THE BLOG

The Foreign Office Is Vital in Preserving Our Security and Prosperity - We Must Ensure It Has the Funds to Do So

20/11/2015 07:35 GMT | Updated 19/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Whitehall is in the final days of the 'financial settlement' - the justified, if often painful, setting of the budgets of government departments.

It is right that the spending of each department is scrutinised. After all, Whitehall and the government live off taxpayer's money. Every pound spent must be accounted for. The spending review keeps departments on their toes and bears down on waste and inefficiency.

Yet sometimes these financial gymnastics don't just bend and stretch a department, they can actually risk damaging it. That is surely the risk today to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Foreign Office is the smallest spending department in Whitehall. In 2015-16 its total budget will be less than 0.2% of total public spending, compared to 1% spent on international aid, and 5% on defence.

It means Foreign Office protects UK interests and nationals in 168 countries with fewer staff than Sheffield City Council. 50% of FCO posts abroad have only two or fewer UK based staff.

The Foreign Office network of Embassies is the same size as that of France, but its budget is 25% smaller. And Germany, with fewer Embassies and fewer staff, spends 77% more on its diplomatic service than we do in Britain.

It is hard to see how the Foreign Office could sustain further cuts today without diminishing its capability to a point that is harmful to our long-term interests as a country.

Even without the reminder of the savage attacks in Paris, it is clear we live in an era where security is the most valuable currency.

Ours is a world of constant upset and constant challenges. There is the extremist ideology ripping through North Africa and the Middle East and now Europe, the mass movement of refugees and migrants, a resurgent Russia somewhat akin to a wounded dinosaur of a Jurassic World, and China seeking to flex its economic and military muscles. In the South China Sea, islands are sprouting like mushrooms - not as holiday destinations, but military bases.

None of the complex international challenges we face can be resolved by aid and development. And in the majority of cases, hard power alone is not the answer either.

Our long term security requires the drawing together of intelligence, defence and development as tools to support foreign policy, led by a strong, effective and capable Foreign Office.

Today however the situation seems to be turned on its head completely. After 18 years, the budget of the Department for International Development dwarfs that of the Foreign Office, the Department it was born in. What is more, it is guaranteed to grow without any commensurate increase in our investment in diplomacy.

The comparison with DfID matters because of what it suggests about our priorities and our strategy. DfID does vital, inspiring and impressive work that saves lives, and it is right that our country is a world leader in international development. But the most important contribution we can make to people suffering from conflict overseas is to help end those situations - and that cannot be done without diplomacy.

We should be proud that we are the second largest donor to Syrian refugees - but all the aid the world can muster will not contain a conflict that has political roots, and that can only be ended by negotiations.

Aid and development should support diplomacy; they cannot replace it. Indeed, without the political solutions that end conflicts and stabilise nations, endlessly increasing aid equates to endlessly funding the international community's failure to act in time and address the root causes of conflicts, poverty and in some cases terrorism.

We therefore need the Foreign Office, working with Whitehall, to create the conditions for our long-term security and prosperity. But we must make sure it has the funds and the human capability needed to do that.

The recently agreed Iranian deal was the result of over a decade of painstaking diplomacy. Training a good diplomat is like training a fighter pilot - you cannot make one overnight whenever specialist knowledge and skills are needed.

And lest we forget, diplomacy is not only about cooperation, it also involves competition: such as ensuring British companies benefit from commercial opportunities overseas, creating new jobs in our country. The Foreign Office protects our interests in international negotiations. At the personal level, it looks after British nationals overseas when terrorism or natural disaster strike. It leads on hostage rescue.

Behind the imposing façade of the Foreign Office is a small army of talented and committed people working across a broad front to promote British values and British interests overseas.

Baroness Arminka Helic is a Conservative life peer and former adviser to William Hague