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Over recent years concerns have been expressed by parliamentarians and experts about whether the UK’s diplomatic service has the capacity to deliver on the country’s foreign policy objectives. Brexit has led to calls for a ‘global Britain’. Some critics argue that such a goal could be unrealistic unless the resources available to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are increased significantly.

The Foreign Affairs Committee held an evidence session with senior FCO officials in November 2017 at which these issues were explored in some depth.

Permanent Secretary Sir Simon McDonald said then that the department expected to receive some of the £250 million allocated by the Treasury for additional Brexit-related work. He informed the Committee that 50 members of staff had been reassigned to posts in Europe but that additional posts were also planned. Members of the Committee expressed alarm that the initial response to Brexit had required the FCO to reduce its representation in non-European locations, rather than increase it. Sir Simon indicated that this would be the case in the short-term only. At that time, the talk was of the need to save £4.2 million from the FCO’s budget in order to create 50 new Brexit-related jobs and stay within the department’s 2015 spending review settlement.

Members of the Committee were also worried about the growing proportion of the FCO’s core budget that is counted as Overseas Development Assistance, which has risen from 6% in 2010 to over 40%. Sir Simon acknowledged that the result has been that the FCO’s “effort is being skewed towards ODA-eligible countries”, potentially limiting what it does in other parts of the world.

In January 2018, Sir Simon updated the Committee by letter on subsequent developments:

[…] we have been strengthening our diplomatic network in Europe to support a successful EU Exit.  We have upgraded seven Ambassador jobs and created 50 new diplomatic positions in Embassies in Europe. But it is not a question of simply reducing the number of staff outside Europe by the same number. The money to fund these changes comes from changing the way we work and adjusting some of our processes, as well as from some staff savings and re-prioritisation in Asia, the Americas and Africa.

This is a dynamic process.  The £4.2m figure quoted previously was based on the cost of the EU uplift (now estimated at £4.1m) and therefore represented the saving required to create, initially, 50 new jobs and live within our 2015 Spending Review settlement. Since then we have received some additional resources from HM Treasury. In total, this has allowed the FCO to create 150 jobs to support EU Exit in London and overseas.

On 1 February, Tom Tugendhat began a Commons debate about UK diplomacy in Europe by saying:

The Committee was given mixed messages about the FCO’s role in the Brexit process and beyond and, to clarify the position, the Committee calls on the FCO to publish a paper outlining the overall goals and the specific priorities of UK foreign policy in Europe after Brexit. This would allow the House to debate the priorities set out and to discuss the resources available to meet the objective.

Although we welcome the Minister for Europe’s success in securing additional resources, the Committee is concerned that they are being drawn from the wider network, possibly weakening the Government’s stated policy that we are to become a genuinely global Britain. That would be a grave mistake. Since Lord Hague, the Foreign Office has been opening missions around the world to extend the influence that the UK seeks in foreign affairs. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and now with a vital national interest in extending our diplomatic influence, it would be an error to reduce the resources available to achieve that. If leaving the EU meant that the UK were to reduce its international outreach, that would be a reversal of the aim stated by Ministers in recent months and would cause great concern to the whole Committee, and no doubt to the whole House.

A few days later, the Government published its 2017/18 Supplementary Estimates – the changes the government proposes to current year departmental budgets. The FCO proposed a net increase to its resource DEL budget of £79.5 million (4%). Most of this (£96.7 million) is to be funded through additional resources from the Treasury Reserve. The additional funds included £3.9 million for preparations for exiting the EU. The Supplementary Estimates have since received Commons approval.

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