Foreign and Commonwealth Office

My Lords, we live in a changing world and the importance of foreign policy becomes greater as time progresses. Britain is a key player in the European context, but our interests are wider and the Government owe a duty to ensure that our national voice is heard across the global community. It is for this reason that this debate is so crucial, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on securing this opportunity.

Inevitably, in a changing world, it will be necessary to make changes to the structure and representation that we wish to have in different countries; but there needs to be an open and honest debate about whether the changes being made are the correct ones—and, if not, what the appropriate level of representation should be. Further, there are economic considerations that need to be borne in mind, particularly considering the costs of maintaining posts in different countries. That is not an easy area of policy.

We currently enjoy 261 posts overseas, of which 43 are staffed exclusively by locally recruited people; 218 are staffed by UK-based civil servants and locally recruited people. In response to a parliamentary Question in another place, the Secretary of State listed those countries which no longer have a resident British ambassador, consul general or high commissioner. There were 52 such countries, of which two were temporarily closed for security reasons.

Since the Government came to power in 1997, we have seen more than 35 embassies, high commissions and sovereign posts closed. Of the 53 African countries, some 23 do not have any British diplomatic representation at all. Considering the increasing strength of the Chinese in that continent, we need to give very careful consideration to the strategic disadvantage in having such a minimal presence there. One approach to improve this situation might be to accredit civil servants from the Department for International Development where no Foreign Office staff are present in the country concerned, particularly in countries such as Lesotho and Swaziland. I hope that the Minister can give the House a commitment to consider such an alternative.

There is continued suspicion in many quarters that the closures we have witnessed around the globe are rather more to do with financial constraints within the Foreign Office than with the reason provided by the Government that it is a consequence of a changing world. Is it reasonable that the closure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office language school and the withdrawal of the Foreign Office’s contribution to the cost of maintaining defence attachés are connected with shifts in global circumstances? I doubt it. The Foreign Affairs Committee in another place has warned that the Foreign Office budget is likely to be cut by 5 per cent each year, which could jeopardise this important work. Presumably on that basis we shall see a further reduction in British representation around the world. I hope that the Minister can provide clear assurances about that risk.

We need to strengthen our traditional relationships and try to freshen and deepen other multilateral alliances. The extraordinarily rapid changes in the distribution of economic and political power in the world means that we will need to shift more of our weight to the relationships with the Asia Pacific region and other countries. We have a long way to go before we can claim to have been sufficiently successful at promoting trade with China and India, and we have lost out to other European nations as a consequence. The Government need to put that right. It can be argued that Britain has been slow, given its concentration on affairs in Washington and Brussels, to adapt to the rapid changes taking place in newly industrialised countries. As I alluded to earlier, we have seen the end of Chinese passivity in international affairs. Deepening our relationships with countries in Asia, the leading countries in Latin America, the Middle East—including the Gulf States—and Africa will be important to us. This cannot be achieved with a diminishing international presence for our country.

I agree with David Cameron when he speaks of a new emphasis on multilateralism. It is vital to widen the circle of British influence, making more of the underutilised Commonwealth to enhance our co-operation with countries with which we have a historical, cultural, political and economic tie. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, has included the question of European co-operation in this debate and this is important. I welcome the role that the United Kingdom plays in Europe, in particular the expansion that we have seen of the European Union towards the countries of eastern Europe. I would like to see that widening continue with potential growth into the Balkans, Turkey, and even perhaps Ukraine. European co-operation on that scale would prove to be a very powerful influence in the world. European countries working together, speaking with one voice should be an aspiration for us all to work towards but the recent experience of the European Union suggests that a single foreign policy is not easy to achieve. A Europe constructed on flexibility and concentrating on practical solutions to the challenges confronting the global community is likely to be more effective than internal squabbling about the creation of institutional structures.

I hope that the Minister will be able to answer this important debate by reassuring the House that the financial pressures being confronted by his office will not result in a diminishing presence for our nation on the global stage; that the Government recognise the possible difficulties that may emerge from reliance upon the development of a common European policy; and that we need to be more proactive in using our unique position in the world to our national advantage through the establishment of stronger partnerships for the benefit of our citizens and the wider world community.

Updated: 27/08/2009 — 3:49 PM