some excellent contributions. I shall endeavour to answer all the questions, as I have a little more time than I had anticipated. There are one or two more technical aspects on which I will write to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), if I am able to do so, subsequently.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury rightly talked about the need for a dramatic and dynamic shift of resource. He touched on our Africa strategy. As he will be aware, our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out, at her first G20 meeting in July 2017, a new long-term vision for our partnerships with Africa, centred on supporting African aspirations for economic growth, trade, job creation and investment. Ministers across Her Majesty’s Government have worked closely together to refresh our approach in order to deliver on that vision. We are clear—I reiterate the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury—that our substantial development spend in Africa needs to be directed more broadly towards the UK national interest, as well as supporting those in greatest need in Africa.

Let me touch on the point raised just now by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. I agree with her fundamentally, in that I think it is dangerous for us to look on aid as intermingled with other strands of British interest. We can take, for example, the deteriorating political situation in Cambodia at the moment. We have some important long-term aid programmes in Cambodia that deal with mine clearance and are designed to work for the most vulnerable in that country. The notion that we should hold the Cambodian Government of the day, however much we might disapprove of their work, to ransom in some form in that regard would be quite wrong. Indeed, I made it very clear in my meeting with the Cambodian ambassador only a few weeks ago that we would continue, on exactly the same terms, to fulfil our aid obligations.

However, I do believe that there is at least some mileage in the view that we need to look at this issue. I have sympathy with a number of my right hon. Friends, who talked in their contributions about the idea of DFID coming back into the Foreign Office. There is a sense in which there needs to be a broader focus. Particularly in the post-Brexit world that we will be living in, we need to focus all our energies in a one-Government situation.​

My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury talked about official development assistance, which was also raised by the Opposition spokesman. It is right to say that the Foreign Office is and will continue to be a large ODA-spending Department. The Department closely complements DFID’s efforts, and we are trying to deliver on the Government’s aid strategy commitments through our own programmes—in particular, the cross-Whitehall conflict, stability and security fund and the prosperity fund, for which I now have responsibility in the Foreign Office. That also involves grants to external organisations, and our global remit means that we are designing those to deliver a breadth of programming in support of our national security strategy that other Departments simply do not have the resource to do. I believe that programmes of that sort will very evidently begin to add value by responding quickly to specific or niche requirements in volatile environments. I am talking about pursuing higher-risk programmes where political sensitivities require a different approach, but also exploring and testing options before scaling up and unlocking larger interventions by others.

It is recognised that some of the ODA and non-ODA programmes will have to be blended together, in order to secure some of the best outcomes in the future. That applies not just to Africa, but to Asia and the Pacific—an issue close to my heart and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire). I accept that an unintended consequence will be that some aspects of our annual report will be rendered more opaque.

In many ways it would be a pleasure to have a much broader debate, along the lines that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) developed. I hope that we will be able to have further discussions both offline and on the Floor of the House in future. He is well aware that I have a significant amount of sympathy with much of what he said. We need to be realistic about where we are in the future. I will be honest: I gave considerable thought to whether I should be a Minister in this Government. I was, like him, passionately—on emotional and geopolitical grounds as much as anything else—keen that this country should stay in the European Union. Yes, in my heart of hearts, I do believe it was a mistake. However, we have to make it work. I think it is also important that people of my mind play their part within Government, rather than just beyond Government, not to frustrate that Brexit outcome, but to try and make it work as well as we can and to put that voice across.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

I do not disagree with what the Minister has just said, but the key thing is how we ensure that we are able to secure the policy outcomes on defence, security and foreign affairs, in relation to places such as Russia, the middle east or Iran, after Brexit. I urge the Foreign Office to do a full review of our presence in Brussels itself, because it will need to become much more like a lobbying operation than it has ever been before.

Mark Field

I have a lot of sympathy with that view and I think there is little doubt that we will need to do that. I saw that when I attended the Foreign Affairs Council only last week, in the stead of the Foreign Secretary.

I will talk a bit about the British Council, because that was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex. I fully recognise the fantastic work ​of the British Council and its soft power potential post-Brexit. I have seen that with my own eyes in virtually all my overseas visits in Asia, and indeed even last week when I was in Paris. Funding for the British Council has increased over the spending period. There are issues, as I think my right hon. Friend is aware, about the signing off of accounts. We need to get those accounts ready, not just to impress the Treasury, but because I want to be able to make the most aggressive case for the importance of that soft power, and the British Council’s integral importance in that, when we leave the European Union, but that does require the British Council having its financial house in order. We are working closely with the Treasury to try to achieve that impact

Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con)

rose—

Mark Field

If I may, I will make some progress, as I am now running out of time, having tried to address a number of the issues.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon made strong points about the issues around estates. We have discussed this in the past, but I have to say that I think all of us regret the idea that the embassy building in Bangkok had to be sold off. One rather hopes that having lost Bangkok, it will be the last of such sales. As he is well aware, a considerable amount of that money is being reinvested in improving our estates across the world. I have to say, I have not heard in any way the issue he raised about the Paris Chancellery. As for the EEAS people being sent back by the FCO, I will try and write to him in some detail on that.

