The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is being stretched, almost to the limit, and a more realistic approach by the Department and by Ministers is needed, as well as a clearer definition of priorities.
The FCO is struggling to meet the continuing demand for policy support, and “the machine is being worked to the limit”, says the Foreign Affairs Committee in a report published today. On top of the day-to-day business of sustaining a foreign policy at a time of particular turbulence in the Middle East, the FCO has had to meet the demands of the London 2012 Games, the expansion of the network of posts under the ‘Network Shift’, and the greater emphasis on commercial work. The net effect, says the Committee, has been to divert resources from mainstream policy areas and to complicate the Department’s efforts to derive savings from headcount reductions.
Sir Richard Ottaway, Chairman of the Committee, said today:
“We’re sounding a warning. We have no problem with an active and ambitious foreign policy. But we’re getting a distinct impression that the FCO may be trying to do too much when capacity is limited by a tough Spending Review settlement. It’s actually had to increase staff in order to cope with policy demands, and it’s not on track to meet its target of a 10% headcount reduction in UK-based staff by 2015. What we’re saying is: be realistic, live within your means, and make sure that priorities are clearly defined.”
The Committee welcomes the increase in funding for the BBC World Service announced by the BBC Trust in June. But the announcement covers only 2014-15. If the BBC Trust is to honour its argument that funding from the licence fee provides a level of certainty and stability, it should announce funding levels for the World Service for the remainder of the current BBC Charter period. The Committee is opposed to proposals for a wider commercialisation of the BBC World Service now being considered by the BBC Trust.
The Committee is strongly in favour of retaining a degree of public funding for the British Council, which promotes a wider knowledge of the UK and its culture abroad. The future form and function of the Council is subject to a review initiated by the Cabinet Office, but the Committee says that “if the Council were to cease to exist, there would be a diminution of British influence abroad”. The current mix of public and self-generated funding “is better than any other in allowing for a strong British influence and presence overseas and a deeper understanding of Britain, its culture and values, at an acceptable cost to the taxpayer”.