Valerie Leads Diplomatic Staff Funding Debate

In December 2021 there were reports in the media of cuts to the number of staff at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and earlier this month the Government announced that 91,000 jobs will be lost across the Civil Service. On Tuesday 24 May 2022 I led a debate in Westminster Hall on funding levels for diplomatic staff in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. 

My full opening speech is below:

“It is a pleasure to open the debate with you in the Chair, Ms Bardell, and I start by thanking Mr Speaker for granting it, and the House of Commons Library for producing a debate pack on this extremely important subject.

The debate is about the United Kingdom’s place in the world—the new global Britain—and it is important because it takes place against a background of huge uncertainty for those who work in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The Library debate pack is extremely useful in setting out the various media reports, and we have had previous debates, Select Committee inquiries and questions, but those have elicited only a simple response, which is, “We’ll let you know in the spring.” The last time I looked, May still counted as spring. As the saying goes, “Ne’er cast a clout till May be out.” When May is out, we can plant our geraniums—I say that only because I have just been to the Chelsea flower show; I was on a fact-finding mission.

The debate is timely because the Foreign Office is one of the great Departments of State and it is in a state of uncertainty—so uncertain that on 15 December, as the news trickled out of a 10% cut, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), questioned the Prime Minister about that, only for the Prime Minister to say that it was “fake news”. Here is my first question to the Minister: is it fake news? Is there a 10% cut to the Department, and if not, what is it?

What we have had is a reorganisation, and I am not clear—I am not sure whether other colleagues are clear either—whether that reorganisation has been factored into the cuts. Effectively, we have a new Department, which is undergoing a seismic shift through the merger and reorganisation of two Departments, although some would say it is three: the Department for International Development, the Department for Exiting the European Union and, of course, the Foreign Office, which does the core work.

DFID has already lost 0.2%—effectively £4 billion—of its budget. That involves the vital work of helping those who need our support the most, whatever the historical reason for their being in that position. DFID is important for aid and for development; those are two separate things. Development can mean sharing experience, such as what is the best local crop to grow to feed people, rather than to service a debt.

My next main theme is the funding of outside organisations. We are an outward-looking nation—that is what we want to be—and we need to think again about cuts to outside organisations that have expertise and connections with civil society. The Government’s strategy for international development, which was published on 16 May, stated that the Government aim to cut the portion of the budget spent through multilateral organisations such as the United Nations from 40% to 25%. The United Nations is a worldwide organisation, and the last time we heard such a thing the President of the United States became the former President of the United States. The United Nations is important to the world coming together, and it will be vital not least as we rebuild Ukraine and in Yemen—the place I was born—where it has a huge input. Will the Minister tell us the figure for the cut to the United Nations part of the budget, and when is the cut likely to be made?

Another organisation I want to mention is the British Council, whose role is to promote arts, culture and education, strengthening our relationships with other countries. It has said that it intends to close offices in 20 countries, just when we need to promote global Britain, and to make a 20% cut in staff. Will the Minister tell us what further cuts there will be? Last night, the chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group, the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), wrote to us all to ask for the cuts to stop. Some £13 million has been made available to the British Council, which means that it is not going to close its offices in New Zealand and Australia.

What about the BBC World Service? That is also an important, outward-looking organisation. As I said, I was born in Aden, and I grew up listening to “Lillibullero”. Anyone who has listened to the World Service will know that tune, which still goes round in my head. My parents would have the radio on at breakfast as we got ready for school and they got ready for work. It is important for listeners around the world to have that impartial organisation, which is a trusted news source. Daw Suu said that she used to listen to the World Service. It was a lifeline for hostages such as Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan, as it is for everyone who listens to it while living under autocratic Governments around the world.

I am not clear from the Minister whether the World Service has yet received its funding, or whether that will increase every year. A flat rate is effectively a cut, and we need to ensure there is no cut. The Government learned the lesson when they made cuts to the World Service in 2010, when I first came here. They realised how important it was to project a proper, trusted source of news. It is needed ever more so now, especially in Ukraine.