I believe that a well-directed, properly funded diplomatic service is vital to delivering the United Kingdom’s overseas objectives at such a crucial time. The world today is more complex, challenging and costly than at any point since the end of the cold war. At the same time, we are striving to deliver a positive, hopeful, optimistic and, I still hope, a successful exit from the EU, while simultaneously turning our vision of global Britain into reality by increasing further our already significant international reach and influence. It is no underestimate, however, to say today that the UK faces—I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex—its greatest diplomatic challenges in decades.

This Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that the diplomatic service receives the resources it needs to support a resilient and adaptable network, with sufficient capacity to respond decisively to fresh priorities and challenges. This includes exploiting the inevitable opportunities that will arise in a post-Brexit world.

We have some 274 posts in 169 different countries and territories. The FCO’s current overseas network provides a crucial platform from which the 30 other Government Departments and agencies are able to operate. Our diplomats cultivate the deep and nuanced relationships that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have referred to, which provide critical political insight and access. This helps deliver all other aspects of Government policy around the globe. The diplomatic service must remain crucial to delivering that wide range of Government priority work, from counter-terrorism to cultural engagement, and from consular assistance to trade. I have a lot of sympathy with the direct point ​that was made about the importance of our ambassador or high commissioner being the leading light, irrespective of all the other aspects of the one platform set-up.

Historically, it has been impossible to deliver this at comparatively little investment. As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s budget this financial year is only £1.2 billion, which represents just 6% of the Government’s expenditure on a major overseas Department. Once cross-Whitehall funds and non-discretionary spending, such as UN subscriptions, are removed, the remaining FCO budget is about £860 million. Delivering diplomacy at a relatively reduced slice of public expenditure in recent years has also been made partially possible through our membership of the European Union. Within the EU we have been able, hitherto, to amplify our voice in a range of international institutions. By leveraging the European Union we have been able to gain influence in countries where we have had a limited presence, such as francophone countries in west Africa. However, as our relationship beyond the European Union evolves, we must all accept that resourcing of the diplomatic service will also need to evolve to ensure that Britain’s voice and influence is not diminished.

I have responsibility for the FCO’s economic diplomacy and I recognise that sector-wide specialism in areas such as technology—whether FinTech or cybersecurity—international energy strategy, pharmaceuticals, and climate change and green finance will enable us to maximise our global impact. This will require not just bilateral co-operation, but a redoubling of our multilateral relationships, whether with the UN, the OECD or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to name just a few.

Sir Nicholas Soames

Will the Minister give way?

Mark Field

If I may, I will make progress, because I am running out of time and I really do want to cover all the points.

Needless to say, when it comes to free trade agreements, the single most important deal that the UK shall strike in the years ahead is the one we are able to agree with the EU27. More investment in the diplomatic service is essential, so that it is able to deal with the increasingly complex challenges it faces, so I am pleased that this important task has already begun. Last September, the FCO received almost £6.5 million from the Treasury to help deliver its EU exit priority work. These funds were used to create over 150 new positions across London and the Europe network. I take on board the point raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) about the importance of Brussels in that whole set-up. ​These diplomats are looking to work hard to deliver a new sanctions framework to transition the most crucial third-party agreements, to mitigate the risks of our EU exit for our overseas territories, for example, and to deepen bilateral relationships.

We recognise, however, that other countries are also investing heavily in their overseas networks, as my right hon. Friends have rightly observed. Germany is increasing its budget for its ministry for Foreign Affairs by a third, to some €5.2 billion over a three-year period. The French, the Dutch and the Turks are all investing substantially. Needless to say, in Asia, a part of the world for which I have responsibility, China, India and Japan are all doing likewise. If we are to maintain and increase our global outreach and influence, we need to ensure that the vision of a global Britain is more than just a mantra. I accept that for this, we must ensure that we provide the investment that is required. The FCO will evidently require reinforcements in Asia and the Pacific if the UK’s global and security goals are to be properly achieved.

I have been heartened by the reaction of my ministerial colleagues across Government, as they have been alive to that need, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to work closely with the Treasury to ensure that the diplomatic service is sufficiently resourced, not simply to deliver EU exit and global Britain, but to ensure that they are a success.

I will conclude, as I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury wants to speak briefly. I agree that if the UK is to continue to thrive and not simply survive, it is essential that we address the resource pressures of our diplomatic service. If we are to deal with the challenges and opportunities of the EU exit, I accept that we now need to consider where further investment is needed. I am pleased that we are debating this issue today. I hope that we will continue to debate it. I look forward to working closely with all of my colleagues here, who have this issue so passionately in their heart. Finally, the Government are committed to enabling Britain to have the diplomatic service it needs, as we work to realise our vision of a truly global Britain.