COMMONS

MPs publish report on role of Foreign and Commonwealth Office

12 May 2011

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) will not be back at the centre of Government and able to lead UK foreign policy, in line with William Hague’s ambitions, unless it can provide deep foreign policy expertise and judgement to underpin and implement Government decision-making, says the Foreign Affairs Committee in a report published today. The FCO must have the resources and skills required to fulfil this role, especially specialist geographical expertise and knowledge of foreign languages. 

The report states that the FCO has a vital role to play for the Government, namely the timely provision of world-class foreign policy information, analysis, judgement and execution.

"It may seem strange for a Select Committee to ask what the department it shadows is for",

said Committee Chairman Richard Ottaway.

"However, there have been many public expressions of concern about the state of the FCO in recent years, as well as a lively academic and practitioner debate about the contemporary role of foreign ministries, and William Hague indicated as soon as he took office that he saw a need to restore the department's position. We therefore decided to take a look at the FCO's role in Government as one of our first major inquiries in this Parliament."

He went on:

"Although our witnesses largely told us that the FCO continues to be seen as one of the world’s most accomplished diplomatic operations, we were concerned to hear claims that the FCO's foreign policy skills, including its geographical expertise, have weakened in recent years. Complaints about excessive 'managerialism' at the department were another of the strongest themes in our evidence.

The FCO's finances, people and buildings must be well-managed, but managerial requirements must not divert time and focus disproportionately from the FCO's core foreign policy functions. With respect to both excessive 'managerialism' and the need for specialist geographical expertise, we welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has already recognised many of the problems raised by our witnesses.
Given the resource constraints facing the FCO, however, we doubt whether the department can achieve the Government's ambitions for enhanced commercial work while maintaining its core foreign policy functions at the required standard."

Resources

On resources, Mr Ottaway said:

"The committee regards a lack of resources as one of the major threats to the FCO's continued effectiveness. The department's resources have been reduced in real terms over an extended period, even as the demands on it have continued to rise. Reductions in spending on the FCO can prove to be a major false economy. The Government must ensure that the resources allocated to the FCO are commensurate with the scale of its foreign policy ambitions.

In particular, recent transfers of further jobs in FCO overseas missions to local staff are a speedy cost-cutting measure that may have damaging consequences for the UK’s diplomatic capacity. The FCO must regard the overseas postings of junior UK-based staff as part of a succession strategy for the next generation of senior British diplomats."

The committee regards the FCO's network of overseas posts as integral to the department’s ability to discharge its functions, and recommends that the FCO should seek to maintain a global UK presence.

Performance reporting regime

Mr Ottaway said that the committee was disappointed that the FCO's performance reporting regime under the current Government was not tailored to the nature of the department’s foreign policy work. The committee also called "confusing" the fact that under the current Government the FCO has three sets of priorities, as set out by the Foreign Secretary, in the Cabinet Office's Business Plan for the department, and in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Foreign policy leadership across Government

The report also considers some aspects of the FCO's role with respect to other departments, in light of the Foreign Secretary's ambitions for FCO foreign policy leadership across Government. The committee concludes that this ambition must not eclipse the need to develop more effective international policy-making by the Government as a whole. In this context it welcomes the creation of the National Security Council. 

Mr Ottaway noted that the committee completed its evidence-taking before the current crisis in North Africa and the Middle East became acute. "Our present Report sets down some markers which we may use in future assessments of the FCO's performance during these events," he said.

The committee took evidence from five former Foreign Secretaries as well as the present incumbent as part of the inquiry leading to today's report.

Further information

Image: PA 

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