We had a debate on the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, in which the Minister announced funding for that organisation, and I thank the Government for that. However, there was a 29% cut during the pandemic, and the increase now is only 25%, which still means a cut. This organisation does vital work in ensuring that democracy is promoted around the world, and will have to do much more, because there are many failed states, which have been ravaged by war.

What the Foreign Office does best is diplomacy, and diplomacy matters. That is why it is essential to have a strong Foreign Office for our global Britain. I saw diplomacy on the ground at first hand during a Speaker-led visit to Burma. We saw how embassies reached out to organisations in civil society. We did not meet just the great and the good at the embassy; we met those who were arrested on the street. It was good to speak to them and to see that the Foreign Office was not taking over what the countries have to do but supporting the move to democracy, which made a huge difference.

The work of the Foreign Office is different from that of DFID. There were people from DFID there, but it is important to keep that work separate. Former ambassadors have said that missions need to be able to travel and engage with people. The concern is that, if staff are cut from the Foreign Office, they are unable to do that core work, which is what they do best.

I want to raise the cases of Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, two British citizens who are still in Evin prison. They have not been released, despite the debt being paid. Will the Minister look into those two cases? That is how diplomacy works. It takes time, and people are skilled at that job. When we were part of the EU and had shared interests, all that work could be divided up, but now the UK is effectively alone. It has been suggested that, by leaving the EU and making cuts in the east Europe office, we might have missed some of the signals regarding the invasion of Ukraine.

This is the time to strengthen democracy and the work of the Foreign Office, not to cut it back. Even after elections, we still see what we call democratic dictators, and people do not have a chance to hold to account the Governments they have perhaps elected…The world is in turmoil, and we must make sure that people with level heads are still there, with the abilities and experience they have.

I pay tribute to the acting high commissioner in Delhi. When the pandemic first started, Jan Thompson was there, available for all Members. I think she physically saw every single one of my constituents on to the plane. She was absolutely exceptional: she answered every email and made sure that every constituent who had a medical issue was on the plane back. That is the kind of public interest work that our diplomatic service personnel undertake for us.

I have some important questions to ask the Minister. We have assets around the world—our embassies—and she will know that our embassies in Bangkok and Japan have been sold off. Those are public assets; they belong to the people of the UK. Could the Minister confirm that no more embassies will be sold off? Could she also publish an analysis of where the cuts have fallen so far, and will she confirm that the extra staff announced in 2020 are not a rehash of the staff who had previously been announced? Sometimes, when announcements are made, we cannot keep track of whether the same announcement is being made over and over again.

In its pack, the Library helpfully enclosed a letter that was sent to the Chair of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). It is a public letter from the Foreign Secretary, dated 21 March, in which she helpfully set out how many staff there are and what the directorates of the organisations are going to look like. Could the Minister confirm which regions will see these cuts in staff? Will that be decided by the directorate or the Foreign Secretary? There is a board; will the policy be set by the Foreign Secretary and signed off by her, or will it be a matter for the board?

Would it be possible to have an organogram of all the staff who are affiliated to each of those directorates? Many staff were taken on during the pandemic. We are told that they are not needed now, but more and more are needed post pandemic and post leaving the EU. The work is actually increasing. Having been a civil servant, I know that as soon as someone leaves, someone else is given the bunch of files they had and has to do more work. It is important to think about our staff. I also ask the Minister whether a voluntary exit scheme is now in place.

Our staff should not be left in limbo or in the dark about their jobs. We now have a position in the Foreign Office of hiring, then firing, and now possibly rehiring, given the work that is going on. As President Zelensky said this week, diplomacy is going to end the war. We saw that intractable position in Northern Ireland, and resolving it required diplomats, including Jonathan Powell, to name just one, and people around the world such as Senator George Mitchell—those with whom we have built up relationships, who have looked at the UK and seen the strong diplomatic service we have. That was so important; it is a beacon of hope around the world. I talked about it when we were in Burma, and we should never forget the important things we did in Northern Ireland.

In “Global Britain in a competitive age”, under the heading “Global Britain in Action”, the Government speak of

“an approach that puts diplomacy first.”

The essence of democracy requires that this great office of state survives and is enhanced.”

The Minister said that work would continue in the next few months relating to the Department’s workforce. I will continue to press the Government to equip the FCDO with the proper resources to carry out its essential work.